Nicholas Rowland tries out the new features in MOTU's ever‑evolving flagship Macintosh sequencing package.
Working in the software development team at Mark Of The Unicorn clearly isn't a job for people who enjoy a lie‑in, judging by the speed at which Digital Performer gets upgraded and has its functionality extended yet further. MOTU's flagship sequencer was last on the SOS test slab in the January 2000 issue, following three significant updates in quick succession. Now it's back in v2.7 form, and looking better than ever. The latest release sees the addition of a handful of new features, plus the consolidation of a number of elements that were briefly covered in the last review, but which up to now have not been fully integrated into the accompanying documentation. This latter section comprises MIDI Time Stamping, a hardware‑based MIDI streaming technology that MOTU claims offers the tightest MIDI timing around, along with an improved internal PPQ resolution which is also user‑adjustable — both of which came along with v2.6.1.
DP v2.7 sees a number of enhancements and tweaks, including the ability to automate the plug‑in effects, the inclusion of three new plug‑ins plus a respray of existing ones, and dedicated support for Mackie's HUI mixing/control desk. The headline news, though, is the addition of a Drum Editor window, a feature which hitherto has been glaringly noticeable by its absence. In terms of its basic functionality, this follows the pattern established by other packages (which in turn took their cue from the famous Fairlight Page R), with beats entered on a grid. However, DP offers a couple of new takes on this tried and trusted approach. First, it offers you the option of how much or how little information you want to see for each percussion part. Second, it's extremely flexible when it comes to pulling together different 'kits' of sounds. This latter feature is particularly helpful if, like me, your percussion tracks tend to mix sounds from different instruments — the bass drum from a sampler, the snare from a keyboard and the percussion from a sound module.
The information associated with each instrument can be viewed in four different ways: grid, grid with velocity, grid with velocity and duration, and 'Free Mode' where you can simultaneously edit velocity and start and end positions. Because it eliminates clutter if you don't need to see it, this approach enables you to work extremely quickly. For example, if you've got a four‑on‑the‑floor bass drum that plays at constant velocity, you can simply whack in the blobs, but if you need to fine‑tune velocities on the snare this is easily done by switching to Grid with Velocity and then using the Reshape tool to draw in the velocities. DP also has a unique rhythm brush feature that allows you to quickly paint in percussion lines according to a predetermined groove, complete with appropriate dynamics, note lengths and offsets. DP comes with a variety of preset patterns for this purpose, and you can use the Brush Tool editor to create and save your own rhythm brush patterns. As well as velocity data, the editor also makes editing other controller information extremely easy. The window under the pattern grid gives you a bar‑graph view of the various types of controller information, which can be painted in and edited with a variety of tools. Again, there's considerable flexibility over what is and what is not displayed — which is just as well, as this kind of stuff can get (visually) very messy indeed.
The drum editor is an excellent addition to the package. I found it a lot slicker for step‑time entry of melodic notes than DP's piano‑roll grid editor, which I've always found a bit fiddly compared to, say, Cubase. Of course, the great thing about DP is that all the editing screens are completely integrated, so creating patterns in the drum editor does not preclude further fine‑tuning using other editors. And, unlike Cubase, there's no conversion required from drum parts to MIDI parts first — DP make no distinction between the data, which also means that it's a lot easier to apply MIDI effects to drum patterns.
Audio plug‑ins is the other department that has received considerable attention with this latest overhaul. The biggest news here is undoubtedly that the 50 or so bundled audio and MIDI plug‑ins can now be fully automated in real time. This means you can change presets on the fly, record the tweaking of virtual knobs, and also automate discrete events. Many of the parameters can be locked to the sequence tempo, with values expressed as musical beat values rather than in terms of milliseconds. The new Stereo Delay plug‑in, which offers separately programmable left and right‑channel delay times, provides a useful showcase for this new functionality; naturally, all parameters that have been locked to beats will follow tempo changes. Similarly, the new Multimode Filter plug‑in allows you to usefully employ automation to sweep the filter across your audio tracks.
To support the new plug‑in automation features, MOTU have made a number of general changes to DP's automation facilities. For example, all virtual mixing functions can now be fully automated, including solos, mutes and send levels. Furthermore, DP offers five different automation modes: Touch, Overwrite, Latch, Trim Touch and Trim Latch. Overwrite mode, for example, means that DP starts recording automation data as soon as playback begins, while Touch mode waits for you to reach for a virtual knob or fader. Again, this function offers infinitesimal control over parameters, yet is implemented in such a way that it's easy to home in on just the information you want. All automation can be viewed, inserted and edited graphically.
In addition to the delay and filter plug‑ins already mentioned, DP 2.7 also now includes a rather nice Ring Modulator. Both this and the filter feature side‑chain inputs and real‑time MIDI control of their parameters. MOTU have also taken the opportunity to revamp the look and feel of all the other bundled plug‑ins, and in some cases extend their functionality. The sound‑mangling Sonic Modulator, for example, now offers the facility to lock its LFOs to tempo, while the Dynamics plug‑in now has a side‑chain input. The effects look great with their new paint jobs, and the more knob‑laden effects usefully feature expanded and condensed views of their virtual control panels.
There is clearly a lot of ongoing support for MOTU's proprietary MAS plug‑in format from third‑party developers. Antares, renowned for their Auto‑Tune plug‑in, have recently introduced a MAS version of their Microphone Modeler, and TC Works' Native Bundle (which includes the fab TC Native Reverb) is also now available for the MAS‑market (ouch!). Another recent MAS convert is the quirky, but highly creative suite of Pluggo plug‑ins, which not only gives you 74 effects and instruments to work with, but provides a set of extensions that enable you to build your own plug‑ins from scratch.
