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electronic MUSICIAN

MOTU Digital Performer Review

By Rob Shrock | September 1, 2002

MOTU's Digital Performer has long been one of the most popular and powerful digital audio sequencers. The current version, Digital Performer 3 (DP3), is laden with sophisticated new features and capabilities. Having reviewed MOTU Digital Performer twice for EM, I've learned that there isn't much that this powerhouse can't do when it comes to MIDI sequencing and audio recording. However, many of the features DP3 offers are either commonly overlooked or not covered in the documentation. To help you make the most of the program, I'll take a look at some of those features and, hopefully, enhance your productivity when using DP3.

GETTING ORGANIZED

It's a good idea to customize the way MOTU Digital Performer responds to your working style by adjusting the Preferences settings that apply globally to the program and by creating templates for features that are specific to individual files. (DP3 Preferences now consist of eight separate files.)

If you have certain instrumentations that you work with regularly, creating templates for them can save you a lot of time in the long run. Your template should include the tracks with their names and the MIDI and audio input and output assignments as applicable. The Default Patch setting automatically calls up a synth's preset, and holding down the Control key while pressing the up or down arrows scrolls through the patches sequentially (a great way to audition preset sounds).

The Digital Performer's Audio Assignments mini-menu lets you assign the inputs or outputs of multiple audio tracks in a single operation. That mini-menu also includes a new Automatic Voice Assignment feature that assigns voices (audio-engine resources) to tracks using the existing pool, so you don't have to manually assign voices in the Tracks Overview list. Voices are assigned top to bottom in the Tracks list, and “Auto” becomes italicized if there aren't enough available voices. That's an easy way to tell if you need to increase the number of voices in the Studio Configuration dialog box.

Grouping instrument types by color also helps later with visual navigation. You can assign multiple tracks to the same color (or different shades of a color) in one operation by using the Assign Colors command under the Basics/Color menu. Because I almost always print my MIDI tracks to audio (to take advantage of further editing and processing), I like to use the same color assignments for both the MIDI and the audio version of a track. That helps me keep my color and instrument assignments clear. (Bass is always dark blue, pianos are purple, and so forth.)

I also use lowercase letters for the MIDI names and uppercase for the audio tracks to further distinguish between the two. In my Tracks Overview window, MIDI always stays at the top and audio stays at the bottom. In addition, I create “dummy” MIDI tracks to serve as dividers and labels for groups of tracks; I always use yellow as their color assignment (see Fig. 1).

READY, SET, WINDOW

One of the first things I suggest is getting your Window Sets arranged to your liking. Window Sets let you save and recall the size and position of multiple editing windows. Well-thought-out Window Sets enable you to quickly navigate the common functions that you use throughout a project by typing simple key commands to recall various screen layouts. You'd be surprised at how much accumulated time you can save by not having to constantly move and resize windows. (Window Sets are saved in a separate Preference file, so any sequence you open in Digital Performer will conform to your settings.)

I suggest creating your screen layouts using an existing song that has MIDI and audio tracks rather than using an empty template. That way you can get the default zoom settings for the MIDI notes and audio waveforms the way you want them right from the start. I use eight basic screen setups that concentrate on common tasks such as sequencing MIDI, editing audio, and mixing. I assign the setups to the key commands of Option + F1 through F8 to call them up. For those times when I want to see the computer's desktop without having to manually close all the current DP3 windows, I have created a special Window Set (Option + F12) with no windows open except for the Transport Control Panel.

The Commands menu lets you customize the key bindings (key commands) for almost all operations; it applies them globally to all DP3 files. If you're used to the key commands of another application, such as Studio Vision, you can apply its key-binding scheme; DP3 provides key-binding setups for several popular programs.

Once you get Digital Performer and your templates arranged, you can apply other techniques to boost your productivity. If you have a quick question about the function of a button, knob, or command, Digital Performer provides a handy built-in Help file. Place the cursor over the item in question and hold down Command + Option + Shift; a little balloon pops up with a simple explanation of the feature. Not all the explanations are clear or detailed, but they serve well as a reminder of basic operations.

Markers are a great way to identify sections of a song or specific cues and hit points in a piece of music. You can add Markers in real-time while the sequence is playing, and the key command to add a Marker can be customized (I use Control + M). If you create a Marker that you wish to delete later, just drag it downward in the Tracks Overview window until you see the little garbage can appear. Immediately to the right of the position bar in the Transport Control Panel is a little arrow that accesses a drop-down menu of the Markers. You can use that menu to, say, jump quickly from the first verse to the last chorus of a song after you have your Markers in place.

