Review: MOTU Digital Performer 10

Esteemed DAW Adds Huge Soundbank, New Features for Studio and Stage
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I've been a Digital Performer user since shortly after its initial release. With each new version, the venerable DAW added terrific new features while preserving what I value most about it: ease of use when I'm under the gun. DP bests its track record once again with the release of the outstanding Version 10.

DP10 includes the new MOTU Instruments soundbank, comprising roughly 5.5 GB of multi-sampled instruments (having up to eight velocity layers), synths, loops and phrases (various riffs). The more than 300 different multi-sampled instruments include acoustic and electronic drum kits; nearly two dozen different percussion instruments; pianos, guitars and basses (acoustic and electric types for all); mallets (celestas, glockenspiels, marimba, vibraphones, xylophone and music box); organs (church and electric); strings (celli, contrabasses, violas, violins and ensemble string orchestra); brass (French horns, tubas, saxophones, trombones and trumpets); and woodwinds (bassoons, clarinets, English horns, flutes, oboes and piccolos). You'll also find accordions, harps, harpsichords, tympani, choirs, over 40 ethnic instruments and various sound effects.

The soundbank's 500 loops are organized in big beat, drum & bass, disco, electro, rock, funk and industrial genres.

MOTU Instruments content is played using the third-party, free UVIWorkstation application, which operates either as a standalone virtual instrument or an instrument plug-in in DP. Alternatively, you can load MOTU Instruments in MOTU MachFive 3 or UVI's Falcon universal sampler, if you own either of those products, just like any other UFS soundbank. UVIWorkstation can load up to four presets at once (for multitimbral operation or mapping to different zones on your MIDI keyboard controller) and includes a built-in arpeggiator and numerous effects processors.

DP10's new Content Browser provides a super convenient central directory from which you can drag and drop audio files, loops, plug-ins and virtual instruments (including in VST3 format, which DP10 supports), insert settings (custom plug-in settings—for single or chained plug-ins—saved for use in DP's Mixing Board inserts), individual samples and clippings into windows in your current project that can accept these assets (see Fig. 1). (Clippings can be a single audio or MIDI note, a multi-bar phrase, multiple tracks in their entirety, plug-in chains or just about anything else—including lyrics or folders for other applications—you'd like to store for quick access at a later time.) I found the Content Browser to be especially helpful for quickly finding loops to drop into tracks in DP's Sequence Editor or new Clips window (more in a bit).

DP10's GUI features a central section with tabs for displaying 10 main workspaces, flanked by resizable sidebars for additional windows. Here, the VCA tracks in the Sequence Editor (top-center of GUI) are those displaying no waveforms. A partial view of DP's Mixing Board is shown below the Sequence Editor. The new Content Browser is shown in the bottom-left sidebar.

DP10's GUI features a central section with tabs for displaying 10 main workspaces, flanked by resizable sidebars for additional windows. Here, the VCA tracks in the Sequence Editor (top-center of GUI) are those displaying no waveforms. A partial view of DP's Mixing Board is shown below the Sequence Editor. The new Content Browser is shown in the bottom-left sidebar.

In the Studio

DP has long let users group selected tracks' faders, mutes, solos, pans, sends, automation and editing functions, and more. DP10 brings powerful VCA groups to the party. In a VCA group, the included tracks' faders are all boosted or attenuated by a VCA track's fader assigned to the group (maintaining the grouped faders' offsets to one another), but—here's the benefit—dragging an individual fader in the group only moves that track's fader. This extremely useful feature lets you, for example, briefly goose understated crash cymbal strikes to add excitement to a song's choruses without jacking up the entire, grouped drum kit. The VCA track also controls its group's solos, mutes, input-monitoring activation and record-enable function.

You add a VCA track like you would any other track in DP. Then, in its output menu, you choose the desired track group you wish it to control. You can even make the VCA track control an Edit, Mix, Edit & Mix or Custom track group—those types of groups control other parameters a VCA group does not—in which case group fader control by the VCA's fader will be added to the non-VCA group's intrinsic settings. Nice!

The VCA track includes a level meter for the group's combined levels. Its fader and mute button can be automated (in separate takes!), and it can be renamed and assigned a track color. (Tip: make the color match that of the group it controls). When you automate a VCA track's fader, its level adjustments add or subtract to any fader automation for the individual tracks in its group. That's a terrific feature because it allows you to preserve dynamic level adjustments in a group while making the whole group louder or softer overall in different song sections.

MIDI Volume controllers can also be scaled by VCA tracks. VCA track-mute automation, on the other hand, overrides any track mute automation in the group's individual tracks, which makes sense.

The Sequence Editor and Waveform Editor—the latter is enhanced and streamlined in DP10—each have a new Stretch edit layer that lets you stretch individual audio beats earlier or later in time, aided by DP10's re-engineered Beat Detection Engine and optimized by ZTX PRO technology from Zynaptiq.

In either editor, you select the Stretch edit layer and drag individual beats left or right. You then drag anchor points left and right so that beats on either side of the stretched beat aren't affected (unless you want them to be). Entire tracks that have a tempo map established (their beat and tempo previously analyzed) can also be automatically stretched to conform to your project's tempo and timeline by enabling their respective Stretch layers in their Track Settings menu—a major timesaver.

Many other new features and improvements have bowed in DP10. One of my favorites: When soundbites are made large enough, both vertically and horizontally, their current Bite Gain setting appears as a readout in the bottom-left corner of the soundbite along with a fader for adjusting it—an invaluable timesaver when comping vocals or mixing dialog tracks.

