Review: Bitwig Studio 2

The very modern modulation DAW
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Bitwig Studio was always aimed squarely at electronic music production. (Read our original review at emusician.com.) Now, with Studio 2’s new user-friendly and super-flexible modulation system, Remote Control system, and host of Devices for interfacing with hardware CV and MIDI gear, Bitwig has reaffirmed its commitment to making a centerpiece for electronic tweakheads who love modular and affordable analog gear, but who also want that same kind of deep routing programmability and no-compromise hands-on control out of their software and MIDI controllers.

THE NEW STYLE

Among the general but welcome changes to Bitwig Studio 2 are an updated, crisper visual interface that includes dynamically updating menu bar options, more contextual (right-click) menu options, updated Editor panels, and Devices with more motion feedback, including frequency spectrum analyzers. Bitwig Studio 2 also newly supports VST3 plug-ins and MIDI timecode, and its interface has been optimized for touch-screen computers; a Tablet display option in the Dashboard enables touch and pen gestures.

The Dashboard itself is new. Located in the top center of the screen, it serves as a deluxe preferences window, project browser, help center, and downloader/uninstaller for factory content. Along those lines, Bitwig Studio 2 now offers more than 8 GB of royalty-free audio content from many soundware partners, and more than 2,000 presets and Clips (audio or MIDI). That collection continues to grow: The new Irrupt Audio Eurorack package of drum, bass, and synth sounds made from analog modular gear was added in Bitwig Studio 2.1, which was announced as this review was going to press.

Fig. 1. Bitwig Studio 2’s new flexible Modulator system for Devices is shown here, along with new Note and Audio FX and resizable tracks with easy fade and crossfade editing.

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Bitwig Studio 2 has also implemented handy audio fades and crossfades (see Figure 1). Hover the mouse over the ends of Audio Clips, and white arrows appear for you to click and drag out a fade. Holding Shift disables snapping to the grid, and dragging the slope makes a linear fade curved. S-curves are also available for fade or crossfades between overlapping or neighboring clips, which you can drag the across the timeline.

Menus contain Reset Fade and Auto-Fade, which either creates tiny fades at both ends of a clip to eliminate clicks or places longer Auto-Fades between two selected clips. All these fade functions are also available within a single Audio Clip from the Edit panel. The newly available height-adjustable tracks help you edit fades precisely.

THE MOD SQUAD

A huge boon for sound designers and producers, Bitwig Studio 2 adds unlimited new Modulator slots to all Bitwig instrument and effect Devices, as well as to hosted VST plug-ins. There are 25 modulator types so far, ranging from simple (Button, Macro knob) to sophisticated (the Steps 2-64 step sequencer or Keytrack, which modulates by the key of incoming notes, with curve settings). Other Modulators include several envelope types, several LFO types, Random, and sidechains that use either audio or note inputs.

Every Device’s Modulator icon opens slots in groups of three, which you populate through a popup Modulator browser. Clicking a Modulator’s Assign button highlights the available parameters in blue (monophonic) or green for modulating each note of a polyphonic part individually. By clicking and dragging as many of those parameters as you want per Modulator, you specify their direction and depth of change.

Many Modulators have detailed views for accessing deeper controls. There you can get really granular by assigning one Modulator to modulate the parameters of another. For example, you could assign different stages of an ADSR Modulator to an LFO, or modulate the timing of an LFO with an X/Y pad Modulator. The possibilities really are endless, and the Inspector Panel lists all the Modulator settings for editing.

While these Modulators are doorways to unlimited routing, Bitwig’s interface lets you dive deeply into them or ignore them entirely if you choose. They’re fairly easy to operate, however, so for example anyone could use the popular sidechain effect to modulate any Bitwig Device’s or VST’s parameters using any audio or note signal from the project.

I found the Expressions Modulator notable because it works so well with polyphonic multidimensional controllers (PMCs) like the Roli Seaboard Rise or Roger Linn Linnstrument. I tested Expressions with the Roli Blocks, and by routing the Expressions velocity, pressure, timbre, and release controls to various parameters within Bitwig’s Polysynth instrument, I had four of the Blocks’ 5D gestures—Strike, Press, Slide, and Lift—producing results quickly.

AUDIO AND MIDI FROM THE INSIDE OUT

Bitwig Studio 2 includes 17 new Audio FX, Note FX, and Hardware Integration Devices. The handy Spectrum Analyzer can apply to any track and/or external audio. There’s a creamy new Phaser effect, and the ±1-octave Pitch Shifter is great fun to use in conjunction with Modulators to put some disorienting motion on the Pitch and Grain controls. The same goes for the Dual Pan Device, which sets individual levels for the incoming left and right signals. Putting a Random or more strategic Modulator on the Dual Pan’s L/R controls can liven up a stereo track.

