The latest version of MOTU's Mac sequencer has guitarists firmly in its sights, but there are plenty of general improvements too.
Digital Performer has long occupied a niche in the world of music‑for‑picture and film scoring, especially in the US. But it's also got a reputation as an all‑rounder, offering sophisticated audio editing and deep MIDI programming features, making it a serious alternative to the other giants of the Mac DAW world.
It's customary at this point to refer the reader back to some previous reviews, and who am I to buck tradition? My review of DP6 was published in the November 2008 edition of SOS, available on the web at /sos/nov08/articles/dp6.htm. And though very outdated in many ways now, there's additional coverage of the guts of the editing environment in September 2006's DP5 review, at /sos/sep06/articles/performer5.htm. Both should give you a taster of what's generally on offer if DP is otherwise new to you.
DP7 looks and feels remarkably similar to DP6, and there are other similarities too. It installs from a single CD, and still has light‑touch copy protection that just requires the installer disc to be in the drive, and a key code entered, the very first time you run the application. There's a printed manual — a 1090‑page whopper — and a smaller Getting Started guide, but no PDF or browser‑based equivalents for when you're on the road. There's also an Extras DVD with some giveaway sample and loop content.
These things are hard to quantify, but I fancy DP7 runs more sweetly and efficiently than DP6 ever did. I notice fewer interruptions to audio when plug‑ins are instantiated, opened or closed, or when making edits on audio tracks during playback, and the user interface is nicely responsive at all times. CPU efficiency seems better than before, too. MOTU never give much away about DP development stuff like this, but you have to assume these things must be related to ongoing, fundamental revision of application code, perhaps in readiness for OS X's 64‑bit future.
Worthy as they are, though, efficiency improvements to an application don't set users' hearts aflame. So let's boo the support band off stage and get straight on to DP7's headline acts.
Without doubt DP7's sexiest and most colourful new additions are those aimed at guitarists. Some would argue that they have been a long time coming: previous DP versions offered only the less‑than‑impressive PreAmp‑1 plug‑in for distortion and overdrive treatments. Now there are no fewer than 12 new plug‑ins aimed at guitarists and bassists, which could conceivably be pressed into service for general tracking and mixing tasks too.
Of these new plug‑ins, six are software models of well‑known fuzz, distortion and overdrive pedals. D Plus is based on the MXR Distortion+, Delta Fuzz mimics the Electro‑Harmonix Big Muff, Diamond Drive is MOTU's take on the Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive, RXT is their Pro Co Rat, and Tube Wailer and Uber Tube model the Ibanez Tube Screamer and Super Tube respectively.
Then there's Analog Chorus, based on a Boss CE‑series pedal, a Wah Pedal plug‑in that emulates both a '70s Vox 846 and a modern‑day Dunlop Cry Baby, and an Intelligent Noise Gate, which can be used to treat DC‑related electrical noise, as well as AC hum at various frequencies. MOTU have thrown in a decent Tuner for good measure too.
The remaining two plug‑ins are a little more complex. Live Room G is a virtual 'amp miking' tool, recreating the sound of one of five different speaker cabinets placed in a typical live‑room acoustic. Its closest rival that I can think of is Audioease's Cabinet, but it goes further than that. Virtual miking duties are undertaken by two mono spots and one stereo array, and each of the channels they feed has configurable options such as mic type and placement (on or off‑axis, front or rear, near or far). MOTU limits you to useful combinations, so, for example, the stereo mic arrays can only be used at a distance, and on the front side of the cabinet. There's still plenty to work with, though, especially as each mic channel has its own EQ, level and pan.
Finally, there's Custom '59, an amp modeller designed to be paired with Live Room G. The preamp circuit, tone controls and power amp stage can be selected separately from models of a Fender Bassman, Marshall JTM45 and JCM800. You also get to choose the type of valve used in the preamp, and there are virtual low‑impedance and high‑impedance inputs on two separate channels.
I'm not a guitarist, so I set to work testing and assessing all these with a friend of mine who is an experienced performer and teacher, with serious chops in the classical, jazz and rock fields. He was able to provide a player's perspective while I listened with my producer's head on. What emerged was that the distortion pedal plug‑ins have bags of character and between them cover a vast range of sounds. The Delta Fuzz makes a phenomenal noise — seriously meaty and organic — and the Ibanez emulations churn out fantastically playable tones that aree often more subtle than expected (but in a good way). The Wah Pedal also sounds great, but relies on a MIDI pedal input, routed either through a record‑enabled MIDI track or a DP Console, to be used properly. There's no auto‑wah mode.
