Search Gear
 

MARK OF THE UNICORN

October 1, 2000
share

DIGITAL PERFORMER 2.7 (MAC)A major upgrade to a mature and elegant sequencer.

Mark of the Unicorn is one of the oldest and most venerable music-software companies in the world. One of its first products, Performer, was among the first comprehensive MIDI sequencers for the Mac. Since Performer's release, MOTU has continued to refine and enhance its flagship software, adding digital audio capabilities and many new features to create Digital Performer.

Version 2.7 of Digital Performer adds a multitude of features to an already powerful application. Updates include greatly enhanced automation, a new Drum Editor, multiple audio punches on the fly, real-time display of waveforms during recording, audio scrubbing during trimming, graphic time stretching, new and redesigned plug-ins, Mackie HUI and ReWire support, and an abundance of other features.

Digital Performer has always maintained a no-nonsense approach to sequencing and recording that appeals to many professionals. At the heart of Digital Performer lies the Tracks Overview window (see Fig. 1), in which you find the tracks, MIDI assignments, default-patch assignments, and related parameters.

One very cool feature of the Tracks Overview window is the Take box, which lets you record (and name) multiple passes within a MIDI or audio track. This works well for quickly recording repeated takes of a part, as it doesn't clutter the arrangement with redundant vertical tracks. Version 2.7 automatically creates new Takes for audio tracks while in Cycle Record, and the program displays audio waveforms in real time as tracks record.

Like most other digital audio sequencers, Digital Performer provides several editing windows. The Event Editor window displays MIDI data in an editable text list; the Graphic Editors provide visual editing of MIDI and audio data. The Audio Graphic Editor is as feature laden as the best stand-alone digital audio editor programs (see Fig. 2), and it can zoom all the way down to the sample level for incredibly detailed editing.

Digital Performer's dedicated Conductor track contains all tempo, key-signature, and time-signature data; you can easily view and edit these graphically or by event. The Conductor track can also be saved as a Standard MIDI File for importing into Digidesign's Pro Tools.

When the SMF is accompanied by an Open Media Format file and relevant audio files, Pro Tools can create a session from a Digital Performer project that contains sample-accurate alignment of audio events, a tempo map with bars and beats, text markers, and MIDI data. (MOTU plans to create a two-way handshake in a version of Digital Performer that can import OMF files.) I used this method with great success for several projects destined to be mixed in Pro Tools.

TURN THE BEAT AROUNDOne feature missing in previous versions of Digital Performer was a dedicated editor for drum parts. Not anymore. The program's Drum Editor lets you view and edit notes within a rhythmic grid (see Fig. 3). Furthermore, you can create composite drum kits from multiple MIDI devices. The viewing and editing resolution ranges from whole notes to 64th notes. Triplets and dotted rhythms are not displayed in the grid, but, of course, they can still be present in the sequence.

Drum data is displayed and edited in four different panes: Note List, Note Grid, Note/Tool Settings, and Controller Grid. The Note List includes each drum sound and its name, note number, MIDI-channel assignment, and playback control. To the right of the Note List is the Note Grid, where you view and edit note placement and Velocity. A cool new feature is the Rhythm Brush, which lets you "paint" entire preset rhythmic patterns by dragging the Brush icon across the grid.

Under the Note List is the Note Tool Settings pane. Here, you can quantize a drum sound independently of the other sounds.

Below the Note Grid is the Controller Grid, similar to the Controller Grid in Digital Performer's MIDI Graphic Editor window. Here Velocity, Volume, Modulation, and other controller data can be edited graphically.

I found the Drum Editor to be very useful, especially for styles of music incorporating grid-style, quantized percussion parts, such as common dance music. Each pane allows extensive editing and displays a multitude of features that can be described only as comprehensive.

However, the overall look of the Drum Editor doesn't fit in with the clean, elegant graphics found elsewhere in Digital Performer. It's a little blurry and hard on the eyes, with too much dark color. I hope MOTU isn't moving Digital Performer in the sexy form-over-function graphic direction that has recently marred many music-related applications.

TIMING IS EVERYTHINGIn version 2.61, MOTU upped Digital Performer's internal MIDI resolution from 480 ppqn (parts per quarter note) to around 2 trillion ppqn, although you can specify any resolution up to 10,000 ppqn. Users comfortable with the standard 480 ppqn can simply add four decimal places for higher resolution.

