How do they compare?
Back in early 2012, when we were first invited to check out an upcoming DAW from a new German developer going by the curious name of Bitwig, we were absolutely floored by just how much it appeared to be 'borrowing', quite openly, from Ableton Live.
The GUI, the built-in devices, the Session View-style Clip Launcher… Truth be told, at that point the similarities were so numerous that we weren't entirely convinced it would ever actually make it to market - the involvement of several ex-Ableton developers notwithstanding.
Now, two years later, Bitwig Studio is real, released and very much its own DAW. It’s still evidently built on Live foundations, but beyond that, it undeniably pushes the envelope in numerous areas, making Ableton's seemingly untouchable music production and performance giant look at times conservative and behind the curve.
New kid in town
Of course, Bitwig has the advantage of being new and, consequently, automatically exciting, while Live is a well-established feature of the music technology landscape and thus all too easy to take for granted. To describe Bitwig as any kind of successor to Live's throne after only a few weeks on sale, then, would be ridiculous.
Or would it..?
Take your seats, grapple fans, for the ultimate music software face-off: Ableton Live 9 vs Bitwig Studio 1.0 in the, er, World Series of DAWs… of a particular type. Over six rounds, we're going to let the two applications do battle, comparing everything from their interfaces and workflow to controller support and more.
It's on, and if you want to find out much more about Bitwig Studio, check out Computer Music magazine issue 203, which includes a complete guide to the software that features step-by-step walkthroughs and videos.
Perhaps the most talked-about feature of Bitwig Studio is its Clip Launcher, which parallels Live’s Session view but puts it in a pop-out pane that can be opened in the Arrange and Mix views (rather than constituting an entire modal screen of its own), enabling audio and Note clips to be freely moved between Arrange tracks and Clip Launcher slots.
Live's inability to give access to its Arrangement and Session views at the same time has been a perennial issue among the Ableton faithful, so the Clip Launcher has been a cornerstone of Bitwig's pre- and post-launch marketing.
Ableton did manage to pre-empt it, though. Although moving clips between its two Views has always been possible in Live by simply dragging a clip, hitting Tab to switch view, then dropping the clip wherever you like, Ableton nonetheless made a step towards a 'single-screen' solution with the 'Second Window' function added in Live 9.1. This launches an independent second window displaying the alternative View to that of the main one. While in practical terms this ultimately achieves the same result, Bitwig’s solution takes the prize for its simplicity, economic use of real estate and ergonomics.
Also landing a punch for Bitwig is native OS X full screen support. Live's non-native equivalent gives a full screen view, but sits it on top of all your other apps rather than giving it its own OS X Space.
Oh, and the Big Meters in Bitwig’s Mix View are pretty sweet, too, giving those who don't use the Clip Launcher something else to fill all that empty space with, as is triple monitor support, should you be well-equipped enough to need it.
However, Live hits back pretty hard with its adjustable track heights (Bitwig's two fixed options feel maddeningly restrictive at times), native OS-based menus, customisable colour scheme and useful Info view. Plus, of course, we just love Live's cool, minimalist, vector-based GUI.
Although Bitwig's context-sensitive Inspector appears at first glance to be a step up from Live's comparatively barren Clip View, it doesn't actually offer a great deal more in terms of adjustable parameters - although still just enough to make it the more powerful of the two.
More clear-cut is the difference between Live's track freeze and Bitwig’s Bounce functions: the former rendering entire virtual instrument tracks as audio to cut down on resource usage; the latter rendering only the selected clip(s), leaving all the rest as they are, with the rendered output taken from any point in the device/mixer chain (as, indeed, is also the case with the related Slice To Drum Machine and Multisample operations).
Yup, that means Bitwig can handle audio and MIDI clips on the same track - a feat made possible by its Hybrid track class. In summary, Bitwig's in-place rendering leaves Live's looking positively archaic.
It's in the detail
Other pluses for Bitwig when it comes to workflow include its two Detail Editor views (track contents and individual clips), and the ability to add its own devices (but not third-party plugins) from a pop-out window in the device chain or mixer strip as well as by dragging them in from the browser.
