They’re advertising it on TV as the trendy new device for making tunes anywhere. But Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 combined with Bitwig’s latest Studio software is revolutionising DAW control and the music-production experience. This really could be the future of music making…
So, Surface Pro 4 has caught our attention of late, we all know that touch technology is the future of music production, right? Okay, it was the future of music production a few years back, when Apple’s iOS technology hit home and everyone – and we mean everyone, us included – jumped on the touch bandwagon and rolled to the hills to make music with our new portable devices.
However, the future has an annoying habit of shifting slightly sideways as we step towards it, or in the case of interstellar space travel, simply constantly running away from us as we approach it (good on you, Stephen Hawking).
In music-production circles, no sooner had we all jumped on that iOS bandwagon, than along came lots of exciting hardware in all shapes and forms to ground us in back in a tactile reality – and some would argue to drag us backwards, but that’s another feature.
Don’t get us wrong, Apple’s touch technology has taken off big time and there are a gazillion great apps for doing many, many studio tasks. But for DAW music production – and that is, being very snobby, proper DAW production, as in the big ones: Pro Tools, Cubase, Logic, Live etc – the vast majority of us are still using laptops, desktops, tabletops and big monitors to make music.
Yes, there’s Gadget, yes, there’s Auria and yes, there are versions of those DAWs for iPad (Cubase being a brilliant example). But until Apple brings out a decent touch-screen Mac, or the iPad Pro starts using the latest desktop OS (which we can’t see happening – famous last words), then Logic touch control will be left up to third parties such as Steven Slate to deal with. Touch-screen MacBook Pros are rumoured, by the way, but aren’t they always?
Apple seems to be in bit of a quandary when it comes to Logic. Pro X is a relatively recent update, but to get a touch version right, we suspect that might mean mining deep into the vast strata of code the program must have, simply to reimplement it for the touch environment. A bit like opening the door of that house in The Amityville Horror…
So, music making has prospered on touch devices, of course it has, but there’s still a large chunk of the music-making crowd waiting for serious contenders on larger, more powerful devices. Microsoft and others have obviously been plugging away on their own touch tablets for years, but it’s only over the last few months that their hardware has been touted as a serious music tool – for two very good reasons.
The first is that the recent marketing for the Surface range has included direct references to music making, waking a lot of people up to the fact that it does it. The second? Well, that’s a company called Bitwig…
The Bitwig Connection
Of course, we all know Bitwig for its cross-platform, cross-styled and fully functional Studio Pro software that (arguably!) takes the best bits of other DAWs and presents them in an (arguably!) more logical way.
It’s a DAW that has won many fans, but it is also the newest DAW. And as music producers, the words ‘new DAW’ can fill us with terror. Do we really have to learn how to use another DAW, that most important weapon in our music-making cupboard? New DAWs have a tough job.
Why would anyone who has spent years bothering to learn and master Pro Tools, Logic, Live, Cubase, FL, Reaper, SONAR, Digital Performer, or any of the others, want to spend time learning, using and becoming an expert in another piece of music-production software?
Placidus Schelbert explains why Bitwig developed for the Surface platform
The answer is a reluctant ‘oh, go on, then’, if that new DAW has a killer feature, or one that the others maybe do, but it does it better. And in Bitwig’s case, one that you could put right there in front of Microsoft at Summer NAMM last year, when company director Placidus Schelbert gave a keynote speech on using Bitwig software with the (then) Surface Pro 3. “We were interested in the Surface as a device that combines different ways of input; you have the mouse, you have the pen, the trackpad, the keyboard, and you also have multi-touch. We were interested in this combination; how this combination could be used in a music-creation context.
It was very important for us that it runs the real Windows, because high- performance audio software needs the real thing.” This is a key line in the whole of this feature and why we have not seen DAW production dominated by touch technology (so far).
