DP supports a wide range of plug-in and virtual instrument formats, which is great for flexibility and variety but sometimes not so good when it comes to trouble-free operation. We explain how to take the pain out of plug-in management.
We DP users are entitled to have a pretty smug look on our faces when it comes to plug-in and virtual instrument support. First there's MOTU's own MAS format — supremely reliable, supported by a number of major third-party developers, and generally the best choice for a trouble-free life. DP also natively supports Apple's Audio Units, which is, of course, the most widespread format for OS X and Logic. And if you use a Power PC-based Mac you can also tap into the world of VST plug-ins, courtesy of AudioEase's VST Wrapper or FXpansion's VST to AU Adapter.
This breadth of compatibility can bring unexpected difficulties, though. To start with, hundreds of plug-ins and instruments in so many different formats can make DP's insert pop-up menus long and confusing to read. Second, although some plug-in developers fix their Audio Unit versions so that DP bypasses them in favour of MAS equivalents, it's often possible to end up with the same plug-in installed (and even instantiated) in multiple formats. They might all work just fine, but could wreak havoc if you subsequently install a plug-in update in one format and not the others, or try to share your project with a collaborator who has the same plug-in but only in one format. Third, and perhaps most importantly, with plug-ins being by far the most likely cause of system instability and crashes, it's essential to keep in touch with what's on your system to ensure a trouble-free Digital Performer experience. But what's the best way to do this?
The first step is to get friendly with your Plug-In folder. Almost without exception you'll find all your MAS, AU and VST plug-ins are here:
They're then organised into separate folders. 'MAS' and 'VST' are self-explanatory, and Audio Unit plug-ins go in the 'Components' folder. You might also see a 'Digidesign' folder here too, for RTAS or TDM plug-ins used on Pro Tools systems.
So you know where your plug-ins live: now what? This depends on what other audio applications you have installed on your system, and just how organised you want to be. To illustrate some of the possibilities, I'll look in a moment at how some typical users might use plug-ins to their best advantage. Some of the setups described require that individual plug-ins are disabled, by moving them out of their plug-in format's folder so they can no longer be 'seen' by DP or other audio applications. The best place to move them to is another, new folder named after the plug-in format but with '(Disabled)' added to the name. These can happily co-exist with the normal plug-in folders and keep your disabled plug-ins readily available in case you need them again.
Like other modern operating systems, OS X has an architecture that makes provision for certain files and folders to be global — ie. available to all user accounts on the Mac — and for others to be user-specific. This is true of audio plug-ins, and to prove it there's a secondary Plug-Ins folder:
[your home folder]/Library/Audio/Plug-Ins
In the normal course of events, plug-ins never get installed here, and you'd only use this location if you maintained multiple user accounts on your Mac and for some reason wanted to deny other users the use of the specific plug-ins you put here. This is close to being inconceivable in a typical setup, so to keep things straightforward, always make sure that plug-ins are installed into your global Plug-In folder, and that the 'user' Plug-In folder isn't used at all. If, for some reason, plug-ins do end up there, feel free to drag them to the global folder.
[your user folder]/Library/Preferences/Digital Performer/Audio Unit Info Cache
Now re-boot DP. During the AU examination process, just click on 'Mark As Invalid' when the process gets to any of your duplicate plug-ins and DP will blacklist them. Remember to do this, too, when installing any new plug-ins on your Mac that also come in both MAS and AU formats.
In the case of VST plug-ins, both VST Wrapper and VST to AU Adapter incorporate features to prevent individual VST plug-ins from becoming 'wrapped' to the new format. This also helps you to deal with duplicates in DP, while ensuring that the plug-in is still available to VST host applications. Check out the documentation of these two products for more details.
