We last reported on Berkley Integrated Audio Systems' (BIAS) Peak software almost exactly a year ago, when version 1.0 was released. Since its auspicious introduction, the company have issued a steady string of updates. All along the way there have been some significant improvements, and together they are impressive enough that BIAS would be perfectly justified in calling the current version 2.0, but they are modest: this latest version is 1.6.
If you missed the original review of Peak in the September 1996 issue of SOS, here's a summary of what the program is about. Peak is a full-featured audio editor for mono and stereo files on the Macintosh. Unlike recent versions of Digidesign's venerable Sound Designer II, it supports transfers of Macintosh sound files to and from MIDI samplers using SMDI -- SCSI Musical Data Interchange, the fast SCSI-based protocol supported by most modern sampler makers. Thus, you can use your Mac to graphically edit samples and then load them relatively quickly into stand-alone samplers, which normally lack the high-quality visual interface that a computer provides.
Peak takes a clever and thoroughly modern approach to how it handles sound files internally. In many audio-editing programs, such as Sound Designer, files are kept on the hard disk, so the computer has to read and re-write the file to disk every time an edit is made, which makes for very slow operation. In other programs, such as Passport Designs' Alchemy, sounds are loaded in their entirety into the computer's RAM, which makes for very fast operation, but limits the total size of the files you can have open to what's available in the computer. Peak's approach is hybrid: it loads those portions of the file that need to be handled quickly into RAM, while leaving the rest on disk. Instead of actually modifying the disk files with each edit, it merely changes around software pointers -- the same technique used by digital audio workstations such as Pro Tools. Intermediate changes that have to be written to disk are put into a 'scratch' file, so that the original file is never altered until you specifically save it. You have great control over what to use as a scratch disk, and version 1.6 even lets you use a remote disk on a network, provided the network is fast enough. All this means that Peak is as fast as Alchemy (and sometimes faster, especially on a Power Mac, since native Power PC code is now included); and there is effectively no limit on the size of open files.
Other unique and important features are unlimited Undos, with a History window showing all the operations that have been done to a file and letting you jump back to any point in the list; automatic blending of edited sections; a loop-surfing function that sets up loops according to a specified tempo; and a Threshold which finds silent passages in a file (you define 'silence', using a very slick graphical display), and automatically breaks up the file into separate regions, or even files, using the silences as dividing points.
While some makers of sound-processing software are aiming to more closely define their products' niches (Sound Designer II and Steinberg's ReCycle, for instance), BIAS are continuing to treat Peak as a Swiss Army knife, and expand on its all-things-to-all-people persona. So far, the strategy is working, and nearly all the improvements across the very diverse areas this program covers are successful.
The original Peak broke down its DSP functions into optional Accessory Packs, which could be ordered separately by users. Trouble was, nobody wanted the program unless it had all the Packs installed. BIAS have got rid of that silly convention and all the previously optional functions are now included in the program. (Those who want Peak's editing functons without the DSP features can get a 'lite' version of the program, Peak LE.) The DSP functions used to appear in a sub-menu under Actions; in the new version they have their own menu. Quite a few new functions have been added: Repair Clicks, which does a very nice job of finding spikes in the waveform (you can define how tall a spike has to be to be considered a click) and smoothing them out; Amplitude Fit, which lets you impose a volume envelope onto a file; and stereo-to-mono and mono-to-stereo conversion, each with a left/right balance control.
But although the Accessory Packs have gone, the ability of the program to accept third-party plug-ins for added processing capability has increased. Previously only the anaemic plug-ins from Invision Interactive would work: these include chorus, EQ, reverb, and compression, but none of them is particularly easy to use, or even sounds good. Now, however, you can use the formidable Waves collection of processing modules, including compressors, gates, limiters, EQ, stereo synthesizers, and the excellent TrueVerb reverb, from the respected Israeli company Waves; and BIAS themselves have developed SFX Machine (see the 'Get on up like a SFX Machine' box). You don't need to update all your plug-ins, though: those that worked in all versions going back to 1.10 will continue to work fine.
In previous versions of Peak, the Preview function, in which you can listen to how a plug-in is going to affect the sound before you decide to change the file, limited you to hearing only three seconds of the file -- not terribly useful on a long and complicated recording. I am told this is actually a result of the Premiere plug-in structure, and it is a problem common to all compatible programs, but BIAS have somehow figured out a way around it, and now Peak can preview longer segments. There's no direct adjustment of the preview time in the program -- as in Sound Designer II, the length of the preview depends on how much RAM has been assigned to the program. With a lot of RAM, you can hear quite a bit: in the Finder's Get Info window, I assigned 25Mb to the program and was able to preview 17 seconds of a 20-second file.
