Reviewed: BitWig Studio – The Ableton Beater?

Tech Reviews
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Music tech is a tribal place.

Much like the electronic music industry, it’s a world of all conquering megastars shouldered in amongst a healthy patchwork of fiercely independent entities all fighting for their own patch.

Much like the tech industry, a few key players increasingly dominate the market. Kudos, however to Logic Pro, Ableton, Maschine and, yep, I’m gonna say it, FL Studio for keeping a firm grip on the majority of both incoming and active producers out there – that’s been achieved in each instance through tireless, continual improvement, and ever-increasing ease-of-use.

That dominance has also been helped along by the increasingly powerful sub-industry that is production schools. Online tuition was an industry born for electronic music. Try googling “Ableton: How to-” or  Logic, or any of the above and you’ll find an extensive list of courses, videos, tips, all allowing a total novice to have a drum loop and melody rolling within hours of downloading (ahem, legally) software.

The only drawback of all of this is that it makes life incredibly challenging for smaller, emerging DAWs looking to enter the market. Established producers will be hard to seduce away from the evolved set-ups they’re already married and moved in with, whilst bedroom production first-timers, upon doing the obligatory friend-ask-around and some of their own homework, will surely gravitate to the most convenient.

It’s into this monarchical society that BitWig steps forward. First released quietly back in Spring 2014 to a small selection of positive reviews among the more niche production sites, Berlin-based BitWig have just announced the launch of Bitwig 1.1.1, with which it’d appear they’d now like to roll sleeves-up squarely into the mainstream DAW game. Retailing at approx £200, whilst we’d guess BitWigare keen to make waves in the bedroom producer market, the price – middle of the road for the DAWs – more than Logic, cheaper than Ableton & Maschine, suggests they’re not shy of being compared against the existing leaders. We’re intrigued.

Introduction & Appearance

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Like Ableton, only, not.

BitWiginstalls and loads reassuringly smoothly, and comes up with couple of gb worth of sample packs from Beatport, Sample Magic and Looploft to get the ball rolling. An early sign of things to come was the fact that it picked up Midi immediately from our old M-Audio 25 keyboard – a tripping point for a surprising amount of software we’ve been given in the past. The most striking thing you first notice about BitWig when you load it up however is that it looks quite a bit like Ableton, or more accurately a kind of remix of Ableton ft. Cubase. That’s until you start poking around. Unlike Ableton, BitWig has a range of screen layouts all accessible via keyboard shortcuts. Crucially, this means you can have session and arrangement views together simultaneously – something you can only do on Ableton by using multi screen views. There’s a range of buttons along the top and bottom of the screen that are both entirely intuitive and handle between them most of the housekeeping during the production process. Brilliantly, every number you see on display can be altered by dragging the mouse up and down, crucial for those “back at 4am, best melody idea EVER, why, how, how do I fix this bit here?” moments. Further, the combination arrangement/ session view also has the clips (or scenes) in horizontal order, which is that bit easier to get your head around than Ableton’s vertical / horizontal distinction. Other than that, alright, let’s be fair, next to Logic or Live it’s not going to be winning any awards for attractiveness. It is however very easy to read, and crucially, we got up and running without any instruction manual hints either – kudos to how intuitive BitWig’s set up is.

Making Tunes

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Here we go. So importing content is a total breeze – there’s a pop-in sidebar which maps out your hard-drive straight away. Samples are warped, but with a different, simplified “button and drag” way for modification. We suspect those of you deep into the likes of Live may find it simplistic. For us – we loved it. For fine tuning it may divide. For bouncing ideas around, this is stellar.

Sequencers and Samplers

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BitWig’s native kits are diverse but a bit thin, however their native drum machine and samplers are bang on the money. Dead simple to use,instantly communicative with midi and packed with intuitive bars, lights, mute and solo buttons. Having the split arrangement/  sequencing screen here really comes into its own when working out those tweaks too. We loaded up our favourite plug ins (including the glorious, but big, fat and processor-heavy REV) all of which worked without a single blink.

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Arranging

This is easily one of Bitwig’s major selling points. Arranging clips is even easier than the totally-straightforward Live. The split arrangement/session view means you’ll automatically find yourself tweaking on-the-go more so than you did before, and BitWig’s automatic detection and splitting up of different clips with different ‘behaviours’ (a 2 bar drum loop with different activities in bar 2, for instance) means pulling ideas between session, arrangement and back again becomes an incredibly fluid process.

FX

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As with arrangement, this to us, could be one of BitWig’s prize jewels. The in-house effects, especially reverb and compression are, like the sample editing, geared around efficient simplicity (and we’d do like the filtery, wobbly weirdness of Ladder). Meanwhile the integration of external VSTs is totally seamless – we’d argue faster to load and better bedded in than Live. Finally, rows of Midi lights, and a series of automatic colour coded tabs to help build up specific (Wet FX vs Dry, etc) stages within a single device chain mean very quickly you’ll become adventurous, building up all manner of strange and unusual takes on your sound that you perhaps wouldn’t normally be inclined to do.

Oh, and by the way, there are multiple tabs. That’s right. You can have several projects open, at once, on different tabs. So simple, and yet. Mind blown.

Overall

BitWig has weighed into arguably the toughest area of music-tech: DAWs. It would be easy to be tempted to go in purely as the simplest, as the most bedroom-producer-friendly. However, playing around with BitWig, two things become apparent. Firstly, it is indeed the most intuitive DAW we’ve come across in a long time. Looping, sampling, editing, sequencing, the whole thing is laid out to make life as easy as possible. It’s a natural choice for an emerging producer.

However, that brings in the second point. Clearly no small amount of time has been spent thinking through certain elements of this DAW. Awesome device racking. The session / arrangement go-between-ability. The simple-yet-ingenious clip editing. Yet for a £200 program, it’s native plug-ins are good, but not as shiny, as “come and play” as you’d expect for a beginner-focussed machine. In fact, we’d be tempted to look at BitWig’s philosophy as something entirely different. This could easily position itself as the most accessible DAW to those who have a highly evolved workflow set up and intend to stay that way. Serious producer? Have your arm-long-list of drum machines, heavily-preset reverb units and esoteric, blog-built synths? BitWig is a total, no-nonsense, straight out of the box platform that doesn’t ask you to work a certain way, or stick to a formula.

The Final Line: For beginners, this is one of the easiest to use bits of kit on the market. For experts – this is total no-nonsense flexibility, and a result, well worth a serious look.

We Love: Device racking, VST-ability, Session/arrangment views and multi-tab projects

We Love Less: It’s native VSTs are a bit on the basic side.

Ideal For: Either end. The total novice or the established, plug-in-loving pro.

Check out BitWig‘s official site here