Mark Of The Unicorn Performer
Software for Apple Macintosh
Now some five years old, MOTU's Performer Mac sequencing software has undergone a series of significant upgrades. Kendall Wrightson boots up version 3.2.
IN 1985 WHEN Mark of the Unicorn's Performer MIDI Sequencer for the Apple Macintosh first appeared, computer-based sequencers were often regarded as a novelty - or not at all. It was the ST/Pro24 combination that made professional computer MIDI sequencing affordable, but precocious Performer users were sequencing away on Macs two years earlier. Since then Performer has undergone three major upgrades, and many other enhancements. Here we'll look at features that arrived from v3 onwards.
Performer's first major competitor emerged in '87 in the form of Passport's Master Tracks. Though having only half the recording resolution of Performer, Master Tracks made better use of the Mac's Graphic User Interface (GUI). In Master Tracks, notes are viewed in a piano roll-type display, bars are depicted as blocks and controllers can be drawn as curves on a simple graph.
Mark of the Unicorn were not slow to appreciate the graphic appeal of Master Tracks, and upgrades to Performer have tended to prove the old maxim that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Version 3.2's graphic Edit Window supplements Performer's original simple MIDI Event List, in depicting notes and controllers graphically. The Information Bar displays the current pointer location, the currently selected MIDI data and the note grid's time resolution (this can be changed with the Time Zoom icon). The Marker Strip displays user-designated markers along with meter/key changes. Loop symbols can be dragged backwards and forwards in time.
The black rectangles in the note grid represent notes. The vertical axis is pitch (graphically represented by the mini music keyboard called the pitch ruler). The horizontal axis represents time. The time ruler can display time in bar/beats/clicks, real time or SMPTE. The longer the rectangle, the longer the note it represents will play. Moving the pointer over a note rectangle will cause it to sound (if the loud-speaker icon is on), and clicking on a note produces a handle so that it can be dragged around. Its velocity appears in the information bar and a new value can be typed or played in.
The Median Strip (sounds like an Asimov title) separates the note grid from the Continuous Controller Data grid, and displays discrete MIDI events like Patch Changes, mode changes and SysEx events. Clicking on these icons allows their values to be changed.
The Continuous Controller grid can display both pitchbend and controller data. Different controllers are represented by the use of "x"s, diamonds, squares and so on. A v3.2 enhancement displays individual controllers in their own window, with a Mac Paint-like reshape tool to draw curves in more easily.
Version 3.2's meatiest feature is the "Chunk". Chunks are songs or sequences that can be arranged to play sequentially or simultaneously. Chunks are listed in the Chunks window (which replaces v3's Sequence window) and graphically displayed in the new Song window.
There are several ways in which Chunks can be put to use. Firstly, a part of a sequence can be defined as a Chunk; it's possible to define, say, a bassline, drums, FX and so on as individual Chunks, so that remix or arrangement ideas can be tried without having to edit the main sequence or Save As... This is achieved by dragging Chunks around within the Song window.
Chunks also provide a quick way of loading data from other sequences. Previously the only way to do this was to (deep breath): close the current sequence, open the desired sequence, copy the desired data, close that sequence, open the original and paste. As Performer is particularly slow in opening and closing files, Chunk loading is a very welcome addition.
Thirdly, Chunks provide automated live performance possibilities, as each Chunk can be assigned a MIDI Song Position Pointer or a discrete SMPTE time.
Real-Time tempo control also arrived with v3. This window allows the player to play freely, without reference to the metronome, and is therefore ideal for improvisation. This is achieved by providing a means to tap-in beats during or after a performance. To do this a note or a controller is defined as the Tap Input. Defining a footswitch as the Tap input makes it possible to play two-handed. Real-time tempo recording also allows Performer to learn a tempo track from another sequencer or synchroniser.
If you've ever started playback from the middle of a sequence and heard the wrong patch being played you'll appreciate Performer's Event Chasing. With this enabled, Performer searches through the sequence for the last pitchbend, patch change and controller event on each track and transmits them before playback begins.
As this procedure can take time (if there are many tracks and/or many controller events), there will be a significant delay before playback begins. Clicking the Pause or Wait button causes Performer to chase to the currently displayed bar. so that on pressing Play Performer can begin immediately.
Version 3.2 also offers alphanumeric/music keyboard shortcuts for all Performer's transport controls. SysEx editing, MIDI files (including the ability to expand loops), adjustable tempo change curves in the Change Tempo window, hard disk installation and quantised triplet conversion to Professional Composer.
One problem still not addressed in v3.2 is that Performer still insists on using the non-standard Direct Time Lock (DTL) instead of MIDI Time Code (MTC) for synchronisation. This isn't such a problem in the States, but in the UK and Europe, the SRC/AT and Roland SBX80 are the most popular synchronisers, and neither support DTL.
Further useful borrowings from Master Tracks might include the graphic Conductor Track, graphic pop-up faders, and a separate Event list editor for events "locked" to SMPTE.
Opcode's Vision, being the most recent Mac Sequencer, offers several features from which Performer would benefit. The ability to loop record, and have multiple sequences open simultaneously, makes recording in drum machine segment/song style much easier. The ability to upgrade software means that the three major Macintosh Sequencers, Performer, Master Tracks and Vision actually look rather similar. Performer and Vision in particular share most specifications. Master Tracks, on the other hand, deliberately adopts the position of "cheaper alternative', by virtue of providing only half the recording resolution of Performer and Vision, (though it's still 2.5 times that of Pro24).
None of the programmes offer rhythm-orientated composition facilities like Intelligent Music's Upbeat 2 and Real Time, nor do they offer the latter's ability to edit data with the sequence running, a feature also to be found on Cubase. Integrated notation is also missing. Performer requiring a sister notation package called Professional Composer.
Price £395 including VAT.
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Review by Kendall Wrightson
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