Last month, we passed briefly over the flashier additions to the latest version of DP, in favour of some less obvious but rather useful new features. Now it's time to return for a closer look at those shiny new bundled instruments...
The inclusion of a set of software instruments in DP5 seems to have been a smart move on MOTU's part: DP no longer looks like an 'incomplete' package, especially for those who are just starting out in sequencing. Of course, MOTU have been in the virtual instrument game for a while, and it's fair to say that the DP5 synths don't really challenge MX4, Mach Five and Symphonic Instrument in terms of features and breadth of usability. But the six newcomers are all good in their own way, and they pull off the trick of being accessible and easy to use while being surprisingly flexible and 'deep'. Here's a round-up of the individual instruments' facilities and quirks, followed by a look at how sample and patch management works, and the way in which the instruments can take advantage of existing DP features to expand their capabilities.
In terms of its appearance, Bassline can't seem to decide whether it's trying to be a Minimoog or a Sequential Pro One. Either way, this is a very simple synth: just one oscillator, a resonant filter with a decay envelope, and an amplifier stage, again with a simple decay envelope. There's no LFO, and there's no other response to using the mod wheel on your controller either. However, the filter and amplifier both have adjustable velocity sensitivity (where the zero setting equals no sensitivity) and there's adjustable overdrive, for those TB303 moments!
There are some nice touches, though. The Waveform knob adjusts smoothly between sawtooth and square waves, but there's a pronounced octave difference between the two (with the square wave lower), allowing for a rather greater range of harmonic variation than you might first think. At a 50:50 setting you'd be forgiven for thinking there were two oscillators, tuned an octave apart. There's also a detune knob, which, again, mimics the sound of two oscillators playing slightly out of tune, producing a fatter sound with a touch of stereo width.
Polysynth looks a lot like a Roland Juno 106 and again, in the grand scheme of things, it's a simple synth. Just one oscillator is apparently on offer, but it offers a mix of waveform types: triangle, sawtooth, rectangle and two square-ish sub-oscillators, sounding one and two octaves below the playing pitch. Just one envelope generator modulates the amplifier section and optionally the filter, while a single sine-wave LFO can modulate oscillator pulse width (of the rectangle waveform), pitch or 'wah' (filter frequency). An effects section offers distortion and/or chorus, applied after the amplifier section.
Polysynth will probably not be your weapon of choice for serious sound design, but it's one of those synths that sounds really good despite the simple architecture. The sub-oscillators can lend some serious welly, and the combination of pulse-width modulation and chorus help it to pull off some good swishy string-machine-type patches. You need to watch processor use though: all those different waveform-type sliders are the outward appearance of separate oscillators. If you were to push up Tri, Saw, Rect, Sub1, Sub2 and Noise, and then play one note, you'd be playing six oscillators! Play a four-note chord and all of a sudden it's 24 oscillators — and a chunk of your available processor power will inevitably have disappeared. Also, Polysynth 's stereo oscillator detune is very pronounced. A noticeable 'click' occurs as you push its slider up from the zero 'unison' position and the stereo image becomes very wide. If this is too much, try using a Trim plug-in in a plug-in slot following Polysynth, and adjust the stereo width there. This is a useful technique for any synth or other signal that is getting too 'wide'.
Compared to Polysynth, Proton steals very little processor power. It's a strange little synth, using the Frequency Modulation (FM) approach that lay behind Yamaha's legendary 1980s DX synths, but implemented differently. If you like warm, rich analogue synths you'll probably hate Proton 's rather plastic-sounding and often edgy digital character. However, FM sounds do have a certain charm, and Proton offers many opportunities for creating strange digital bleeps, clicks and hisses that, when sampled and treated further, are just the thing for ultra-rarefied glitchy electronica.
Without getting bogged down in FM theory, you can think of Proton as effectively having just one audible oscillator — called the Carrier — that, left to its own devices, produces a sine wave. The basic pitch is controlled by the Carrier section's Harmonic and Fine knobs. To create more complex sounds, you modulate the Carrier with another oscillator, called the Modulator. This also has variable pitch (courtesy of its own Harmonic and Fine knobs), and has access to a range of waveforms controlled by the Wave knob. You never hear the Modulator directly — only its effects on the Carrier. The amount of influence the modulator has over the Carrier is controlled by the central FM (amount) knob.
There are, then, three main ways to create more complex timbres. The first is to simply run the carrier and modulator at different pitches, by adjusting their Harmonic knobs. The results caused by different combinations are rather hard to predict, but the Spectra display can give you a lot of detail about the resulting harmonic content. Second, the FM knob intensifies any harmonics produced by the frequency modulation of the Carrier by the Modulator, generally making the sound louder and brighter. Finally, changing the Modulator Wave adds yet more harmonic complexity. Don't overlook the Fine knobs: quite different from their normally subtle equivalents on a subtractive synth, these can have a profound effect on the sound, often leading to inharmonic and non-musical results. Selecting the Fixed option for Carrier pitch can also be surprising, causing every key on your keyboard to produce a different sound, often reminiscent of results achieved with a ring modulator.
