Field Test: MOTU Digital Performer 4

Jan 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By John McJunkin

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Mark of the Unicorn's Digital Performer is based on a very robust and full-featured MIDI sequencer that has become much more sophisticated during the years, letting users record, play and manipulate MIDI data in numerous and tremendously creative ways. Digital Performer's audio component allows for recording, editing and mixing as many audio tracks as your CPU bandwidth allows. The newest upgrade, Digital Performer 4, was introduced last January.

NEW IN VERSION 4


The big news with DP 4 is Macintosh OS X compatibility. The total revamp of Apple's operating system, not to mention its hardware, required developers to drastically alter, if not completely rewrite, programs to port them over to the platform. DP 4 fully capitalizes on CoreAudio and is optimized for multiprocessor Macs. Similarly, it takes full advantage of CoreMIDI, which unifies MIDI for all applications and interfaces on your Mac. The bottom line is, OS X simply makes everything compatible and DP 4 grants you access to all of this power.

DP 4 also adds track freezing, which allows you to render any given track on a temporary basis to save CPU overhead and easily “thaw” the track to make changes as you see fit — another clever convention to help the application use the computer efficiently.

If you're like me and you've spent countless hours configuring FreeMIDI to reflect all of the subtle nuances in your MIDI rig, then you don't want to have to start all over. DP 4 takes advantage of CoreMIDI's new XML patchlist format by installing hundreds of factory default patch lists and drum note name lists. All of the patch name lists that were represented in FreeMIDI are still here, along with quite a number of new devices. Your original FreeMIDI setup is very easily remapped to CoreMIDI, as well. Interapplication MIDI is also a snap with DP 4's ability to publish an unlimited number of MIDI connections with other applications. The setup of MIDI and audio I/O between DP 4 and Reason is truly effortless now, thanks to ReWire 2.0 support. As much as I love the “virtual synth rack” of Reason, I'm not that keen on its sequencer. I simply use Reason like a rack of physical hardware in my studio, driven by DP 4.

Digital Performer 4 features a revamped menu structure, including new Project and Studio menu headings. As a seasoned DP user, I was thrown a bit at first, but ultimately became very comfortable. The Project window contains commands that pertain to the way the project is handled, including the ability to add tracks to the project and arrange DP's traditional Clippings and Consoles windows. New to Version 3, but worth mentioning here, are that the establishment and modification of track groups come under a major menu item. In the Studio menu, I found most of the stuff I used to find in the Basics menu. This menu contains commands for opening windows, specifically, the ones that pertain to the layout of DP's “virtual studio,” including audio and MIDI monitoring, the eminently important Audio Bundles window, and MIDI recording-oriented items like Click and MIDI Patch Thru. The division of commands between these two new menus does indeed make more sense. DP's QuickScribe notation system has some very nice enhancements and creates very readable notation.

Last July, MOTU announced an online update from DP 4 to 4.1. This revision added some pretty stupendous features. First and foremost is DAE support, enabling DP 4.1 to serve as a front end for Pro Tools systems, including Mix, HD and HD Accel systems at up to 192kHz sample rate. This is quite significant, because it enables the marriage of DP 4's high-powered MIDI with the high-powered audio of Pro Tools.

The second major feature in 4.1 is Audio Units support for both DSP and virtual instruments. Love it or hate it, AU is the wave of the future, and you will use it. It's worthwhile because AU is much more efficient and enables cross-application use of plug-ins. For those of you who, like me, have come to rely heavily on certain “vintage” plug-ins, a VST-to-Audio-Unit-Adapter plug-in from FXpansion allows you to load carbonized plug-ins in DP 4. A related new feature of 4.1 is virtual instrument tracks. You can add an instrument track from the Add Tracks menu, enabling the usage of AU and MAS virtual instruments. This supercedes the traditional method of “inserting” the instrument in an audio track.

Among more pedestrian (but very useful) features in 4.1 are Document Template and Recent Document. The template facilitates the setup and storage of frequently used audio/MIDI configurations. When creating a new project, it's nice to be able to immediately and easily have the project configured the way I like to work. The recent document feature presents the 10 most recent projects in the File menu. Shift to Marker and Snap to Marker are two other handy new features. Any selected material can be “shifted” to any user-defined marker. Likewise, dragged objects can be made to “snap” to the nearest marker.

I love 4.1's input/output display feature in the Mixing Board window because I can choose to have any mixer channel's I/O displayed below the track name. I have no idea why anyone would ever turn this off. As an analogy, on an analog console, I can look to see which buttons are depressed in the input section, output matrix or busing. Making this I/O visible is a natural and obvious enhancement to a virtual interface. One final new feature is enhanced OMF file import and export. Compatibility with Pro Tools is important and MOTU takes it seriously.

