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Review: Bitwig Studio 3

Markkus Rovito

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Now more than five years old, the little DAW that could presents The Grid, the big modular synthesizer that does…everything.

Major DAW updates don’t often take the form of a comprehensive modular sound-design environment, especially one that lets you build any modular synth patch or effects device you can imagine, no matter how sprawling and convoluted. But then, Bitwig Studio has neverbeen your average DAW.

Throughout its first five years of development, Bitwig Studio established itself as a playground for electronic music tweakheads. Although it’s ripe for musical experimentation, it offers a clean, flexible workflow and a highly customizable, informative interface. Its Modulator system lets you easily add 32 modulator types to instrument and effects devices and assign them to almost any plug-in parameter. It also supplies devices for integrating external CV/Gate and MIDI gear. If you love hardware and modular synths, Bitwig Studio may be your DAW spiritual ally incarnate.

Studio 3’s 154-module synthesis workshop is called The Grid, and it fits right into Bitwig’s company ethos. It’s the most ambitious synth/effects creation scheme I know that’s integrated into a DAW’s standard features. The Grid can launch a beginner’s modular adventure or keep experts as busy and challenged as they like.

Bitwig Studio 3’s flexible interface, here showing the Clip Launcher and Arranger Timeline both in the main window, with the Device panel along the bottom.

Besides The Grid and its accompanying devices and presets, Bitwig Studio 3 adds a few new interface elements and visual enhancements, behind-the-scenes audio engine work to improve the timing on all computing platforms, and support for the Ableton Link v3 synchronization standard.

To me, that latter item means more than just another bullet point on a feature list. While many view Bitwig Studio as an alternative to the industry standard for electronic music, Ableton Live, I think it’s now also embracing a position as the best DAW to try when you already have a primary DAW. Supporting Ableton Link—as well as the 3rd-party Jack standard for inter-app audio and MIDI routing—shows that Bitwig wants to play well with others. Detractors may point to Bitwig Studio’s continuing lack of AU and ReWire support, but it seems to me that making this major update all about The Grid means that Bitwig will continue to pursue its passions and develop the DAW’s unique character rather than trying to be all DAW things to all DAW users.

Enter The Grid

Even though modular synthesizers are almost 60 years old, they’re the hot trend in music tech right now, in part because manufacturing advances have allowed many boutique hardware shops to get into the game with “affordable” modules. However, even a modest Eurorack system can set you back a couple grand. That’s a big investment to make before you really know if you even enjoy patching cables to make a single synth voice. Beginners barely know where to start, let alone which few modules out of the hundreds available are the ones they want. 

Hardware modular synths have an undeniable and inimitable appeal, but software modular systems provide a truly affordable option that lets you learn the game while working with nearly every type of module. And Bitwig Studio’s Grid has its own unique advantages, as well.

A Poly Grid and FX Grid Device chain, with The Grid’s expanded Device view in the main window.

For starters, The Grid mimics some aspects of a hardware system, but it is not a wholesale emulation of hardware design like some other software options. The Grid simplifies certain aspects of the module design. Its modules look and behave like other Bitwig Devices, including their ability to be a part of larger instrument and effects Device chains or nested Devices with other Bitwig and third-party plug-ins. You can also automate The Grid’s module parameters in a track like you do with standard plug-ins. 

The Grid environment takes over the main viewing area of Bitwig Studio. Alternatively, you can break it out into its own window. The Module Palette at the top has 16 categories of devices, and 154 total devices so far. It’s an almost dizzying array of options: oscillators, envelopes, filters, LFOs, mixers, data modules (gates, steps, etc.), pitch and level tools, I/O modules (sidechain, CV, etc.), distortions, display modules (oscilloscope, VU meter, etc.), and many others that have to do with probabilities, values, and randomization. Every Grid signal is a stereo signal, so you also get a variety of modules for splitting or merging stereo signals, creating independent levels for the left and right channels, and so on.

It’s easy to begin dragging modules into the space and making connections. In fact, you can drag a module onto another module’s output, or between two connected modules, and The Grid hooks them right up for you. There’s even a certain amount of pre-cordinggoing on. That refers to some basic connections that are much more likely to be made than not, such as the Gate In to an envelope or a Pitch In to an oscillator. The Grid modules pre-cord those connections to simplify things, although experienced users can simply toggle them off if desired.

The Grid Device view broken out into its own window.

Building Zone

The default setting of the Poly Grid device, the basic jumping off point for a Grid instrument, comes with three simple modules—an oscillator, envelope, and audio output—connected so you can play it immediately from a MIDI controller. From there, The Grid is at your command.

I understand synthesis well from many years of using different types of digital and analog synthesizers. However, I had only ever done some simple patching of semi-modular synths. Regardless, within about ten minutes of exploration, I built a 4-oscillator polyphonic synth patch that I was happy with for lead sounds or making chords with character. I used triangle, pulse, and sine oscillators, adjusted their waveshapes to taste, and ran them through a mixer into an amp envelope and then into a lowpass filter. I then added a filter envelope modulating the filter cutoff. 

Next I dropped an LFO into The Grid, unconnected at first. Like many of Bitwig’s standard Devices, certain Grid Modules have a blue Modulator button for making “wireless” connections to parameters that don’t have their own patch inputs. It works the same as other Devices: You click the Modulator, and the parameters available for modulating are highlighted. You then click and drag on parameters to create their modulation range, and click the Modulator again to exit. If you hover over the Modulator, The Grid highlights the parameters assigned to it and shows their modulation range. 

