Author Topic: MOTU Digital Performer v2.6 MIDI + Audio Sequencer (Jan 2000, article)  (Read 320 times)

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Offline chrisNova777

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MOTU DIGITAL PERFORMER V2.6 MIDI + AUDIO SEQUENCER FOR MAC
Evolution is happening everywhere, and nowhere more so than MOTU's flagship recording software for the Mac. Nicholas Rowland tracks down the latest version.

Mark Of The Unicorn's Performer first took the stage some while back as an early Macintosh-based MIDI sequencing program, and quickly gained favourable notices from the critics both for its elegant interface and for functionality that was often ahead of the pack. When support for hard disk recording was added, a new act was born: Digital Performer. This matinée idol has since developed into a major star within the all-singing, all-dancing MIDI + Audio world, lining up with Steinberg's Cubase, Emagic's Logic and Opcode's Vision along the music software Boulevard of Fame.

DP last graced the pages of SOS in March 1998, at which point it was in its v2.11 incarnation. The major news at that time was that the program had belatedly 'gone native' - not donning a sarong and hanging out on palm-shaded beaches, but adding support for Apple's Sound Manager and thereby enabling recording and playback of audio using nothing but the Mac's built-in hardware. Prior to this, DP had been out on a limb as the only hard disk recording package that absolutely required third-party hardware (which, for UK users, meant 'expensive Digidesign hardware', there being very little else around for Macintoshes apart from the then-newly-released Korg 1212).

Since bringing their starlet into the native environment, MOTU's programming team have clearly been doing anything but donning sarongs and hanging out on palm-shaded beaches. Over the past 20 months, DP has been going through a continuous upward spiral of development. Indeed, as an indication of the frenzied activity back at MOTU's Massachusetts HQ, this article originally started life as a review of v2.5, but within a month became an appraisal of v2.6. And we're not talking slight tweaks, either: both versions introduced significant new features, including juicy new mastering effects plug-ins, an inbuilt stereo waveform editor and a RAM-based audio loop sequencing window. And even within a couple of weeks of my shiny new v2.6 installation CD-ROM arriving, MOTU posted news of a further upgrade in the form of v2.61-MTS, now downloadable from the company's web site (www.motu.com). This introduces MIDI Time Stamping, claimed to be the most accurate MIDI timing system in existence, plus user-adjustable PPQ (parts per quarter note) viewing resolution. The latest version also guarantees compatibility with the new G4 PowerMacs, for those fortunate enough to have acquired such beasts.
However, this story continues to run. Even as I write, yet more enhancements are destined to surface in v2.7, which will be available early in the New Year as a further free upgrade. These new functions include tempo-based automation of all audio and MIDI plug-in effects, plus a dedicated drum page editor (for more details see 'The Never-Ending Story' box).

Along with the big enhancements, each new version number has seen a number of revisions and fixes to make the program better able to shake hands with the rest of the world. For example, the latest version of FreeMIDI, MOTU's own system for handling the routing of data between the computer and the other elements of your studio, is now fully compatible with the more widely used Open Music System (OMS) from Opcode. Similarly, it's only with the arrival of v2.6 that DP can import AIFFs for the first time, along with QuickTime and AVI movies, audio CD files and 8-bit audio. It can now export in both AIFF and WAV formats too. While DP has always has its loyal (mainly US-based) devotees, it's these kind of enhancements that are going to be valuable in winning new friends and persuading users of rival packages to try DP's on-screen charms for themselves. Incidentally, to this end, MOTU are offering a competitively priced (£199) cross-grade option, so if you like what you read, then you can do this with relatively little pain to your bank balance.
Clearly, the pace at which the program is being enhanced is outrunning the ability of MOTU's scribes to provide the necessary hard copy manuals. My original 2.5 version came with a hotch-potch of documentation - namely, a Getting Started and Reference Guide to Performer v6.0 (effectively covering the MIDI side of things), an Update Guide for Digital Perfomer v2.5, and an overall Guide to Digital Audio for DP v2.0. The arrival of v2.6 added further documentation in the form of a booklet covering the latest features and installation procedure, and no doubt the library will grow yet again when v2.7 finally ships. Still, while the need to switch between manuals can make getting a hold on the feature set initially confusing, full marks to MOTU for continuing to provide physical documents. Then again, seasoned Audio + MIDI users can almost get away without any documentation at all, since the program is blessed with one of the best-implemented balloon help systems I've ever come across, providing extremely detailed explanation of functions and features.

