Apple Macintosh Software
One of the leading Macintosh sequencing packages has recently undergone another of its periodic face lifts. Ian Waugh checks the state of the performing art.
After six years in the field, Performer has had another of its regular updates - does it still live up to its claim of being "The Professional's Sequencer"?
Some say that the professional's choice of computer for music in the '90s is the Apple Mac. But until late '90, the cost of a Mac had been prohibitive to all but the pros. The launch of the Classic (at £895), however, put that to rights, and the Classic II followed at the end of 1991.
The minimum hardware requirements to run Performer (review v3.61) is a Macintosh Plus with an 800K external disk drive and two megabytes of RAM. However, the manual warns that running it even on a basic SE may cause irregularities in timing during playback (although only under duress).
The moral of the story is that although the Classic may be the affordable face of the Mac, for serious work you still need a more powerful machine. The Classic II looks set to replace the SE/30 even though it's not as well specified, but it's based around a 68030 CPU running at 16MHz so it looks like one of the cheapest "power" options.
Minimum specs apart, if you're serious about using a Mac you really need a hard drive and if you've half an eye on System 7 you want at least 4Meg of RAM, never mind what the quoted minimum requirements are. The Classic II with 2Meg of RAM and a 40Meg hard disk costs £1200 while a 4Meg RAM/80Meg hard disk version costs £1550. Hardly the ST bashers the original Classic aimed to be. All that power and only an 9" monitor, too.
If you already have a Mac you'll probably be aware that Mark of The Unicorn's Performer has been fighting it out with Opcode's Vision for number one place in the Mac sequencing arena. Just to confuse matters, they've now been joined by Cubase (although this has set itself apart from the competition by being considerably more expensive).
Performer goes all the way back to 1985 and MOTU have updated it regularly. Its last appearance in MT was in April 1990 although it was given a major update to v3.5 later that year. As many readers will not have followed the Mac music market but may now own or be contemplating the purchase of a Mac, we'll look at Performer in its entirety rather than just as an update.
Installation is relatively easy although the program uses a key disk for protection. You can do a hard disk install which means the program fits itself into a cosy corner of your hard disk from where it will run quite happily. If you mess with it, however, it will cease to function. The other option is to copy the program to your hard disk in the normal way, in which case the program will ask for the master disk each time you launch it.
OK, so the guys have a right to protect their interests but you're only given one hard disk install. Which is fine until your Mac crashes, something it can do through no fault of the program it's running. And then what do you do in the middle of your session! I've suffered at the hands of hard disk installs before and quite simply don't trust them.
I opted for the Master disk option. The program was reviewed on a Mac IIsi running under MultiFinder 6.07 along with a word-processor, and the machine did hang a few times. Although I'd hesitate to blame Performer, I'm glad I didn't install it on my hard disk. If it had gone down you would have been reading this review next month.
The Mac has a reputation for user-friendliness and attracting non-protected software. Passport have recently dispensed with their copy protection; will MOTU follow suit?
To the program. The first thing you'll notice is the manual - all 500 pages of it. There's a Getting Started section, after which all the functions are explained in considerable detail, most with the aid of diagrams, although there is some forward referencing.
Performer is SMPTE compatible and MOTU have their own MIDI/SMPTE interface called MTP (MIDI Time Piece) which comprises an eight-In, eight-Out MIDI interface with MIDI patch routing supporting up to 128 MIDI channels. Power users can network up to four MTPs for a total of 512 MIDI channels.
Performer offers improved SMPTE sync with DTLe (Enhanced Direct Time Lock), an advanced version of DTL supported by earlier versions of Performer. Instead of one frame advance message per SMPTE frame, DTLe consists of four frame advances and you can achieve lockup while the tape is rolling.
DTL never caught on in the UK (although it was big in America) and few devices support it. With v3.5, however, Performer included MTC (MIDI Time Code) so you can sync using the format to suit your equipment.
Performer supports Apple's MIDI Manager, too. This lets you run more than one MIDI program simultaneously under MultiFinder, synchronise them to each other and swap MIDI data. But I wouldn't advise this with anything less than 4Meg of RAM and you still may have to be economical.
As we are talking state-of-the-art here it makes sense to gloss over the more mundane sequencing functions and see what makes Performer so outstanding. Its user-interface is an "enhanced" version of that already familiar to Mac users. The program is based around a number of windows and most of these contain a secondary Mini Menu which holds commands of particular relevance to that window. A Pushdown box sends a window to the back of the screen and there's a Zoom box to automatically resize the window (although this insists on putting it in the top left of the screen).
Transport controls are housed in the Consolidated Controls Panel, which also includes the tempo and meter controls and offers direct access to most of the main windows - Chunks, Song, Sliders, Markers, MIDI Configuration, Tracks, Event List, Graphic Editing and Notation Editing. You can split the Consolidated Panel into its separate sections if you wish.
