Search Gear
 

MOTU DIGITAL PERFORMER 4.11 (MAC OS X)

March 1, 2004
share

Digital Performer (DP), Mark of the Unicorn's flagship application, has long been one of the premier digital audio sequencers for the Mac. MOTU therefore generated considerable interest last April when it released version 4.0, which vaulted DP into the world of OS X. (MOTU still supports OS 9 with DP version 3.11.) As of this writing, DP is up to version 4.11, which supports Apple's Panther and Jaguar operating systems and CoreAudio, CoreMIDI, and Audio Units (AU) standards. It also has a greatly enhanced user interface and a slew of new features.

The program is now more elegant, more user-friendly, and more powerful than ever before. What's more, its AU support opens it up to a much wider world of virtual instruments and plug-ins.

For this review, I tested 4.11 on three different Mac models with two versions of OS X. My user experience was quite positive, and making the transition from DP3 to DP4 was easy.

This review will focus on the most significant new features introduced from version 4.0 through version 4.11. For a look at some of Digital Performer's other features, please see the January 2002 EM review of DP 3.01, available at www.emusician.com.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Getting started with DP4 is easy. Installation is smooth, and MOTU has included a helper app called FreeMIDI Converter that searches your hard drive for your FreeMIDI preferences and transfers your setup into an OS X Audio MIDI Setup configuration. And because DP4 supports CoreMIDI, FreeMIDI and OMS are no longer necessary (yippee!). If you need to tweak your configuration or set up a new one from scratch, Apple's Audio MIDI Setup utility makes it truly painless.

Once your MIDI setup is squared away, you'll need to specify your audio interface in DP's Configure Hardware Drivers dialog. DP's support of CoreAudio means that you can use it with any CoreAudio-compatible hardware. That opens the program up to a wider range of third-party hardware support. You can even use more than one audio interface if you'd like, because DP now supports multiple simultaneous audio interfaces.

The program can record either 16- or 24-bit audio, and the sampling rate depends on what your computer or recording hardware will allow. I tested DP using a MOTU 828mkII FireWire interface, mostly at 16-bit, 44.1 kHz resolution (the 828mkII can go up to 96 kHz), and the sound quality was uniformly excellent.

ON THE MENU

Version 4 of Digital Performer has a snazzy new logo and splash screen, but otherwise it remains graphically similar to DP3. (MOTU adopted an OS X — style look in version 3.) A closer look at the menu bar reveals some important changes, however: the menus have been significantly reworked, and the result is an even more intuitive user interface (see Fig. 1).

Gone are the Basics and Change menus, and in their place are the Studio, Setup, and Project menus. In previous DP upgrades, it seemed that new features were added to various menus because they needed a place to reside, not necessarily because it made sense to put them there. With DP4, all that's changed, and the menu structure is quite coherent.

The Setup menu mainly contains options for setting global preferences: Configure Audio System, Audio System Clock, Automation Setup, Time Formats, and so forth. The Studio menu lists many of the features you'll need during a session, such as the Performance window, the Audio Monitor, the MIDI Monitor, Click and Countoff Options, and the Clear All Clipping Indicators command, to name a few.

The Project menu is perhaps the most significant one in the new scheme. Here you'll find some of DP4's handiest improvements. In older versions of the program, you created tracks from a mini-menu located at the top left of the Tracks Overview. No more. At the top of DP4's Project menu you'll find the Add Track command (see Fig. 2), which lets you choose MIDI, Mono Audio, Stereo Audio, Aux, Master Fader, Surround, or Instrument tracks (which I will discuss in a moment).

The Project menu also gives you access to the various editing windows, the Soundbites window, the Clippings window, and more. Even if you end up relying on the user-customizable key commands rather than the menus once you get to know the program, it's still nice to know that everything is where you expect it to be.

VIRTUALLY YOURS

The new Instrument Track feature facilitates virtual-instrument-plug-in setup. All correctly installed virtual instruments appear in the Instrument Track menu; select one, and a new Instrument track appears in the Tracks window, already configured for that particular virtual instrument. Create a MIDI track and select that instrument (and a MIDI channel) as an Output, and you're ready to rock (see Fig. 3).

I tried out the Instrument Track feature using MOTU's MachFive sampler and Green Oak Software's freeware AU soft-synth Crystal. I was able to set up both instruments quickly and easily.

Digital Performer 4's support of the AU standard means that users aren't limited to instruments that run under MOTU Audio System (MAS). Now any AU instrument or effects plug-in is fair game. And if you use a converter such as FXpansion's VST to AudioUnit Adapter, you can make all your VST plug-ins and instruments DP4-compatible, giving you even more options.

DP's implementation of Audio Units is pretty smooth. After you install a new AU plug-in and start DP, a screen pops up to tell you that the program is checking the plug-in and then whether it successfully loaded. DP recognized almost all the AU plug-ins I attempted to install. After installation, your AU plug-ins reside in the plug-in menu alongside the MAS plug-ins.

