Mike Collins takes an in‑depth look at Digital Performer Version 1.4/Performer Version 4.2 and the Digital Waveboard, which adds hard disk audio recording to Performer's powerful sequencer.
Inspiration strikes! You quickly sequence a killer drum groove and a rockin' piano part. Then you set up a microphone, plug it into your Macintosh, and tear off a lead vocal track that makes Ray Charles drop his Diet Pepsi! No it's not a dream, it's Digital Performer in action. So goes the PR copy in Mark of the Unicorn's product brochure describing their hottest new music software.
MOTU's Performer is arguably the best MIDI sequencer available for the Macintosh, having been around almost as long as the Mac, but what does the fact that it's gone digital really mean? You've probably heard about Cubase Audio or Opcode's Studio Vision — in which case you may be wondering why it has taken Performer so long to go digital! All these programs allow you to record digital audio into specially allocated tracks alongside the MIDI sequence tracks — as long as you have a Sound Tools, Pro Tools, or AudioMedia system installed in your Macintosh. Digital Performer also works with MOTU's own Digital Waveboard, and there are plans to support other digital multitracking systems, including Yamaha's CBX D5.
Incorporating the Performer MIDI sequencer, Digital Performer has already won the 1992 TEC award for best computer software or hardware product. As a sequencer, Performer offers an extremely open‑ended approach, with (RAM and disk space permitting) an unlimited number of events, tracks, sequences, songs, automated sliders and event editing windows.
Despite its power and sophistication, Performer is still one of the easiest sequencers to use. I use all the various Mac sequencers, and occasionally choose Vision, Cubase, Mastertracks Pro or Beyond to take advantage of unique features only available in a particular program. Nevertheless, I use Performer for most of my work as it's usually quicker and easier than the others. Digital Performer 1.4 includes all the latest features of Performer 4.2 — including movable dialogue boxes, printing of notation, Tracks List, Event List and Markers windows, and integration with MOTU's new Unisyn universal synth editor/librarian software.
Recently‑added features include:
- Record Beats: a command which lets you record music without listening to a click, and then realign the beats and barlines to the music afterwards. Record Beats is quite simple to use: you just select this command from the Change Menu, the sequencer starts to play back, and you tap along on any key, keeping in time with your music as far as you can. When you reach the end of the sequence, Performer automatically realigns the barlines to match your downbeats. If you have used any meter changes, or are in any other meter than 4/4, you enter these changes into the conductor track afterwards. By way of comparison, Vision provides a similar facility, but actually offers more options and lets you drop in while recording the beats if you need to.
- MIDI Activity Meters are now provided in the tracks window, which can display either data density or note velocity.
- Partial Solo mode lets you set non‑solo'd tracks to play back at a user‑configurable percentage of velocity. This is a pretty good idea, because you can sometimes lose perspective on how a solo'd track relates to the other tracks when you can't hear them at all; Partial Solo lets you hear as much of the non‑solo'd tracks as you need to.
- MIDI Devices: The MIDI Configuration window and its Patch List let you create 'virtual' MIDI 'Devices' to which you can assign playback in the Tracks window, rather than just choosing a MIDI channel and port. A Device has a name and a MIDI channel assignment. Optionally, a Device can also have a MIDI patch change or system exclusive assignment so that you can store the actual sound as a SysEx patch dump for that Device. MOTU's new Unisyn Patch Editor/Librarian works with the Patch Lists in a similar way that Galaxy works with Vision, so that you can access the actual patches available in the different synths in your MIDI rig. You can access up to 512 MIDI channels using a network of four MTP interfaces connected to your Mac; you can use both Modem and Printer port, and hook up different combinations of interfaces from different manufacturers. Opcode's Studio 5 emulates two connected MTP units, and the Studio 4 can not only emulate one MTP, but can also network with an original MTP as though it were a second MTP or MTP II.
- Tap Tempo: this feature lets you record a tempo map while Performer is 'referenced' to external time code. Using this feature, you can record a tempo map that matches music already on tape so that you can synchronise your sequences to it. This is best achieved if you already have a click track on tape and you feed this into a click‑to‑MIDI convertor, such as Mark of the Unicorn's Video Time Piece, so that the tempo map follows the clicks on tape. Otherwise, you have to tap along on your MIDI keyboard or on a MIDI footswitch in time with the music. Obviously, you have to do this very accurately, but it is possible with care!
Performer's menus are where much of the action takes place. Powerful Edit Menu commands include Snip, Splice, Merge, and Shift. A Repeat feature lets you paste multiple copies of any data into a sequence, and a filter editor allows MIDI data to be filtered within a track or sequence.
The Region Menu allows for a series of commands such as 'change velocity and controller data', 'split notes' and 'scale time', to be performed on a range of events, from a short passage to multiple sequences. There is also a recently‑added Humanize command which lets you randomise note placements, durations, velocities or pitches, and tempos.