Pluggo also offers a solution for those who still pine for their favourite VST plug‑ins, as it can act as a 'shell' within DP. TC's Spark audio editor can do the same, but the cheapest way to get VST compatibility within Digital Performer is to use AudioEase's VST Wrapper. Version 2 of this inexpensive ($39.99) utility even supports the VST 2 format for VST Instruments, and can be downloaded from www.audioease.com.
As already mentioned, DP 2.7 features complete support for Mackie's rather tasty HUI fader surface. This marries DP with a completely automated control surface featuring touch‑sensitive motorised faders, the ability to call up plug‑ins on‑screen from the HUI, choose presets (on the fly and during recording) and change effects parameters.
Finally, for anyone who puts sound to picture, I should also flag up the new Find Tempo window. This feature enables you to place a range of hit points against visual cues (significant scene changes, the knife striking the victim's shoulderblades, and so on) then set DP to work working out a tempo that best marries up with the markers, with as many hits as possible falling on the beats. It works pretty well, too, though for best results, you have to play around with the values of 'weight' you assign to each marker and also the amount of skew that you allow with each hit.
As v2.7 is a free upgrade, existing owners don't need to be convinced that these latest features are worth paying for — you'll be getting them whether you want them or not! For anyone looking to buy from scratch, or who perhaps wants to ring the changes from a rival package, the program's new features add considerably to the already many potent reasons why Digital Performer should be your sequencer of choice. Admittedly, its professional spec is reflected in a professional price which makes taking on DP a commitment for life and not just for Christmas. However, MOTU are still touting an extremely attractive crossgrade offer that considerably lessens the blow to the wallet. The last time I looked at DP I concluded that it was so good, I might just have to consider ditching Cubase. The only reason I haven't so far is because I wouldn't know what to do with the huge amount of material that I've created with Cubase — but again, I have been struck by just what an elegant and well‑integrated program DP is. Maybe this time.
Digital Performer offers just about everything you'd expect from a full‑on MIDI and audio sequencing package, plus a few unique features that you won't find elsewhere, such as its POLAR RAM‑based loop recording and composition tool. One of its major selling points is also the inclusion of a number of items that, with other packages, are either only available with the 'deluxe' editions or would necessitate extra expense. For example, as standard DP has an inbuilt waveform editor, support for 24‑bit audio (providing you have the requisite hardware), a decent score window and a bundle of excellent effects including mastering plug‑ins. In my opinion, the overall look and feel of DP is one of its most attractive features, although the use of a non‑standard menu system which throws all the Apple OS conventions out of the window does take some getting used to. MOTU also take a non‑standard approach in other areas: DP's plug‑ins are based on MAS (the MOTU Audio System) while its device management system, FreeMIDI, is also proprietary. However, OMS support has now been added, and the program has always been compatible with Adobe Premiere plug‑ins. Support for VST plug‑ins is now easily added too (see main text). If you hadn't realised, MOTU is a fully native package, and MOTU offer guaranteed compatibility with all the latest G4 Power Macs including dual‑processor models. It also works beautifully with MOTU's hard disk recording systems and USB MIDI interfaces, as well as most third‑party audio cards.
The 'official' unofficial support web site for all things MOTU now has a permanent home at www.unicornation.com.
- Support for 24‑bit recording, mixing and mastering (with appropriate hardware).
- Sample‑accurate editing of MIDI and audio data.
- Fully functional built‑in waveform editor.
- 17 real‑time native plug‑ins included, plus support for TDM and Adobe Premiere plug‑ins.
- PureDSP time‑stretching, pitch‑shifting and 'gender‑bending' application with background processing.
- Sample‑accurate sync with ADAT and Tascam digital multitracks.
- Drag‑and‑drop transfer of audio between the computer and a range of samplers.
- Support for all major soundcards, including Pro Tools hardware; also OMF support, offering complete multitrack session transfer to Pro Tools.
- User‑selectable PPQ resolution.
- MIDI Time Stamping, offering tighter MIDI timing (in conjunction with MOTU's new USB interfaces).
- MIDI plug‑in 'effects', comprising quantise, transpose, humanise, plus MIDI echo and an arpeggiator.
WHAT'S NEW IN v2.7
- Drum Editor.
- Real‑time display update of recorded audio.
- POLAR‑style cycle recording for hard disk audio tracks.
- Mackie HUI support.
- New plug‑ins: Stereo Delay, Multimode Filter, Ring Modulator.
- Enhancements to the look and functionality of existing plug‑ins.
- Multiple punches on the fly.
- Find Tempo feature.
- Enhanced Markers window.
- Scrubbing while trimming soundbites.
- Merge soundbites feature.
- Graphic time‑stretching.
- Improved scoring window.
- Improved automation, including effects.
- Audio quantise and sync points.
- Drum editor is neatly implemented.
- Effects look and sound good.
- Elegant interface and excellent integration of functions.
- Standard features include sample editor and decent reverb and mastering plug‑ins.
- Some may not like its non‑standard interface.
- Some audio processing functions not as smooth as they might be.
- As with any MIDI + Audio package, you need a decent Mac.
Digital Performer has the edge in so many areas that you'd be a fool not to give it the once‑over.