MOTU’s sequencing software has been around longer than some SOS readers. Do the improvements in the latest version keep it bang up to date?
The roots of MOTU’s Digital Performer go back a staggering 30 years. We’re talking about a time when MIDI was still quite new, Junos got traded in for DX7s, and tent-size T-shirts were all the rage. As such, DP has some claim to be amongst the most mature DAWs out there, one that’s ridden out tumultuous changes in computer architecture and operating systems and overseen the gradual march from a hardware/analogue to digital/virtual world. MOTU have, of course, been a driving force in that transition, with their popular, well-regarded and ever-expanding range of audio interfaces.
The last few whole-point releases of DP have tended to focus on developing different aspects of the application; DP6, in 2008, introduced big user-interface and audio format changes, while DP7, in 2010, bundled lots of guitar effects plug-ins. Then, in 2012, DP8 went 64-bit, added VST plug-in compatibility, and shortly afterwards became available for Windows for the first time. All the while, too, the overall user experience has steadily improved, with thousands of smaller productivity enhancements, new bundled plug-ins, other major new features, and under-the-hood gains in general operational smoothness and processing efficiency.
It has also not gone unnoticed amongst DP users that the ethos of MOTU as a company has evolved as well. Nowadays you can download a demo, purchase online, enjoy electronic versions of DP’s extensive documentation, and check out full update notes for each incremental release. Many users perceive much more of a buzz around DP, and a feeling that it’s going places, where once all was silence and secrecy.
And that brings us nicely to DP9, released in June 2015 and with identical features on OS X and Windows. For once, there isn’t an obvious central focus for this release, but many enhancements covering dozens of aspects of use. I’ll come to those in just a moment. First, a whistlestop tour of what makes DP DP.
There’s a school of thought that says all DAWs are really the same, and in some limited ways that’s true. But as any serious user knows, there are vast differences, in capabilities, operation, design and appearance, and above all in the working approaches they facilitate. So here’s DP9 in a nutshell, which will hopefully give a bit more perspective for when I get to the new features in a little while.
The user interface is highly configurable — much more so than single-window, browser-centric, drag-and-drop-driven DAWs like Live, Studio One and Bitwig Studio. DP’s multi-purpose Consolidated Window can be made to look a bit like those, or Logic Pro X, or Pro Tools for that matter, but it’s really a different animal. Main editing windows open in a wide central column, flanked by optional left and right sidebars, with transport above. Then, most complex interactions with the application take place via separate role-specific windows, all of which can appear with tabbed title bars to allow them to be stacked up in a single ‘cell’, or un-docked to become completely separate windows. Hundreds of commands lurk in the main menus, window-level mini-menus, or right-click contextual menus, nearly all of which can be offloaded to keyboard shortcuts. There’s an extensive tool palette that docks to other windows or floats. All in all, the DP environment, and its whole approach to user interaction, is notably more rooted in ’90s and noughties interface concepts than some more recent DAWs. But that also makes it flexible, allowing users to set up (and if necessary save and recall) the exact complement of editing and information windows required for individual jobs, whether working on a laptop or at a desktop with several monitors.
Getting to work in DP involves creating or opening a Project, represented on your hard drive by a folder containing a project document along with other associated files and subfolders for audio files, bounces and so on. A Project can contain multiple Sequences, of which one can be open for editing at any one time. For many jobs you will only need one, but having multiple Sequences on hand, entirely independent from one another, allows for good organisational flexibility, and it’s also possible to arrange them into larger Song structures: another ‘old DAW’ concept, but one that suits some ways of working.
Track types in DP are strictly role-specific: MIDI, mono/stereo/surround audio, instrument, aux and master. Worthy of note, particularly, is the separation of MIDI and instrument tracks. The latter host virtual instruments and provide an audio mixing framework for them, but you play or ‘drive’ them with note data from a separate MIDI track. So unlike most DAWs, DP requires at least a pair of complementary tracks for each virtual instrument. It’s unusual, but not difficult to work with, as commands exist to create the pairs (or even larger track structures) in one fell swoop. And this arrangement makes DP one of the very best DAWs for those who like to sequence external hardware synths (especially of the multitimbral variety), virtual instruments hosted on another computer, or even heavily multitimbral VIs (like Kontakt or Omnisphere) in DP itself. MIDI tracks appear in DP’s Mixing Board with faders and pan controls which generate CC7 volume and CC10 pan data, and can be automated. The outcome is far less reliance on having to manage additional hardware or virtual mixers alongside your main DP mix.
