FIG. 1: The latest incarnation of Digital Performer offers plenty of useful new features including the Beat Detection Engine, plug-in latency compensation, and a redesigned user interface.
With the release of Digital Performer (DP) 4.5 and the subsequent updates of 4.51 and 4.52, MOTU has once again upped the ante in the supercompetitive market of digital audio sequencers. Version 4.5 brought with it several major additions: a brilliant revision of the user interface, the feature-rich and flexible Beat Detection Engine, plug-in latency compensation, and improved Pro Tools support.
Other useful improvements included MP3 export, the ability to see markers in QuickScribe mode (great for scoring), additional voices and sends, support of Apple Loops and Acidized WAV files, and much more. Version 4.51 (a free update) added new features such as Dynamic CPU Management, which enables supported plug-ins to go into a resting mode that disables their CPU demands when they're not processing audio, and the ability to save bounce settings and configure multiple bounces. Version 4.52 (also free), the latest available at the time of this review, is a maintenance upgrade that included additional refinements (see Fig. 1).
Because EM has covered DP's basic features in previous reviews, this article will focus on versions beginning with v. 4.5.
When you open a new file in DP 4.5x, the first thing you notice is the Consolidated window, which makes getting around a whole lot easier. This major upgrade of the DP graphical user interface makes it much easier to manage multiple windows, and thereby lets you get the most from your computer monitor's available real estate. Rather than having several windows open, as was the case in previous versions — and therefore having to constantly hide windows, bring them to the front, send them to the back, and open new ones — the Consolidated window puts multiple windows together in one large, user-customizable display.
FIG. 2: The Consolidated window''s main section (the Main Body) consists of a user-configurable number of editor windows, each with tabs across the top for quickly changing to different editors.
The Consolidated window is designed around what MOTU calls the Main Body, a scalable space that can accommodate multiple vertically stacked edit windows (the default is two). A series of tabs running across the top of each edit window lets you choose whether it will display the Tracks, Sequence, Drum, MIDI, QuickScribe, Mixer, Song, or Sound File (Waveform) editors (see Fig. 2).
You have the option to open additional windows, called sidebars, on the left and right edges. The sidebars can be configured as single vertically oriented windows that span the top-to-bottom length of the Consolidated window, or you can open additional smaller windows within that same vertical space. For instance, Fig. 3 shows a Consolidated window that's been optimized for tracking. The Main Body is composed of the Tracks editor on top and the Sequence editor underneath it. The left sidebar is the mixer and has been left relatively thin, so as to show only one channel strip. Whenever a track is selected in the Tracks or Sequence editor, the left sidebar shows the channel strip for that track.
FIG. 3: This screen shot shows an example of the Consolidated window with sidebars. A single mixer-channel strip has been configured on the left side of the Main Body (which is showing Tracks and Sequence editor windows), and Audio Monitor, Soundbites, and Audio Performance windows have been enabled on the right.
In this same example, the right sidebar shows (from top to bottom) the Audio Monitor, the Soundbites window, and the Performance meter. (You have a number of other window choices for the sidebars.) In older versions of DP, selecting one of the main editors would often cover up such auxiliary windows, making it frustrating to keep visible essential windows such as the Audio Monitor. Now, you can configure such windows so that they stay at the top level all the time, which is a big improvement. Pull-down menus in the various sidebar windows let you quickly and easily switch between a variety of edit and utility windows.
You can resize all the sidebars and the windows in the Main Body by dragging from points on their vertical or horizontal axes, and the sidebar windows can be moved around by dragging and dropping. Individual windows can also be “popped” in and out of the Consolidated window. You can save your Consolidated window setups as window sets, making it easy to have custom setups for tracking, editing, and mixing. (DP provides a menu of handy presets, which make good starting points.)
In the Consolidated window, it's possible to have edit windows open for more than one Chunk, so it's important to pay attention to the small text field in the left-hand side of any editor window, which indicates the Chunk for which that window is active. Otherwise, you might make tweaks in an editor only to realize that you're editing the wrong Chunk. It's a minor point, but it would be helpful in a future upgrade if the Chunk name was made more obvious.
