The highlights of Digital Performer's latest incarnation include advanced comping tools, new plug–ins — and a revolutionary alternative to track and instrument freezing.
It's been a bit over two years since MOTU last made a major update to their flagship sequencing software, Digital Performer. Back then, version 5 added a range of useful features intended to benefit users working in many different fields, but MOTU continued to resist any overhaul of the rather old–fashioned and quirky user interface, while there were still concerns about audio performance efficiency, and continuing grumbles about the native audio format and the lack of any easy way to 'comp' multiple takes. Clearly the MOTU design team thought these were important issues too, because they've all been addressed in the new version 6.
Starting life way back in the mists of Mac history, DP's development has been one of gradual accumulation of features rather than frequent reinventions. Consequently, there's an awful lot in DP6 that is almost exactly the same as it was in DP5. So for that reason, as well as the near impossibility of reviewing a sequencer as sophisticated as DP without feeling like you're rewriting War And Peace, please do refer to my review of DP5 in the September 2006 issue of SOS alongside this one. It's available free online at www.soundonsound.com/sos/sep06/articles/performer5.htm. Many sections of that review — Features Overview, Editing Environment, much of Audio Recording & Playback, Mix Matters and Software Synths — are equally applicable to DP6.
DP6 is a Mac–only application, though compatible with both Power PC and Intel–based machines. The official minimum requirement is a 1GHz G4 Power Mac with 1GB RAM, running OS 10.4.7 or later, but the recommended minimum is for a multi–core or multi–processor G5 or Intel–based Mac with 2GB RAM. If you're planning on using DP6 with Pro Tools hardware, you need a Digidesign HD 1, 2, 3 or Accel system with DAE version 7.2 or later. There's still no complicated copy protection — no dongle, challenge/response or anything else except the requirement to enter a unique keycode printed in the User Guide and have the installer CD in the drive when you first run DP.
As before, the heart of DP6 is the combination of the Control Panel and the Consolidated Window. The former is your standard transport window. In previous versions of DP it had fold–out 'drawers', which contained various controls relating to audio settings and data selection, but in DP6 these are gone. It's neater now, and more compact, and there's no chance that important information can be hidden in a closed drawer. The Consolidated Window, meanwhile, is a multi–pane window that can contain the vast majority of editing windows in almost any configuration to suit the needs of individual projects. In essence, there's a central area for all the main editors that are suited to being fairly wide, with 'side–bars' to the left and right for smaller or more vertically oriented panels such as Event Lists, Information palettes, lists of Markers and audio Soundbites.
DP6's way of managing windows is substantially different to any previous version. In the old days, title bars bristled with unusual and initially unfamiliar buttons, and there were title–bar 'mini–menus' that popped up commands specific to individual windows. All this has gone, and I don't think anyone will miss it. In its place is a much sleeker and more modern off–white and grey look, which adheres more closely to OS X standards. Central cells in the Consolidated Window get tabbed tops that switch between the editing windows on offer, along with a separate tab at the far right that lets you switch sequences (or tracks, when appropriate) and is also the new home of each cell's mini–menu. It's a similar story in the side–bars too, except that here you switch what's in a cell by using a pop–up menu on its tab. You can stack up windows or editors in a single side–bar cell using an 'Add Tab' option, and then switch between them by clicking the relevant tab. As before, Consolidated Window cells can be 'popped out' into independent windows — good, for example, if you have a two-monitor setup and want to keep DP's mixer permanently visible on a second monitor while all the editing takes place on the first.
Last but not least, in DP6 a window that you're resizing updates in real time, whereas in previous versions only the window outline updated.
So what exactly do you get to work with in the Consolidated Window? In short, a whole bunch of specific editors and other windows. The main ones, including the Tracks Overview, Sequence Editor, Graphic Editor and Drum Editor, are described in the DP5 review, along with DP's Tools palette. Here's what's changed in DP6:
- Tracks Overview: The big news in DP6 is that track lanes can be vertically zoomed, ideal for displaying huge arrangements in a smaller space, or allowing lower track counts to be magnified and made clearer to work with. Tracks can't be individually zoomed, though — the setting applies globally.