All other parts of Proton are synth-like modulators — an LFO each for the Carrier and Modulator oscillators, plus envelope generators for modulating pitch, FM amount and the amplifier. There's no filter, but there's nothing to stop you using an audio plug-in such as Multimode Filter to treat Proton 's output.
As I write, there's still no sign of an Intel-compatible Universal Binary version of DP5. However, MOTU have released a version 5.01 update which promises to clear up some MIDI playback problems and provide some 'optimisations' (whatever that means) for the DP5 instruments. It's available as a free download from www.motu.com. Some users have reported strange behaviour after installing the update. This behaviour stopped after they restarted the Mac (rather than just logging out and then in again), so restarting is probably a good thing to try if you encounter any problems.
Universal Binaries are available for MOTU's Symphonic Instrument and the newly released Ethno sound library/instrument. Both are available for download from the MOTU website (as above).
Up against the minimalistic Bassline, Polysynth and Proton, Modulo seems an absolute beast. In fact, it's a kind of cut-down version of MOTU's MX4 and still retains some of its best features — flexible, wavetable-inspired oscillators, a multi-mode filter and a modulation matrix. The basic architecture is nothing special, comprising two oscillators and a noise source, which pass into a mixer before hitting the filter and amplifier, but the modulation is flexible: the two LFOs can modulate multiple oscillator parameters, as well as filter frequency, and there are three envelope generators, of which one can control oscillator mix, pitch, phase and symmetry, just like the LFOs.
The modulations are set up in a dedicated matrix section, so the five modulation sources that aren't 'hard wired' — LFO 1 and 2, the modulation envelope, the modulation wheel and key velocity — can be routed to multiple destinations simultaneously, and in differing amounts. This means there could be well over 30 individual modulations occurring at any one time in the most complex of patches, which is rather impressive. Even given this potential level of complexity, the modulation matrix is easy to work with. Just click on one of the five 'Source' buttons and then dial in modulation amounts by dragging on the red 'bar graphs' for each destination. The source buttons glow yellow to indicate that they are currently applying modulation to a source, and red when they're the source currently being displayed and edited.
In these days of software-based mega-samplers with highly sophisticated features, who wants a sampler that can only load one sound?
That's all Nanosampler does, though it does have some basic sample-manipulation and looping options, and a simple synth architecture. It's all extremely simplistic — and there, in my opinion, lies its strength. Nanosampler doesn't try to be Mach Five or Kontakt and so remains very immediate and useful, both as a conventional sampler and as a little problem-solver.
Clearly, Nanosampler has some use as a musical instrument. It's good for electronic sounds such as synth basses or pads, because these don't tend to suffer badly from the changes in duration and transposition of harmonics associated with changing playback speed. But even for voices and acoustic instruments it can work. It's capable of convincing looped backing-vocal 'aahs', for example, and some acoustic instruments can take a surprising amount of transposition before they start to become implausible. Think outside the box, though, and Nanosampler offers a lot more.
To start with, you can view Nanosampler as a sort of MIDI-triggerable soundbite player. For example, you might choose to use it for drum replacement, or repeatedly playing a loop or riff without having to laboriously duplicate and place it in the Sequence Editor. Loading a soundbite is trivially easy. You just drag and drop a soundbite from the Sequence Editor or Soundbites window to Nanosampler 's waveform display and immediately it becomes playable.
Also not to be overlooked are Nanosampler 's varispeed capabilities. DP has been criticised in the past for offering pitch and time manipulation for soundbites (via the Spectral Effects window) but not true varispeed. Now soundbites can be loaded into Nanosampler and the 'Tune' knob used to provide a true varispeed effect over a four-octave range — great for drum loops, of course. Also, if you play a sample and simultaneously use pitch-bend, the much sought-after 'tape stop' (or indeed 'tape start') effect can be created, especially when pitch-bend is set to its maximum value of 12 semitones.
Model 12 is an easy to use drum-sound module with clever pitch-shifting that doesn't affect duration, and time-stretching that doesn't affect pitch. It can load 12 drum sounds, each of which can be individually tuned, stretched, filtered and, as I described last month, sent to separate audio outputs. Model 12 's basic operation is pretty well covered in the manual, but what's not made so obvious is the modulation options available for various parameters.
