Nearly two years after everybody else jumped on the Power Mac audio bandwagon, Mark of the Unicorn have finally come on board with their flagship sequencer, which will now record and play back audio without the need for external hardware. Has it been worth the wait? Derek Johnson finds out.
Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer is certainly a member of one of the top four Macintosh sequencing families — the others being Steinberg's Cubase, Emagic's Logic, and Opcode's Vision — but a maverick streak at the company means that it has always stood slightly apart. There are two reasons for this: firstly, MOTU have not grasped the Opcode‑originated Open Music System (OMS) in the same way as many MIDI software developers. Instead they've ploughed ahead with their own FreeMIDI system, which achieves basically the same goal, in a slightly different way, routing MIDI data from the outside world to the sequencer and back, via a MIDI interface (simple or multi‑port) attached to your Mac's serial port(s). In addition, it provides a certain amount of inter‑application communication within the computer itself (such as with MOTU's editor/librarian Unisyn). Successive versions of FreeMIDI have enhanced its compatibility with OMS, but it still retains its own particular flavour.
The other big MOTU difference is that while all four major Mac sequencer players have become available in MIDI + Audio versions, whereby digital audio tracks can be recorded and manipulated alsongside MIDI sequences, MOTU took their time when it came to supporting Apple's Sound Manager extension. Thus, Digital Performer has not been able to record audio using a Power Mac's own built‑in hardware, meaning that it remained the only package dependent on third‑party — effectively, until recently, Digidesign — hardware for the recording and playback of audio. This is now history, since the introduction of v2.1 late last year finally added Sound Manager support to Digital Performer, bringing it level with the other major players. It's now as valid a choice as its competition if you're looking for a MIDI + Audio sequencer to go with your shiny new Power Mac, and don't want to buy extra audio hardware.
The basic layout of Digital Performer is virtually identical to its audio‑less cousin, Performer. DP, with its ability to record audio tracks, adds a dedicated audio menu, several audio‑specific windows and a collection of audio tools. In some cases, audio tracks can even be edited using the same tools, and often at the same time, as MIDI tracks. The latest version of Performer has had a bit of a spruce‑up (see the 'Improved Performance: MOTU & Upgrades' box for details and some surprising facts about Performer v6.0), and similar changes will be made to Digital Performer in an imminent update, but for now a look back at previous MOTU reviews in SOS should give you a feel for what's on offer: we last reviewed Digital Performer in September 1996 (v1.7), and other appearances include the ancient Performer v1.21 in November 1986, Performer v3.5 in October 1990, Digital Performer v1.4/Performer v4.2 in January 1994, and Performer v5.0 in October 1994.
The MOTU Mind‑Set
Although MOTU have put their own spin on nearly every aspect of their software, it essentially functions in a similar fashion to most MIDI sequencers. If you come to DP from another audio sequencer, you'll find familiar windows, but they'll often behave differently. The main Tracks window offers MIDI and audio recording with a tape recorder‑like interface. Columns to the left provide track names, patch numbers, level meters, and so on. The left half of the display scrolls as a sequence plays. Differences come in how MOTU equip their windows, the Tracks window included: close, zoom and expand buttons are all different from, or not available on, equivalent Mac software, and nearly every window has its own mini menu, solo button and 'audible mode' buttons. The last option allows you to audition MIDI data or audio by simply clicking on them.
Most of the work involved in getting MIDI and audio into the software is undertaken in the Tracks window, but of crucial importance when it comes to assembling a song are 'Chunks'. Chunks are roughly equivalent to Group Tracks in Steinberg's Cubase, although MOTU's variety are a little more accessible (and allow you to include audio). Basically, any sequence you're working on in the Tracks window is a Chunk (whether you like it or not!), and Chunks can be chained and layered in a Song — the Song display is available from within the Chunks window. Chunks could be complex multi‑channel sequences, or something as basic as a drum pattern. A Song can itself become a Chunk in another Song! You can see the potential: it's the ulitmate in pattern‑based sequencing.
Once a recording is made, your editing functions are again familiar, but slightly mutated. First, there's the event list, which is very clear and straightforward; neat features include the grouping of notes that appear in chords. Data can be edited in a graphic editor, which uses MOTU's version of a piano roll, with a resizable continuous controller grid at the bottom. For the musically literate amongst you, there's two choices: a notation editor features a scrolling staff, which behaves like the piano roll and has a controller grid at the bottom, or there's QuickScribe. Here, your MIDI data is presented in score form, with a selection of tools that wouldn't be out of place in a dedicated music typesetting package.