MAXING THE MIXER

Digital Performer's Mixer window is both elegant and extremely powerful. One of the features that I really like is the ability to “glide” (click, hold, and drag) across buttons in the Sequence Editor and Mixer windows to enable or disable record, mute, and automation functions for a number of tracks in one sweep.

One little-known feature is the pre/post divider line in the insert section. At the bottom left of the inserts is a small box; position the cursor over the box and a set of arrows appears (see Fig. 2). Dragging the arrows produces the divider line, which you can place anywhere within the number of inserts that you have designated (you can have as many as 20 inserts per channel). All insert effects above the line are prefader effects; all inserts below are postfader effects.

One of my complaints about the mixer in Digital Performer is that it provides only four sends per channel. Although each send can be routed to any available destination, it's an odd limitation given the fact that each channel can have up to 20 inserts. There is, however, a fairly easy work-around: create an aux track. Route the output of your original track to an unused bus (or bus pair for stereo), and make the input of the aux track the same bus. That provides you with 4 more sends, 20 more inserts, and another fader. Of course, you can chain even more aux tracks without worrying about signal degradation.

KEYS TO PRODUCTIVITY

The Option, Control, and Command keys are your friends, so it's worth getting to know what they can do for you. If you're like me and prefer to use key commands whenever possible, take a few minutes to check out the main DP3 menus while holding down each of those keys. You'll find an altered set of commands that you may not have known existed. (You can further customize those operations in the Commands window).

Of the three modifiers, the Option key is the most powerful. For example, Option-clicking on a track name lets you rename the track. You can also use the Option key to “gang” various operations, such as adjusting two sends simultaneously or programming multiple channels in the Delay plug-in. When you hold down the Option key in the Sequence Editor, resizing adjustments made to one track apply to all visible tracks. That makes it easy to change the waveform scaling or height of all tracks to the same size in one move.

Holding the Option key in the data display area of the Sequence Editor brings up the Zoom tool. Drag over an area while holding the Option key, and the selection fills the edit window. After making your edit, hold down the Shift key and Option-click, and your zoom resolution returns to its original setting. Nifty, huh?

The Command key is one of my favorite modifiers. I often use it to reverse the behavior of the edit snap-to-grid feature in the Sequence Editor. If snap-to-grid is turned on and set to 16th notes, for instance, holding the Command key down lets you drag notes or waveforms without having them snap to the nearest 16th-note position. That also works in reverse: if the Snap button is turned off, holding the Command key temporarily activates the snap-to-grid function. Command-double-clicking an audio waveform in the Sequence Editor also automatically opens that Soundbite in the waveform editor without making you hunt around for it in the Soundbites window.

The Edge Edit Copy command is another important feature in the Sequence Editor. When it's turned off (unchecked) as it is by default, changing the edge of a Soundbite (making the Soundbite shorter or longer) affects all copies of the Soundbite that appear in the file. For example, if you have a four-bar background vocal phrase that you have copied several times throughout your song and you wish to make the last chorus version only two bars long, dragging the edge of the Soundbite to shorten it would also shorten all of the other phrases. With Edge Edit Copy turned on, however, any edits made to the length of a Soundbite automatically create (and rename) a new Soundbite, leaving the others untouched. Of course, if you make a lot of changes to the edges of various Soundbites with this feature turned on you can accumulate a lot of unnecessary Soundbites. Using the Edge Edit Copy feature selectively and deleting unused Soundbites should keep things in order.

CLEVER CLIPPING

Clippings are one of the most powerful and underutilized features in Digital Performer. A Clipping window is like a clipboard on steroids, allowing you to save a combination of data types for later use (see Fig. 3). There are two types of Clippings: Digital Performer Clippings (DP Clippings) are global and are available to all Digital Performer files; Project Clippings are available only within a specific file. You can save MIDI and audio track contents in Clippings, which is a slick way to move extensive track data from one file to another.

If you drag the Clipping window contents of multiple tracks to the left pane of the Tracks Overview window, the contents will be pasted in, and the track names and I/O assignments will also be automatically created. The only requirement is that each track contain at least one data event. I recently created a Clipping window that contained my 47-track MIDI orchestral template. I put a single starting MIDI Volume event in each track. Now, in one move, I can add my complete sweetening setup of tracks to an existing sequence.

One of the best uses of Clippings is to save a group of insert plug-ins in a sort of “superlibrary” of effects chains. Let's say you've set up three insert effects that you really love — a compressor, an EQ, and a tape-simulation effect — for a vocal track. Those effects and their settings can be saved as a Clipping and called up any time you want to repeat that sound without having to manually call up each effect and setting.

