Bitwig Studio is a DAW that caused a stir some years back with rumors of being able to challenge Ableton Live’s workflow. The software has been in a beta phase for the past two years, but is finally ready to be released on March 26th. Dominik Wilms is their Technical Support Manager, and took the time to talk to me about the new DAW at this year’s NAMM show.
Hi Dominik. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your audio background?
Sure. I started off using trackers in the 90s, and later moved on to work with the first version of Cubase and Atari ST to make my music. After that, I was a Logic-head for nearly ten years. Then Ableton Live 4 came out, and I was very much into the MIDI features it had, so I worked with Live from that point on. I also worked at Ableton Inc for eight years, managing their support team and helping the Ableton users with technical issues. So I was able to develop a pretty clear picture of how a DAW should work during this time.
Personally, I like to make club music, and used to be into acid house back in the day. I still spin records in Berlin when I have the time, as well as releasing my own house/tech-house music.
I joined Bitwig two years ago, when the product was already in the making.
Can you tell me about your current job at Bitwig?
I’m the Technical Support Manager, as well as the one who manages our beta phase. We’re still a party of eight people, with a lot positions that aren’t officially filled, which everyone helps out with. So I pitch in on almost everything that doesn’t have to do with coding.
If I may ask, why has Bitwig Studio taken so long to be released following the initial announcement two years ago?
Well, Bitwig Studio was coded from scratch, yet it took us the same amount of time to finish as it did for Logic’s to update from version 9 to 10, or for Ableton to upgrade from 8 to 9, so the time period is subjective. People were a bit impatient because they felt that the beta phase was long, but it’s not like we only had to add new features to an existing product, or do a short beta phase for a version upgrade. We started beta testing when the product wasn’t even complete, simply because we wanted to test its core features. You couldn’t even make full tracks when the beta phase began; we could only run tests on the modular system. Then we extended the beta to more people as we went along.
One of my jobs was to look at the weekly amount of reports that came in, and decide whether or not to extend the beta period. If the report rate started to decrease, we had to send out more beta invites. There’s no sense in having a beta group of 50,000 when we’re such a small company, because then we end up with 40,000+ similar reports on all the software bugs. We wouldn’t be able to answer all of them, and the testers who weren’t answered probably won’t be motivated to report anymore. So it hasn’t been that long, but if you’re always waiting on something to come, it feels longer than it actually is.
How did the beta testing go?
It was great. The smaller the team is, the quicker we can react to things. We don’t have a big hierarchy that we have to go through, or do meetings with different departments. Things happened very quickly with just eight people.
How would you describe Bitwig Studio to someone who doesn’t know what it is?
I would call it “the next generation of music-creation software”. Currently, our emphasis is slightly more on music creation and sound design, rather than purely tracking for big studios. It’s like cherry-picking the best features from the last twenty years of audio sequencer history. Some of us at Bitwig been have sequencer geeks since we were teenagers, so it’s cool to take all these concepts, put them in bucket and say “Which one of them can we improve upon? “. It’s also important to remember that some DAW features don’t need to be changed. For example, if you look at the MPC drum pad layout on a sampler, there isn’t much to improve there; it would be like reinventing the wheel. But other things like Bitwig Studio’s sandbox feature, which ensures that the host DAW doesn’t crash when a plugin does, are really innovative aspects that we thought could be added.
What kind of integration will there be for Bitwig Studio and the MIDI controllers that are on the market? Do you guys have any custom ones?
We’ve incorporated Java Script API into Bitwig so that you can make any controller work with the software as you want. For example, the Novation Launchpad can be turned into a step-sequencer, similar to the Roland drum machines. After all, the only thing a controller does is send out MIDI information. So for example, you can use your controller for VU metering by having the Java script can observe the volume of a track and send the information to the Launchpad buttons, which would light up to show your levels. Or you can use your controller as a clip launcher. All of this possible because of the Java Script. People can even read through our scripts, modify them or use them as inspiration for their own creations.
We don’t have any controllers that are built specifically for Bitwig at the moment. It wouldn’t make much sense for companies like Akai to build custom Bitwig controllers, since we’re just about to launch our DAW and don’t have a single paying user. That could happen once we’ve grown. However, the Panorama keyboard from Nektartech works very well with Bitwig Studio. They did an amazing job of scripting their keyboards for Bitwig, so that it feels as though they were custom built for it. You can see our synth preset names on their displays, and you can do automation in the program from it. Interestingly, that keyboard was built for Propellerhead Reason, but it works just as well with Bitwig.
Tell me about your native VST Instruments.