Over in the Live camp, we prefer being able to pull tracks in from other projects via Live’s browser rather than having to open the project in its own tab (although we would also very much like to the ability to open multiple projects in Live, too), and until such time as Bitwig adds track grouping to its DAW, Ableton can rightly consider that a huge point in its favour.
Live (as in 'live', not Live) performers and DJs may also be surprised to learn that Bitwig has no equivalent to Live's nifty A/B crossfader assignment system - potentially the decider for such users.
MIDI and audio editing
We've already mentioned Bitwig’s two Detail Editor views, which enable you to work on either the selected clip or the whole track on which it sits. That's a handy enough thing in itself, but the editing flexibility goes even deeper with the ability for audio clips to contain multiple samples (particularly useful in the context of the Clip Launcher), and the excellent Layered Editing system.
This lets you edit multiple selected Note and audio tracks and clips together, in a multitrack editor for audio tracks (with free track height adjustment, ironically) and the regular piano roll for Note clips, but with the contents of all of them displayed as if they were in one clip.
Meanwhile, Bitwig’s Histogram brings an interesting new twist to MIDI editing, allowing collective adjustment and randomisation of numerical parameter values throughout the DAW - clever and innovative, but by no means game-changing.
What could prove extremely significant, though, is Bitwig's Note Event Expressions feature. Polyphonic automation by any other name, this lets you draw automation curves within Note clips on a per-note basis for various parameters (pan, pitch, filter cutoff, etc). It's incredible, but the downside is that it only works with Bitwig's four proprietary instruments.
Finally, while Live's Clip Editor can be manually expanded to fill the whole main interface, Bitwig's dedicated Edit view is far more convenient for 'full screen' audio and note editing.
Game over in this arena for Ableton, then, right? Hell no: we've become almost dependent on Live's superb Audio-to-MIDI function, which lets us pour raw rhythmic and melodic ideas directly out of our brains onto the page. Then there's groove extraction and quantise via the Groove Pool, the importance of which can't be overstated, not to mention Live’s versatile and customisable range of timestretching algorithms and slicing presets.
Devices and soundbank
With over a decade of development behind it, Ableton Live's library of built-in devices trounces Bitwig Studio's in both functionality and numbers - as long as you splash out on the full Live 9 Suite, which costs almost twice as much as Bitwig, that is.
Operator, for example, has become accepted as a minor classic in its own right, while Live's other synths comprise a far more interesting and powerful selection of sound design tools than Bitwig’s Polysynth, FM4 and Organ. Equally, Live’s Sampler is more mature and developed than Bitwig’s copycat.
Then there’s Max For Live, which is what most makes Suite worth the extra outlay, with its impressive array of pre-made devices and comprehensive facilities for building your own. Like we say, though, all of that's only relevant to Suite. The Standard edition only includes Impulse, Simpler and Drum Rack - ie, no synths at all.
On the effects front, however, even Live 9 Standard beats Bitwig’s line-up. Not only does Live have many more effects (including the amazing Looper, Glue Compressor and Spectrum, to which Bitwig has no answer), but they generally offer more control and sound better. Similarly, Live boasts more and better MIDI FX than Bitwig, and a much, much bigger collection of bundled sounds, both first- and third-party.
Contain in the brain
Having said that, Bitwig’s device roster ain't half bad. Polysynth is great (particularly when you factor in Note Event Expressions), as is the multiband Reverb, and its five drum synths work well with the Drum Machine Container.
Speaking of Containers, Bitwig’s various chaining, splitting and layering devices go beyond Live’s Instrument and Effects Racks with their multiband and mid/side routing, XY controllers, etc, although Live's ability to group devices and save them out as Racks without ‘containing’ them first is notably convenient.
However, Bitwig’s killer apps in the devices department (as well as Note Event Expressions) are its brilliant Wet/FB Effects chains and Unified Modulation System. The first of these taps off the wet output or feedback loop of a device for further processing in parallel with whatever you fancy doing to the dry signal, ultimately giving rise to extraordinarily complex signal paths; the latter ensures a consistent (and intuitive) system for assigning modulation sources to targets for all devices, as well as the ability to send modulation signals between devices, including VST plugins.
Controller support and compatibility
While both Live and Bitwig Studio are equally at home running on a Mac or a PC, Bitwig is also - and rather impressively - compatible with Linux. Not only does this make it the only mainstream DAW not limited to OS X and Windows, but also immediately places it at the top of the Linux DAW pile.
