When MOTU publicised details of DP5 earlier this year, there was some grumbling. Various contributors to online discussion forums and email lists made the point that they'd be willing to forgo the bundled synths and Track Folders if only MOTU could make DP more efficient and banish the processor-spiking issue that had affected some users under DP 4.5 and 4.6. So it's encouraging to see that in DP5 we've been given the synths and some intriguing tweaks to the MOTU Audio System. The latter seem to have hit the nail on the head when it comes to improving user experience on a range of Macs.
First of all, DP5 just seems to run better. On my dual 2.0GHz G5 I instantly noticed a lower processor hit when DP was hosting various virtual instruments. And on my 1GHz G4 Powerbook the spectre of the spiking CPU meter seems to have all but vanished. It now seems to be possible to push the processor much harder without running into spikes, with DP's graphic interface remaining comparatively smooth and responsive.
This in itself is a great development, but there's more, especially for those who like to get 'under the hood'. Go Studio menu / Configure Audio System / Configure Studio Settings and you might get a shock. You can no longer set a Studio size, control how many audio voices DP has available, or set the rather arcane 'disk read/write size' or 'buffer size per voice'. Instead, DP itself takes care of all the audio-voice allocation stuff and the user-configurable aspects of MAS performance are now represented by two rather bizarrely named settings: 'Prime Seconds' and 'Work Quanta'.
Work Quanta is apparently the interval (in milliseconds) at which the MAS engine does its calculations. Work Quanta is not Buffer Size — that's still there in the Configure Hardware Driver dialogue box — and MOTU suggest it should normally be left at its default value of 100, but they also say that increasing it favours audio performance at the expense of graphical interface smoothness. At its maximum value of 500, I fancied there was a slight reduction in processor hit for an instrument-heavy sequence I was working on, so it may be worth experimenting with on your own Mac.
Prime Seconds is more mysterious. This setting seems to control how far ahead DP looks to 'pre-cue' the audio in your tracks when you locate the playback wiper in a sequence. Higher values potentially help with processor spikes that occur shortly after playback begins. But Prime Seconds also relates to something else new, and more puzzling still: pre-rendering.
Specific details on this new feature are tantalisingly scant, but it seems to work like this: when you place a plug-in on an audio track, dial in some settings and then close the plug-in's window, DP5 'pre-renders' audio in the track just ahead of the playback wiper, to sound exactly as though it was being treated in real time by the plug-in. The amount that is pre-rendered would seem to be equal to the Prime Seconds value, and is heard as soon as you start sequence playback.
What is absolutely not happening is any sort of automated Freeze of entire tracks — pre-rendering only works on a temporary basis and even then only for a couple of seconds worth of audio. But presumably, by whenever possible cueing up this short amount of audio, complete with plug-in effects, DP is able to reduce the processor usage associated with playback (and particularly with starting playback).
Pre-rendering is permanently 'on' in DP5, but the only time you might be made aware of its presence is if you hear a burst of dry audio as you open and close plug-in windows — apparently, an unavoidable side-effect. It only works on audio tracks, not Aux tracks or Instrument tracks, and even then not for mono-to-stereo, mono-to-surround or stereo-to-surround effects. If, for any reason, you don't want a plug-in to use it, you can check a new 'Always Run in Real time' option in the plug-in's mini-menu. There are apparently no implications for plug-in automation in either case.
Tidy Up With Track Folders
Winning the award for 'easiest new feature to get your head around' are DP5's Track Folders. They are purely an organisational feature but they make dealing with high track counts and sprawling Sequence Editor windows much easier. Related tracks (all your backing vocal tracks, or all your virtual instruments, for example) can be grouped in a Folder and then hidden away inside it by clicking the so-called 'disclosure triangles' that appear in the Tracks window, Sequence Editor and edit windows' Track Selector Lists. Doing this keeps all your tracks readily available and beautifully organised, but can save hugely on the amount of screen area your track lists use up. Try this to get started:
In the Tracks window, select a group of tracks — for example, MIDI tracks — by clicking and dragging over their track names.
In the Project menu, go down to the new Track Folders sub-menu and choose 'New Track Folder from Selected Tracks', or hit Shift-Apple-R. The tracks you selected are grouped into a Folder called 'New Folder'.
Alt-click the Folder's name to re-name it, perhaps just 'MIDI tracks' and hit Return to enter this.
Now try clicking its disclosure triangle. The MIDI tracks are folded up inside the Track Folder. Clicking the triangle reveals them again.
Moving an additional track or tracks into this Folder is easy. In the Tracks window, first make sure that the Folder is open, then grab a track's move handles (in the 'MVE' column) and drag it on to the Folder. Moving a track out of a Folder is also easy: grab its move handle and drag it to a position that's outside the Folder in the track list.
New, empty track Folders can be created by choosing 'New Track Folder', via the Project menu, and tracks can be dragged into them as described above. If you want to get rid of a Track Folder, choose 'Delete Track Folders' from the same menu, and in the dialogue box that appears click the relevant Folder or Folders. You can then choose to Delete, which gets rid of the Folder and all the tracks within it, or Remove, which retains the enclosed tracks.
Working with Track Folders in the Sequence Editor window is very similar, except that tracks there don't have a ready-made Move handle. Instead, to move them you place your mouse pointer towards the left edge of their information pane. The pointer should turn into a 'Move' symbol (which is a pair of triangles) and you can then click and drag.
