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Motu Digital Performer 3.01 Review

January 1, 2002
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Mark of the Unicorn's (MOTU's) Digital Performer has been a first-call digital sequencer for almost as long as MIDI has been around — and for good reason. MOTU Digital Performer has maintained a healthy balance of power, stability, productivity, integration, and ease of use. Version 3.01 of Digital Performer continues the tradition by adding some significant new features, including dual-processor support, a powerful new Sequence Editor window, extensive surround-sound capabilities, better graphic editing of MIDI data, support for importing and exporting Pro Tools files, 14 new native plug-ins, and several notation enhancements. Digital Performer now has a newly designed user interface with a look and feel based on Apple's Aqua graphic design for Mac OS X.

MOTU Digital Performer 3.01 is a complete sequencing, recording, editing, mixing, and mastering environment. When combined with MOTU's USB-based MIDI Timepiece AV, MIDI timing is significantly improved through the company's proprietary MIDI Time Stamping (MTS) technology. The number of MIDI and mono, stereo, or surround audio tracks MOTU Digital Performer offers is limited only by your computer's processing power. The program supports audio formats with resolutions as high as 24 bits and sampling rates as high as 96 kHz. In addition to MOTU's extensive line of audio interfaces, Digital Performer supports TDM, Direct I/O, ASIO, and Sound Manager hardware.

TRACKS AND TRANSPORT

MOTU Digital Performer's basic features have been covered in previous EM reviews (see the October 2000 issue for a review of version 2.7). The software boasts an extensive feature set for recording and mixing MIDI and audio; discussing everything in a single review would be impossible, so I'll stick to the highlights and concentrate on the new features.

Digital Performer's Tracks window (see Fig. 1) displays MIDI and audio-track content, MIDI and audio I/O assignments, patch assignments, and other related parameters. Each track (audio or MIDI) can contain multiple Takes, and new Takes can be created automatically if overdubbing in Cycle mode. That is a great way to build up a collection of performances without cluttering up the desktop with numerous tracks.

Digital Performer's Control panel offers tape-deck-style transport controls and metronome, overdub, loop, count-off, and sync controls. Three new slide-out panels provide handy access to audio-hardware settings, tempo-related parameters, and buttons for accessing the editing windows. You can rearrange the panels so that only one or two are showing, to save screen space.

SEQUENCE SAVVY

The new Sequence Editor window is one of the most significant additions to Digital Performer. The Sequence Editor window is like the Tracks window on steroids; now, you can graphically edit MIDI and audio simultaneously (see Fig. 2). The Sequence Editor is highly customizable: as many or as few tracks as you want can be displayed; each track can be individually resized vertically with Zoom buttons, drop-down minimenus, and shortcuts; audio and MIDI tracks can be armed for recording and scrubbed; and automation can easily be edited graphically. In fact, after setting up the basics of my sequences in the Tracks window, I mostly use the Sequence Editor as home base.

The Sequence Editor includes a new QuickTime Movie track that maintains frame-accurate video synchronization with the Conductor track. Individual movie frames appear along the same timeline as audio and MIDI data, and the guide frames intelligently adapt to the current zoom level without overlapping. The Sequence Editor window is a great tool for post scoring, especially if you can dedicate a second monitor to display the full-motion video on Digital Performer's separate QuickTime Movie window (which scrubs frame by frame as you drag Soundbites, automation control points, and other onscreen elements). Even on a single monitor, after you have scored a few times with the QuickTime Movie window locked to the audio and MIDI tracks, you will want to toss your VCR remote control out the window.

GRAPHIC BITS

Digital Performer's Graphic Editing window (see Fig. 3) has been greatly improved in several areas and now includes some features reminiscent of Opcode's dearly departed Studio Vision. For example, you can view multiple MIDI tracks simultaneously, enabling you to edit, say, ten tracks of MIDI drums in a single window. Notes retain the color assignment of their respective tracks for easy editing.

Digital Performer's Continuous Data Grid within the Graphic Editing window has also been redesigned to allow much more flexible viewing, filtering, and editing. Data can be viewed as points, bars, or lines; color shading in Bars mode makes seeing the contour of the controller changes easier. Graphic editing of controller data is a breeze, even with multiple controllers superimposed on each other.