Live Room G also proves to be a fabulously useful tool. The 'cabinet in a live room' sound is totally believable, and the mic placement options are not gimmicky — they, together with each channel's EQ, genuinely allow you to zone in on just the 'flavour' you're after. Complex, three‑dimensional tones are easy to achieve by layering mics, especially when they're panned across the stereo image. And there's nothing to say you can't treat synths, pianos and vocals too, for a lived‑in, re‑amped tone. It's easy and addictive to use, and a fine addition to Digital Performer.
Custom '59 repays some careful experimentation. Compared to the high‑octane, snarling amp simulations in software packages like Waves GTR3 or Native Instruments' Guitar Rig, it feels terribly polite, and just about overdrives when you crank everything up. What emerges, though, is that it's not meant to be used in isolation, and comes into its own (not surprisingly) when feeding into Live Room G's virtual speaker cabinet. If one of the distortion pedals is feeding into it, so much the better. In this role, Custom 59 adds unexpected coherence and punch to the sound. It also adds an authenticity to predominantly clean tones, especially when recorded via DI. Unusual, but useful.
An important new Mixing Board feature is the facility to display EQ curves and dynamics meters, together with their associated controls, directly in channel strips. The idea is that it makes the DP mixing experience a little closer to that of a big console, with EQ and dynamics accessible 'at a glance'. The new Mixing Board sections are optional — you can have all, some, or none — and the way they work is by offering a compact view of a plug‑in instantiated in a track's insert slot. All the EQs and dynamics bundled with DP are compatible, but third‑party plug‑ins aren't. It isn't clear if they could ever be.
Single‑band dynamics plug‑ins fare the best in the new system: with something like MW Leveler, all the controls are up front, easy enough to understand, and the meter is informative. For EQ, only one band can be adjusted at a time, so this really isn't the same as having a good analogue desk's collection of EQ pots in front of you. EQ graphs are useful as indicators and aides memoire, but it seems a shame they can't be directly edited with the mouse as is possible in Presonus's new Studio One DAW, for example.
Perhaps taking a cue (again) from recent versions of Logic, there are two new features that make track mix settings available even when the Mixing Board isn't open.
The first is a dedicated Channel Strip display, which opens either as a separate window, or, probably more usefully, as a sidebar cell in DP's all‑in‑one Consolidated Window. By default, it updates to display channel settings for whatever track you've selected, but you can also 'lock' it to stick to one individual track, no matter which track you've selected. It's configurable in the same way as the Mixing Board, so you can hide or show whole sections, such as sends, insert slots, and so on. You can also break it up into as many as four columns, to better fit into windows or sidebar cells that are not tall and thin. It can look pretty ugly split into multiple columns, but it's great to have that flexibility, and it works well on smaller laptop screens, for example.
Then there's the Info Bar channel strip. This joins the other, configurable information panels that appear at the top of various editing windows, and presents a miniaturised channel strip in horizontal format. Despite the diddy dimensions, it's fully featured, and extremely handy. I have a gripe, though: the Info Bar has become a pretty cryptic‑looking corner of DP for all but quite experienced users, and I must say I struggle with all the single‑letter abbreviations used. To see what I mean, check the screenshot above, of a fully loaded info bar in use, displaying the labels T, M, A, A, M, P, G, C, E and S, as well as a bunch of unlabelled pop‑ups, tick boxes and displays. While familiarity with DP makes these more comprehensible in use, I don't think it's terribly clear for beginners. Some smarter labelling here and elsewhere, perhaps using (gasp!) whole words, would go a long, long way towards making the editing environment more friendly.
The initial release of DP 7.0 prompted some users to wonder if it shouldn't more appropriately have been called version 6.5, and hence been offered as a free update. However, further incremental releases, and especially version 7.1, have ensured that it's another significant step forward in the application's development.
There are still a few things that some users will wish had been included. The ongoing lack of a bundled workhorse sampler instrument is unfortunate, although it only really affects those who don't already have access to a third‑party alternative. There's room for improvement with the integrated CD burning, which produces too many coasters for comfort, and even successful burns are not Red Book‑compatible. I dream of MOTU fixing that, and supplementing it with an option to generate a DDP file set. This would really make the most of DP's great potential as a mastering platform.
Maybe the most serious omission is the lack of any sort of 'elastic audio' feature. It's partially made up for by a bunch of pre‑existing features that can detect beats in audio, and quantise it to sequence tempo, but they're fundamentally different to the intuitive, mouse‑driven, Melodyne‑inspired tools increasingly being introduced in rival DAWs. DP's integrated monophonic pitch correction has always been excellent, so supplementing this with time‑based manipulation of audio would make a killer problem‑solving and creative feature.
