Bias Peak

Digital Audio Editing Software

Published in SOS September 1996
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Reviews : Software: ALL

With its flexible, professional sound design tools and moderate price, Peak fills a gap in the Mac digital sound editing arena. PAUL D LEHRMAN gets in some Peak practice...

 

What the Macintosh world needs is a good, new sound-editing program. "Why's that?" you say. "What's wrong with the dozens of hard-disk recording systems, multimedia sound editors, and sample editors already out there?" What's wrong is that they're either too unsophisticated for professional work, like Opcode's Audioshop or Macromedia's Sound Edit16, or they're too old to take advantage of today's computers and samplers. The best of them, Digidesign's Sound Designer II and Passport Designs' Alchemy, are based around technologies that are approaching their 10th birthdays. Besides, Sound Designer II (which long ago dropped sampler support, and is therefore of no use to those of us who still depend on those beasts) may soon be history, according to the manufacturer, while Alchemy, whose manufacturer has been playing a 'now-you-can-get-it-now-you-can't' game with it for several years, has never got past (and apparently will never get past) the significant limitations on file size imposed by a RAM-only program.

No -- what's needed now is a program that is flexible enough to work comfortably in all sorts of environments -- not just samplers, but also workstations, mastering, and multimedia; that recognises that hard-disk space is no longer a rare commodity; that works reliably with other hardware and other programs; that has expansion capabilities, which preferably can be addressed by third parties, perhaps using the popular plug-in convention; and that takes advantage of the blazing speed of the current line of Power PC Macs.

Such a thoroughly modern program is Peak, from Berkley Integrated Audio Software (BIAS), whose company name comes neither from the famed music school in Boston nor the notorious college town by San Francisco Bay, but from the name of the author, Steve Berkley.

Peak is not without its problems, but even in its maiden version it brings a wealth of welcome features to the sound editing game. It works with any 68030, 68040, or Power PC Mac running System 7.1 or later. On the Power PC machines, it takes full advantage of their built-in, 16-bit 44.1kHz audio circuits. It also works with Numedia or Digidesign Nubus audio cards, although with Pro Tools III hardware you cannot yet record files, only play them back (that should change soon). It's file-compatible -- using AIFF and Sound Designer II formats in mono or stereo -- with most other Macintosh audio programs, and it speaks SMDI (SCSI Musical Digital Interface), the high-speed interface for transferring files to and from MIDI samplers.

THIS EDIT WILL NOT SELF-DESTRUCT

Like Alchemy and Pro Tools, and unlike Sound Designer, all of Peak's actions are non-destructive: the file on disk isn't changed until you save it, and if you do a 'Save As...' and rename the file, the original version stays intact. The program uses a combination of RAM- and disk-based functions. Where possible, pointers are used to move around the file, just like in Pro Tools, so that a simple cut-and-paste operation merely involves rearranging the order in which sections of the file play, without actually writing anything to disk. In more complex operations, the altered data is placed on a 'scratch disk'. You can tell the program where this scratch disk is, or it will simply locate the disk on your SCSI chain which has the most empty space, and use that.

Thanks to this non-destructive approach, the program allows unlimited Undos: keep hitting command-Z, and you'll work your way back through all the things you've done, right back to the original file, if you want. You can also Redo (command-Y) your way back up to the current edit again, if you like. If you want to jump back to an earlier point in your session, all the operations you've done are maintained in an 'Edits' window: choose the point at which things started to go wrong, jump back to it, and pick up your work from there. Once you change an edit in this window, of course, all the edits you did subsequently are voided.

Another welcome feature is the 'Blending' function: when you edit two pieces of a file together, you don't have to go in with a microscope to make sure they fit together without glitching -- you can merely invoke this feature, which performs a crossfade between the two regions. You can specify the length of this crossfade, and even the in and out envelopes. Different lengths and envelopes can be created for each edit. However, you have to specify the parameters for an edit before you actually make it, which is a bit unwieldy. The envelopes you create can be saved as disk files and recalled at will, and the program comes with a small library of envelopes to get you started.

In general, Peak is very fast, using RAM when it can and disk swaps when it must. During most time-consuming functions in Peak, a 'time remaining' window appears to let you know how much time you have for coffee. In many cases, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how little time that is.