There are yet more windows, which are accessed from the Windows menu. Remote Controls permits assignation of MIDI messages and Mac keyboard alternatives to most of Performer's operational functions. You could, for example, control the transport functions entirely from a MIDI keyboard, although MIDI controls aren't restricted to notes. They can be controller data, program change numbers - any MIDI data, in fact.
The MIDI Monitor window displays incoming MIDI data broken down by port, MIDI channel and data type. The Input Quantise window is used to quantise incoming data.
Performer has a resolution of 480 ticks-per-quarter-note and supports an unlimited number of tracks - you simply add them when required. These appear in the Track Window along with their MIDI channel/port assignment, patch name (if any) and comments (very useful). There's a separate Conductor track which holds tempo data and you can drag tracks around to re-order them.
"You can transpose by interval but also diatonically to create harmonies - brilliant, this - although you may still need to edit the odd note."
To the right of the tracks list is a Tracks Overview window which displays the tracks in equal-length segments which can be anything from 30 ticks to 16 bars long. You can zoom in and out to alter the amount of time each segment represents.
The shade of each segment shows the density of MIDI data in it and selective filtering of unwanted types of data is available. For example, you could elect to see only program changes and the Overview window would then only show segments containing program change messages. Only data selected for viewing will be edited, too.
Segments can be selected with the mouse and turned into Chunks for arranging in the Chunks window. A Chunk can be either a sequence (a collection of tracks) or a song (a collection of sequences). You can build an entire song from other sequences by chaining and stacking Chunks in the Song window, simply by clicking and dragging. It's akin to the method used by other sequencers of linking Patterns into Songs, although Performer's Chunks are generally rather more sophisticated and powerful - and requiring a corresponding degree of understanding, too.
The distinction between songs and sequences is important. You can only save sequences in MIDI File format, for example, but having constructed a song you can convert it to a sequence.
The markers window is used to display and edit the markers for a Chunk sequence or song. A marker is basically a name attached to a specific location in a Chunk. They appear in the Edit windows and can be recorded in real time. They are particularly useful when working with video as you can use them to mark hit points in real time and then use the Marker window as a cue sheet. You can adjust tempos to automatically align musical cues to the hits.
The Markers window also supports MOTU's post-production device, the Video Time Piece, which can superimpose graphic images on a video picture, including streamers - a solid white bar which travels across the screen to reach the right-hand side at an exact hit point.
Performer supports event chasing to ensure the correct playback of a piece from any point. You can select which events should be chased. Recent additions to v3.6 enable you to perform most editing functions during playback, too.
You can filter out unwanted MIDI data during recording and the Multi Record option lets you record from several different MIDI channels simultaneously. A track can be assigned up to 31 channels for playback.
Step-time recording is well handled. You select required note durations, including tuplets, from a popup box and play the pitches on the keyboard. You can select two or more durations at the same time and you can erase the last step should you make a mistake.
The Record Beats function lets you record a piece out of time and add bar lines to it later. This ain't easy. If you record a piece out of time you then have to tap along to it in time in order to insert the bar lines in the right places. I'll stick to recording in time and making tempo changes later.
To view and edit the data in a segment you double click on it and, depending on what key you're holding down on the Mac keyboard, up pops the Event List, Graphic or Note Editor.
There are time rulers at the top of the editors and a pointer co-ordinates box tells you exactly where the mouse pointer is as you move it across the window.
View Filter lets you select the types of data (a choice of 16) you want to see. You can display the timings in bars, real time (minutes and seconds) and frames.
I suspect many musicians will be quite at home with the Graphic Editor which not only shows notes (as bars on a grid) but also displays controller data, including velocity, graphically beneath the grid. You can alter a note's pitch, duration and position by clicking and dragging and you can insert notes, too. Controller data can be edited in a similar way and a Tempo Change grid unsurprisingly lets you draw in tempo changes.
The Note Editor is a reasonable alternative for those who like to play with the dots. A window can only show one track at a time, however, and the smallest display resolution is 1/16th notes, which may be fine for 90% of mainstream music but occasionally even heavy metal musos have been known to pen a 1/32nd. Working with classical music is likely to be more problematic. Notes are easily edited by clicking and dragging and you can insert notes and other events, too.
Performer can handle SysEx dumps, too, and you can place them into a track.
Quantisation is reasonably comprehensive and you can set offset, sensitivity, strength and swing options as a percentage. The Smart Quantise option is principally designed for use with MOTU's scorewriter program, Professional Composer.
There is a DeFlam command which looks for close groups of notes and makes their attack times the same.
With the Change Velocity function you can smooth out irregularities and create smooth velocity changes - an alternative to drawing changes in on the graph with the mouse although if it's volume changes you want it may be better to use the sliders (coming up).
"Markers are particularly useful when working with video as you can use them to mark hit points and then use the Marker windowas a cue sheet."
You can scale, limit, thin and and remap continuous data, too.