Installation

In deference to the 'think different' world of iMacs and the more funky-looking PowerMac G3s and G4s (though, for the record, I was running my review copy on one of those dreadfully unhip, beige 266MHz G3s, factory fitted with Apple's AV board), MOTU have done away with the need for a master floppy for installation. All that's required is your name and the authorisation code at the appropriate point in the proceedings. During installation the only unexpected event was a message that, as I wasn't running OS8.6 or later, I wouldn't be able to use any USB MIDI interfaces - not an issue for my USB-less computer, but it was nice to be told all the same. Otherwise, everything proceeded as normal, with the standard install also adding drivers for the MOTU PCI324, Audiomedia III, Korg 1212, Digidesign Direct I/O, and ASIO-driven cards such as the Event Layla and the Sonorus StudI/O (see the 'Soft Touches' box for further information on support for third-party devices).

Before firing up properly for the first time, DP will prompt you to create a FreeMIDI configuration (if you haven't already got one). As I mentioned before, this is MOTU's virtual studio-wiring plan utility, which provides you with a nicely implemented visual flowchart of what's connected where. More importantly, the FreeMIDI setup file is also referenced by DP when it comes to assigning tracks to MIDI devices, selecting their respective patches by name, and so on. FreeMIDI is an excellent utility in itself, but if you prefer to work with OMS, then the latest version of FreeMIDI effectively steps aside and lets the alternative program get on with the work.
During the first run of the program, DP kindly configured a default audio environment (referred to not unreasonably as a Studio) with a modest four mono voices. Other instant Studio configurations take you up to 16 mono and 8 stereo tracks, but obviously you can configure your own setup, adding tracks as you need them. As always, the usual caveat of 'providing your processor can handle it' applies, particularly when you start piling on the effects. To this end, DP offers a system monitor with bargraph meters for monitoring the performance of your play and record buffers, as well as your CPU usage.


When DP finally appears before you, you are initially presented with the equivalent of Cubase's Arrange window and transport bar (known in MOTU-speak as the Tracks Window and Control Panel respectively). Anyone familiar with earlier versions of Performer or DP will feel immediately at home with the program's easy-on-the-eye, though resolutely non-Mac standard, visual interface. Users coming from a background in DP's rivals might find that the interface takes a little getting used to: I certainly found it hard to shake off three years' experience with Cubase's keyboard shortcuts. After a while, though, things start to fall into place and you begin to appreciate the strengths of MOTU's approach. For example, each screen has its own dedicated pop-up menu of functions - ideal when you're dealing with a program as complex as this. DP also enables you to perform certain functions from more than one part of the program: you can, for instance, record-enable tracks from the graphic and event list MIDI-editing windows, as well as the Tracks window. There are also dedicated buttons for expanding screens or putting them to the back of the visual queue, which helps prevent your desktop constantly looking like a pile-up on the Birmingham Ring Road (maybe it's just the way I work!). Even so, I'd endorse MOTU's advice and recommend at least a 17-inch monitor, and a bigger one if you can afford it. Though DP doesn't follow the usual Mac visual style, the latest incarnation sees better integration with the overall Apple System through support for Navigation Services, Apple's improved interface for locating and handling files in MacOS 8.5 and above.