We admit that we might have sounded a little snobby back there when we said that no-one has done ‘proper DAW production’ by way of touch, but the simple fact is that you need the full-blown power of a desktop machine and operating system to do it properly.
Back to that Summer NAMM Keynote, and musician Thavius Beck then demo’d the then Surface Pro 3 with Bitwig Studio, using multi-touch to control parameters and its mixer. He then used the pen to change further parameters by pressure and suddenly, the world could see a proper DAW being used by proper multi-touch.
We must insert here that, of course, Surface Pro 3 (and the latest Surface Pro 4) use ‘real Windows’ as Placidus stated, so you can run any music DAW that runs on Windows on it and control it in a similar way.
So Live, Cubase and Pro Tools will run on it and you’ll also be able to control them in the same, or a very similar, way. But Bitwig were the first to kick the beast that is Microsoft into life on it – hence the recent TV ad campaign that features the software – and as we know, it often takes a huge company to advance something that a small company might have developed.
Bitwig also claims that it has adapted its interface completely for touch in v1.3 of the software, so that dials, faders and other controls are tailored to finger size. As we’ll see, the company has gone a lot further than even that, incorporating a completely new layer of touch and menus to make the whole experience of using its software with a tablet that much better (and different) from a desktop experience. More on that later. First, let’s look at the hardware…
Enter Surface Pro 4
The Surface Pro 4 is one of many PC tablets, of course, but as we’ve hinted, the first so obviously aimed at musicians. If you are fans of TV channel Dave, and in particular the show American Pickers (which is slightly giving away what we do of an evening), you won’t have failed to see music production and Bitwig Studio plastered all over your TV.
The Surface Pro is a PC, simple as that. It uses ‘real’ Windows, not a cut-down, mobile-friendly version. So whereas the iPad, iPhone and all variations of it are a ‘sort of Mac’ with iOS a ‘light’ version (if you like) of Mac OS to tailor for touch and mobility, Microsoft’s route to the concept was to pull its operating system into the world of that operating technology, rather than devise a whole new suite of hardware for it.
Our sage predictions for the future of music making a few years back have now come to pass – we’re living in the touch age
So underneath the all-new(ish) touch-block Windows resides that familiar old Windows we recognise from way back.
The file system is the same: the way programs install, the way windows open and a goodly proportion of the other workhorse stuff is the same; it’s just that it now exists behind a nice shell of easy-touch icons and wants to stay pretty much permanently connected to the internet (which you will probably give up and let it do as quickly as we did).
In doing so, it links your Microsoft worlds, so your Xbox, your Surface Pro 4, your Windows phone and your social-media worlds are all a touch away. Even your Hotmail account, which thankfully we still use, will fit in and open doors to the environment for you.
It is, of course, the ‘iWorld’ in PC form, and in that sense, it is quite lovely. Although to see some aspects of Windows not having moved on much since one particularly sore experience with one particularly bad PC DAW a decade ago is both amusing, shocking and comforting in equal measure.
1: Start with fairly standard touch features – Pinching audio (as shown), swiping with two fingers, tapping to add notes and tapping twice to delete…
2: Introducing the Radial Menu – In Edit Mode, tap with a finger (or, more delicately, the pen) and a Radial Menu of four options appears.
3: And Another One – Tap a note and hold to reveal the outer menu – best done with fingers, as you’ll need two…
4: The Arrange Mode – In the Arrange window, you get exactly the same menu, so you can swipe four ways to select parts, etc…
5: Hold a part – And again, the second menu appears on the outer ring, for adjusting part start and end points, plus looping.
6: Finally, the best use of multi-touch – Simple mixing! Adjust levels of your channels using more than one finger at a time. Easy.
Other Tablets are Also Available
We’ve focused on Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 here as, well, you could go on and on, testing endless models from different companies. Frankly, though, Microsoft is the company pushing the music-making side of these devices and the company’s entire range is capable and powerful enough to do just that, and is arguably the best on the market.
