One of the most revolutionary developments in computer-based music production is the proliferation of virtual electronic instruments — synthesizers, samplers, drum machines, and modeled acoustic instruments that exist only in software. Virtual instruments are made possible and practical by the combination of powerful personal computers and music software that features a plug-in architecture. A sequencing program such as Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Digital Performer 3 (DP3) typically serves as a host application, and you can open and manipulate plug-ins within the host. A plug-in might be an effects processor such as reverb, a dynamics processor such as compression, or a virtual instrument such as an emulated Fender Rhodes.
On the Macintosh, three native plug-in architectures have been introduced to extend the capabilities of audio and sequencing programs. Virtual Studio Technology (VST), MOTU Audio System (MAS), and Real Time Audio Suite (RTAS) all work in real time, and none require any additional hardware. All are open architectures, so they're supported by a variety of third-party developers.
What if you're a Digital Performer user and you want to play VST Instruments? Because MOTU software doesn't directly support VST plug-ins, you need a third-party VST host known as a shell or wrapper. In this article, I'll investigate three VST shells as well as a dozen instrument plug-ins that are available for VST but not for MAS. I'll evaluate whether and how well each plug-in works with each VST shell in DP3 and make recommendations about configurations that might work well for you.
VST VERSUS MAS
Steinberg got the plug-in-architecture ball rolling in 1996 by introducing VST effects plug-ins for its popular sequencer Cubase VST. Steinberg made VST an open format, and third-party developers got into the game by producing VST-compatible plug-ins to use with Cubase VST. Eventually, VST support became a significant feature of additional host programs such as Steinberg Nuendo, Emagic Logic Audio, BIAS Peak VST, and TC Works Spark. In 1999 VST 2.0 introduced support for instrument plug-ins, eliminating the need for virtual instruments to run as separate, standalone applications.
Don't make the mistake of assuming that VST is a true standard and that it works equally well in all hosts; it isn't and it doesn't. The VST 2.0 specification doesn't require plug-ins to operate with any host other than Cubase VST. Consequently, using VST Instruments in other programs can be problematic. When EM's reviewers test VST plug-ins in hosts other than Cubase, they often report that some features and functions are disabled; you might face the same limitations when running those plug-ins using a VST shell in Digital Performer.
MOTU introduced MAS as an open format after VST was introduced. Conceptually similar to VST, MAS is proprietary in that it runs in just two programs from MOTU, Digital Performer and AudioDesk. MAS instruments are designed to work only in Digital Performer (AudioDesk is designed for audio rather than MIDI, so it doesn't use instruments).
Many plug-in developers who produce VST Instruments also offer MAS versions. A few MAS instruments, including IK Multimedia SampleTank and Ilio Stylus, work exactly like their VST counterparts. However, most MAS instruments don't operate as plug-ins; instead, MAS routes MIDI to and audio from standalone programs running concurrently with Digital Performer. That type of software includes virtual instruments from Native Instruments, Koblo, and BitHeadz.
VST is supported by the other two major sequencing programs for the Mac — Cubase VST and Logic Audio — so why doesn't MOTU support VST in Digital Performer? Jim Cooper, director of marketing for MOTU, says, “Part of the answer is in the history of VST and MAS. After Steinberg introduced VST, MOTU was the first company to develop a competitive native plug-in format, before Steinberg made VST an open format. By the time Steinberg allowed other companies to host VST plug-ins, MOTU already had a thriving community of MAS plug-in developers eager to support Digital Performer directly.” By then, he says, the existence of MAS eliminated the need for DP3 to support VST directly.
Furthermore, according to Cooper, MAS plug-ins can be more tightly integrated with DP3 than can their VST counterparts. “MOTU works closely with MAS plug-in developers to ensure the quality and stability of their MAS plug-ins,” he adds. By offering a proprietary application programming interface (API, which provides MAS plug-ins with “hooks” into Digital Performer), MOTU retains technical control, keeping open the door to future innovation in Digital Performer's plug-in architecture.