Overall, though, the Consolidated window makes a huge difference in the speed and efficiency with which you can use Digital Performer. If you prefer to work in the old style, with separate windows, DP lets you do that, as well. In the newly revamped Preferences window, you specify whether files from older versions of DP will open with the old or Consolidated style.
The Thin Blue Line
The Beat Detection Engine (introduced in DP 4.5) is an extremely deep feature, offering numerous ways in which to edit the rhythmic content of your audio. It analyzes your audio files (either automatically or on a file-by-file basis) looking for transients, which it interprets as rhythmic information. As a result, it works best on audio with clearly defined transients.
From a rhythmic standpoint, the tools in DP's Beat Detection Engine allow you to edit audio in almost the same way as MIDI data. Getting the desired results, however, isn't always as cut and dried. In fact, using many of the Beat Detection features successfully is, as MOTU freely admits, more of an art than a science.
Before applying any Beat Detection features, you need to make sure that your audio has been analyzed for beats. In the Sequence editor, a region that has had its beats detected displays thin blue lines layered under the waveforms.
FIG. 4: In the Waveform editor, beats show up as blue lines with green handles. Here, you can perform such operations as changing a beat''s Velocity and disabling a beat so that it''s not affected by beatediting operations in the Sequence editor.
You can control the level to which beats are affected by the various features by tweaking the Adjust Beat Sensitivity and Adjust Beat Detection sliders. Adjust Beat Sensitivity lets you set an amplitude threshold below which the engine won't detect beats, and Adjust Beat Detection sets a threshold based on a number of factors, including rhythmic value. (MOTU is deliberately vague about what the other variables are, considering that a trade secret.) You can also go into the Waveform editor and manually disable selected beats so that they're not affected by beat-editing operations (see Fig. 4). There are a lot of choices.
Probably the most dramatic feature of the Beat Detection Engine is its ability to quantize audio within a Soundbite. Assuming that DP has already analyzed the beats in a particular piece of audio, you can use the regular Quantize window to apply those same processes to an audio region. Simply adjust the What to Quantize setting to Beats within Soundbites. Much of the time, this feature works as advertised. For instance, I was able to easily change a shuffle drumbeat to a straight-eighths beat, and a synth line with a straight-eighth-note feel to a shuffle.
In another instance, I was putting together a loop-based drum part but found that one loop I wanted to use had a snare drum that was ahead of the beat and didn't match the feel of the other loops in the song (although it did match sonically). Using the Adjust Beat Sensitivity and Adjust Beat Detection features, I configured DP to recognize only the snare hits in the loop. I then quantized them using the Beats within Soundbites setting and was able to give them a more laid-back feel. Audio quantizing didn't always work out as expected, though. Sometimes the quantized audio had artifacts — perhaps caused by trying to make too drastic a change.
One of the coolest of the Beat Detection features is the ability to extract grooves from audio files and apply them to other audio or MIDI files. That works great for, say, a section in which you want to lock the bass drum up with the bass. It was most successful when working on 1- or 2-measure regions.
Yet another way to quantize audio using the Beat Detection Engine is to cut up a file into separate sound bites and quantize them, à la Recycle.
There are two ways to do this: one is to analyze a piece of audio, turn on the Beat grid (which is a separate feature from the conventional Edit grid, which you should turn off for this operation) and drag the scissors tool over the region. That automatically cuts the piece up into separate beats. Then you can use the Quantize command (with the Soundbites setting selected) to affect those separate sound bites.
FIG. 5: The Create Soundbites from Beats command lets you preview and adjust the level of beat detection before splitting up a track. It also allows you to choose a guide track that will govern the beat divisions over all selected tracks.
Regions can also be split according to beats using the Create Soundbites from Beats command. That allows you to split single or multiple tracks by their beat divisions, and even lets you designate a single track as a guide track to determine the beat divisions for all selected tracks (great for maintaining phase coherence when editing multitrack drum parts). You can preview the split while adjusting a slider showing the beat divisions, and then apply your edit (see Fig 5).