When it comes to recording and editing audio, DP v2.11 behaves in nearly the same manner as previous (external hardware‑dependent) versions of the software — so much so that one of the five manuals is still a v2.0 digital audio guide. A slim v2.1 update guide discusses new features, such as the plug‑in system, while reassuring the user that nearly all the features from pre‑Sound Manager days have been retained in identical form. The few minor exceptions are listed and explained. An even slimmer v2.11 update guide introduces direct support for the BIAS Peak audio editor and Korg's 1212 I/O PCI card (see the 'On the Cards' box for more on this), and a fabulous new reverb plug‑in. Dubbed eVerb, this effect will make you the envy of all your friends with other MIDI + Audio sequencers.
Working alongside Sound Manager is the new MOTU Audio System extension. From within DP, MAS provides you with an adjustable number of audio voices, internal busses, aux tracks, master faders and sends. The nifty new plug‑in architecture is a part of MAS as well.
When you install Digital Performer, it automatically sets up a 'studio' for you, consisting of a number of audio voices (the number of audio tracks playable at once) and internal stereo busses, plus disk read/write and voice RAM buffer sizes. These figures are found in the Studio Configuration box under the Basics menu, and can be fully customised within the limits of your system's RAM, processor speed and hard disk size. A number of easy configuration options are available, from the four‑voice Short to the 32‑voice Blooter — is this an American program or what? — but you could choose three, seven or 11 voices, if these suit your purposes or system. For example, my 250MHz 6500 (with a 603 processor) is quite comfortable with 16 voices, and could happily manage more. Equally as important as the number of voices you choose is the disk read/write size (in kilobytes), and RAM buffer size per voice (in increments of 1000 samples). As a rule of thumb, your buffer size number should be three or four times the disk read/write size. A chart at the bottom of the box keeps you informed of how much RAM your 'studio' needs, and flashes a red warning if you exceed your system's resources. Other dedicated audio system tools are available for selecting input monitoring mode (use 'direct hardware playthrough' to avoid the Mac's annoying 50ms delay), and there's also a visual monitor for the audio input, and a system performance window to show you how well your system's coping.
With the advent of Sound Manager support come a number of neat tricks for controlling the audio as it heads to your hard disk. As it stands, with the Power Mac's stereo connections only two tracks at a time can be recorded, and everything is mixed to stereo. Users of Cubase VST will be familiar with needing to develop tricks to get audio into the software in the absence of level controls. It's a juggling act that involves getting the level right at source. This is not such a problem with Digital Performer; control is provided, from within the software, over Sound Manager's input level.
A particularly important audio window is the Soundbites window, a central warehouse of all your audio files, whether new recordings or imports from other software. All your recordings are listed here, with the audio events that appear elsewhere in the program being essentially clones. All editing is non‑destructive, unless you actively wish to erase audio.
When it comes to editing and tweaking your audio, there are a number of options. The audio event list is similar to the event list used for MIDI data, and you can easily move, delete and insert audio and mixer events. Next up is the graphic editor, which again has a MIDI counterpart, and here audio can be cut, pasted and moved around non‑destructively.
It would be too much to expect a fully‑featured waveform editor to be included as part of a program such as this, yet a surprising amount can be done without taking your audio elsewhere. Of course, you can cut your audio into smaller chunks, erase silence, and even loop audio in the Tracks window. More advanced treatments come courtesy of MOTU's PureDSP technology, which offers sophisticated pitch‑shifting, time‑scaling, spectral effects and sample‑rate conversion features, with superb formant control when pitch‑shifting.
Should you require even more than this, your audio, or sections thereof, can be edited by an external editor, with a link from the Audio menu; at present, you're limited to Digidesign's Sound Designer II and BIAS Peak, but who knows what the future might bring? My vote goes to support for Stefan Daiano's shareware tour de force D‑SoundPro — any takers, Mr MOTU?
If you haven't got either of the supported editors, you could import audio and use, say, D‑SoundPro (which can load and save SDII‑format files), and then re‑import the audio. Or, if you have a supported SCSI‑equipped sampler, it's also possible to drag and drop audio between DP and the sampler, using SMDI (SCSI Musical Data Interchange), with DP automatically converting samples to the SDII format it prefers. Sample RAM allowing, you can treat your DP recordings with everything your sampler's got to offer, and then just drop them back in your sequence. Supported samplers include the current Akai and Emu families, Kurzweil K2000/K2500 and Roland S760.
