On tour with Digital Performer
Why DP is the supreme app for concert playback systems, by Greg Rule
If you’ve attended a major concert lately, you know how sophisticated and complex today’s productions have become. It’s no secret ... in order to tie a big show together, playback is often a key ingredient.
The role of a playback engineer can vary widely based on an artist’s vision and budget. At its simplest, playback can be used to supply click to the band, ensuring consistent tempo from night to night. But more commonly, it’s also the source of backing tracks and utility data that’s integral to a concert’s sound and sync. From in-ear cues to MIDI patch changes to timecode distribution, a playback rig keeps all departments on time and in step.
Greg Rule's MOTU-based computer system lurks just off stage.
As a touring audio programmer who’s been around the world a few times, I’m often asked what software I use for playback and why. There’s no shortage of apps on the market for live performance, but when it comes to reliable playback for big concerts, Digital Performer has been my trusted platform for many years.
Here are five reasons why DP is the supreme app for playback:
In a packed stadium or on live TV with millions of viewers, the last thing you want to see is a spinning beach ball or error message. Digital Performer is the most reliable, crash- resistant music app I’ve ever used.
Originally conceived as a creative tool for songwriters, Digital Performer’s Chunks feature is also a great tool for assembling and controlling multitrack song files for concerts. It’s as easy to use as an iTunes playlist, but with much more power under the hood.
Thanks to Chunks, you’ll never need to open, close, or load files during a show. All of your multitrack sessions, no matter how large or small, can co-exist simultaneously on one convenient list where songs can be instantly selected and played. You can add or delete songs as needed, and you can rearrange the order by simply dragging song titles up or down the list.
An example of the Chunks list from one of Greg's Digital Performer projects.
Best of all, each song retains its independence inside the Chunks window. Click the song you want to play and all of its associated tracks, mixer settings, and performance parameters will instantly be brought to the foreground. Any editing you do to that song will have no adverse affect on other songs.
I stress the importance of this because I’ve seen many multitrack show files (created with other apps) that consist of a single linear timeline, with all songs placed in a row from left to right. It’s risky. If you edit one song, you might inadvertently disrupt the other tracks up- or downstream. It’s also cumbersome if you need to rearrange the song order. Programmers have gotten themselves into big trouble using that method. DP’s Chunks system eliminates that mess and risk.
3. Cue and Chain
We’ve established the value of Chunks for creating and managing a set list, but there’s more to the story. With your set list assembled, you can specify the way songs are cued and triggered during the show. For example, you can program songs to automatically advance to the next song on the list when it finishes playing. In addition, you can specify whether DP will start playing the next song instantly or if you’d prefer it to wait for a manual start command from you. Or, none of the above. You tell DP how to behave.
I’ve been on tours where songs had to be started in rapid-fire succession. The Cue- Chunks and Chain-Chunks features have been invaluable in those situations.
4. Medley Construction
On tour, it’s not uncommon for the musical director (MD) to request song medleys. Medleys can be a royal pain to edit together and manage, especially when you’re dealing with dozens (or hundreds!) of tracks. But Digital Performer makes medley creation much easier with its Song window.
The Song window, like Chunks, was originally intended as a songwriting tool. However, it also became useful as a tool for creating multitrack song medleys. By simply dragging and dropping any number of Chunks (songs) into a Song window, and arranging them in the desired order, you can instantly merge them into a consolidated medley file — retaining all individual audio tracks, markers, conductor tracks, plug-ins, and mixer settings from the original songs.
Once you’ve created your new master medley file, you can touch up the transition points as needed, but all of the heavy lifting has already been done by DP. A task that would normally take hours to accomplish from scratch is quick and easy with this feature. Thank you, MOTU.
An example of a medley from one of Greg's Digital Performer projects.
5. Safe Sync
Redundancy is critical in the playback world. You always need at least two identical playback rigs running in sync with a switcher should one fail. It’s not a question of “if” but “when” a hard drive will die in mid song, or any number of other unforeseen perils. One time a stagehand tripped and fell into the back of my rack at the start of a show, unplugging one of my audio interfaces in the process. Anything can happen out there.
Alongside Digital Performer, I’ve been using MOTU hardware for many years and I love the seamless integration between the two worlds. With previous versions of DP, I used the bundled MOTU SMPTE Setup app as a sample-accurate timecode link between my primary and backup rigs. The app offers a Freewheel mode, which lets the backup computer continue to play even if the master stops generating sync. It’s a great system that I’ve used on many tours.
Very soon however, MOTU’s new SMPTE-Z plug-in will be available, which will let you sync your primary and backup rigs directly through the AVB network.
Digital Performer's new SMPTE-Z plug-in.
MOTU explains, “SMPTE-Z generates Longitudinal Time Code (LTC) while locked to DP’s timeline or while running independently in Freewheel mode. The Stillframe option causes timecode to continue to be generated even when DP’s transport is stopped (parked on one frame). Timecode can be routed anywhere via the audio track’s output assignment, allowing you to achieve accurate timecode sync in a wide variety of situations.”
There are other methods for syncing two playback computers together with Digital Performer. Using the Commands window, for example, you can map MIDI note numbers to DP’s transport controls and use a controller with two MIDI outputs to drive both computers simultaneously. A trick I learned when using this method is to put both computers in “Wait For Note” mode, which gives both machines an identical and consistent start trigger. It’s a safe way of syncing two systems, as neither are tethered to each other, but they’re only following common transport commands, which is a simpler and less “scientifically accurate” method of sync.
So there you have it ... five reasons I rely on Digital Performer for playback. There are many more I could add to the list, but I’ll park it there for now.
Do you also use DP for live shows? If so, feel free to sound off. The fine folks at MOTU would love to hear from you, as would I.
To all my fellow road warriors out there, and to those about to join the circus, I wish you smooth gigs, safe travels, and perfect playback.
Greg Rule is a former Keyboard magazine editor who transitioned to a career on the road ten years ago. Over the past decade, he has toured with the Eagles, Michael Jackson (Cirque du Soleil), Van Halen, and others. He’s currently on tour with Foreigner. Give Greg a chirp on Twitter @GregRule.