Performer has some excellent note manipulation functions: Invert, for example, flips notes around a specific axis. Retrograde and Reverse Time reverse the order of events, effectively turning a tune backwards. There is a slight difference between the two, Retrograde producing a result closer to how you would expect a backwards tune to sound. Scale Time, meanwhile, expands and compresses the duration of events.
Transpose is largely self-explanatory but Performer's transpose options go further than most. You can transpose by interval but also diatonically to create harmonies - brilliant, this - although you may still need to edit the odd note. You can also change mode and map each pitch to any other - this is useful for transferring drum parts between machines. You can save customised Transpose maps for future use.
The MIDI configuration and Patch List windows let you access "virtual" MIDI devices which you can assign to tracks. This "assignment by name" is quite a feature on Mac software (other developers take note) and preferable to using MIDI channels and program change numbers, especially if you're running several instruments and making use of Performer's ability to access 128 - or 512 - MIDI channels.
A Device is a reference for a particular piece of MIDI equipment, such as a synth, which you can refer to by name within the program. It can store a sound list for the synth much like a patch librarian and from the Patch List window you can transmit patch changes, even on the fly.
Device configurations are supplied for a wide range of Yamaha, Roland, Kurzweil, Kawai and Korg synths plus the Proteus. However, it's also easy to create your own Devices. You can specify the number of banks and the numbering format, too.
Devices can also handle System Exclusive dumps so you can store individual voices or the entire contents of the synth. If your synth doesn't have a Bulk Transmit function you'll have to enter a SysEx Bulk Dump request message in the Device editor. A Play Bulk Dumps command in the Track editor's Mini Menu lets you set up your gear ready to carry on from where you last left off.
Unfortunately, the dumps don't transfer the voice names to the Patch List - a great shame - and these have to be entered by hand. If you keep changing the voices in your synth during song construction, it would seem to make sense to wait until the song is finished before naming the voices. However, you're most likely to want to select voices by name during recording. You still can't have everything.
Performer takes the Device concept a stage further with Instruments which are a group of Devices. For example, if you have created the ultimate string patch by layering sounds from several synths, you can bring them together under one Instrument. Neat.
Another interesting and useful feature of Performer is Consoles. These are groups of customisable sliders which can be used to control volume, pan position, modulation, pitchbend and other controller functions.
All the sliders appear in a window but you can split them up and show them individually or in groups in a vertical or horizontal orientation. A master slider can be appointed to a group (effectively making it a subgroup) so, having set the relative volumes of a group of tracks you can then adjust them all using one slider. Brilliant.
The sliders monitor their target tracks and change to reflect the value of the data. They can also record any changes you make to them in any track. You can control a slider from an external mod wheel, for example, or by the pitch of a note or with keyboard velocity. You can even use sliders to remap controller data in real time.
It can take a little while to get your head around all this, but it's a truly excellent function. You can perform a fairly thorough mix on a sequence, and having access to several sets of sliders at the same time means you don't have to mix volume first, say, and then pan data.
Performer supports .MIDI File formats 0 and 1 and can save the tempo/metre map, expand loops and save the track names as text. You can specify the end of the sequence to be saved if you don't want to save it all. It can also save files in Professional Composer format for score editing and printing.
Having set up the program to suit your equipment and way of working, you can save the setup as a New Template. All new files you create will then start with that configuration.
Any sequencer with such a comprehensive range of facilities as Performer is going to take a little while getting to know. Make no mistake, this is a heavyweight program. Even the Getting Started section involves many setting up operations. The wealth of options, windows and different keystrokes can, at first, be confusing, but after a little use the pieces start to fall into place. There is also a comprehensive on-line help system to prompt you if required.
I have niggles, albeit small ones. Performer doesn't give you an internal click on a II-series or SE/30 Mac (the budget-priced Deluxe Recorder does). Although mouse-clicks in conjunction with the Command, Option and Shift keys are common Mac operations, wouldn't it be useful to have total mouse control? And why do you have to use the keyboard to type in new values rather than use the mouse? The ability to have more than one file open at the same time would be useful, too.
Many of the features missing from earlier versions of Performer (MTC support, Loop Recording) have been implemented in this revision, although there's still no drum pattern editing or score printout option. To print scores you are directed to Professional Composer (MT review to follow).
This isn't a head-to-head and I've no intention of getting embroiled in the relative benefits of Performer and Vision (drag Cubase into it, too, if you wish). The fact is, both (all three) companies have shown an eagerness to upgrade their programs regularly (although Steinberg have the shortest track record here) and when one betters another, that one seems to come back with features to trump the first.
All three programs are being used by professionals, and other than a few facilities which may endear one program to a user more than another, I wouldn't like to be the man to single one out as best buy. Ultimately it's bound to be a very personal choice.
Performer has been a firm favourite with Mac users for over six years and it will now be particularly attractive to those involved in video work. It's easy to see why it has been dubbed The Professional's Sequencer. There's no doubt at all that it is a very professional piece of kit and well worthy of the name.
Price £459 including VAT
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Review by Ian Waugh