The central, grey-coloured pane in Model 12 's window contains controls that relate to the individual drum parts beneath. If you click and drag the Tune knob, you can tune an individual drum over a two-octave range, but you might also notice that some further options appear in the display section above as you do so. These are modulation sources for the same Tune parameter, and they provide a way for key velocity, a random value generator and a decay envelope to control pitch in real time. You simply click and drag in their bar graphs to dial in the desired amount of modulation or make other settings. Other parameters that offer these modulation options are the sample Start parameter, Volume (which inevitably is modulated by key velocity), Pan, Filter Cutoff, Resonance and Drive. You might try introducing a little randomness into the sample Start and Tune parameters for a programmed hi-hat part, say, to make it sound a little less clinical, or use the decay envelope in the filter to create electronic-sounding versions of otherwise straight acoustic drum sounds.
All DP5 's synths, except for Modulo, use their window's title-bar mini-menu to load and save patches. Modulo, on the other hand, uses its own bank and patch management system, accessible both from the usual front panel (for loading patches) and from the File button at the bottom left of its window (for managing them). Nanosampler and Model 12 also offer extensive facilities for managing the samples that they use, and offer the user an opportunity to build their own personal sample library. More on this, and on how all the synths integrate with DP 's wider mixing environment, next month.
Digital Performer has always offered two distinct approaches to input monitoring, configurable via Setup menu / Configure Audio System / Input Monitoring Mode.
'Monitor record-enabled tracks through effects' allows the input signal to be processed by MAS and Audio Unit plug-ins before being monitored, so if you were recording vocals you could give them some reverb in the headphone mix. The problem with this approach is that the monitor signal is afflicted by the latency that results from having to be routed through the MOTU Audio System. Exactly how much latency is dependent on the sample rate you're using and the Buffer Size setting in Setup menu / Configure Audio System / Configure Hardware Driver. Divide buffer size by sample rate to get a rough idea, in seconds. You need a fast computer to run much of a mix and still be able to monitor through effects with low latency.
This is why the other option, 'Direct hardware playthrough', exists. With this selected, the input signal to be monitored takes a shorter journey through your computer, picking up much less latency, independent of Buffer Size. However, it can't have any DP-hosted effects applied to it.
Other monitoring options exist, of course, including using an external mixer, and taking advantage of the zero-latency monitoring of interfaces, such as MOTU's own Cuemix facility, found on its PCI and Firewire audio hardware. However you choose to monitor, there are a number of things to watch out for in DP, and some new things that were introduced in DP5.
MOTU call routing an Audio Track's input directly to its output, for monitoring purposes, 'Audio Patch Thru'. In earlier versions of DP, this was enabled and disabled in the Studio menu, or by clicking the little 'headphones' button that appeared in the title bar of the Consolidated Window (and Audio Monitor window, when it was popped out of the Consolidated Window). This worked fine, but only for tracks that were record-enabled, and even then only 'globally' — you couldn't configure Audio Patch Thru status for individual tracks. To cap it all, there was a further option in the Setup menu's Input Monitoring Mode dialogue box that determined how pre-existing track audio was incorporated with inputs being 'patched thru'. (See Performer Notes from December 2005.) It could be made to work, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who found the whole system cumbersome.
In DP5, input monitoring and Audio Patch Thru have, fortunately, been much improved. The old trusty headphone button has gone, because Audio Patch Thru is now handled not globally, but on a track-by-track basis. To turn on input monitoring for a track, do one of the following:
- Click in the new 'Mon' column in the Tracks window, to illuminate a blue 'speaker' icon for the track.
- Click the new 'Input' button on the track's channel strip in the Mixing Board.
- Click the small 'speaker' button next to the track name in the Sequence Editor.
Any of these methods will enable Audio Patch Thru independently of the track's record-enable status. This ability really comes into its own when you're working with Reason instruments routed to DP via Rewire, or monitoring external hardware synths or effects processors in DP. With this sort of setup, you need audio channels that stay 'open', to allow you to monitor the synths and effects while you slowly develop your project. You could use Aux tracks to do this, but since you can't record on them you'd have to create audio tracks to finally record the synths and effects when your project neared completion, and spend time configuring them before dismantling the old Aux tracks. With the DP5 approach, you can create audio tracks from the word go. You then just enable input monitoring for the tracks while you work on your project, and finally record-enable them when you need to record your synths and effects.
DP5 provides four modes that control how Audio Patch Thru of inputs is integrated with audio that already exists on the audio track during playback or an Auto Record (punch-in/out) session. They're chosen from Studio menu / Audio Patch Thru, and described on page 213 of the DP5 manual, but I like to think of them according to typical use:
- If you want track inputs to always take precedence over existing audio, choose Input Only.
- If you want to hear track audio during playback, but your input during recording, choose Auto.
- If you want to hear track audio and your input together (a good idea in the lead up to an Auto-Record punch in, for example) choose Blend. In these three cases you'll only hear your input when you actually record.
- The remaining Audio Patch Thru mode (Off) kills Audio Patch Thru completely, which is essential when you choose to monitor your inputs externally (ie. via a mixing desk or using Cuemix).