Bitwig beta hands-on preview! WORLD EXCLUSIVE!
Bitwig Studio has to be the most eagerly anticipated music software of recent times, and it just entered the early beta phase of development. And guess what? Computer Music got our hands on it to bring you a world-exclusive first-look hands-on preview!
Even the briefest of glances at Bitwig Studio (check out the screengrabs by clicking here) makes it abundantly clear that it isn't merely inspired by Ableton Live, with many ideas that are directly copied. Of course, before Live came along, all of the big DAWs – Cubase, Pro Tools, Logic, etc – were built on the same conceptual and functional foundations, universally adhering to the multitrack tape-style linear sequencing paradigm that's been dominant since the 80s, and pinching features and ideas from each other along the way.
But Bitwig Studio is something else; if you didn't know better, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was an elaborately skinned Live. It's kinda weird, but perhaps it just means that Live's non-linear approach is the new norm.
There's a Mix view that's equivalent to Live's Session view, where audio and MIDI clips are triggered individually or in stacked Scenes. There's also the traditional horizontal Arrange view for structured sequencing. In both, clips are automatically warped to follow the project tempo, and they launch in sync with the internal clock.
So far, so familiar, then, but let's look at where Bitwig starts to move things on… Unlike Live, both views can be made visible at the same time, thanks to the Arrange view's Clip Launcher. Sitting to the left of the Arrange window, this is simply a horizontal Mix view, but the difference it makes to workflow can't be understated. It might seem like a subtle thing, but after an hour's use, having immediate access to both Mix and Arrange views turns out to be revelatory, and there's no way Ableton can ignore it. Just in a purely practical sense, being able to drag clips directly from the Launcher into the Arrange view (rather than holding down the mouse button and hitting Tab, or dragging onto the Session/Arrangement icon) feels like a throwing off of ergonomic shackles.
This also leads to another plus for Bitwig over Live: meaningful dual monitor support, with one view for each screen. A slight black mark against Bitwig in this area currently, though, is that it uses proprietary menus on Mac, rather than the standard OS X menu bar, which is a waste of display space. Native OS X full-screen support helps, but we'd still like to see those menus moved up to the bar.
Bitwig Studio has four types of track: Audio, Instrument (MIDI), Hybrid and Effect, the last being an effects send/return track. Hybrid tracks can host audio and MIDI clips simultaneously, but they don't work properly yet, so we can't comment on their effectiveness. If you're wondering, as we were, why separate audio and MIDI tracks are even necessary given that there are Hybrid tracks, Bitwig say the reason is that having only Hybrid tracks would have made the GUI too confusing, so they divided them up.
When you know you want a dedicated MIDI or audio track, you should use one, in order to keep your arrangements as simple as possible. Hybrid tracks are apparently meant for crazier things – such as in-place bouncing of a note clip to audio – as will no doubt become apparent in a later build of the software.
Another big leap beyond the limits of Live is that Bitwig Studio's audio clips can contain multiple audio files, each of which can be individually moved, edited and warped, a bit like Cubase. Speaking of warping, the elastic audio system works just like Live's, using draggable markers to anchor sections of audio on the timeline, stretching/compressing everything on either side. A nice touch is that markers snap to time divisions as set by the current Snap setting (overridden with the Shift key) but slide freely in between them – the best of both warping worlds, if you will.
In the Edit view at the bottom of the interface, the contents of selected clips in the Mix view appear just as they do in Live: in a piano roll for MIDI and an audio editor for audio. In the arrange view, however, the Edit view shows the entire track, sort of like an editable close-up. This can be switched to show only the contents of the currently selected clip, ie, like Live.
The Inspector gives access to the editable parameters of the currently selected audio or MIDI clip(s) – it's like Live's Clip View controls, but in one pane – and currently looks like it has a lot yet to be added.
Note by note
Per-note automation is one of Bitwig Studio's headline features. Essentially, it's polyphonic automation, so you can use envelopes to shape the pitch, volume, pan and 'timbre' of individual notes in MIDI chords. This is a feature that very few DAWs have (Cubase is as an exception, as are most trackers).