* Power User: If you're a power user there's potential for plug-in pandemonium. Your Mac is a hotbed of audio production and you utilise your vast collection of plug-ins and virtual instruments using DP, rival DAWs, Rewire applications and other hosts in whatever combination proves necessary. What you need is the ultimate flexibility in controlling your plug-in collection. In this case, the Disabled folders approach, though a possibility, could become tiresome and confusing. Likewise, intervening in DP's AU examination process is too inflexible, and too time-consuming to do very often. What's needed is a proper plug-in management system, and for this I can wholeheartedly recommend AudioFinder by Iced Audio. This is a massively useful audio utility — in fact I'll be looking in more detail at how it complements DP next month — that includes a fully fledged Plug-in Manager. With it you can create cross-format plug-in sets that can be recalled using a simple pop-up menu in AudioFinder. It then does all the hard work of creating Disabled folders in your OS X Plug-Ins folder, and moving groups of plug-ins about en masse. To give an example of how this feature might be used, you could create a 'DP' plug-in set, which disabled all Audio Unit and VST plug-ins that had MAS counterparts. But if you then wanted to switch to using Logic or Live for a while, you could instantly load a 'Logic' plug-in set that re-enabled those Audio Unit plug-ins. If you found that a certain plug-in was crashing one of your hosts, how about creating a 'safe' plug-in set that excluded just that one? And if you're using Waves plug-ins with DP — problematic right now, because DP5 no longer automatically blacklists crash-prone plug-ins and Waveshells in Audio Unit and VST formats — you can make up a plug-in set that excludes these (or any non-MAS Waveshell) every time you want to use DP. Once you try it, you'll wonder how you lived without it. AudioFinder costs $69.95 and is available from www.icedaudio.com. There's a demo version there too.
Grouping MAS plug-ins is well worth doing and couldn't be easier: any folder hierarchy in OS X's MAS folder is reflected in the menus. For example, these days I put my individual MAS plug-ins in folders named after their manufacturers. Each folder then causes a manufacturer sub-menu to be displayed when I'm navigating DP pop-up menus. Another approach is to group plug-ins by type, creating folders such as Reverb, Delay, Tone, EQ, Dynamics, Mastering and so on.
Audio Units are not so easy. They'll also often appear grouped into sub-menus in DP's pop-ups, but the grouping occurs because DP reads manufacturer information embedded into the Audio Unit components themselves, rather than any folder hierarchy in OS X. If you're of a programming disposition (and a complete anorak) this information is easy enough to edit. If not, I wouldn't worry about it; life's way too short! The worst side-effect of just leaving things be is a few ungrouped AU stragglers at the top of your pop-up lists.
For VST plug-ins, grouping is dependent on which wrapper system you use. VST Wrapper VSTs show up ungrouped under a single 'VST Wrapper' sub-menu, while VST to AU Adapter allows various attributes of its resulting Audio Units to be edited, and thereby to be flexibly grouped when they eventually appear in DP.
There's an old saying that if something's good it's worth waiting for. Well, on that basis MOTU's MachFive 2 should be really good! It was announced at the 2005 (yes, 2005!) NAMM show, and I saw it demo'd quite soon after at Sounds Expo in London, but since that time MOTU have been typically tight-lipped about a final release date. It was clearly always in the pipeline — references to it showed up in the DP5 User Guide and in the promotional material of French co-developers Ultimate Soundbank. But it wasn't until mid-July this year that MOTU finally put everyone out of their misery and officially launched the update on www.motu.com.
The original MachFive claimed to be the 'universal sampler', but version 2 ups the ante: MOTU claim it's the "complete solution for sample-library playback and sound design". It runs as a plug-in (MAS, VST, AU, RTAS and DXi) and stand-alone on any Mac OS X machine and Windows XP/Vista. It apparently opens and reads all major sampler library and audio-file formats directly, so no prior conversion stage is required, and CDs in sampler manufacturers' proprietary formats, which would otherwise be unreadable on a Mac or PC, can be 'seen' and loaded. Formats include those that are now considered ancient, like Roland S700, Samplecell and Ensoniq ASR, as well as Akai, Emu and Kurzweil. More up-to-date formats, such as EXS24, Kontakt and GigaSampler are compatible too, and programmable rule-based layering provides support for their sophisticated articulation and keyswitching systems. All this provides pretty phenomenal across-the-board compatibility, but clearly a line has to be drawn somewhere: don't expect extensively scripted Kontakt 2 patches to be read perfectly, for instance.
MachFive 2 also offers an unlimited number of multitimbral parts for each instance, a built-in part mixer with metering and effects inserts, time-stretching and pitch-shifting (along with so-called LoopLab beat-slicing), extensive full-screen sample and patch browser, flexible built-in effects architecture, surround sound support and multiple audio outputs. Less expected, perhaps, are the modular synthesis architecture, with both vintage synth-style oscillators and drawbar-organ tone source, and the multi-point, tempo-syncable envelope generators. MachFive 2 is clearly more than just a sampler.