- Drum Editor: Just a small change here, but worthwhile: the edit grid can be set to triplets as well as double–dotted rhythms.
- Mixing Board: Cosmetic tweaks give this panel a shiny new look, slightly more akin to a modern moving–fader hardware mixer.
- Tools: Significantly, the Tools palette gains the new Comp tool, of which more later.
As well as these specific changes, there have been important tweaks right across the board. To begin with, clickable horizontal and vertical zoom controls are now always at the bottom right of editing windows — previously, they were somewhat strewn about. Buttons for opening the Track Selector and taking an automation data snapshot are always at the bottom left. However, there's a curious discrepancy (still) in the appearance of track play–enable indicators: in the Tracks Overview and Drum Editor they're small blue right–facing triangles, whereas in the Sequence Editor and Drum Editor they're green square buttons with a black right–facing triangle inside. This is hardly difficult to deal with, and you may not even notice the difference, but I wonder why the more intuitive green colour isn't used throughout.
Then there are the new arrangements for audio waveform display. Previously in DP there's been little or no choice: audio soundbites appeared as opaque grey bars superimposed with a black waveform display and a sort of title strip in the colour selected for the track. In DP6 there are no more title strips (though, functionally speaking, they're still there) and there are new Preferences options to really make the waveforms stand out in their track colour setting.
The first major functional enhancement in DP6 is the new comping and take management system. In DP6, multiple takes in audio tracks can be displayed simultaneously by choosing a new command in Sequence Editor track pop–up menus called 'Show Takes'. This causes all takes to line up slightly indented beneath their 'parent' track, where they remain completely editable, as a springboard for using the new Comp Tool. Using this tool, you can drag or click regions within the takes to automatically build a new 'comp take', to which custom fades can be applied on comp boundaries if necessary. Interestingly, takes within DP6 tracks end up with much the same status and abilities as full–blown tracks, so, using some more new commands, it's easy to turn takes into tracks and vice versa. There's nothing sacrosanct about a comp take, either — this can also be a source for further comping, like any other take. As is the MOTU way with new features, this one is exceptionally flexible, and should be able to deal with pretty much any conceivable comping situation, whether vocals, guitar solos, spoken word, or anything else. It's also works well for multitrack audio, when you're comping multi–miked drums for example. New 'Show/Hide Takes' and 'Take Comping' options have been added to the Track Groups feature, so as long as you've grouped the relevant tracks before you start editing them they'll all be equally comped as you work on one.
For time immemorial, DP's native audio file format has been mono, split–stereo and split–surround Sound Designer II — a perfectly good file format, but one that has lost out in widespread compatibility and general convenience in recent years. MOTU obviously knew it was time for a change, so now either Broadcast WAV or AIFF, interleaved or split, can be chosen as alternative native file formats. The new scheme also helps with the export and import of OMF and AAF formats typically used to transfer projects between sequencer platforms. If all that extra compatibility weren't enough, there's now support for 32–bit floating–point files in Broadcast WAV and AIFF formats too, so when you next need 1500dB dynamic range, you've got it (DP employs a 32–bit floating point scheme in its mix architecture). And before we leave bit–depth matters, I'll point out that the ability to replay 16– and 24–bit audio files simultaneously without prior conversion was implemented during DP5's life span, and DP6 carries this on.
DP6's Bounce to Disk feature now incorporates CD burning and CD image creation. To get information on CD track start positions DP reads markers or soundbite boundaries (or both), and either way, there are options to set track pre–gap on a per–track basis. CD–Text is supported, and it's no problem at all to have audio content in the pre–gaps.