Of course, Standard MIDI Files can't support such high resolutions, but Digital Performer creates minute changes in the tempo map as necessary when exporting Conductor tracks as SMFs to ensure accurate timing of audio events throughout an entire session.

As you might expect, Digital Performer supports MOTU's new hardware-based MIDI Time Stamping (MTS), which is accurate to within an amazing 0.33 ms when used with a USB-equipped MOTU MIDI interface. (It doesn't work with any interface connected to a serial port.)

Hearing is believing. I immediately noticed the timing improvement the first time I used a MIDI Time Piece AV/USB with my USB-equipped G3 PowerBook to play a dense MIDI sequence that I had originally created on my non-USB G3 desktop computer. When I use MTS, I spend less time realigning MIDI tracks to achieve the proper timing placements, which ultimately results in more productivity, a requirement of professional work.

Groove-quantized tracks actually hold their groove, even as tracks accumulate. Of course, MTS won't make any old, sloppy synth modules any less sluggish and inconsistent, but you can rest assured that any MIDI slop you hear comes directly from the synths and/or the serial nature of MIDI - not from the interface.

SOUNDBITESDigital Performer has always had very good native DSP capabilities for audio data. The Spectral Effects processor provides high-quality pitch-shifting, formant-shifting, and time-compression/expansion functions that rival those of dedicated, stand-alone applications. All three effects can process simultaneously, and the results are immediately reversible if you don't like them.

Tracks can also be normalized, crossfaded (with user-specified times and shapes), stripped of silence, and faded. The dither feature affects all audio tracks. Soundbites (individual sections of audio) can now merge, and editing them during playback interrupts playback only slightly. (In previous versions, Soundbites weren't editable during playback.) Tracks using a lot of real-time DSP can be bounced to disk as a new file to free up CPU resources. You can bounce entire mixes, complete with internal effects and automation, to a new file in less than real time on most computers.

Digital Performer cannot mix 16-bit and 24-bit files in the same song. If you need to import 24-bit audio into a 16-bit file, Digital Performer converts it down with a high-quality dithering algorithm. (When converting from 16 bits to 24, the software simply adds zeroes to the least-significant end of each digital word.) Again, Digital Performer handles these chores while you perform other editing and recording tasks.

Audio files are now time stamped, enabling the program to display their current SMPTE and real-time locations. All Soundbites can return to their original time-stamped locations, which is especially handy if you've accidentally moved a piece of audio without a grid enabled. Soundbites can also have sync points, places within the Soundbites that act as location reference points.

Version 2.7 boasts the very cool ability to graphically time-stretch Soundbites. The program automatically performs the time compression or expansion to fit the audio to the new start and end points. Simply grab the edge of a Soundbite with the hand tool and drag it to the desired location. Digital Performer does the rest.

When you're recording audio in Cycle mode (looping a section between Memory Cycle points) with the Overdub button engaged, Digital Performer automatically creates and numbers multiple takes with each pass until you stop recording. The Polar plug-in, which was introduced in version 2.6 (see Fig. 4), allows not only cycle recording of multiple takes, but also overdubbing into previous passes mixed in real time. Polar records its takes into RAM for faster, more glitch-free recording. You can place audio tracks created in Polar in Digital Performer's Tracks Overview window or save them as a separate file for later use.

In the Sampler window, Soundbites can be exported via SCSI to external hardware samplers, such as the Roland S-760 or Akai S-series units. This is a very fast and convenient way to load WAV, AIFF, SDII, or audio samples from a CD into a hardware sampler.

MAS CONSTRUCTIONIn addition to the destructive audio DSP functions I mentioned previously, Digital Performer ships with 27 non-destructive real-time audio plug-ins in the MOTU Audio System (MAS) format. That number actually includes 19 different types of plug-ins; the other eight are variations. As yet, neither the plug-ins nor Digital Performer itself are optimized for Apple's G4 Velocity Engine, but according to MOTU, this enhancement lurks just around the corner.

