Bitwig Studio 1.3 Review Part 1

Reviews

I had intended to do a review purely on the multi-touch elements of Bitwig Studio but, because I’m new to Bitwig, I’ve had to go through it in detail in order to fully understand what’s going on. So this part of the review is talking about using Bitwig Studio generally, how it works, what it does and how to make music and the second part (link at the bottom) concentrates on all the touchy feely stuff they’ve brought in with version 1.3. I should also stress that I am using version 1.31 RC as there were one or two things left out of 1.3 that have returned in this new update.

Here’s the video version of the review, for the rest of the text which includes a bit more detail just skip below:





Introduction

Bitwig Studio is a full on music production suite with all the usual bits a sequencer DAW should have and so shares a lot of its features with the other kids and old farts on the block. It follows the single dynamic window interface of Sonar and Studio One; the arrange page has a very similar feel to Reasons; the browser is almost as incomprehensible as FL Studios and it has a popup browser almost as annoying as Cubase’s. It shares many performance features with Ableton Live and crosses them with StageLight and FL Studio. But somehow it manages to pull it all together in an awesomely beautiful way. Spending my first few hours here I am finding many things easy and some things difficult, but increasingly often as I get under the skin I’m sitting back and thinking – this is amazing!

Browser

The Browser seems to do a good job of sorting things out and jumbling things together all at once. The first “tab” is called “Devices” and appears to be Bitwig talk for plug-ins. Everything is listed in there together, Bitwig effects and instruments, VST effects and instruments all with tiny icons indicating what they actually are. You can then start filtering the results using Device type, category etc and things start to make more sense. Once you’ve found the effect or instrument you’re looking for you can drag it into the project to create a new track or add it to the effects chain, sorry, Device chain, of an existing one. The next tab is “presets” allowing you to pull a preset directly into your project rather than finding a particular device first and then choosing its preset. It doesn’t pull out presets from your VST plug-ins but you can create your own by loading the plug-in, making adjustments and then saving it as a Bitwig preset rather than using the plug-ins own preset function. This is a great way of building up and recalling presets you use in Bitwig – although these would not then be available if you loaded the plug-in into a different DAW. The next tab is samples which doesn’t seem to have the same filtering or tagging possibilities, but you can add your own locations and folders for any samples you want to use. Next we have Multisamples are used in Bitwigs sampler. Then we have the rather mystical “Music” tab. This is where you can point Bitwig to folders of “music”. Essentially it’s just another folder of audio samples but I guess if you wanted to play back ready prepared tracks then this separates this out from the other samples – although a folder in the Samples section would probably do just as well. Next you have “clips” which appear to be a bunch of MIDI loops but actually these are arrange page building blocks and can be audio as well as MIDI. Anything you create in the Arrange page is a clip – you might call it a region or a block in other DAWs. You can take any clip you create and drop it into the clip library so you can use it in other projects allowing you to build a library of cool things you did. Lastly you have “Files” which lets you find media from anywhere on your computer.

The Browser is a vital part of Bitwigs workflow and one that I feel struggles in some places. Although it does its job very well It’s probably the least elegant thing in Bitwig – particularly to a new user. Ableton Live is the same. That’s why the thumbnail approach in Studio One and FL Studio is, for me, so refreshing – it helps move away from these massive lists of text and helps you spot what you need.

So to summarise the Browser – anything you want to use in a project – instruments, samples, effects and clips can be found in the browser and dragged into a relevant place. Navigation gets easier the more you use it.

Back to the main screen you have three views – Arrange, Mix and Edit. The Arrange is always seen in the main part of the window, the mix and edit screens either appear in the main or the bottom screen depending on what’s going on.

Arranger

The arrange page in Ableton Live drives me bonkers – it doesn’t work like any other DAW and constantly frustrates me in achieving even simple things so it always makes me feel like I don’t know what I’m doing – which I probably don’t but I don’t need reminding of that every five minutes thank you. Bitwig’s arrange page works like Cubase, Like Studio One and it’s a big sigh of relief.

Except that it also has a clip launcher. The clip launcher is a performance grid onto which you can place clips and loops and stuff and trigger individually or as columns. With the toggle of a button or two you can see either the arranger and clip launcher separately or combined in the same view. The list of tracks remains the same, it’s just what’s being played that changes. The arrange page and the clip launcher can play absolutely independently or together but each track can only be one or the other. This initially appears a bit weird but the relationship between the two is actually quite fabulous. Going back to Ableton the relationship between the Session view and Arrangement view was simply that you hit record and whatever you did in the session view was recorded into the arrangement. Bitwig does that as well but you can also drag clips from one to the other, either individually or as groups or scenes. This enables you to map things out in the clip launcher and then develop how it evolves as a song in the arrangement page… or vice versa with both views on the screen aligned and connected. This, for me, breaks down all the frustration I was having with Ableton Live and opens up both ways of working.




