Mark of the Unicorn's Performer has been a Mac sequencing stalwart for almost as long as the Mac platform has been used by musicians. Now faced with a growing number of competitors, it's up to version 5.0 and continues to improve in presentation and functionality, according to Mike Collins.
Performer was the first sequencer for the Macintosh to win widespread acceptance by music professionals, although Opcode's Vision has been vying with it for the 'top spot' ever since. Of course, there are two other major sequencers available for the Mac — Cubase and Notator Logic. Cubase, at present, is probably mainly of interest to existing Cubase users, many of whom will have swapped over to the Mac from the ageing Atari 1040. Its greatest advantage currently lies in its cross‑platform consistency — if you know how to use it on the Atari or PC, then it is relatively straightforward to get to grips with it on the Mac. Notator Logic is the new kid on the block as far as Mac sequencers go — and has much more in common with Cubase than with Performer or Vision, or even than with Notator on the Atari! Notator's features are undoubtedly very powerful, and the programmers are making monumental efforts to cram in just about every feature that today's musicians and composers might conceivably need. Nevertheless, I believe that E‑Magic still have some work to do to make their user interface as straightforward and easy to use as those of Performer or Vision.
For starters, the first thing you notice is the much sexier, colourfully redesigned user interface. Perhaps Prince has had some input here, because the colour purple is used extensively in the overview editor to indicate the presence and density of data in the tracks — dark purple for dense data, with light purple for more sparsely‑packed data. Elsewhere, the use of colour is more minimal, with most of the windows having helpful 'touches' of colour where it will truly make things clearer, rather than just for the sake of it. The bulk of what you see now — the windows, dialogue boxes, transport bar, and so forth — all feature a sculpted, 3D graphical look, which I feel really enhances the operation of the interface. So is it better than Vision's interface? Well, that's a difficult question to answer, as subjective opinions will always vary from person to person. My first reaction to the purple, light green and light blue colours used in Performer 5 was one of mild horror — too garish, I thought. However, after using it for the first day or so, I have to say that I have now become used to the new look, and actually find these colours quite attractive! MOTU have gone a lot further than Opcode in their redesign (all the dialogue boxes have been redesigned to match the new look, for instance), and I think that the results are on the whole superior, although Vision 2.0 is certainly attractive to look at, and you can read all the on‑screen text information very clearly. Cubase has not yet entered the fray with an interface redesign, and still features an older‑style black and white interface. Notator Logic was designed more recently than the others, and currently features subtle use of colour, with 3D buttons and other graphical elements in the Tracks and Transport windows.
In common with Vision 2.0, Performer 5.0 has added the Groove quantise features first seen in Cubase and Notator Logic. Using the Create Groove commands, you can make your own grooves, of any length, from any music you have recorded into Performer or loaded from a MIDI file. You can then edit the groove if you wish, before applying it to any other track you like. The Groove Quantize dialogue box offers slider control of timing, velocity and duration, with a pop‑up list of beat division settings — nothing could be easier to use! To get you started with all this, a useful selection of DNA Grooves, as well as a special edition of DrumTrax drum pattern sequences in Performer file format, are provided on the installation disks.
The Counter window has now been greatly enlarged so that it is much easier to read from a distance in a recording studio environment, and the Cycle‑recording capabilities have been upgraded with instant update and spot‑erase. With the improved Memory‑shuttle feature, Performer's main counter now loops seamlessly, just like the sequencers in typical drum machines. The notes and other data show up immediately as you record them, so with a graphic or notation editing window open while you record, you can immediately edit the notes you record without ever hitting the stop button. And the new spot‑erase control lets you erase notes while you are cycle‑recording by holding down the key for the pitch you want to erase — just like on your favourite drum machine or hardware sequencer.
The Split Notes feature has been enhanced, to let you automatically create a new track and paste the split notes to it. You can even create a set of new tracks and paste the split notes to each track according to their pitch. The music notation features have also been substantially improved — and not before time, as the original notation features left a lot to be desired! Now you get a QuickScribe window which provides palette‑based note entry and editing directly in a page view, as well as the original scroll‑view editing offered in earlier versions. The quality of the notation which Performer can produce still falls short of the quality you can achieve in a dedicated score‑writer like Finale, but it is very simple to use and produces reasonably acceptable results with a minimum of fuss.
Support has been added for MIDI Machine Control for devices such as the Alesis ADAT, the Akai DR4d, and the Tascam DA88. Another major new change involves the integration with MOTU's FreeMIDI system, which allows users to take patch names directly from their synthesizers (via MOTU's Unisyn patch editor/librarian) and select these directly from within Performer — rather than selecting MIDI patch numbers. This works in a very similar way to the 'Vision plus OMS plus Galaxy' system developed by Opcode. As I have used Galaxy for many years, and already have all my synth patches held on my computer as Galaxy libraries, I would far prefer that Performer was fully OMS‑compatible to the point where I could use Galaxy directly with Performer. Unisyn is OK, and even has an MKS80 editor which is not available in Galaxy (and which I find particularly useful), but I still prefer Galaxy — and certainly don't fancy the hassle of converting my patch library over to Unisyn versions!