MachFive 2's bundled sound library is still an unknown, of course, but it at least looks promising. It's supplied as four DVDs containing 32Gb of samples. The first promises something akin to a 'workstation' sound set — pianos, organs, guitars, strings, brass, wind, synths, ethnic instruments and drum loops and kits. The second is the 'MachFive Concert Grand' which, if the photo on MOTU's web site is anything to go by, is a Steinway 'D' multisampled at 24-bit, 96kHz. The third DVD offers high-resolution and surround sound samples of electric piano, guitars and bass, drum kits and percussion, amongst others. DVD four is perhaps the biggest draw, however: it contains a MachFive Edition of the Vienna Symphonic Library — which could end up being a cut down 'taster' of the enormous 'real' VSL.
For many DP users, upgrading to MachFive 2 will be a no-brainer. As I've mentioned many times before in Performer Notes, effects and virtual instruments plug-ins available in DP's native MAS format are preferable by far when it comes to long-term stability and reliability. Also, despite its 'universal' credentials, it's inevitable that MachFive 2 will come to be seen as 'DP's sampler', and I wonder if at some stage it might even be offered in a bundle with DP, to go head-to-head with the Logic/EXS24 combo. And if you already own MOTU's Ethno or Symphonic Instrument (or any of the Plugsound libraries) the new MachFive will be able to open and edit those.
Having said all this, MachFive 2 has come very late to the party and a good number of its potential buyers, especially those who have upgraded to Intel-based Macs, have already committed to its main rival, Native Instruments' Kontakt 2. This sampler has a proven track record of reliability with DP, and is undoubtedly a hugely powerful instrument, which can also load pretty much any sample library on the planet. The two samplers have quite different characters, though. Kontakt puts its modular architecture, micro-programmability and granular synthesis features up-front, tempting head-achingly complex patch design. MachFive is, on the face of it, rather less geeky and presents a friendlier, more familiar synth architecture, albeit one that is still flexible and deep. Both sound superb and are capable of outstanding results, so while I'm no fan of Native Instruments' on-line authorisation scheme I'd recommend getting some hands-on experience of both MachFive and Kontakt before taking the plunge, or jumping ship. As soon as I can get my hands on a copy of MachFive 2 I'll give you a full report.
As yet there's no official pricing from MOTU for MachFive 2, but UK distributors Musictrack are quoting £299. As far as upgrades go, you're entitled to it for free if you bought MachFive version 1 on or after January 20th, 2005. Otherwise the upgrade from the older version costs $195 in the US, £135 in the UK. More info, as ever, from www.motu.com.
WaveArts have a lot of friends amongst DP users. This Massachusetts-based company have consistently been amongst the first to offer third-party MAS-format plug-ins following first the transition to OS X with DP version 4 and, more recently, the move to Intel-based Macs. What's more, their TrackPlug became known as a kind of drop-in replacement for Metric Halo's Channel Strip, back in the days when that product seemed to be withering on the vine.
While TrackPlug and the rest of the Power Suite are as useful and dependable as ever, WaveArts have more recently introduced a new plug-in bundle, the Master Restoration Suite, which aims to rescue audio plagued with a range of unwanted nasties, such as mains hum, broadband noise and vinyl crackles. This will be of particular interest to DP users, because other than the pricey Waves Restoration Native bundle, or Bias's SoundSoap Pro, nearly everything else comparable is huge money and runs only on Pro Tools, SADiE or Pyramix systems and the like.
The suite consists of five plug-ins: MR Hum, MR Click, MR Noise, MR Gate and Master Restoration. You can buy the first four separately, whereas Master Restoration (which effectively is these four rolled into one big plug-in) is only available to those who buy the whole bundle. Between them they can perform the vast majority of noise-reduction tasks that will typically be encountered in music and general audio production, and there's a clear bias towards preservation of audio quality and transparency in their operation. All work at least as well as their Waves counterparts, and they have wonderfully clear graphic interfaces and a sensible range of presets as starting points for various noise-removal tasks. I'm particularly impressed with MR Hum's abilities: its brick-wall filters are seriously powerful and useful. MR Noise is also excellent, managing to remove a variety of noise types with minimal tweaking and without making your audio sound like a low bit-rate MP3.
The price for each of MR Hum, MR Click and MR Gate is $99.95. The more sophisticated MR Noise is $349.95, and the whole lot together (including Master Restoration) is $499. You can find out if they'll do what you need, too, by downloading the functional demo versions from www.wavearts.com.