The Beat Detection Engine can automatically read audio files with embedded tempo information, making it easy to import Apple Loops and Acidized WAV files. If you set the Automatic Conversions preferences to convert all imported files to the sequence tempo, you only need to drag the Apple or Acid loop into a sequence, and it will automatically change to the correct tempo. (Changing pitched loops to match the key of your sequence will still have to be done manually using Spectral Effects or an external editor.)
Space doesn't allow me to go into all the possibilities and features of the Beat Detection Engine, but suffice it to say, it gives you a great deal of flexibility for correcting and manipulating the rhythmic aspect of audio files, but doesn't always give you instant gratification. Be ready to experiment.
Always on Time
Another key feature introduced in 4.5 is Plug-In Latency Compensation. If you have plug-ins in your collection that cause your audio to be noticeably delayed (such as compressors with look-ahead functions), or if you use a plug-in platform based on an accelerator card, such as the Universal Audio UAD-1 or the TC PowerCore, you'll appreciate this feature. It compensates for any latency induced by a plug-in (on playback only) and moves the rest of the audio so that it all lines up.
Plug-In Latency Compensation works with plug-ins in MAS, AU, TDM, and RTAS formats (the latter two apply only when running DP under DAE). I found it to work well; it allowed me to use plug-ins, such as the Waves Ultra-Pitch, that had been unusable in previous versions of DP because of latency.
The Master at Work
DP 4.5 marks the debut of the impressive MasterWorks EQ plug-in (see Fig. 6). MOTU states that it emulates legendary “British large-console EQs,” and the company has imbued the plug-in with a retro, big-console look. The EQ, which comes in stereo and mono versions, offers four fully parametric bands that can be switched in and out of the signal path, each with four selectable filter curves. Adjustable highpass and lowpass filters can also be switched in if needed.
FIG. 6: The MasterWorks EQ is a new parametric equalizer that is flexible, sounds good, and is easy to use.
There are lots of handy extras in the MasterWorks EQ, including an FFT display so you can see a real-time graphic rendition of the audio file, which makes it easier to dial in the right frequencies; a feature called Audition with Noise that plays pink noise corresponding to the frequency you're tweaking (also designed to aid in frequency selection); an adjustable frequency response display; and more. MasterWorks EQ sounds great, offers plenty of parameter control, and is quite user-friendly. It made me wish that MOTU had added more plug-ins to DP's collection, which is not as extensive as that offered by some of its rivals.
Send Me, Pan Me
The list of significant new features just keeps going. The number of available voices has been raised from 96 mono voices, 64 stereo voices, and 32 stereo buses to 99 of each of those three categories. You can now have a maximum of 20 sends per track, as compared with a maximum of 5 per track in version 4.12.
MOTU also changed the sends so that you can configure a stereo or mono aux automatically from a send's pull-down menu, rather than having to go through the multistep process of selecting a new Aux track, then setting up its input and so forth. In addition, when you set up a stereo Aux, a panning knob now appears on the channel strip, giving you control over the Aux's stereo image. Those working in surround will get a surround panner when they set up a surround Aux.
Describing the Scribe
DP has always been popular with composers working to picture, and several improvements will endear them to it even more. DP is now latency-compensated for DV-formatted QuickTime playback over FireWire, allowing for frame-accurate output during playback and when the video is stopped. Additionally, the new QuickScribe Film Cues view lets you view markers with their SMPTE time locations clearly displayed above the staff in QuickScribe view. MOTU has improved DP's marker support by adding the capability to number markers and then locate to them using the Go to Marker command.
New export options have been added — most notably the ability to export files as MP3s. You must first download and install the third-party freeware Lame Framework, but once that's done, you can export MP3s directly from the Soundbites window in a range of quality levels, or you can bounce tracks to disk as MP3s.
As mentioned earlier, the Preferences window has been revamped and now contains many preference settings that previously resided in various other menus within the program. This is handy because, especially with the advent of the Beat Detection Engine, you'll switch preferences a lot more than you did in the past (turning the Beat Detection Engine on and off in the background, changing whether files are automatically tempo converted, and so on).
Also new and significant is a feature called Dynamic CPU Management, which helps users squeeze the most processing power out of their Macs as possible. It disables supported plug-ins when they're not receiving audio. Say you have a reverb that you're only using in one section of a song. Instead of it staying active for the entire song, thus using up valuable CPU power even when no audio is fed into it, the reverb plug-in now taps into your processor only when it receives and processes audio.
