Review: MOTU Digital Performer 9

A flagship DAW that keeps getting better
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MOTU Digital Performer 8 brought enormous changes to the already deep feature set of the DAW. Prominent among these was the release of a Windows version and concomitant support for VST plug-ins to ensure plug-in compatibility across both platforms, as well as 64-bit operation. Along with these came a variety of effects plug-ins that re-created classic stompboxes.

Among the many new features in Digital Performer 9 (DP9) are a new look for the GUI, major workflow improvements, additions to its already refined MIDIediting tools, and subtractive-synth-styled audio plugins. For this review, I tested version 9.0.1 on my dual 2.83GHz, quad-core Mac Pro, and later, on my 4GHz, quad-core iMac Retina 5k with 40GB RAM.

The A/V Squad

Fig. 1: Digital Performer 9’s new spectrogram display sits atop its respective audio track, providing graphic information regarding the track’s frequency content. If you’re looking for visual assistance in sorting out your audio track’s frequency content, try DP9’s new spectrogram view. You have the option of viewing spectrograms alone or in tandem with the waveform view. The display carries with it a number of color schemes and provides a terrific visual aid toward revealing a track’s frequency content (see Figure 1).

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The visually arresting Spectrogram view is especially impressive on my Mac’s retina display, as DP9 now supports full-resolution retina displays.

Another important addition in version 9 is the implementation of separate lanes for automation. This gives you an uncluttered view of audio and MIDI data, modulation, and other continuous data streams.

Fig. 2: The Create Tracks command lets you set up, assign, and route all of your tracks at once in a single window. Although the new Create Tracks command sounds like a strictly utilitarian feature, anything that minimizes repetitive routines is welcome. Selecting the New command from the Project menu brings up a small window in which you can set up all of the tracks you may need, of any type (audio, instrument, MIDI) in any number and all in one pass (see Figure 2). This proved to be a great time-saver, and it beats building a project track-by-track, hands down.

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Processing Playhouse

In version 9, MOTU introduced the MasterWorks FET-76, a model of the classic 1176LN Limiting Amplifier that offers all of the controls of the hardware unit. The plug-in is derived from a later revision of the original model that reportedly is favored among users. As with its namesake, you can engage up to four compression ratio buttons at a time or use no compression at all and use the plug-in to impart coloring and saturation.

DP9 also includes three sound-shaping tools, ostensibly aimed at guitarists and bassists but easily configurable for almost anything you want to feed into them. Megasynth is the flagship processor of the trio, with MicroG and MicroB (nominally dedicated to guitar and bass, respectively) offering simpler programming options. I tested the plug-ins using my Brian Moore iGuitar and my Epiphone Genesis solid-body, along with pre-recorded bass and guitar rhythm guitar loops from various sources (check out the audio clips at keyboardmag.com).

Fig. 3: Megasynth is an audio plug-in that processes audio through a polyphonic subtractive synth engine. Megasynth is an audio plug-in that applies virtual analog, subtractive synthesizer processing to audio signals (see Figure 3). The main voices consist of a square wave, plus octave and sub-octave signals, in addition to the original input audio. With two resonant lowpass filters and a modest bunch of modulators, it lets you conjure up some cool old-school guitar-synthesizer tones.

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You simply drag modulation sources to destinations, and Megasynth adds a cable between them, with the parameters knob color-coded to reflect the source modulator. Modulators include a pair of envelope generators, an envelope follower, two LFOs, a pattern generator, and a pair of macros (MOTU has videos online showing how to use the macros). These can modulate several parameters at once, and patterns and LFOs can sync to tempo at different rates allowing for interesting rhythmic possibilities.

MicroG and MicroB are essentially pareddown versions of Megasynth. They offer the same number of voices with fewer controls, hard-wired modulation and no patterns. If you prefer a simplified user interface and streamlined options, start with these.

Fuzzy Logic

Take your instrument, divide its signal into four frequency bands and add differing amounts of distortion to each band—that’s the basis of Multifuzz, a plug-in modeled after Craig Anderton’s Quadra Fuzz. Use Attack to control the amount of fuzz, and by extension, the dynamic onset of the distorted tone. The next four knobs—Lo, Mid 1, Mid 2, and Hi—control the amount of distortion for the corresponding bands (as with the original, the frequency bands are not user-definable). Each band has a Boost switch that drives the signal further and emphasizes the band with a bit of resonance. You also get controls for tone and main output.

I ran sampled, clean electric guitars through Multifuzz, and I was able to sculpt a variety of convincing tones, especially with fully articulated libraries such as Impact Soundworks’ Shreddage and Vir2 Electri6ity (see sound clip 2).

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MX4 in the House

MOTU now includes its marvelous MX4 synthesizer in Digital Performer. An indication of the instrument’s depth is the inclusion of a separate 70-page user guide, in addition to the DAW’s excellent user and plug-in guides.

Fig. 4: MOTU’s flagship hybrid synth MX4 combines analog modeling, wavetable scanning, and FM and AM synthesis with a deep set of modula - tion tools. MX4 offers subtractive, wavetable, analog-modeling, FM and AM synthesis (see Figure 4). Three oscillators, six LFOs, and four envelope generators combine in a brilliant modulation matrix, though that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The source and Shapers matrix lets you take any modulation source and modulate it with another modulator. The LFOs appear in a beautifully designed virtual lens that displays the selected waveform’s shape and frequency as you adjust the parameters—frequency, symmetry, phase, delay, and ramp time. Buttons allow you to engage host sync as well as enable polyphonic modulation for the LFO; that means that subsequent voices modulate independently—a terrific humanizing resource.

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The Mods page provides a slew of rhythmic modulation options and shapers, including a trigger sequencer, an arpeggiator, a pattern sequencer, and more. Moreover, the Invert and Transform lens lets you invert and scale modulations, while the Quantizer can be used to force stepped, intervallic modulation using selected pitches.

Each oscillator holds a generous pool of waveforms ranging from traditional analog shapes to white and pink noise, as well as a batch of wavetables in “digital” and anti-aliased versions. The digital waveforms provide a bit of extra grit and require fewer CPU cycles. You can also feed external signals into an oscillator or use it as a control source. Each oscillator has controls for Pitch, Wavetable Index, Symmetry, Level, and Pan: Oscillators one and two have controls for FM Amount (Oscillator 3 is always the modulator). Option-click on a fader and it splits, allowing you to define high and low limits for modulation by dragging the ends of the fader.

The results are both animated and expressive, and the presets provide a tantalizing demo of the instrument’s capabilities. Its sonorities travel well beyond conventional analog synth tones, with lively, sweeping sounds and timbral shifts ranging from breathtaking to bizarre. Moreover, the sounds work their sonic magic without dominating the entire sound stage, as so many modern synth presets tend to do. Of course, you can move beyond the presets and create sounds the fit your tracks.

A Feature-Rich Upgrade

There is a lot more in this update that makes it compelling, such as the ability to export Quick-scribe notation as Music XML files (for use in other notation programs), MIDI muting, and many other conveniences. Add all that to the program’s overall depth and maturity, and I have no hesitation in giving Digital Performer 9 my highest recommendation.

Snap Judgment

Pros Create Tracks command provides quick and convenient setup. Megasynth, MicroB, and MicroG plug-ins impart subtractive synth tones to any audio input. MX4 brings animated sounds and sophisticated programming to MOTU’s stable of synth plug-ins.

Cons Nothing significant.

Bottom Line

A flagship DAW that keeps getting better.

$499 street (upgrades start at $129)
motu.com