MOTU Digital Performer 8 Reviewed

September 6, 2013
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Digital Performer 8 brings a batch of major changes, the most significant of which is the hitherto Mac-only stalwart’s compatibility with Windows 7 or later. Equally significant is the program’s update to 64-bit operation, but DP8 is also rife with new plug-ins, user interface tweaks, and workflow enhancements. Let’s dive in.

PROS: Extremely stable as always. VST Support on Mac and Windows. 64-bit operation. Generous and great-sounding assortment of audio plug-ins, amp and cabinet models, and stompbox models. Chunks feature still has no equal.

CONS: Not as many included plug-in instruments as in some other DAWs.

Bottom Line: Cross-platform compatibility, 64-bit support, and a host of new workflow improvements and features make the famously elegant and powerful DAW even more so.

$795 list | $495 street or download | $395 competitive crossgrade | motu.com

 

Technical Upgrades

As mentioned, 64-bit operation is a big deal. I use fairly huge sample libraries, many of whose patches weigh in at 3GB or more. The extra memory afforded by 64-bit operation brings some welcome stability for those who’ve been riding the edge of the 4GB memory limits inherent in 32-bit processing. To others, 64 bits may bring some anxiety about legacy plug-ins being compatible, but see “Champing at the Bits” on page XX for some good news.

For the first time, Digital Performer is available as a download, although there’s no price difference from the boxed retail version. In the latter, I appreciate MOTU’s continued inclusion of its well-written printed documentation.

Upon first launching DP8, you may notice a change in the plug-in scanning process, as DP can now host VST and VST2 instruments. This facilitates cross-platform interchange between projects originated on a Mac or on a Windows PC.


Welcome and Plug-In Windows

The next thing you’ll notice is DP8’s new Welcome window. From here, you can start a project or access a list of your recent work on the left, or check for news from MOTU on the right. In the center pane, you can launch tutorial video clips and access several of the manuals—the rest can load from DP8’s Help menu. You can also download supplemental tutorial and demo files and tweak your audio settings. Although it’s not new to version 8, I appreciate DP’s easy hardware driver setup. I often use multiple MIDI interfaces, which in most recording packages requires creating an aggregate device in Apple’s Audio MIDI Setup app. In DP, you simply open a panel, command-click (Mac) or control-click (Windows) on the drivers you need, and specify the master clock. Then, the additional I/O shows up as a choice in the track menu.

With the inclusion of VST format comes an increased need to manage plug-ins. To that end, DP8 brings a reorganized plug-in chooser. It’s a sight for sore eyes, especially if you’ve ever had to scroll through a pull-down menu of lots of plug-ins in alphabetical order. In DP8, sorting plug-ins is about as flexible as can be. If you want to search by manufacturer, you can. If you need a chorus or a reverb, search by type and the chooser filters all else out. The chooser starts with two buttons: one categorized as effects (which in fact includes instruments as well as audio processing), and another that lets you search for presets, which are instrument and effect combinations drawn from the DP8 native plug-in library. You can also click “New Category from Selection” and create your own categories.


Workflow Enhancements 

 Fig. 1. Video as it appears in the consolidated view. You can undock the video from the window and drag it to a separate monitor for full-size viewing.
Punch Guard may sound like a protective device for boxers, but it actually protects your project from sloppy punches of the sonic kind. If you’ve ever ruined an otherwise decent take by punching in or out too late or too soon, you can simply drag the edge of the recorded audio region (or soundbite, in DP-speak) and retrieve the few seconds of audio you might have accidentally snipped off. Dragging backward at 120bpm, I was able to retrieve a couple of bars of music I had intentionally noodled before recording. Likewise, when recording myself, I’ve sometimes clipped the reverb tails on punch-outs. Punch Guard restored them.