In the Inspector Panel on the interface’s left side, I set the Voices (polyphony) to 4 and the Voice Stacking to 3. That means the synth can play up to four notes at a time, each note with three voices playing together for a total of 12 active voices. With Bitwig’s Voice Stacking, you can set any parameter to vary per stacked voice. Of course, the more active voices you use, then the higher the CPU load. 

To add a final percussive impact to the patch’s attack, I used a clap sample in a Sampler module as the fourth oscillator. This module is like a mini version of Bitwig’s Sampler Device, which lets you use any audio content within The Grid’s environment. (You can also use an external audio input as a Grid oscillator.) Lastly, I added another Mixer to combine the synth oscillators with the Sampler, and that was that. 

I made a slew of other Poly Grid patches with varying degrees of success, but that first example demonstrates how quickly and creatively you can build your own sounds, which you can save to your library for reuse. That first patch barely scratched the surface of what The Grid can do, but it’s kind of like when people say food tastes better if you cook it yourself. I don’t think it’s literally true, but you get a sense of accomplishment to making something from scratch, and every time you do it is an opportunity to learn something new. 

The Grid’s Interactive Module Help windows explain each module’s functions.

If you’re just starting or wanting to experiment with new things, Bitwig has some built-in helpers. Ports and cables are color-coded by connection type, the Window Footer displays parameter information as the cursor hovers over each one, and the Inspector Panel shows an oscilloscope view for each of the module’s in and out signals. Click Show Help in the Inspector to bring up the Interactive Module Help window, a super-informative graphic with every key feature of a module labeled.

Plug-in Play Modular

When learning something new, it also helps to imitate and copy the experts. Whether you want to learn modular synthesis by example or just want some great sounds and effects for your project, the Poly Grid and FX Grid preset libraries contain some fantastic fodder. Poly Grid supplies nearly 200 presets—everything from singular drum hits, like synth hi-hats and toms, all the way to the burbling, gurgling, self-oscillating software version of the Epoch Modular Benjolin hardware. 

The sprawling, museum-installation-style Benjolin Poly Grid presets mimic the hardware of the same name.

The software gives you gorgeous, slowly evolving pads, funky arpeggios, ghostly drone leads, randomized bloops, and so much more. I was hitting the Favorite button in the library view almost more often than not. Your favorite presets will make great jumping off points for your embellishments, creations, or educational discoveries. But whether or not you lean on these presets, they show off just how versatile The Grid is and just how amazing it sounds. This initial selection of content makes Poly Grid a powerhouse synthesizer right out of the box, and it bodes well for the amount of factory- or community-generated material that may be coming once Bitwig Studio 3 percolates through the synthesis world. 

The CPU load is substantial on some of these patches. The complicated Boltzmann Brain patch had my audio crackling under the strain of 12 voices (two notes at six voices per note).

For audio effects, the FX Grid device can create polyphonic effects with voice management, self-contained noisemakers that don’t require a note input, and simpler effects as well. The library includes 33 presets comprising compressors, filters, delays, distortions, and other effects, many of them with multiband processing.

Juice Worth the Squeeze?

For anyone who will make full use of the creative power of The Grid, Bitwig Studio 3 presents one of the most intriguing and comprehensive software modular synthesis systems available, with the added advantage that its modular devices fold into the DAW’s existing device chain and track automation features. Even if you don’t do much programming in The Grid, it’s still one of the most compelling synthesizers packaged into a DAW. 

While I don’t mind that the focus of this update was on synthesis, the software does need some updated support for newer MIDI controllers. Very few controller scripts have been updated in almost two years.

Whether this upgrade will be worth your money to purchase it outright or as an upgrade is an extremely subjective decision based on individual desires. I’ve seen it written that Bitwig Studio 3 is a free update to registered users, but that’s not accurate. All Bitwig Studio updates are free if you have an active upgrade plan, which lasts 12 months. When you purchase Bitwig Studio new ($399), you get 12 months of free upgrades. After that expires, you can purchase another 12-month upgrade plan ($169). In Bitwig’s short history, a couple minor but significant upgrades each year have been available, with major updates taking from two to three years. To be clear, it’s not a subscription, in which you lose access to the program if the subscription lapses. You can let your upgrade plan expire and still use the software; you’ll just have to renew your plan to get upgrades after 12 months. 

As luck would have it, just as I wrapped up this review, Reason Studios (formerly Propellerhead) announced that the otherother DAW for electronic music producers, Reason 11, will make its Reason Rack available as a plug-in for using within host software when it’s released later in September 2019. That’s an attractive offer, and I wonder if Bitwig will make The Grid available as plug-in later down the road. 

But while Reason likes to boast about the modular-style patching between devices in its Rack, Reason and Bitwig Studio 3 are quite different in the end. Reason does not offer from-scratch creation of modular synths and effects the way Bitwig’s Grid does, and Bitwig’s interface and workflow are unique. 

Bitwig Studio’s side-by-side Clip Launcher and Arranger Timeline with drag-and-drop between the two does wonders for productivity. With the addition of The Grid to Bitwig’s already one-of-a-kind ubiquitous modulation system, the program is a wellspring of possibility for adventurous musicians and producers. This software has a way of capturing the hearts of those who try it. The harder trick may be getting them to try it.

Website:bitwig.com

Supported platforms:Mac/Win/Linux (VST 2.4 and VST3)

Price: $399; $169 for a 12-month upgrade plan; free with an active upgrade plan

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