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MOTU DIGITAL PERFORMER 4.1

12/1/2003

The mass exodus of programs from the world of Mac OS 9 began some time ago. Video and image applications led the migratory pack while audio applications — especially those of the deep and complex digital-audio-sequencer type — straggled behind. But the message from Apple was clear: OS X was here to stay, and the choice for developers was simple: Make their applications OS X — compatible, or their creations would become evolutionary dead ends. Digital Performer has come somewhat late to the OS X scene, but its lengthy journey was clearly well-spent, arriving as it does with several powerful new features (such as virtual Instrument tracks, as well as Freeze and Remember Plug-In functions) that will definitely move it a few notches up the food chain.

The first version of Digital Performer 4 was introduced midyear, and updates were quick to follow: version 4.01 and the most recent (at the time of this review), 4.1. Unfortunately for PC users, Digital Performer continues its tradition as a Mac-only program. I installed DP 4 on a dual-G4/500MHz machine packing 1 GB of system RAM and running OS X version 10.2.6. The computer had both a MOTU PCI-324 audio system and a Digidesign Mixplus system installed. I used the PCI-324 system to test DP 4 in its native MAS mode, and the Mixplus system let me run the program in its DAE mode. The MIDI interface employed was a MOTU MIDI Timepiece AV (USB).

Installing Digital Performer 4 in OS X was a simple matter of just inserting the installer disks and following the directions. I encountered no crazy copy-protection schemes, just a serial number to enter and CD-ROM authorization to wait through. With Apple's Core MIDI properly configured, getting DP 4 to address my MIDI setup was completely automatic and really could not have been easier. If you are just in the process of updating your entire system to OS X, DP 4 comes with a handy helper application, FreeMIDI Converter, that can convert your FreeMIDI studio setup to Core MIDI. If you have a complex MIDI setup, FreeMIDI Converter can be a real time-saver — thanks, MOTU.

LOOKING GOOD, FEELING FINE

Even though Digital Performer has only recently become OS X — compatible, the program actually began to look like an OS X application in version 3. As a result, Digital Performer's appearance and resultant feel have not changed markedly. If you liked the way DP 3 looked, you'll love DP 4, especially now because it blends in so well with OS X. However, the way that DP 4's windows can become buried behind other programs' windows on your desktop, even when DP 4 is in the foreground, is darn confusing. For example, clicking on the Tracks window brings that window to the foreground and makes DP 4 the active program, but other DP 4 windows, including its control panel, remain in the background, possibly hidden behind another program's windows. Unfortunately, this is just standard OS X behavior and not the fault of the program. However, when you click on the dock icon or press Command+Tab, the control panel does pop to the front.

If you have been using OS X already, you know that the menus of practically every program coming from OS 9 have been rearranged, and DP 4 is no exception. Be prepared to spend a little time reorienting yourself to Digital Performer's new menus because some important commands have been moved. Several new pull-down menus appear in the program's main menu bar: Project, Studio and Setup. These new menus serve to regroup commands from a variety of different menus and submenus under headings that make more sense. For example, the Add and Delete track commands have been moved from the minimenu of the Tracks window to the Project menu. Alternately, some commands that had been part of a main menu have been omitted or relegated to a submenu. The recall of individual windows is no longer part of the Windows menu, but the Window Sets submenu remains unchanged and can serve the same purpose. Wasting time looking for a specific command is frustrating, but the good news is that once you know where everything is again, the frustration will inevitably pass.

A minor amenity that has disappeared in OS X is the ability to recall detailed information about buttons and windows by placing your mouse on top of an element and pressing Shift+Command+Option. Try this with the Pause button in DP 3, and you get a three-paragraph explanation. I've heard both new and seasoned users comment on how much they appreciated this feature, so it's a shame to lose it. But on the flip side, OS X does feature Windows-style (as in PC) pop-up titles when your mouse rests over a button — these titles don't explain anything, but at least you know what the element is called when you go to look it up in DP 4's massive 930-page manual.

BIG TRICKS

I've pointed out to MOTU for some time now that Digital Performer's virtual instrument support has been clunky and a serious CPU hog, a real turnoff when compared to the competition. So it's with much pleasure that I get to report how this has all changed in DP 4. Virtual Instrument tracks have been added to Digital Performer's track types, and they're as easy to use as any VST Instrument. Simply create an Instrument track in the Mixer and insert a virtual-instrument plug-in; then, that instrument's MIDI inputs automatically appear in your MIDI tracklist. It's really that simple, and it's really that cool.

Both MAS and the new Apple Audio Units (AU) plug-ins for virtual instruments and effects are supported. Interestingly, because Digital Performer 4 treats both of these plug-in formats nearly identically, some companies (such as Native Instruments) are gearing their OS X updates to AU rather than MAS. Although MOTU clearly implies that the MAS specs provide a better fit with DP 4, it will be interesting to see how the development of MAS plug-ins fair in the long run against Apple's mass-marketing plans for the AU format. At the time of this review, a wealth of AU- and OS X — compatible MAS instruments was just beginning to ship. (More should be available by press time.) I tried Spectrasonics' Trilogy as an AU and MOTU's Mach5 as an MAS instrument, and both seemed to work fine. I also gave Apple's stock AU effects plug-ins a whirl, and though they couldn't compare to DP 4's stock plug-ins, they did function. Audio Ease has also made its popular MAS-to-VST adapter plug-in, VST Wrapper, OS X — compatible, allowing DP 4 to take advantage of VST plug-ins.