Digital Performer has presented a single-window consolidated user interface for a while now, but it would often drive me crazy to have the control panel and transport vanish when clicking on the main screen. Conversely, it can be irritating to have to move a floating transport bar out of the way of some obscured parameter. I’m happy that in version 8, the transport bar stays at the top of the window and displays as many control panel parameters as you choose. These include sample rate and bit depth; editing tools; transport settings such as looping, MIDI overdub, and punch parameters; and the video-playback window. If you prefer, you can free the panel from the dock—as you can with most any window in DP.

DP8 also brings full-screen video. This was a snap to use even in my system, which is not geared toward video post-production. If you have a second monitor, so much the better; you can pop the video window out of the consolidated window (See Figure 1) and drag it to the second monitor to enjoy editing audio-to-picture without squinting at a miniscule video playback.

DP has offered themes (custom looks and color schemes) for a while, but several of the version 8 themes take greater advantage of contrasting colors. This is more than mere eye candy; because DP8 puts so much in the consolidated window, I found this makes it much easier to navigate.

Also new in DP8 is the ability to export bounced mixes in MP3 format, without your having to download and maintain an MP3 codec such as the LAME framework. Provided you use a high enough bit rate, the bounces sound great and are a welcome way to send demos over the Internet while keeping the file size small for speedy transmission.


New Effects and Amp Models

 Fig. 2. One of 17 new plug-ins is the Analog Flanger, a faithful rendition of the Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress.
DP8 brings a hefty bagful of plug-ins—17, to be exact. Most of the new plug-ins target electric guitar and bass players, but if you haven’t plugged your keyboards into guitar and bass amps and stompboxes or digital models thereof, you’re missing out on some fun and powerful tone-shaping.

ACE-30 is a model of the Vox AC30 amp, which is most often associated with the Beatles. Boasting virtual high-and low-impedance inputs for its Normal and Top-Boost channels, it’s not difficult to sculpt an authentic tone from a decently sampled guitar. I’m not sure I could detect much of a difference save for more mellow tone from the Vintage switch; the Modern setting is just a tad brighter. The Top Boost helped move sampled guitars into jangly, pop-oriented territory, but like most amp models I’ve used, became clicky and too metallic when boosted to extremes. With AAS Lounge Lizard virtual electric piano as the source, ACE-30 spiked an unadorned Rhodes model with tasty, analog-sounding dirt and crunch when I came down hard on the keys. Moving the Lizard over to the Top-Boost channel thinned the sound out a bit, but emphasized the beautiful artifacts of the instrument. With the amp’s Tremolo switch on, a default Wurly model took on sweet, but gritty character—listen to Audio Clip 1 online.

I’m a sucker for phase shifters, and DP8 has two new ones: both provide only rate control and an on-off switch, but are far from generic. The edge goes to Analog Phaser, which models an MXR Phase 90. It’s soupy and warm, tones and dynamically accurate distortion helped me channel my inner Zawinul. No less lush, but more crystalline and somewhat more transparent, the Clear Pebble derives from an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone, and effectively nailed that enveloping Donald Fagen phased Rhodes sound. (I know—Fagen’s phaser of choice is actually the Phase 90, but I’m going with what my ears are telling me here.)

In the summer of ’77, in the middle of a gig, I almost set fire to the stage of New York City’s storied Lone Star Café, when the power supply of my Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress flanger melted and caught fire. I used it as a sort of “poor man’s Leslie.” With the Color knob turned way to the right, it produced glorious psychedelic jet-rush effects, and it’s nice that MOTU has returned an old friend, albeit without the funky power supply. It sounds spot-on (see Figure 2).

It’s not all amps and stompboxes, though. I don’t know if I’ve heard a more flexible sonic thickener than MOTU’s new Ensemble Chorus, whose left, right, and center width controls let you fill the entire sound field with fat, pulsating pads. With a single-oscillator soft synth patch with no effects of its own, it was all I needed (Audio Clip 2 online).

