Using V-Racks In Digital Performer 4.6

Technique

Published in SOS November 2005
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Technique : Digital Performer Notes

One of the most exciting and unexpected new features unveiled in Digital Performer 4.6 is V-Racks, and, like many of the best things in life, it's something you probably didn't realise you needed until it came along...

Robin Bigwood

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A typical V-Rack setup, containing a MOTU Symphonic Instrument, Altiverb 5 and some post-EQ on an Aux track, and a Master Fader track equipped with two Waves processors. When hosted by a V-Rack, all these goodies become available to every single sequence in your project.
A typical V-Rack setup, containing a MOTU Symphonic Instrument, Altiverb 5 and some post-EQ on an Aux track, and a Master Fader track equipped with two Waves processors. When hosted by a V-Rack, all these goodies become available to every single sequence in your project.

You can work with DP for many years and not realise it, but a Digital Performer project can incorporate multiple sequences. This capability isn't of much importance if you only ever use the program as a glorified multitrack recorder, or if you stick to simple, short projects, but being able to work with multiple sequences can be useful in lots of ways. For example, if you're composing music for film or stage and need to develop several different versions of the same cue simultaneously, you can do so by keeping each in its own sequence. That way, they're all easily accessible, and they can each have their own timeline and separate editing windows. As another example, for location recording work, and the subsequent editing, you can more easily organise your sessions by recording into separate sequences. This ensures that you're less likely to get muddled when dealing with hundreds (or even thousands) of soundbites. To give yet another example, mastering an album's worth of music can work well when you give each album track its own sequence. All the audio files are kept together within one project folder, but you can deal with each as a completely separate entity. Finally, project development, and even structural experimentation, can be made easier. Individual sequences can be used to 'freeze' a project in a particular state of development, or you can use a sequence as a 'building block' in a larger musical structure by utilising DP's Song window. Incidentally, this way of looking at sequences accounts for why they are also sometimes referred to as Chunks in DP.

The fundamental drawback associated with some of these approaches comes to light when you have multiple sequences all using their own audio plug-ins and virtual instruments. Switching between sequences can cause severe delays as samples and patches are loaded, and you can even run into annoying instabilities and crashes as multiple plug-ins instantiate simultaneously. Maintaining multiple instances of instruments and plug-ins in different sequences can also sap your processor and memory resources. Trying to build songs from sequences that just drive external MIDI devices is all very well — that was how DP was originally designed — but when there are heavyweight plug-ins and software instruments involved, forget it! You'll also quickly discover how patient you are if you have many related sequences all incorporating the same complement of effects, because if you discover you want to make an effects change in all of them, you end up having to dial it in many times.

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The 'Add V-Rack' command can be found almost everywhere you'd go to create a new sequence, but clicking the Mixing Board's 'V' button is quicker still if you don't already have a V-Rack in your project.
The 'Add V-Rack' command can be found almost everywhere you'd go to create a new sequence, but clicking the Mixing Board's 'V' button is quicker still if you don't already have a V-Rack in your project.
The 'Add V-Rack' command can be found almost everywhere you'd go to create a new sequence, but clicking the Mixing Board's 'V' button is quicker still if you don't already have a V-Rack in your project.
The 'Add V-Rack' command can be found almost everywhere you'd go to create a new sequence, but clicking the Mixing Board's 'V' button is quicker still if you don't already have a V-Rack in your project.
The 'Add V-Rack' command can be found almost everywhere you'd go to create a new sequence, but clicking the Mixing Board's 'V' button is quicker still if you don't already have a V-Rack in your project.
Rack Attack

V-Racks are MOTU's response to these not-inconsiderable problems, and they're a valuable new tool in a DP user's kit. They work literally like 'racks' of effects processors or virtual instruments (or both), running in DP alongside your usual sequences, and available to them for various useful purposes. While they don't allow you to do anything you couldn't previously achieve in other ways, they make life much easier in some situations, particularly if you're involved in certain kinds of composing work or in mastering, or if you're a heavy user of soft synths and samplers. V-Racks exist as a new type of sequence (or Chunk) that can run in parallel with your 'normal' sequences, hosting instruments, plug-ins and master faders that the sequences can then utilise. If you switch to a new sequence, the V-Rack remains in place and active.