DP3 users have at least three shells from which to choose if they want to use VST plug-ins. Each shell has its strengths and weaknesses. Which one is right for you depends on your working style, what plug-ins you want to use, the availability of RAM and processor resources on your computer, and the amount of money you want to spend. You can use more than one VST shell at the same time, but I recommend that they don't share the same folder of VST plug-ins.
The most popular shell is Audio Ease VST Wrapper ($50); its sole purpose is to enable Digital Performer to open VST plug-ins. Another popular choice is Cycling '74 Pluggo ($74). Opening VST plug-ins in DP3 is just one of the many things Pluggo can do; it also comes with literally dozens of proprietary plug-ins, including a few soft synths of its own. The third choice is the version of Spark FXMachine that's bundled with two audio editors from TC Works, Spark and Spark XL ($499 and $749, respectively; see the sidebar “To Be Continued” for more on a standalone version of FXMachine). FXMachine is a useful routing matrix for VST plug-ins, and like Pluggo, it offers plenty of other functions.
START ME UP
When you install a VST shell, its corresponding plug-in is placed in the MOTU Plug-Ins folder in your System folder's Extensions. During installation, you'll be asked to specify the location of a VstPlugIns folder. Like other MAS plug-ins, VST shells will then load automatically whenever you run Digital Performer.
Because plug-ins consume RAM, you should increase DP3's memory size in the Finder by opening the Get Info dialog box. Also note that the more plug-ins you have installed, including those in your VstPlugIns folder, the longer it will take the sequencer to open. Happily, the strain on your CPU is determined by the plug-ins you have open rather than the plug-ins you have available.
To use VST instruments, you won't need to set up any new devices in FreeMIDI or Open Music System, but make sure that you enable Inter-application MIDI in FreeMIDI preferences. Otherwise, your plug-ins cannot receive MIDI data.
After you first install a VST shell, test it with small groups of plug-ins and then add new ones no more than two at a time. All it takes is one errant plug-in to bring the whole system crashing down. Once you have a group of stable plug-ins that work well together, you'll know that if you add a plug-in and trouble ensues, the new addition is probably to blame. If you're depending on a plug-in's compatibility with a particular VST shell, download the demo versions of both and try before you buy.
To record and play a VST instrument, add an audio track (either a stereo voice or an aux track) to Digital Performer's Sequence Editor window. In the new track that appears in the Mixer window, insert a plug-in (see Fig. 1). If you're using Pluggo or VST Wrapper, select a plug-in from its submenu; if you're using Spark FXMachine, just insert FXMachine. Then go back to the Track List and add a new MIDI track. In the Output column for that track, you'll see that one of your choices will be the name of the plug-in you selected, either a VST Instrument or FXMachine. If it has a submenu with a choice of MIDI channels, pick the one you want as the track's playback destination. If you're using FXMachine, go to its window, click on the Add button, and select an instrument from the file dialog. If all goes well, you're ready to record.
VST WRAPPER 3
VST Wrapper, from the Dutch company Audio Ease, is an inexpensive solution for DP3 users who want to open VST plug-ins as though they were MAS plug-ins. As I write this, it's the most recently updated of the three shells in this article, and it's compatible with most VST Instruments. Version 3 can load and save standard VST banks and presets, typically allowing you to select patches from a mini-menu in VST Wrapper's upper-left corner. The number of presets and how they're organized varies with every plug-in.
Although VST Wrapper offers no frills, it has conveniences such as the ability to recognize the contents of folders within the VstPlugIns folder. That lets you group all of your reFX instruments together, for example, and put a bank of presets in the same folder as the instrument it supports. If the VST folder contains only one plug-in, VST Wrapper doesn't appear as an insert. Instead, the plug-in itself appears in the Insert mini-menu as though it were a MAS plug-in.
When you save a sequence that contains an instrument plug-in and then reopen the file, the plug-in should be right where you left it with all its settings intact. If it's a sampler, it should load the samples when you open the file. If a plug-in supports multiple output buses, VST Wrapper 3 does, too.