In terms of its functionality, the program follows pretty much the established pattern. The Control Panel not only offers you the usual tape-style transport controls for sequence control, tempo select, time signature and so on, but also gives you icons that launch the other main editors. These are Tracks, Event List, Graphic Editing, Notation, Mixer, Marker Track, Click and FreeMIDI setup. Only noticeable by its absence is a separate editor for drum tracks, though this is being addressed in DP's next incarnation.
You'll find that most of your time is spent in the Tracks window, which offers an overview of the MIDI and audio tracks within your current project (with the usual cut, copy and paste commands) plus all track details (names, MIDI/audio assignments, instruments, patch numbers and so on). It's worth mentioning to existing users that the latest raft of upgrades have seen a number of refinements to the functionality of the Tracks window, as well as to its general look and feel. New with DP v2.6 is the ability to drag and drop track data into the track list itself, which allows you to quickly transfer tracks from one sequence to another, complete with all their settings, effects assignments and so on. Also new is the ability to name audio outputs. All windows now support live scrolling, while improved keyboard shortcuts provide better hot-key navigation. All of these may seem like small items in themselves, but it's this sort of attention to detail that makes the program very user-friendly indeed.

Entering The Polar Regions

But details are, after all, details - so what of Digital Performer's major features? Fortunately, these are also impressive, to the extent that DP leaves some rivals standing. Among them is a fully-integrated 24-bit waveform editor (and it's stereo too), which offers tweakability down to individual sample level. DP can automatically apply crossfades (of any user-specified length) every time you cut, copy, paste and splice. It's a slick system, made even slicker by a wealth of navigation and location aids including the luxury of audio scrubbing.

The major innovation in v2.6, though, goes by the name of POLAR - Performance Oriented Loop Audio Recording, to give it its full title. Crudely described, this is like an audio version of the type of sequencer you'd find on a workstation or drum machine. You set a loop to record, and then overdub new parts with each pass. This enables you to either build up a sequence track-by-track, or to build up multiple takes of the same piece of music. OK, that's nothing special, as any sequencer worth its salt provides similar functionality. The difference here is that the recording is done in the computer's RAM, and only gets committed to hard disk once you've sorted out which bits you actually want to 'print'.
Operation is simplicity itself. First, set the loop length via the markers in the Tracks window, and the program will tell you how many loops your available RAM will allow you to create. You then get the option of creating a new loop with each pass or overdubbing against what you've just recorded. By stopping and altering loop lengths as you go along, you can create some rich polyrhythmic experiences.

POLAR will sync with any MIDI or audio you've got running between the locators, so it's great for trying out ideas or dealing with different takes. It's easy to audition what you've done and to delete tracks you definitely don't want as you go along. This really is a boon for those, like me, who often find themselves in situations where the substance of the track is more or less laid down, but the singer then wants to experiment with different harmonies over the main vocal, or even different interpretations of the main themes. While this is not a problem in Cubase, we often end up filling many megabytes worth of hard-disk space just to get that one useful take. And that, in turn, means painstakingly deleting all the rejected takes - a tedious process at best. With POLAR it's much easier both to zoom in on what you want and to housekeep the results of each session.
Once you've either achieved what you want or have filled up the computer's RAM, you have the option of printing the files to disk, either as stand-alone audio files or as part of the list in the Soundbites window (the window that lists all the audio clips available for the current session), from where you can easily drag and drop them into the Tracks window.

While not new, it's worth highlighting DP's Samplers function which allows you to you connect a sampler to your Mac as a SCSCI device, then simply drag and drop audio files between them. This is a great feature, enabling you to couple the inherent strengths of the software-based editing environment (such as easy visual editing) with the more creative tools to be found in many hardware samplers (Emu's Beat Munging and juicy filters, anyone?). It's also extremely useful if you're looking at the issue of playing live and need to transfer vital bits of audio into a machine that you can then take on the road. Compatibility is assured, as supported samplers include all the major models from Akai, Emu, Kurzweil, Roland and Yamaha.

This refreshing approach to integrating the various elements of the hi-tech music-making environment is reflected throughout the program. As a Cubase user, I feel that there's still a very noticeable join (or perhaps 'gap' would be better) between that program's MIDI and audio functions - 'seamless' is certainly not the word that springs to mind. With DP, on the other hand, I feel it's all been addressed much more coherently. For example, in the Tracks window you can apply editing features like Transpose across the board: the program doesn't force you to make a distinction between MIDI and audio. Similarly, the neatly implemented Mixer window (complete with new narrow view mode) makes no distinction between different types of tracks. You simply select what channels you want to see from the drop-down list on the side of the panel. All mixer channels feature fader, pan, solo and mute, with the option to automate or take snapshots of fader movements on the fly. The mixer will also automatically follow any velocity and pan curves you might have drawn over individual tracks in the Soundbites window (though this facility can be turned off if you like). All in all, it's a very neat system that makes automated mixdowns an absolute breeze. Don't forget too, that v2.7 will see the introduction of automated control of effects. Which brings us neatly to...