Using this new facility, film composers (for example) can still have their multiple versions of a cue in different sequences, but would be able to set up their virtual instruments in a single V-Rack. There's no longer a need to set up the same instruments for each sequence, saving time, effort and computer resources.

Similarly, the 'song structure' approach is once more feasible in DP, because each component sequence need only have simple MIDI and audio tracks, with all virtual instruments and effects processing 'shopped out' to the V-Rack. Mastering tasks can also benefit, for similar reasons, and there are yet more possibilities, such as setting up a V-Rack to handle signal routing to and from external hardware processors, keeping your actual working sequence much cleaner and easier to deal with. The more you work with V-Racks, the more uses you find for them.

The Future For V-Racks?
When I first saw the little 'V' button in the Mixing Board, during a demo of forthcoming features in DP that took place earlier this year, before v4.6 was released, I suspected it had something to do with a distributed processing scheme, along the lines of Logic's node system. I wasn't disappointed to find out that it hadn't, but I'm still wondering if V-Racks have a future that encompasses some sort of distributed processing. The fact that V-Rack tracks aren't bound to timelines or disk-based audio recording and playback would seem to make them ideal candidates for 'contracting out' to additional CPUs, perhaps via Firewire or Ethernet. This is pure speculation, but I've got my fingers crossed...
Getting Started

V-Racks are created by choosing 'Add V-Rack' from almost anywhere you'd normally go to create a new sequence in DP. This includes the following menus (see the screens above):

The Sequences sub-menu in the Project menu.

The Sequence menu in the top left of the Tracks Overview.

The mini-menu in the Sequence Editor or the Control Panel.

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The 'V' button in DP 4.6's effects windows switches them between viewing plug-ins in your sequence and in a V-Rack. It doesn't transfer a sequence's plug-in to a V-Rack, or vice versa.
The 'V' button in DP 4.6's effects windows switches them between viewing plug-ins in your sequence and in a V-Rack. It doesn't transfer a sequence's plug-in to a V-Rack, or vice versa.

Perhaps easiest of all, though, is to click the new 'V' title-bar button in the Mixing Board. If your project doesn't already have a V-Rack, one will be created for you, and if it does the Mixing Board switches its layout to display it. A fundamental fact about V-Racks is that the Mixing Board is about the only place you can actually interact with them, so this is a good technique to learn!

If you're exploring V-Racks for the first time, try the following, which walks through all the main operational steps:

1. Start by creating a new DP project, so that you've got a blank canvas to work with.

2. Create a new sequence, so that there are two in total. You can do this using the Sequence menu in the Tracks Overview. Using the same menu, you can also rename the sequences, perhaps to 'A' and 'B'.

3. Now create your V-Rack. Hit shift-M to open the Mixing Board, and click the 'V' button in the title bar.

4. You'll see that, by default, a single Instrument track is created, so you might as well place a soft synth or sampler on this by choosing it in the uppermost insert slot, before making sure that the track has a valid audio output.

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The Mixing Board's hidden pop-up menu, accessed by Apple-clicking the right-hand side of its title bar, is fantastically useful for switching between multiple V-Racks.
The Mixing Board's hidden pop-up menu, accessed by Apple-clicking the right-hand side of its title bar, is fantastically useful for switching between multiple V-Racks.

5. Now create an Aux track by choosing Add Track / Aux Track from the Project menu. Place an audio plug-in on this (maybe a reverb or delay), set its input to be a buss or buss pair, and the output as your main output pair.

6. Create a Master Fader track, set up a limiter (such as the Masterworks Limiter) on it, and configure its output as your main output pair.

7. You can now switch back to your 'normal' sequence by clicking the Mixing Board's 'V' again. You can no longer see your V-Rack, but it remains active.

