Review: MOTU Digital Performer 9

A Major Workstation Makeover Offers Plenty of New Features
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The latest Digital Performer upgrade is a significant one, introducing a number of workflow enhancements, a new visual theme, and five new plug-ins (see Figure 1). MOTU has even added its flagship virtual synth, MX4, which until now required a separate purchase.

For this review, I tested Digital Performer Version 9.0 on both a Mac Pro (2.66GHz Quad-Core) and MacBook Pro (2.6GHz Intel Core i5), each with 16 GB of RAM.

PLUG-IN PARTY

Digital Performer’s collection of plug-ins was already expansive, but these five new additions—MegaSynth, Micro G, Micro B, Multi- Fuzz, and MasterWorks FET-76—make it even more comprehensive.

Fig. 2. MegaSynth is one of three new subtractive-synth processing plug-ins included in Digital Performer 9. MegaSynth. This subtractive-synth-based processor is designed for guitar or bass, but provides good results on a wide range of instruments (see Figure 2). You’ll find controls for dialing in square wave, octave, and sub-octave generators, which can be routed through two filters and an amplification stage by connecting the various sections using virtual patch cables.

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Refine the sound further using the modulation section, which provides two ADSR envelopes, an envelope follower, two LFOs (offering four different waveforms), and a Pattern Modulator. The latter has sixteen steps and can be set to numerous rhythmic values based on your session’s tempo setting.

MegaSynth lets you create a wide range of effects from simple tremolo and autowah to more complex effects with square waves, sub-octaves, and rhythmic modulation mixed with the original audio. I also used MegaSynth on drums, pianos, and synths and was pleased with the variety of sounds I could get.

For me, MegaSynth’s only drawback is its complex user interface. Plan to read the section on MegaSynth in the Plug-in Guide to understand it fully. Sixteen presets offer examples of the types of effects MegaSynth can create, but I wish there were more. That said, I don’t know of another DAW that offers this kind of plug-in, so kudos to MOTU for including MegaSynth.

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Micro G and Micro B. Designed for guitar and bass respectively, these two plug-ins are also polyphonic effects that let you add synth-style tones to your guitar or bass in the form of added octaves, sub-octave, and square wave tones. You can also add filter sweeps. What’s more, Micro G and Micro B are presented in a stompbox format and, therefore, have simpler GUIs than MegaSynth.

Although they’re not as deeply programmable as MegaSynth, Micro G and Micro B sound great and are fun to tweak.

MultiFuzz. Like a fuzzbox on steroids, this new effect is based on Craig Anderton’s famous QuadraFuzz, a hardware-based multiband distortion kit. MultiFuzz splits the input signal into four frequency bands (Lo, Mid 1, Mid 2 and Hi) and applies the effect to each band individually.

In addition to individual gain controls for each of the four bands, MultiFuzz has boost switches for each to accentuate the frequency content. The Attack knob doesn’t control attack in the conventional (time-constant) sense; rather, it changes the intensity and character of the fuzz effect. Tone and Output controls are also included.

The resulting sounds are bigger and more present than your typical fuzz effect (including Digital Performer’s Delta Fuzz). MultiFuzz is versatile and easy to control, and it sounds great on electric guitar and synth leads, among other sources.

MasterWorks FET-76. There’s a reason why so many 1176 emulations exist: The original hardware was a classic compressor that sounded great on almost everything. And sonically, the MasterWorks FET-76 does a great job of capturing the performance and sonic vibe of its namesake.

The MasterWorks FET-76’s GUI differs a bit in layout from the original, thanks to a VU meter that’s in the middle rather than on the far right. Controlwise, it offers everything from the original hardware, including knobs for Input, Output, Attack, and Release, and buttons for meter modes and for ratio. Digital Performer 9’s version adds a Compression Combination button under the ratio buttons, which, when pressed, allows you to select more than one ratio button at a time, so you can create ratio settings not possible with the standard 1176. When Compression Combination is de-selected, you can have only one ratio at a time, or all four (All Buttons Down mode).

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Fig. 3. Automation Lanes, such as these two for Pitch and Volume, can be opened underneath a track’s main lane. MX4 IN THE HOUSE

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The inclusion of the MX4 hybrid synth plug-in strengthens Digital Performer vis à vis its competitors when it comes to virtual instruments. MX4 joins a synth lineup that includes Bassline, a monophonic analog emulation; Proton, for creating FM synth timbres; PolySynth, a polyphonic analog-modeled synth; and Modulo, a two-oscillator digital synth.

MX4 is a three-oscillator synth that lets you combine a wide range of synthesis types including FM, analog-modeling, subtractive, and wavetable. (Read our complete MX4 review at emusician.com.)

MX4 is highly programmable, but if you prefer to just use presets, or to use them as a starting point for creating your own sounds, it offers a wide selection of factory patches in a large number of categories—from pads, leads, and basses to sequenced instruments, ambiences, effects, and even a bank of old-school videogame sounds called Glitch.

This release adds an entire bank of EDM sounds to MX4, programmed by synth wizard Eric Norlander. It includes 120 impressive, well-programmed patches that are both energetic and crisp sounding, including powerful basses and leads, sequenced and arpeggiated instruments, and lots more. Suffice it to say, MX4 is a powerful and modern-sounding synth that adds serious punch to this DAW’s instrument collection.

