Review of MOTU Digital Performer
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Motu Digital Performer

DP4 is now Panther and G5 ready

by the Tweak
Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) Digital Performer Software Version 4 (Macintosh OSX)
Digital Performer can record and play back digital audio without any additional hardware installed inside your Power Macintosh. Imagine being able to record anything: vocals, acoustic guitar, sound effects, or anything else — right alongside your MIDI tracks.
Tweak: Have another sequencer? Cakewalk, Sonar? Logic? Cubase? Hey, even Sound Forge--you can get the "competitive upgrade" at a really low price by just sending a page from the manual.
Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) MachFive Universal Sampler Plug-In (MAS, RTAS, HTDM, VST)
The most critical thing you need from a sampler is easy access to your sounds. MachFive (tm) offers unprecedented sound bank management, helping you concentrate on the music – not file handling chores on your hard disk. MachFive always remembers where your sounds are located, and it has been optimized for browsing and loading libraries. Even multi-gigabyte libraries are quickly and efficiently scanned.
 
Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) 828MKII Firewire 24/96 Audio Interface (Macintosh and Windows)
The 828mkII contains everything you need to turn your computer into a powerful 24-bit, 96kHz digital audio workstation. The 828mkII provides 10 channels of pristine 96kHz analog recording and playback, combined with 8 channels of ADAT digital I/O and stereo S/PDIF. Expand your system by connecting additional 828 or 896 FireWire audio interfaces.
 
Mark of the Unicorn (MOTU) MIDIExpress XT Interface USB (Macintosh and Windows)
This MIDI interface and SMPTE synchronizer for Macintosh and Windows provides 8 MIDI IN, 9 MIDI OUT, and 128 MIDI channels. It is plug-and-play compatible with all Macintosh software, and features 16 convenient, one-touch front-panel presets (8 factory and 8 user programmable). The software console for Mac provides comprehensive routing, merging, and muting.
More info:  http://www.motu.com
 

Performer goes back to the early days of MIDI.  It has been on the Mac platform longer than any other contemporary Mac sequencer application. I had to look through my archive of magazines to find out how long, and finally found an early review in the September 1986 issue of Electronic Musician, which has a great pic of Frank Zappa & studio on the cover.   Way before Emagic's Logic left the Atari platform for Mac and PC land "Performer" was already well established on the Mac Plus and SE and had a large following of audio professionals. These guys would tell me "Dump the Atari, man.  Performer is where it is at!"  Perhaps I should have listened...

In the early nineties, when audio recording and editing was added, the application was renamed Digital Performer.  Fast forward another 11 or so years. Digital Performer is not only still here, it's thriving.  Like Digidesign (ProTools LE) and Steinberg (Nuendo), MOTU has its own professional grade audio interfaces which, as you would expect, work great with DP4.   Feature wise, DP more fully embraces Apple's Core MIDI than Apple's own Logic does, and has all the newer features sequencers have today like freeze tracks, offline bounce, ReWire2, automation and extensive controller and note editing.  (See the sidebar one the left for more new features in DP4)
 

Pros

And it has one heck of a manual.  Two actually. A 900+ page User Guide, and a 124 page Getting Started Guide.   If you think that is not important these days guess again.  The speed at which you can learn a sequencer is in direct relation to how easy you can read and access its information.  I thought Sonar 3 had the best manual all wrapped up till I cracked the back on this one, laid it out on my keyboard and went through the learning curve. Screenshots on nearly every page with detailed labels, definitions and tips made learning DP fun..    

Speaking of fun, working with Audio is fun with DP4.  You can stretch and shrink audio data with great elasticity.  It can be downright gooey with the things you can do. Nice.  Slice.  Dice.  You bet.  Your mouse can chop up stuff with single stroke ease and you can move tidbits around as you please.  The audio editor boasts all the functions one expects and includes effects rendering with an undo history, like Cubase SX.  Heads above Logic here. There is a well-implemented project directory that will copy all audio files used in a song to itself, regardless of where you found it on your hard drive.  This is smart, because you don't want to alter files that may be used in other songs, so it gives a lot of freedom to mangle up your sound with total abandon if you want.

The Audio Mixer is well implemented.  It looks good and you can turn channels on and off easier than any sequencer on the planet.  It has the usual slots for plugins and 4 sends per channel.  Lacking is the channel EQ one gets with the other sequencers, but of course you can add eqs with plugins.  You can do snapshot automation here in addition to the standard track automation one finds in most sequencers. 

DP4 comes with its own loop based phrase recorder called POLAR, which stands for Performance Oriented Loop Audio Recorder.  This is a fast RAM recorder which I will tell you more about soon.