MIDI controller data can now be made to follow any relocation of associated MIDI Notes when they're quantized, and the same locked relationship is also optional for plug-in automation data and quantized soundbites. The Groove Quantize command similarly locks continuous controller data to notes, and audio automation to beats, that are moved.

A new Snap Relative option for the Snap to Grid function preserves any prior offset to the absolute grid that data had before moving it, preserving the feel of a performance. The playback wiper can now also be made to snap to the grid. To speed editing along, DP10 lets you switch between using a primary and alternate editing tool simply by typing the “x” key on your computer keyboard. Can't remember where to find a certain command? Just type shift-spacebar and then the command's name, and DP10 instantly will find it for you! The clearly written and exhaustively comprehensive operation manual sets a high standard all pro audio manufacturers should aspire to achieve.

Try This: VCA groups can be nested in DP10 to control an entire rhythm section with one fader—without compromising separate control of its component subgroups. Say you've already created respective VCA tracks for the drums and rhythm guitars. To control the entire rhythm section with one VCA fader, select those VCA tracks along with the bass track in DP's Tracks window. Go to Project>Add Track and select VCA Track and Group... Name the new VCA track "Rhythm Section" and click OK. Your newly created Rhythm Section (VCA) fader will now simultaneously control faders for all drums, bass and rhythm guitars.

DP10's Clips window lets performers change song arrangements automatically or on the fly by triggering numerous audio and MIDI clips—as well as automated effects—at selected intervals. The window shows (from top to bottom) the Tracks row, clips and scenes matrix, playback queue, Mixer and Clip Editor.

DP10's Clips window lets performers change song arrangements automatically or on the fly by triggering numerous audio and MIDI clips—as well as automated effects—at selected intervals. The window shows (from top to bottom) the Tracks row, clips and scenes matrix, playback queue, Mixer and Clip Editor.

In Live Performance

The new Clips window (opened via a new tab in DP's Consolidated Window) brings powerful improvisation capabilities to performing musicians by letting them trigger playback of MIDI and audio clips on the fly—or queue them to automatically play sequentially at a specified interval—with seamless transitions in their playback.

When you first open the Clips window, a matrix of cells appears (see Fig. 2). All the tracks in your current sequence are displayed (if selected in a Track Selector dedicated to the Clips window) at the top of the columns, below which initially are empty cells. To create a clip, simply copy a time-range selection for a track in the Sequence Editor and paste it in a cell in the Clips window, or drag a soundbite (audio region) from the Soundbites window or the Content Browser into a cell. The channel configurations for an audio clip and cell must match.

Clicking inside individual cells on respective “clip triggers” (they look like play buttons) queues the associated clips to play successively at repeated intervals—the length of which you select in the queue grid's pop-up menu—ranging from a quarter-note duration to 32 measures after you begin DP's playback. For example, if you set the queue grid to 4 bars, the first clip or scene in the queue will play on bar 1 (assuming DP begins playback there), the second clip or scene in the queue will play on bar 5, and so on. All clips situated in the same row in the Clips window belong to a “scene” and will be added en masse to the queue for simultaneous playback when the scene’s trigger is activated.

A common way to use scenes is to have Scene1 trigger during your song's intro, Scene 2 trigger in verse 1, Scene 3 trigger in chorus 1, and so on. Your pre-recorded tracks (situated at the head of each column) also have triggers, both individually and—like a scene—for all tracks at once. A track and the clip(s) occupying its column can’t play at the same time—one supplants the other when loaded for playback by the queue.

If a clip’s length is shorter than the queue grid setting (for example, four bars), it will loop until the next queue grid boundary (the next multiple of four bars in the timeline) arrives—unless you specify in an associated Clip Editor that it's to be a one-shot clip. The Clip Editor—situated at the bottom of the Clips window—lets you set the clip's start and end times (trimming it) and displays its waveform.

A condensed version of DP’s Mixing Board (situated between the cells matrix and Clip Editor) lets you solo, mute, pan, adjust the level for and process with plug-ins each clip or track playing in its column. If you have effects plug-ins on your master track, you can copy their automation data (recorded in the Sequence Editor) and paste it into a cell in the master track’s column; when the automation clip plays in the queue, the automation for the effects will be heard on all the other clips that are playing.

Enabling the new Stretch layer for any audio tracks you'll be using in the Clips window ensures the clips will play in perfect time with the project's timeline, even if the tempo is continuously varied in DP's Conductor Track. You can also queue individual clips and scenes remotely using an external controller’s MIDI keys, pads or buttons assigned to them.

DP’s bounty of new features is extremely impressive, and I’ve only scratched the surface. DP10 is both a powerful upgrade for longtime users and an intuitive DAW for beginners. Two thumbs up!

Michael Cooper is a recording, mix, mastering and post-production engineer and a contributing editor for Mix magazine.

Product Summary

Company: MOTU

Product: Digital Performer 10

Website: motu.com

Prices: $499 (street price); upgrades $195 (from previous version) or $395 (from competing product or MOTU AudioDesk)

Pros: Includes versatile 5.5GB soundbank; new VCA tracks aid mixing; Clips window turbo-charges improvisational live performance; new Stretch edit layer automatically conforms audio to project tempo and timeline; Content Browser hastens retrieval and use of digital assets; at-the-ready Bite Gain adjustments; Quantization and Snap to Grid enhancements; superb documentation

Cons: Nothing major