MOTU Digital Performer 7.2 (Mac) Review

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FIG. 1: DP 7.2 adds a boatload of new features that streamline workflow, and a Themes feature that lets you change the color scheme and look of the GUI. (Pictured: the Savannah Theme.)

Professionals have complained for years that DAWs have focused too much on the bells and whistles while giving workflow enhancements as little consideration as road kill. MOTU Digital Performer 7.2 (DP 7.2, see Fig. 1) breaks the mold, delivering a workstation worthy of the most savvy, demanding, and time-pressured engineer and composer.

I reviewed DP 7.2 using a 2.8GHz 8-core Mac Pro running Mac OS X 10.5.8 (the minimum required OS). My review includes features introduced as far back as DP 7.

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FIG. 2: The eye-popping Plasma Theme transforms the GUI''s look. Clicking on a channel''s oval Insert Settings slot in the Mixing Board (above the top insert) produces a list of commands for storing, recalling, and managing groups of plug-ins.

DP 7.2 gives you a choice of 14 Themes that, depending on the Theme chosen, subtly or dramatically change the look of the GUI without altering the layout of windows, menus, and so on. The Plasma theme is by far the most dramatic of the lot (see Fig. 2); others are much more subtle. I was initially dubious of the value Themes provide, but I''m now hooked. Themes add a drop of Visine to my DAW-weary eyes.

You can also customize the color of DP''s meters. I like choosing a custom color gradient that shows green for low-level signals and progresses from yellow to red as signal strength increases, just like the multisegment LED ladders on my favorite analog gear. You can also choose the color you want for time-range selections. And I was genuinely thrilled to discover that MOTU''s engineers have tweaked their track-color algorithms so that the vast majority of color assignments now produce black waveforms, a major improvement. (Previous versions of DP 7 and DP 6 produced white waveforms for Soundbites when choosing a color from half of the available track-color assignments.) I find it much easier to see the edges of black waveforms when editing.

New in DP 7.2 are ultra-convenient contextual menus that duplicate and gather in one place items from one or more of DP''s main menus and mini-menus. When you right-click on an object with a multibutton mouse—or control-click with the left mouse button or a single-button mouse—a contextual menu appears that contains only commands and options pertinent to the chosen object and its window. For example, right-clicking on a track in the Tracks window produces a menu containing options to add similar tracks, duplicate or move the track, create a new track folder, and so on. Control-clicking on the track''s mixer channel, on the other hand, pops up a checklist of channel-strip items (such as inserts and sends) that you can add or delete from the Mixing Board. Contextual menus preclude endless searches through main menus for a rarely used command and provide a quick reminder of options you may have forgotten about.

DP 7.2 offers many other time-saving features. Looking for a specific Soundbite you''ve lost track of? Type any part of the likely name (such as gtr or BV) in the Soundbites window''s search box, and the Soundbites list gets immediately stripped down to include only those Bites whose names include that entry. Similarly, I could quickly search for a forgotten keyboard shortcut in the Commands window. Search results showed even those commands that were previously hidden because their submenu''s disclosure arrow was toggled shut.

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FIG. 3: The new Live Room G plug-in emulates the sound of multiple microphones used on any of five guitar cabs.

Load a Clipping containing more plug-ins than the current number of inserts in DP''s Mixing Board, and DP simply adds any additional insert slots needed to accommodate them. And when a single plug-in is instantiated in, or copied to, a channel''s last insert slot, an additional slot automatically gets added to all channels. That''s really convenient most of the time, but I wish inserts were only automatically added to pre-fader slots. When mastering, adding dither to a post-fader slot shouldn''t add a slot below it.

A dynamite new feature introduced in DP 7.1 allows you to name, save, and recall a chain of plug-ins—and all of their control settings—for any Mixing Board channel by way of its Insert Settings menu. This menu is accessed from a slot located just above the channel''s top insert. Insert Settings are like speed-dial Clippings. Say you''ve tracked several songs as separate Projects, using mostly the same instruments, and you''ve just finished mixing the first song. For a consistent sound and ultra-fast workflow, use the Insert Settings menu to save each channel''s group of plug-ins used in the first mix. Then open each of the other songs in turn and recall your saved Insert Settings for like instruments. You can also use the Insert Settings menu to bypass or clear all inserts in a channel at once. This sort of channel-wide bypass is indispensable for mastering work.

DP''s Mixing Board now also includes control sections and miniature graphic displays for all its included EQ and dynamics plug-ins. In these sections of the mixer, you can instantiate, bypass, and tweak controls and visualize settings for DP''s included ParaEQ, Dynamics, and five MasterWorks plug-ins. Only one EQ and one dynamics section can be displayed at a time. If you wish, you can hide these mixer sections.