Now, if you look in a MIDI output pop-up in the Tracks Overview, for example, you'll see your V-Rack's virtual instrument in the list. Similarly, any audio directed to the buss or buss pair you chose for your V-Rack's Aux track will end up passing through your 'rack' reverb or delay. And all tracks routed to your main output pair will automatically take a trip through your V-Rack's Masterworks Limiter.

Here's the final test: switch to your other sequence and you'll notice that all the same options are available. The V-Rack remains in place, nothing has to reload, and you're completely free to continue working with no delays.

As well as being able to view your V-Rack using the 'V' button in the Mixing Board, you can also access V-Rack plug-ins using the 'V' button in plug-in windows. Initially, it might look as though clicking this button would somehow 'transfer' a plug-in from a sequence to a V-Rack but that's not actually what it does. Instead, it simply switches a single effect window from 'sequence view' to 'V-Rack view', and you can then use the Track and Insert pop-up menus to directly access any plug-in either in the sequence or the V-Rack. This is a great facility that allows you to control important V-Rack instruments or plug-ins without always having to visit the Mixing Board first.

The Alternative To V-Racks
Although V-Racks have plenty to offer in streamlining and speeding workflow, they're not a panacea for all ills. Indeed, in many projects you'll have no need for them at all. Two of their key benefits — simplifying signal routing and offering loading and saving options for plug-in and instrument setups — can be recreated in other ways. For example, DP's Track Grouping and Mixing Board Layout features can go a very long way towards keeping the DP environment streamlined and easy to work with. As for building up banks of plug-in chains and settings, DP has been able to do this for years, courtesy of the Clippings feature.
As is often the way with DP, MOTU give users multiple ways to achieve very similar outcomes, and the smart approach is always to know about all of them, and mix and match.
Advanced Racking

We've already looked at pretty much everything a V-Rack has to offer — namely, Instrument tracks, Aux tracks and Master tracks — and the way in which it remains quite independent from the other sequences in your project. There are a few extra techniques that can help you get the most from your V-Racks, however...

Moving tracks to V-Racks: First, you're free to move entire Instrument, Aux or Master tracks from normal sequence tracks to a V-Rack at any time — so it's easy to update your old sequences, for example. All you need to do is select the track you want to move (making sure it's actually in the sequence that is currently playing back), then choose 'Move Selected Tracks to V-Rack' from the mini-menu in the Sequence Editor or Control Panel, or the Sequence menu in the Tracks Overview. DP puts up a dialogue box asking which V-Rack the track should be added to (if you have more than one), or if a new V-Rack should be created for it. Incidentally, once a track's in a V-Rack it's not so easy to transfer back to your sequence. Your only option, unfortunately, is to delete it (using the mini-menu at the bottom of its 'channel' in the Mixing Board), and then set it up again from scratch.

Multiple V-Racks: As moving sequence tracks to a V-Rack suggests, it's quite possible to run multiple V-Racks in a Project, and the way in which you set them up is entirely up to you. You could have a soft-sampler V-Rack, an 'effects rack' V-Rack and an 'external routing' V-Rack, for example, all helping to keep very complex routing manageable. You can rename your V-Racks by opening the Chunks window (via the Project menu, or Shift + C) and option-clicking on their names. To quickly view or edit them in the Mixing Board you can double-click their names in the Chunks window, or (even better, I think) try this nifty shortcut: Apple-click the Mixing Board's title bar at its far right. A 'hidden' pop-up menu appears (see above) and you can directly choose to view any sequence or V-Rack in your project.

Loading & Saving
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It's easy to load up entire V-Racks (or indeed conventional sequences) from other projects using the File menu's Load... command. With a bit of forward planning, you can maintain all your favourite V-Racks in a single project.
It's easy to load up entire V-Racks (or indeed conventional sequences) from other projects using the File menu's Load... command. With a bit of forward planning, you can maintain all your favourite V-Racks in a single project.

If you've spent lots of time perfecting a V-Rack that you know you'll want to use again — perhaps you've created a favourite mastering chain or a big soft-sampler orchestral setup — there's a way that you can recall it in other projects even though MOTU don't provide a dedicated function for doing this.

