Hey, aren’t you a Windows guy?”
No, not really. In 1995, I picked up my first Windows machine to replace the Atari I’d been using alongside my Mac IIci. In particular, I’ve followed DP for some time because quite a few friends use it, and it’s easier to work in their chosen medium than convert projects.
I’ve always admired the program, but never had the same kind of “chemistry” as my DP-adoring pals. Besides, it didn’t do some things I really wanted it to do — like deal with loops. And in my OMS-centric OS 9 world, FreeMIDI was like an uninvited dinner guest. But I could make DP work, it was stable, and hey, that was all that mattered. I didn’t have to love it, just use it.
Fast forward a couple years. I’m getting pretty fluent in OS X. My aging G3 PowerBook has ceded its turf to a dual G5. Then DP 4.52 shows up, and all I can say is . . . well, you’ll see.
THE CONSOLIDATED WINDOW
Forget about the cool tech specs for now; to me, this is the killer feature because everything flows from how well you flow with a program. MOTU has ended “window clutter,” although you can use the old school DP interface if you want. A two-monitor setup or Cinema Display lets this feature really rock, but it’ll work on 17" as well.
The Consolidated Window indeed consolidates all the various elements of a DP project into a single, flat, customizable interface. I particularly like the Tabs for accessing different views with a single click, and the ability to optimize different layouts for tracking, mixing, waveform editing, and so on. It’s like the screen sets in other programs, but instead of collecting a loose bunch of windows into a single view, a bunch of views are integrated into a single window.
Still, given all the other improvements, is the Consolidated Window really the right lead item for a review? For a reality check, I called up long-time DP user Mitch Gallagher. Confirmed: Even a certified DP vet was totally smitten by the Consolidated Window.
THE USER EXPERIENCE
That’s not the only thing that makes life easier. DP’s documentation has an extremely lucid, helpful discussion on optimization, buffers, audio/MIDI settings, how programs react with computers, and so. The tone of the documentation is clear and totally straightforward. But the irony is that I didn’t really need to read it much, as DP required virtually no effort to get working. My MIDI interface showed up, so did a USB audio interface, and latency was well under control. And (thank you!) there’s no complex copy protection — enter the authorization code included with the manual, and you’re recording.
I expect to spend time getting a program installed and ready to go, but with DP 4.5, I was laying down tracks (and importing OMF files exported from Sonar and Cubase) within minutes of opening the box. It was one of the more painless user experiences I’ve had with a major piece of software.
BEAT DETECTION ENGINE
This isn’t just a feature, it’s literally another engine in the program. This is what lets you bring in Acidized and REX files, quantize audio, conform drums to tempo, and even do the “elastic audio” tricks that Ableton Live pioneered. And when you look at a Sound File, you can alter the velocity of each “slice” as well as its timing — something even ReCycle doesn’t do.
However, note that the experience varies from “plug and play” with simple rhythmic grooves, to “assembly required” for complex waveforms that don’t have easily defined rhythms. As anyone who’s tried to create acidized or REX files knows, beat slicing/detection is an art as much as a science. DP 4.52 provides the tools, but it will take you some time to become expert at this extremely powerful feature.
GOODIES FOR THE FAITHFUL
It’s not a big feature for me, because I don’t use Pro Tools hardware. But a lot of people use DP as a “front end” because of the various tools (like superior MIDI editing) that DP brings to the party. There are now a plethora of enhancements that relate to using Pro Tools hardware; check the MOTU website for details. For example, V4.1 provided DAE support, but now RTAS and AudioSuite join the plug-in support for AU — buy a VST-to-AU wrapper, and you’ll be able to handle pretty much any plug-in out there.
SPEAKING OF PLUG-INS…
DP 4.52 bundles no virtual instruments, but reserve judgement about that until you read the conclusion. What is new in 4.5: The MasterWorks EQ, a five-band parametric with additional high and low cut filters. These aren’t wimpy, either; the highpass filter can give a 36dB/octave slope, which is great for nuking subsonics and other low-frequency garbage. The EQ sounds “musical” too, but a lot of that is because you can create very gentle filter slopes as well as more extreme options. Another plug-in goodie is delay compensation (attention PowerCore/UAD-1/etc. fans). My only beef: It takes up way too much screen real estate.
And manufacturers, please steal this idea: Audio plug-ins don’t draw CPU power unless there’s audio going through them, which lets your computer “coast” a bit more. This applies to all plug-ins that ship with DP, as well as third-party AU types (not necessarily MAS, though). Then again, if your computer can’t handle a ton of plugs, don’t forget about the freeze function that was added a few revs back.
WHY WORD COUNTS SUCK
When this review hits the streets, the MOTU people are going to flip out: “But he didn’t mention [this cool feature], or [this cool feature], or . . .” and they’d be right. Word counts are a cruel taskmaster. So a few quickies: 20 sends instead of four, pre-post switch, plug-in automation for TDM/HDTM/RTAS, mono/stereo/n-channel buses, smooth audio edits (fills in gaps with room tone — very cool), QuickScribe film cues view, scroll wheel support, instrument tracks, and . . . you get the idea.
Digital Performer is a deep program, so all we can do here is hit some highlights. That’s no big deal, though, because you can get the details on the Web. Instead, let’s cut to the chase.
Apple really stirred things up when they bundled a zillion plug-ins with Logic Pro 7 and set the price at $999. So where does that leave DP, which has no bundled soft synths? I decided to do the math and check current prices. For that same $999, you can get DP 4.5, a helluva suite of soft synths and samplers courtesy of Reason (which rewires into DP like a champ), and even throw in an Arturia synth or some PSP Audioware plug-ins — and still have change left over for a sushi dinner.
You’ll have to decide for yourself whether Reason with a spiffy synth like the CS-80V delivers more value than Logic’s instrument bundle, but given that Reason is a great program in its own right and can develop beats suitable for use in DP, it seems that at the very least the value proposition is a draw — if not a slight advantage toward DP.
And a note to those still using StudioVision: I understand why, but it’s time to move on. Overall, I think DP 4.5 is probably as close as you’re going to get to what SV would be like today if it had been upgraded for the past several years.
The bottom line is that DP 4.5 really does, indeed, perform. I’m impressed that MOTU has managed to tie some legacy loose ends together into such a cohesive package. Previously, it always seemed to take a while to find what I was looking for; now everything flows a whole lot better.
Maybe I’ve just gotten more familiar with the program, but I think there’s more to it than that. The cumulative effects of years of tweaks have sort of reached critical mass with DP 4.5. First they nailed MIDI, then hard disk recording, then audio-for-video . . . and now they’ve taken care of the loops ’n’ remix crowd (as evidenced by little touches too, like Mute automation). Performer aficionados will be delighted, but for a prodigal Mac guy like myself, DP 4.5 is a powerful argument (along, of course, with OS X) for re-entering the world of the Mac.