Another small enhancement is the addition of a Bank Select feature which lets you break the 128‑patch barrier imposed by the 128‑patch number limit within the MIDI specification. Bank Select lets you access multiple banks in any MIDI device that supports MIDI bank select messages, such as the Korg 05R/W or the Roland Sound Canvas. Notator Logic also supports Bank Select, but neither Vision nor Cubase have this feature yet.
Then we have the manual! MOTU have always provided first‑rate manuals, but this time they have excelled themselves, providing both a Reference Manual, and a Getting Started manual which includes very effective tutorials on sequencing, notation, and setting up patch lists. A 'picturebook tour' is also provided in Getting Started, especially aimed at people who prefer annotated pictures to the more usual blocks of text with occasional pictures and diagrams. This is more like the approach you see in explanatory articles in magazines like MacUser, and it works very well.
I used Performer 5.0 'straight out of the box' last week on an orchestral film music recording for a new Disney production called Stick With Me Kid. The composer, Brian Gascoigne, had prepared his click‑tracks in Performer 4, and hired me to take care of cueing up the click‑tracks while the recording engineer and tape‑op were cueing up the multitrack tape machine and U‑Matic VCR. The idea was to achieve the fastest possible pace of recording, which was particularly crucial on the large orchestral sessions to make sure that they did not run over time. Here every second lost between takes meant that there was a possibility that extra time would be needed, with the extra fees for the musicians and the studio mounting up alarmingly. Performer 5.0 worked flawlessly. We finished the last session 15 minutes before time, and several of the musicians on the session came to take a look at Performer while it was still runnng in the control room. Arranger Mike Townend and Bassist Mo Foster were particularly impressed with what they saw. In one sense, just running clicks was not too demanding a task for any sequencer, but, on the other hand, the speedy response of the software, the ease of editing when this was needed, and the pleasing and attractive look of the software onscreen certainly made Performer 5.0 a joy to work with. Now I can't wait for my next major MIDI sequencing project to come along so that I can really put this new version through its paces!
One thing which Brian Gascoigne pointed out was that he would like to be able to use the same set of key commands which he had become used to on his Fairlight. Brian is in the process of changing over to the Mac, at least for some of his sequencing, as is JJ Jeczalik, another well‑known Fairlight user, and I am helping them to make the transition. It should be possible to set up at least some of the Fairlight commands using Performer's Remote Controls feature, which lets you define any Macintosh key combination for the transport and step‑record note‑entry functions, and you could duplicate others using a third‑party 'macro' utility such as QuickKeys. This lets you do far more than create simple keyboard commands — you could have a key combination which would take a selected track and change all the velocities to 64 at one stroke, for instance. Interestingly, E‑Magic have provided sets of keyboard commands for Notator Logic which duplicate Performer's, Vision's, and Cubase's, for the convenience of people swapping between these sequencers.
As a long‑term Performer user, I'm very pleased that this upgrade adds such a useful set of new features, and am very happy with the way the look and feel of the interface have been improved graphically. I will certainly choose Performer for the majority of my sequencing needs, but for particular projects I will turn to one of the other sequencers — as appropriate. If I want to see scrolling notation clearly from a distance, I will choose Vision or Notator Logic. If I want higher‑quality notation for printing out from within the MIDI sequencer, I will choose Cubase or Notator Logic.
When you compare the versions of these sequencers which let you use digital audio with a Digidesign system, the picture changes slightly again. For me, the choice here is between Studio Vision for its excellent interface and solid performance, and Logic Audio for its advanced features such as pitch‑to‑MIDI and timestretching. As far as FreeMIDI is concerned, it is so similar to OMS that it seems crazy to have two competing systems from two of the major companies in this field, neither of which are yet totally compatible with each other. OMS has been around longest, and most of the other manufacturers have started to implement OMS‑compatibility. MOTU should bury the hatchet with OMS over this one, and get together with all the others, and with Apple, to make sure that the basic MIDI capabilities work with all MIDI applications on the Mac in a similar way — so that you can use any combination of MIDI software you choose without the problems that currently arise.
To wrap this up, despite a few reservations on my part, let me congratulate MOTU for having set new standards of excellence in many areas with this new version of Performer — most noticeably with the slickest‑looking graphical user‑interface to be found in any Macintosh MIDI software to date.
The following sequence of screenshots of the Edit, Region, Change, Basics and Windows Menus should give you a fair taste of what Performer is all about.
One of the keys to Performer's ease of use is its extremely logically‑organised and powerful Menu commands, which let you carry out all the setups and edits you need for most music quickly and intuitively. Vision's Menus and commands are organised very similarly to Performer, but there are still a few quirks which I feel should be ironed out before it matches up to Performer's standard.
- Excellent interface redesign.
- Addition of groove quantise.
- Lots of useful program enhancements.
- Not yet sufficiently OMS compatible.
- Graphic editing and score editing could be improved still further.
This latest version is clearly designed to keep Performer at the top of the sequencing tree, and it does just that. Special mention should go to the admirable graphical user interface.