Running a stack of virtual instruments and effects plug-ins can really eat up your computer's processing power. When you hit that wall and no more power is available, there is little choice but to start bouncing tracks to disk. Unfortunately, that process is just tedious. Enter DP 4's awesome new Freeze function. It allows you to bounce down, add the bounced track back to your session and disable the original processor-hogging track without losing any of its plug-ins — all with one command. DP 4 intelligently remembers a track's plug-ins even when that track's voice is turned off, so it's a snap to return to the original track if you need to create a new bounced version. The Freeze function works with Disk, Aux and Instrument tracks — brilliant, really.

ReWire 2 (for control and synchronization of applications such as Propellerhead Reason or Ableton Live running on the same computer as DP 4) is fully supported: no excuses or crazy work-arounds required. After first opening DP 4 and then Reason (this order is key to making the ReWire connection), I was able to slave Reason and have its audio outputs and MIDI Inputs automatically pop up in appropriate lists in DP 4. I could hear Reason through DP 4's Mixer and had comprehensive MIDI control of each of its instruments from within DP 4, turning Reason into a killer virtual rack of instruments. The Freeze function even works on the aux inputs receiving Reason's audio, so processing power will never again be an excuse for not coming up with a phat virtual-synth sound.

A LITTLE HELP

Lots of less-conspicuous improvements have been made, as well, in the types of features that aren't groundbreaking but helpful in day-to-day operations. The best of the bunch is the Remember Plug-In feature. DP 4 remembers a session's plug-ins even when those plug-ins aren't currently available. That allows you to open a session from your main studio computer on your PowerBook without losing the plug-in settings used in the studio because those plug-ins aren't installed on your laptop. The plug-ins are simply made inactive until they become available to the session again — very convenient.

The long-standing ability of Digital Performer to operate in DAE mode was introduced to OS X in version 4.1. For those who have TDM or HD systems and want to take advantage of Digidesign's amazing-sounding interfaces and TDM plug-ins — without giving up Digital Performer as your software front end — DAE mode is the key. Although the combination is wonderfully powerful, many of the shortcomings found in earlier versions of DAE mode are still present: Only one punch per record pass is possible; dynamic voice allocation is not available; and Trim mode, mute, send and plug-in automation are missing. The Remember Plug-In feature works for native plug-ins when switching between MAS and DAE. That opens up the possibility of creating sounds in MAS but mixing down in DAE without giving up a sessions' native plug-in settings.

A Recent Files submenu has been added to the File menu, making finding and opening your last session a breeze. Input and Output tabs have been added to the Mixer's channels, providing an easy way to make and view I/O assignments. Soundbites and notes can now be snapped to a marker when dragged near that marker, making alignment to cue points a total snap (pardon the pun). This is an optional function that can be turned on or off from the Graphic Editor and Sequence Editor minimenus. And for all of you notation buffs, material can now be dragged-and-dropped from the QuickScribe window to the desktop to quickly create a Digital Performer Track Data Clipping, which can then be dragged to a DP 4 MIDI track.

You can now audition audio files from the Import Audio dialog, which is great. When you're surfing for loops, this feature is a must. The Soundbites window's final View setting is not remembered when DP 4 is shut down and always defaults to Name. Because I mostly use the View setting Time Created, I'd like it to default to this setting. I've heard others comment that the Tracks window can cause eye strain because it lacks horizontal separator lines between the tracks. Although the Tracks window's appearance has not changed for some time, this sounds like a great idea to me, and introducing the new look in OS X sounds like the perfect opportunity.

All in all, version 4.1 seemed more stable than 4.0. It did crash on me a couple of times when switching between the MAS and DAE engines, but that is probably not something you will be doing regularly. As long as you save religiously — a good idea with any program, especially when working in OS X (which is crash-prone, to be sure) — you should be fine. DP 4 never choked while trying to open a project file after a crash and subsequent reboot.

LOOKING FORWARD

MOTU's Performer was the first sequencer I ever used, and Digital Performer was the first digital audio sequencer I ever recorded audio with on a computer. But the truth be known, I've been using Digital Performer less during the past few years because competing programs have offered better virtual-instrument integration and have been more CPU-friendly. Fortunately, Digital Performer 4 turns the corner. Virtual Instrument tracks, the Freeze function and ReWire 2 support all work together to make DP 4 not just a contender, but a real winner. Add these major improvements to all of the other great DP 4 features that have been around since DP 3 or earlier — REX-file support, DAE mode, Polar loop-record tool, awesome Drum Editor, support for a variety of control surfaces and seamless integration with MOTU's audio interfaces — and I'm going to be using Digital Performer a whole lot more starting now.

Product Summary

MOTU

DIGITAL PERFORMER 4.1 > $795; $295 (UPGRADE); $395 (CROSSGRADE)

Pros: Dedicated virtual Instrument tracks. Cool Freeze function for managing CPU resources. ReWire 2 support. Remember Plug-In feature. No copy-protection schemes.

Cons: DAE mode lacks a few features.

Contact: tel. (617) 576-2760; e-mail sales@motu.com; Web www.motu.com

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