First, create a new Clipping window (create a DP Clipping window if you want to be able to use the chain in any file) and give it a name, such as “My favorite VOX FX.” Move the new Clipping window to a place where it is still visible with the Mixer window open. Shift-click on two or more effects on a channel in the mixer to highlight them (this works only with plug-ins in series on the same track); then, move the cursor to the left side of the highlighted inserts. A hand icon appears; simply grab the highlighted insert effects and drag them to the Clipping window where they appear as a single Clipping item. You can rename the Clipping later if you want.

When you want to use that effects chain, just reverse the process: open the desired Clipping window and drag the Clipping onto the inserts of the destination track. (The icons for DP Clippings and Project Clippings are different in the Clippings drop-down menu.)

TAKES AND BUNDLES

With DP3's new Audio Bundles window (see Fig. 4), you can store and recall elaborate multichannel I/O setups, which is helpful for managing routings to multiple hardware boxes and surround mixes. However, things can get a little confusing with all that I/O, because Audio Bundle configurations are not saved globally; they're saved individually with each file. That can be especially confusing if you open a file that originated from someone else's setup. To preview Soundbites through your main output pair (with the speaker icon toggled on), be sure that the outputs you wish to use are at the top of the list in the Output section of the Audio Bundles window. (They can be dragged into the desired order.)

DP3's handy Take function enables each track (MIDI and audio) to hold an unlimited number of performances. In Record mode, Option + Control + N creates a new Take. If you set loop points and highlight the Overdub button, you can cycle through a section repeatedly and record multiple Takes in real time without stopping. The Takes are numbered sequentially for you to sort through later. That's a great feature for tracking solos or other difficult passages.

One cool feature that is commonly overlooked is the ability to simultaneously switch Takes on multiple tracks instead of switching them one at a time. That capability comes in handy, for example, when comping multiple passes of multitracked drums. Leaving the group of tracks in Record mode, you can hold down Option + Control and use the up and down arrows to scroll through the Takes. However, remember that you must leave the tracks record-enabled for this feature to work. Because you're only playing back while auditioning Takes in this fashion, it's not a problem. As an extra precaution, be sure you have recently saved your file.

BAFFLING BUFFERS

There are two types of buffers in Digital Performer, and they each affect the program differently. The first type is the voice-allocation buffer (Studio Configuration), which determines the size of the read/write buffers for each audio track (see Fig. 5). That buffer setting is related to hard-drive performance, not the latency of input signals. The higher the buffers are set, the longer it takes to prefill the play buffers for Quick-Start (no delay when hitting the Play button). Increasing the buffers and number of voices in the dialog box increases the RAM requirements. Keep in mind that these buffers are not using the RAM allocated to Digital Performer; they use the available RAM that's left over after Digital Performer is open.

The trick is to give Digital Performer enough RAM to comfortably play a sequence with your desired numbers of tracks, plug-ins, and soft synths and still have about 10 MB of available memory in the Performance window. Anything beyond that eats up the available RAM for buffering audio from the hard drive and may prevent you from setting the read/write buffers high enough or getting the needed number of voices.

The second type of buffer is the Samples Per Buffer setting in the Configure Hardware Driver dialog box (see Fig. 6). This setting affects how many samples are buffered per channel for live input signals that are mixed with recorded tracks for playback. Higher settings for this buffer cause greater audible latency of the live signal but decrease the strain on the CPU; lower buffer settings produce tighter timing of the live signal in relation to the recorded tracks but increase the strain on the CPU. The idea is to use the lowest possible setting without overtaxing the CPU. I find that a buffer of 512 samples usually works great for tracking percussive instruments, and you can get away with a higher setting for vocals and less transient material. Once you're done tracking live sources, you can bump up the buffer setting, reducing the load on the computer and giving you more plug-in power for your mixes.

The importance of proper buffer settings really hit home during a recent session. I was mixing a project in DP3 and was using several older high-end reverb units patched in through analog inputs and outputs. Toward the end of the mixing schedule, I decided to print the final reverbs as audio tracks (to free up the units in case I needed them later and to materially archive the effects for each song).

As I began the process, I noticed that the printed reverbs sounded “shorter” although the playback levels were perfectly matched. Then I remembered that I had been monitoring the tracks with the hardware buffer set to 2,048 samples the entire time we were mixing, which in essence created an additional “predelay” to the reverb returns running into the hardware's analog inputs. I had adjusted the reverb initial reflections, predelay, and reverb tails to sound right while listening with the additional play-through latency. Printing the reverb returns as audio tracks had eliminated the real-time latency on playback (the recorded tracks are always perfectly aligned), effectively moving the reverb earlier in time relative to the dry tracks.