All mixer controls for any one selected track (that isn''t grouped) can be viewed in the new Channel Strip information window. Select another track in a different window, and the Channel Strip window updates to show that track''s controls. Alternatively, you can lock the Channel Strip window so it always shows the controls for one specific track. A locked Channel Strip really speeds mixdown when returning often to a money track (such as lead vocal) to fine-tune settings. The Channel Strip can also be set (in DP''s Preferences) to appear at the top of the Sequence Editor or Tracks window. You''ll still need to access the controls for individual tracks that are grouped in the Mixing Board window.

DP 7 makes interfacing with other studios easier. Flattening your audio files is a snap: You can now merge all the Soundbites in a take to create a new Bite that begins at 00:00:00.00 even if nothing was recorded that early in that track. Collaboration is also sweeter on the purely musical side. Composers can add lyrics and chord symbols to their scores in the QuickScribe Editor.

Mixing is easier and more precise in DP 7 than in previous versions. Using a mouse to make small fader and other control adjustments is no longer an exercise in futility; simply hold down the Command key for finer control. New functionality for DP''s Trim tool and four new automation modes let you flatten or scale automation data within a specified time range. These are the kinds of advanced automation functions that leading hardware digital mixers offer.

Other enhancements greatly speed workflow. A new command lets you delete all existing bundles and import new ones in one fell swoop. A bullet is displayed next to a take name when other takes exist for that track, preventing a potentially disastrous oversight, as well as allowing you to confirm at a glance when only one take exists for a track. And forget about constant visits to to see if updates exist for DP; the software now automatically checks for updates during boot-up if your computer is connected to the Internet (even if you were offline). A defeatable auto-save preference backs up your hard work if you forget to do so; you choose how often it saves. And check out DP Control, a free app that offers control of DP over your Mac''s Wi-Fi network using an iPhone, iPad, or third-generation iPod Touch. (Editor''s note: DP Control works flawlessly.)

Twelve new plug-ins emulate stompboxes and electric-guitar amps and cabinets. Custom ''59 models the Fender Bassman and Marshall JTM45 and JCM800-2203 guitar amps. Choose the tone stack and preamp tube and circuit from different models to create a hybrid amp. Live Room G models five different guitar cabinets and lets you position up to four virtual microphones in various configurations on your selected cab (see Fig. 3).

New stompbox-emulation plug-ins include Analog Chorus (models Boss CE Series effects pedals), D Plus (MXR Distortion+), Delta Fuzz (Electro-Harmonix Big Muff), Diamond Drive (Voodoo Lab Sparkle Drive), RXT (ProCo''s The Rat), Tube Wailer (Ibanez TS-9 Tube Screamer), Uber Tube (Ibanez Super Tube), and Wah Pedal (VOX 846 and Dunlop CryBaby). Intelligent Noise Gate and Tuner plug-ins, which are not emulating a specific hardware model, are also included. The Tuner plug-in (new in DP 7.2) rivals the best included with third-party guitar-amp-simulation plug-ins. It provides outstanding accuracy with negligible CPU drain, and it is now my go-to tuner for guitars.

I own several dedicated guitar-amp-simulation plug-ins and was curious to see if MOTU''s stock offerings could compete. With thoughtful tweaking, these new plug-ins sound fantastic—warm and dimensional (see Web Clips 1, 2, and 3). Because they are separate plug-ins, they don''t offer the convenience of displaying all components in your signal chain in one window. And unlike the case with many third-party guitar-amp-simulator plug-ins, you can''t drag and drop contiguously inserted stompboxes to reorder them. But a fairly user-friendly alternative is to save and recall plug-in combinations as Insert Settings presets. DP provides some fantastic presets to get you started.

In two months of almost daily use, DP 7.2 did not crash once. Last but not least, MOTU includes a hard copy of the roughly 1,100-page owner''s manual. Extremely comprehensive and clearly written, the manual sets the gold standard to which all manufacturers should strive.

This review can only scratch the surface of DP 7''s new features in the available space, but here''s the big picture: Version 7.2 is by far the best version yet. It''s ultra-stable, user-friendly, powerful, fun, efficient, easy to learn, flexible, and turbo-charged with practical workflow enhancements for working engineers. If you own an earlier version of DP, you owe it to yourself to upgrade. If you own another DAW and are considering a switch, DP 7 should be in your gun sights. It rocks!

EM contributing editor Michael Cooper has relied on Digital Performer for recording, mixing, and mastering for the past 10 years.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the MOTU Digital Performer 7.2 product page.