Review: Bitwig Studio DAW - EMusician

Review: Bitwig Studio DAW

Streamlined Editing, Improved Workflow
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BUILT FROM the ground up to comprise a sort of “greatest hits” collection of DAW features without too much clutter, Bitwig Studio borrows heavily from Ableton Live and a bit from Cakewalk Sonar, Apple Logic, and Steinberg Cubase. However, in the end Bitwig succeeds in creating a production environment with its own character, novel features, and a speedy, customizable workflow.

Bitwig’s development team includes some Ableton veterans, and Bitwig Studio’s stretching of audio material to tempo, flexible one-window layout, nested devices (such as the Drum Machine), selection and design of instruments and effects, and especially its Clip Launcher with Scenes, are all reminiscent of Live.

Fig. 1. Bitwig Studio should earn some fans with its Clip Launcher, Arrange view, and Mixer visible all in one window. However, some simple, yet crucial, differences make Bitwig surprisingly attractive. In the Arrange (linear timeline) view, you can access the Clip Launcher’s Scenes (with clips ordered horizontally) at the same time (see Figure 1). This lets you quickly switch between working in each space as well as drag-and-drop audio from one view to the other. As a longtime Live user, I quickly adapted to using the timeline and the Clip Launcher together more than ever before, and it was a welcome change.

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Bitwig Studio also lets you view the Mixer below its Central Panel while the Clip Launcher and Arrange view are open, another nice option you don’t have in Live. Tabs under the main window (as well as keyboard shortcuts) let you toggle between the main Arrange, Mix, and Edit Panels, as well as smaller Mixer, Note Editor, Automation Editor, and Device views along the bottom.

The Inspector and metadata-based Browser views flank the main window and can be hidden to save space. The Inspector shows vital data, function shortcuts, and a channel strip for selected tracks and note or audio clips. You can use it for many quick edits, like quantize, duplicate, reverse, etc. The Browser organizes all the Devices, plug-ins and their presets, samples, and MIDI clips, including a Previewer. You can conveniently set shortcut folders from your Desktop to the Browser.

Bitwig Studio lets you optimize your available display space and figure out your preferred workflow. It also supports up to three displays, with various modes for splitting windows across monitors.

Devices and Modulation With 54 total instrument and effect devices and around 4GB of audio download material, you can cover most of your bases with Bitwig’s Sampler, Drum Machine, FM-4 synth, and subtractive Polysynth instruments. These are rounded out with a wide selection of effects, many of which come with very useful presets. Compared to many other DAWs, this area could still use some filling out. However, Bitwig scores points with its various nested devices such as Instrument and FX Layers, which are single devices that contain stacks of instruments or effects; XY Instruments and XY Effects, containers that hold four effects or instruments in parallel and let you crossfade their outputs from an XY axis; FX Chains; and the Mid-Side Split and Multiband FX-2 devices.

Fig. 2. An XY Instrument nested device with the Polysynth showing and the Macro controls being assigned. When you click on a modulation source on any device, the list of possible destinations lights up, and you just need to drag the parameter’s desired range to assign it (see Figure 2). It’s quick and easy. Similarly, each device has a set of eight Macro controls, to which you can assign any number of parameters at a control range that you set.

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You can add your own VST plug-ins (32- or 64-bit) to any of the nested device types, and whether the VSTs are used on their own or nested, Bitwig Studio’s VST crash protection works very well: If a VST plugin crashes, it won’t take down the DAW at the same time. You simply get a blank area where the plug-in was and a dialog box that asks if you want to relaunch the plug-in.

Bitwig, itself, did crash on occasion, however. Each time thankfully, the work was recovered.

Editing and Automation You can edit notes (velocity, gain, pan, timbre) and audio (event, gain, pan, pitch, onsets, Stretch), as well as automation, from the large central panel or smaller secondary panel. For groups of notes or audio events, the Histogram introduces some wonderful randomness to the edited values. Layered editing also lets you edit multiple instrument tracks in the same window.

Per-note “expression” editing only works for Bitwig’s internal instruments for now, but its different automation modes work for VSTs, as well as almost every Mixer function and device parameter. You can attach automation to a clip so that it duplicates along with the clip. Two very cool relative automation modes—additive and multiplicative—move a parameter ±50% of its total range and scale a parameter toward zero, respectively. You can even use all three automation types at once for some pretty wild curves.

To Wig or Not to Wig Out After developing its DAW for two years under public scrutiny (done to create buzz), Bitwig Studio launched to the delight of some and to the cries of foul by others who said it was a rip-off of Ableton Live and/or a beta program disguised as commercial software. The similarities to Live are obvious and intentional, yet a clone it is not.

The complainers have a point that Bitwig Studio 1.0.8 doesn’t include every feature available in other, more mature DAWs. However, I question their historical appreciation of 1.0 software. Although times have changed a lot, Ableton Live 1.0, for example, was scarcely a shell back then of what it is now.

By comparison, version 1 of Bitwig Studio leaves off some important items, such as multiple audio outputs and undo for VSTs, ReWire capabilities, a MIDI export function, the ability to host Audio Units plug-ins, and wider MIDI controller support, among other things. But as a niche product initially aimed at electronic dance production, Bitwig Studio is a DAW worth watching as it continues to grow.

Markkus Rovito drums, DJs, and contributes frequently to DJ Tech Tools and Charged Electric Vehicles.

SUMMARY

STRENGTHS Flexible interface focuses on speedy workflow and customization. Integrated clip launcher and arrangement views. Unified Modulation System and nested device chains. Drag-and-drop between open projects. Good audio bouncing, slicing, and stretching features.

LIMITATIONS Limited MIDI controller support if you don’t have Javascript skills for creating a map. For the price, its instrument, effect, and sound collection needs some filling out. Several omissions, such as lack of ReWire support, MIDI export, and multiple audio outs for VSTs.

$449 MSRP, $399 street
bitwig.com