Mixing & Effects
In the same way that many editing functions can be applied equally to MIDI or audio data, DP's refined mixer window doesn't discriminate between MIDI and audio tracks. Fader, pan pot, solo and mute buttons are all common to MIDI and audio tracks, and both can access plug‑ins. The MIDI plug‑ins are a different breed, though, with initially non‑destructive effects including delays, transposition, quantise, humanise and, most interestingly, an arpeggiator (if you want to 'fix' an effect, turning it into real MIDI data, you can do so). Audio tracks also have four aux send options, each with a mute button.
The internal audio routing system of DP is very flexible: you can have as many audio voices and internal stereo busses as you like, within the limits of your processor and RAM. Alongside MIDI and audio track faders, the mixer can include so‑called aux and master faders, which can be set to take audio from the main inputs or any of the internal busses. By routing the outputs of your main audio tracks to internal busses, it is possible to send audio outside the computer (if you have a multi‑channel audio card fitted) or create sub‑mixes, if you'd like to control multiple tracks with one fader. The movements of the aux and master faders can be fully automated, alongside the main audio and MIDI faders, and they also have access to audio plug‑ins.
The automation of mixer functions is rather smooth: simply activate the 'Auto' button, hit Record while you're in the mixing board window, and move any of the controls. Your mix is now recorded (that goes for MIDI as well as audio tracks). Couldn't be easier.
The new plug‑in system comes ready‑equipped with a solid collection of basic treatments (some available in mono or stereo versions), with plenty of presets to get you started. The initial plug‑in collection includes auto pan, chorus, echo, flanger, phaser and reverb. A dynamics plug‑in provides compressor, limiter, expander and gate with control envelope, all in one handy window, and there are several varieties of parametric EQ — 2‑band, 4‑band or 8‑band in mono or stereo — but only activated bands use up processor power.
In addition to the basic reverb that originally came with v2.1, the much more sophisticated eVerb was introduced with v2.11. While I wouldn't necessarily change platforms solely for this reverb, it really is quite remarkable in its presentation, performance and sound, especially considering that it is essentially free! The display is highly graphic and intuitive, providing plenty of control over your ambience. There are real‑time graphic windows for reverb time, reverb shape and shelf filter, with individual controls for diffusion, initial reflections, room type and more. Sonically, eVerb is on a par with many budget to mid‑range hardware studio units, with little of the metallic edge of similar plug‑ins.
Quite apart from the MAS plug‑ins that come with the software, DP can also access any Adobe Premier‑compatible plug‑ins, though not in real time. TDM plug‑ins can be used if you have a TDM system, such as Pro Tools III. The DP CD‑ROM even includes a demo of sundry DUY plug‑ins for you to try out. But be warned that the more plug‑ins you use, the more RAM you'll need to get the best out of them, and the harder your computer's CPU will be working.
There is one trick worth bearing in mind if your system is a bit underpowered: audio tracks can be bounced to disk, complete with all levels, pan positions, and effects. Once you've got an idea of where your track is going, you can mix down backing track and harmony vocals, or whatever, to stereo, and reduce the number of voices required to play the audio: 12 tracks of backing vocals bounced to stereo uses just two voices instead of 12, and frees up effects for other tracks. Of course, you don't lose the original audio — you can easily remix the original tracks at a later date.
Digital Performer's user interface remains, as ever, one of the most elegant in the business...
Even before it had Sound Manager support, Digital Performer was a pleasure to use. It looks good, and it offers a very user‑friendly working environment. Now that MOTU have moved all their sophisticated audio recording and manipulation tools into a system that's not dependent on extra hardware, Digital Performer is going to appeal to many potential customers who would not have wanted to, or couldn't afford to, invest in external audio cards. And the latest version even offers tricks that were missing before, including MOTU's own plug‑in system and support for samplers. Is it good value? At £549, it's about average for a serious piece of pro software; you can pay more, for Opcode's Studio Vision Pro and high‑level versions of Steinberg's Cubase VST family, but audio facilities are available with a basic Cubase VST, which costs not much more than £300. If you're interested in what Digital Performer offers but are already committed to another software platform, contact UK distributor MusicTrack for details of an interesting crossgrade scheme.