Effects

DP ships with a comprehensive selection of audio plug-ins, all of extremely high quality and all with extensive parameter control. The plug-ins are created using MOTU's proprietary MAS format - a fact which might give cause for concern for those wanting the assurance of VST universality. Unlike Cubase and Logic Audio, DP doesn't support the VST standard (though it can make use of Abobe Premiere and TDM plug-ins). However, I'd argue that this is not really an issue. The progress of DP over the past couple of years shows that MOTU are clearly committed to developing their own format, and recent announcements by third parties such as Antares, TC Works, and Cycling '74 (who produce the Pluggo range of native software plug-ins) show there's plenty of support from outside too. As with other MAS-based effects, these new developments will also be available to users of MOTU's AudioDesk, the software that comes bundled with the company's hard disk recording interfaces.

However, you may find that you don't need to look beyond the program's standard offerings. Already legendary is MOTU's eVerb, a highly sophisticated reverb that makes the effort bundled with a certain rival sequencer look something less than Wunderful. Among recent additions are a tube preamp simulator and two mastering plug-ins - a multi-band compressor and a limiter - all three of which are very nice pieces of virtual kit, as the screen grabs on page 156 should illustrate. Also worthy of mention in despatches is the Sonic Modulator (introduced in v2.4) that provides a array of modulation treatments from straightforward vibrato, flanging and tremolo to more mind-boggling special effects such as triggered filters and sample & hold effects. DP 2.5 also saw enhancements to MOTU's 2-, 4- and 8-band parametric EQ plug-in. All plug-ins come with extensive control over parameters, plus a comprehensive menu of presets that provide useful starting points for your own tweakings.

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System Requirements   
    In the literature, system requirements are listed as a Power Macintosh with 32Mb of RAM or more and System 7.5.5 or higher (with system 7.6.1 the actual minimum recommendation). However, this won't allow you to play or record audio using your Macintosh's inbuilt capabilities: you'll need further hardware in the form of a soundcard. To go native, the recommendation is a PowerMac with at least 40Mb of RAM (with 64Mb recommended), plus Sound Manager 3.2.1. This is included with Digital Performer, though it's not required on a G3. Also required are SOM objects (included with Digital Performer), Shared Library Manager and Shared Library Manager PPC. If you want to use USB MIDI devices, then you'll need OS System 8.6.
The requirement picture changes slightly if you're using third-party hardware. For example, if you want to hook up to MOTU's own 2408 hard disk recording system, MOTU recommend nothing less than a G3 to get anything meaningful out of it. Where Digidesign hardware is concerned, the basic rule of thumb is that if your Macintosh can run the hardware, then it'll run Digital Performer. Incidentally, the arrival of v2.5 significantly upped the ante in terms of third-party hardware support. The current roll of honour includes:

* Digidesign hardware: Audiomedia II and III, Sound Tools II, Pro Tools (4-16 channels) and Pro Tools Project, Pro Tools III, Pro Tools 24, Pro Tools 24 Mix and Pro Tools 24 Mix Plus.

* Other cards directly supported (under the MOTU Audio System) include: Korg 1212, Yamaha DSP Factory, Sonorus StudI/O, Echo Darla, Gina and Layla. V2.6 also adds support for Megawolf Serial adaptors.

Digital Performer ships with both DAE (Digidesign Audio Engine) and MOTU Audio System audio support. If you have Digidesign hardware installed, Digital Performer will look for DAE in your system folder and, if everything's installed correctly, will automatically choose that as the default system. However, in some cases, you could actually get more out of your system if you run the hardware under the MOTU Audio System. For ultimate flexibility, Digital Perfomer allows you to freely switch between the two (or, indeed, to run MIDI Only).