Another area where things have been cleaned up considerably is Peak's support of file formats: in addition to Sound Designer II, AIFF, and Red Book CD audio formats, the program can now work directly with QuickTime files, so that you can import, process, and export soundtracks from and to a QuickTime movie without any extraction or conversion process. Peak also supports the PC's WAV format, as well as AU, SND, and System 7 sounds. Files can be saved in 16-bit or 8-bit formats, and can be subjected to various compression schemes, including IMA 4:1, MACE 3:1, MACE 6:1, and µ-law 2:1.
Of great interest to web designers is that the program now includes a full-featured RealAudio encoder, which converts files into formats that can be streamed from the Internet in real time. The encoder comes complete with 10 different encoding schemes, for use with everything from 14.4K modems to dedicated T1 lines, and on-line explanations of when to use which one.
A wonderful new feature in Peak v1.6, especially for anyone who has to deal with large numbers of audio files in developing CD-ROMs, web sites, and other multimedia applications, or working on sample-heavy performance pieces (such as my King Frank, which I wrote about in August '97's SOS), is the extensive batch-processing capability. The way this works is that you create a 'script', specifying what processes you want to apply to a file (you can use as many as you like, in any order you like), what each process' parameters are, whether the processing will affect the first or last n seconds of a file or the entire file, and what to do with the processed files. You then close the script window and go back to the Finder. Now any file (or folder full of files) that you drag onto Peak's icon in the Finder will be automatically processed by the script. You can save the script for use at a later time, and create new scripts that can be loaded and saved at will.
One common problem with batch processing in other programs is that an error in one file will cause the program to come to a screeching halt -- I can think of few things more frustrating than setting up 100 files for processing, walking away, coming back 20 minutes later, and discovering that the program stalled on the third one. In Peak, this can't happen: if any errors are encountered in a batched process, the Mac will beep, but no dialogue box will appear, and the program will just go on to the next operation or file. You can set up a log text file prior to doing batch processing, and error messages that would normally appear on the screen will be written to that file, so you can look at what went wrong after everything's done.
Conversely, BIAS have thoughtfully provided a way of interrupting when you're batch processing, if you realise after starting the process that you've made a mistake (such as setting all volumes to zero). Press command-full stop, or click on the Cancel button on screen. The current file will finish processing, but then you will regain control of your computer. And don't forget, everything is Undoable.
For those of us who still like to load our samples into a stand-alone sampler for real-time playback and manipulation, Peak remains the only game in town (for the Mac, anyway). To their credit, BIAS, despite this monopoly, are not resting on their laurels, but are continuing to add new features to this part of the program.
New custom profiles have been added for Akai S1000, 2000 and 3000 and Roland S760 samplers, so that dealing with any of these models is now a snap. (Ensoniq samplers have always been directly supported.) Plus, communication with all SMDI-based samplers has been vastly improved. For one thing, it's now a real two-way street: the program can scan the sample RAM of a connected sampler and report back not only the name of the sample in each register, but also what type it is and how big. Loading time has been considerably reduced: in previous versions, a 10-second mono sample took 28 seconds to transfer to a Kurzweil K2000 -- now it takes 18 seconds.
Some users in the past have encountered a small but annoying glitch when sending looped samples to and from Peak: some samplers count the samples slightly differently from the way Peak counts them. To get around this, the program now lets you set start and end offsets of loop times, to match those of your sampler.
SMDI errors are dealt with much more gracefully than in previous versions. Formerly, an error on the SCSI line would cause the program to crash, but now a polite (although sometimes erroneous) message merely appears to tell you that the SMDI device can't be found. The old MIDI Sample Dump Standard is now supported, so pre-SMDI samplers can benefit from Peak's editing features, although the protocol (especially if you're used to SMDI) is excruciatingly slow. Best of all, the batch-processing capabilities extend to sample transfers, so that you can send literally hundreds of samples between Peak and your sampler with a single stroke (but then take a long lunch).
There are a whole lot of other small but very nice additions. You can make custom assignments of command-key controls for just about every program function. If you already have QuicKeys, the popular macro editor from CE Software, this may seem redundant, but it's actually quite a bit simpler and faster to use than QuicKeys. You can select a group of markers and nudge them backwards or forwards in time, with microsecond precision. The program's original approach to scrubbing -- playing adjustable 'time slices' at the correct pitch -- is still in there, but old-fashioned tape-style scrubbing, where the sound speeds up and slows down as you move the cursor faster and slower, has also been implemented. Personally, I liked the original method better, but obviously others disagree. The new scrubbing method is, unfortunately, a little flaky, and stalls often -- on the other hand, it's the only feature in the software that didn't work as well as expected.
