MOTU’s Digital Performer 4.1, the second upgrade to the OS X–only music-production app, is a robust, attractive piece of software that finally follows through on the company’s promise of support for Apple’s Audio Units plug-in technology. It also fully supports Apple’s new Core Audio and Core MIDI technologies; this makes working with like-minded third-party software instruments a breeze. The program supports a large number of older hardware synthesizers as well.
Digital Performer’s friendly yet powerful interface will be familiar to veteran users, and it lets new users get right to work with minimal setup. The program shines when burdened with moderate-to-heavy workloads, and its new Freeze feature helps maximize the number of tracks you can work with. (Note that we tested with Jaguar, using Digital Performer 4.1, not with Panther using version 4.11.)
Audio data and sound effects — especially reverbs — are computer-resource hogs. We were able to work with 16 mono tracks and 6 stereo tracks, which were all loaded with individual MOTU reverbs and equalizers, at once before we began to experience a slowdown in screen redraws. That’s respectable, but Emagic’s Logic 6 and the OS 9–based Digital Performer 3.11 let us work with more tracks.
Digital Performer’s hottest new feature, Freeze, lets you mix a number of audio tracks — including any applied sound effects — down to two tracks. The process happens in real time, and the app won’t let you work with any part of the program while it’s consolidating the tracks. But the result is worth the wait.
The original tracks are automatically deactivated, reducing the load on system resources, so you’re able to add or record new tracks. We froze six tracks and were able to add four more before we again encountered redraw problems. And your original tracks are just a click away — if you want to go back and tweak them, just unfreeze the tracks and make your edits; then freeze them again at will. (If Freeze sounds familiar to digital musicians, that’s because Logic 6 introduced a similar feature with the same name in February 2003.)
Freeze works great, but note that you need to enable the Multi Record option in the Studio menu in order to freeze multiple tracks — a bit of information MOTU really should have shared. The documentation is otherwise stellar, with more than a thousand clearly written, well-indexed pages.
Further on the useful side, Digital Performer ships with more device- and patch-name lists (more than 330) than other major sequencers. With the lists, hardware-synth and sound-module users can quickly build a setup that lets them choose the Reverb Piano sound on their ancient Roland D-10, for example, rather than testing the 128 “Patch XX’s” to find the right voice. Setup is simple: after you install version 4, you just go to Apple’s Audio MIDI Setup and respecify any synth names and models you’ve entered.
But Digital Performer’s lists work only with an instrument’s stock sounds, so those old custom patches you’ve lovingly crafted aren’t immediately usable. Robert Martin’s CherryPicker (www.savagetranscendental .com/cherrypicker), designed to help convert MOTU’s OS 9 FreeMIDI-format patch lists to OS X–ready documents, may get you up and running; otherwise, you’ll need to spend a lot of time editing XML documents.
Although Digital Performer is a comprehensive sequencing tool, it doesn’t include a sampler. But its superb integration with the ubiquitous Propellerhead Reason makes this almost a nonissue. Propellerhead has a Web page with easy setup instructions (www.propellerheads.se/support/reason/rewire/digital_performer
.html). You can sequence your Reason parts in either app and record the output directly into Digital Performer. You can then modify the results like any other tracks; we recorded four stereo tracks, reverbed them, and froze them, all without a hitch.
And Digital Performer, like Logic, can now utilize Digidesign Audio Engine (DAE) to act as a software interface for Digidesign’s high-end Pro Tools|HD and Pro Tools|24 Mix hardware systems and associated TDM plug-ins. (The 24 Mix systems may not be supported on Power Mac G5s, however.) While we weren’t able to test this, MOTU claims that you can use the OMF Interchange format to export your Digital Performer song files, including audio, volume, and most of your automation data, to Pro Tools systems. This preserves your original mix and can save you a lot of money you’d otherwise spend on studio time.
MOTU Aquafied Digital Performer while it was still an OS 9 app, and its interface hasn’t changed much. There are five new menus — Audio, Project, Studio, Setup, and Windows — and they’re actually more logical in function and location than those they replace. First, you’ll need to visit the Setup menu. For optimal performance, you should follow the steps in version 4.1’s PDF file when setting your disk input/output buffers. And, in a nice example of Core Audio support, Digital Performer lets you shift-click to specify using more than one audio interface in the Hardware configuration.
Digital Performer’s adherence to the new Apple technologies also provides behind-the-scenes benefits. We were able to test a number of plug-ins, in both Audio Units and (MOTU’s proprietary) MAS formats. All of Waves’ high-end plug-ins were stable, worked and sounded great, and didn’t use much more CPU power than the stock Digital Performer plug-ins. (Note that although Waves installs both AU and MAS controllers, it employs MAS.) Audio Ease’s Audio Units version of the $495 Altiverb plug-in sounded superb and worked fine, but even using it on a single track resulted in a big performance hit. If you need to use it on multiple tracks, the Freeze feature will really come in handy.
Unfortunately, Digital Performer doesn’t support VST, the most widely distributed plug-in format. If you need to use VST plug-ins, you can try FXpansion’s VST to AudioUnit Adapter.
Some software synths are still in the process of migrating to OS X, but we tested both Green Oak’s free Crystal 2.4 and Arturia’s $329 Moog Modular V; they both worked well with Digital Performer.
Using Digital Performer, we didn’t find any deal breakers, but there are two issues to note. First, the 4.1 update clears up a problem from earlier versions: even under moderate track loads, the CPU Performance monitors would occasionally register massive power surges, causing a processor-overload warning to pop up. The surges could even bring operations to a screeching halt. Now, although it’s normal to have surges on the Performance meter, you shouldn’t experience audio or visual glitches.
Second, to hark back to power-user concerns: we didn’t test with a Power Mac G5, but if you need extremely high track counts, you might want to consider using Digital Performer on a dual-processor G5. Digital Performer is already a good multiprocessor citizen, and MOTU claims you can record at least 36 channels of audio at 192kHz simultaneously on the G5.
Macworld’s Buying Advice
Digital Performer 4.1 is a great digital-music–production app. Its comfortable interface, adherence to Apple’s OS X technologies, and new Audio Units support make for a great working environment. If you must work with a huge number of tracks, you may want to investigate Emagic’s Logic or wait until you buy a G5; otherwise, there’s no reason not to start using Digital Performer now.