Before I finish, I'll have to note that my time with DP wasn't all hearts and flowers. For a start, it consistently froze my computer (a 250MHz 6500 with 96Mb of RAM, running MacOS 8.0), necessitating a regular crash and reboot scenario. This frustrating situation remains pretty much unresolved as I write, in spite of the best efforts of MusicTrack and MOTU themselves. Between us, we examined every aspect of the system, eventually booting the Mac from a Zip cartridge with an absolutely minimal system, with almost no extensions save for FreeMIDI and Sound Manager. Still no joy. MOTU say they haven't come across this problem before, and my experience of trying the software on another Mac would seem to confirm that it's a model‑specific problem. On an underpowered 80MHz 7100 with a fraction of the memory, the same Zip disk booted fine. Screen redraws were ridiculously slow, and I was eating up 90% of available processor power, but at no time was audio playback compromised. Adding too many effects or trying to play back too much simultaneous audio brought up helpful alerts, but the computer didn't freeze. So my particular problem is definitely not a reflection on the software, but is the result of some yet‑to‑be‑diagnosed hardware or system problem with my Mac. In the course of my research I came across one other example of a person with the same 6500 Mac as myself, having the same kind of problems. Interestingly, the 6500 has no problems running Cubase VST.
One of the few negative points I could make about DP are that it is very processor and memory hungry, but the same goes for all the competition. Your computer is being persuaded to crunch some serious numbers while dealing with real‑time digital audio. Secondly, as intuitive as DP's layout is, MOTU have still made one or two odd choices. For example, I can understand MAS setup functions being under the Basics menu, but this is where you find the Performance Monitor window as well; it would feel more comfortable to me if it was part of the Windows menu, where the Audio Monitor is located. And, strangely, aux and master faders have to be set up in the Tracks window; I would have liked an option for choosing them in the main mixing window. Also, if you're crossing over from another platform, you might find DP to be operationally eccentric. It's not, though — it's just different. And besides, it has one of the best on‑line help systems I've seen: forget the manual and enable Balloon Help! Pointing at any unfamiliar icons will provide a full explanation of its function.
My opinion of DP as one of the better examples of MIDI + Audio sequencer is unimpaired, and Sound Manager support has made me like it even better. Not only does it feel as though you get more control over input levels than some of the competition, but the actual audio seems to sound better coming back off disk. I'm quite prepared to find that I'm fooling myself on this last point, though (now, where did I put those oxygen‑free cables...?). Digital Performer's user interface remains, as ever, one of the most elegant in the business, with this elegance stretching to audio file handling, plug‑in implementation and internal routing. This is one update that was definitely worth the wait.
What's The Difference?
NEW FEATURES OFFERED BY v2.1
- Sound Manager support for audio recording without extra hardware.
- Real‑time effects plug‑in architecture.
- MOTU Audio System (MAS) hard disk recording engine and mixing system.
- Bounce‑to‑Disk feature for optimisation of audio facilities.
- Drag‑and‑drop audio transfers between the Mac and samplers.
NEW FEATURES OFFERED BY v2.11
- Support for multiple MAS hardware drivers.
- Support for Korg's 1212 I/O PCI card.
- Support for Digidesign Audiomedia II and III cards.
- New eVerb plug‑in.
On The Cards: External Audio Hardware
All the excitement about the latest version of Digital Performer centres on its support for your Power Mac's own audio hardware. But a natural extension of that support takes us into the realm of the affordable PCI audio cards released over the last year or so. Now, at least, we have some choice beyond nothing or relatively expensive Digidesign hardware: a Power Mac's audio capabilities are adequate for many purposes — records have been released using nothing but this hardware — but the specification could be better. It has to be admitted that the Mac's outputs can be a bit hissy and noisy. The first PCI card to be supported by DP is Korg's 1212 I/O. The Digidesign PCI‑format Audiomedia III is also supported. The trouble is that both of these cards are 'full length'. You might think that PCI cards, being of a standard format, shouldn't come in different sizes, and I'd like to agree with you. But the real world isn't like that, so while Emagic's Audiowerk8 card, for example, is just seven inches long, the two cards so far supported by DP are nearly twice as long.