GETTING AROUND

The program makes excellent use of markers -- they are easy to drop in and edit, and can be anchored to a particular sample, so that when a section of a file is moved around, the marker goes with it. It's also easy to select a region between two markers: command-click in the region, and you've got it -- no guessing about whether you're right on it or not. When you move a marker, pressing the Shift key restricts your movements, so that the marker can only land on a zero-crossing, which helps to make glitch-free edits.

Markers can double as loop-in or -out points, and a crossfade looping function with user-definable length and envelope is included. Peak only supports one loop per file, so if your sampler uses multiple or decay loops, you can't create them here. Loop points can be locked to each other, so you can move a loop around without changing its length. A feature called 'Loop Surfer' lets you specify a tempo and number of beats, and automatically creates a correctly-timed loop from the current cursor position. You'll probably still have to trim and crossfade it to make it just right, but it's a big time saver nonetheless.

There's a very cool scrubbing feature which hasn't been seen in audio editing programs before, although I personally have spent several years begging other companies to implement it. Conventional scrubbing emulates the rocking of tape-recorder reels, so that as you move the mouse back and forth on the screen the sound comes out at a variable, but usually very low pitch, either forwards or backwards. In Peak's 'dynamic scrubbing', as you move the mouse, little chunks of the file are played, in the correct direction and at the correct pitch. The size of the chunks is adjustable from 10ms to 600ms (shorter chunks mean greater accuracy, but are harder to hear), and the feature can be used in either of two ways -- a position-based 'jog' mode and a mouse-speed-based 'shuttle' mode -- which can be toggled, as you scrub, with the Option key. Although it sounds a little strange when you're doing it, the feature lets you find the precise beginnings or ends of sounds, or changes within them, really quickly. To my mind, this is infinitely preferable to the the old-fashioned tape-emulation method, though BIAS say traditional 'tape-style' scrubbing will also be included in an upcoming version.

 

"Although they're a small company, Berkley Integrated Audio Software have come out with a big, big product."

 

Editing functions are as you would expect: cut, copy, paste, insert, silence, insert silence, and crop (remove everything except what's selected). You can zoom in through many levels using command keys, and there are some helpful 'instant' display functions: with various key combinations you can go right to the sample level, or view the whole file, or select a region and have it fill the screen. You can choose, with the 'Show Edits' option, to display any parts of the file that you have edited with a 'marquee' of diagonal lines around them.

The screen can display the waveforms in four different drawing modes. Except at extreme magnification, each screen pixel represents a group of samples, and you can tell the program to either show the peak value or the average value of each group. You can also choose whether to show the group's polarity sign: with this turned on, the display is a single continuous line, while when it is turned off, the display is more envelope-like. You also get seven different drawing speeds: the faster speeds use more CPU time and thus give you less ability to play or edit in the background. Frankly, I find all these options tend towards overkill, but someone may like them.

INS AND OUTS

File formats supported are currently somewhat limited: Sound Designer II, AIFF, and Red Book audio for CD mastering. These are sufficient if you're just working in a Mac music environment, but for multimedia work you also need the QuickTime Movie format, and if you plan to use your files with other computer platforms you need .WAV. The company promises that these formats will be supported in the near future. You can save files in 8-bit AIFF format for multimedia use, but the program simply truncates the file, without any dithering or level-changing, and so the results will often be less than optimal. Fortunately, you can use the plug-in version of Waves' L1, which I'll talk about shortly.

The program lets you import tracks on an audio CD directly from a CD-ROM player (assuming that the player supports what's called 'SCSI-to-audio-transfer' or 'audio extraction', and unfortunately, a lot of popular third-party drives don't). This is actually a feature of Apple's QuickTime, but in most applications that take advantage of it, the file that results is a QuickTime movie, which then has to be converted into the application's native format. Peak conveniently imports it directly as AIFF, so you can start working on it right away. The feature lets you select a CD track, listen to it, and designate in and out points for the conversion.

Like many office software products, Peak remembers the last few files you've opened, in the current session or previous ones, and lets you access them instantaneously from the File menu. You can have multiple files open and play them one at a time using the Mac number keys, the numbers corresponding to the order in which you opened the files.

PROCESSING

DSP functions are accessed through sub-menus under the Action menu. Their organisation is a bit confusing. Some are found in what BIAS calls 'Accessory Paks', which are software add-ons that reside in the program itself. Accessory Paks were originally supposed to be optional extras, but the company recently decided to simply include all of them with the software, so perhaps the concept will eventually be disposed of. Other DSP functions are plug-ins from third-party manufacturers, and these live in a special folder. The plug-ins that Peak can access are those designed to be used by Adobe's Premiere: this is a whole new family of tools whose format is being adopted by a number of companies' products (such as Macromedia's Deck), and is becoming a viable, and much less expensive, alternative to Digidesign's TDM plug-ins.