Pluggo, from Bay Area developer Cycling '74, is a plug-in manager that includes more than 75 plug-ins of its own. It has the ability to route MIDI, sync, and control signals between plug-ins, which means you can use Pluggo's modulation plug-ins to modulate VST Instrument parameters. As of this writing, the current version is nearly a year and a half old, and Pluggo will be updated to version 3.0 very soon.
When you open some VST Instruments in Pluggo, you can make parameter changes using the controls in the plug-in's user interface (its control panel); other VST Instruments require you to make edits in Pluggo's parameter windows (see Fig. 2).
Pluggo's View menu lets you choose from parameter windows and the plug-in's original interface. If a plug-in has lots of parameters, you can choose from several parameter windows. Each window contains several sliders, and occasionally the sliders have cryptic labels such as P1 or P2. Even if the instrument has a menu for selecting different programs, you might have to use Pluggo's menu for program selection because selecting in the interface's window has no effect.
A few words of warning about Pluggo are in order. The bundled plug-ins aren't actually VST plug-ins, and they don't work without Pluggo. Pluggo often doesn't recognize the contents of folders within the VstPlugIns folder, so support files should be at the same hierarchical level as the VST Instrument. Also, if you have a dual-processor Macintosh, you need to disable multiprocessing for Pluggo to work.
SPARK FXMACHINE 2.0
Spark FXMachine, from German hardware and software developer TC Works, is a plug-in that provides a visual matrix for arranging and routing VST plug-ins. The FXMachine window looks like a chessboard, and you can open a different plug-in in each square (called a slot). By default, the size of the matrix is four rows of five slots, but it can expand to whatever size you require. The number of plug-ins you can load is limited only by CPU resources.
To add a plug-in, simply select the slot, click on the Add button, and choose a plug-in from the file dialog. The plug-in's user interface will appear in a window below the matrix (see Fig. 3). In the current version, you can't resize the window to accommodate plug-ins with large control panels.
In FXMachine's matrix, you can route an audio signal from one plug-in to another in series, which is ideal if, say, you want to route an instrument plug-in to an EQ plug-in and then to an effects processor plug-in. You can arrange plug-ins in whatever order you desire, and FXMachine will automatically make the audio connections. Each slot indicates signal level with its own stereo LED meter, and you can specify the mix level for each plug-in. In addition, stereo master-level meters accompany a pair of master faders.
As I write these words, there are three versions of Spark FXMachine. The version that should most interest Digital Performer users ships with Spark and Spark XL. At present that version is the only one that includes the MAS plug-in to open FXMachine within Digital Performer.
WELCOME TO MY LABORATORY
For this article, I tested every combination of three VST shells and a dozen VST Instruments in Digital Performer 3.02 with FreeMIDI 1.46. My computer is a Power Mac G4/400 MHz with more than a gigabyte of RAM, and my audio hardware is a MOTU 2408mkII. I'm running Mac OS 9.1 and more than 50 MAS plug-ins in addition to the VST shells.
I tested each plug-in for its ability to remember saved programs and the most recent parameter changes, to respond to recorded MIDI Control Change (CC) messages, and to react to track automation. For the track-automation test, I enabled automation and then changed parameters on the fly; if it worked, my changes were duplicated on playback. By the time I had completed my testing, however, I'd discovered that VST Wrapper doesn't support track automation at all.
VIRTUAL REALITY 101
Thanks to physical modeling, Emagic EVP73 (Emagic Vintage Piano; $99) emulates a Fender Rhodes Stage Piano Mk II more organically and offers more expressive dynamic response than a sample-playback instrument can. In fact, EVP73 is one of the best instrument emulations that I have ever heard.
EVP73's user interface even looks like a Rhodes control panel, but unlike the original, it provides knobs to control decay and release times, modify bell intensity and damper volume, and change the stereo spread. Tremolo controls let you vary the rate, intensity, and stereo phase of the effect that helped define the famous Rhodes sound. To keep a lid on processor usage, you can change the polyphony from as few as 1 to as many as 73 notes.