Support for standard formats has improved in the plug–in field, too. DP6 supports MOTU's own MAS (MOTU Audio System) and Apple's Audio Units plug–ins, and can apply both types in real time or off–line. The important news is that AU hosting has improved significantly: for the first time, AU plug–ins can respond to smooth, ramp–type automation data, side–chain inputs are active, plug–ins written with Cocoa graphics play nice, and there's full support for hardware control surfaces like the Euphonix Artist series. There's even better news concerning Audio Units virtual instruments. In DP6 their MIDI timing is sample–accurate, and any that use what MOTU term 'Prioritised MIDI' — at the moment that apparently includes Synful Orchestra and Virus Control (the software bit of a Virus TI synth) — are fully compatible.
One of DP5's great achievements was plug–in pre–rendering, whereby plug–in processing on disk tracks could be done ahead of time, such as when DP's transport was standing idle, leading to dramatically decreased CPU usage during playback. This feature — which remains curiously un–heralded — is now joined by instrument pre–generation, which actually is a much bigger deal.
For the user, it's simple: you use virtual instruments in the same way as you always would, but just remember to close their windows when you're done. Then DP6 beavers away in the background, and during playback, the outputs from those instruments are played from the pre–generated audio files rather than being synthesized in real time. It works phenomenally well, bordering on the miraculous. To get an idea of what it's capable of, I created a sequence with eight Albino 3 synths, each running the same complex patch, and each followed by a ProVerb stereo convolution reverb — quite a setup. I then drove each with a MIDI track consisting of repeated eight–note chords.
Running on a 2.2GHz Macbook with a 256–sample buffer size, and forcing DP to run everything in real time, CPU use whilst the transport was stopped was a worrying 50 percent, and on playback, I got about three Albino instances going (24 voices) until audio thoroughly broke up. Then I turned on Pre–gen mode. Now the CPU use with transport stopped was the typical DP 'idle' amount of around five percent, and with all 64 voices playing, and all those convolution reverbs running, CPU use barely increased, peaking at around 10 percent. With a 1024–sample buffer, the CPU meter barely flickered above a few percent.
I also loaded up a 'real–world' sequence in the shape of a track I was working on recently that used a GForce Minimonsta with lots of voices, an Albino 3, two u–he Zebras, a Waldorf Attack and a generous helping of other plug–ins, including reverbs and some granular processors, on my dual 2GHz G5 Power Mac. This is a computer that's nearly four years old, and consequently it's only OK, not brilliant, for instrument hosting. Under DP5 I'd had to freeze the Minimonsta and one Zebra to prevent audio break–up, but under DP6, with all the synths re–enabled, this sequence plays completely reliably at a 256–sample buffer setting, with a processor hit that varies from 25 to 40 percent. As with the Macbook, at 1024 samples the G5 is little more than idling. Astonishing.
The ramifications of instrument and plug–in pre–gen can hardly be overstated. This is a feature which seems to rewrite the rules on what we can expect from a single Mac running software synths and plug–ins. It also breathes new life into old Macs — they suddenly become much more capable than you ever imagined they could be! And whilst pre–gen's capabilities are immense, it's also very easy to live with — there's none of the workflow–killing waiting around associated with track freezing, and virtually no effort involved on the part of the user. Those plug–ins that do need to be run in real time (DSP–powered types like UAD or Liquid Mix) can easily be made to do so using an option in their window's mini–menu.
Finally, if pre–gen's CPU gains weren't exciting enough, there's a knock–on benefit in that instrument tracks can now be included in a bounce–to–disk operation (like you'd do when producing a master audio file of your sequence) without freezing them first. It's a win–win situation.
