FIG. 1: Digital Performer 5.1 includes a suite of virtual instruments and a bevy of useful new features.
When MOTU previewed Digital Performer 5 at Winter NAMM this year, most of the buzz was about its new suite of six virtual instruments. Although these instruments are the sexiest additions, everyday users of DP may find productivity enhancements like Track Folders, new editing tools, new video-scoring features, the Meter Bridge, and improved click and count-off options to be even more significant.
I installed DP 5.1 (see Fig. 1) on my dual-processor 2 GHz Power Mac G5. My audio interface was a MOTU 828mkII. As usual with DP, installation was a breeze. Version 5.1 is a Universal Binary release, so it will run on both Intel and PowerPC-based Macs. The update to 5.1 is free for those running DP 5 or 5.01, and the optimizations in it are the same for both Intel and PowerPC machines.
This review will focus on what's new in DP 5. To find out about previously released features, go to www.emusician.com. (DP's Pitch Automation feature was added in version 4.6, after EM's last review of the program. See Web Clips 1 and 2 for coverage of Pitch Automation and examples of it in action.)
DP 5's suite of six soft instruments gives users access to a range of synthesized and sampled sounds (see Web Clip 3) and makes DP more self-contained. Clearly, these instruments were added, at least in part, in an effort to keep up with archrival Apple Logic Pro and its formidable instrument collection. Kudos to MOTU for adding the instruments without raising DP's price.
As a whole, the DP 5 instruments sound good and are extremely easy to program. Disappointingly, though, most have only a small selection of presets. (According to MOTU, additional user presets should be available as a free download from the company's Web site by the time you read this.) Here is an overview of the new instruments:
This simple analog-modeling, single-oscillator, monophonic synth successfully delivers dance-music bass tones.
Sounds are based on either a square wave or a sawtooth wave, and the Waveform knob lets you choose one, the other, or any combination in between. Dial in a little of the Detune control, and you get a wide stereo spread. You can edit the Filter, Filter Modulation, Amplifier Modulation, and Amplifier sections (the last features Volume and Overdrive controls).
This drum module is the most fully featured of the six instruments. It comes with a substantial library of electric and acoustic drum and percussion samples. You can also load and save your own samples.
Each instantiation of the plug-in can hold up to 12 samples. You can tweak a sample's Start, Volume, Pan, and Stretch (time-stretch) parameters. An adjustable filter can be assigned to each sample. You can alter a sample's tuning, using either standard pitch-shifting (akin to playing the sample from a lower note) or MOTU's PureDSP processing, which is formant corrected and doesn't change the timbre as much.
The output defaults to DP's main stereo out. However, you can route individual samples through one of the plug-in's two sends to an aux track for separate processing — a very useful feature.
FIG. 2: Modulo offers two oscillators and plenty of modulation options.
A 2-oscillator synth that offers crisp and complex digital tones, Modulo (see Fig. 2) is reminiscent of MOTU's MX4 synth. Easy-to-use graphical controls make changing envelopes (amplifier, filter, and modulation) and filters (lowpass, bandpass, and highpass) a breeze, and you get a whopping 58 waveforms to choose from.
Modulation options abound; you can use Modulo's two LFOs, the Mod Wheel, the modulation envelope, and Velocity. Mono, Legato, and Poly modes (up to 16 voices) are offered. All six of DP's instruments are MIDI controlled, but Modulo is the only one with a MIDI Learn feature, which lets you assign external MIDI controllers to its parameters.
The scarcity of presets is particularly noticeable in Modulo. A synth capable of producing such a range of tones should have a lot more than 21 presets. According to MOTU, the new presets it's planning to post to its site will include a good selection for Modulo.
FIG. 3: Nanosampler makes it easy to add a MIDI-triggered sample to your project.
This instrument (see Fig. 3) lets you quickly and easily load in a sample, edit it (it offers envelope, filter, LFO, pitch, loop start/end, and crossfade parameters), and trigger it from any note on your MIDI controller.
Perhaps its coolest feature is that you can drag-and-drop a sample out of a Finder window right into its display, and it's instantly loaded and ready. Because it can't play back multisamples, Nanosampler's usefulness is limited. It does come with some presets featuring sampled instruments like basses and vibes that sound decent with a single sample stretched across their range. I see it being most useful when you want to insert a sound into a sequence and experiment with its pitch, or trigger a particular sound from a MIDI note.