The solution was to Shift (Command + L) the tracks later in time by the same number of samples as the hardware buffer setting. The Shift command lets you move objects earlier or later in increments of beats:bars:ticks, real time, SMPTE time, or individual samples. Shifting the printed audio tracks of the reverbs later by 2,048 samples placed the reverb back in the proper time relationship to the dry track.

As computers get faster and faster, we'll soon be able to leave the buffers set extremely low all the time for both recording and mixing. In the meantime, remember the implications of the buffer settings when tracking and using analog processors in real time.

VST AND SOFT SYNTHS

Contrary to what many people believe, you can reliably run VST soft synths and plug-ins in DP3. However, to do so you'll need a “shell,” because Digital Performer doesn't directly support VST. Three of the most popular shells are Audio Ease VST Wrapper 3.0, Cycling '74 Pluggo 3.0, and TC Works Spark 2.5. (A word of caution: Pluggo and VST Wrapper don't like to run at the same time. See “Shell Game” in the August 2002 issue for more details on the ins and outs of using these shells in DP3.) I mostly use VST Wrapper; the newest version has improved stability, lets you store multiple VST instruments (VSTi), and lets you store the settings of the plug-in or VSTi as part of the DP3 file. That means I can run several versions of Steinberg's Halion at the same time, and when I open my DP3 file, each Halion instance automatically loads the sample banks and settings and returns the project to the way it was when I left it (see the sidebar “Setting Up Virtual Instruments”).

For instruments like Propellerhead Reason and Digidesign Soft SampleCell that require OMS to work as a virtual sound source, I've found a work-around that allows me to still run FreeMIDI. That's important to me because I use MOTU MIDI and audio hardware. MOTU used to make a small extension, called OMS Emulator, that is no longer supported (I found it on the Internet) but still works great. Just remove OMS entirely from your system (if you have it) and drop the OMS Emulator into your Extensions folder alongside FreeMIDI. That lets you send MIDI from DP3 MIDI tracks to OMS applications such as Reason and Soft SampleCell while maintaining the stability of a FreeMIDI-based MOTU software and hardware system.

TEAMING UP WITH PRO TOOLS

Passing files between DP3 and Pro Tools is becoming more common as some professional recording engineers request Pro Tools files for mixing and many record labels currently only accept Pro Tools data for archiving projects that are not tape based. Several companies I work with regularly transfer projects back and forth between Digital Performer and Pro Tools, so I've learned a few things along the way.

Digital Performer and Pro Tools share files using a transfer protocol called OMF. A Digital Performer file must be saved in OMF format, which retains the pointers to the raw audio files, allowing the Soundbites to show up as regions in Pro Tools. If you want to maintain the bars:beats relationship, you should also export a Standard MIDI File that includes the Conductor track. That allows Pro Tools to import the tempo map from the Digital Performer file.

Digital Performer can import as well as export 16-bit OMF files, so it can load sessions that originate in Pro Tools. However, Pro Tools requires an additional program called DigiTranslator to read OMF files created in other applications.

Exporting 24-bit DP3 files to Pro Tools is a bit more tricky. As of this writing, you have to use a work-around. When Digital Performer 3.0 was created, DigiTranslator supported only 16-bit file transfers, so 24-bit DigiTranslator-compatible OMF exports were not possible and were crippled in DP3's OMF export procedure.

The current work-around for 24-bit transfers to and from Pro Tools is to create contiguous audio files using the Bounce-to-Disk feature in Digital Performer. All the files must start at bar 1, beat 1 or some other common starting point. (You can bounce them with or without effects and automation.) Loading the resulting files into Pro Tools and aligning them to the same starting point will do the trick, especially if you have imported the tempo map as described earlier. Unfortunately, this is a time-consuming procedure because you can't batch-process the Bounce-to-Disk feature in Digital Performer — you have to do it two tracks at a time.

DigiTranslator 2.0 (the newest release) supports 24-bit file transfers, and with Pro Tools 5.13 and Digital Performer 3.1, 24-bit OMF import and export procedures should be a breeze. (The newest version of OMF Tool and DP 3.1 will also import and export pan and volume automation in addition to the audio-region pointers.)