Although EVP73 doesn't include any factory programs, VST Wrapper and FXMachine were able to save and open user programs; Pluggo couldn't. All three of the VST shells perfectly memorized every parameter setting. In addition, they revealed an odd graphic distortion that showed the top of the plug-in window as a solid black or textured block; the only way to reveal mini-menus was by clicking on where they should have been (see Fig. 4). Another display bug in FXMachine made some of the onscreen graphics disappear completely, including FXMachine's scrollbars. None of the shells responded to control by MIDI CC messages, and only Pluggo supported track automation. Because Pluggo can't save and open programs, though, VST Wrapper is the best choice.
Emagic EXSP24 ($179) is a VST-based sample player that closely resembles EXS24, a sampler designed specifically for Logic Audio. EXSP24 includes almost 600 MB of well-rounded content that runs the gamut from guitar, bass, drums, pianos, and Hammond B-3 to an assortment of synths and loops. EXS24 also imports samples and banks that are in Akai and SoundFont2 formats.
EXSP24's user interface resembles a hardware-based sampler, with plenty of buttons, knobs, and sliders; it also has pop-up menus for less frequently used parameters. EXSP24's architecture provides four resonant lowpass-filter slopes, two ADSR generators, two multiple-waveform low-frequency oscillators (LFOs), portamento, and flexible modulation routing.
When I reopened a sequence with EXSP24 in either VST Wrapper or FXMachine, it had no problem loading programs and samples and recalling parameter changes. Neither type of automation worked, however. On the other hand, Pluggo succeeded with track automation and MIDI CCs and with recalling parameter changes. Unfortunately, although Pluggo loaded the samples when I reopened a DP3 file, it couldn't load the program parameters. For use with EXSP24, then, I declare a tie between FXMachine and VST Wrapper.
FMHeaven ($70), from U.K. developer LoftSoft, employs the type of synthesis made famous by the Yamaha DX7. FMHeaven comes with 12 banks of 32 programs, and it imports DX7 and TX81Z banks. It features six oscillators (corresponding to Yamaha's six operators), each with a choice of eight waveforms for creating complex tones. Any oscillator can modulate any other oscillator, and each oscillator has its own four-stage envelope generator with rate and level parameters for each stage. FMHeaven can play 16 simultaneous programs on 16 MIDI channels.
FMHeaven didn't do terribly well with any of the VST shells, however. I had the best luck with VST Wrapper; reopening a sequence file recalled programs, parameter changes, and MIDI CC data without difficulty. When I tried to use the mouse for parameter control, I couldn't break it free from whatever parameter I was editing, and I had to force-quit. Obviously, track automation is out of the question.
FXMachine had similar problems, and when I reopened a sequence, FMHeaven's user interface didn't appear, even when I double-clicked on its slot. Pluggo allowed recall of MIDI CCs and track automation, but the only way to recall a program was to insert a program change message. Most unfortunately, sustained sounds caused the processor to quickly overload in Pluggo. I'm sorry to say that I can't recommend any of the VST shells for use with FMHeaven, but VST Wrapper works if you avoid changing parameters with the mouse.
Electron ($75) is one of two virtual synth plug-ins you can download from Muon Software. Electron includes a bank of 32 assorted programs, a bank with 20 basses, another with 28 leads, and a fourth with 23 pads. Instead of emulating traditional instruments or classic synths, almost all the factory programs are synthetic timbres; regrettably, they sound a bit lackluster.
Each of Electron's 16 voices has three audio oscillators, and each oscillator produces just one waveform — sawtooth, variable pulse, or square. Two resonant multimode filters share a Mix control that determines their relationship, and you can modulate the two LFOs from a number of sources. One ADSR generator always controls amplitude, but you can route either envelope to additional modulation destinations. An alternate view provides an x-y controller screen in which you can modulate 2 of 32 parameters simultaneously in real time. Every programmable parameter responds to MIDI CC messages.
