Ableton Live vs Bitwig Studio – Which One is Better? (2021)
Ableton Live, which originally launched in 2001, has long been a top contender of DAWs centered on live performances and electronic music. But Bitwig Studio, headed by ex-Ableton International Sales Manager Placidus Schelbert, is the (relatively) new kid on the block seen as a serious rival to Ableton’s reign.
But does it have enough bite to dethrone the pack leader? Or can an old dog learn enough new tricks to stay at the top? We discuss this further in this article, going over the advantages and shortcomings of each compared to the other.
Interface – Ableton Live vs Bitwig
If you want to tailor a DAW for real-time usage on stage, you better make sure that the artist is presented with all the important functions within easy reach and fast access.
Ableton’s “Session View” was truly an innovation when they first introduced the clip-based player format (compared to the traditional “linear” Arrange View), but Bitwig Studio has a few neat new tricks up its sleeve.
Bitwig Studio has been designed from the ground up, keeping touch devices in mind. In an age when touch devices are rapidly being integrated into the live rigs of electronic artists, this is a big advantage.
This is not to say Ableton is clunky, much the opposite. However, it isn’t quite optimized for touch devices, though people who still swear by hardware controllers won’t have much of an issue with this.
Another thing that Bitwig has smartly included is inbuilt layouts supporting multi-screen setups for up to 3 screens. This is again a feature that is becoming more and more common in studios, and Bitwig’s relative nascence enabled it to be aware of this fact during development.
Ableton’s longevity, however, has given them enough time to refine and tweak their interface to be near perfect for live performance.
At this point, it’s a “don’t fix what isn’t not broken” situation for them, with Live being the choice for thousands of professional artists. Combine this with their rock-solid hardware integration, and they’ve got a live interface that would take something revolutionary to surpass.
Purely based on looks, I personally find Ableton’s cold, bland greys quite unappealing. Bitwig’s UI looks fresher and more inspiring, in my opinion, and individual FX UIs look sleeker. However, Ableton has the option to add custom themes and skins, a feature that is currently absent from Bitwig Studio.
Bitwig Studio indubitably borrows from Ableton’s Session View in their implementation of a clip-based launcher.
For the uninitiated, this view provides an interface optimized for live loop-based performances, where individual “clips” grouped into “scenes” can be triggered in real-time by a keyboard or MIDI controller.
Overall, Bitwig does quite a bit to match Ableton Live’s real-time performance abilities, but I’m not quite sure that it surpasses them decisively enough to compel a Live enthusiast to make the switch just yet.
Workflow and Editing
Bitwig Studio adds some fresh concepts to make the creative flow easier and more inspiring with some nifty features that quickly become timesavers.
The ability to have multiple project tabs open is a welcome feature that Ableton currently lacks, and it makes transferring items and FX chains between projects a breeze.
Ableton Live does, however, allow you to use tracks from other projects without opening them by using its Browser system, though this doesn’t fully compensate for the ability to open multiple projects simultaneously.
Bitwig scores another winner in their introduction of Hybrid Tracks: tracks that can contain both audio and MIDI information simultaneously. This is then enhanced by their “bounce in place” function for each clip which adds a layer of flexibility compared to Live’s Freeze function, which only works on full tracks.
Furthermore, Bitwig Studio has come up with the concept of having two Detail Editor views, which enable you to view and edit an individual clip along with the full track the clip is part of simultaneously. The sophisticated Layered Editing in Bitwig also allows you to edit multiple audio or MIDI layers together, which is super useful for mixing and matching clips between layers or making broad changes to multiple tracks at once. Ableton doesn’t yet allow such detailed multi-clip editing.
In terms of arrangement-related workflow and features, Bitwig introduces some fresh concepts that become instant favorites and make Ableton’s editing flow look a tad out of touch.
Ableton’s audio to midi feature still reigns supreme. Ask any user, and they’ll tell you how it saves countless hours in trying to transform raw ideas and recordings into something concrete and flexible. The Groove Extraction tool and Groove Pool features make it a breeze to transform audio or MIDI instantly. Bitwig Studio does not match the power of Ableton Live in this regard.
Bitwig Studio does, however, score points for supporting the cutting-edge MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) standard, something that Ableton surprisingly still lacks. Essentially, this standard enables multidimensional MIDI controllers like ROLI Seaboard or Linnstrument to assign individual MIDI channels to each note so that effects like pitch bend and more can be applied on a per-note basis instead of all the notes being played together like with traditional single-channel MIDI controllers. Workarounds exist to use this with Ableton, but the lack of native support is a caveat that must be noted.