Bitwig VSTs are significant in terms of our modular system. We wanted to provide people with tools to build great things. Claes Johanson, who was the main developer of Vember Audio‘s Surge synth, is also one of our main developers. The same oscillators used in Surge are the ones we have in our Polysynth instrument. It sounds great, and you’ll be able to build your own synthesizers with those oscillators in version 2.0. We didn’t want to have multiple synthesizers that don’t sound good, so we chose to make only a few that are of high quality.
Overall, there are 50 devices and effects in total. We have the Polysynth, an FM Synth, and even a little drawbar organ, among other things. Personally, I really like our drum synths, which are modeled after old analog drum machines.
Bitwig Studio very quickly drew comparisons to Ableton Live when it was first announced. Do you think the public will be able to see past those comparisons to discover what makes the programs different?
People will definitely feel the difference between Bitwig and Ableton when they use it. When they had only seen the screenshots, people thought it was some kind of copy of Ableton Live. But if you look Cubase, Logic, Cakewalk, Pro Tools or any sequencer made in the last twenty years, they all look similar in a screenshot due to the linear workflow. I think it would be wrong to leave out the non-linear workflow that Ableton pioneered. Ableton Live has been out for fifteen years, and I’m a frankly bit surprised that no other company has successfully done things like that as well. Some people tried to, but unfortunately they didn’t get it right.
I don’t think you’ll mistake it for an Ableton-clone when you use it because the difference lies in the workflow. You can make any piece of music in any program, since they have more or less the same features. The problem is that many DAWs are missing an intuitive factor that lets you have fun with it and work quickly. Back in the MPC days, you just threw in your samples and jammed with the machine. That’s missing form today’s sequencer programs. Using a modern DAW cane feel like using a Microsoft Office package, where you have to know what you want to do before you open it, instead of getting inspired by the tools. So we tried to take some of Ableton’s concept, mix them with our ideas, and aimed to do things better.
What do you think about Bitwig’s chances to make progress in today’s saturated DAW market?
We wouldn’t do it unless we thought there was a chance. I’m already surprised about the amount of feedback that we’ve gotten, and how high the interest is. Given that this is the very first version of our DAW, we’ve had to be outspoken and active in our promotions. When a popular company like Apple puts out a product, they already have marketing channels and distributions outlets that they’ve built up over the years, so they can work in silence until they’re ready to release their products, and then have the benefit of other parties that will help market it for them – we couldn’t do that. We have to set up all our distribution channels and have them announce our product to their customers, otherwise people wouldn’t know about us or take us seriously. So I think we have a good chance of success.
The price of Bitwig Studio has been revealed as $399. What made you guys settle on that price point?
There’s a lot of factors that go into that. We have to pay our staff, as well as our investors. We also have to be competitive with the other sequencers on the market. I’m a technical guy who doesn’t handle those kinds of calculations for the company, as that kind of thing is an art in itself. But if I were to speak from a user’s perspective, I think that all the features included in Bitwig Studio makes $399 a very fair price.
The only thing that challenged us in setting the price was that Apple are able to sell Logic for $199, since they bought the original Emagic developers in 2002. It’s not possible for a company to develop an audio sequencer from scratch, and then sell it at that $199. Apple are only do that because they’re mainly a hardware company, and can incorporate Logic into their hardware sales. So if you don’t think about it that way, it might seem weird that Bitwig Studio costs twice as much. But like I said, you can’t develop a product like this at a cheap price unless you have big company like Apple that can finance it through other sales.
That’s understandable. Rounding up, can you tell me what to expect in the next upgrade to Bitwig Studio? Will version 2.0 have any interesting features?
Our network collaboration feature will be very interesting. Working with other people over the Internet on the same song is great, but I don’t think it’s the most essential thing when it comes to collaboration. Cool music is made in a room with other people, and you should be able to see someone’s facial expression change as you play new things or change a part in a song. The problem is that when people meet up to make music together on different computers, they have to sync them up using MIDI clocks, like in the 80s. Then they use mixing desks to connect all of the audio between them. It makes no sense at all. I think it’s way more practical to use Bitwig Studio to connect all the participating computers, using your home network, and then have one of those computers be connected to your speakers. That computer would also have it’s audio engine turned on, which allows it to output sound through the speakers. All the other laptops would then turn their audio engines off, since you don’t need audio from more than one computer in the room, and the others can then be used as editing stations for that audio project within Bitwig. This makes it possible for multiple people to work on the same project simultaneously in the same room. Even if you were to work on a project from a different city or country, the same technology is applied. In this case, all the involved computers can activate their respective audio engines wherever they are. Also, since the transport wouldn’t be synced in this scenario, every one can work separately on the same project.
People think a lot about these kinds of things, and that’s why we think it has a place in today’s market.