TIPS OF THE ICEBERG

Digital Performer offers many other cool features, including customizable Search commands, sampler support, QuickScribe notation, Polar, and built-in VocAlign support, not to mention a slew of great native MAS plug-ins and soft synths. MOTU's Web site (www.motu.com) is a great source for information, updates, and related links; there is also a good user newsgroup at www.unicornation.com that is a handy resource for additional tips and techniques.


Producer, composer, and keyboardist Rob Shrock has recorded, performed, or both with Burt Bacharach, Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, LeAnn Rimes, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, and many others.

SETTING UP VIRTUAL INSTRUMENTS

The process of setting up native MAS and VST instruments in Digital Performer is not overly complicated, but the procedures are different for each type. Be sure to increase the amount of memory allotted to Digital Performer, because plug-ins and instruments use DP3's RAM. I'll cover how to set up three popular virtual instruments in Digital Performer: Native Instruments' B4, Steinberg's Halion, and Propellerhead's Reason.

B4

B4 supports the native MAS format and does not require a shell. The application runs independently in the background (as do all Native Instruments soft synths), and upon proper installation, a file called “B4 input” appears in the MOTU Plug-ins folder in your Extensions folder. After starting Digital Performer, open B4. Under the System menu, set the Audio Port to Digital Performer/MAS and, in MIDI Settings, choose FreeMIDI from the Selected MIDI System drop-down menu.

In Digital Performer, create an aux track and name it “B4 return” or “B4 monitor.” That is where you will hear the playback while sequencing. For the input of the aux track, create a new stereo Audio Bundle, choosing “B4 1-2.” You can now select a B4 MIDI channel as the input to a MIDI track.

After you have sequenced your organ part, simply create a stereo audio track and choose “B4 1-2” as the input. (It will automatically show up.) Mute the aux track and record the file to hard disk. If you want to monitor the organ track as it's being recorded, set the Input Monitoring Mode (under Basics/Configure Hardware System) to “Monitor record-enabled tracks through effects.”

HALION

Halion is a VSTi sampler that is currently being hailed as GigaStudio for the Mac because it streams large samples from the hard drive in much the same way (see Fig. A). It may not be GigaStudio, but it is extremely powerful. It requires the use of a VST shell; currently the best one to use is Audio Ease VST Wrapper 3.0, which allows multiple VST instruments to run at the same time. In addition, all settings for VST instruments and plug-ins are saved with the Digital Performer file.

Start by creating a mono (not a stereo) audio track in Digital Performer and name it “Halion.” Open the Halion plug-in under VST Wrapper as an insert effect; that automatically changes the mono track to a stereo track. Sixteen Halion MIDI channels are now available for sequencing, and you can repeat the process for multiple instances of Halion (as much as your CPU can bear).

The “Program and ST 1+2” outputs of Halion default as the inputs to the audio track that I created for monitoring and can't be used for recording. When you're ready to record the tracks, assign the outputs of the Halion instruments to any of the other available 3 through 12 channels in the Chan/Prog page. A dialog box under Options lets you assign Halion output channels 3 through 12 to Digital Performer buses. (The defaults are buses 1 through 10.) Create the appropriate mono or stereo audio tracks in Digital Performer and set the proper buses as the inputs, and you're ready to go. (As before, if you want to monitor the tracks as they're being recorded, set the Input Monitoring Mode to “Monitor record-enabled tracks through effects.”)

REASON

Reason is a self-contained virtual MIDI studio that even includes a matrix pattern sequencer. Many people don't realize that, in addition to synchronizing Reason's playback with Digital Performer, you can use Reason as a standalone sound module, allowing you to sequence entirely in Digital Performer, using Reason sounds alongside your other sound sources.

To use Reason, you must run Digital Performer under OMS or use OMS Emulator with FreeMIDI. Open Digital Performer first, then open Reason. If you're running FreeMIDI to synchronize the transports of Reason and Digital Performer, set the FreeMIDI Preferences to FreeMIDI Applications Only and check the Interapplication MIDI box. If you're using OMS, check “Play in background.”

Create an aux track and name it “Reason”; then, create a new stereo Audio Bundle input to the aux using “Reason mix 1-2” or any of Reason's 64 outputs. (You can also create multiple auxes for monitoring various output pairs of Reason.) The MIDI routing to the various modules in Reason is handled by the MIDI patch bay in Reason; the modules now show up in Digital Performer's MIDI instrument list.

When you're ready to record the tracks, simply mute the auxes, create the desired number of audio tracks, and set the inputs appropriately from the choice of Audio Bundles. (If you want to monitor the tracks as they're being recorded, remember to set the Input Monitoring Mode to “Monitor record-enabled tracks through effects.”)

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