The craziest new audio effect, Treemonster, starts with a ring modulator tuned to the incoming signal and adds Threshold, Speed, Pitch, highpass/lowpass filters, and a spectrum analyzer to help target frequencies. It gives you highly variable rhythmic effect that can be subtly distorting or complete in its ring-modded decimation.

Beyond its original Arpeggiator, Bitwig Studio 2 adds Note (MIDI) FX like the very cool Multi-Note Device, a relative note transposer that plays up to seven notes for every note message it receives—each note offset from the incoming note’s pitch and velocity. I loved this for turning monophonic lead lines into instant chords or dissonant note clusters. Note Echo, a tempo-syncable note repeater, is also a lot of fun. You can set the number of Repetitions, or make the feedback infinite, while adjusting the timing, gating, velocity, and pitch of the note repetitions.

The other new Note FX are simpler but still creatively useful. The Note Harmonizer transposes notes based on the notes of a different track; Note Latch sustains notes until the next one is received or triggers every other note received; Note Length sets incoming notes to a fixed length, and optionally triggers notes upon their incoming Release; Note Velocity is a velocity shaper.

Three new Hardware Devices integrate Bitwig with CV/Gate gear through the ports of a connected audio interface. HW Clock Out sends two paths of CV clock signal out; HW CV Instrument sends Pitch CV Out, Gate Out and brings the Audio In back into the system; HW CV Out provides a parameter knob for sending CV signal out of an audio interface port.

Three new MIDI Devices transmit MIDI messages from a track’s Device chain to plug-ins or external gear. MIDI CC sends CC messages from eight parameter knobs; MIDI Program Change sends program changes with a manual Send button and/or upon opening a project; similarly, MIDI Song Select sends song-select messages with a manual Send button and/or upon opening a project.

Bitwig Studio 2.1 adds synchronization of the DAW’s clock to external software or hardware MIDI clocks, remapping MIDI channels, and filtering out notes and data from specific MIDI channels, as well as the Amp virtual amplifier effect—suitable for adding saturation, distortion and general grittiness to any audio.

REMOTE CONTROLS

Fig. 2. Device Remote Control pages dynamically update on compatible controllers with eight color-coded controls each. Here, customized controls are being assigned for a ninth Polysynth Remote Control page.

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For optimal hands-on control, Bitwig Studio 2’s Devices come with Remote Control pages; sets of eight color-coded controls that—depending on the compatibility level of your MIDI controller—will dynamically update the control settings and colors of eight of your hardware controllers as you select different Devices and tracks in the DAW (Figure 2). Some Devices have Remote Control pages preset; Polysynth, for example, has eight Remote Control pages to scroll through for accessing 64 common parameters. For any Device, you can easily setup, name and save Remote Controls pages for a Device, a specific preset, or the Modulators in a preset.

This is a fantastic method for getting comprehensive control over every Device in a project, and works best when you have a MIDI controller with tight Bitwig Studio 2 integration. Visit emusician.com to read an article detailing the excellent integration of the Novation Lauchpad Pro and Native Instruments Maschine Jam with Bitwig Studio 2.

STILL WIGGY

Much of Bitwig Studio’s original appeal came from its flexible, customizable interface and speedy workflow with simultaneous use of the Clip Launcher and Arrangement views, drag-and-drop between multiple projects and nested Device chains. The DAW’s first major update has addressed requests for better hardware integration and more common DAW features, as well as added the powerful Modulator system, excellent Audio/Note FX and filled out the collection of stock instruments available for free download. It does all that while keeping and enhancing the user-friendly, intuitive interface, which works in a single window or across two or three displays.

While Bitwig Studio 2 is still not the be-all, endall DAW for everyone’s needs, it very much feels like a workstation you can play as an instrument, either on its own as a self-contained system or connected to your larger electronic über-studio. I’m happy to see it maturing without losing its youthful exuberance.

STRENGTHS
Highly customizable interface. Improved editing, menus and dynamic visualizers and analyzers in the Devices. 25 Modulator types. MIDI soft controls and Remote Control pages. Audio FX, Note FX and integration with external CV/Gate and MIDI gear.

LIMITATIONS
No support for ReWire, Audio Units, or traditional multi-out audio routing for VSTs.

$399 street;
$169 upgrade for existing users
bitwig.com

Markkus Rovito is a writer, drummer, and electronic musician.