Also, DP boasts some of the most flexible track-grouping facilities of any DAW. There are track folders for visual organisation, and you can easily create mixer groups/stems by submixing audio and instrument tracks to aux tracks. But a fully loaded Track Group feature lets you also apply edits or perform mixing actions on many tracks when you manipulate just one. To give a concrete example, if you had a multi-miked drum kit represented by, say, 10 stereo and mono tracks, a track group would allow you to trim audio, crop, splice, cut and paste, comp, apply and manipulate fades (and more) across all those tracks while working with any one of them. For multitrack audio work and editing DP is right up there with the very best, and has the zooming, scrolling, window-management and playback location features to match.
On the purely audio side of things, DP is conversant with lots of audio formats. It’ll record Broadcast WAVs or AIFFs natively, up to 192kHz and at 16-, 24- or 32-bit float resolution. It’ll also import SD2, MP3, M4A, Apple Loops and many other formats, and you can export in interleaved or split-channel WAV, AIFF and SD2, as well as MP3. Audio at resolutions different to the project’s current setting can be played back without conversion, but the same isn’t true for sample rates, unfortunately. At least DP’s built-in sample-rate conversion is subjectively good-sounding, and can kick in automatically during import.
Surround-mixing abilities are extensive, with quad, LCRS, 5.1, 6.1, 7.1 and 10.2 tracks available, and a whole range of panners and many compatible plug-ins to go with them. There aren’t any built-in encoding or decoding features for matrixed formats like Dolby Surround, though.
Audio tracks offer monophonic pitch-correction at track level, and that’s also a platform for straightforward pitch-to-MIDI conversion. It’s effective, works wonders for increasing or flattening vibrato, for quantising pitch to a chromatic scale, and for more creative treatments. It’s not a Melodyne replacement, as it can’t move or time-stretch audio events, nor alter their formants, and it can’t deal with polyphonic audio. However, unlike Melodyne it offers a true ‘freehand’ approach to reshaping pitch curves, which is far more powerful and intuitive for some tasks.
More generally, it’s fair to say DP is some way behind other DAWs in its real-time audio manipulation abilities. There’s nothing like Logic’s Flex Tool, and audio will never automatically time-stretch if you change Sequence tempo. Individual audio regions (which in DP are known as ‘soundbites’) can be stretched manually, or via musically comprehensible dialogue boxes. And transient-analysed percussive audio can also be quantised, or used as the basis for quantising other tracks. Some of these functions are a little less than immediately intuitive, though, and for more extreme stretches, especially on complex material or full mixes, DP’s algorithms fall some way short of the industry’s best.
Staying with audio for a while longer, recording and punch-in facilities are really good, with a multi-take track architecture and well-integrated comping. A Punch Guard feature captures audio for some seconds before and after punched or manually recorded regions, greatly aiding the ability to produce smooth edits in many circumstances.
Movie support is another area in which DP shines. Where some DAWs offer a bare movie window and not much else, DP lets you split off movie audio into a separate track (and mixer channel), and will scrub movie playback position as you drag an event or trim an audio soundbite. Video can be displayed in a window, or output to a MOTU hardware video interface, and DP can export it, generating a new movie file along with sequence audio.
For those working on live scoring stages, DP’s extensive marker system extends as far as generating streamers, punches and flutters to various dedicated hardware devices. The metronome and click-track features are similarly impressive, with support for complex time signatures, abrupt or smooth tempo changes, and open-ended, user-programmable click patterns. Sequence time rulers can display SMPTE, real time, bars and beats, or samples, and two can be displayed simultaneously. Bar and beat rulers can also be manually conformed to audio that was recorded without a click, with DP making all the behind-the-scenes tempo calculations to allow subsequent addition of MIDI tracks, or MIDI/audio quantising. That’s to say nothing of a sophisticated Find Tempo feature that’ll suggest region tempos based on user-programmable hit points and ranges — think ‘explosion’ or ‘kiss’ in a corresponding movie file.