For version 2.7, MOTU has added new plug-ins and redesigned several of the preexisting ones for better audio quality. All sport a beautiful new graphic face-lift. Some of the more elaborate plug-ins with lots of parameters have alternative layouts that dispense with the cool graphics and display only parameters with buttons, sliders, and numbers. However, what's most important is the sound quality - and these plug-ins deliver.

Of particular note are the Sonic Modulator, Multimode Filter, Stereo Delay, Preamp-1, Phaser, Ring Modulator, and MasterWorks mastering plug-ins. These processors are as good as - or better than - a lot of third-party offerings by major industry players, and I wouldn't hesitate to use any on professional projects. The reverbs, dynamics processors, and EQs are quite good, though they're useful rather than brilliant.

Digital Performer now automates its plug-in parameters in real time. This can result in some incredibly wonderful tracks, which you can easily bounce to a new audio file if your CPU rebels against your natural desire to apply a Sonic Modulator to every track.

MOTU has really covered the nuts and bolts of effects. None of the plug-ins are too esoteric, but that's fine - all are extremely useful and high quality. If you need more (and who doesn't?), a wealth of third-party MAS plug-ins are compatible with Digital Performer.

MIX BLESSINGDigital Performer's mixer section is one of my favorite parts of the program. The logically organized and familiar-looking Mixer window graphically models a hardware console (see Fig. 5). It integrates MIDI and audio channels into the same mixer, further facilitating the recording process. (Any feature that blurs the line between MIDI and audio manipulation is good in my book.)

A drop-down menu and side window let you specify the number of visible channels and parameters, and you can resize the entire mixer to a smaller "narrow view," which still offers the functionality and parameter access of the normal-size mixer.

Each channel provides five Inserts for plug-in effects. Audio channels can accommodate DSP plug-ins, and MIDI channels can access special MIDI plug-ins, such as Quantize, Arpeggiate, Transpose, Remove Duplicates, Time Shift, and so on. These Mixer-window MIDI plug-ins are non destructive, and the original performance is restored when you disengage them.

In the Tracks Overview window, the same MIDI-editing functions are destructive if you don't undo them immediately. (The only ways to preserve an original MIDI performance are to first duplicate the original take in the Tracks Overview window or use a MIDI plug-in within the Mixer.)

Option-clicking on an Insert (either audio or MIDI) lets you bypass the selected effect without having to open the plug-in's window. If you need more than five Inserts for a channel, just bus the signal to an Aux channel for further processing.

You can create up to 32 stereo buses, although only four sends are available per channel. Each send has its own Mute button. Setting a send to unity gain, a pan pot to center, or an audio fader to 0 dB is a simple matter of double-clicking on the desired item in the Mixer.

Each channel has dedicated Record, Solo, and Mute buttons, and the Master fader has a Mono summing button. A dedicated section of the channel strip is for controlling automation. Some sequencers embed the automation controls in the normal recording and playback functions but Digital Performer's setting is much more appealing (more in a moment).

With both MIDI and audio channels, level meters appear alongside the faders, and appropriately spaced reference numbers indicate MIDI activity, Velocity levels, or decibels. In addition to a red Over indicator for audio tracks, Digital Performer now displays separate left and right meters for stereo tracks.

The elegant knobs, faders, and meters are just about as intuitive and easy to use as software controls can be. But if you aren't keen on tweaking a software mixer with your mouse, version 2.7 supports hardware interfaces and ships with a profile for the Mackie HUI control surface.

THE FADERS ARE FLYINGDigital Performer's automation section is awesome, reminiscent of the automation controls of high-end hardware consoles. Its greatly enhanced feature set is more extensive than version 2.6's, but it's still very easy to use.

The new Automation Setup window allows both global and track-specific automation setup and editing from one location. You can enable and disable audio and MIDI automation globally or by parameter type, and those settings can affect all tracks or individual ones. In addition, the same automation controls are accessible in the Mixer and Audio Graphic Editor windows, each of which has a button that changes color to indicate if automation is disabled, enabled, or recording.

Automation of individual plug-in parameters is available (but not for some third-party plug-ins). The Automation Setup window lets you choose the parameters you want to automate; it doesn't tax the computer's resources unnecessarily by activating all parameters.