It's not all good news, because DP6 does retain some clunky corners from previous versions. First off, really complex projects can be very slow to load — a big orchestral multitrack editing job I worked on in DP5, which referenced 20GB of audio and contained hundreds of edits, still takes several minutes to open. And, occasionally, big projects can take 30 seconds or more to save, too. I also experienced slow performance when copying some sequence data from place to place in tracks, with the 'spinning beachball' appearing for a few seconds at a time before each paste completed. Some users have reported beachballs when the Play Selection command is used, and there are also reports of various other little bugs and anomalies that are either sporadic or confined to a few users' setups. I experienced my own when DP insisted on beat–analysing all my audio files in one project even though everything related to that feature was disabled.
Perhaps more of a concern, at least for the short term, are some plug–in incompatibilities. Some Native Instruments plug–ins, particularly Kontakt and Kontakt Player, have been unreliable since DP6's release, and this is, of course, a big problem for anyone using sample libraries tied to that platform. The situation is apparently improving, but it could be a while before everything gets straightened out.
And here are some general moans. It'd be great to have a choice of panners for stereo tracks: the default panner is actually a balance control, so when it's set at an extreme position one or other channel is completely attenuated, which is an approach that suits some contexts but not others. Regarding DP's editing windows, it seems a shame that neither the Control Panel nor the Tools palette can actually be accommodated within the Consolidated window — to keep both visible you can end up with wasted screen space. I would love the option to have a tighter note grid in the Drum Editor — on a 12–inch laptop screen you barely get a few bars at 16th–note resolution. And could now be the time for MOTU to spruce up the long–neglected QuickScribe notation a bit? Configurable, draggable time rulers would be great to have for a number of applications. And the lack of a bundled ROMpler–style virtual instrument with a multi–purpose sound library is particularly notable.
All of this is, however, outweighed by the good news. In my view, DP6 is far from being a mere 'marketing update', but is a milestone in the application's development. The combining of instrument pre–gen and plug–in pre–rendering is arguably the most important single development ever in DP, because it allows you to do so much so easily, and banishes any suggestion that the application is less efficient and capable than its rivals. The revamped user interface makes it a much more pleasant place to be, MW Leveler and ProVerb (see the 'New Bundled Plug–ins For DP6' box) answer the criticism that previous DP versions lacked a good bundled single–band compressor and quality reverb, and the track comping facilities are top–class and easy to use.
Little things add up, too. Audio edits and configuration changes applied during playback cause far fewer audible glitches. Window resizing is improved, as I mentioned earlier, and scrolling is smoother. Many aspects of the application are just that much more refined.
Putting it all together, DP6 is a fantastic achievement. It continues the tradition of delivering those under–the–hood, not–very–sexy improvements that actually make a major impact on the user experience, but also comes through big–style with some flagship developments that put DP right on the cutting edge. Compatibility issues have been ironed out pretty quickly in the past, and there's no reason to imagine the few outstanding ones in DP6 won't be too — in any case, the vast majority of third–party plug–ins already work beautifully.
DP is not Logic, or Pro Tools, and isn't trying to be. Rather it has its own, self–assured take on the business of software sequencing: one that in this new version has all of a sudden become more fully-featured, appealing, and genuinely exciting than ever before.
- Digital Performer version 6.01.
- Apple Macbook with 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and 2GB RAM, running Mac OS 10.5.4.
- Apple G5 Power Mac with dual 2GHz CPUs and 4GB RAM, running Mac OS 10.5.4.
DP6 features a clutch of new Inspector palettes, which open in the Consolidated Window sidebar or can be popped out individually, and display information about editing actions and configuration of related settings. Much of the same information also appears directly in dedicated panels in editing windows. For example, in the Sequence Editor three panels appear by default, marked C (Cursor), E (Event) and G (Grid), and these update in real time as you work. When you click on one of the letters the corresponding Inspector window is opened for even more information.
Another unquestionable improvement is the new universal Track Selector. This is basically a track list that allows you to choose what combination of tracks is displayed in editing windows at any one time, and comes into its own keeping the Sequence Editor and the Mixing Board manageable in sequences with high track counts. In previous versions of DP, several windows had their own track selectors, and while this behaviour is still available if you want it, the new way is to have a single Track Selector open in a Consolidated Window sidebar (or popped out into its own window), which then maintains a live link to whatever editing window is currently selected, so you only need the one open as you work.