Why am I going on about this, you ask? Because my Power Mac, a 6500, comes in a case that doesn't easily accommodate full‑length PCI cards! The external dimensions look promising, but whip out the processor board and peer inside and you're greeted by a cardboard shield. Remove this and you have to fight your way through a spaghetti‑like collection of multi‑way interconnection cables (my 6500 has a busy complement of hard disk, floppy, CD‑ROM and Zip drives). It might be possible to wiggle some of these leads out of the way and massage a 1212 into place, but you could cause serious damage by doing it recklessly, and you could also void any warranty your machine might still have even if you succeed. Read your paperwork very carefully. If you're an adventurous owner of a Mac in a 6500‑sized tower cases with the same kind of space problems (and have no warranty left), be careful, and protect the end of your 1212 as you install it; the board has several delicate components.
Improved Performance: MOTU & Upgrades
If MOTU's move into the native Power Mac audio hardware market with Digital Performer was a mild surprise, how about this: the latest version of the company's MIDI‑only software — Performer v6 — now offers a limited version of the same technology. For the price of the basic sequencer, you'll be able to record eight audio tracks, with full mixing, plug‑in and external audio editor support. You lose MOTU's PureDSP routines, and support for sampler and third‑party audio cards, but it's still a very affordable and usable way to add basic audio to your sequences. Performer v6.0 (£349) also features MIDI plug‑in effects, a new 'window sets' feature (which allows you to customise window arrangements and recall them with a key stroke) and new search routines. Search for anything, anywhere, based on any set of criteria you wish. Your selected events appear in the search results window, and you can do whatever you want to them: select them, change them, delete them, scale their velocities and so on.
MOTU just keep upgrading their software. Tweaks, updates and additions have been coming thick and fast over recent months. For example, when I first started to look at Digital Performer, it was in v2.1; almost immediately, it became v2.11, and as I finish the review, v2.2 is available in this country, with v2.3 not far behind. MOTU's updates seem mostly to be implementing features asked for by their users, as well as just providing more 'stuff'. Between v2.0 and v2.11, support for the Korg 1212 was provided; v2.2 adds support for crossfades and support for stereo audio files; DP can also save split files as stereo interleaved files suitable for use in CD‑burning programs.
With v2.3, a new MAS plug‑in called Preamp‑1 will be introduced. This acoustic‑modelled deviced emulates a "high‑fidelity tube preamp"; compression and EQ are built in, and low CPU overhead means you can use plenty of Preamp‑1 without slowing your machine down. Finally, v2.3 of DP will also add all the enhancements found in Performer v6, plus over 200Mb of free audio samples, featuring percussion, bass, guitar, and effects loops and drones.
If you've checked out all the old MOTU reviews that have appeared in SOS, you'll know that an early, 1986, version of Performer could run on a 512K Mac! How things have changed.
Digital Performer v2.11 will happily run on a pre‑PowerPC 68040 Mac with 20Mb of RAM and System 7.1, but without Sound Manager support. If you've got an old computer and a Digidesign TDM system, this is fine. For Sound Manager audio, however, you need a Power Mac, System 7.5 or higher, and Sound Manager itself. MOTU recommend at least 24Mb of RAM, though 32Mb is a better minimum bet, and the more RAM you can afford, the more audio tracks and effects you'll be able to run simultaneously — subject to processor power, of course. Note that if you're using MacOS 8.0 or higher, you'll need even more RAM; use Extensions Manager to create a system with as few extensions as possible. And remember, adding or using plug‑ins eats into your RAM and processor overhead, so keep this in mind. And while we're on the subject of performance, a dedicated hard drive for audio is a good idea; a large‑ish AV drive needn't be that expensive these days.
As essential and informative as the main MOTU web site (www.motu.com) is, any serious user of the company's products avoids the independent MOTU‑Mac site at their peril (head for www.zweb.com/qsystems/ motumac/). Central to the site is a mailing list which keeps you in touch with hundreds of other users and the latest developments; most useful is the daily digest. The site also features FAQs, user tips, useful files and further links.
- Sound Manager support at last!
- Audio plug‑in matrix, with the best free reverb available.
- Audio and MIDI nicely integrated.
- OMS compatibility good, but not quite seamless yet.
- MOTU's user interface may confuse some at first.
- Limited support (so far) for PCI audio cards.
The previous lack of Sound Manager support has probably moved many potential Digital Performer users towards other software. Now it's included, there's no excuse not to move back and check out this well‑designed and powerful program.