The latest DAW on the market promises to address some of the weaknesses of existing options, but can it succeed at the first attempt?
There’s a huge amount to consider with any new DAW. Even a major update of a long-established DAW like Ableton or Logic throws up dozens of talking points, but when considering a completely new version 1.0 product, built from the ground up, there’s even more to discuss.
We could easily fall into the trap of trying to list every last feature of Bitwig here, but we won’t turn this into a tediously exhaustive list of specifications. A large part of the story can be summed up in a few words: yes, Bitwig is a thoroughly capable DAW loosely akin to Ableton but no, it isn’t quite as comprehensive as more established DAWs. So, rather than examining every last minor detail of Bitwig’s feature set, let’s instead take this as an opportunity to assess what sets it apart from other DAWs.
First, a little background. Bitwig Studio was officially announced in January 2012, when the Berlin-based company revealed demo videos of the prototype software. Although Bitwig Studio is the company’s first DAW, the team behind Bitwig aren’t entirely new to the music software game. The company was founded in 2009 by four of the developers involved in the creation of Ableton Live.
“That the Bitwig team has developed such a solid package for the first version of a new DAW is an impressive achievement in its own right”
While Bitwig (the company) has roots in Ableton’s development team, it’s important to note that there’s no common code between the two programs. There are similarities, of course, but there are also major similarities between, say, Logic and Cubase despite the fact that the development teams have never overlapped. That the Bitwig team has developed such a solid package for the first version of a new DAW is an impressive achievement in its own right.
Following a quick and painless installation and registration process, Bitwig scans your third-party plugins in the background while you start to get acquainted with the layout. What’s immediately obvious is that Bitwig follows the non-linear approach of Ableton, with a similar clip-based focus to the production process. The logical place to start is by dropping in some audio loops to get the hang of the editing and arrangement options. Like Ableton, this couldn’t be much easier: drop an audio file on an empty clip and it’s immediately analysed and stretched to fit the tempo of the project. The quality of the audio warping engine is high, but there’s only one main time-stretching mode, Stretch, with standard and HD settings. As such, its effectiveness is largely determined by the nature of the source material.
In Ableton, by comparison, you can switch between alternative algorithms to suit each type of audio. The only other time-stretch mode in Bitwig is Repitch, which simply adjusts the audio playback rate, pitching the audio up when increasing its tempo and vice versa.
Thanks to the non-linear approach, Bitwig is well suited to dance music production. The 80s roots of DAWs like Logic and Cubase are reflected in the way they approach the more conventional aspects of rock and pop music creation – recording, editing and mixing. With Bitwig, in addition to the loop and sample options, there’s more of an electronic music focus to many of the instruments and effects. But, fundamentally, it’s the overall approach which is thoroughly modern and versatile, from the multi-monitor support (up to three screens) all the way down to the way the clip launcher panel can be activated in both Mix Panel Layout (broadly analagous to Ableton Session View) and Arrange Panel Layout (Arrange View). The interface gets slightly cluttered if you have all the possible panels open at once, but the versatility of the approach justifies it.
Instruments and effects
Bitwig’s built-in devices are split into seven categories: Audio FX, Containers, Generators (test tones), Instruments, Modulators, Note FX and Routers (for hardware instruments and effects). What’s immediately striking is that in the Instrument category there are only three major synths: FM4, Organ and Polysynth (a fairly standard subtractive device). You can’t really pick any major faults with the three synths – they all do what they do reasonably well – but there’s not much character on display from such generic synths. FM4, the frequency modulation synth, is typically awkward to program, although the 116 presets provide good starting points for sounds. Organ is very limited, with little more than nine drawbar sliders for dialling in harmonics. The dual-oscillator Polysynth is flexible, with seven different filter modes, but there’s nothing to make it stand out from the hundreds of subtractive synth plugins already on the market. Likewise, the Sampler device is perfectly usable if slightly more basic than Ableton’s equivalent. All in all, the synth and sampler options feel like a missed opportunity to set Bitwig apart from other DAWs.