This is a potentially very interesting situation indeed for the world of Linux-based music production, and we look forward to seeing how it develops.
As for plugin support, while both are, of course, VST-compatible, Live is the only one of the two that also plays nice with Audio Units on Mac. With the vast majority of plugins today released in both formats, this isn't a particularly big deal, but worth noting nonetheless.
On to MIDI controller support, then, and both Live and Bitwig ship with templates for a variety of keyboards and control surfaces, as any modern DAW must, with Live’s list being the considerably longer of the two. However, both also include the necessary tools for anyone (yes, even you!) to build their own templates for any MIDI (and OSC, in the case of Live) device not in that list. The catch with Live, though, is that its particular tool is Max For Live, which only comes with Live 9 Suite.
All are welcome
All that aside, Live romps home with this one thanks to its beautifully integrated, Akai-built instrument/controller Push and the various iPad controller apps that are available for it. The near future may well see Push support brought to Bitwig (via a third-party) and undoubtedly its presence felt on iPad, but for now, Live is the better bet for the producer with who puts hands-on control at the top of their agenda. Live also lets you set MIDI controller parameter ranges directly, while Bitwig can only do the same via Macros.
That's the fundamentals covered, then, but there are a few other scraps to be fought over before we can call the battle done.
First up, ReWire. Ableton Live has always been a proud supporter of ReWire, as both a host and a client, opening up MIDI and audio routing to and from other DAWs (Propellerhead Reason, most pertinently). Bitwig Studio doesn't include ReWire in its feature set.
Bitwig Studio’s plugin sandboxing is a feature that you'll be always be glad to know is onboard. Quite simply, it means that plugins within the DAW run in their own 'space', so that if they crash, the rest of the application carries on as if nothing has happened - well, apart from whatever the plugin was doing stopping, obviously. It really works, and having had Live brought down on us by leaky instruments and effects more times than we care to remember (albeit with reliable recovery upon relaunch, we should add), this is a sanity-saving feature that we hope someone at Ableton is now working round the clock to rip off.
Glitches and quirks
Despite its bullet-proof stability, however, we've found that Bitwig is still a bit buggy. We mostly mean graphical glitches and sporadic oddness - we've only had a couple of actual crashes - but it would be remiss of us not mention it. Live, on the other hand, is as smooth and solid as DAWs get (plugin crashes aside).
Finally, we arrive at the price. At £259.99, Bitwig Studio comes in around 30 quid cheaper than Live 9 Standard and £235 cheaper than Live 9 Suite, although, as already discussed, you get a lot of content with Suite, including Max For Live.
While it might appear that Bitwig Studio is stepping out of our imaginary ring the victor, leaving Live standing but beaten on points, that's probably down to its flashier feature set, which is always going to garner the most attention in a head-to-head comparison like this.
In real-world usage, though, the two actually differ in far more subtle ways than just the things we've covered here. Live’s more refined, calmer vibe and clearer direction count for a lot. Bitwig might have the greater flexibility in terms of GUI customisation and all that, but if you already love the way Live looks, feels and operates, you could well find Bitwig overly busy and hectic.
Also, with its MIDI-controllable crossfader and Looper device, Live’s status as king of the stage remains unchallenged by Bitwig Studio or any other DAW.
However, there can be no doubt that Bitwig Studio is a massive success, and with Bitwig’s immediate future plans including an integrated modular device construction system, and collaboration over LAN and the internet, Ableton needs to get a lot more innovative than it has been in the last five years if it wants to truly compete on a purely technological level.
As Ableton knows all too well from its halcyon days, being the upstart newcomer in a market dominated by established heavyweights can be a great position to hold in terms of marketing and opportunity - as long as the product itself is up to scratch, which Bitwig Studio clearly is. However, whether Bitwig has blown all its best ideas already or there's much more to come remains to be seen; and who knows what Ableton has got in development?
Ultimately, while Bitwig Studio may be able to claim the more cutting-edge, flexible feature set, it is the newer DAW of the two, and Live still outshines it in many areas. No one should be in any rush to switch without carefully considering the pros and cons of both.