According to MOTU, this feature supports all of its own MAS plug-ins and all third-party AU plug-ins (both instruments and effects). A third-party MAS plug-in must have support for this feature written into its code for it to see the power savings. Presumably, third-party developers will make sure that future versions of their MAS plug-ins are compliant.
When used with supported plug-ins, Dynamic CPU Management makes a dramatic difference. I used it with a host of MOTU plug-ins, and when the song reached a part in which no audio was feeding them, the CPU indicator in the Performance Meter dropped noticeably.
Another important addition (which was added in DP 4.51) is Bounce Settings and Multi Bounce. The Bounce Settings feature lets you save custom bounce-to-disk settings for each project, so you can reinitiate specific bounces without having to reconfigure the settings. What's more, you can assign a key command to each saved bounce setting, making it easy to initiate a mix without even going to a menu. I love this feature because if I run a mix and then discover that I need to make a few more tweaks, I don't have to reset the bounce settings before rerunning the mix.
The Multi Bounce feature lets you set up DP to bounce multiple saved bounce files in one operation. If you have to make alternate mix types for a single song (for example, a full mix, a TV mix, an instrumental mix, and a background-vocal mix), you can set the bounces up in advance. Then, if you have to make several revisions of your mix, you can press one key combination to set in motion bounces of all of those mix types. This feature also works well if you're creating stem mixes. It's an excellent idea and another time-saver.
For those who use DP with Digidesign hardware, DP 4.52 offers a significant number of improvements. Under DAE, plug-in automation is now fully supported, as is DP's plug-in latency compensation feature. RTAS and AudioSuite plug-ins are also supported, in addition to TDM and HTDM plugs.
The Automatic Voice Allocation feature is designed to make it simpler to configure your projects. Mono and stereo sends are now supported, as is send automation. In addition, Instrument Track support enables DAE users to fully use TDM instruments in DP.
I tested the various versions of DP 4.5x on a dual G5/2 GHz running OS 10.3.5, and on a G4/733 MHz running 10.2.8. DP ran well on both machines, although it was a lot faster on the G5.
When testing the original 4.5 update, I encountered a problem with DP crashing whenever I shut the program down (after the data had been saved, so no real harm was done). That problem disappeared when I installed 4.51, but I did experience a few additional glitches in 4.51 (such as MIDI notes not sounding until I'd started and stopped the transport). With 4.52, however, DP's performance has been rock solid.
With the release of DP 4.52, MOTU has given its flagship software the tool set necessary to remain at the forefront of the very competitive sequencer market. The Consolidated window makes the DP work environment even more friendly, and enhancements such as Bounce Settings, Plug-in Latency Compensation, Dynamic CPU Management, tempo support of Apple Loops and Acidized WAV-file loops, the MasterWorks EQ, and increased voices and sends make the program more efficient and productive.
The Beat Detection Engine, while not the most user-friendly of features, opens up more editing possibilities and allows DP to compete with Pro Tools in the area of beat editing. The enhanced Pro Tools support will make life much easier for those using DP with Digidesign hardware.
If you're already a DP user, your decision to upgrade to 4.5x should be a no-brainer. If you're a user of a competitive product, DP's range of features and straightforward user interface might just lure you over.
Mike Levine is a senior editor at EM.
Digital Performer 4.52
digital audio sequencer
upgrade from v. 4.12 or earlier of DP $149
OVERALL RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4
PROS: Consolidated Window improves user interface. Beat Detection Engine offers new options for editing rhythms in audio files. Dynamic CPU Management reduces CPU load. Latency Compensation reduces plug-in timing problems. Increased number of voices and sends. New Aux shortcuts make configuring the mixer easier. MP3 exporting. Support of Apple Loops and Acidized WAV files. Improved support of Digidesign hardware.
CONS: Quantize Beats within Soundbites feature sometimes causes audio artifacts. Beat Detection Engine has large learning curve. MasterWorks EQ is the only new plug-in. Lame Framework must be downloaded and installed for MP3 export features to work.
Mark of the Unicorn