Modulation and FX
One of Bitwig’s most praised features is its incredible modulation engine. Though Ableton’s modulation capabilities are not to be sneered at either, Bitwig trumps Live on the sheer number of features alone. With more than 30 modulation and audio warp effects at your disposal, Bitwig packs material for hours, if not days of fun and creative exploration.
For audio FX, however, Ableton’s implantations seem more mature and get fast results. It features excellent compressors and EQs that make me seldom reach for third-party plugins. With a decade more of development behind it, Live also has way more effects in its arsenal. They are also very CPU efficient.
Bitwig Studio gains a point, however, for their excellent implementation of “plugin sandboxing” which ensures that if a plugin crashes, the crash remains contained to the plugin itself and doesn’t crash the entire program and session.
Though Ableton features a robust project recovery system, session crashes because of faulty plugin behavior have long plagued its users.
Instruments and libraries
Ableton’s massive 70GB+ library (in its Suite edition) towers over Bitwig’s comparatively smaller collection. However, Bitwig is relatively new, and its collection is constantly being expanded. Both feature powerful samplers and nice sounding instruments, though Ableton’s size and versatility on display are superior.
Ableton’s Max For Live vs Bitwig’s The Grid
The real point of competition lies, however, in each DAW’s version of a massive, completely customizable modular design system: Ableton’s Max For Live vs Bitwig’s The Grid.
Both are essentially modular sound design environments, where users can build devices, instruments, and effects right from scratch by mixing and chaining components. A device could be a simple modulator or a full-fledged complex synth, depending on what the user wants to achieve. Both also feature the ability to share designs from an internet database for seamless user collaboration and exchange.
Ableton’s Max For Live has been around for longer and has a huge existing database. It is also massively powerful.
It must be noted, however, that it is only available in Live’s Suite edition, which costs almost twice as much as Bitwig’s full version. Also, M4L is a separate environment of its own, not quite as tightly integrated into Live as desirable, though improvements have been made in this direction in the latest update.
In comparison, Bitwig’s The Grid is less complex and powerful than M4L but is better integrated to work inside of Bitwig Studio. This might be a good thing for users who want to leverage the advantages of a collaborative modular system without deep-diving into the minutiae of synthesis itself.
Hardware controller support
Owing to Ableton’s longer lifetime and immense popularity, it boasts a list of supported hardware controllers far longer than Bitwig Studio’s. Furthermore, a lot of brands like Akai and Ableton themselves manufacture hardware controllers like the APC series and Push 2 specifically designed to integrate with Ableton Live and seamlessly transfer the software’s experience to hardware.
Bitwig Studio’s Open Controller API does enable a lot of these controllers to also work with Bitwig, and the list of supported devices is expected to increase in the future, but currently, Ableton’s level of integration and dedicated support is unmatched.
Ableton still enjoys a significantly larger market share, but its fully-featured version is more expensive than the price of Bitwig’s. On the other hand, Bitwig offer only 1 year of free updates as part of their plan, whereas Ableton Live include minor updates for free after this time. However, don’t be put off by either of these, once you buy the initial DAW, upgrades to new major versions of the DAW are relatively affordable for both of these when we think are thinking in the long run.
Ableton Live (Intro, Standard, Suite)
Ableton Live comes in three editions: Intro, Standard, and Suite. The Intro version is very limited and contains the bare essentials. The Standard and Suite editions share common features, with Suite having more of each feature and a significantly larger soundbank.
Most importantly, Ableton’s flagship Max For Live is only available in the Suite edition. Upgrades between incremental updates of a major version (e.g., 11.1 to 11.2) are free, but upgrades across editions and major versions (e.g., Standard to Suite or Live 10 to Live 11) are paid.
Bitwig Studio offers two editions: Bitwig Studio 16-track and Bitwig Studio (Full). Similar to Ableton’s Intro, the 16-track version is limited to mostly just essentials. The full version contains an unlocked feature set and the aforementioned The Grid modular environment.
Bitwig’s provides 12 months of free updates in their pricing plan. The user is entitled to all updates and upgrades released in that time frame. Users can still keep using the older versions of the software in case they choose not to renew.
Some may view this as quite a limited update plan, however, by comparison, Ableton Live 11 was released around 3 years after Ableton Live 10. That’s a major update that comes at a cost for users to upgrade.
Ableton’s larger and established user base means that there is also much more available in the way of resources, tutorials, presets, and collaborative materials available for it, but Bitwig is rapidly developing a dedicated community around it, providing support and creative opportunities.
Ultimately, it comes down to your intended usage, preferred budget, and payment mode to decide between these two stellar programs. Bitwig Studio is sleek, modern, and boasts innovations that boost workflow and creativity. However, Ableton Live is an established giant for a reason and is likely to remain a staple for professionals for some time to come.