Everybody that I’ve talked to in the Ableton scene seems to have an opinion about Bitwig, and a few have asked me to opine…so opine I shall!
The first thing that most people note about Bitwig is its similarity to Ableton. And indeed, this seems to be explained by the fact that the folks that developed Bitwig used to work at Ableton; as if that’s a real justification. That’s like saying that, since I know how to make pancakes, I should just make pancakes for every meal. I mean, I do that, but for religious reasons.
And Bitwig is almost eerily similar to Ableton, I don’t see any major feature differences at all, except for one thing: The UI of Bitwig is perhaps even drearier than Ableton’s. This is surprising to me, since it seems like you would make a virtual copy of a piece of software in order to improve upon it, not to exaggerate its failings. In fact the differences between the UI of the two pieces of software seem to be totally capricious; the doings of a few developers’ personal preferences. The browser is on the other side of the screen! “Session” view is called “Mixer” view! The arrangement view has its own clip launcher!
Now, that is not to say that I think that these are all bad changes. In fact, I think that a lot of them will be interesting. But I wonder, on what basis were they made? I’m not totally certain that compounding more information onto the screen or having pet features is going to make a significantly better workflow than Ableton’s. One of the major challenges of design is to intelligently ignore your audience. I’m not saying that software designers shouldn’t address their users’ needs, but they shouldn’t just throw in a new feature whenever someone on a forum complains that the color of the knobs doesn’t match their drapes.
But features and design are only two points on which a product can compete. They can also compete on price and on performance (note: I am distinguishing performance from features here because there’s a huge difference between saying your software does something and that thing actually happening in such a hostile environment as digital signal processing). On price, I think that, if Bitwig were a couple hundred dollars less than Ableton, it could stand a chance at competing. Ableton is slightly too expensive, given market trends (IMO). I also think that Ableton can be beat on performance. The holy grail of live performance/DAW hybrids is stability, something which Ableton often has trouble reconciling with feature creep. I myself would sacrifice 1/3 of the features of Ableton for total stability. And by that, I don’t mean some weird configuration recommended by some Ableton forum necromancer (Turn your Wifi off at sunset, restart in VMware, wear a foil hat). I mean a piece of software that is stable on all operating systems, running concurrently with most conventional software. All the time.
There is, however, one feature which I find geniunely exciting in Bitwig: Layer editing, a feature that , seems to take cues from the layers in Photoshop or Illustrator.. Layer editing allows you to edit several clips simultaneously, viewing them superimposed on one another. This seems like it could solve one of my genuine Ableton workflow bottlenecks, since I often have elements of the same “pattern” (drums, melody, etc.) in different clips. And right now, it is difficult to reconcile them. I either have to toggle between clips (crappy), or copy and paste them into Arrangement view and edit them there, only later to copy them back into Session. Clearly, neither of these is optimal. Layer Editing may be the answer.
I’m definitely interested in learning more about Bitwig, but I really hope that it emerges as more than just a “me-too” Ableton. Because if they’re not careful, the folks at Bitwig might just learn that they inherited Ableton’s drawbacks along with its benefits.