Review: Bitwig Studio
When you're shopping for a new DAW it's best to pick one that fits the space you're trying to fill before you get too caught up in the details.
For anyone with their ear to the audio technology train tracks, Bitwig Studio has been generating a dull rumble for more than two years. Two months ago, the public release finally invited new users on board. Considering the duration and sustained fervour of the hype, you’d have thought we’d all been wasting away on DAW rations. The reality is, we’ve never had more options and depending on your musical appetite you could have turned your nose up at the meat and three veg of ProTools, Logic Pro, Cubase and Reason long ago. In my opinion what’s really been driving the unresolved sonic tension is our lust for a bit of good old-fashioned scandal and competition. For those of you who’ve been living in a cave lately, Bitwig Studio is the first product released by a small team of Berlin-based developers and support staff, many of whom formally served at the pleasure of Ableton.
APPLES & ORANGES
Consequently their newborn has been heralded as the first full-featured multitrack performance and production workstation to genuinely challenge the virtual monopoly enjoyed by Live over its sector of the market. Which brings us to that virtual line in the sand. Bitwig Studio is a music creation and sound sculpting environment with a significant focus on performance workflows and a fairly heavy leaning towards sequenced genres. I’m not saying you should stop reading if you’ve just spent the day tracking 24-channel live band recordings and intend to spend the next week comping, but the truth is Bitwig Studio presently includes no integrated audio take management and lacks finesse in its audio region layering and fade options. In my eyes this effectively ends any reasonable comparison with other studio workhorses and places the new kids on the block in a stoush primarily with their old bosses and a few other performance-based platforms — for now!
At an opening download price of US$399 (A$499 for the Australian retail box) Bitwig Studio only slightly undercuts the current Live 9 Standard version ($449) but is significantly cheaper than Live Suite, which incorporates Max for Live ($749). The relevance of this significant differential is something I’ll expand upon later.
While the current installer (we’re already up to version 1.0.8) is a fairly slender 122MB, Studio provides a healthy 4.5GB of content which can be downloaded using the Package Manager, accessible via the File menu. Similar to Native Instruments’ Service Center, this simple dialogue allows for the selective installation of a range of sample sets to your choice of location. Unlike some competitors, you’re not furnished with every sound bank you could ever need but there’s certainly enough to get rolling. Installation and authorisation is as straight-forward as we’ve all come to expect, and mercifully dongle free. You’re welcome to join in no matter what your operating system: Windows (7 or later), OS X (10.7 or later) or Linux (Ubuntu 12.04 or later). The 64-bit application is essentially the same on all platforms and both licenses and project files will move freely between systems. Despite speculation to the contrary, Bitwig’s audio engine is not coded in Java, although the user interface is, and while the Windows installer somewhat confusingly defaults to the x86 directory you can rest assured that Studio is making full use of your 64-bit processor and memory allowances. If you don’t believe me, you’re free to try out the full demo for yourself; with only save and export functions disabled.
OPEN FOR BUSINESS
On the surface, Bitwig Studio presents like most other current DAWs. The inclusion of non-linear Clip Launching and a horizontal scrolling Device strip draw obvious comparisons with Live but the UI borrows just as heavily from other programs. An all-in-one screen approach provides access to most settings across four panes. Real estate is dominated by a main central window displaying either the Arrange, Mix or Edit pages. To the left you’ll find a track/clip inspector containing all of the configuration and mixing options for the currently selected channel or clip. On the right is the searchable Browser, providing drag and drop access to all Bitwig Devices, third-party plug-ins, content libraries, and project files. This pane can alternatively be used to display Project metadata and detail like used files and plug-ins, or a Studio I/O panel with quick access to some simple monitoring options, including mono. The final pane runs below the main window and again can switch between audio, MIDI and automation edit views, the active track’s device/plug-in chain, and a simplified mixer view when in the Arrange page. All three peripheral panes can be hidden entirely and some resizing options are available depending on the view.
While the individual windows are not floatable, a number of tailored display profiles are provided for single, dual and triple screen installations. Along the top right of the screen tabbed project pages facilitate quick switching between multiple open documents and the free movement of clips and devices between them. Handy and logical keyboard shortcuts have been provided for most of the view options and these can be accessed from the Help menu Commander. No custom shortcut configuration is presently available and while this may be completely reasonable for those who plan to commit to Bitwig full-time, for a studio engineer, who plans only to use Bitwig now and then, it might be nice if they’d incorporated some provision for existing habits.
The Mixer view will feel familiar to any Live user, with its signature columns of Clip Launcher slots above the channel strips, however Bitwig takes things a step further, including horizontal rows of launch controls along-side Arrange page channels. This means that whether you’re performing a live set or tracking a band you’ll be free to seamlessly move between non-linear improvisation and sequenced composition.
While the Arrange Launcher certainly makes it easier to copy and paste sequences and edits back and forth between clip and arrangement I found myself yearning for additional switching options between the two. Perhaps a ‘Resume at Previous Clock Position’ option or timeline Launch Markers with the ability to return global playback to the arrangement at a defined position. One unexpected benefit of this parallel linear/non-linear workflow (if that’s geometrically possible) is that I was able to use Scenes as I would have previously used markers. When immersed in the Mix window there’s no longer any need to return to the Arrange page, simply trigger the scene or clip you want to focus on and keep mixing. Just be careful not to add automation to the active clip instead of the main timeline.