In the Mixing Board the number of insert slots and sends is user-configurable, and sends can be flexibly designated as pre/post-fader on a channel-by-channel basis. Bundled EQ and dynamics plug-ins benefit from ‘in line’ parameter controls and graphical display, and multiple independent mixes, with different plug-in provision, can be established. There’s also a snapshot feature that ties in with the automation system for writing large amounts of mix and plug-in setting data into tracks in one go.
For compatibility with the non-DP world, OMF/AAF import and export is available. A Final Cut Pro XML import/export feature is sadly limited to the now long-deceased FCP7, but some third-party utilities may allow this once-valuable feature to continue on. The Mac version of DP has integrated CD-burning facilities, but it’s a shame these have never stretched as far as generating Red Book-standard discs, or allowing adding ISRCs and other metadata editing (let alone DDP fileset generation), despite DP representing quite a promising mastering platform in other ways. On the bright side, though, a useful and surprisingly powerful music notation feature called QuickScribe can now export in MusicXML format for subsequent editing in Sibelius, Finale and other scoring applications.
So, what’s new in DP9? Perhaps the headline feature is the inclusion of a new soft synth called MX4. It’s nice to see this, not least because, as I mentioned in the Plug-ins box, past provision of virtual instruments has hardly been lavish.
At face value, MX4 is an interesting and potent synth, with three oscillators (plus a sub-oscillator-like ‘fundamental’), two multi-mode filters, six LFOs and four multi-stage envelopes per voice. The oscillators can generate familiar analogue-style waveforms with variable symmetry, which is easily modulated, so effects like pulse-width modulation are dead easy to achieve. But they also play several dozen wavetables, provided in ‘classic’ and anti-aliased forms, giving access to a wealth of both PPG-esque digital timbres and some additional phat fare. Add in FM, oscillator sync and a big modulation scheme, and it’s looking better than ever.
However, the shine possibly comes off a bit when you realise that MX4 is far from new. It was first released by MOTU as a separate product 11 years ago, received an update a year later, and has remained unchanged since. In the fickle world of synth politics it’s easy to take the cynical view that this is just a bundling of an old product that was otherwise somewhat forgotten and probably generating very little revenue. But let’s not do that, and instead assess the synth on its own terms.
Certainly, MX4 is very programmable. When modulation is applied to parameters (via right-click commands or modifier-key mouse drags) their sliders animate, and handles representing upper and lower value limits make precise tweaks far easier to perform than with some synths. The topology of the filter stage is variable too, with 10 alternative signal flows between the two filters and accompanying distortion stages. There’s also a whole extra page of ‘mods’, including a trigger sequencer, pattern gate, arpeggiator, lag generator and more. Also, for DP9, MX4 gets a new bank of EDM-oriented presets by Asia keyboardist Erik Norlander.
Perhaps less attractive is the user interface, which is straight out of 2005, in the eye-scrunching, alien-technology Logic ES2 vein. The window is quite small, so many of the labels are too, and in the unnecessarily funky-looking LFO section the parameter handles (for which I never knew which direction to drag my mouse) can actually obscure the labels, which is daft.
Exploration of the provided presets reveals the range of timbres of which MX4 is capable, stretching from squelchy vintage basses to cold, hard wavetable warbles and screeches. Many are complex, and there’s something to admire about the fact that the vast majority are not dripping with effects. However, to get some perspective I fired up Arturia’s Analog Lab and Native Instruments’ Massive and explored a similar cross-section of their presets. These kinds of general comparisons are inherently subjective, of course, but to my ears, MX4 can too easily come out of them sounding somewhat reserved and precise, and certainly not brimming over with vintage character, contemporary relevance or honest-to-goodness vibey-ness. It’s not that MX4 is a bad synth — many of the Norlander bank’s bold presets demonstrate that. But it is a decade off state of the art, and will inevitably be judged against opposition which is only getting fiercer.
