Bitwig Studio 1.3.5 digital audio workstation tested

Incredible

Article from Issue 185/2016
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Bitwig Studio 1.3.5, together with the JACK sound server, gives users the freedom to produce professional-quality tracks.

Three years ago, Bitwig [1] was a startup that promised to create a digital audio workstation (DAW) for Linux in the same ballpark as proprietary incumbents like Ableton Live or Steinberg Cubase. The Berlin-based company delivered on its promise with version 1.3 of the Bitwig Studio music production suite. I tested version 1.3.4, which has been available since November 2015 and found an application that has come of age with remarkably smooth Linux integration.

Version 1.3 of Bitwig Studio appeals even more resolutely to composers and producers of loop-oriented electronic music. Even the demo songs now include different styles in this range, from techno to more sophisticated pop music.

Installing Bitwig Studio requires you to register on the manufacturer's website [2], and you also need to do this to confirm the license. The Debian package is officially suitable for 64-bit Ubuntu, but you can also set it up on the parent distribution and its other derivatives. Using a tool like Alien, you can prepare the file for RPM distributions like openSUSE or Fedora. Updates within one program generation also work smoothly with the DEB; however, you won't find a 32-bit version.

Bitwig spares its clientele from USB dongles. The license check via online login can also be switched off in the customer profile on the Bitwig website using an offline registration for up to three computers. When started for the first time after installation, or after an upgrade, the manufacturer requires you to accept the license agreement again. A wizard then appears in which you can automatically download and install various additional packages (including gigabytes of samples).

The audio/MIDI configuration also appears at this point, during which you can create virtual ports (as required), which Bitwig displays as audio connectors in JACK. Studio automatically detects an active JACK server and also integrates active software ports as inputs/outputs. However, in testing, it turned out that JACK MIDI still doesn't work, although if you start JACK without the MIDI function, Bitwig will cooperate with the ALSA MIDI system (see the "MIDI" box).

MIDI

If you run Bitwig Studio in Linux with JACK, you'll notice that Bitwig doesn't support the MIDI sequencer incorporated in JACK. However, this shouldn't be too problematic because Bitwig works really well with ALSA MIDI. Unfortunately, Bitwig doesn't receive any signals from ALSA MIDI once the JACK MIDI server is running.

JACK users therefore need to disable the MIDI function when starting the sound server if they want Bitwig to process signals from a MIDI keyboard in the same session. Qjackctl has a button in the settings window where you can select None for the MIDI sequencer. You can do away with the corresponding Xseq or Xraw flags for starting JACK at the command line:

$ /usr/bin/jackd  -t1000 -dalsa -dhw:M2496 -r48000 -p128 -n2

Bitwig also works as a MIDI receiver with JACK in Linux if you use these settings. It worked perfectly with Edirol and Behringer USB keyboards during the test. Things didn't go quite so well for an Alesis drum pad on the sound card's MIDI port: Bitwig only received every third or fourth note that was played. The drum pad worked fine in all other software drums, such as Hydrogen or FluidSynth, but it was still unusable in Bitwig.

Studio only uses the ALSA MIDI system in a comparatively primitive manner: Although multiple programs can easily listen on the same port using the ALSA MIDI sequencer, Bitwig requires exclusive access. This means that all connected devices in Studio fail as soon as, for example, the very useful aseqdump tool is running.

Multitouch

The most important functions for controlling, mixing, and composing can be operated in Bitwig Studio 1.3 directly on a tablet's capacitive touch screen. The touch interface (Figure 1) works well in Linux and Windows, whereas only the basic functions are available in Mac OS X. Bitwig uses a Microsoft Surface Pro as a reference device, which also works very well in Linux. There aren't any Bitwig variants for Android or Apple's iOS, which answers the question about using the touch interface on such devices.

Figure 1: The tablet view shows large, complex Studio projects on the small touch screen for when you're out and about.

You can activate the special interface from the menu under Preferences | Displays | Display Profile: Tablet. All elements of the interface can also be operated by tapping the touch screens; however, Studio also accepts simultaneous input from multiple fingers. The program provides an additional overlay in this profile which, above all, places functions nice and large in the middle of the screen that would otherwise be too small to use with your finger.

Arranged

The main tool in Studio is the Arranger; it's a classic track editor that you can use to arrange any number of audio and MIDI tracks. You can even mix track types, such as creating MIDI regions on audio tracks. Signals from audio regions let MIDI instruments inserted in such a track pass unmodified, but you can control effects from both source types together or separately via the device FXs interfaces (Figure 2).

Figure 2: A MIDI region plays a drum kit in the sampler, then a few manual drum beats – both peacefully united in the same track.

The Studio Mix view proves to be very clear. An activated channel in the panel on the left shows various additional controls that you could miss when taking an initial look at the individual channel strips. You'll be able to manage the regulator more easily using suitable MIDI controllers than with the mouse (see the "Bitwig and Controller" box). You need to create corresponding tracks for group channels and sends, and their inputs should appear automatically in the Mix overview.