NEED TO KNOW
UNDER THE BONNET
Many of Bitwig’s innovations are less obvious. Perhaps most importantly, all of the Bitwig Devices packaged with Studio (including familiar Audio FX, Instruments, Generators and Modulators and more unique Containers) have been created using the same Unified Modular Device Creation environment. As I mentioned earlier, Live 9 Suite does include Max for Live for advanced user customisations but this is for the creation of additional devices and environments. What Bitwig promises is user access to and modification of all of its existing devices as well as the ability to create and share your own. While the engine is in place they’re yet to pop the bonnet for public tinkering so it’s hard to get too excited. But I have seen a preview copy and suspect those who enjoy hacking circuits as much as tweaking knobs and mashing buttons will be delirious when it’s unlocked… in the near future if I’m reliably informed. The key issue of flattening the learning curve is still to be negotiated however and this has long scared many from seriously tackling Max.
What the system will hopefully do is ensure a constant supply of user-created devices, independent of the host’s development priorities — a godsend to all who struggle to afford new plug-ins or upgrades. I’m particularly interested in the possibilities for custom Containers. These are device or plug-in holders which facilitate new performance gestures and sonic possibilities. Currently supplied Containers include: FX Layer (devices/plug-ins can be loaded in blend-able layers to concurrently process the signal rather than being chained) and XY Effect (one device/plug-in is placed on each corner of an XY surface allowing morphing between all four).
In addition to its solid collection of effects, synths and sequencing tools Bitwig currently supports only VST plug-ins, with a native bit bridge for 32-bit instances. For Mac users who’ve spent recent years updating their plug-in library to Audio Units, the lack of any AU support will be frustrating to say the least. However, the Bitwig approach to plug-in hosting does take a very interesting spin on the norm and this may be in some way responsible for the present VST focus. Rather than running third-party plug-ins within the main application’s process, Bitwig sandboxes them. If one crashes, instead of the whole system hanging or glitching, only that plug-in will be disabled; effectively bypassing it. Plug-in management preferences allow all the plug-ins to play in one communal sandbox or for each to have their own processes. This feature also empowers 32-bit plug-ins to access increased memory allocations when run in their own process and that will certainly come in handy. VST plug-ins are assigned a generic user interface within the Device panel, with a knob representing each parameter. Plug-in UIs can still be revealed in all their glory with a single click but for those with a large custom interface this plain wrapper can be a real space saver. A parameter search text box helps to bring any knob straight to the top of the list, which is really smart… although at least one of my installed plug-in suites demonstrated some incompatibility.
We really are talking about a sequencing beast
EVERYTHING’S UNDER CONTROL
When it comes to options for parameter modulation and automation Bitwig Studio is positively bursting at the seams. From the eight optional macro knobs grouped with every device, to the packaged Modulation Devices; including configurable LFOs, audio envelope follower and Step modulator. I could easily write another piece solely focused on the use of the modulation framework: So if your production style relies heavily on side-chaining, ducking, complex multi-parameter morphs and clock-synchronised effect triggering you’ll be well pleased. Add polyphonic per note MIDI automation options, novel parameter histograms and a well-equipped transient detection, time stretching and sample slicing system and we really are talking about a sequencing beast.
HEARTS & MINDS
It’s impossible for any significant new audio application to launch entirely free of bugs, especially when operating across three very different platforms. Happily, however, my own test period has been relatively free of stability issues. Updates have been released at a rate of about one per week thus far, which at least indicates the company’s desire to respond to issues ASAP. Still, I’m not convinced Bitwig has made all the right moves to win over new recruits. While the team is highly active on the KVR Audio-hosted official forum, the forum itself lacks a useful structure of grouped threads and as I scanned for answers and insights I very quickly lost the will to live — a psychological condition common to many audio forums I’ll grant you. Definitely learn all you can from the user manual and Community portal of Bitwig.com first. While not wanting to come off as a naysayer, this experience, grouped with Bitwig’s decisions not to support Audio Units, user-defined keyboard shortcuts, OSC or any form of universal import format, would impact on my decision to buy-in straightaway. Even a sluggish download server plays its part.
From its modular core, Bitwig Studio encourages direct user engagement and has the potential to inspire more of an open and interactive community than any DAW I’m currently using. By taking a non-denominational approach to OS religiosity, it reaches out to everyone. Its Open Controller API is a major selling point to those who’ve gazed covetously at the software-hardware integration experienced by others. The promise of being able to modify, create and share infinite and useful variations of Bitwig devices via the still-locked modular system screams with potential. And the ability to interact with performers across the room or globe using the promised network sync and online collaboration functions is equally energising. But… we’re still waiting for these, and Bitwig’s competitors won’t be resting on their laurels. Just this week my inbox has received invitations to experience the new modular synthesis engine of Arturia Spark 2 and an expanded library of Reaktor devices and tutorials from Native Instruments. Regardless, if the budding Bitwig Studio bears fruit the DAW market will be all the healthier for it.