Digital Performer has automation modes: Overwrite, Latch, Touch, Trim Touch, and Trim Latch. Overwrite starts writing automation data when playback begins. Latch starts as soon as you click a parameter control (fader, knob, and so forth). Both modes continue writing until playback stops or you choose another automation mode. Touch records data from the moment you first click on a parameter control - until you let go of the fader or knob - at which point the parameter value reverts to the existing mix setting according to a user-definable ramp time.

The two Trim modes let you scale the automation moves you've already created; for example, Trim is ideal for adding that extra decibel of level you need to put the finishing touch on an otherwise perfectly automated track.

The audio processing when you're using automation is superb, completely devoid of artifacts such as zippering. Practically every control can be automated and easily edited. When coupled with a dedicated hardware control interface with real faders and knobs (such as the Mackie HUI, Radikal Technologies SAC-2K, or CM Automation MotorMix), Digital Performer's automation capabilities rival the best automated hardware consoles. It certainly handles automation as well as or better than any software DAW on the market.

WISH LISTIn spite of the many things Digital Performer 2.7 does really well, it still lacks a few features. The majority of my complaints stem from slightly inconvenient editing methods that can frustrate power users. Most of the problems have work-arounds, however, and MOTU says it is working to address the shortcomings in upcoming versions.

Currently, the Tracks Overview window can only expand horizontally; I wish I could to expand it vertically and zoom in on specific tracks for a more detailed view of track contents. I'd also like the Tracks Overview window to provide a playback-quantize feature, or better yet, the ability to undo MIDI quantization back to the original performance. (You can use the Quantize plug-in within the Mixer for nondestructive quantization.)

The Show Marker Grid Lines feature should be available in the Tracks Overview, as it is in the Audio Editor. Then you could see specifically where a designated hit or musical transition happened in relation to the MIDI and/or audio. The enhancement would be especially helpful with film or commercial spots using a lot of Markers.

Many Digital Performer operations possess no keyboard equivalents, so some actions require several mouse clicks and/or wading through multiple menu layers. This approach is unproductive and time-consuming, and I eagerly await the promised addition of customizable keyboard commands.

When you're performing a punch-in, the user-selectable preroll measures provide only clicks; playback doesn't begin until you reach the punch-in point. The recorded material should play during the preroll measures, because punch-in without musical context is very difficult.

At the very least, you should be able to choose clicks or playback during the preroll. In all fairness, I must point out that you can work around this inconvenience by setting a punch-in point, locating to any point before it, and hitting the Record button. The material plays until you reach the punch-in point, at which time Record mode engages on the selected track.

And now for what is perhaps the biggest hole in Digital Performer's feature set. For individual Soundbites, the program needs initial volume levels that are independent of MIDI Volume and automation. This feature would let you even out the levels between Soundbites before applying any mix-related volume moves to a track.

For instance, the program gives you only two ways to smooth out uneven notes in a phrase or create a level-matched composite of two performances recorded at different levels. You can destructively alter the levels of various Soundbites through a DSP process, or you can create a bunch of small MIDI Volume moves.

The latter technique makes the Mixer faders jump all over the place before you even begin mixing. Furthermore, if you copy and paste the same group of edited Soundbites into a different location, you must take extra care to copy the mix automation along with the audio; otherwise you'll have to establish the levels all over again.

THE SUM OF ITS PARTSAs a digital audio sequencer, Digital Performer 2.7 is hard to beat. It records and processes audio as well as or better than its competitors, and the mixer is top-notch. The automation is comprehensive and well designed, the audio plug-ins are professional quality, and the enhanced timing resolution of MTS is remarkable.

It must also be noted that Digital Performer boasts sample-accurate synchronization when used with its pro-level hardware and a USB-equipped computer. The MOTU system - with Digital Performer at its heart - is the best alternative to Pro Tools, especially if your recording technique demands more than a rudimentary level of MIDI.

The excellent features greatly outweigh the minor inconveniences. My wish list is inspired primarily by features I've found in other programs; naturally, I want them in Digital Performer, too. To MOTU's credit, the company has been very open to feedback and suggestions, and it is committed to incorporating the features that users want in future updates.

During the past few years, Digital Performer has become my primary digital audio sequencer for professional and personal work. I trust that it will get the job done, no matter how great the demand. That's what I call productivity.

Show Comments

These are my comments.

Reader Poll

Do you use music streaming services?


See results without voting »