Interview: Bitwig Technical Support Manager – Dominik Wilms

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bitwig-logo-920x600For those of you who make music, the term "Bitwig Studio" may be a name that you vaguely remember from a few years back, when it caused a major stir due to being new audio workstation that would hit the market and possibly change the game with it's fascinating features. However, as years passed by, many wrote it off as being in stuck in permanent beta development limbo. Bad move. I  encourage you to pay attention, since it's coming out next month, and I had the chance to talk with the company behind it. Bitwig is a small company of individuals that have been putting the software through a beta phase over the past 2 years, and are now ready to unveil the fruits of their labor, which will be hitting the shelves on March 26th. Dominik Wilms is the Technical Support Manager  for the company, and took the time to talk about the new DAW and what it can do.

Hi Dom! I'm very excited to learn about Bitwig and it's new workstation. But before I delve into that, can you tell us a bit about yourself, and your audio background?

Sure. I started off using trackers in the 90's, and later moved on to work with the first version of Cubase, as well as the Atari, to make my music. After that, I was a Logic-head for nearly 10 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. During that time, I gained more experience in learning about what I wanted from audio software, by helping the Ableton users and artists with technical issues. So I was able to develop a pretty clear picture of what how a DAW should work.

Personally, I like to make club music. I used to be into acid house back in the day, and I still spin records in Berlin when I have the time, as well as releasing my own house/tech-house music.

I joined Bitwig 2 years ago, when the product was already in the making.

Thanks for the introduction! Moving on to talk about Bitwig, can you tell me what your current job at the company is?

I'm the Technical Support Manager, as well as the one who manages our beta phase. We're still a party of eight people, so there are still 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 solely coding.

Cool. I assume many people have asked you guys about this, but I also feel the need to ask why Bitwig Studio has taken so long to be released, following the initial announcement 2 years ago.

Well, Bitwig Studio was coded from scratch, and took as long for us to finish making it as it did for Logic's to update from version 9 to 10, or for Ableton to upgrade from 8 to 9. So it's all subjective. People were a bit impatient because they felt that the beta phase was so long. But it's not like we only had to add new features to an already-existing product and run a short beta phase with our user community, such as with a version upgrade. We started beta testing when the product wasn't even complete, simply because we wanted to test it's core features. You couldn't even make full tracks when the testing 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 come in to us, 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 you end up with 40,000+ similar reports on all the bugs in the software. We wouldn't be able to answer all of them, and the testers who aren't answered will probably not 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 was the beta testing? Did you feel that it was as productive as it should have been, or was it frustrating to deal with since Bitwig is made up of such a few number of people.

It was great. The smaller the team is, the quicker you can react to things. We don't have a big hierarchy that we have to go through, or do meetings with different departments. With eight people, things happened very quickly.

For someone who doesn't know what Bitwig Studio is, how would you describe it to them if they asked you about it?

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 20 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 and put them in bucket and say "Which one of them can we improve upon?". It's also important to remember that some things are great already. For example, if you look at the MPC layout for drum pads in a drum sampler, you can't improve much there. It would be like reinventing the wheel. But other technological 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.

Given the range of tools and functionalities that are present in Bitwig Studio, is there a chance that new, less expended users might get lost in the features? Do you think Bitwig Studio might scare away people who don't understand the technology yet?

No, I think it's the opposite. I've been a Logic-head for a long time, and if I were a kid who was getting into Logic for the first time, it would be overwhelming. It's such a big program now, with a lot of menus and functions. Since Bitwig started from scratch, we were able to make something that was very lean, like a Swiss army knife for music production that doesn't jump out at you like a Microsoft Office package. It's nice that people can use version 1.0 of this program and learn more as we continue to upgrade it. They can start by using our synthesizers and effects, and then in version 2.0, they'll be able to open them up and see the modular system that we used to make those devices. This way, they'll be able to grow with the program.

With regards to MIDI controllers, 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 TR drum machines. After all, the only thing  a controller does is send out MIDI information. So as an example, you can use your controller for VU metering in Bitwig. 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 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 the keyboards 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.

How does Bitwig stock up on virtual instruments? Is that a significant part of the program?

It's 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.

Have you had any opportunity to get feedback from any people within the artist community on Bitwig Studio?

We have artists as part of our beta group, but it doesn't really matter to us whether feedback comes from big names or bedroom producers. Sometimes, the bedroom producer have the best ideas because they use the software longer than the artists, and in more creative ways. Established artists might have settled for a certain type of workflow that they always use, and might not be open to trying it any other way. So for those that like the product, we listen to anyone who gives us feedback.

For many music-makers, the defining factor will be how to differentiate Bitwig Studio from Ableton Live. It very quickly drew comparisons to Live when it was first announced. Do you think the public will be able to see past those comparisons, and discover what makes the programs different?

People will definitely feel the difference between Bitwig and Ableton when they use it. When people had only seen the screenshots, they thought it was some kind of copy of Ableton Live. But at the same time, if you look at screenshoots of Cubase, Logic, Cakewalk, Pro Tools, or any sequencer that has been made within the last 20 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 15 years, and I'm a frankly bit surprised that no other company has done things like that as well. To be fair,  some people tried but 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. It's like using an Office package today, where you have to know what you want to do when you open it, instead of getting inspired by the tools. So we tried to take some of Ableton's concepts, and mix them with our ideas, and aimed to do things better.

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What do you think about Bitwig's chances to make progress in today's saturated market of audio sequencers? Do you think it will be a challenge to catch people's interest with it?

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 product, 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 set up all our distribution channels and have them announce our product to their customers. If we don't do things like, 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 decide to 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 had to be competitive with the other sequencers on the market.  Fortunately for me, I'm a technical guy, who doesn't handle those kinds of calculations for the company. 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 a audio sequencer from scratch, and then sell it at that price. Apple are only able to be so competitive because they are mainly a hardware company, and they 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 us a bit more about what we can expect in the next upgrade to Bitwig Studio, apart from the added modular features? 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 i thatt's the most essential thing when it comes to collaboration. Cool music is made in a room with other people. 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 Studio. 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 location, such as 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.

That sounds really exciting! After having heard all that, I'm excited to see how Bitwig Studio impacts the music world. Thanks for telling me more about it Dom. For any music-makers who are going to be getting Bitwig Studio next month, or just wants to keep up with the company, follow them on Facebook and Twitter, and watch Dom's presentation of the program below at the recent NAMM conference.

SamInterview: Bitwig Technical Support Manager – Dominik Wilms

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