Having said that, they are among the most expensive and the other advantage of going the PC route is that there always seems to be someone doing it cheaper (try finding yourself a cheaper Apple without having to travel to the Far East for an exchange rate bargain). So, in no particular order, here are some alternative tablet companies and prices.
Where possible, we’ve tried to go with at least 4GB of RAM and 128GB hard drive to get close to the spec of the Surface Pro 4 we tested. Lenovo (available through PC World or www.lenovo.com) has a range of tablets from £700 for an i5 8GB RAM to £850 to a similarly spec’d i7.
Thavius Beck demonstrated multi-touch and dimensional touch technology on the Surface Pro 3 back at last year’s Summer NAMM and the world went ‘whoop’. Even though the cynics amongst us said ‘meh, seen it before’, it was the first proper demo of a proper DAW with proper multi-touch and dimensional control in action…
HP’s Spectre 2 (www.hp.com) kicks off at around £749 for a 4GB RAM, 256GB HD M3 and Samsung weigh in with the Galaxy TabPro S which tends to be pretty low spec’d at 4GB RAM and 128HD with an M3 processor, but you can get them reduced at £700 as we go to print
Surface Pro 4 as a DAW Controller
It will soon become apparent why our main focus when examining Surface Pro 4 in terms of software is Bitwig, not least because we were so impressed with the demo of the software being used by two touch screens at Superbooth in Berlin.
We should all give Bitwig some credit, too – the company did, after all, open a lot of people’s eyes to the possibilities on the format with that Microsoft presentation – but we’ll also see shortly how the company has embraced the touch philosophy by essentially reprogramming its interface in a point update. So, with that in mind, we loaded the Surface up with the latest version of Studio (1.3.9 at the time of writing) to see how this marriage is getting on.
From scratch, using Surface Pro 4 for the first time, we had absolutely no compaints. Start up Surface Pro 4 and you have to do some initialisation. Having a Microsoft account is something that’s pretty much essential so you get into that world, in a similar way to having an Apple ID is. You’ll get the sense that while you can get away without using it, you’ll probably be missing out on smooth integration, features and invites to Bill Gates’ house if you don’t.
…and Microsoft continues to refine and update the power and functionality of the Surface, resulting in an ever-slinkier temptation for producers
Once your Surface Pro 4 is up and running, it will be like your regular Windows PC and (to some extent) phone. That’s the theory, and is where it wins over a Mac. The Mac experience will let you pretty much seamlessly use everything on every device, but there is of course a difference between using some software on a laptop and using it on an iPad.
Yes, listening to music and browsing photos and the internet will be identical, but try using Gadget on a laptop or, of course, Logic (in any other more in-depth way than the free controller app, we mean) on an iPad, and you’ll fall down. Surface Pro 4 is a full PC. An iPad is not a full Mac. There, we said it.
Specs-wise, you’re looking at three processor types to choose from on SP4: the m3, i5 and i7, with three hard-drive sizes (128, 256 and 512GB) and three memory sizes (4, 8 and 16GB). We’d recommend the 8GB one for music and at least a 256GB drive, so you are already looking at over a grand for this version of PC touch-screen DAW action i.e. a mobile one.
Here, it’s time to ask yourself: do you really need a fully functioning mobile device for music production? And only you can answer that. Touch-screen PCs can be bought for around £600 upwards for a good(ish) one (certainly one that will run music production software), but, of course, you won’t be able to carry them around. SP4 and other tablets will allow this… at a price.
Back to our setup for this feature, and the one we have on test is that very minimum model: the 256GB, 8GB RAM i5, so it’s the perfect one to test with Bitwig. We’ll probably run a separate, full-update review for Bitwig software, as this is a feature more about the marriage of the two – and the fact that we could have the first proper mobile music producer.
