Electrically Alive: Inside Richie Hawtin's Workflow
Since getting hooked on our modulation system, Richie Hawtin has built a system around Bitwig Studio for his studio and live performances. Here he describes how he harnesses the power of the computer while retaining the physicality of his pre-digital workflow using hardware and outboard gear.
“Everyone knows me as being a technology freak and always looking to the future, but I come from the analog world,” Richie Hawtin told us from the cockpit of his studio. The room is dark, windowless and alive with blinking lights from an array of musical machines: whirring synthesizers, drum machines, keyboards, controllers and sequencers. And in the center, a monitor displaying Bitwig Studio. “I feel much more at home with traditional 909s and synthesizers,” he says. In this room, analog and digital are part of the same system — one which the seminal DJ and producer refined and reimagined over the past few years.
Hawtin spent the early months of the pandemic rewiring his entire studio to resemble how he worked in the 1990s, creating a unified system where signals communicate and travel throughout. The idea for this studio-as-network was built in no small part around integrating Bitwig Studio. “Through that process, I found that the thinking behind Bitwig — how I could use plug-ins and modulators (or, later, Operators and Note Receivers and Audio Receivers) to pipe things all over the place — was very similar to how I'd always recorded,” Hawtin explained.
Hawtin's Bitwig Studio workflow allows him to play with the DAW like the analog instruments he used in the past. He uses three different controllers for three different tasks: the Novation Launchpad Pro provides direct access to Bitwig's per-note Operators so he can manually program rhythms for sounds; the AKAI Fire acts as a classic drum machine sequencer; and his custom Yaeltex externalises his use of Bitwig's Arpeggiator to write melodies.
You can try his methods yourself by downloading the custom scripts he developed for these machines and Bitwig Studio. They'll enable you make music the way Richie Hawtin does and, hopefully, inspire you to develop your own approach to using Bitwig Studio as an instrument.
See how Richie Hawtin uses Bitwig Studio as a live performance instrument
How did you discover Bitwig Studio?
I first heard about Bitwig probably right after they launched, like 2014 or 15. I was intrigued from the very beginning. It took me some years to keep an eye on how the program was developing to version 2 and then to version 3 — and that was the right moment for me, with the feature set and also for what I was looking for, to completely take the plunge and go “fully Bitwig.” Something drew me back to opening up Bitwig and playing around again, which wasn't happening with other software.
When did Bitwig become the dominant DAW that you were using, and why?
The real plunge into Bitwig happened during Covid. Everyone knows me as being a technology freak and always looking to the future, but I come from the analog world. I feel much more at home with traditional 909s and synthesizers, and although I had done a couple of albums mostly digitally, it was a really hard process. And so when Covid came, it was just the right time for me to dive into Bitwig. I spent nearly two months rewiring this whole studio in a way that was similar to how I recorded in the 1990s, with a lot of analog gear, piping it through Bitwig and other programs and rediscovering how I like to make music.
I see the studio as an instrument. Everyone has a certain amount of gear, sometimes often quite similar to another musician, but it's all about how you connect them. I always had a big patch bay, and nearly all the albums I've ever done, especially Plastikman albums, were based on a preset. I found a certain groove, a certain atmosphere, a certain amount of instruments, made a patch and then made tracks with that patch. All that felt very natural in the Bitwig universe.
I really needed and wanted my workflow to be more digital because I wanted to go back into the Plastikman direction. That meant not only making an album and a live show, but also experimenting with virtual reality, and that entails digitizing as many of my movements while performing. I wanted to create pipelines between my creative process and other situations, and that was a big push to jump into Bitwig because it had that kind of architecture. Then The Grid came, and its flexibility really spoke to me and the way my brain works while I'm in the creative process.
“I needed a system that was flexible and had recall. And that was only possible on a computer and, for me, in Bitwig, because it's the only computer system that made me want to make music.”
How did using Bitwig Studio change your workflow, either in the studio or live setup? What problems did Bitwig solve for you?