DP4 also lets you manage your plug-ins more efficiently through a new feature that warns you when you open a file that contains assignments for plug-ins that are no longer in your system (which could happen if you moved the file to another computer, for instance). If you have missing plug-ins, a dialog box appears and offers you the option of clearing the plug-in assignments.

If you choose not to clear them, the names of the missing plug-ins show up in the inserts of their appropriate tracks in the mixing board, italicized and in parentheses to show that they're not active. When the file is reopened in a system where the missing plug-ins are installed, the assignments become active again. That means you can work on a file, open it on another computer that doesn't have all (or any) of your plug-ins, and then bring the file back to your original computer with your original plug-in assignments intact. If you have more than one computer, or if you work on your files in more than one studio, this feature could be quite handy.

CHILL OUT

Another significant addition to DP4 is the Audio menu's Freeze Selected Tracks command. This feature takes whatever tracks (or single track or portion thereof) you've selected and temporarily writes them to disk, including any plug-ins you might have applied. It then mutes the voices of the source tracks, freeing up most of the CPU resources that those tracks used. Later, when you want to unfreeze the tracks, you simply select them, press the Shift key, and choose Unfreeze Selected Tracks from the Audio menu.

Although you could achieve similar results using the Bounce to Disk command, the Freeze feature is more convenient in many situations. It's also quite useful for freezing Instrument tracks and Aux tracks, giving you an easy way to record the audio from those sources.

The only downside of the Freeze function is that it writes the selected track to disk in real time. (According to MOTU, that is necessary to ensure that virtual instruments — triggered by MIDI — play back accurately.) So if you select a track that lasts three minutes, it will take three minutes to freeze it. The Bounce to Disk function works considerably faster.

WHAT'S UP, DOCS?

It might sound boring at first blush, but the new Document Templates feature is actually an exciting addition to DP. Whereas in prior versions you were limited to saving a single customized New Template, you can now save any number of templates to choose from when you create a new project. If you handle several types of projects in your studio, having custom templates could be a real time-saver.

Another improvement is the list of Recent Files that's available from the File menu. It shows you the last ten files you've had open, which can reduce the need to search your hard disk for that song you were working on.

Although the Mixing Board window hasn't changed significantly, it does have a new Input/Output display. This consists of two oval-shaped windows at the bottom of each channel strip: one showing input assignment, and the other output assignment (see Fig. 4). Clicking on either brings up a menu you can use to change a channel's assignments.

MAGIC MARKERS

If you do much work scoring to picture, or even if you just use DP's Marker feature a lot, you'll appreciate two new marker-related features. First, there's Shift to Marker. This lets you select a note or Soundbite and shift it directly to a particular marker. The marker names are displayed in a pull-down menu that appears in the Shift dialog box when the Shift to Marker feature is selected.

Second is the Snap to Markers option. When checked (in the Graphic Editor or Sequence Window mini-menu) dragging a Soundbite or MIDI note close to any marker will cause the event to snap to that marker. If you're trying to drag, say, an audio file of a sound effect to a particular SMPTE frame of a video, the snapping feature makes it easier.

Even better, you can drag Soundbites from the Soundbites window so that they snap to markers in the Sequence Editor. Imagine this scenario: You have a bunch of sound effects that you want to audition at a certain hit point on a video. You load them into the Soundbites window, and then audition them by dragging them into the Sequence Editor and making them snap to the appropriate marker. Very efficient.

In my tests of the Snap to Markers feature, it worked much more easily with audio files than with MIDI notes. For the latter, I had to zoom in really close and drag the note almost right onto the marker to make it snap correctly.

QUILL IN HAND

Users of the QuickScribe Editor (DP's notation feature) will be happy to know that it has been beefed up significantly. For one thing, the transcription engine has been enhanced, and — according to MOTU — it's now even better at accurately transcribing unquantized MIDI data. I found that it worked quite well in that regard.

In one test I chose a slow tempo and recorded passages (through MIDI) from my controller keyboard that included a variety of rhythmic values, quarter-notes, eighth-notes, eighth-note triplets, 16th notes, and 32nd notes among them. QuickScribe's transcription was almost totally accurate, and there were very few of the puzzling and unreadable rhythmic interpretations that can plague notation software. It was quite impressive.

MOTU has greatly enhanced QuickScribe's ability to configure scores for printing (see Fig. 5). The Arrange Palette gives you the ability to add arrangement necessities such as repeats, codas, and D.C. and D.S. symbols. Arranged Score mode also gives you the option of hiding measures or groups of measures that are no longer necessary in the printed score once the repeats and other arrangement shortcuts have been entered. However, hidden measures will still play back accurately in the sequence.