The versatile Pencil tool in Digital Performer's new Tool Bar can draw in data points and lines in a multitude of ways. The shape or periodic waveform generated by the Pencil tool can be set to free, straight line, flat, triangle, sine, square, random lines, random steps, parabola, or spline. A separate Reshape tool lets you redraw, scale, limit, or add to the current values. The graphic shapes that you create can snap to the edit grid to produce modulation effects in time with the tempo map. In short, some cool continuous controller effects — such as panning, volume changes, or filtering — can be penciled in quickly, which can make an exciting sequence out of mundane parts if you supply a little creativity.

Zooming, looping, and scrubbing tools are also included in the Tool Bar, which you can flip between a horizontal and vertical orientation. Too bad it can't be reshaped into a 3-by-3 box, which would be my preference.

ALTERNATE AVENUES

Digital Performer's Event List remains largely unchanged; it displays in a chronological list almost every type of data that you might need to edit. You can filter the list so that you see only what you want. The Drum Editor window lets you view and edit notes along a timeline grid, and you can create composite drum kits from multiple MIDI devices. With the handy Rhythm Brush tool, you can quickly “paint” patterns into the window. The Drum Editor is great for programming grid-style “drum-machine” percussion parts.

The QuickScribe feature in Digital Performer has always been quite good at creating usable notation from MIDI tracks. QuickScribe has been updated in Digital Performer to include context-sensitive note spelling and dynamic hand splitting for two-staff piano parts. A Switch Staff command lets you jump notes to the opposite staff in piano parts. A collection of dynamics symbols, crescendos, and decrescendos can be added to the score, which you can now zoom to any size.

The Waveform Editor is as powerful as many standalone audio editors, allowing viewing and editing down to the single-sample level, and you can apply Premiere and MOTU Audio System (MAS) plug-ins to the audio. All edits in the Waveform Editor are destructive, however, so working on a copy is a good habit to form, especially because Digital Performer supports one undo level only. (MOTU plans to release version 3.1 by the time this review goes to print. In addition to providing direct waveform editing of surround-audio files, the free update to 3.01 adds unlimited undo capability with sequential as well as timeline histories. For more about the update, see the sidebar “Coming Attractions.”)

Digital Performer includes excellent sampling-rate and bit-depth conversion processes. Both can be configured to provide a draft/fast mode operation in the foreground for immediate use while the high-quality process runs in the background, minimizing disturbances to the workflow. Although 16- and 24-bit files can't play back at the same time (they can exist in the same file), the high-quality conversion processes provide a practical means for combining files with different resolutions and sampling rates.

QUITE AN EFFECT

Digital Performer ships with 35 native 32-bit plug-ins, all of which support automation. In addition, many of the plug-ins are surround-sound capable, and new Calibration and Bass Manager plug-ins assist with surround setups. The included plug-ins sound great, and MOTU has provided a solid selection of useful tools for a wide range of projects. If your requirements are more specific or esoteric, however, most third-party plug-ins are compatible with Digital Performer (see the sidebar “Third-Party On!”).

Some standouts among the native plug-ins are PreAmp 1 (distortion and tonal shaping), Sonic Modulator (crazy modulation effects), Multimode Filter (a Moog-style filter and modulator), Plate (a simple yet great-sounding plate-reverb effect), MasterWorks Limiter (a surround-capable mastering limiter), MasterWorks Gate (one of the best gate plug-ins on the market), Trigger (providing audio in to MIDI Out), and Trim (for optimizing level, panning, and polarity).

Several virtual synths and software samplers support MAS directly, allowing the instruments' outputs to appear in Digital Performer's instrument list. The programs include BitHeadz's Unity AS-1 software sampler and Retro AS-1 synthesizer; Native Instruments' Reaktor, B4, Pro-52, Dynamo, Absynth, FM7, and Battery; Koblo's Studio 9000; and IK Multimedia's SampleTank.

Propellerhead's ReBirth RB-338 and Reason provide a virtual rack of synths, samplers, matrix sequencers, drum machines, and mixers by taking advantage of Digital Performer's built-in ReWire compatibility. Audio Ease's VST Wrapper provides access to VST Instruments.

MIX ME A STRONG ONE

Digital Performer's Mixing Board window acts as a virtual mixer, with an automation section that rivals the best hardware consoles (see Fig. 4). Each track can have as many as 20 inserts and 64 buses (32 stereo), and a track can be bused to a new channel strip for further processing if those aren't enough. You can create an unlimited number of custom Mixing Board configurations that can display any combination of audio, MIDI, aux, and master-fader tracks in the same console. A click of a button takes a snapshot of the mixer setup, and an unlimited number of fully automated mixes can be created and recalled instantly.