Version 4.11 adds some notable features. First, Panther (OS X 10.3) compatibility has been added. Also, a new utility simplifies configuration and the use of patch names for expansion cards in hardware synths. Pro Tools hardware users can now see TDM plug-in presets in categorized submenus. Hardware drivers have been upgraded with some significant enhancements: Users can rename inputs and outputs at the machine level so that no matter which software front end is used, the I/O names will appear as named by the user. Additionally, this update enables the usage of any pair of inputs or outputs for Macintosh system sound, including iTunes, iMovie or QuickTime. Moreover, multiple MOTU FireWire interfaces can now be resolved with each other in terms of synchronization without external word clock connections. This update also allows one or more MOTU audio FireWire interfaces to resolve to third-party CoreAudio-compatible hardware.

IN SESSION WITH DP


I chose a handful of different projects to test-drive DP 4, including a vocal overdubbing session, a significantly large stereo music mix and a moderately large 5.1 mix. I also spent quite a bit of time just tinkering with the application's various features, particularly with Audio Units synthesizers and plug-ins. Part of this field test happened on a dual-processor 1GHz G4 with 1 GB of RAM. My interface is an original MOTU 828. Later in the review process, I used a dual 2GHz G5 (see sidebar). All of MOTU's drivers are current up through Panther (OS 10.3).

My vocal session comprised an ORTF recording of three vocalists, with doubling and tripling of some parts. The DP 4 interface is intuitive, which made the session simple to set up. I had a stereo bounce of the music tracks, and I initially set up the tracks for the vocals with a reverb send. I used MOTU's eVerb reverb plug-in, which sounded quite nice. At one point, it became apparent that I would need more tracks, and it was simple to add them to the session, configure the I/O and set up auxiliaries. One particularly hip capability here was that I was actually able to pull off some comp editing during the session.

I wanted to push the envelope of the system with a large stereo mix and so I pulled out some tracks my friend gave me to mix. There were a total of 35 mono tracks and one stereo track (a vocal comp). I had compression and 4-band EQ on most tracks, MOTU's Pre-Amp-1 distortion plug-in on four guitar tracks and two reverbs. This required a bit more than half of my CPU's overhead. I've never been this spoiled with native processing horsepower.

My surround mix had 28 mono tracks, quite a bit of dynamics and EQ, and three reverbs. Mixing this in 5.1 with DP 3 (and, admittedly, on a single-processor 400MHz G4) was very taxing. In DP 4.11 on the dual 1GHz G4, I still had overhead to spare. DP's surround panning schemes still remain among its most appealing features.

I toyed with a ReWire-connected session using Reason 2.5 and had no difficulties driving numerous synthesizers, samplers and drum machines with DP's sequencer. Digital Performer 4's mixing capabilities far surpass those of Reason, and I love working this way. I also spent time with MOTU's powerful MachFive sampler, which really goes hand-in-hand with DP. MachFive is comprehensively universal, namely by virtue of its compatibility with Mac and PC and all major Mac plug-in formats, including Audio Units, VST, RTAS, HTDM and, of course, MAS. MachFive imports all major audio file, sample and soundbank types, including those from Akai, Kurzweil, Roland, E-mu and CreamWare, as well as Giga, SampleCell, EXS24, .WAV, ACID, .AIFF, SDII, REX and others. MachFive also includes UVI-Xtract, a utility that enables extraction of patches and samples from virtually every major format, even if the CD-ROM is not normally mountable on the Mac desktop. Another major feature that stands out is MachFive's ability to handle 5.1 samples. I was able to easily make things happen quickly with MachFive. I also downloaded the Crystal freeware AU synth from Green Oak, and it integrated successfully into DP.

THE SKINNY


Digital Performer 4.11 ($795 new; $395 crossgrade; $149 upgrade) is a powerful, mature application that very efficiently capitalizes on the huge forward strides of the latest Apple hardware and operating system. Its audio tracking, editing and mixing conventions are on par with or exceed those of any other application available today, particularly in the surround domain. If the audio capabilities were separated from the MIDI (which, in fact, they are in MOTU's Audio Desk) the result is an application that rivals any other audio-only tracking/editing/mixing suite available. Likewise, the MIDI component of DP 4 alone is reason enough to laud this product. Due to its lineage, DP 4 stands at the top of the MIDI sequencing world. It's an excellent creative tool for composers who need a comprehensive MIDI sequencer and high-quality audio capabilities wrapped together — a quantum leap in the evolution of this great audio production tool.

Mark of the Unicorn, 617/576-3066, www.motu.com.


John McJunkin is the principal of Avalon Audio Services (Phoenix).

THE G5 TEST

I test-drove DP 4 on a dual 2.0GHz G5, and wow! MOTU has always been at the bleeding edge to optimize its products for new computers and the G5 is no exception. I developed a sequence using MOTU's MachFive sampler. Using two iterations, I had nine polyphonic instruments up and running, with polyphony occasionally spilling over 100 notes simultaneously. There was also a stereo drum loop, and the mix included six reverbs, four resonant filters, three phasers, two delays, two choruses, one EQ and MOTU's powerful MasterWorks multiband compression. My performance meter showed less than 50-percent CPU headroom in use. More importantly, operation was glass-smooth, with not even so much as a hiccup. It's safe to say that native DAWs have caught up with the capabilities of the hardware-oriented DAWs.
John McJunkin






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