While audio performance with the Mac's own input and output hardware is certainly adequate for many applications, professionals who need the highest quality (or digital I/O) will want to use Peak with Digidesign hardware, and some old problems in that area have not been solved yet. Unlike programs such as Opcode's Studio Vision, which address Digidesign hardware through the Digidesign Audio Engine (DAE) software, Peak relies on Apple's Sound Manager, and there are conflicts between Peak and the software that Digidesign provide for Sound Manager. If you have a Pro Tools III hardware setup, then unless you use old versions of the DigiSystem INIT (2.95) and Digidesign Sound Drivers (1.31), you'll get serious glitches from the hard disk on playback. However, Pro Tools 4 software won't work with those drivers: it needs DigiSystem INIT 3.1 and Sound Drivers version 1.4.2. You can have both sets of drivers on your hard disk, but you can't use them simultaneously, so to switch back and forth between applications you have to restart your Mac! A royal pain, to be sure, and one that I hope can be eliminated soon.
On a brighter note, the documentation is much improved. Of course, even if all BIAS had done was fold the Accessory Packs documentation into the main manual, it would have been a big help, but they've done even better than that: the organisation of information is excellent, and there are lots of helpful hints and 'How do I do this?' sections. Included are a pretty good troubleshooting section, a fine index, and a list of keyboard shortcuts.
All in all, this is an excellent upgrade to what was already a very useful and well-designed product. BIAS have obviously thought a lot about the many ways that Peak can and will be used, and addressed them all in a package that's comprehensive and comprehensible. If you're a Mac owner who is serious about digital audio for any application at all, Peak should be on your hard disk.
SFX Machine is a Premiere-compatible plug-in from BIAS that provides an amazing array of effects for processing audio files. Besides Adobe's Premiere and BIAS's Peak, it's usable with Macromedia's Deck II and Opcode's Vision, as well as any other programs that use the same plug-in format. (No, it won't work with Pro Tools.) The processing is off-line -- that is, not in real time. A preview function lets you hear what you're doing before you do it, and most parameters can be changed during preview. Since it works in conjunction with destructive audio editing programs, running a sound through SFX Machine creates a new file separate from the old, and so it needs plenty of disk space to work.
SFX Machine at first glance looks fairly simple, but there's a lot going on under the bonnet. The software provides two views: editor and sliders. The editor somewhat resembles that of the old Oberheim Matrix 6: there are eight straightforward-looking building blocks, which can be set up and routed to the other blocks in a large number of combinations. Each block contains a source, which can be an input, a simple waveform, or noise; a processor, which includes fliters, envelope followers, and delays; and two modulators, including AM, FM, ring modulation, and filter modulation, whose output can then be sent to any of the other blocks.
Each parameter in each block is adjustable, and you can set up 'real-time' controls for up to eight parameters at a time. These controls are shown in the other software view, sliders. You can adjust any parameter in the editor while preview is going on, but the sliders makes things much clearer and easier. The length of the preview time is adjustable within some programs (including Peak) and some nice features have been included to cut down on what can sometimes be long waits for the computer to get its act together during the preview process.
It would take many hundreds of words to discuss everything that SFX Machine is capable of: let's just say that you will never run out of ideas for processing sound with this tool. Because it's a build-it-yourself-from-the-ground-up sort of program, you may take a while to get comfortable with everything in SFX Machine, but fortunately BIAS have provided nearly 200 presets, from the commonplace to the downright bizarre, to get you started in just about any direction you could want to go. There are simple delays, big flangers, additive and FM synthesizers, pitch-trackers and pitch-shifters, auto-wahs, randomisers, and even 50 and 60Hz hum adders. The manual is short and sweet, and while it is far from comprehensive, it is very encouraging, and will inspire experimentation -- which is, after all, the point of the product. The only thing I could ask for is, some day, a version that truly acts in real time, in Pro Tools or a similar environment.
More DSP functions included.
Old Accessory Packs now folded into application.
Supports wide variety of file formats.
Wide range of good plug-ins.
Extended previews possible.
Superb SMDI implementation.
Not compatible with the latest Digidesign software.
Peak v1.6 has so many improvements it deserves to be called 2.0
-- a good program made significantly better. Once the problems
with Digidesign are cleared up, it will be unbeatable.
£ £225 including VAT.
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