If there's a single digital audio workstation (DAW) package that's more closely associated with the Mac than any other, it's MOTU's Digital Performer. In the digital audio-enabled version's eighth iteration (which retails at £399), MOTU's flagship DAW remains a premier tool for MIDI composition and film scoring, and it contains enough audio editing tools to serve as a solid all-round multi-track recorder.
When MOTU introduced version 8 last October, the company announced a PC version for the first time, although it's still not available yet. On the Mac, at least, I've been using Digital Performer on and off for over 20 years, with my first experience being with the MIDI-only Performer in a college music lab on a Mac IIsi… and let me tell you now that this latest version is a true pleasure to work with.
For this review, I tested Digital Performer 8 on two machines: A quad-core Mac Pro (2009) running OS X Lion, and a quad-core MacBook Pro 15in (2012) running OS X Mountain Lion.
Digital Performer installs very quickly, as it takes up just 1.7GB of hard disk space. Part of the reason for that is due to the fact that the program still lacks key virtual instrument plug-ins (more on that later).
The big news is that Digital Performer is now 64-bit for the first time, which means it can address more than 4GB of memory – a huge boon for anyone working with large virtual instrument samples. As long as your third-party plug-ins are also 64-bit, you can get a lot more out of the program than you could before. The UI is also 100 per cent Cocoa this time around; performance seemed snappy on both test machines.
Fortunately, there's no hardware-based copy protection. On the software side, MOTU gives you two activations, so you can use the program on, say, a desktop and a laptop. Install and activate DP8 on a third machine, and it doesn't fight you; it just deactivates the first one.
This is far preferable to Steinberg's copy protection scheme for Cubase 7, which uses a proprietary eLicenser dongle, or Avid's for Pro Tools 10, which relies on the more common but still frustrating iLok key – both of which take up one of the two precious USB ports on all Mac laptops. Apple Logic Pro and the PC-based Cakewalk SONAR still lead the field in this respect, because they don't require copy protection at all. But I personally have no problem with software activations as long as they work reliably and are easy to perform.
If you've used Digital Performer before, you'll find the main user interface environment instantly familiar. The consolidated interface lets you display multiple views simultaneously. I found that I liked working with the Tracks view to the top left, audio or MIDI editing in the bottom left, and the mixing board to the right, but you can create just about any setup using the horizontal and vertical drawbars in each window.
The UI works particularly well on lower resolution MacBooks and MacBook Pros. I could fit a ton of data on-screen, including 24 track lanes, a score or piano roll editor, and eight mixer channels off to the right. New themes give you an additional 15 options for the look of the program, but it's not just about colour – the look of the sliders, pan pots, and meters also changes with each theme.
For recording audio, a new Punch Guard mode is one of those forehead-slapping obvious features that should have been there from the beginning. It always ensures you don't lose the front or tail of a good take, because the feature is constantly capturing extra time before and after your punch points. One of my favourite features is DP's free companion iPhone app, which I tested on an iPhone 5. The app gave me instantaneous, reliable control of the transport, take management, and even mixing board faders, which freed me up to sit in front of actual instruments instead of the computer while recording.
One odd limitation is that instrument tracks remain separate from MIDI tracks. All sequencers had this problem years ago, but Digital Performer is the lone hold-out of the big name DAWs. Digital Performer treats an instrument track as a different kind of audio track, instead of treating it as a combination of a MIDI track and an audio track with a plug-in instrument as an insert. That means you'll still have two tracks for every virtual plug-in you use. The plus side is that each instrument automatically gets 16 channel MIDI support, which is great for using multi-timbral plug-ins, but that creates mixing headaches; if you want to use one plug-in instrument per track, it gets unwieldy quickly.
One of Digital Performer's strengths has always been scoring for picture, and version 8 continues in that vein. In addition to working with Chunks of sequencer data, which has always been handy for writing separate stems of music, a rewritten playback engine lets you screen video at 720p or 1080p – either within the main interface, on a second display, or out of a video interface via HDMI or SDI. A new in-line control panel lets you consolidate screen space at the same time. I'm not a guitarist, but some of the biggest upgrades in Digital Performer 8 are on the virtual amp simulator front, with a host of new amp models and virtual stomp boxes.
Editing and mixing
Thanks to the consolidated interface, you can bring up sample-level wave editing of recorded or imported audio clips, all while keeping the arrangement and mixing board visible. That said, if you work with pure audio a lot, and are coming from another DAW, you may miss a few common tools with Digital Performer – the big one being an equivalent of Pro Tools' Elastic Audio. You'll need to slice up and manipulate individual audio pieces in Digital Performer, which takes a lot longer and doesn't sound as good.