The Basics Menu has a wealth of features, including Step Recording, Patch Thru and Input Filtering, Event Chasing, Autoscroll, MIDI interface and transmit/receive sync settings, metronome functions, and MIDI system reset commands.
The Change Menu offers selections for Meter, Tempo, Key Changes, and looping. Loops are one of Performer's many strong points, and are much more comprehensive than those of most other sequencers. Each track can contain multiple loops which can start and end at any position in time — and you can even nest loops within loops!
Performer interfaces with the user via various movable windows which allow quick and easy access to the various control features. Each window has a pop‑up 'mini‑menu' which allows you to carry out window‑specific tasks. The Tracks Window lets you assign track names, channels, and comments — there is no limit to the number of tracks you can create. You can set each track so that it will play, record, do neither, or do both at the same time. You can also choose any MIDI channel (or multiple MIDI channels) for the track to record from or for subsequent playback of the recorded track. Performer also shows each track as a line in an overview editor to the right of the tracks display. It is very easy to drag sections of music around to try out arrangements here. This part of the Tracks window is similar to that of Mastertracks Pro, and lets you see where you have actually recorded data along your tracks by displaying it in grey or black boxes — according to how much data is in the track.
The general control features are very comprehensive and easy to use. A Markers Window allows Marker events to be placed into a list with positions displayed as Bar/Beat/Clocks, Hours/Minutes/Seconds, or at SMPTE time locations — and you can display any combination of these. This is one of my favourite Performer features, making it extremely easy to set up markers for your verse, chorus and so on, or for your SMPTE 'hit' points when working to picture. The Metronome Window allows tempos to be set, and the Counter Window displays the current sequence position in any combination of measures, real‑time, and SMPTE time locations. A Controls Window allows Performer to be manually operated using familiar tape‑deck style controls.
The Chunks Window allows you to create a number of separate sequences within a Performer 'session' and then assemble these into a complete song. A MIDI Monitor window is provided which offers a simple display showing incoming MIDI activity — to let you check which MIDI Channels and Input ports are in use. The MIDI Configuration window lets you assign the MIDI devices in your rig to particular MIDI channels and ports, and enter a name of your choice for each device. For instance, you might be using four sampled instruments in an S1100 set to MIDI channels 1 to 4; you might name these S1100/1, S1100/2, S1100/3 and S1100/4 in the MIDI Configuration Window, and then you can choose these settings by name from the tracks window instead of setting a MIDI channel and port directly each time. Obviously this takes a little time to set up, but is much friendlier to use once it is set up. If you are using MOTU's new synth editor, Unisyn, the synths in your rig will automatically appear in this window once Unisyn has been configured for your rig. The Remote Controls window lets you assign keys on your MIDI Master keyboard to control Performer remotely. Finally, a new Input Quantise window has been added, which lets you quantise as you record, just like most drum machines.
Performer offers a number of features not available in other sequencers, such as multi‑track as opposed to multi‑channel recording. This is useful if you want to transfer sequences containing several tracks into Performer from another sequencer, perhaps from a synthesizer sequencer that does not support MIDI files. With other Mac sequencers, the maximum number of separate tracks you can record onto at any one time is maybe four — so you might have to do several 'passes' of your sequence to transfer, say, 16 tracks. With Performer, the number is only limited by the ability of your MIDI interface to provide separate MIDI channels and input 'ports'. Typically, you could transfer 16 different tracks from a MIDI sequencer all assigned to different MIDI channels in one pass with Performer in Multirecord mode.
One of Performer's greatest assets is the way you can use it with multiport MIDI interfaces to control a large MIDI system; you can embed SysEx data directly within your sequences to configure your entire studio with a single command.
Finally, Performer is particularly well‑suited for working to picture, and MOTU also offer a Video TimePiece interface which will convert gen‑locked VITC into MIDI TimeCode, and will even let you burn timecode onto your video screen, and display streamers to cue a conductor working with 'live' instrumentalists who are recording to picture. In the Markers window and the Event list windows you can display your event locations as SMPTE hours/minutes/seconds/frames locations as well as real‑time hours/minutes/seconds or the normal bar/beat/clock displays.
As with its rival programs, Digital Performer only provides digital audio features if you have a digital audio recording system connected to your Macintosh. Compatible systems include Pro Tools, Sound Tools, and Audiomedia from Digidesign, and Mark of the Unicorn also offer their own Digital Waveboard. All of these systems use a NuBus card containing a Motorola digital signal processor in conjunction with whatever hard disk space you have available to your Mac system. You also need suitable analogue to digital and digital to analogue converters. The Audiomedia card has these built in, whereas the original Sound Tools card has D/A converters built in, but uses external A/D converters, or external digital audio inputs. The Sound Tools II and Pro Tools systems both use a 19‑inch rackmountable Audio Interface, comprising four analogue audio inputs and outputs, and digital audio inputs and outputs. The Digital Waveboard has no analogue converters, but you can connect it digitally to a DAT recorder which does have analogue converters — this avoids the expense of buying separate converters.