This synth was designed to sound similar to analog synths from the '80s such as the Roland Juno 106. Its DCO (digitally controlled oscillator) section gives you a range of waveforms that you can mix and match. You also get Detune and Noise sliders; LFO, Filter, and ADSR envelope controls; and two effects: Chorus and Distortion (which is really sensitive and adds a lot of volume to the sound). Although Polysynth doesn't produce a particularly wide range of tones, it's warm sounding and quite usable.
FIG. 4: Proton gives you easy-to-program FM synth sounds.
This 2-operator FM synth has a cool-looking blue-and-white interface (see Fig. 4), easy-to-use graphical envelope controls, and a clean sound. You control the level of the Modulator and the Carrier and the amount of frequency modulation (FM). Other parameters include Glide, Velocity, Detune, FM LFO Rate and Amount, Vibrato Rate and Amount, Volume, Transpose, Polyphony, and Bend (range).
You have to be careful when programming Proton, because extreme settings can lead to harsh sounds. But it's capable of producing a range of tones, including the mellow electric-piano-like sounds that FM synths are known for.
Overall, DP 5 provides you with a wide variety of instruments, but for the most part, they are not nearly as full-blown or comprehensive as those bundled with Logic Pro. This appears to be due to a difference in marketing strategy. That is, Apple includes its flagship instruments in Logic Pro, and the product's higher price reflects this. Conversely, MOTU sells its best instruments — MX4, MachFive, and Ethno Instrument — separately but sells DP for a considerably lower price.
DP retails for about $200 less than Logic Pro, and its street price is typically $400 to $500 lower, because Logic is rarely discounted. Given that, users who can afford Logic could purchase DP and still have a lot left over to buy some of MOTU's flagship instruments or whatever third-party instruments best fit their situations.
To the Bridge
Beyond the instruments, the improvements in DP 5 are significant. The program now has the best metering I've seen in any digital audio sequencer, thanks to its flexible new Meter Bridge display. You can open and view it in the center section (the Main Body) of DP's Consolidated window — or pop it out and place it elsewhere (like in a separate monitor) and easily configure it to show any combination of Inputs, Outputs, Buses, Audio Bundles, Tracks, or Instruments.
You can also adjust the height and width of the meters and their scale. In past versions of DP, you needed to use the rather small Audio Monitor window to observe input levels. With the Meter Bridge, you can set up a much larger display — a real boon during tracking. When a signal clips, the corresponding channel on the Meter Bridge turns red and stays that way for several seconds.
FIG. 5: The new Track Folders let you contain and show or hide groups of tracks, reducing clutter in DP''s edit and mix windows.
Know When to Fold 'Em
Many digital audio sequencers offer track folders to contain and organize a project's tracks. DP 5's introduction of such a feature is a welcome development.
Once created, DP's Track Folders (see Fig. 5) are visible in the tracklists of any window that shows multiple tracks. This even includes the Mixer window, in which the folders are handy for showing and hiding particular groups of instruments or vocals. Getting started is easy: go to the Track Folders entry in the Project menu, from which you can choose to create (or delete) a Track Folder — either an empty one or one containing tracks you've selected.
You can add tracks to an existing folder by dragging-and-dropping them into folders in the Tracks and Sequence windows. If you don't carefully aim the track for the lower part of the folder before releasing the mouse (which isn't mentioned in DP's generally excellent documentation), it will end up above or below the folder instead. The task is easier to accomplish in the Sequence window, where you can also drag a track both vertically and horizontally to move it in and out of a folder.
Once inside a folder, the tracks can be easily shown or hidden using a show/hide triangle just like in Mac OS X's folder windows. The Track Folders themselves can be named and given a color. Inside the Track Overview in the Tracks window or Sequence Editor, a closed Track Folder appears as only an opaque gray line, with no indication as to where in it the MIDI or audio data (or both) resides.
When a Track Folder is closed, the data inside it can still be edited using DP's time-range selections. However, the folders cannot be cut up and edited graphically, as they can in Steinberg Cubase.
All Keyed Up
If you travel with DP in your laptop, you'll appreciate the new and well-thought-out MIDI Keys feature. Available from the Studio menu (or by pressing Command + Shift + K), it allows you to use your QWERTY keyboard as a small but functional MIDI keyboard. The MIDI Keys keyboard maps MIDI notes to 18 computer keys in a logical manner and lets you switch octaves at will.
The keys are not Velocity sensitive, but you can switch the keyboard between seven different preset Velocity levels and increment or decrement those levels with the Comma and Period keys. There are keys for applying Pitch Bend and Modulation, and the Tab and Backslash keys give you a virtual Damper pedal.