I don't want to sound too down on DP7, though: it's a super‑capable application, and there are so many things to enjoy. DP has always been an notably flexible DAW, and version 7 builds on that. It feels remarkably well‑rounded, more powerful than ever, and appears to have gained an enviable degree of stability. Internet user forums are surprisingly united in praise of DP7's reliability and responsiveness, and that's been my impression too, during testing. It's reassuring to see that MOTU have continued to develop major new features alongside the thousand‑and‑one unsexy little things that make such a difference to using a DAW day‑in, day‑out, especially when doing so pays the rent.
The bottom line is that DP7 remains a heavyweight studio and location tool that can turn its hand to almost any kind of music‑ or audio‑related production, and it does so with more assurance and ease of use than ever before. I'm curious to see if MOTU can do anything to broaden its appeal still further, perhaps by bundling a workstation instrument, or by implementing a flexible audio scheme. Even without them, though, DP7 is an application you feel you can really rely on, and it deserves to be taken as seriously as any other DAW on the market.
DP7's closest competitors, in the minds of most Mac DAW purchasers, will be Pro Tools 8 and Logic Studio 9. On the face of it, both appear to give more bang for the buck: Logic offers masses of audio content, the EXS24 sampler, the Flex Tool, Main Stage and Waveburner; and Pro Tools 8 has Elastic Pitch and Time, an increasingly powerful range of plug‑ins that includes the optional Structure sampler, and a perceived 'industry standard' cachet.
However, DP can lay claim to several advantages over each. In comparison with Logic, it boasts markedly more straightforward handling of multitimbral virtual instruments, better MIDI drum editing, track grouping and multitrack audio editing behaviour (allowing, for example, fades to be simultaneously applied to soundbites on multiple tracks), and more fully specified film-scoring facilities. Up against Pro Tools it's DP's ability to use pretty much any manufacturer's audio hardware (and to address multiple audio interfaces directly, without resorting to an Aggregate Device in OS X) that can be the clincher for many users, along with its wide‑ranging support for the Audio Units plug‑in standard.
MOTU's approach to guitar plug‑ins — offering them as independent, individual plug‑ins rather than within some sort of virtual pedalboard — would have the potential to make recall of frequently used setups rather tricky, were it not for another important new feature called Insert Settings. Released with the DP 7.1 update, this is, at heart, a 'preset' system for groups of plug‑ins and their settings, and of course isn't restricted to use by guitarists. Plug‑ins and virtual instruments in any supported format can be included in a Setting, so you can use them to save and recall favourite combos for processing vocals or drums, for mastering, or anything else you like. The facility, which is actually an alternative manifestation of Clippings — a long‑standing feature that seasoned DP users will know about already — is elegantly and very naturally incorporated into the Mixing Board, as an additional pop‑up menu just above the plug‑in insert slots.
While we're on the subject of inserts, DP 7.1 takes a cue from Logic in automatically increasing the number of available slots when you fill up the bottom-most slot. Also, plug‑in windows' menus now provide much more information: the Inserts menu shows which plug‑ins are loaded in each slot, and the Track menu shows track types next to track names. Many individual plug‑ins have been provided with more presets, too.
There are a whole host of new and improved features in DP7 that there's just not space to go into fully in this review. These include:
- An extended role for the Trim tool: now it can do fantastically useful scaling of automation and MIDI continuous data.
- New 'Range' automation modes that restrict automation writing and modification to a specific time‑range — which is great for working precisely on small sections.
- Better integration of V‑Racks, DP's dedicated (though optional) VI and audio processing channels, in the Mixing Board.
- Audio fades that are now calculated in real time.
- Support for the Wave64 extension to the BWF file format, allowing for very large audio file handling.
- Improved sample‑rate conversion algorithms.
- Dedicated Lyrics and Chord Symbols facilities provided in the Quickscribe notation window.
- 'Overview' displays of data in track folders in the Tracks Overview, which take the guesswork out of large‑scale sequence editing when there are closed folders around.
- An auto‑save feature, and automatic checking for application updates.
- Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of smaller user‑interface improvements.
- Some great new features go hand in hand with further improved stability and polish.
- DP's core strengths remain unchanged: a highly adaptable interface, multiple workflow options, and deep audio and MIDI editing potential.
- Useful, fine‑sounding guitar‑oriented plug‑ins.
- Enhanced mixing features, including channel strips, Insert Settings plug‑in recall, in‑line EQ and dynamics.
- Still no bundled sampler or sample player.
- No straightforward equivalent to Logic's Flex Tool or Pro Tools' Elastic Time.
- Audio CD burning remains a little buggy and not Red Book‑compatible.
- Some aspects of the user interface are somewhat cryptic.
It's an incremental update rather than a revolution, but even if you're not a guitarist, Digital Performer 7 is still a very worthwhile upgrade.
Musictrack +44 (0)1767 313447.
- Digital Performer v7.02 and 7.1.
- Apple MacBook with 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor and 4GB RAM, running Mac OS 10.5.8.