Control of the automation process comes through five automation modes that you can select from a drop-down menu in each channel strip. Once the automation data is written, you can edit it graphically or numerically. Almost everything on the Mixing Board can be automated, and a detailed Automation Setup window lets you customize automation parameters globally and for individual tracks. MOTU's native plug-ins support real-time automation, and many third-party MAS plug-ins currently or soon will support automation, as well.

My wish list for the Mixing Board window is short but directed: I would like to be able to open a console snapshot (levels, aux routings, master settings, effects, and so forth) in another sequence for projects that include multiple files with identical board layouts — a critical requirement for audiovisual work with a lot of similar cues. (Although you can use Clippings to export multiple effects bundles for individual tracks, setting up a new mixer from scratch is still time consuming.) Also, Digital Performer offers only four mono aux sends, which can easily get used up in complex mixes with stereo effects and detailed routing. (For some applications, I sometimes like to feed compression and EQ from sends rather than from inserts.) Eight sends would be better; a user-definable number would be ideal.

In spite of those minor gripes, however, I love the mixer in Digital Performer and prefer it hands down to any other virtual mixer, including the one in Digidesign's Pro Tools. The Mixing Board window in Digital Performer is elegant, clean, and easy to use, yet it's extremely powerful. Coupled with a good hardware controller such as Mackie's HUI, Radikal Technologies' SAC-2K (see p. 146 for a review), or JLCooper's MCS-3800, the mixer in Digital Performer is capable of handling virtually any project of any size. With the extensive surround capabilities in Digital Performer and the current crop of rocket-ship dual-processor Mac G4s, the movement toward native processing and Digital Performer that is occurring in professional A/V-post facilities and music-production studios will continue to grow.

SURROUND THE TOWN

As you might expect, Digital Performer 3.01 does 5.1 surround in a big way. In fact, it also supports Quad, LCRS, 6.1, 7.1, and 10.2 multichannel audio. As new multichannel formats emerge, the program is already prepared to accommodate the routing through its open-architecture design. A lot of thought regarding proper surround-sound design has gone into the software, and it shows. MOTU has really done it right.

Each track in Digital Performer can have its own independent native or third-party surround panner. The program includes four advanced surround panners: ArcPanner (a high-resolution panning dish), n-Panner (providing Cartesian coordinates on a square grid), TriPan (offering sophisticated three-way divergence controls), and Auralizer (a room simulator that uses psychoacoustic cues for localization). Several panning modes (Mirror, Parallel, Asymmetric, Balance, and Mono) assist in manipulating stereo tracks within a surround matrix. Digital Performer supports Mac OS Input Sprockets, so you can use a USB-compatible joystick to control surround panning.

Signals in Digital Performer are now routed through the Audio Bundles window (see Fig. 5). That window provides a matrix that lets you combine groups of inputs, outputs, and buses that mirror your audio hardware interfaces and the virtual buses in the Mixing Board window. With just a few mouse-clicks, you can easily create multiple output configurations (including surround setups) for your various routing requirements and recall them instantly. For example, you can fold down the multiple outputs of a surround setup into a stereo mix pair by loading a different Audio Bundle configuration. More elaborate and creative setups are possible if you have a good supply of hardware I/O and a bit of imagination. I was able to quickly and painlessly get a 5.1-surround configuration going while retaining my normal 2-track setup.

The implementation of Audio Bundles now requires you to open a new bundle in the Tracks or Sequence Edit window the first time you activate an input or output. That makes sense, because a fully loaded bundle could contain a lot of I/O that you might not want to see all the time while recording.

MAKE IT EASY ON YOURSELF

Digital Performer also hosts a collection of new convenience-oriented features. In Continuous Scrolling mode, the playback wiper stays positioned in the middle of the screen while the data scrolls behind. (The Moving Wiper mode is still available.) The wiper now serves as an anchor when zooming in and out, maintaining the focal point when you're editing, and saving you from having to scroll to regain your location, as in previous versions.

Digital Performer also lets you execute the Save command while a sequence is playing (although doing so when a dense sequence of audio and MIDI is playing can result in momentary freezes in MIDI tracks). A custom key-binding feature allows almost every operation in Digital Performer to have a customizable key command that is saved in a separate file. The program even has key-binding sets that replicate the keyboard shortcuts in Pro Tools, Emagic's Logic Audio, Steinberg's Cubase VST, and Studio Vision Pro.