Far less contentious, thank heavens, are DP9’s five new audio plug-ins. MasterWorks FET76 is a model of a Urei 1176LN compressor and, in particular, its D/E revisions, which are supposedly the best-sounding. It comes in mono, stereo and surround versions, and can easily see service for individual tracks and whole mixes.
MOTU’s FET76 looks like the real deal, with the same arrangement of knobs and buttons as the original, and support for its ability to engage multiple Ratio buttons simultaneously. You can also leave all the buttons out, to get some coloration but no actual dynamic response. Most important, the plug-in does what every 1176 should, and that is to somehow give a signal a shot in the arm, and more presence, even when there’s no obvious compression going on. Very likeable ‘biggening’ of signals is dead easy to achieve, alongside all-in vocal treatments that massively boost and colour the source. Compared to IK Multimedia’s well-regarded Black 76 emulation, MOTU’s seems to provide more level and ballsiness for any given Output setting, but otherwise sounds similar in character and colour. It’s a great addition to DP, especially as the pre-existing LA2A emulation, which needs to be ‘warmed up’ (I’m not kidding), is arguably not as successful as some third-party equivalents.
Moving on, MultiFuzz will be familiar to Cubase users: it’s is an emulation of the QuadraFuzz circuit from industry guru Craig Anderton’s book Electronic Projects For Musicians. It’s a potentially strong, thick overdrive, offering massive amounts of gain and dynamic squashing, but warmer, sweeter distortions can be teased out. MOTU’s emulation has great complexity and impressive dynamic response.
A trio of new guitar synth plug-ins are also tremendous fun. MicroG and MicroB have almost identical controls, and are optimised for guitar and bass use respectively, though each works fine on any number of pitched sources, and they actually sound similar. You feed them monophonic audio and in response up to three additional tones, stacked in octaves, are generated. New pitches and note restrikes in the input signal can also trigger a simple resonant filter sweep, for squelchy bass and wah-like effects.
MegaSynth takes all that a step further, with selectable routing between the octave oscillators, two filters and a synth-like Amp section, and a whole lot of onboard modulation. The result is a range of potentially quite complex tones, tempo-sync’ed gate and filter patterns, and a wide variety of tremolo effects.
Pitch-tracking and dynamic response across these three plug-ins is superbly accurate and instantaneous, and even quite forgiving when you inadvertently leave guitar strings ringing, accidentally generating a polyphonic input signal. I tried all three with vocals too, and MegaSynth in particular can pull off some fantastic tricks driven like this. I imagine sax players and trumpeters could also enjoy themselves.
Another group of DP9 enhancements relate to aspects of the user interface. The first is the addition of automation lanes in the Sequence Editor window. Previously, automation data was editable in track lanes only after switching them to display an alternative ‘Edit Layer’. When editing soundbite audio regions the data could still be seen as a translucent overlay, but could not be directly accessed. And it also meant that when a track had, say, five simultaneous automation layers going, the whole lane could appear pretty chaotic, and not very informative.
DP9 retains the old behaviour for those who like it, but also adds a little disclosure handle to the bottom of a track lane’s configuration area. Click it and separate automation data lanes fold out, individually resizable, and draggable into a preferred order. Each has a little plus and minus button to either create additional lanes or hide them. The scheme is easy to use and understand, and should be warmly welcomed by all kinds of users.
Next, there’s a new Spectrogram display option for soundbite appearance in audio tracks. Accessed on a per-track basis via their Settings menus, there’s now an option to show the familiar waveform display (which was already quite configurable, with its own vertical zoom), a full-range spectrogram, or both together in a stacked (rather than layered) formation. A range of colour schemes is on offer too, and while some are informative but pretty lurid, the likes of ‘Blue to Red’ (as seen in the screenshot) are there to provide a calmer visual experience.