Suffice to say, installation was near faultless. The download for Studio is surprisingly lean with all of the optional bundled instruments, sounds, effects and plug-ins (we chose the lot, thank you very much) all downloading in the background as we used the software for the first time. And here’s where it gets very interesting…
We’ve already stated that any DAW that works on Windows will work on a Surface Pro 4 and any other PC tablet with the right spec, to a certain extent. However, the big difference here is that Bitwig has worked with Microsoft for a lot of the development in the latest version of its software, so rather than that software just working on it in a ‘standard’ way – as other DAWS will, with a certain amount of touch stuff available – Bitwig has built in a new layer of operation specifically for touch.
The first, and most obvious, is the structure and appearance of the software which, at v1.3, introduced a tablet layout so the interface was jigged and redesigned to work on a device like a Surface Pro 4.
On a basic level, knobs are bigger, as are many tabs and menus. That’s not to say everything is easy – some of the browser choices are simply too small, as are the rotaries on instruments – but generally, things are just easier to use with fingers and the pen.
The old Inspector and Browser windows have been replaced and, rather than drop-down menus across the top from left to right, you simply get one set of menus at the top left, which then brings the selection up in a recognisable way. But these are not the only changes, nor, indeed, the main ones; as you step through the main pages of the device, you’ll see that several other additions have been made, and have been incorporated just for this touch experience.
Standard navigation is by a familiar swiping – two fingers up and down and you’re away. The main change is the addition of a Radial Menu, which appears when you hold your finger or pen down on the screen – its options changing slightly depending on its location.
Four parameters appear, with a further set on another outer menu, again depending on where you are, or what you touch. The inner four options can be reached by swiping left, right, up or down, and with the outer menu, you’ll need to use another finger to access them. Sounds complicated? It isn’t!
In Edit mode, for example, you’ll use a single touch to add notes, a double-tap to delete.
Swipe left or right with the Radial Menu and you can shorten or lengthen notes. Dragging the down option allows you to select notes that you glide over – very cool – while dragging up allows you to select a bunch of notes in the timeline.
Effectively, you have four extra commands available on a finger per-touch now, something totally new and totally dedicated to touch control. Similarly, when you click and hold on a note, a further three options appear within the outer layer of a new Radial Menu, which allow you to copy notes and alter their start and end points. Combined, these options in the Radial
Menu effectively negate the need to use the top menus on the device, although they are there as another easy option. With both notes and audio, you get extra options beneath the main edit window and with audio files, for example, you can pan, time-stretch, shorten, lengthen etc. Occasionally, as with things like panning, the pen is simply better for editing.
You get more accurate selection thanks to its graphic pointer, especially if you have larger fingers. But generally, the finger options are brilliantly conceived, and perhaps the fact that they soon become second nature proves this.
With Play Mode, it gets even more hands-on and instantly impressive. The Radial Menu isn’t so important here, but the keyboard options are well implemented: so you get the isomorphic keyboard which allows you to play easily in the same key, or standard keyboard options.
What’s good is that you can get extra velocity simply by playing higher up the keys or drum pads, but the really cool playing features come using MPE (or Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression), something we first came across with the ROLI Seaboard range of instruments.
It’s basically a way of adding expression to your playing, allowing you to change other parameters on top of the standard velocity and aftertouch ones you might be used to. So in this case, moving your fingers up and down on the Surface Pro 4 can change other parameters per-note, which you can assign quite easily.
Open a filter by moving your finger upwards? Yes, it’s the obvious one, but very easy to do. The pen, too, comes into play here, literally adding another dimension with 1,024 levels of pressure; offering a kind of ‘3D’ extra that iPhone 6s users will be familiar with. Obviously, having MPE-based instruments helps here, but they are becoming more commonplace, with ROLI especially driving their development.
In the Arrange Menu, things are similarly easy to adjust. Parts are as easy to delete, add, lengthen, reduce and select as the notes are, with a similar Radial Menu helping you out. With automation, you get a different Radial Menu to bring up slightly different options. It’s a bit clunkier than you might want, but again, far easier than the fiddly automation you might be used to.