On the other hand, pitch correction for vocal tracks is handled extremely well – to the point where you may want to use Digital Performer just for its native capabilities here, which approach Melodyne-levels of quality and ease of use. We ended up using Digital Performer for some serious manual pitch correction work on several takes of a lead vocal, and the results were completely transparent.
The mixing console gets a new coat of paint, but mostly works the same way as before. There are 17 new effects, for a total of 84 bundled plug-ins. Some of the new effects include the wonderfully-named Springamabob, which is a vintage spring tank reverb, and SubKick, a useful kick drum enhancer that adds sub-bass frequencies and overdrive in a way that would be tough to get out of a regular parametric EQ.
A new Plug-in Chooser makes organising your plug-ins a snap, and includes preset chain support – DP8 also supports ReWire. A feature missing from Logic Pro which DP8 has is the ability to drag channels around in the Mixing Board view, which makes it easy to keep your project organised.
MIDI editing remains as robust as ever, with plenty of detailed adjustments and available tools. For MIDI tracks, there are a number of live plug-ins you can enable, including non-destructive quantisation. Veteran Digital Performer users will have no problem with the mixing interface and will even love it, but if you're new to the platform, you'll curse a few of the interface quirks.
You can only rename a track by option-clicking on it, for example, with no menu equivalent anywhere I could find. Setting up auxiliary buses is also a little counter-intuitive, compared with, say, Pro Tools 10. And in a weird snafu, I couldn't get any of the impulse responses to load in the excellent ProVerb convolution reverb until I routed the plug-in's inputs and outputs – which needed to be done, but shouldn't have been necessary for finding and loading presets.
There's no bundled sampler plug-in or even a sample-based synthesiser workstation plug-in. That may not matter if you've already got a good one, or have the virtual instruments you otherwise need, but it's a curious omission given that Pro Tools, Logic, Cubase, and SONAR all come with good ones (Xpand 2, EXS24, Halion Sonic SE, and Dimension Pro respectively). In other words, you can open all of those programs and compose a complete piece of music using the bundled virtual instruments – but you can't do that with the stock DP instruments, unless you're really into minimalist analogue synth techno. The MasterWorks multi-band compressor is getting on in age, although there's a stellar, configurable Teletronix LA-2A compressor emulation in MasterWorks Leveler.
In use, Digital Performer was rock solid. I loaded up a 10 track project packed with high density virtual instruments, streaming samples, and plenty of MIDI data, and proceeded to edit and mix with abandon. People have tried to pin plug-in inefficiency complaints on various sequencers over time, including Digital Performer. I certainly didn't see any performance issues during testing on either machine, at least with the reasonably well-outfitted projects I worked on.
The proprietary MAS plug-in format is beginning to fade in importance. Digital Performer 8 now asks if you want AU or VST as your primary external plug-in format (although the bundled plug-ins are still MAS for now).
I did run into some glitches loading third-party plug-ins. For example, Omnisphere only worked as an AU instance, not VST, and even in AU mode browsing patches was exceedingly sluggish; then, mysteriously, this problem went away a few days later. EastWest Play 3 had the opposite problem and didn't work as an AU instance, though it worked fine as a VST. Izotope Ozone 5 and EZDrummer ran well as VSTs. The point being, it may take some trial and error to ensure your plug-ins work correctly; checking various Internet forums indicates that not everyone experiences the issues I ran into.
At this point, it's becoming very difficult to crown one digital audio workstation the winner over the others. If you take your time to learn your way around a top name DAW, you can create a hit record with just about any one of the major sequencers.
Digital Performer excels in notation, film scoring, and post-production work, and it's a great MIDI sequencer for composition purposes. But you can do all of those things in all of the other major DAWs as well. Perhaps a better approach is to simply read the reviews, run demos where you can, and check the feature lists to see which one appeals to you on a more visceral level.
Pro Tools remains the industry standard, but not because it's necessarily more capable – rather it’s because so many people use it, and it's easy to share projects, plus its mixing workflow and audio engine stability are second to none. It's not as adept as Digital Performer for composing music with virtual instruments, though.
Cakewalk SONAR remains a budget buy for PC users, while Apple Logic Pro is excellent for Mac users thanks to its unbelievable value, although Logic is getting on in age and could use a significant update. All told, if you're looking for a stellar platform for hosting virtual instruments, composition, notation, and film scoring, Digital Performer remains an exceptional choice.