Switching audio tracks to display spectrograms requires a bit of background processing, and I found a four-minute 44.1kHz stereo soundbite that started life as a straight waveform took about five seconds to process and display. But, once calculated, DP caches the spectrogram graphic for instantaneous display in future, and general smoothness of zooming and scrolling seems unaffected. Dragging in a bit of waveform zoom, incidentally, increases the gain on the spectrogram, so that tracks recorded with a lot of headroom can still put on a meaningful show.
The final DP9 biggy is a straightforward utility feature: plug-in windows can now float over other parts of the user interface, and the behaviour is enabled by default. The lack of floating windows could be a constant head-scratcher for users of other DAWs migrating to DP, so this should help new users and seasoned campaigners alike. In the typical DP way, too, it’s highly configurable. Every plug-in window gets its own ‘Floating’ (or non-floating) setting, and provides access to a ‘Float effects by default’ option too.
We’re nearing the end of this DP9 run-down now, and while other features mightn’t be the sexiest, some are quite momentous. There’s a super-easy facility for audio plug-ins to learn MIDI controller assignments. All plug-in windows get a new Learn Controller button at bottom left, next to the Snapshot button, and once clicked you simply waggle a MIDI knob, then click the plug-in parameter you’d like it connected to, and you’re away. Doing it the other way round works too. In fact, DP has long been able to attach MIDI controllers to plug-ins, but it always meant manually creating and configuring a Console, which is a sort of software layer between a control action and a resulting parameter value change. Unsurprisingly, this was never most users’ idea of fun. The new button simply automates the process, and while you’ll now never need to touch the resulting Console directly, plucking up the courage to do so opens up more options, such as scaling or inverting the polarity of the assignment.
There are also numerous smaller improvements elsewhere. The Mute tool now works on individual MIDI notes. A new Create Tracks command and dialogue box allows any number and combination of track types to be created in a single stroke. There’s a new Project Notes window, which is a simple notepad for saving notes and observations inside projects. Markers and Chunks windows (which typically consist of long lists of named items) are now equipped with search fields. DP9 looks good on Macs with Retina displays. And, as I mentioned a long way above, DP’s QuickScribe notation can now export its data to other scoring applications in MusicXML format. Finally, the current audio engine buffer size is now displayed in the Control Panel, along with other basic recording settings such as sample rate, resolution and clock source.
It has never been MOTU’s style to reinvent Digital Performer with each release, and DP9 just confirms that position. And if everything I’ve written so far hasn’t quite managed to convey what sort of a DAW DP is, then I’ll summarise it here. It’s a big, grown-up one!
A few personal beefs with DP remain, though. I still think a few aspects of the user interface could be a lot clearer, especially all the single-letter acronyms and unlabelled tick boxes in edit window information views. I’ve used DP for about 15 years, and even now forget what they all represent from time to time! Meanwhile, a big boost to pitch and time manipulation of audio is surely now due. Melodyne-like audio note manipulation (perhaps even for polyphonic audio), intuitive tool-based bending of audio within soundbites, and better time-stretch algorithms to go along with those things would put DP back among the front-runners in this area. One final thing: I wish MOTU would provide a choice of stereo panners, as it does for surround. At the moment stereo tracks pan pots are simply balance controls, and mono tracks have but a single pan law.
While DP is, I think, no harder to learn or use than any other major DAW, there are many things that mark it out as different from the competition. Migrants from Logic, particularly, might feel lost without a browser, the massive collection of categorised factory loops, and a really strong provision of samplers, synths and drums. Come to DP from Live, Reason or Studio One, and it could be the lack of automatic, flexible audio manipulation that’d stand out. The open-endedness of DP’s Consolidated window and plethora of commands and configuration options can be a turn-off to the inexperienced. Trendy integration with audio-sharing sites is notable by its absence. And little details, like representing MIDI data without larger-scale organisational containers or ‘clips’, or the insistence that event drags only ever snap relative to the edit grid, not directly on it, can take some getting used to.