The Clip Screen is where things get even more fun. Ableton Live users will love the clip launching by touch screen, of course, but there’s a wealth of extras introduced by touch – the Radial Menus introduce similar functions to the note and part ones in Arrange and Edit modes – which make performances a dream. Not much to say in Mixer mode: you can adjust several channels at once and again, the dials are a little small, but your basic features are implemented well.
We’ll be exploring a full review of Bitwig with tablet use next month, and to say we’re impressed is an understatement. Yet it does leave us in a slight quandary. Bitwig has concentrated so much effort into providing an immersive experience for tablet users that it becomes very different from using the software on a traditional Mac or PC.
We’d probably stick by our original score for using Bitwig on a desktop system as an 8/10. On a tablet, it’s a different story. While there’s still room for improvement, the levels of innovation and detail, not to mention the completely new experience means that this software/hardware combination scores a 9 or even 10 (actual review coming soon)
The End of the Mouse at Last?
This extra touch functionality introduced by Bitwig is hugely important, and really the crux of this feature. These touch features didn’t exist in previous versions – why would they?
They were built in to specifically work with tablet devices by Bitwig, which worked closely with Microsoft to do it. This means we’re in a situation now with music production whereby, if hardware and software companies work this well together, we’re going to see more of these different experiences per set-up or even computer, and ultimately, the user experience will be a lot better.
If everyone can develop this kind of integration, we’re all in for an exciting music-tech future. In the coming months, we’ll be looking at the iOS platform and even VR as a possible next step for music production, but at the moment it looks like the PC is pointing to the best touch future. Where are you, Apple? [Coming! – Ed]
• Software Windows 10 Pro
• Exterior Casing is made of magnesium • Colour is silver • Buttons on case are volume and power
• Dimensions (mm) 292.10 x 201.42 x 8.45
• Weight (g) i5/i7: 786; m3: 766
• Software Windows 10 Pro
• Storage Solid-state drive (SSD) options: 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB
• Display Screen: 12.3” PixelSense display • Resolution: 2,736 x 1,824 (267 PPI) • Aspect Ratio: 3:2 • Touch: 10-point multi-touch
• Battery life Up to nine hours of video playback
• Processor 6th-gen Intel Core m3, i5, or i7
• Graphics m3 Intel HD graphics 515 • i5 Intel HD graphics 520 • i7 Intel Iris graphics
• Memory 4GB, 8GB or 16GB RAM
• Ports Full-size USB 3.0; microSD Card reader; eadset jack; Mini DisplayPort; Cover port;
• Camera, video and audio 5.0 megapixel
front-facing HD camera; 8.0 megapixel
rear-facing autofocus camera with 1080p
HD video recording; stereo microphones
Stereo speakers with Dolby audio
• Sensors Ambient light sensor • Accelerometer • Gyroscope • Magnetometer
Three processors available, in six configurations, as follows:
m3: 128GB storage, 4GB RAM: £749
i5: 128GB storage, 4GB RAM: £849
i5: 256GB storage, 8GB RAM: £1,079
i7: 256GB storage, 8GB RAM: £1,299
i7: 256GB storage, 16GB RAM: £1,449
i7: 512GB storage, 16GB RAM: £1,799
• Contact Microsoft (via web)
• Web www.microsoftstore.com
● Software Windows, Mac, Linux (touch works on both Windows and Linux as both OSs support it)
● Integrated user Interface
● Plugin sandboxing reduces crashes
● Unified modulation easy link system
● Open multiple projects
● Detail Editor non destructive editing per clip
● Per note expression more parameters /note
● Device nesting flexible device positioning
● Dynamic Object Inspector helps build ideas
● 25 effects
● 9 instruments
● 20 other containers, modulators, routers etc
● Prices Bitwig Studio $299 €299
● Contact Bitwig (via web)
● Web www.bitwig.com