Bitwig Studio: Music Creation & More

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So what happens when a few employees of a company that produces one of the industry’s leading DAWs decide that they can do it better? Perhaps one answer is Bitwig Studio—the latest entrant in the increasingly crowded Digital Audio Workstation marketplace.

Hailing from Berlin, Germany, Bitwig (the company) is at present a handful of people, including some ex-Ableton employees, who recently shipped the long awaited Bitwig (the software)—its full name being Bitwig Studio. Announced and in beta since 2012, Bitwig has created a lot of pre-release buzz in its two-plus years. This was due in no small part to the fact that Ableton was fairly quiet with its own Ableton Live, slowing its historically rapid release cadence considerably between Live 8 (released Spring 2009) and Live 9 (released Spring 2013). That four-year lag arguably created some frustration in the Ableton Live user community, leaving an opening for users to wonder aloud whether Bitwig was an “Ableton killer” that would ultimately steal the latter product’s thunder.

I’ll leave most of the qualitative comparisons to others, but comparisons between the two products are in fact inevitable, given the personnel involved, and a user interface that has more in common than mere aesthetics; for example, both the location and the general design ethos of the device panel.

But that’s not to say that Bitwig is an Ableton clone—it most certainly is not. And while an Ableton Live user like myself may get tricked into feeling more at home than they really are, Bitwig (the company) did try and instill Bitwig (the software) with plenty of new tricks, including an innovative way of drawing automation curves and architectural things like multi-platform support that extends even to Linux (from the expected Windows and Mac).

Impressions: As already noted, the UI of Bitwig will make most Ableton Live users—and, in fact, the users of many DAWs—immediately at home. Like Ableton, Bitwig has two basic UI views: Arrangement and Mix (what Ableton would call “Session” view), and the purpose of each is roughly the same as Ableton. From there, things begin to diverge, and Bitwig comes into its own.

As with virtually all DAWs, Bitwig supports audio and MIDI tracks, and lets you easily use both one-shot and longer-form samples on the audio side, as well as record and manipulate audio—while supporting a variety “stuff” via MIDI, including off-board instruments, virtual instruments via plug-ins (VSTs, etc.), and so forth.

The product comes equipped with a range of native instruments, including a sampling synth (Sampler), polysynth, and various percussion-making tools, as well as what the product calls “containers” such as the Drum Machine (analogous to Ableton’s Drum Rack), which provides for a flexible, straightforward method of assembling and triggering percussion loops or instruments.

The provided instruments as well as available sample libraries and the like are managed via “packages,” which are reminiscent of software installation on Linux machines, using an integrated Package Manager. Installing or uninstalling a package is as easy as clicking, and while included packages are installed through downloads, there are provisions for locally stored packages as well.

Once installed, browsing the available content is straightforward; you can browse by category, and there’s a search interface for finding what you need from available presets, for example. With the included synths, however, I found that previewing presets was a bit clunky; you can use the keyboard’s arrow keys to move up and down the list, and press Enter to load. But once pressed, you have to click the mouse in the list to get the arrows to work again in order to navigate to the next preset.

It’s the smaller things, such as that, which make Bitwig a little less than fully satisfying for me to use, and which give the impression of it being a “1.0” product. Usability in general seems wanting in other areas, too, such as when editing MIDI clips. It feels like there’s far too much switching of modes and tools just to get a simple edit done. While I appreciate the dedicated note panel for making value-perfect edits to any note, making the edits visually seems far more difficult than it should.

Unfortunately, the manual doesn’t help the usability situation much. For example, the manual refers to a “Clip Launcher Panel,” which in the software is referred to as the “Mix Panel.” No doubt things evolved during design, but it’s a bit troublesome for new users to have the disparity. The manual itself seems a bit Spartan; perhaps it’s assumed that many people don’t read them anymore?

Of course, as with any unfamiliar DAW, getting acclimated to the hows and wheres always takes time and initially feels clumsy—no matter how good the manual is. And while the visual appearance is striking, it’s obvious that Bitwig’s developers went to some effort on the layout of things, and polish is likely to come incrementally.

Bundled Content: As mentioned before, Bitwig ships with a nice collection of instruments and other content with which to make music. On the instrument side, a collection of digital percussion instruments gives a solid base for various types of electronica. Four synths—FM-4, bitwig-studio-logo

Bitwig Studio includes all the functionality to make music happen, along with sufficient support for outside “stuff” that can enhance the options further.

Organ, Polysynth and Sampler—round things out, and cover the basics with finesse.
Polysynth impressed me the most. It’s a traditional, subtractive, dual-oscillator synthesizer that impresses both with its simplicity and creative potential, but also with its sound. It was easy to burn hours just tinkering with it, primarily due to its low intimidation factor. (For many of us, myself included, sound design is both intimidating and inordinately time-consuming and difficult; not so much with Polysynth.)

Bitwig offers a number of what it calls “container” devices, all of which are used to house other devices for special effects. The Drum Machine is one of them, but the choices include several others, such as Replacer, that allow for some interesting creative options.

On the effects side, Bitwig has all the expected bases covered, including EQ, flanger, reverb, etc. There are various modulators, routers (to support external hardware), and the like as well.

Finally, a range of sample libraries and presets are offered through the Package Manager in three “collections”—Essential, Extended, and Partner. The Essential Collection includes the factory device presets, while the Extended Collection offers acoustic percussion, acoustic bass, random goodies like vibraphones and clavinets, and much more. The Partner Collection is primarily composed of teaser collections designed to whet your appetite to buy full versions, but there’s still useful “no extra charge” stuff here for the taking.

Hits & Misses: There’s no question that Bitwig impresses, hitting the ground running surprisingly strongly for a freshman, Version 1.0 effort. But as I’ve alluded to previously, it seems that at least some of its potential is yet to be realized.

While I have no idea what the underlying technology used might be (Java, perhaps?), it seems obvious that Bitwig uses a sort of universal runtime system that allowed the company to introduce versions that work on Windows, Mac and Linux in the same manner. As a Mac user, it’s tough not to notice that it doesn’t use the system’s own menuing system, but rather, its own, located inside the product’s window, making it a bit un-Mac-like—especially given where the Preferences is located. Presumably also as a result of its architecture, Bitwig has no support for Audio Unit plug-ins that many Mac users might otherwise prefer (though it does support VST). Whether this is a problem or not is likely subjective.

On the upside, however, and speaking of VSTs, Bitwig’s support is unique; both 32- and 64-bit plug-ins can be used without specialized solutions, and the product boasts of its “sandboxing” capabilities that ostensibly protect against a crashing VST from bringing down your entire Bitwig session. (While rare, I’ve had this happen in other DAWs—usually at the worst possible moment.)

Another item that Bitwig got right is the ability to open multiple projects at the same time. I rather constantly want to borrow this MIDI clip or that audio mix-down from another earlier project, and with this simple, but obvious capability, that gets far easier.

Conclusions: One of my fundamental beliefs is that competition is always a good thing, and while the DAW marketplace may be crowded with options, there should be ample room for one more entrant—especially one that, like Bitwig, hits the ground running so strongly.

It seems clear the product will benefit from continued improvement, and whatever the company has in mind for the next major version, it seems poised to impress. (It’s worth noting that Bitwig has already pushed out 14 incremental updates at this writing that continue to add refinement across the board.)

Still, Bitwig Studio includes all the functionality virtually any producer or remixer might need to make music happen, along with sufficient support for outside “stuff” that can enhance the options further. And with its $399 price tag, it strikes me as a good value all around—and a choice I’m excited to tinker with further in future projects.

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