One of the most important parts of Bitwig for my workflow in the studio and on stage are the Modulators, just the ability to kind of feed signals back and cross-modulate and send the signals to different places. For instance, I like to have one plug-in control another plug-in, like a filter sweep going to a panner. That's what took me the most time in my studio: patching all those things together to create an organic, bubbling system.
Since I make electronic music and I'm not, you know, strumming a guitar, it's not just about my movements; it's about the interaction between me and the technology that I'm using. That creates something that's in between me and the machine, but it still feels alive — whether that's organically alive or electrically alive or driven by AI or probabilities or algorithms, or even by chance. These are all things that make music creation exciting, and hopefully it makes listening to the music exciting too.
I was already using generative methods and randomization within my music-making in Bitwig. I use a lot of the modulators and the Arpeggiator to change loop length as things are flying. I love happy accidents; I make them as a human, and the computer doesn't really make happy accidents. But you can get some kind of machine-random happy moments with some of the randomization capabilities and some built-in sequencers within the modulators that you can cross-modulate. That really interests me. Specifically working on those two AI projects, I was really able to feel like I was working and collaborating with the computer and with the AI, even before I left Bitwig.
Richie Hawtin shows how he writes melodies and drum patterns on the fly during live sets
What music have you made with Bitwig so far?
All the projects that were released since 2020 have been touched by Bitwig. My Richie Hawtin records Time Warps and Acid King were mostly created in Bitwig. The Prada runway shows were entirely created in Bitwig. That was all about timing. Not only was I ready to jump into Bitwig, and I had made the decision to go digital. But then these projects came that really challenged me to find that workflow really really quickly.
The Prada projects were great examples. I don't like the Arranger window. Of course I end up there, but usually the Arranger window is populated by takes of me performing live in the studio. But with the Prada shows specifically, the timing of the music needed to be locked down [to the video I was soundtracking], and I needed to be able to change little things while keeping everything else the same. That wouldn't have been possible to do all in one take with all these machines; I needed a system that was flexible and had recall. And that was only possible on a computer and, for me, in Bitwig, because it's the only computer system that made me want to make music.
Going back to what I said earlier about Plastikman material and albums, they're usually coming out of a specific network. CONSUMED was a certain network in my studio in 1998, Sheet 1 was a certain network and group of equipment in 1993, and that's kind of what I feel where I've been needing and developing in the last year. What I love about Bitwig is that you can have a whole bunch of sessions open, one active and jump between and drag things in and test how they work. That flexibility of experimentation, for me, is really key.
How has your outlook on your process changed? Has the way you think about your creative process changed over time in terms of what you want to achieve?
My creative process has changed using Bitwig, but it's something that I have to be very careful with. Electronic music, in the style that I make, is about capturing a moment, a moment of interaction. So having the ability to come back the next day or overwork things in the Arrangement window or just spend too much time is kind of good and bad. That's something I'm playing with. When is a song good enough, or when have you taken it too far? That's the struggle.
In the past, if you didn't record what was happening in the studio at that moment, you knew that it might not sound the same when you came back to it the next day. Instruments haven't warmed up. So there's a good and bad part to me about knowing that my project will be exactly the way I left it when I open it tomorrow. It does allow me to put off recording.
Richie Hawtin controls Bitwig Studio like a drum machine
Let's talk about the scripts. How did you get the idea to create these controller API scripts for Bitwig Studio and various controllers?
The idea to create custom scripts for controllers came really naturally. Being from the analog world, no matter how good using a computer system was or is, I felt that I still needed some hands-on control. Of course, there are a lot of controllers out there that can interface with computers. I knew I needed some scripts that were really specifically made for me in order to interface with Bitwig better in the studio and onstage.
Each of us are different. Some people like faders, some people like knobs or buttons. Music-making should be fun, and I know what I want to touch. That was really the beginning — looking around and seeing what controllers were out there and testing them to see which one has a good feature set, and which one feels good. Once I zeroed in on a few, I experimented and wrote down ideas.