However, for users who don’t rely on bundled loops, who already have a good collection of third-party instruments, and principally turn to their DAWs for work rather than recreation, DP is, more than ever now, a major contender. It can be used for almost all conceivable audio and MIDI production tasks and has the sophistication, feature-richness and depth that let it keep on delivering in areas where many lighter and slighter DAWs have nothing to offer. Getting really fluent with the application does take a little while: there’s terminology to learn and user interface principles to absorb. However, the printed (and searchable) PDF documentation is first-class, and there’s more by way of video tutorials and online support than ever before.
These things aside though, it appears DP is in rude health. DP9 is a confident, mature release that consolidates the application’s position as a serious cross-platform Windows/OS X audio production tool. It deserves to do really well.
Out of the box, so to speak, DP9 appears markedly more modern and ‘flat’ than ever before. There’s just the merest hint of shadowy photo-realism left, and the light-grey text and coloured elements on the dark-grey background makes for a very pleasing work environment.
Examining the main screenshot accompanying this review in a bit more detail, the Mixing Board is in a wide left-hand sidebar, which will go even wider if you need it. The central column hosts a Sequence Editor and a Meter Bridge. A narrower right-hand sidebar gets four smaller windows and inspectors. There’s also a floating plug-in window for good measure. This just happens to be how I’d set up the environment for the screenshot, and any number of alternatives are possible, including hiding one or both sidebars, making a totally different selection of editors and inspectors, and popping individual ‘cells’ out into their own separate windows.
You’re not bound to stick with the grey look either. For years now DP’s appearance has essentially been ‘skinned’, and a couple of dozen alternative ‘Themes’ allow for strikingly different appearances.
A clutch of ‘MasterWorks’ processors began years back with a useful (if not mind-blowing) multi-band compressor and mastering limiter. It now extends to a fine, flexible EQ, a really top-class gate, and copies of sought-after hardware compressors. A convolution reverb, ProVerb, sounds absolutely great, has lots of good impulse responses, and can load others too. There are surprisingly sophisticated tools like Precision Delay, for helping to make multi-miked sources phase-coherent; Dynamic Equalizer, for problem solving and mastering tasks; and Spatial Maximizer, an M-S mastering processor that wouldn’t be out of place feeding a vinyl cutting lathe. At the other end of the scale are a shedload of guitar effects that offer a really comprehensive set of emulations of well-known distortion and effects pedals, alongside amp sims and cabinet/room/mic modelling.
Virtual instrument provision is somewhat less impressive. As described in the main text, DP9 gets a new old synth called MX4. But otherwise it’s a fairly Spartan trio of mono and polysynth emulations, the most basic sampler imaginable, and a rather plain FM synth. Neither MOTU’s own MachFive sampler, nor any of the libraries like Electric Keys or Ethno, have ever made it into DP, even in a cut-down form.
Fortunately, there is good third-party support for VST format plug-ins, and (on the Mac) Audio Units. What’s more, there’s a great built-in plug-in-management feature, and you can establish multiple plug-in sets for different circumstances, or to exclude VST/AU duplicates. DP also benefits from a background ‘pre-gen’ plug-in rendering feature, which performs behind-the-scenes track freezes when there are CPU cycles to spare, and can make for a much lower CPU hit during playback than might otherwise be possible. A number of useful MIDI track plug-ins is available too, which modify live or pre-recorded MIDI data, and they include a very capable arpeggiator and various transposition and harmonisation tools.
- Top-class 1176 compressor emulation and guitar synth plug-ins.
- Really valuable user-interface improvements, including automation lanes.
- Hugely simplified scheme for attaching MIDI controllers to plug-in parameters.
- Though not new, the MX4 synth is a significant addition to the virtual instrument bundle.
- Retina display support.
- New default theme looks fabulous.
- Certain parts of the user interface are still obscure.
- Some aspects of audio pitch and time manipulation way behind the opposition.
- Virtual instrument provision still weak, compared with competitors.
While DP9’s new bundled synth may not be a game-changer, it’s the other new features and an overall feeling of maturity which mark out version 9 as one of the best releases of DP in years.
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- MOTU Digital Performer 9.01.
- Apple MacBook Pro with 2.2GHz Intel Core i7, running Mac OS 10.10.5.