Take a Bite
The new Bite Volume and Bite Gain parameters provide additional flexibility for level adjustments. Bite Volume is like volume automation within a specific Soundbite (piece of audio). You can draw automation into it with the Pencil tool or one of DP's other drawing tools. If you move the Soundbite somewhere else, its automation goes with it.
The Bite Gain parameter governs the overall level of a Soundbite. You can change the Bite Gain from the Audio menu, but the fastest way is to assign it a key command in the Commands window. The Bite Volume and Gain submenu in the Audio menu lets you trigger such actions as clearing the volume or adding or subtracting 5 dB from a selected Soundbite.
The Add Instrument Track feature, which is found in the Project menu, makes adding virtual instruments to your projects much easier. In prior versions of DP, you had to separately add both the instrument and a MIDI track. Now you simply go to Project Add Track Instrument Track Add Instruments, and you're presented with a dialog box asking how many Instrument Tracks you want to add and how many tracks per Instrument, and offering a drop-down menu to select an Instrument.
Another useful addition, which applies to all audio tracks, is the Enable/Disable function; it lets you turn a track and its associated plug-ins on and off. In the Tracks window, a new column labeled ENA has a blue circle that designates that it's an active track. Clicking on the circle turns it gray, signifying that it's been disabled; it won't play back or use up any CPU resources. The ENA column replaces the audio Voice column from previous versions, as DP 5 now handles all audio-track resource allocation automatically.
Slippin' and Slidin'
In the audio-editing department, DP 5 vaults past its competition with the addition of several new editing tools. The Trim tool lets you click within a Soundbite and instantly lop off everything that's either to the left or right of it (within that Soundbite).
The Roll tool allows you to slide back and forth to find the right edit point at the junction of two abutting Soundbites. It can be particularly useful for setting the edit point to a zero-crossing. The two Soundbites must be right up against each other, though, or the tool won't engage.
The Slip tool lets you slide the contents of a previously shortened Soundbite, leaving its start point and length unchanged. Dragging right or left slides the Soundbite's content horizontally. Whatever part of the Soundbite is uncovered when you are done dragging is what will be audible.
The Slide tool also works only on a shortened Soundbite. Dragging left or right moves the start and end points equally, keeping the length the same but changing the section of the Soundbite that's uncovered and audible.
Another significant addition is the new audio-input monitoring scheme. You'll find a new Monitor icon on every audio track in the Tracks, Sequence, and Mixer windows. Clicking on it arms the track for monitoring. You can choose from one of the four new monitoring modes available in the Audio Patch Thru menu.
The Off mode allows no input audio to be heard. The Input Only mode lets you hear your input signal, but not any audio previously recorded on that track. Auto mode lets you hear disk audio before and after a punch-in/out region, and the input during the punch. Blend mode lets you always hear both the input source and the disk audio.
MOTU has enhanced DP's click and count-off features. You can now save custom clicks that can automatically be applied to specified meters and tempos. You can also choose different types of count-offs (for instance, two quarter notes followed by four eighth notes) from a selection of presets or program your own.
DP has always been one of the leading sequencers in the realm of audio for picture. Those who work in that world will appreciate DP 5's addition of Streamers, Punches, and Flutters, which are visual cues that can be directly displayed in the Movie window or applied to external video using third-party hardware devices. These features were formerly only available using external hardware and obscure MIDI programming. They make it easier to cue live talent when working with picture.
Other new-feature highlights include the ability to control transport in the Waveform editor, and improved marker creation and naming.
Digital Performer 5.1 is a significant upgrade over DP 4.6. The instruments and the other new features have appreciably expanded its capabilities. If you're already a DP user, moving to version 5.1 is a no-brainer. If you're considering purchasing a sequencer or switching from a competitor, you're sure to find DP's combination of features, power, price, and ease of use to be quite compelling.
Mike Levine is an EM senior editor.
Digital Performer 5.1
digital audio sequencer
upgrade from version 4.6 or earlier
FEATURES4EASE OF USE4DOCUMENTATION4VALUE4
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Six virtual instruments included. Meter Bridge greatly enhances level monitoring. Improved control of Soundbite volume. Additional click and count-off options. Better editing tools. Improved video scoring, including Streamers, Punches, and Flutters. Track Folders make organizing tracks easier. MIDI Keys allow note entry from computer keyboard.
CONS: Not enough presets provided with instruments. Only one instrument lets you assign external MIDI controllers to it. Track Folders don't show contents.