Being truly per-note, if you move an individual MIDI note, any associated automation envelopes move with it. It's pretty amazing, but presumably limited to instruments that support such parametric polyphony – don't go thinking you'll magically be able to set separate Sylenth1 filter cutoff values for multiple notes at once. It only works with Bitwig's built-in instruments at the moment (and in fact, in the current beta, third-party plug-ins aren't accessible at all). Per-note automation of pitch is done in the piano roll editor, while other parameters can be adjusted in the Expression lane below.
Layered editing is another big selling point, enabling multiple tracks to be edited in one place. In the Arrange view, with a MIDI track selected, hitting the Layered Editing button reveals all of the MIDI parts in the song in the Edit view, with all of the audio parts layered X-ray-style in the background. With an audio track selected, the Edit view becomes a multitrack audio editor, with every audio track in the song stacked up vertically (but sans MIDI parts in the background).
In the Mix view, Layered Editing is basically the same as in the Arrange view, but only the contents of //selected// clips are made visible and accessible. In both modes, individual tracks/clips can be hidden from view or locked at the click of a button, preventing accidental editing.
Another feature that we're particularly keen to see in action that isn't fully working in the current beta is the automation system. Like Live, Bitwig Studio has both track and clip automation (clip in red, track in blue), but in this case, they can both be viewed and edited together in the Arrange view. The two types of automation will interact with each other – clip automation can modulate the underlying track automation, for example – and each will be instantly convertible to the other. You'll also be able to choose whether recorded automation should be written into the track or the clip. The recording of automation is currently disabled so we were unable to fully try it out.
Instruments and effects
While Bitwig's list of instrument and effect devices isn't yet complete, what's there is shaping up pretty well. Currently, there's a drum machine with a range of synthesised modules on offer; a simple drawbar organ; a tasty polysynth; an FM synth; and a simple sampler. On the effects front, the usual suspects are all in place (dynamics, EQ, delays, chorus, reverb, etc) as well as a few more unconventional units (Bode 10, ring modulator, mid/side splitter).
More are due to be added and what's already there will be improved, but again, there's a strong Live influence throughout. That's not to say that Bitwig haven't innovated, though. As well as some of the devices themselves treading their own path – the multiband reverb is very cool, for example. What's really interesting is that all these instruments and effects have been built using Bitwig's native modular system, which will be released in a future version.
The Wet/Feedback FX button on each device is truly groundbreaking. Many of the devices feature either a Wet or FB FX slot, into which an entire effects chain can be inserted, processing only the wet output – or feedback circuit! – of the device. Further Wet/FB FX chains can be inserted into existing ones, resulting in ultra-complex effects cascades – helpfully, each chain gets colour-coded. Given that Bitwig Studio also has a direct equivalent to Live's Effects Rack in its device roster, once the Wet/FB FX system is working nicely (it's a little glitchy in the beta we tried), it'll be able to claim a resounding win in the area of effects routing.
If everything Bitwig promise for Bitwig Studio becomes reality, it really could represent a generational leap beyond Ableton Live 8. The Arrange view Clip Launcher, automation system, effects routing and point editing alone making Ableton's incumbent DAW seem surprisingly dated and conservative in comparison. And while Live has always tried to put minimal design towards the top of the agenda, Bitwig Studio brings back a bit of the old-school – a standard palette of tools, for example, including a knife (scissors – yay!) and an eraser – and isn't afraid of a bit of functional clutter (Layered editing, Clip Launcher).
Of course, we've been using Live for over a decade now, and Bitwig Studio is fascinating enough just because of its shiny newness. What's really intriguing is that it's the first DAW to really bring the fight to Ableton Live's territory, in exactly the same way as the Cubases, Logics and Sonars of the world have been battling it out for aeons.
Flashy features aside, there's unarguably real substance and innovation to Bitwig Studio, beyond the blatant mimicry of Ableton Live. Bitwig Studio is in a rawer state than we were expecting, even for a beta version, and there's still clearly a long way to go in terms of features, stability and performance (we're hoping it's early days for the warping system, the Inspector and many of the devices, particularly). Of course, there's no knowing what Ableton have got up their sleeve for Live 9 (we're hoping for truly big things now!), but even as an early beta, Bitwig Studio looks like a potential game-changer.
Final release date and pricing of Bitwig Studio are yet to be announced.