Electron worked great in FXMachine except that it didn't support track automation. VST Wrapper didn't remember saved banks or display the program name, but it did remember the program; it also recalled parameter changes and MIDI CCs. In Pluggo there was no way to load programs or banks. Pluggo remembered all its previous settings when I reopened a file, though, and unlike the others, it recalled both types of automation. Verdict: FXMachine, hands down.
Muon Tau Pro ($30) is a monophonic synthesizer plug-in designed for playing lead and bass parts. Each of two oscillators produces five types of sawtooth, five types of pulse, and sine waves, all of which you can modulate with an LFO. A resonant lowpass filter offers three cutoff slopes (18, 24, and 36 dB per octave), and an effects processor provides delay, chorus, and flanging. In place of the usual envelope parameters, an EG Mod knob determines the depth of a preset envelope, and an EG Decay knob determines its final stage. Accent Threshold and Level knobs control the filter's response to Velocity, simulating certain vintage Roland instruments that are popular in dance-music production. Overdrive and ring modulation are also provided.
All three shells remembered the program and parameter changes saved with a sequence, and all three recorded and played back MIDI CCs correctly. Only FXMachine remembered the most recent bank, and only Pluggo recorded track automation. Pluggo had the same problem it had with Electron, though, because there was no program list and no way to load a bank. (Pluggo didn't display program names of either instrument.) The victor is FXMachine, without a doubt.
VIRTUAL REALITY 202
One of three downloadable VST Instruments from German developer reFX, JunoX2 ($30) is an emulation of the Roland Alpha Juno-1. It's marketed as a synth for techno, dance, and pop music, but JunoX2 is capable of producing an assortment of diverse timbres. It has two audio oscillators generating 15 waveforms, a 7-waveform suboscillator, a flexible LFO, an 8-mode filter, and an invertable ADSR generator (see Fig. 5). All the parameter controls send and receive MIDI CC messages. Most parameters are displayed in real-world values; for example, envelope times range from 5 ms to 4 seconds, and filter frequency is from 0 Hz to 22.1 kHz.
JunoX2's 128 factory programs run the expected gamut from leads and basses to pads and effects. Most of the sounds are interesting and worthwhile, and you can download an additional bank of 128 programs from reFX's Web site. JunoX2 sounds amazing, especially when you consider what a bargain it is; I expect to use it a lot. I just wish it were optimized for AltiVec processors.
JunoX2 worked beautifully in FXMachine, recalling programs and parameter changes and responding to MIDI CCs and track automation. It ran just as well in VST Wrapper, except that track automation didn't work. I had no luck with Pluggo; when I tried to reopen a sequence, DP3 quit with a Type 2 error. The winner, and still champion: FXMachine. If track automation isn't an issue, though, VST Wrapper works just as well.
ReFX QuadraSID 6581 ($60) imitates the Sound Interface Device (SID) chip found in the Commodore 64 computer that was popular during the 1980s. The original SID was able to produce a broad palette of unique sounds, and SID emulators are now all the rage. QuadraSID actually emulates four SID chips, each being capable of generating four different sounds, resulting in 16-part multitimbral operation. The four virtual chips can play monophonically, polyphonically, or in unison, and you can load several instances of QuadraSID.
Each QuadraSID voice features an oscillator with programmable wavetables, noise generation, a resonant multimode filter, an 8-point envelope generator with looping, a flexible LFO, ring modulation, portamento, an arpeggiator, and a modulation matrix that includes MIDI CC messages as modulation sources. QuadraSID is sophisticated enough to keep an experienced synth programmer busy for a long time.
QuadraSID worked well in both VST Wrapper and FXMachine, but neither program recorded track automation. Pluggo recorded track automation, but as with JunoX2, DP3 suddenly quit when I tried to reopen a file with a QuadraSID track. Although I had no problems with FXMachine, QuadraSID takes up a lot of onscreen real estate, and I didn't like scrolling in FXMachine's fixed window size. I therefore award the gold medal to VST Wrapper.