MOTU has made the QuickScribe Editor so friendly that even notation neophytes (and notation phobics) will be tempted to use it periodically. Users who are fluent in written music will find it much more powerful.

MIDI GOODIES

As an OS X application that supports CoreMIDI, DP offers access to the Apple Software Synthesizer, a pretty decent GM sound set. You can choose from five levels of sound quality (Min, Low, Medium, High, and Max), which use differing amounts of CPU power. DP also supports Interapplication MIDI, which lets you publish unlimited inputs and outputs that DP can use to communicate with other MIDI software.

DP4 offers full support of OS X's MIDI-device patch lists and has ported over all of its FreeMIDI patch lists. This lets you see patch names in the patch lists of supported devices. Not all devices are supported, however, so you might have to manually configure the patch lists for some of your MIDI instruments.

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL

Users of Propellerhead's Reason will be happy to know that DP4 supports the ReWire 2.0 spec. One of the main benefits is that you can now use Reason (or another ReWire-equipped virtual instrument) as a virtual sound module that will respond to MIDI sequences in Performer.

Owners of Pro Tools hardware will be pleased to know that starting with version 4.1, DP can be configured to run under the Digidesign Audio Engine (DAE) in addition to running native under MAS. That means you can use DP with Pro Tools|HD Accel and Mix hardware, and that DP can support TDM plug-ins.

PERFORMER'S PERFORMANCE

Clearly, Digital Performer 4.11's features have been significantly enhanced. But for a product of this type, the proof of the pudding is in how it performs in the real world, and the new DP shines in that respect.

When I began the testing for this review, I was using a single-processor G4/450 MHz running Apple's Jaguar (10.2.6) system software. On that machine, OS X ran a lot slower than OS 9.2 had. As a result, DP4 ran slower than DP3 had run under OS 9. But despite its pokiness, DP4 was still usable. I ran up against the limits of my processor when using a lot of plug-ins, but that was no different than when I was using DP3.

Later I used Digital Performer 4.11 on a G4/733 MHz running Jaguar 10.2.8 and on a dual G5/2 GHz running Panther 10.3.1. DP was much peppier on the faster G4. Naturally, it ran best on the G5. That's where I was able to get the most from the program, running multiple virtual instruments and a ton of plug-ins.

I did a few large projects with DP4 during the time I was testing it for this review, and it was quite stable. It did “unexpectedly quit” (OS X's euphemism for crashing) on me occasionally, but mainly as DP launched. (I've noticed that this happens periodically with many applications in OS X.) As a result, I rarely lost any data. I didn't even have to restart the computer, because when a program crashes in OS X, it doesn't usually take the computer down with it, which makes life a whole lot easier.

FROM 9 TO X

Over the years, digital audio sequencers have evolved into massive programs that are expected to handle MIDI, audio, notation, and an incredibly wide range of tasks. Accordingly, the DP4 manual (which is quite informative) is almost 1,000 pages long. Considering the program's massive feature set, MOTU has done a yeoman's job of porting its flagship application to OS X.

Although their feature sets are not completely identical, the major Mac sequencers have always been pretty similar in their overall capabilities. The biggest differences are in the user interface. Digital Performer's interface has always been relatively user-friendly, and it's better than ever in version 4. The new menu structure, the Project menu with its Instrument tracks, and countless improvements and tweaks by MOTU's engineers have made the program more efficient and more intuitive.

For me, the move from OS 9 to OS X was much more jarring than the transition from DP3 to DP4. Even with all the improvements in DP4, it still feels comfortably like the same program. So if you're a DP user who's been considering taking the plunge into OS X (and you have a relatively fast Mac), the time is right. Digital Performer 4 — with its expanded functionality and familiar interface — will help make your transition successful and productive.


Mike Levine is a senior editor at EM.

Minimum System Requirements

Digital Performer 4.11

G3 (dual-processor G4 recommended); 128 MB RAM for MIDI sequencing; 256 MB RAM for audio recording (512 MB recommended); Mac OS X 10.2

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Mark of the Unicorn

Digital Performer 4.11
digital audio sequencer
$795

FEATURES 4.5
EASE OF USE 4.0
DOCUMENTATION 4.0
VALUE 4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: CoreAudio, CoreMIDI, Audio Units, and ReWire 2.0 support. Compatible with wide range of audio hardware. Works with Digidesign Pro Tools hardware. User-friendly menus and interface. FreeMIDI converter app. Freeze Selected Tracks feature conserves CPU resources. QuickScribe offers arrangement icons and good transcription quality.

CONS: Freeze Selected Tracks feature renders tracks to disk in real time (slowly). MIDI notes don't snap as easily with Snap to Marker feature as Soundbites do.

Manufacturer

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

Show Comments

These are my comments.

Reader Poll

Do play more hardware or software synths?


See results without voting »