Also aimed at helping you manage processor usage is a new Enable/Disable option on all audio, Aux and Instrument Tracks in DP. In the Tracks window, this option appears as a new column — labelled 'ENA' — with dots showing that individual tracks are enabled. Clicking one of these dots causes it to disappear and the track to be disabled. You can also enable and disable tracks in the Sequence Editor and Mixing Board, by checking or unchecking 'Enable' in their settings pop-up menus.
Disabling a track is like muting it — and then some. A disabled track takes up zero processing power, no matter what plug-ins are being used on it, but of course it won't be heard during playback either. Also, disabling and re-enabling tracks during playback will cause audible burps and glitches, as DP reallocates system resources, so that practice isn't advisable. Nevertheless, this is a useful new feature, as it means you can keep any number of processor-intensive audio, Aux and Instrument tracks available in your project, complete with plug-ins, but easily take them off-line when they're not needed.
So when might you choose to disable a track? Well, let's say you're working on a sequence that uses several convolution reverbs and your processor use is running quite high. In a flash of inspiration, you decide you need to add some tracks with a CPU-intensive virtual instrument — maybe a monster like Arturia's Moog Modular V. To free up resources for this, you could quickly disable all the reverb tracks, and after bouncing the Moog tracks and disabling them, re-enable the reverbs to pick up where you left off.
Digital Performer 5 Tips
Also check out the new information-pane resize handle in the Sequence Editor. Just to the right of a track's settings pop-up menus is a little group of six dots. Click and drag here to resize the information pane and the pop-up menus rearrange themselves to fit. With this enhancement, you can have full access to all of a track's settings in the Sequence Editor, via dedicated pop-up menus, even when the track has been vertically resized to be quite small.
DP's established system of defining 'bundles' of audio inputs, outputs and busses is inspired. It allows you to work with a group of inputs, outputs or busses as if it was an individual entity, to name it descriptively, and to 'rewire' and reconfigure it when necessary. If you're relatively new to DP and this sounds like something new and complicated, don't panic! The beauty of the Bundle system is that you don't have to work with it directly unless you want to: you just configure the inputs and outputs of audio tracks as normal as you work on a sequence and DP will do the donkey work. If you want to know more, look at my Performer Notes column from way back in November 2001: www.soundonsound.com/sos/nov01/articles/performnotes1101.asp.
In DP5, the Bundle concept has been extended into the realm of virtual instruments. Some users might not notice a difference — it's not compulsory to get into the detail of bundles if you don't want to — but if you work much with Reason, Live or virtual instruments with multiple audio outputs, you might just find the new features invaluable.
With the advent of the new version, DP is much more helpful in handling virtual instruments that have multi-channel outputs. Take, for example, MOTU's Model 12 drum module that ships with DP5. By default, all its drum voices are routed to its Main output — the output pair that is set for the Instrument track. But individual drum voices in Model 12 can be routed to one of six additional Aux outputs instead of the Main output, via their audio-output menus. Voices routed like this are removed from the Main mix and can be dealt with separately, allowing you to use entirely different plug-in effects on them, for example. In DP5 this has become laughably easy to set up, because as soon as you instantiate Model 12 its Aux outputs (and its two Sends) instantly 'publish' themselves to the mixing environment. They become available as inputs in audio tracks, via the 'New Stereo [or Mono] Bundle' option in input pop-up menus.
To see how it works in practice, try the following. You're about to use DP5's new capabilities to treat a Model 12 snare sound with a reverb, while keeping the rest of the kit completely dry.
1. Instantiate Model 12 on an Instrument track and make sure you give the track a valid output pair.
2. Load up a standard kit, such as 'Acoustic Kit 1', from the mini-menu in the title-bar of Model 12's window. Then, for the third drum voice from the left (titled 'Snare Cent...'), click where its information pane says 'MAIN' and choose 'AUX1' instead.
3. In the Project menu, choose Aux Track from the Add Track sub-menu. Switch to the Mixing Board (Shift-M) or Tracks window (Shift-T) and locate this new Aux Track you've just created. Configure it with a valid audio output and then for its input choose New Stereo Bundle and scroll down the (potentially long) list of inputs until you find 'Model 12-1 7-8'. This should be amongst a group of Model 12 inputs running from 'Model 12-1 3-4' to 'Model 12-1 17-18'.
4. On your new Aux Track, instantiate your reverb plug-in of choice and set it up as you wish.
5. Play Model 12 and you should find that all the drums except your snare remain dry, reaching DP's mixing environment via Model 12's main outs. But your snare is handled by the Aux Track, having been routed using an Instrument Bundle.
In the example above, in step three you chose 'Model 12-1 7-8'? But why? What do the numbers mean? First of all, 'Model 12' is obviously the name of the virtual instrument you're setting up. The '-1' bit indicates that you're working with the first Model 12 instantiated in your sequence. Instantiate another one, on another Instrument track, and you'd be able to choose 'Model 12-2' if you wanted to. And the '7-8'? To understand this, you need to think about how many outputs a Model 12 has in total. There's a main stereo out (two channels), six stereo aux outs (12 channels) and two stereo sends (four channels). That's 18 outputs in total. The numbering goes like this:
It's a shame that users have to deal with a numbering scheme like this, rather than choosing from a more descriptive list of names, but it's not that hard to get to grips with. Furthermore, it provides a flexible scheme for dealing with any virtual instrument — in MAS or Audio Unit format — that has multiple outputs. I've tested all the ones I own and it works perfectly.