You can tell by the name of The BassLine (TBL; $25), also from reFX, just what to expect: an analog emulation that specializes in synth bass. TBL works very much like a traditional monosynth in that it has no program memory other than retaining its previous settings. You can control all parameters with MIDI CC messages, which makes it easy to record and edit automation. When you modulate parameters in Play mode, changes are momentary; in Edit mode, they're memorized.
TBL's solitary oscillator can morph between five waveforms. There are no user-programmable envelope generators, but the lowpass filter has an EnvMod knob, which controls the depth of modulation from a fixed envelope, and a Decay knob. The sole VCA knob controls Accent. Velocity can control filter cutoff, Accent, and distortion level.
All three shells recalled program changes, parameter changes, and MIDI CC data. Only FXMachine recorded track automation, which makes it the preferred choice again.
VIRTUAL REALITY 303
At the moment, Steinberg Halion ($399.99) is easily the most powerful VST-only soft sampler for the Mac. Its most notable feature is its ability to stream samples from a hard disk, playing them without first loading the entire sample into RAM. With sufficiently capable hardware, Halion can play 16 different programs, called Instruments, on 16 MIDI channels. It reads sample data in many formats, including Akai, E-mu, GigaSampler, SoundFont, REX, AIFF, and WAV. Halion's four CD-ROMs provide more than 1.7 GB of content, most of which is devoted to four high-quality instruments.
Halion demands a fast computer and a fast hard drive, and using it with a VST translator certainly doesn't improve its performance on marginal machines. Still, even DP3 fans with lowly Mac G4/400 MHz computers like mine can use Halion so long as they don't get too ambitious with the number of samples they load or the number of notes they play.
Teamed with VST Wrapper, DP3 had no problem recalling Halion programs and parameter changes and loading samples when I reopened a file. The window resized beautifully when I switched from one Halion page to another. Neither track automation nor control by MIDI CCs worked, however. FXMachine also restored Halion programs, parameters, and samples, but it put a greater load on the processor, as indicated by DP3's Performance meter. Pluggo simply crashed whenever I tried to load Halion. Consequently, VST Wrapper is the best choice for using Halion in Digital Performer.
The Grand ($299.99) is Steinberg's grand-piano plug-in, and it's presented with a unique and sophisticated user interface. Rather than being packaged as content for a sampler, The Grand is a VST Instrument that plays only the sound of a Kawai grand piano sampled with no loops. Presented on three CD-ROMS, The Grand emulates a piano's nuances and resonances.
User parameters are few. You can specify a Velocity curve and select from natural, bright, soft, and hard timbres. You can select well-tempered or concert tuning and specify the polyphony and amount of simulated room ambience. The subtle influences of dynamic response, hammer attack, sostenuto pedal, and damper pedal are also taken into account. Like a piano, The Grand offers no frills such as presets or effects processing.
It's too bad that The Grand doesn't get along with Mac VST shells. DP3 crashed every time I tried to load The Grand into VST Wrapper. In Pluggo and FXMachine, it loaded and played without difficulty, but DP3 crashed whenever I tried to reopen a sequence with an instance of The Grand. I've been told that I might have better results by dedicating a hard drive to The Grand, but that seems a bit extreme. Maybe a faster computer would help, but based on my experience, I can't recommend using The Grand with any of the shells.
Mercury-1 ($199), a virtual analog-modeling instrument from TC Works, emulates a traditional monophonic synthesizer. Visually reminiscent of pre-MIDI Roland synths, Mercury-1 has two audio oscillators, a square-wave suboscillator, a resonant lowpass filter, two ADSR generators, an LFO, overdrive, and ring modulation.
