MOTU Digital Performer 11 – The Synth and Software Review
Marty Cutler jumps up and down on DP11, the latest version of MOTU’s DAW, while making ape noises and scratching his chest to see whether it breaks. It doesn’t.
In the beginning – the 1980s – MOTU Digital Performer was just “Performer.” It wasn’t until much later that it and other MIDI “sequencers” became known as Digital Audio Workstations – DAWs, meaning you work with MIDI and audio side-by-side.
Originally that was a revolutionary concept, but at this point it’s a basic expectation. Now it may be time to change the name again, from DAW to “Digital Recording Studio.”
MOTU’s Digital Performer (DP) – now on version 11 –
is a perfect example of how things have evolved.
Being a modern-day DAW, DP11 hosts racks of synthesizers, MIDI and audio processors, it syncs to picture, has music notation, compositional tools… so much more. We even have virtual recording studios as plug-ins within our virtual recording studios!
To be sure, most of the other software packages have proceeded apace. But in my (highly controversial) opinion, none has done so with the craft, creativity, and depth of DP.
Here are some of the notable updates in DP11.
MPE and Multi-Channel tracks. Prior to version 11, DP MIDI tracks were strictly one MIDI channel per track, so using MIDI Polyphonic Expression required a bit of hoop-jumping – as did setting up tracks for MIDI guitar or other multichannel controllers. Those of us who play MIDI string instruments relied on MIDI Mode 4, a setup that allows data such as pitchbend to be issued independently from each string.
MPE deploys a similar multichannel approach so that notes can respond independently to channel-based MIDI control messages.
Because DP MIDI tracks can now record data from multiple channels, there’s no longer any need to create a track for each channel – you simply set the output of the target device to “any.” Rhizomatic Software’s Plasmonic proved to be a perfect pairing for my MIDI guitar and DP’s Multi-Channel MIDI tracks, as did UVI Falcon and Spectrasonics Omnisphere. The latter two required minimal finagling, and the former took two or three clicks in a single pane.
Although it’s similar to multi-channel MIDI, MPE requires a different set of protocols shared between controller and synth. In DP, once you have defined your controller as an MPE device (see my tutorial for setting up MPE and Multi-Channel tracks in DP 11), you are ready to wring expression out of any MPE-capable synth, such as FXPansion Strobe 2, Rhizomatic Plasmonic, Roli Equator, or Arturia Pigments.
MOTU has also endowed a batch of their built-in synths with MPE capabilities. In the Plug-in’s assignment window, simply change the settings from MIDI 1 to MPE and you’re good to go.
My keyboard chops aren’t exactly virtuosic, and playing chords on my Roli Seaboard can get funky (in the wrong way), with the intonation of some notes landing a bit too sharp or flat. DP’s Sequence Editor screen can now toggle between individual lanes with note-by-note MIDI and track data. Because each MPE event type is accessible through DP’s Sequence Editor lanes, you can easily tighten up out-of-tune pitch-bend values for individual notes in a chord, or adjust other MPE controller events.
Editing individual controller events by hand is a muse-killer if ever there was one. Mercifully, DP’s new Scale tool lets you edit overzealous (or less-than-zealous) controller curves in one or two fell swoops. Selecting the data highlights your choice, and you can drag your chosen data vertically in either direction, effectively compressing or expanding the collective value.
Articulation maps. Sampled instruments often need to switch between multiple articulations, which are different playing techniques – for example varying the bowing or picking distance between the bridge and neck of a stringed instrument. These are often changed using keyswitches – notes on an unused range of the keyboard. This can make a musician feel like he or she is piloting a helicopter rather than playing music.
The articulation mapping features in modern DAWs – now including DP – address this (although the features may have different names and implementations). Not surprisingly the PDF manual focuses on orchestral instruments, but almost any library is fair game.
If your sample library supports it, you can import its articulation map data into DP from the Articulation Map Setup window, and you’re ready to go. DP can also import Steinberg Cubase articulation maps. For libraries that don’t have articulation maps, including older ones, you can still set them up using a wide choice of Control Change, Note-On velocity triggers, and other MIDI messages to switch articulations.
Then you can save custom maps and access them readily from the MIDI Editor, in which each articulation has its own lane. If you work with DP’s Quickscribe notation window, the articulations are readily accessible from the articulations palette.
Chunks. Digital Performer’s Chunks feature may be the most powerful and flexible arrangement and construction feature I’ve seen in any DAW.
The Chunks feature lets you compile and arrange multiple sequences in any order, in as many layers as you wish. A sequence in DP can be anything from an individual note to a drum fill, to full rhythm section in song form, to an entire full-blown arrangement. Because a Chunk can contain anything the sequencer can record, in any depth or duration you’d like, you can arrange new songs in very granular detail or assemble an entire set list of songs for playback.
The potential levels of complexity can be overwhelming. Luckily, DP now provides color-coded folders and chunks. For example, you could organize chunks by function: sequences; playlists of entire songs; drum, string, or horn parts; even nested folders.
The Chunk List can split into two panes, which greatly aids organization. You can drag Chunks between panes, which is helpful when you’re dropping them into folders or into the song window.
These new features will prevent a lot of film- and show-scoring tasks from causing hair-pulling and eye strain.
Nanosampler. DP’s built-in Nanosampler has evolved from a no-frills single-sample player into a flexible sound design tool with a lucid, redesigned user interface.
Nanosampler is different from a multisampler. Its time-stretching and formant-correction facilities can make playable polyphonic instruments within a reasonable range of the root sample. But the instrument’s great strengths lie in its handling of rhythmic material for looping, as well as its revised waveform displays and envelopes for editing.
A click on the Settings tab brings up graphic displays of amp and filter envelopes, as well as filter and LFO settings. Grabbing the attack of an ADSR with visual feedback is a vast improvement over Nanosampler’s earlier version, which only used knobs with no envelope display.
New ZTX time-stretching capabilities in conjunction with Slice Mode playback make it easy to drop in loops and create grooves that sync to tempo. Playback options include non-destructive reverse, randomization (which worked great on sliced, rhythmic loops), and fade-ins and -outs.
Nanosampler’s Snap feature moves loop start and end points to zero-crossing points, which helps avoid mismatched loop points and create smooth transitions between audio slices.
You can also use Classic mode for playing sounds as instruments, as well as one-shot mode, which is more suitable for drum hits.
There’s plenty more. If your processor is up to it, enabling Live Performance Mode ensures minimal latency and near instantaneous response from virtual instruments – a tremendous boon to musicians who rely on their DAWs onstage.
Retrospective recording now accommodates audio recording as well as MIDI. I’ve been in enough sessions in which I was inadvertently not recording, or practicing a part and wished I could have used that last pass as a take. If your tracks are playing but not recording, DP will not only remember your playing, but it will remember where you started playing. You can also specify a time range, and the material will start at the beginning of your region, or place the recording at the wiper position.
I’ll stop here before I run out of air. Hopefully this covers enough of DP’s new features to illustrate the depth and intelligence MOTU brings to their flagship sequencer. It’s a wonderful environment for creative songsmiths, filmscore mavens, and electronic musicians of all types.
DP is my go-to sequencer; download a 30-day trial copy and it will likely become yours.
Click here to go to the MOTU DP11 product page