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 make music with the first version of Cubase and Atari ST. I became a Logic-head after that for about ten years until Ableton Live 4 came out with some interesting MIDI features and caused me to switch DAWs. I also worked at Ableton for eight years, managing their support team and helping the Ableton users with technical issues. So I was able to develop a clear picture of how a DAW should work, and I joined Bitwig two years ago when the product was already in the making.
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.
– 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, so everyone helps out with different things. I pitch in on almost everything that doesn’t have to do with coding.
– Why has Bitwig Studio taken so long to be released following the initial announcement two years ago?
Bitwig Studio was coded from scratch, but 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 Live to upgrade from 8 to 9, so the time period is subjective. People were a bit impatient because they felt the beta phase was long, but it’s not like we were adding new features to an existing product, or doing a short beta phase for a version upgrade. We started beta testing when the product wasn’t even complete simply to test its core features. You couldn’t even make full tracks when the beta phase began, and 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 wouldn’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 and ask, “Which 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 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 you could use your controller for VU metering by having Java script observe the track volume 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 it feels like 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.
– Can you tell me about your native VST Instruments?
Sure. 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 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. People thought it was a copy of Ableton Live after seeing only screenshots, but if you look Cubase, Logic, Cakewalk or any sequencer made in the last twenty years, they all look similar in a screenshot due to the linear workflow. In terms of the Live comparisons, I think it would be a mistake for us 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 also don’t think people will mistake it for an Ableton clone because the differences lies in the workflow. You can make any piece of music in any program since they more or less have 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 can 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.
(Below: Bitwig Studio)
– What do you think about Bitwig’s chances to make progress in today’s saturated DAW market?
We wouldn’t release 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 in place, so they can work in silence until it’s time for a release because other parties will help with marketing – 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, but speaking from a user’s perspective, I think 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 sell it for $199. Apple are only able to do that because they’re mainly a hardware company that can incorporate Logic into their hardware sales. So unless you consider things from that perspective, it might seem weird that Bitwig costs twice as much. But as 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 of 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 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. They then 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 connect all the participating computers over your home network and then have one of those computers be connected to your speakers. That computer would have its audio engine turned on, allowing it to output sound through the speakers, whilst all other laptops would turn their audio engines off since you don’t need audio from more than one computer in the room. 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 when working 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.