Automation itself works quite simply.  While I have not tried automating all my soft synths yet I found that DP could keep up with a ton of tweaks using Reaktor Session, which is a tough synth for any sequencer to handle.  Unfortunately I could not get Absynth 2 to work at all.  That's the only plugin that is giving me trouble. All the other NI stuff is working great; VSTis are fine, AU's work and Waves is not a problem. 

Another remarkable thing about performer is the quality of the editors.  You get all the editors you would expect--sequence editor, drum editor, audio editor, event list, notation, graphic...  At first these are rather daunting, but the manual saves the day here with clear, concrete details on how everything is supposed to work.  Speaking of editors, you can open files in an external audio editor like Peak.  Works like a dream. 

Key commands are implemented exquisitely for nearly every program function.  Bravo! For those of us used to using certain commands it allows us to quickly to work in familiar ways.  Yep, I set it up like Logic and man, this makes it easy for me to work with.

 

 

Version 4.12 is a free update for those who have purchased Version 4. 4.12 is Mac G5 and Panther ready.  You definitely want to update right away if using Panther (OS X 10.3.2) because the supplied version on CD may be problematic.  I could barely get it working at all, till I found the update.  One cool thing is that DP no longer needs OMS or free MIDI to operate.  It fully uses the OS X Audio/MIDI utility to define your MIDI instruments, most of which include the names for the factory patches.  For those that don't you can convert FreeMIDI definition files from OS9 or use either Unisyn (MOTU's own universal editor/librarian which has recently been updated for OS X) or a donation-ware utility called Cherry Picker.  For me with a rather large rig with a lot of expansion roms I was able to get about 70% of my patch library done in a single night just using Cherry Picker to edit the .MIDInam files.  I was able to get all my emu expansion roms defined except for the ensoniq project.  Still having a little problem with the Triton's 8 expansion boards.  Oh well.  I'll get it when Unisyn arrives I hope.  To be sure, not all synths are supported, but compared to Logic, Cubase, and Sonar, there's a much greater chance your synth, old or new, is covered.
 

Some New Features in DP4
  • Rewire 2
  • Core MIDI
  • Core Audio
  • Unlimited Undo/Redo
  • Track Grouping
  • ProTools import/export
  • Mackie Control Support
  • Rex/Acid file import
  • MultiProcessor Support
  • Surround
  • More Keyboard Shortcuts
  • New Look and Feel
  • Solo exempt tracks in Mixer
  • Many more

Cons

The supplied MAS plugins range from very good to fair.  Definitely way below Logic, perhaps par with Cubase SX and a notch above Sonar, at least that is how I rate them. OK, that is a rather sweeping statement, but I'm not going to go point by point here. But heed this: Unlike Logic Pro 6, which now comes with a full line of soft synths, DP comes with none.  Of course it only costs half of what Logic costs.  So if audio instruments are your game prepare to buy some. 

Bugs.  DP has its share.  I had some horrendous crashes on day one before I updated to 4.12.  Some of them persisted until I had the Mac Audio/MIDI setup rigidly defined.  And DP seemed to loathe my Logic Control till i finally turned it off.  Once I did all three of these operations DP became stable and functional.  There is still the occasional crash, but all sequencers on the market today crash occasionally.

Graphic redraws.  This is to some extent an OS X problem and DP4.12 tries to make it better by not dragging window contents when resizing.  However, if you have 24 highly graphical tracks on two large displays with audio waveforms and controllers the screen can get really slow.  There are some workarounds by turning off controller displays, but still it seems way too slow to me, especially since this is on a G5 "world's fastest computer".  

No 2-button mouse support.  This is almost unforgivable.  I'd say it would be enough to chuck DP in the trash but Logic has the same problem.  DP only works on left clicks--right clicks either do nothing or the same thing the left click does.  Geez! Its not a Mac OS X thing, its an old Mac legacy thing, which assumes all mice are Mac mice with one button.  OS X perfectly does right clicks on nearly all its high end applications except DP and Logic.  Devs, get a clue already!  In this area Sonar and Cubase SX blast them both out of the water with full, intuitive right click context menus.  So far this was my biggest disappointment with DP4 (and Logic Pro 6) 

 

The Balance

A Matter of Artistic flow.  This is the true test of any sequencer.  You can cram a screen with a thousand features, but if you can't access them in some kind of way that makes sense to you, there is little point.  With any sequencer, you have to adapt your style of working to it.  Yet simple sequencers with great flow, like GarageBand, will take you to a point where you have to have more.  So the end goal is to achieve a balance.  DP4 has such a balance, honed over 2 decades, the application has the feel of something that has been thought out by teams of brilliant musical minds. Such respect for DP4, if given, will open up it's secrets and as you delve into the manual you will become more involved, enthused and you will know you have a worthy platform for your music.

 

Ok, that wraps up the short course on sequencers.  We are about to move inside the sequencer to the virtual world of plugs.  Software synths, samplers and processors. 

 

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