Automation demonstrates this relationship really well. Open up the automation lane and you can draw controller information directly under the clip in the arrange view. This doesn’t alter anything in the Clip Launcher, but then if you pull that clip into the clip launcher the automation goes with it. You can then edit that automation in the automation editor and it has no impact in the arrange view unless you want to drop the clip back in. Automation as a whole works really well. There’s a dedicated button to bring up a dedicated editor where you can draw in whatever you like and create curves with the pressing of the Alt key (far easier than most DAWs). Or, in either the clip launcher or the arrange view you can hit the “write automation” button and any knob or parameter movements are instantly recorded.
We’ll come back to the Clip Launcher side but for now let’s dive a bit deeper into the rest of Bitwig.

Editor

To bring up the piano roll or note editor simply double click a clip or click a button at the bottom. Every DAW has one of these and they are all pretty similar but Bitwig has some possibly unique features that I’ve not come across before. Firstly you can layer up other clips underneath so you can move the notes relative to those, or edit them together. You can also overlay an audio clip in order to let you line up notes perfectly to an audio loop – it’s very neat and very powerful.
Next you have micro-pitch tuning per note – this is where you can alter the pitch of each note independently over time by a fraction or a whole load. Let’s load up a pad sound and stick in a sustained chord and I’ll show you what I mean. This is specific to Bitwig devices because as you know if you push the pitch wheel on a synth all the sounding notes change – this is not that – this is something else. Click the tiny Enable Micro-pitch button and you can write the changes directly onto the note. Very interesting indeed.

The velocity lane also has some unexpected super powers – the first one is a very clever interface called the Histogram which allows you to work some magic on a selection of multiple numeric values. So select a bunch of notes and pull up the velocity histogram and I can now adjust the mean position, the spread of velocity and “Chaos” which essentially moves them all over the place. It’s a fabulous way of varying a bunch of parameters to produce a more expressive performance. I’m not sure how useful the pictorial representation is but it’s an awesome tool.

And then you have two additional modulation expressions – Timbre and Pressure. They don’t actually have to mean anything as they are simply means of modulating parameters but again these are on individual notes. So if we open up our Polysynth you can see that I can map Timbre onto say cutoff and then on my chord I can effect each note individually. That’s very cool indeed.

This is all outside the regular MIDI spec and so you can’t really add these modulations as you play a regular MIDI keyboard but these controls form part of the amazingly named Multidimensional Polyphony Expression (MPE) spec which is what we find on creative instruments like the Seaboard ROLI. So more of this sort of expression might become available through other plug-ins and controllers. The Pressure parameter sounds a lot like it might make good use of the Surface Digital Pen. We shall see.
The Histogram is also available in the audio editor where you can apply it to pan, gain and pitch controls. The audio editor is exactly what you’d expect in terms of hit points, warping and stretching functionality. One thing that’s definitely worth mentioning is that clips can contain as many samples as you like, by which I mean that when you drag in a sample it becomes a clip, but instead you can create a blank clip and drag multiple samples into it. The clip acts as a container and inside you can edit, move and add as much as you like. Very cool.

Bounce in place

One cool feature is the ability to mix and match MIDI and audio clips which shows its usefulness when using “bounce in place”. This is a very quick and easy way to turn a MIDI clip into an audio clip. Simply right-click the clip and select “Bounce in place” and the output of the synth/device/instrument is recorded as audio. There’s very little detail in the manual about this and so what seems to happen is that it’s just the instrument output that gets recorded, no effects or anything after the instrument device are included. So essentially the audio loop is clean and is then running through the same effects as the synth did – it just bypasses the synth and remains on the same track as any remaining MIDI clips. It’s pretty clever really. When I perform using Ableton Live I usually turn everything in a project into audio to reduce the strain on the Surface CPU and keep everything as simple as possible. In Ableton I freeze a track, copy the resulting audio loops to a new stack and then delete the frozen instrument track – it’s a bit long winded but it works. With Bitwig I can do the same much quicker using bounce-in-place and then I just have to remove the loaded instruments. The thing is though that freezing and bouncing are not the same thing. In Ableton once I’ve pulled the audio loops out I won’t delete the instrument tracks until I’m completely happy with the overall result, because I can go back and unfreeze the track, edit the MIDI notes and re-freeze. In Bitwig it’s a one way deal – the audio is created but the MIDI clip is lost and the instruments are still loaded. So in Bitwig you essentially should be making copies before you bounce – you could leave them scattered in the arrange page. So it’s not all as elegant as perhaps it could be but I think I’m going to find it enormously useful.