Adding to the included MAS–format audio plug–ins are two new ones. MasterWorks Leveler is an emulation of a Teletronix LA2A optical compressor — or rather, four LA2As of varying age and character. As well as offering the possibility to switch between them, this plug–in actually models the typical LA2A warm–up time(!), so when processing is not required, users are encouraged to keep the plug–in nice and hot by using the STNBY button rather than the normal plug–in bypass — I'm serious! It's a fine–sounding single-band compressor, really lending presence and impact to vocals and capable of pumping like the very devil on more transient–rich material.
ProVerb is MOTU's take on the convolution reverb, and it comes not a moment too soon, since the existing Reverb and e–Verb plug–ins leave a lot to be desired. Convolution processors have become widespread and familiar items in recent years so it's good to see that while ProVerb serves up standard fare — classy, smooth treatments ranging from cathedrals to plates, and even delays — it also offers some less common features. First, there's an on–board ducker. It's easy to work with, using three knobs and a gain–reduction meter, and its effect is to decrease the level of the reverb when the dry signal increases in level. With applications in music production and dialogue mixing, this allows you to dial in supportive ambiences while keeping the original signal clear and immediate. Second, there's an unusual wet/dry mix control with four different modes, making it easy to set up more unorthodox automated reverb treatments for music production and sound design. You can also drag and drop sound files from the Finder on to ProVerb to use as impulse responses: I tried importing all sorts of pitched material and rhythmic grooves and got some fascinating, experimental–style results.
Before we leave the subject of audio plug–ins, I should mention the new plug–in manager feature. This is administered through the Preferences window, and allows multiple plug–in sets to be defined, as well as Audio Units to be individually re–examined (and if necessary approved) for compatibility. A 'safe' set enables only bundled plug–ins, potentially assisting with troubleshooting, and you can switch plug–in sets at start–up by holding down the Option key as you launch DP6.
There are some additional new features in DP6 that are more specialised in nature, but could be a big deal if you work in these areas. Here's a quick round–up:
- Final Cut Pro integration: DP6 now allows interchange of XML edit lists with Final Cut Pro, whether it's running on the same computer or you're collaborating with an editing facility elsewhere. The XML file lists visual edits in FCP, so that if you're composing or mixing in DP and have to deal with a re–edited picture, the changes are displayed visually in DP's Sequence Editor, as well as in list form, making it a little easier to see those cues that need to be reworked.
- Film scoring enhancements: DP has always been big on music–for–picture features, and DP6 raises the bar still higher. It now supports more frame rates (23.976 and 30–drop have been added), and streamers, flutters and punches can be sent straight to an NTSC DV output.
- Pro Tools HD enhancements: For anyone using DP as a front end for a Pro Tools system, DP6 now supports RTAS plug–ins on Aux tracks and master faders, and on post–TDM inserts. Instrument side–chain outputs are enabled, and there's now an equivalent of Pro Tools' categorised effects menus.
- Instrument and plug–in pre–processing allow phenomenal performance from even modest Macs, and are almost completely transparent in use.
- The new track comping features are just great — flexible, and easy to use.
- The user interface overhaul makes DP a much nicer place to work, and easier to learn.
- The new plug–ins provide DP with a fine character compressor and convolution reverb.
- Some third–party plug–in compatibility problems are not ironed out yet.
- Opening complex projects can be slow, as can some editing actions.
- No bundled 'workhorse' sample-player plug–in.
Version 6 is a very significant update of this proven Mac sequencing application. Ground–breaking new features go hand in hand with many refinements and an up–to–date new look, making DP6 a force to be reckoned with in many areas of music and audio production.
information£349; upgrade from previous versions £135.13; from AudioDesk £199. Prices include VAT.
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