Beat-slicing in DP

Digital Performer Notes

Published in SOS April 2004
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Technique : Digital Performer Notes

The plug-in and inter-application software world grows ever richer for DP users, and a set of new features for the program is announced at the NAMM show — including, at last, a 'beat-slicing' function.

Robin Bigwood

performer soundflower
OS X applications, such as DP 4, see Soundflower as a hardware audio interface, and that's the key to its inter-application routing abilities.
OS X applications, such as DP 4, see Soundflower as a hardware audio interface, and that's the key to its inter-application routing abilities.

MOTU didn't exactly drop any bombshells at this year's NAMM show in Los Angeles, but there were some interesting announcements for Digital Performer users. Quite a few new features were demonstrated, but no release date or possible DP revision number was even hinted at.

Probably the most widely discussed so far is the Beat Detection Engine, capable of analysing and slicing up rhythmic Soundbites, very much along the lines of Pro Tools' Beat Detective or Propellerhead's Recycle. The idea (which will be familiar to users of similar tools) is that DP will be able to examine an audio file and then make individual soundbites out of each 'hit'. The resulting batch of soundbites could then be quantised if necessary, or used to create a groove quantise template for other MIDI or audio tracks. Also, if the sequence tempo is changed, the soundbites maintain their position relative to each other, spacing out if the tempo gets slower or overlapping if it's faster.

A complementary feature is tempo detection, whereby DP analyses a soundbite and works out its tempo without slicing it up. This allows the soundbite to be time-stretched or time-compressed, for very easy inclusion in a sequence of a different tempo, or for the sequence tempo to be tied to the soundbite. From MOTU's demonstration of this feature, the emphasis seemed to be on ease of use, but with typically MOTU-like depth and user-configurability just beneath the surface. There appears to be a new edit-resolution scheme, too, so that events can be snapped to beats or hits within an audio file.

A feature that immediately interested me was a new 'room tone creation' algorithm. MOTU's demonstration involved a series of hits in a conga loop, each separated by a sliver of 'empty' track. The soundbites were selected and the new Smooth Audio Edits feature engaged, which caused the soundbites to be 'healed' into one, new contiguous whole. My initial thought was that this idea must have wider uses than just healing separated-out loop hits, or dialogue editing (its other main purpose). I wondered what would happen if you were to 'abuse' it, tying together dissimilar musical soundbites, for example. The mind boggles.

It was also good to see that DP's preferences windows are being consolidated, especially as the implementation looked really nice. Undoubtedly, DP 4 is continuing to evolve, but I'm sure I'm not alone in hoping that by the time of the next NAMM show it'll be equipped with plug-in delay compensation, be even more stable than it is now, and hopefully have a user interface that's snappy and responsive even on older Macs.

Quick Tips
If you've been using Audioease's VST Wrapper v4, you might have already run into a few plug-ins that require the 'Use separate window' preference to be selected. Once you've checked it, you simply close and re-open the plug-in to cure its graphics problems. But if you want to turn on automation for a VST plug-in, ticking the Wrapper's 'Use automation' preference and then opening and closing the plug-in is not enough. For that you need to reboot MAS, either by restarting DP, or by selecting 'MIDI only' in the Setup > Audio System sub-menu then switching back to 'MOTU Audio System' immediately afterwards.
Those planning to set up an audio network via ethernet using Wormhole (as mentioned in the main text) should remember that they'll need a 'crossover'-type cable to link two Macs together directly (ie. not via a hub or switch). Any decent computer shop should be able to sort you out.

Inter-application Gizmos

There's an old cliché about London buses — you wait for an hour and then three come along at once. The software floodgates do seem to have opened since the release of OS 10.3 and DP 4.12, perhaps the most stable DP system for some years, but I wasn't quite prepared for the trio of superb OS X inter-application audio solutions that all surfaced recently.

First of all, Jack Tools has finally reached its first non-beta release version. Regular readers of Performer Notes may remember me mentioning it a few months back, as a possible replacement for OS9's 'AudioTap' feature, that was lost in OS X. In case you missed that, Jack Tools is a comprehensive, low-latency, inter-application audio framework originally written for Linux, but now ported to OS X by Stephane Letz. It consists of various components, drivers, applications and plug-ins, in AU and VST formats, and it'll handle the most convoluted routings between applications and interfaces, but it is decidedly not for the faint hearted! However, it is free, and downloadable from www.jackosx.com.

Soundflower is by Cycling 74, the company that makes Max/MSP and Pluggo, and is primarily intended for routing Max into a sequencer or DAW for recording or further processing, but has some other tricks up its sleeve too. Soundflower is a 'virtual interface', meaning that audio software running in OS X thinks it's a real audio interface, and allows it to be chosen for use as an output. Audio from your application streams via Soundflower into another application which has been set up to use Soundflower as an input. It's already proving its worth with troublesome combos such as DP 4 and Absynth — you select Soundflower as the Output Device in Absynth (stand-alone) 2.04 or later and then, in DP, choose Soundflower as one of your audio drivers (via the Configure Hardware Driver dialogue box), in addition to your usual hardware. Then set up an Aux track with 'Input Stream #11-12' as its input, and you've instantly got a latency-free audio link between the two applications. The program can also be used to route 'system' audio into DP, from iTunes, RealAudio or TextEdit's speech feature, for example, by selecting it as the output in OS X's Sound pane in System Preferences. It even presents itself as both 2-channel and 16-channel versions, so it can handle the outputs of several synths running simultaneously, or of one synth with multiple outputs. Best of all, it's absolutely free.