Devices

The other thing to talk about in this view is the “Device Panel”. A device, as I mentioned earlier, is a plug-in instrument or effect and each track has a chain of these which gets displayed along the bottom of the screen. You can drag them in from the browser on the right or click the “+” and get treated to a big wide horizontal browser which is far easier to navigate and understand – but it rather gets in the way. You can chain up pretty much as much and as many as you like – but not only that – you can also nest devices within devices creating larger devices. There are a few uber devices called Containers that are designed purely to host other devices – the Drum Machine, Instrument Layer and FX Layer are all containers into which you plug other instruments, samplers or effects. While being useful for creating larger, combination devices (like Combinators in Reason or the multi-instrument in Studio One – there you go) they also let you run devices in parallel rather than just series. It can get frighteningly complex in there. Every device gets an 8 knob macro editor which lets you assign the most important parameters. Controller assignment it pretty neat. You click the pointy arrow thing above the knob and then anything you can control has a blue ring around it – move the thing you want to control the amount and direction you want to control it and it’s done. You can assign as many parameters to a single knob as you like. This control only happens within devices so if you want the LFO of a synth to control the cutoff of another filter then that filter needs to be nested into the same device – at least as far as I can tell.

Adding VST instruments and plug-ins work in the same way. They appear with a device style panel and a list of knobs with parameters – and the same macro panel which you can assign to whatever you want. However the list of parameters might not be any help as they won’t necessarily be labelled and you can’t use the same assign trick to knobs on the plug-ins GUI. However if you do stumble upon the right parameters you can set up the macros and then save the whole thing as a preset for the next time you want to use it.

The power of the Devices and the devices panel is all very good, however, I don’t love it. I feel the same about the way Ableton handles its own plug-ins – they all look the same. When faced with a big long chain of similar looking devices with the same rows of knobs, same layout and small controls it makes it difficult to find what you’re looking for – unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. This is one of those places where, for me, design decisions start to be detrimental to my workflow. Part of the joy (for me at least) in working with synths is the layout and the aesthetic – GUI design is an artform and the overall design of the device controls leaves me a little cold and uninspired – same thing in Ableton. I get the feeling that in Ableton and in Bitwig there’s a whole load of powerful stuff that I’m kind of missing out on because I can’t quite penetrate the controls. I imagine thousands of Live and Bitwig users would disagree with me and I guess there’s something to be said for the uniformity and it is all enormously functional. It’s a bit like the evolution of Native Instruments Reaktor – it’s spent a lot of time being this kind of functional but with the new version they’ve introduced the blocks idea that suddenly opens up the power of Reaktor to the more visually minded – that might be something worth thinking about.
One other cool thing to point out is that Bitwig runs VST plug-ins inside a little sandbox wrapper – this means that if a plug-in crashes it doesn’t lock up the whole program. You just have to restart that plug-in and you’re off again. Very cool.

Mix

So if we ignore the clip launcher section in the mixer – in fact you can turn them off with buttons on the side – and let’s look at the mixing part. The level faders are represented by these orange columns which are fine and easy to move with mouse or finger but honestly, if we are removing the clips then they could be double the height and give a little more resolution to their movement – they just seem a bit stumpy. You have a button to turn on extra tall super duper meters – that’s how big the faders should be, or at least have an option to be. What I really do like is that the devices chain is displayed above each channel like the inserts that they actually are – this is awesome when compared to Ableton Live but relatively normal for any other DAW. I criticised FL Studio for having a very grey mixer and Bitwig suffers from the same palette choice. Studio One manages to use colour really well in the mixer and I wonder whether it could help separate the channels visually in Bitwig. Or perhaps the row of channel names and colours at the top could be mirrored at the bottom so you’re not having to look all the way to the top before choosing a fader at the bottom. Otherwise the mixer mixes as you’d expect it to with all the usual controls and buttons.

Clip Launcher

Right, so, back to where the performing is supposed to occur. Turns out there are two Clip Launcher views – arranger and mix – which initially had me confused because in the original 1.3 release one of them vanished in Tablet mode. They both have their advantages but I think it’s fair to say that the horizontal “Arranger” view is best for developing your music and vertical “Mix” view is ideally suited to live performance. In either view you have tracks, clips and scenes. The basic idea is that you can trigger clips individually or you can trigger a whole row or stack of clips using a Scene button like they are verses and chorus’. It’s very easy then to improvise around a set structure – to repeat chorus’ or increase the introduction or extend the end or skip over sections – whatever you want.