How did the project go from idea to realization?
Once I knew I needed some custom scripts for the controllers I was testing, I reached out to Bitwig. I was like, “Do you have somebody who might be able to help me develop this?” And they put me in touch with Eric Ahrens, and we hit it off right away. We sent some controllers back and forth. I won't say it was an easy process, because Eric can talk about how hard it was to develop on a technical level, but it was pretty easy on my side. I've developed some controllers in the past, so for me, I'll have a sketch of the controller, and I'll sit here pretending to play on something and make some kind of mockups. It was really like, looking at the Arpeggiator and deciding what we could control. So I kind of know what I want in the end.
“It's about the interaction between me and the technology that I'm using. That creates something that's in between me and the machine, but it still feels alive — whether that's organically alive or electrically alive.”
Did you develop these scripts with the intention of making them public?
It was always my intention to release all the scripts to the public. I believe that if I have a certain way of working, there's always going to be somebody else out there who will appreciate that. I've been involved in developing the Model 1 mixer and other things, and I also believe there are a lot of people who would like to better harness the power of computer technology and plug-ins, but who just don't feel like they're connected. They feel connected to their 909s and 808s.
That's really where I'm coming from with these scripts: How can I harness the power of the computer, but have the physicality of the machines I've loved from my past? You see it directly in the [AKAI] Fire script — it's basically an 808. I want not only to make music, but also to be transparent in how I'm creative and hopefully create and release tools that empower other creatives and actually just help keep developing the music that I love.
How do you see other people using these scripts, or how do you think they'll be useful to them?
I'm hoping that other people will use these scripts to play with their computers and not just get locked into the mouse and looking at the screen too much. Electronic music, whether it's in the studio or on stage, is at its best in performance mode. For each of these scripts, I've thought about the parameters that you need to access, and how to access them quickly and fluidly and to play them. That's what it should be: It should be playful, it should be fun, and it should enable you to capture yourself. It should bring you a little bit more into the computer system.
Controlling Bitwig's Arpeggiator to improvise melodies
How can people use these scripts in their own workflows?
I'm sure people will use these scripts to do exactly what I do, copy how I play. But I think we all start out by being inspired by other artists and watching how people do things. And I always hope that you start there, and then you follow and develop and find your own unique way of using it. With the Launchpad Pro script, I love controlling Bitwig's Note Repeats and the probability functions, but perhaps other people will like the copy and paste and the loop-length. There's so many different ways to jam, and I can't use them all, so let's put it out and see what happens and actually listen to what or how other people are using and maybe redevelop it.
In the end, I see us as a whole electronic music community — not only musicians, but designers and programmers and performers. It's an ecosystem and a huge feedback loop. I actually wouldn't have jumped into this without being really inspired and excited by some of the Bitwig community members that are already out there. Jürgen Moßgraber has an incredible resource for tapping into Bitwig with incredible controller scripts for a lot of different devices. There's also Polarity, whose video tutorials I watched when I was jumping into Bitwig to learn some of the techniques. That just feels…it doesn't just go one way.
What do you mean, “one way”?
When I got into electronic music, I was a big Prince fan, but Prince was this person way up here, on stage, and it was just a one-way expression to the audience. And DJing changed that. The DJ is on a level playing field, and the exchange goes from the dance floor to the DJ booth, back and forth. There was a feedback loop. Those kind of things remind me of what I love about the Bitwig community and the moment we're in right now. Creatives are sharing and being transparent, because they know that this transparency can help all of us develop and move forward into the future in a positive way.
Richie Hawtin's scripts are available as extensions for Novation Launchpad Pro, Novation Launch Control XL, AKAI Fire and Yaeltex.
To install a BWEXTENSION file in Bitwig Studio 4.2.5 or later, drop the file onto Bitwig's application window while the program is running. For installation and use instructions, see the documentation, and to learn more about scripts and controller extensions, click here.