The DSP functions in the Accessory Paks include sample-rate conversion; phase inversion; normalisation; click repair (which automatically -- and very nicely -- smooths over spikes); gain change; reverse; reverse boomerang (which turns the signal around and mixes it back with the original); fade in and out; and 'rappify', which the documentation says "rhythmically applies an extreme dynamic filter" to the file, but doesn't do a lot for me. There's also a Duration Change function, which lets you change the tempo of a file without changing pitch, but despite its comprehensive selection of sub-parameters, it does a poor job -- complex sounds take on an ugly low-frequency modulation. The feature's 'Speed' parameter is labelled wrongly: as you increase the speed over 100%, the duration gets longer, not shorter. Let's hope they fix this soon. There's also a phase vocoder feature, whose function is not entirely clear, as it isn't documented. It does, however, seem to do a cleaner job of changing duration than the Duration Change function does.

More successful is the Threshold function, which is a tool for automatically breaking up a file into regions, similar to the Strip Silence function in Opcode's Studio Vision. When you invoke this, it analyses the amplitude of the file over time, inserts a marker whenever the level crosses a certain user-definable threshold and stays there for a certain (also user-definable) period of time. A very slick graphic window is used to set the threshold level, letting you see exactly where and how many markers will be created as you change the level up and down. Each marker can then define a region, and you can use these regions to, for example, break up a drum loop into individual hits or separate a voice track into syllables. Once the markers are set up, the individual regions can be automatically exported into windows of their own, and even saved to disk. Very cool. One drawback, however, is that if you have a whole lot of regions (in my experiments, more than about 15), and you export them to individual windows, the program apparently runs out of gas and the computer freezes. But in the program's favour, this was the only time I was able to get it to crash.

There are three DSP functions that work through the clipboard -- that is, they involve two sounds simultaneously: one the current selection, and the other a selection cut or copied from somewhere else. 'Mix' simply merges the contents of the clipboard into the current selection, and 'Modulate' creates a ring-modulation effect, in which the two sounds are multiplied. The amount of the effect is adjustable. 'Convolve' is a weird function that, according to the manual, imposes the spectral character of one sound onto the other. It certainly can create unusual sounds, but exactly what's going on is not clear, and there are no user parameters.

BUT THERE'S MORE...

Also included in Peak's Accessory Paks is Apple Events support, which means that you can have Peak play audio files from within any other application that works with Apple Events. This includes many word-processing and database programs, so that you can use these programs to organise and audition large collections of audio files. Peak's Apple Events implementation includes a simplified document path description, so that you don't have to type out huge lines of colon-filled code to locate files that are deep within a complex folder structure.

Finally, the Accessory Paks include support for MIDI samplers. The normal method Peak uses for transferring samples is SMDI, the protocol developed by Peavey and now also used by Kurzweil and Emu in their most recent models. In addition, support is provided for some Ensoniq samplers using a proprietary, also SCSI-based, protocol. The company says that support for some Roland and Akai samplers is on the way, as is support for MIDI Sample Dump Standard, which will at least make the program backwards-compatible with a host of older devices. I tried the SMDI transfer with a Kurzweil K2000, and it worked nearly flawlessly in both directions. There was no setup needed: the program knew what I had hooked up, what its SCSI ID was, and what, if anything, was already in the slot I was aiming at. It also found the first empty RAM slot, which happened to be 200. In a quick test, I found Peak's SMDI transfer wasn't quite as fast as Alchemy's: a 15-second, stereo 44.1kHz sample took Peak 76 seconds to transfer, while Alchemy sent the same file in 61 seconds. There was also one slight hitch: when Peak told me it had sent to slot number 200, the K2000 disagreed and said it had received number 201.