Digital Performer can now import as well as export Open Media Framework (OMF) files, allowing projects to be shuttled back and forth between Pro Tools and Paris systems. Entire mixes are not transferred intact, but the basic audio locations, MIDI data, fader levels, and a few other parameters translate perfectly. I've used that method many times on projects that were produced in Digital Performer and later mixed in Pro Tools.

Contrary to rumor, Digital Performer easily handles 24-bit OMF transfers in both directions; Pro Tools, however, requires an additional Digidesign application called DigiTranslator to complete the handshake with 24-bit audio. A 16-bit OMF transfer does not require any additional software.

Speaking of Pro Tools, I was curious to see how the mixing capabilities in Digital Performer would compare to my past experiences with Pro Tools now that I've upgraded to a dual-processor Macintosh G4/800 MHz. As a test, I set up a mix with 14 stereo tracks and 10 mono tracks and processed the various tracks with an assortment of plug-ins. I added eight stereo native MOTU Chorus plug-ins; eight stereo and five mono 4-band Renaissance EQs and four mono Renaissance Compressors from Waves; eight stereo Metric Halo ChannelStrips; four stereo Pultec EQP-1As and LA-2As and two mono Bomb Factory 1176s; one KOL RealVerb; and one stereo Audio Ease Altiverb in No-Latency (high-processor-load) mode before I started to hit red in the processor windows. I did not come close to taxing Digital Performer's play buffers, which means that I could have easily doubled or maybe even tripled the track count.

My test setup equaled 38 audio tracks with 16 tracks of chorus, 188 bands of EQ, 30 bands of compression, 2 huge great-sounding reverbs, and 8 channels of gating. That was without submixing or printing anything, which I would typically do, especially with big reverbs. Also, keep in mind that I was using some excellent high-end plug-ins that are known to be heavy processor draws, especially Altiverb. Considering that I could have doubled my track count, it seems that I can now rival or maybe even surpass my experiences with average Pro Tools systems. My little test may not have been very scientific, but it was nevertheless an eye-opener.

WISH LIST

Overall, Digital Performer is stable. It consumes noticeably more CPU power and RAM than version 2.7, so seriously consider taking advantage of the new dual-processor Macs if your recording and mixing demands are great.

Most of my wish list is pretty nitpicky, though there are a few significant features I'd like to see. For example, audio editing would be easier if punching in over an existing Soundbite would graphically truncate the remainder of the original Soundbite rather than merely overlap it. If you punch in over a Soundbite, the edge of the previous Soundbite is not cut off at the punch-in point by the start of the new Soundbite. If you were to drag the new (punched-in) Soundbite to another track, you would still see the remaining part of the original Soundbite. The remaining Soundbite fragments can accumulate and add confusion to the editing process. In addition, individual Soundbites sorely need their own level controls or Velocity settings, which would make dialog or track comping easier by providing a way to smooth out levels before applying volume automation.

Clippings (which are unchanged from the previous version) could be improved by having them include the Track names and audio or MIDI assignments. That would let complex templates be added to an existing sequence. Finally, the 946-page User Guide and the 155-page Getting Started manual are well written and nicely illustrated, but the 18-page User Guide index omits several key features, which are therefore difficult to locate in the text.

WINNING COMBINATION

Digital Performer is a rock-solid winner. You would be hard-pressed to find anything in the world of audio production that you could not do with Digital Performer. It's impossible here to delineate all of the program's great features. The Sequence Editor and graphic controller editing options are welcome refinements to the MIDI and audio-editing processes; MOTU seems to be listening to its customers' requests. The new graphical user interface is elegant and reflective of the direction in which Apple is moving with Mac OS X.

The surround-sound capabilities, QuickTime video features, and unbelievably great automated mixer will ensure the proliferation of Digital Performer rigs in post facilities and studios that are moving to native systems as computing power rapidly increases. Coupled with MOTU's excellent audio and MIDI hardware interfaces, the entire system is truly formidable.


Producer and keyboardist Rob Shrock has recorded or performed with Burt Bacharach, Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Faith Hill, Whitney Houston, 'N Sync, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and others.

THIRD-PARTY ON!

In addition to the great plug-ins native to Digital Performer 3.01, many third-party developers directly support MOTU Audio System (MAS), the core audio engine of Digital Performer (see Fig. A). The following list is not exhaustive, but it includes the Digital Performer — compatible plug-ins that are essential tools for serious, professional work.