Bitwig and Controller

It is possible to control all parameters remotely in Bitwig Studio itself and all parameters from downloaded third-party plugins using MIDI devices. To assign a regulator on the controller to a parameter in a plugin via MIDI Learn, Studio (like Carla or Ardour) uses its own generic plugin interface in the form of a filterable list of encoders.

Right-clicking a controller opens a menu with the Map to Controller or Key entry. When this option is selected, a small animation on the selected controller displays that Studio is waiting for a signal from a connected controller. Once you press a key on the MIDI device or operate a controller, Bitwig connects the selected parameters with the controller currently in use (Figure 3).

This only works for permanently incorporated plugins. As long as the selection for browser plugins is open, it will run only in test mode, in which you can assign any controller. However, clicking OK in the selection browser is enough to incorporate the plugin permanently and thus switch on controller assignment. Bitwig also allows drive functions, including the speed controller, to be controlled remotely.

Figure 3: The LXVST VEX plugin provides three synthesizers in one. The search bar in its generic interface helps find all cutoff controllers from the three filters. You can assign several controllers to the same parameter, and vice versa.

The Clip Launcher matrix concept, which is unique in Linux, is located between the Mix and the Arranger views. This means you can play clips in loops on each track, which you can then organize in columns called scenes. The Clip Launcher can be integrated both in the Mix window via the channel strips or in the Arranger to the left of the tracks.

Clip Launcher Matrix

Because the Clip Launcher and Arranger implement two different concepts for the timing of a musical piece, only one of them can send and receive signals for each track. If you activate the Launcher by simply placing and starting a clip in one of the scenes, the entire playback automatically switches to the Launcher, and the Arranger switches to mute. Bitwig's logical – although not necessarily intuitive – solution for this is small buttons located directly above the controller in the Mix view and at the top right in the main window of the Launcher section (i.e., exactly between the Arrange view on the right and the last scene on the left).

The Clip Launcher's special feature is that each clip works as a loop of any length. This allows you to combine short rhythmic phrases intuitively with long instrumental solos or vocal lines and quickly and conveniently swap the components to try out different combinations. This is only possible with conventional linear tracks by investing in more preparation and having less flexibility. However, the Launcher lets you get closer to spontaneous music making.

In this complex context, you can add effects and plugins to recordings (see the "Bitwig Plugins" box) for instruments and effects. Bitwig Studio already contains a few hundred of the latter works; however, most of them are equivalent to presets for a basic set of about 20 instruments and effects. You can combine everything with everything: Effects and instruments have a plus symbol on their right edge that can be used to connect other modules directly. Bitwig lets you store such combinations together with presets as a new "device."

Bitwig Plugins

Bitwig supplies Studio with a complete set of software for generating and editing sound. Various combinations of modules and preset instruments and effects are based on the basic configuration. Sampler, FM-4, and Polysynth serve as standard tone generators. The synths' presets cover a wide range of interests. The Studio "Hammond organs" based on the sampler may not completely convince experienced organists, and it is not possible to adjust Polysynth in as much detail as large standalone synthesizers. However, the vast potential for modulating parameters and the use of effects certainly make it possible to produce creative sound generation at a professional level.

You can also use SoundFonts and multisamples in Bitwig. If you drag one of them into a track, Bitwig automatically implements it into a sampler. This way, you can edit the inherently rigid SoundFonts directly in the project. Much like the synths, the effects are rather simplistic. Ring modulator, Rotary, Flanger, and Chorus all sound more strong than subtle, but they can also be adjusted to be more reserved. Blur turned out to be more of a gimmick. The filters Comb, Filter, and Ladder are all part of Bitwig's modular synth concept (Figure 4). It is also possible to create a new synthesizer from such modules. Instead of a conventional oscillator, you just use a complete synthesizer.

The only effect to disappoint during the test was Reverb. Such a simply designed reverb device should sound a bit better. A convolution reverb could be an easy remedy, but there isn't one in the basic configuration. A disadvantage here is that Studio doesn't support the LV2 plugin standard: Not only does Bigwig not have a very useful convolution reverb like LV2, the guitar amp is also missing. However, the developers are planning native LV2 support for the second generation of Studio.

Very useful Equalizers and Dynamics modules round off the offering. The Peak Limiter shines thanks to a real-time display of its work in an illustrative representation of the signal wave. The equalizers also provide curve displays and work parametrically.

Figure 4: All samples and virtual devices can be dragged from the browser on the right by holding the mouse button. They can also be dragged onto the FXLayer effect container window, in which you can build your own modular effects and instruments.

The samples supplied take up most of the Bitwig installation, which is several gigabytes. If you don't need them, simply uninstall them when you first start Bitwig. You can also install additional sample collections during the initial configuration. Bitwig provides some variants from its own laboratory and various packages from popular commercial providers. It's possible to set the latter up for free – but only in a slimmed-down form (Figure 5).

Figure 5: The sample collections declared as "teasers" can be used in the same way as the full version despite the smaller size.

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