The third and final inter-application audio newcomer is Wormhole, and in my view it's a little miracle. In short, Wormhole routes audio streams across network connections (via TCP/IP), so you can use Ethernet (or Airport, or IP over Firewire) to make multi-channel audio links between computers, or even within one computer. And we're not talking narrow-bandwidth, poor-quality mono channels, but many simultaneous high sample-rate connections, at very usable latencies. It means you can use an additional Mac as a soft synth workhorse, or as a dedicated Altiverb reverb unit, and not have to bother with an audio interface of any kind — the extra Mac's outputs can be routed into your main mixing environment without ever leaving the digital domain. If Wormhole has a drawback, it's that the sending and receiving of audio is done via a plug-in, so you need to be running compatible 'host' applications on all connected machines. You couldn't, for example, use a dedicated Mac just for Reason because on its own it can't host the Wormhole AU plug-in that is used to transmit audio across the network. But route Reason into another copy of DP, via Rewire on the dedicated machine, and you'd be in business. Wormhole does introduce a little latency, but on its 'auto' setting it's equivalent to one buffer's worth of samples in the host program — so it can be virtually unnoticeable. ApulSoft have done a decent job with the documentation too, so getting up and running is easy, even if you're not experienced with TCP/IP connections, network addresses and the like. They recommend dedicated solutions such as Rax and VSTi Host to host soft synths and audio plug-ins, and this may be simpler than trying to use DP as your host on the 'server' machine.

Wormhole costs $25, from www.pflugshaupt.com/apul/wormhole.

Software Developments
The latest revision of Native Instruments' Battery is a must-have for DP 4 users, as it finally cures the annoying graphics problems that had plagued all its earlier manifestations. You still have to click on its window title-bar to bring it to the front, but that's a tiny price to pay for its now-excellent stability. A free download from www.nativeinstruments.com.
Cycling 74 recently released a DP 4-compatible Pluggo, version 3.1, which is free to all current owners of v3.0, $99 for owners of older versions, and $199 for everyone else. For some users, the 100-odd plug-ins that constitute Pluggo are the last thing they'd ever put on their Mac, their crappy, low-end graphics and 'interesting' sonic treatments jarring horribly with the purity of Waves' super-expensive phase-accurate EQs and Altiverb's silky reverbs, for instance. But for others, Pluggo is a bread-and-butter soun-design tool, able to wreak the kind of havoc with your soundbites that most other plug-ins can only dream about. If you've never tried it, you can download a trial version from www.cycling74.com and find out which group you fit into. Long-time devotees should note that the new version has lost its ability to host third-party VST plug-ins, and early adopters of v3.1 should download the latest 3.1.1 updater, as it fixes a problem with authorisation. More importantly, it resolves a conflict with Audioease's VST Wrapper 4. More information from www.cycling74.com.

A Feast Of Antares

Antares have always been one of the most DP-friendly plug-in developers, and their entire range of very desirable plug-ins is now available in OS X-compatible MAS format (or, as Antares sometimes call it, XMAS!).

Heading up their product range is the 'industry-standard' Autotune ($359), which is now at version 4. If you haven't heard Autotune in action you must have been on a desert island for the last five years, without a radio, and even if you're not into the all-too-common 'abuse' of Autotune, this is a plug-in that is still a genuine workhorse, particularly if you ever deal with vocals or any other monophonic audio (such as acoustic or fretless bass). Autotune 4 is the most sophisticated manifestation of the technology so far, with vastly improved vibrato features, a new keyboard display for rapidly programming scale-note bypass and remove options over a six-and-a-half octave range, and an improved graphical mode.

performer wormhole
ApulSoft's Wormhole Audio Unit plug-in, here receiving a stereo 44.1kHz signal from a Dual G4 867MHz Mac via a single ethernet cable.
ApulSoft's Wormhole Audio Unit plug-in, here receiving a stereo 44.1kHz signal from a Dual G4 867MHz Mac via a single ethernet cable.

Antares's newest plug-in is the minimally-named Filter ($199), but its user-interface is decidedly maximal! Filter routes the input signal into as many as four multi-mode filters and associated delay lines, in one of six configurations, with most parameters being modulatable by a bank of LFOs and envelope generators, two step sequencers, an envelope follower, and numerous MIDI message types. Using Filter feels like plugging your audio track into a Moog modular, albeit one with a spectacularly friendly graphical interface. It excels at treating rhythmic loops and producing trippy vocal effects, and is capable of everything from the subtlest tonal sculpting to total sonic armageddon.

Tube ($129) is, compared to Filter, child's play to set up, with just a handful of controls, and two main types of valve distortion, based around the interchangeable 'Little Angel' and 'Little Devil' valve models. In its angelic guise, Tube aims to impart the sound of a decent valve preamp to audio passing through it, distortion being added progressively as the input to the plug-in clips. It's capable of truly infernal stuff, though, ideally suited to processing guitars, with compression thrown in for good measure and a much thicker and crunchier distortion characteristic. Tube is exceptionally light on the processor, so a recent Mac ought to be able to run literally dozens of instances.

Finally, it's great to see a MAS version of the enigmatic (and rather threatening) Kantos ($269). This is a synth that is triggered by audio, not MIDI, and combines quite a bit of Autotune's pitch-recognition technology with the ability to respond to differences in tone quality. That makes for a flexible and responsive synth that can be driven by vocals just as easily as by guitar or bass. Something of a one-off, maybe, but capable of articulation and expression that most keyboard-driven synths could only dream of. More details from www.antarestech.com.


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