Inside each clip you get a preview of its contents, either MIDI or audio, the clip name (or not) and a little play button used to trigger it. On a blank space you get either a square stop button – which will stop any other clip playing on that track – or a circle record button if the track is record enabled which will create a new clip and set it recording. As with the arrange page you can drag any content you like into the clip launcher from the browser either onto an existing track or to create a new one. You can edit notes or edit the samples and automation using the buttons at the bottom – it’s all very much like the arrange page. However there are some settings that differ. If you select a clip and open the inspector we have a number of parameters:
Loop Start/Stop – This enabled you to offset the start point on the first play. The stop value is greyed out if the loop is enabled.
Loop Start/Length – sets the start of the loop and the length of the clip – greyed out if “loop” is off.
Mute/Shuffle/Accent (shuffle amount) – self explanatory
Launch Q – This forces the clips to launch in time and dictates at which interval the clip will trigger when launched. Set it to 1 bar and it will launch at the start of the next bar – this helps prevent the accidental triggering of clips too soon.
Q to Loop – quantises to the loop start rather than clip start so you can have a lead in on a clip which doesn’t loop – does that make sense?
Next Action – Greyed out if looped, but if not then it can simply stop like being a one time play, or you can select things like play next, previous, random etc all of which is pretty interesting.

At the bottom of this inspector panel is a handful of buttons that do quick edits to the clip like double the length, double the contents, scale the contents or bounce it – again very useful.

All these sorts of things I found difficult to do in Ableton Live and would generally just use clips as they are. So armed with this sort of easily accessible editing and tweaking power I’m feeling newly inspired to be doing a whole lot more with my clips.

When playing clips in the arranger view the relationship between the launcher and the arranger comes into play. By default the arranger view is active so if you load a project, pull up the launcher and launch a clip the whole arrangement will play along with it. This keeps catching me out and is starting to get annoying. What’s actually active and is going to play is not always very clear. I’ll open up both to try to get my head around it.

By default the arranger is lit up and if I hit play then the arranger plays. If I click play on a clip in the launcher then that clip plays along with the rest of the arrangement – the track of that clip is dulled out in the arranger showing it to be inactive. As I launch other clips on other tracks the arranger tracks become inactive – tracks I haven’t launched still play. Each track has a “Switch to arranger” button which reactivates the arranger for that track. There’s also a global switch at the top which reactivates all of the arranger. This way you can play with launcher clips over the top of the arrangement and drop in and out – nice. It is possible to get a bit confused as to what’s playing and where and the indications are not always obvious. If you hit a Scene play button then that deactivates the arranger regardless of which clips and tracks are triggered in that scene. Then we have this “global stop” button which, if the arranger is playing, deactivates the arranger but the transport continues playing leaving you to trigger clips in the launcher. This is sort of fine but I have trouble setting this up before playing anything. So I’m at a gig, about to kick off my first track with just triggering clips and by default the arranger is active – it’s lit up. There is no button I can press that will deactivate the arranger – it remains lit up. I can press the global stop button which turns all the track stop buttons from light grey to a slightly darker grey but nothing else appears to happen. When I summon up the courage to trigger a clip the arranger is suddenly dulled and inactive and just the clip is playing – hooray! But there was nothing to indicate that would happen before I pressed play. This is especially true if you don’t have the arranger in view. It would just make me anxious. There could be, surely, an arranger on/off button just so I could be confident in using the clip launcher by itself without that nagging doubt of will the arranger play by itself? In reality I’d probably delete the contents of the arranger in a song where I was planning to just use the launcher. Although the key is probably to always start by launching a scene as this always disables all the tracks in the arranger. There, sorted.
There’s a similar issue with the “active clip” black square around a clips play button. It shows you which clip is active and flashes if it’s about to play. During playback if you hit a stop button the clip stops at the next quantised beat and the square vanishes as the clip is no longer active. However, if you have some clips playing and you press stop on the transport then these active clip squares remain – if you then click play they will continue playing, which is fine, but if you want to reset the track and you don’t want those clips to play again when you press play there is nothing you can do to remove that black square. Clicking the stop buttons doesn’t appear to do anything – but in reality when you hit play again the clips are inactive – it’s just not shown on the clip until you press play giving you this same anxiousness as with the arranger I mentioned above. Pressing the stop button should do as it says – this all seems like an oversight or perhaps a bug that needs fixing as I can’t work out how it could be helpful by design. Again perhaps the best way to reset a track is to begin by pressing a Scene button which wipes out anything previously active.