Digital Performer will also work with the imminent Yamaha CBX‑D5, a self‑contained hard disk recording system which does not require a NuBus card in the Macintosh. It connects to the Mac via SCSI and MIDI cables, so you can use it with any Mac from the SE30 upwards. The CBX‑D5 features advanced real‑time digital EQ which can be automated directly from Digital Performer, and also offers two real‑time digital effects processors per channel; it has four audio channels, and two or more units can be linked to expand the system. Audiomedia and Sound Tools offer two channels, and Pro Tools offers four channels, expandable to 16 with extra hardware. However, within Digital Performer, you can create as many digital audio tracks as you like! The catch is that you are limited by your hardware as to how many you can play back through separate output channels at any one time. Still, this gives you much more flexibility with your audio than the number of available audio channels in your system would imply.
You can record as many soundtracks as you like (if you have enough available hard disk space), and assign as many of these as you like to play back through any available audio channel, but only one soundbite can play at a time on the channel. If an audio channel has several overlapping soundbites assigned to it, either in one track or across several tracks, each new soundbite 'steals' the channel from the last one. If the new soundbite ends before the original one, the original one resumes playing. The lowest numbered track has priority over the next lowest numbered, and so forth.
Digital Performer creates 16‑bit Sound Designer II audio files, and can read Sound Designer, Sound Designer II mono or stereo, and AIFF files. So, for instance, you could import a stereo mix of an existing piece of music, then overlay MIDI tracks in the sequencer to play along with this. After editing, you could then record the result back to your stereo mastering recorder. Alternatively, you could use the audio features as a sound 'sampler' inside your Mac, so that you could record and play back sound effects, drum loops, bass loops, vocal snatches, or whatever alongside your MIDI stuff. Yet another way to use the software is to regard the audio feature as a multitrack audio recorder for vocals and acoustic instruments.
As far as the audio capabilities of Digital Performer are concerned, these are pretty similar to those of its rivals, so your choice probably comes down to which MIDI sequencer you prefer.
One new feature of version 1.4 which many people have been waiting for is support for four tracks of audio with the Digital Waveboard, Audiomedia II, and Sound Tools II systems, as well as with Pro Tools. Pro Tools offers four separate output channels, whereas the other three only have two actual output channels, although four channels will be mixed down automatically to channels 1 and 2 before output, while maintaining independent pan and volume settings. You can still only record using two at once unless you use Pro Tools, though.
Digital Performer's Audio Monitor window lists the audio channels available via your installed hardware, and lets you monitor either output or input levels for these channels using bargraph‑style meters. You can also name files into which you wish to record new audio data here. To get existing Sound Designer files into Digital Performer, you open the Soundbites window and select the 'Add Soundbite' command from a mini‑menu which brings up the Open File dialogue box. Each file you select here is added to the list in the Soundbites window, and can then be inserted into any audio track. You can sort files in the list by name, size or soundfile, compact files with unused data, and select unused files to remove from the list or delete. Each soundbite appears in the Audio Event list window just as though it were a MIDI event. Soundbites can be cut, copied or pasted in this window in the usual way. In the Graphic Editing window, the soundbite can be displayed as a waveform or as a simple timeline, if preferred. You can drag the soundbite and have it 'snap' to preset beat unit divisions which you select from a pop‑up menu, or you can drag it freely if you turn these units off. You can process selected soundbites using the Audio menu commands which include Split, Trim, Strip Silence, and Mix.
Synchronisation is necessary between digital audio data and MIDI data because their timing is controlled by two separate clocks. Digital audio is driven by the digital audio hardware's recording and playback engine. The timing of MIDI data, on the other hand, is controlled by Digital Performer's MIDI Driver. To get the two clocks exactly in time they must both be synchronised to the same clock. You can either make one clock drive the other or drive both clocks with a third, master clock. Digital Performer uses both of these synchronisation methods, depending on whether or not it is slaved to external SMPTE sync. When Slave to SMPTE is unchecked, the digital audio clock drives the MIDI clock. Continuous sync is not required, and is greyed out. When slaving to SMPTE you have two choices — you can use Digital Performer by itself with Continuous Sync enabled and locking via MIDI Timecode or Direct Timelock, or you can slave Digital Performer to SMPTE and separately slave your digital audio hardware to SMPTE via a word clock converter to provide the highest quality. MOTU have put a lot of effort into getting synchronisation sorted out recently, so rest assured that everything will lock solidly in all situations!