Although Mercury-1 is monophonic, it is four-part multitimbral, allowing you to play four voices on four different MIDI channels. All four program names appear on tabs at the top of the control panel, and you select which instrument to edit by clicking on its tab. The plug-in includes 128 factory Programs in categories ranging from sound effects and classic synths to basses and lead synths. Programs are selected in a Program Browser window rather than in a mini-menu.
Not surprisingly, TC Works Mercury-1 worked perfectly in TC Works FXMachine. Programs and parameter changes were recalled, automation was total, and output routing was flexible. In VST Wrapper, everything worked except track automation. In Pluggo, however, Mercury-1 didn't work at all because it immediately overwhelmed the CPU when I tried to load it. The best choice is FXMachine, but VST Wrapper is fine as long as you record MIDI CCs for automation.
Waldorf Attack (distributed by Steinberg North America; $149.99) is an analog-modeling synthesizer disguised as a drum machine. Rather than playing back samples as most drum machines do, Attack synthesizes all its waveforms from the ground up using an analog-modeling, subtractive-synthesis architecture. Attack is ideal for re-creating the sounds of classic analog beatboxes such as the Roland TR-808, but it can play leads, basses, pads, and sound effects equally well.
Attack's installation disc includes 700 sounds assembled into 31 Kits ranging from acoustic and Latin emulations to presets named Electro Brain Kit and 23rd Century Kit. Every Kit features 12 monophonic sounds, each mapped to a single note, and 12 sounds you can play polyphonically over the entire range of MIDI notes. Maximum polyphony is 64 notes, depending on what your CPU can handle. One particularly useful feature: when the cursor is over an onscreen knob, the MIDI CC number that controls that knob is displayed along with its value, making it easy to assign continuous controllers (see Fig. 6).
Attack worked quite well in VST Wrapper. When I reopened a sequence, programs were fully restored, changes were intact, and MIDI CCs had firm control of their intended parameters. Although I could assign Attack's six audio buses wherever I please, VST Wrapper didn't support track automation. FXMachine also scored high points, but I couldn't get Attack to reappear by double-clicking. FXMachine's fixed window size is a mighty tight squeeze, so you'll be scrolling around a lot. Changing parameters with the mouse resulted in slow response, and automation still didn't work. At least FXMachine didn't freeze my computer whenever I tried to load Attack like Pluggo did. In the end, VST Wrapper was my first choice.
THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE
Using VST Instruments in any program other than Cubase VST, including DP3, is a mixed bag; some work perfectly, some are rather quirky, and some don't work at all. Given the parameters of my testing, FXMachine gave the best performance, and VST Wrapper came in a close second. When I began testing VST shells, I had no idea which one would perform best. I expected VST Wrapper 3 to do well because it was the most recent release. I am a little surprised that a version of Spark FXMachine that is over a year old did so well with so many instruments. I just hope that the next version will be as robust as the current one.
After I'd completed testing, Audio Ease told me that support for track automation had been stripped from the current version of VST Wrapper because it had caused problems with about 20 percent of the plug-ins they tested. If you just want to play VST Instruments and don't need track automation, VST Wrapper offers two advantages over FXMachine. The limited size of FXMachine's window for plug-ins quickly becomes tiresome, and the size of VST Wrapper's window adapts to fit the plug-in's panel. In addition, VST Wrapper is a lot less expensive than Spark or Spark XL. On both counts, however, the next version of FXMachine should do a lot to level the playing field.
If track automation is important to you, select a shell based on which VST instruments you want to run. If you use Attack, get VST Wrapper; if you use Mercury-1, get FXMachine. Better yet, if you can afford it, get both; that way you'll have one for large plug-in windows and the other for almost everything else.
Pluggo is chock-full of all kinds of useful plug-ins, but version 2.1 is not well suited for hosting VST Instruments. Just be glad that an update is right around the corner. If you're already a Pluggo user and you want to make the jump into third-party VST Instruments, you might want to wait for Pluggo 3.0.