 
 Fig. 3. Live Room B models a recording environment for electric bass—down to amps, cabinets, mic positions, and ambience. It can also do wonders for sampled and synth basses.
You don’t have to record electric or acoustic bass to appreciate Live Room B, which lets you build your own graphical bass-recording environment and brings beautiful air and tone to sampled basses (see Figure 3). For fans running a synth bass through an amp and miking it, Live Room B added even more punch, plus the benefit of some funky, small-room ambience to a couple of Arturia Moog Modular V patches. You get a choice of several bass cabinets, and three mic positions with a variety of mics in different patterns, which you can mix freely. You can also set the spread and pattern of the stereo mics in channels 3 and 4, and each channel has high, mid, and low shelving EQ.

The Dynamic Equalizer is a neat trick. Basically it’s a multi-band equalizer that doesn’t kick in until a given band reaches a specific amplitude. This technique has its roots in vinyl mastering, and works well at softening frequencies that crop up and become overly prominent at different dynamic levels. Normally, it would take some time-consuming setup and routing of EQs together with compressors to pull this off.

There’s plenty more, including Live Stage, which—if you host virtual instruments in DP8 for live gigging—offers a low-CPU-overhead cabinet and mic, combined with ambience controls, plus more stompboxes and mastering tools. 

I was left wanting for a new virtual instrument or two, especially considering the apparent 32-bit legacy status of MOTU’s wonderful MX4 soft synth. Of course, all the soft synths from previous versions are on hand, and they’re very good.

Champing at the Bits

As with all DAWs that have gone 64-bit, you’ll have to bid farewell to third-party plug-ins whose developers haven’t upgraded them. Of course, you can still run DP8 in 32-bit mode, but you’ll give up 64-bit benefits such as taking full advantage of available RAM.

All is not lost. A third-party program called jBridge (Mac or PC) can wrap 32-bit VST plug-ins for use in a 64-bit host (and vice versa). It can also let 32-bit plug-ins take full advantage of RAM in a 32-bit host. All this is pertinent now that DP runs on both Mac and Windows and supports VST as well as AudioUnits.

You can just let jBridge scan your library folders for plug-ins or make your own choices. If, like me, you’ve been less than assiduous in clearing out expired demos of plug-ins, then I suggest the latter. In some cases, scanning expired demos crashed DP—the offending plugs were usually looking for Syncrosoft licenses that of course weren’t present. The scan can also become problematic if any hardware license keys aren’t getting enough power from a USB port. Open your VST library, locate the folder of bridged plug-ins, and delete the expired trials, as they’re duplicates of the source plug-in. When you launch them in DP, your bridged plug-ins will be scanned and ready for use after that. When you instantiate a bridged plug-in, you’ll see them in DP, marked as such. Once you launch the plug-in, you’ll see two windows: the plug-in itself and the jBridge interface—which needs to stay open if you want to record automation. Other than the scanning issues, jBridge was stable in DP8 in our tests. If you have old 32-bit friends you can’t part with, I highly recommend it.

Download it at jstuff.wordpress.com, and if you like it, please support the developer.

 

Conclusions

Some might view the release of MOTU Digital Performer 8 as primarily for the sake of Windows and VST users—and it certainly is a boon for those who prefer PCs to Macs for horsepower-per-dollar reasons. For my part, as mentioned, the move to 64-bit is a weight off my shoulders, and the workflow enhancements are as welcome as the 17 new plug-ins—of which we’ve barely scratched the surface in this review. They’re more evolutionary than revolutionary, but are extremely welcome changes in the way I get around my go-to DAW. If you’re a longtime user, springing for the upgrade to DP8 is a no-brainer.

Established ways of working (e.g. the Chunks feature, which among other things lets you work with multiple songs in the same project file) and DP’s well-known stability remain elegant as ever. Perhaps the biggest news with DP8, however, is that you can now download a 30-day free demo of the program to see if it’s the right fit for you. So if you’re not a longtime user, stop reading and start downloading!

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