I greatly prefer Digital Performer's MIDI sequencing capabilities to those of Vision, Notator Logic and Cubase. However, Cubase has a great Match Tempo feature which lets you automatically match the tempo of any audio you import to the tempo of the MIDI sequencer so that the bars of music correspond in both, and has flexible quantisation points which you can set in each chunk of audio. Studio Vision also has better audio features than Performer. You can name your audio events and display the names in the bottom left hand corner of each audio event's waveform display in the graphic edit window. And you can trim an audio event by dragging the lower left or right hand edge of the event to change the duration of the event without moving the audio data relative to the sequence.
Performer 4.2 and Digital Performer 1.4 both now offer printing of not only scores, but Markers windows, Tracks windows, and so forth. Although the scoring features are not as comprehensive as those of Cubase Score or Notator Logic, they are adequate for simple lead‑lines. On the other hand, the ability to print out the contents of the various other windows can be extremely useful at times!
Though I feel that Performer is still the best contender in the Mac sequencing market, I don't think that its audio and scoring enhancements rival those of some competing packages. Specifically, the audio capabilities of Digital Performer are pretty similar to those of its rivals, so your choice probably comes down to which MIDI sequencer you prefer. Nevertheless, MOTU should aim to drastically improve the scoring features, and significantly enhance the audio features of Digital Performer if they want to get ahead of the pack in the hi‑tech '90s!
User‑configurable sliders, knobs and switches, which you can assign to MIDI controllers, are implemented within Performer; these will move on playback to display the changes in the data you have recorded. Each fader is capable of generating continuous‑controller messages, which can be used for applications such as MIDI mixing (velocity/ panning), adjusting instrument parameters in real time, controlling MIDI‑controlled effects devices, and so forth. You need to use one of the faster Macs if you want moving faders and scrolling windows to work smoothly — on an LC or other low‑end Mac you just won't get good results.
Performer has the best Event List editor I have seen, showing bar, beat, clock, real‑time and/or SMPTE time, velocities, event type, and duration. It is easy to 'spot edit' any single note or collection of notes or other data, tabbing between fields as you go, or choosing via the mouse. Performer also offers Graphical or piano‑roll style editing. A continuous data grid appears in the lower portion of the graphic edit screen for displaying pitch‑bend data, velocity, and controller information, any of which may be easily reshaped using the mouse. Although Performer's graphic editing features are pretty good, graphic editing is better in some of its rivals.
Performer's Notation Editing window allows you to edit sequenced data using standard music notation. This window is similar to the graphic editing window, and includes a time ruler, a markers strip, and a continuous data grid. However, instead of a pitch ruler and note grid, this window displays note values for editing on a grand staff in conventional musical notation. Performer's notation editing is similar to that of Cubase or Notator Logic. However, the notation editing and printing features in Cubase and Notator are much better. So you are definitely better off exporting your Performer files as MIDI files to Mosaic or Finale for anything other than 'cheap and cheerful' printouts of simple parts.
Performer also offers pattern‑based features; all the tracks in a particular track window can be treated as a single 'chunk', for example. You can create as many chunks as you like, each being a complete sequence with multiple tracks, and then put these together in the Song Window to arrange into your final piece. You can play chunks sequentially, simultaneously or partially overlapping. Songs can even be nested within other Songs, so Performer is just about as powerful as any other sequencer when working with patterns. This feature has advantages within video and film scoring because any chunk can be easily slipped in time, thus creating a simplified means of matching the timings of sequenced tracks to picture. If you want to make changes to your data, these must always be made as permanent edits in Performer, whereas other sequencers like Vision, Cubase and Notator Logic allow you to set playback‑only parameters to control quantisation, velocity, transposition, and compression.
One of Performer's greatest assets is how you can use it with multi‑port MIDI interfaces to control a large MIDI system, and the ability to embed SysEx data directly within your sequences so that you can configure your entire studio with a single command. Performer's SysEx recording and editing capabilities are better than those of just about any other sequencer I have encountered — most of which place limitations on the amount of SysEx you can record, or on the ease with which you can edit this data. Performer simply excels in this area.
One of this program's many strengths is in its editing features, particularly the ability to work on several tracks at one time. You can undo any edit (as long as you do this immediately — if you make any other moves you lose the ability to undo). You can filter the data you want to edit, so that you might just affect pitchbend data, for instance. In any of the edit windows you can make discontiguous selections by holding the Shift key on the Mac keyboard and clicking on the events you want to select. Then there are powerful transpose features, flexible quantise options, a de‑flam command, invert pitches, and a command to reverse the order of notes.
The Split Notes feature is great when you record several drums, like bass drum, snare drum, and hi‑hats into one track and then want to split these onto separate tracks for editing purposes. The Deflam feature lets you select the notes of a chord which you have played a little sloppily, and line these all up onto the same clock position, without having to quantise them onto any particular note position. You can easily create smooth changes to your data over time, to create crescendos and decrescendos, for instance, with velocity data.