I guess when you’ve used Bitwig for a while then these things become second nature but pointing out potential pitfalls for new users is something I feel it’s important to do.

Anyway, let’s ignore the arranger and concentrate on the Mix view. This view is immediately reminiscent of Ableton Live, I fact if you narrow the clips it’s pretty much identical although the scene buttons are on the left rather than the right. This makes me happy because I’ve been working with Live for a long time and this orientation just seems right for live performance. You also have the mixer present, making sense at the bottom of each track – this is what I want. When they play the clips have their own play heads which scan beautifully across the clip. This is particularly fabulous when you have grouped clips as you get a bunch of little play heads all scanning across a single clip. It brilliantly indicates how far that clip has to go and how it relates to other clips. In Ableton Live you have the circle being drawn with a number of beats at the bottom of the stack and I’ve always found that useful. Bitwig is different and you’re getting a lot more information from it but I’m yet to decide which one works better for me. Seeing the contents of the clip and watching how the play heads move across does give a wonderful indication of what’s about to play – I really like that.
You can of course trigger all the tracks at once using the Scene button at the top and if you select the button I initially thought that you could apply all the same parameters you did to individual clips about loop start points, quantise and next actions – but actually what you’re doing is applying the same settings to all the scene clips. This way you can get all the scenes to play in sequence, or get them to do completely random things. The room for creativity is immense.

Recording Clips on the fly

One final thing to talk about and it’s something that I struggled with in Ableton Live and that’s recording clips on the fly. Obviously recording into a clip is easy – select clip, record enable, hit record, count-in, record, stop – awesome. But to have clips playing and then to simply add something that then seamlessly becomes part of what’s playing is something I’ve just not been able to do very well. I’ve done this most successfully in StageLight which you can see in my StageLight improv video. So, how easy is it to record clips on the fly in Bitwig?
Well you can trigger a space on the grid to record by clicking the little circular record button which appears when a track is record enabled. It starts recording at the next quantised beat and off you go – the problem is how to do you stop recording? You have to click the button again which is rubbish if you have your hands on a MIDI keyboard – there will inevitably be a gap between finishing playing and hitting that button which means your newly created clip won’t loop properly and you’ll have to do a quick edit which kind of destroys the creative on-the-fly vibe. Maybe you can create a clip first and then record into it? Yes, sort of. You can create a clip and set it to be 4 bars long or whatever but then the record button has vanished, it only has play button. Well, if you record enable that track and then hit the “OVR” overdub button you can record notes over the top of that clip, as it’s looping, and it loops perfectly at the end – awesome! However, this only works for MIDI, overdub doesn’t seem to work for audio. So if you’re a guitarist then you’re going to have to get a footswitch or something in order to map to start/stop recording in a clip – or at least I think that’s possible, and I’ll no doubt be working that out for a performance improvisation video.

Summing up

Bitwig has an awful lot going for it. As a DAW it appears to have everything you need and a level of integration and work flow to rival the likes of Studio One. The performance element is very powerful and the way that integrates with the DAW side is something I’ve never seen before. The possibilities for sound design, creation and noise making in the devices panel is enormous with the way devices can connect, nest and control one another. Bitwig only comes with two synths and organ and a sampler which isn’t particularly generous but you do get masses of library content. I would like to see devices evolve into larger, more accessible GUIs and to allow easier control and mapping over VST instruments. The editing of notes, automation and audio is excellent and feels very competent. The mixer is perhaps underdeveloped and it really needs to let you enlarge the faders. The Clip launcher and performance side offers amazing amounts of creativity and I am looking forward to using it in live performance with my existing tracks brought in from Live as well as producing new projects – it’s excited me more than enough to want to move from Ableton. There are some causes of anxiousness that I think could be cleared up really easily with some better indications of what’s going on and I think a bit more flexibility on track size would be very welcome.

At this point I’m thinking it’s a very capable DAW that could honestly run rings around Ableton Live. The way things fit together – the flow from arrange, to clips, the automation and device chains make for a very coherent and powerfully creative environment and I am very much looking forward to making some music with it and getting into the performance side.

Right – now we know the basics I’m going to wander over to my Surface Pro 3 and see if we can get a handle on what Bitwig have done with touch and the Surface pen.

For Part 2 of this review, all about the multi-touch please head over the SurfaceProAudio.com blog: http://surfaceproaudio.com/bitwig-studio-1-3-review-part-2-multi-touch/