CHANGING LANES

MOTU has also added a number of workflow enhancements in Version 9. Perhaps the most significant is the Automation Lane, which can be opened beneath each track (see Figure 3). In previous versions, when you needed to edit automation data, you’d select the parameter you wanted in the Sequence Editor and it would show as an overlay in the track lane. Then, you would use the Audio Edit Layer pull-down menu to select it as the active layer so you could edit it. But the problem was that you would still see grayed-out breakpoint lines for any other automation parameters that were written to the track, which could create a cluttered look.

In Digital Performer 9, you can open up a separate automation lane (or multiple automation lanes) below the track so that you can access automation data while the main track lane is still showing Soundbites or whichever edit layer you want. Also available for MIDI and Instrument tracks, you can open as many automation lanes as you like. Overall, these enhancements make the GUI even more user-friendly.

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SEEING FREQUENCIES

Automation Lanes aren’t the only new way to look at data: Now you can view audio in a Spectrogram format. Open the Track Settings Menu and change the Soundbites view to Spectrogram view, which shows frequency content as well as amplitude and duration. You also get 11 different choices for the color scheme of the Spectrogram, such as the track color on a white background, black on white, blue on black, and a multicolored rainbow look on black.

You can edit in the Spectrogram layer as you do in the Soundbites layer. That is, you can make a time selection and apply all the same edit processes. You have the option to show both the Spectrogram and Soundbites layers together, in which case the former will be on top, and any selection you make will affect them both. The Spectrogram doesn’t allow you to make frequency-specific edit selections, so you can’t process specific frequency ranges (à la iZotope RX). Digital Performer’s Spectrogram view is really more of a reference feature that gives you an at-a-glance look at the frequency content of your audio.

Furthermore, the display doesn’t give you any numeric indication for the frequencies it shows, but it does give you a sense of where the energy is in the frequency spectrum at any given point in your sequence. I would guess that the more you work with the Spectrogram display, and the more it becomes part of the way you look at audio data, the more useful it will be to you.

HERE’S LOOKING AT YOU

Version 9 brings visual improvements including a groovy multicolored splash screen and, more importantly, a new default theme that adheres to the current DAW trend of dark gray, futuristic- looking GUIs. If you’ve got a Mac with a Retina Display, Digital Performer 9 adds full support for it, giving the graphics an even crisper and cleaner look.

Whether you prefer the old-style Digital Performer vibe or something different, no worries: As with other recent versions, you can choose from a large selection of themes and further customize them. I like that the program gives you so much control over the look of its GUI. After all, you’re going to spend hours staring at it, so it should have an interface you’re comfortable with. More DAWs should offer this level of control.

Plug-in windows can now float on the top layer of the GUI. In previous versions, they would move to the back a little too easily, requiring you to have to search for them on occasion. Now you can specify which windows will float, globally in preferences or individually.

ALL THAT AND MORE

The noteworthy new Create Tracks command lets you bring up a dialog box to configure the tracks for an entire session. You can specify track types, quantity, and input/output assignments, all from the window. Once you have things set up the way you’d like, hit OK and your session is populated with the tracks you specified. It’s another smart feature that will undoubtedly streamline the track setup process.

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MOTU added MIDI Learn for assigning audio plug-in and mixer parameters to your external MIDI controller. Set Digital Performer 9 to Learn Controller mode, adjust the plug-in parameter you want to control in order to make it active, and then just touch the knob, slider, or button on your MIDI controller: The connection is automatically set up.

The Mute Tool for MIDI-editing is another welcome new feature. Use the X-shaped tool to click on individual notes in the MIDI editor or Sequence editor window to mute them. If you want to mute groups of notes, select a group with the Pointer tool, and then click on one of the notes with the Mute Tool—handy for temporarily muting notes to find out how a part would sound without them.

Although Digital Performer has always included a comments field for individual tracks, now you can create a global comments field for each project, as well. Called Project Notes, it can be opened like any other sidebar window, and it gives you a blank text editor into which you can write or paste as much text as you want.

If you have projects with lots of Markers or Chunks, you’ll be pleased to know that there are now search bars in both of those windows, which will make it a lot easier to find specific items in large sessions.

Another improvement: You can now export your QuickScribe files in the Music XML format, which can be opened by other notation applications that support it, such as Finale and Sibelius. I imagine this feature will be particularly useful for users who do film and video scoring with orchestral instrumentation, as they will be able to export their QuickScribe files to dedicated notation programs for further tweaking, or to send to arrangers or other composers.

NUMBER 9. NUMBER 9.

Overall, Digital Performer continues to be a capable and powerful cross-platform DAW that provides deep audio and MIDI recording and editing features, as well as the most comprehensive film-and-video scoring toolset on the market. What’s more, I’ve found it to be rock solid from a performance standpoint and not at all buggy. Considering I was using Version 9.0, that’s particularly impressive.

The addition of MX4 significantly strengthens Digital Performer’s instrument collection, which is an area where it lagged behind some of its competitors. The five additional processing plug-ins make this already strong collection even better. What’s more, MegaSynth, Micro G, and Micro B offer synth-style audio processing that you won’t find in other DAWs.

The bottom line is that Version 9 is a worthwhile upgrade if you’re already a Digital Performer user, and something you should definitely check out if you’re looking for a new DAW.

STRENGTHS
Updated look. New plug-ins. Create Tracks command. Automation Lanes. Music XML export. Spectrogram view. Fully functional 30-day demo available.

LIMITATIONS
MegaSynth GUI is complicated. No frequency-specific editing tools or frequency indicators in Spectrogram view.

$499; upgrades start at $129
motu.com

Mike Levine is a multi-instrumentalist, producer, and music journalist from the New York area.