CONCLUSION

There is actually a lot more that could be said about this powerful, fast, and very thorough program. Although they're a small company, Berkley Integrated Audio Software have come out with a big, big product. Peak does more than simply clear away the cobwebs that have accumulated in the Macintosh sound-editing world from several years of neglect: it's an exciting, innovative, thoroughly up-to-date program that will (assuming Apple doesn't blow it completely) greatly help the Mac in its struggle to maintain its long-standing, but endangered, superiority as a creative tool. Like any infant, Peak has teething troubles -- it needs better DSP and memory management, and should work with a wider range of file formats -- but I have the utmost faith that it will grow out of them. If you're serious about sound editing, whether for composition, effects design, multimedia, or MIDI samplers, you will want Peak.

 

PEAK PLUG-INS

There are currently two sets of plug-ins available for Peak: the Cybersound FX set from Cybersound, makers of the VS virtual synthesizer sound set for playing MIDI files with the Mac's internal sound chip; and a set from the remarkable Israeli company Waves, who have become famous for their superb plug-ins for Digidesign Sound Designer and TDM systems, which they have ported over to the Premiere format.

The Cybersound set includes echoes, delays, reverbs, flangers, EQs, and a fairly simple dynamics processor. They are useful, but their programmability and flexibility are limited, and the sound quality ranges from pretty good to pretty awful. For those used to playing with TDM plug-ins, which, regardless of manufacturer, are universally high quality, they will be disappointing. They're also quite slow -- it may take several iterations of the Preview function (which I'll get to in a moment) before the effect kicks in, and it also takes a while for any parameter changes to be audible.

The Waves plug-ins, on the other hand, which consist currently of the L1 Ultramaximizer, the Q10 parametric EQ, and a 'Swiss Army knife' combination of dynamic processing and filtering called AudioTrack, are exactly the same as -- and therefore quite equal in usability and quality to -- their Pro Tools counterparts. The controls themselves are sluggish, but parameter changes are heard in real time. Waves has recently started using a dongle on the ADB (mouse and keyboard) cable as an authorisation key for its plug-ins. It's probably much easier to administrate, and undoubtedly causes fewer system conflicts than disk-based copy protection, but personally I'm uneasy about loading down my ADB line (which in my case has two keyboards, a mouse, a trackball, a fax modem, and a Steinberg dongle) with more junk.

There is a serious drawback to the Adobe Premiere plug-in architecture, however, which Peak cannot escape from. To listen to a plug-in's action you select a region, open the plug-in's window, and press the 'Preview' button. The selected region plays, over and over, while you adjust the plug-in's parameters. Unfortunately, only three seconds of sound can be heard this way -- if your selected region is longer than three seconds, you'll only hear the beginning -- which makes it quite difficult to set parameters intelligently, especially if the sound changes over time. So using something like L1 to work on an entire song for mastering, which is such a joy in Sound Designer, is a really tedious exercise here. The problem is built into the system: you can throw more RAM into Peak (which would help some other sound-design programs) but it won't change anything. BIAS say they are trying to figure out a way around the limitation.

 

DOCUMENTATION & HELP

Learning to use Peak is easy: the program itself is relatively intuitive, and the manual is trim and well-organised. Two things I would like to see are more tutorials using the waveforms included with the program, and a keyboard command chart. The latter is available on the company's web site (www.bias-inc.com), but having it on paper would help. The Accessory Paks structure creates some awkwardness in the documentation: the Paks' features are described in a separate manual, and are organised according to what Pak they belong in, not what they do or where they end up on the menus. And, as I mentioned, some features are not documented at all. Hopefully the Accessory Paks idea will be abandoned, and the documentation straightened out.

There's also plenty of on-line help, in two forms: the program has its own Help menus, which though brief, are useful and well-organised, and the web site is excellent.

 

pros & cons

BIAS PEAK £399

pros
• Fast, non-destructive editing.
• File size limited only by disk space.
• Excellent SMDI implementation.
• 16-bit audio with Power PC Macs.
• Uses Adobe Premiere plug-ins.

cons
• Limited number of processing tools.
• Some processing tools not great quality.
• Doesn't (yet) support .WAV or QuickTime file formats.
• Uses Adobe Premiere plug-ins.

summary
A long-overdue addition to the Mac sound designer's arsenal, Peak is a fast, full-featured audio editor, combining the best features of disk-based and non-destructive editing. Excellent use of markers and loops, and smooth SMDI transfer capabilities make it a great sample editor. Plug-in modules are promising, but currently present some problems.

 

info

£ £399 including VAT.

A Natural Audio Ltd, Suite 6, The Kinetic Centre, Theobald Street, Borehamwood WD6 4SE.

T 0181 207 1717.

F 0181 207 2727.

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