1. First, save the project that contains your favourite V-Rack, and then close it.

2. Then create a new project, which you might call 'My V-Racks', for example.

3. In this otherwise empty project choose the Load... item from the File menu, and then navigate to your first project — the one that contains your V-Rack — in the file browser that appears. Open the actual project file and you'll be presented with a dialogue box (see the screen on the right) that allows you to load chunks individually.

4. Select your V-Rack (or Racks, by shift clicking items in the list), and make sure the 'Load Chunks' and 'Data' options are selected to the left of the list. Nothing else in the dialogue box needs to be selected.

5. Finally, click OK. Your V-Rack will be loaded into the new project. You can then save and close it.

Using this technique you can maintain your 'My V-Racks' project as a repository for all your favourite V-Racks, and whenever you need them just load them from it, in exactly the same way as described above.

Master Fader Mania
When you run multiple sequences and V-Racks in a complex project, there's the very real possibility of ending up, inadvertently or not, with multiple Master Faders for the same hardware outputs. This is not a helpful thing and normally DP won't allow you to do it. In fact, with the advent of V-Racks DP still won't allow you to do it, but Master Fader conflicts are handled differently.
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The Chunks window displays all the sequences and V-Racks in your project, but their position in the list also determines how any Master Fader conflicts are resolved.
The Chunks window displays all the sequences and V-Racks in your project, but their position in the list also determines how any Master Fader conflicts are resolved.
The golden rule is this: no matter how many similarly-assigned Master Faders you might think you have, only one is active. Exactly which one is governed by the relative position of Chunks in the list in the Chunks window. The Master Fader belonging to the sequence or V-Rack that's in the topmost position of the list is the one that's active, and this is why you're allowed to drag V-Racks around in the list. (Note that you can't drag V-Racks into a Song window as you can normal sequences.)
To illustrate, here's a typical scenario. Imagine you have a number of sequences, each containing a separate piece of music for a film cue. You've also got a V-Rack set up with a Master Fader that's handling some subtle final compression and limiting for all of them. Out of the blue, you're required to change the sound of just one of your sequences, applying aggressive limiting and distortion. Rather than mess up the Master Fader settings in your V-Rack just to treat this one sequence, all you need to do is create a Master Fader within the sequence itself, apply your limiting and distortion there, and in the Chunks window drag the sequence to a position in the list that's above your V-Rack. Now, when your 'distortion' sequence is played its own Master Fader is used, and the Master Fader on the V-Rack is ignored.
V-Racks: The Downside

What? There's a downside? Well, unfortunately the way in which V-Racks work has a knock-on effect on two key Digital Performer features, and it's worth understanding this before you find out the hard way.

First, because V-Rack tracks don't have a timeline or any editing windows, it's not possible to automate them using DP's track-based automation. There's just nowhere for the data to 'go', and no way for you to edit it even if there were! This is not as bad as it sounds: it's much more common to automate synth parameters using MIDI continuous controller messages anyway, and those are certainly not affected. But if you're into heavily automating audio effect plug-ins you won't be able to do this if they're in a V-Rack. Similarly, it's not possible to automate V-Rack fader or pan movements, unless you wanted to set up a really complicated system using continuous controller mapping and one of DP's consoles, which I wouldn't recommend.

Another 'gotcha' waiting to happen relates to DP's freeze tracks feature. Basically, freezing can't accommodate V-Rack tracks if you have them routed directly to your hardware outputs. However, it is possible if you take a slightly different approach to setting up your V-Rack's signal routing. What you do is route every Aux and Instrument track in the V-Rack via DP's busses back into Aux tracks in your 'normal' sequence. Then, when you need to freeze a track in the sequence you're working on, you just select it, along with its 'aux return', from the V-Rack. The rest of the time the V-Rack works as normal.

This method detracts from the essential 'tidiness' of the V-Rack concept somewhat, because you end up with extra Aux tracks in your sequences, but it's certainly worth bearing in mind, especially if track freezing is an important part of your workflow and something you rely on.


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