THAT'S A WRAPPER
From both a marketing and a technical perspective, MOTU's reasons for not supporting VST in DP3 make perfect sense. MOTU would rather concentrate its quality-control and programming resources on enhancing and improving its own plug-in architecture than on enhancing and improving support for a format designed by a competitor, and who can blame the company? A strong plug-in platform results in a powerful sequencer. There are wonderful MAS plug-ins that don't exist in the world of VST, plug-ins that really perform as though they were true extensions of Digital Performer. Most MAS plug-ins work well, and if it ain't broke, why fix it? The current proliferation of plug-in formats proves that there's room for more than one, and for DP3 users, MAS's tight integration with its host is very beneficial.
The simple truth, however, is that more developers support VST than MAS. Those who support both formats are more likely to provide a MAS version that communicates with a standalone application rather than a plug-in that opens within the host. Fortunately, Digital Performer users can have it both ways. Like Logic Audio users, they can play soft instruments specifically tailored to their sequencers of choice without the need to envy users of Cubase VST.
Not every VST Instrument works with Pluggo, FXMachine, or VST Wrapper, but most of them do. The availability of those three programs ensures that even if VST Instruments are developed a step ahead of similar MAS plug-ins, DP3 users will be able to stay on the forefront of virtual-instrument technology. At least one and preferably two VST shells should be in every Digital Performer user's tool chest.
TO BE CONTINUED
Unfortunately for anyone who does not need a full-fledged audio editor, you can't get Spark FXMachine's MAS plug-in without buying Spark or Spark XL, but that's about to change. A new standalone version of FXMachine ($199) is expected to be released around the time this article appears. It will include the MAS plug-in, 21 additional plug-ins, and full support for OS X. That's good news for Digital Performer users. Among the updated version's new features, its plug-in window will automatically resize itself to fit any plug-in's user interface.
Pluggo 3.0 ($199) should be shipping by the time this article hits the streets. The just-out version will feature RTAS support and plenty of new plug-ins, including at least 19 Essential Instruments that were originally written for Pluggo by French developer More Electronic Sounds (MES). Among the types of synthesis possible with Essential Instruments will be analog modeling, FM, wavetable, and granular synthesis, as well as drum and percussion synths, theremins, sampling, and waveshaping.
Mark of the Unicorn
Steinberg North America
MINIMUM SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS
Audio Ease VST Wrapper 3
Mac 604e/120; 256 MB RAM; OS 8.5.1; MAS 2.1; FreeMIDI 1.4
Cycling '74 Pluggo 2.1
Mac PPC 604/150; 64 MB RAM; 20 MB disk space; OS 7.5.5; VST or MAS host; MAS 2.1; FreeMIDI 1.42
Emagic EVP73 1.0 and EXP24 1.5
Mac G3/233; 128 MB RAM; OS 8.6; VST 2.0 — compatible host
LoftSoft FMHeaven 1.4.9
Mac G3/233; 128 MB RAM; OS 8.5; VST 2.0 — compatible host
MOTU Digital Performer 3.02
Mac 604e/120; 128 MB RAM; OS 8.5.1
Muon Electron and Tau Pro
Mac G3/400; 128 MB RAM; OS 8.5; VST 2.0 — compatible host
ReFX JunoX2 1.3.0, QuadraSID 1.4, and The BassLine 1.5
Mac G3/266; 64 MB RAM; OS 9.1; VST 2.0 — compatible host
Steinberg Halion 1.1.1
Mac G3/266; 128 MB RAM; OS 9.1; VST 2.0 — compatible host; fast EIDE hard disk
Steinberg The Grand 1.00
Mac G3/400; 256 MB RAM; 1.3 GB disk space; OS 9.0; VST 2.0 — compatible host; 100 MHz bus
TC Works Mercury-1
Mac G3; 64 MB RAM; OS 8.6; VST 2.0 — compatible host
TC Works Spark 2.0
Mac G3; 128 MB RAM; OS 8.6
Waldorf Attack 1.01
Mac PPC 604e/300; 64 MB RAM; OS 8.6; VST 2.0 — compatible host