On a slightly different tack in terms of interfacing with the outside world, DP offers sample-accurate transfer of audio between the computer and ADATs or Tascam digital multitracks.

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The Never-Ending Story   
    MOTU continue to upgrade the program at a dizzying rate. Officially, we're now on DP v2.6.1, and it is this version which is currently (as I write) available from the MOTU web site. The 9Mb download actually consists of three components: the Digital Performer updater itself, FreeMIDI 1.43 and MOTU Audio System 2.0.3, all of which are necessary for the upgrade to function properly.
As mentioned in the text, v2.7 will be coming round the mountains sometime soon. The big news here is beat/tempo-based automation of all of DP's 50 audio and MIDI plug-in effects. As the phrase suggests, this will enable you to lock various effect parameters to the current sequence tempo, with various options in terms of musical values. MOTU say you'll be able to change presets on the fly, and even adjust parameters smoothly with sample-accurate ramp automation, thereby preventing the zipper noise that can come with other buffer-based automation systems. You'll also be able to view and edit multiple effects parameters graphically for each track. We await with interest, as they say.

Also hovering in the wings is what sounds like a sophisticated MIDI Drum Editor. This offers support for multiple devices, allowing you to create drum kits with sounds from different sound modules, drum machines and so on. The editor window enables individual non-destructive manipulation of drum sounds, including mute, solo, quantise, groove quantise, and time shift. Claimed to be "among the drum editor's many innovations" is a Pattern tool, which allows users to select performance styles for a particular type of percussion instrument and then 'paint' them in with one easy stroke.


Perhaps most significantly of all, MOTU have improved the MAS engine itself. Previously, one of the main criticisms of the program was that MAS was definitely greedy for CPU resources. Now it's been designed to allocate more CPU bandwidth to real-time effects, limiting the processing only to hardware inputs and outputs being used in the currently open file. As always, though, the actual number of plug-ins you can run is limited by your hardware configuration and the number of tracks you are running.

While it's difficult to say exactly what you'll get from your system, mine comfortably managed 24 'real' tracks providing there wasn't too much heavy effects processing going on. On this score, DP has a bounce-to-disk facility that, like the traditional multitrack equivalent, allows you to mix down to a mono or stereo audio track, either for final mastering or to free up tracks. I'm also happy to report that the program proved extremely stable - certainly more reliable than my current sequencer. No doubt these comments will provoke a storm of angry response from those readers left frustrated by incompatibilities and glitches galore, though judging by the kind of issues that get discussed on the 'official unofficial' users' web site see 'You Are Not Alone' box), few major problems seem to have surfaced.

Verdict

Even in a review of this length, it's impossible to leave no stone unturned, and as you become more familiar with a program, there are features and functions which are so comfortable in terms of their use and implementation that they cease to become points of special mention. Similarly, there are more quirky elements of the program (as with all of them) that start off being annoying, but become less so as familiarity breeds contentment.

At the end of my time with the program, I was left feeling that DP's programmers are the ones who have left few stones unturned. To coin a phrase, DP's functionality certainly runs deep. But while you might say that all MIDI + Audio packages need to be complex, just by virtue of what they have to achieve, MOTU have created a very attractive environment in which to access that complexity. Of course, as always, there are certain concepts you need to get your mind round before you get fully up to speed, but this can be done in a matter of hours rather than days.

Certainly, the recent round of upgrades sees DP now leading the pack in a number of areas. But as I've pointed out, the less fanfare-worthy tweaks mean that the program's edge in certain areas doesn't come at the general expense of not being able to talk in the same language as the rest of the world. In this area, the main question in many people's minds is whether any bridgehead will be established between DP and Steinberg's VST format. My view is that unless your musical survival is heavily dependent on specific VST effects, there's not much that you won't already find as standard within DP.

If it's any recommendation, I'm now seriously considering discarding my hard-earned knowledge of Cubase keyboard shortcuts and making the switch to DP. New millennium, new sequencer? You never know, as a phrase it might just catch on