Audio Ease recently released Altiverb, a groundBREAKing reverb plug-in that models actual acoustic environments by using impulse response samples (similar to the Sony DRE-S77 hardware reverb). Audio Ease also makes the Rocket Science and Nautilus bundles of quirky but fun and useful plug-ins.

Metric Halo's SpectraFoo provides comprehensive metering software, including spectrum analyzers, spectrographs, code and matrix meters, and a host of other detailed displays. Metric Halo also makes ChannelStrip, a high-end software console channel with 6-band parametric EQ, gate and compression with sidechains, and excellent metering.

Bomb Factory makes some of the finest hardware-emulation plug-ins, including accurate models of the Teletronix LA-2A, the Universal Audio 1176, the Pultec EQP-1A, the Fairchild 660, and the Tech 21 SansAmp (a model of a modeler!), as well as several Joemeek and Moogerfooger products.

Waves Gold Native bundle is a professional's team of virtual workhorses. It includes analog- and digital-style EQs and compressors; world-class mastering processors; wonderful reverbs; and excellent delay-based, frequency, and pitch effects. Antares's one-of-a-kind Microphone Modeler is a great tool for creative coloration of miked signals, and its legendary Auto-Tune plug-in is a must-have in the world of pop-music production. Kind of Loud RealVerb is one of the best-sounding and most versatile native reverb plug-ins available. TC Works TC Native Bundle and DUY EverPack both include great EQ, compression, reverb, and noise-reduction plug-ins.

TC Works has recently shipped PowerCore, a digital signal processing accelerator PCI card designed to run TC PowerCore plug-ins. That allows Digital Performer to run MegaReverb, TC MasterX, and other high-end TC plug-ins previously available only for TDM. Digital Performer also offers full integration with Synchro Arts VocAlign, which provides state-of-the-art automated audio alignment for ADR and other synchronization tasks.

Although Digital Performer does not directly support VST plug-ins and VST Instruments, several applications can act as “shells” to allow MAS-compatible access to the world of VST. Audio Ease VST Wrapper is a no-nonsense MAS plug-in specifically dedicated to hosting VST plug-ins and VST Instruments. TC Works Spark opens up directly as a MAS plug-in, supplying a versatile routing matrix of four parallel streams of native and third-party VST processing. Cycling '74's Pluggo is arguably the best value going, providing more than 74 unique plug-ins in addition to serving as a VST plug-in portal.

Minimum System Requirements

Digital Performer

Mac PPC 604e/120 (G4 recommended); 128 MB RAM (256 MB recommended); Mac OS 8.5.1

COMING ATTRACTIONS

By the time this review goes to press, Mark of the Unicorn plans to release a significant upgrade to Digital Performer 3.01. According to the company, version 3.1 will add several new enhancements and features. Following are some noteworthy items:

General Enhancements

Unlimited multiple undo and redo with an Undo History window, time stamps on each undo event, an undo timeline, and branching undo histories
Complete destructive waveform editing of surround audio files
Edge editing of multiple Soundbites in one operation
Pro Tools — style insertion cursor and selection shortcuts
Enhanced batch importing of audio

Post-Production Features

Global time format display (for example, display SMPTE time code throughout Digital Performer with one easy setting)
Edit grid support for any time format (SMPTE frames, milliseconds, samples)
Digital-video playback using FireWire (no video card needed)

Music/MIDI Production Features

Recycle (REX) file import using drag and drop or import and audition
Tap Tempo entry (set tempos anywhere in Digital Performer by tapping, even during playback)
Enhanced Quantize (quantize almost anything, including markers, controllers, patch changes, audio mix-automation data, and so forth)
Paste Repeat (fills the selected region with consecutive pastes)
Real-time MIDI note Velocity expansion and compression

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Mark of the Unicorn
Digital Performer 3.01 (Mac)
digital audio sequencer
$795
Upgrade from AudioDesk or competitor
$395
Upgrade from Digital Performer
$295

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.5
DOCUMENTATION 4.5
VALUE 5.0

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Dual-processor support. New Sequence Editor window. Powerful redesign of MIDI graphic editing. Excellent surround-sound support. World-class mixer and automation. Superb native plug-ins.

CONS: No separate Volume or Velocity control for individual Soundbites. Only four aux sends per channel in mixer. Can't play back 16- and 24-bit audio files in the same song.

Manufacturer

Mark of the Unicorn
tel. (617) 576-2760
e-mail info@motu.com
Web www.motu.com

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