This major update to Peak includes a new Playlist editor, full AU plug-in and virtual instrument support and a heavy-duty suite of mastering plug-ins.
I often describe BIAS' Peak as a 'Swiss Army Knife' of a program, as it goes far beyond the stereo audio-file editing capabilities that are at its heart. Certainly, if you simply want to trim or edit audio files and then produce a pre-master for CD duplication it will do the job perfectly, but it is also a powerful sound-design tool popular with sample developers and film sound-effects creators. Numerous sophisticated DSP sound-processing functions (which seemingly increase in number with every incarnation of Peak) are built into the program, but third party plug-ins, including virtual instruments with the latest version, may also be used. Peak can also handle numerous batch-conversion operations, which can be a real time-saver in a commercial situation, and there are several tools for improving or rescuing damaged audio files.
These features, along with a comprehensive graphical interface, have helped to keep Peak at the forefront of audio editing on the Mac platform. However, far from being complacent, BIAS (Berkeley Integrated Audio Systems) have radically overhauled the program, adding enhancements that include comprehensive Audio Unit (AU) plug-in support and a brand-new Playlist section. In the Peak Pro XT version they've also bundled the six heavy-duty mastering plug-ins that comprise the Master Perfection Suite. (Peak Pro 5 is essentially the same program but without the Master Perfection Suite.) As with the earlier version of the software, audio files of up to 32-bit, at whatever sample rate your hardware can deliver, are supported. All edits are non-destructive until a project is saved, and there's unlimited Undo/Redo, with a full Undo history. I don't propose to cover all of Peak 's many attributes again during this review of the update, so for more info on what Peak is already capable of, check out our review of Peak 4 in SOS May 2004.
If you don't need the Pro version of the sotware, the budget Peak LE offers similar editing features and, like the flagship version, has been updated to include movie support (more details overleaf) and Peak 's newly designed Red Book-compliant Playlist, complete with all the necessary PQ subcode editing, ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) entry and CD Text features for CD burning. Missing from Peak LE is the new advanced waveform view in the Playlist — a key feature of the professional edition.
On the plus side, Peak LE features the same high-quality sample-rate conversion used in Peak Pro (although the highest quality setting is capped at '4', as opposed to the '10' of Pro XT). According to BIAS, this is still very good, and better even than that offered by Peak 4.
The updated Peak engine also includes Quicktime Movie/DV-clip synchronisation, plus a new Change Duration DSP process for adjusting the length of audio clips with minimal side-effects and without affecting pitch. The Change Duration feature in Pro 5 offers an additional tempo-envelope option, and the same technology is used to provide a high-quality Change Pitch DSP function. For easier editing, there's also an Auto-Define Tracks tool that can automatically divide up album-style material into separate tracks by detecting pauses. If all this sounds impressive, check out the full extent of what's been done to Peak Pro at www.bias-inc.com/products/peakFeatures/. For a limited time, bundles offering free extras in all versions of Peak are available. Again, full details are provided on the BIAS web site.
The first obvious difference during installation of Peak Pro 5 is in the copy-protection scheme, which now uses a USB dongle. This is authorised on-line when you register the software and allows the program to be installed on multiple machines, as all you then need to do is plug the key into the machine you wish to use. Clearly, this is good news if you tend to move between a laptop and a studio machine. My dongle is sticking out of a USB hub along with several others and appears to work perfectly happily. Just prior to going to press, BIAS informed me that when the forthcoming Peak Pro 5.2 update is released, the USB key will be optional and the program, as well as the additional plug-ins included in the XT edition, will be protected by default using a new software authorisation key. This means that a USB key will not be required, which is good news for dongle haters, but it will be available for a nominal fee if you prefer a hardware key.
As with most updates, some of Peak 's new features and capabilities are added to menus and so may not be immediately obvious, while others take the form of new windows where it is immediately apparent that something has been added or changed. One such area is Peak 's Playlist, where the newly designed List view window has been augmented by a graphic waveform view directly above it, showing staggered or linear views with object transparency, allowing crossfades and tracks to be adjusted visually (see screen above). You can zoom in or out much as you can in the main window, and drag region boundaries as required. Several styles of crossfade are available and customised crossfade versions can be saved for future use.
Roxio's Jam features a very nice graphical window for adjusting track gaps, fades and start markers, and BIAS have had to add comparable features to Peak now that it no longer relies on Jam for its playlist and album-editing features. BIAS stopped including Jam because both Peak Pro and LE 5 now support full Red Book disc-burning directly. They don't all work in exactly the same way, but the end result is much the same, including the ability to dither while burning. Other important differences are that Peak uses the Apple disc-burning engine and Jam doesn't offer such comprehensive editing and processing capabilities. Having said that, in order to maintain compatibility Peak continues to offer Jam Image import and export.
The revised Playlist editor can be used to sequence multiple audio files or regions, with flexible options for crossfading between items. The POW-r dithering algorithm is the same one employed by Logic and Pro Tools and is well regarded.
Essentially, the designers have tried to ensure that they've at least covered all the options offered by Jam and then added some more of their own. The Playlist offers unlimited Undo/Redo, plus keyboard trigger functions for auditioning and nudging audio segments and edits. Because the Playlist burns files that are Red Book compatible, they may be used as the source for professional duplication and they include ISRC entry windows, CD track indexes, PQ subcode editing, CD-Text, and so on. Peak 's own V-Box plug-ins may also be applied to the files within a Playlist as part of the burning process, which can save a lot of time if you want, for example, to make a CD out of some noisy audio (say, an old recording) and de-noise it as you burn it.
Of course, audio-format CDs are prone to errors and on most systems you have no way of checking these, so the first you know about them is when the pressing plant throws your master back at you and says the block error rate is too high to work from. To get around this problem, Peak 5 Pro has an extension that supports the standard 'DDP' file-export format. Many pressing plants prefer to receive material in the robust DDP data format, so the availability of this extension is a very welcome addition for anyone preparing pre-masters for duplication. Although it will normally be a paid-for option, I understand that the extension will be offered free to Peak XT purchasers for a limited period.
The plug-in side of Peak follows the same philosophy as it did in earlier versions of the program, using both inserts and a graphical effects (V-Box) routing window, but it now supports Audio Units plug-ins as well as VST throughout. Bouncing and virtual instruments are now also supported in these two formats (instruments are playable either via external MIDI or from an on-screen virtual keyboard), and there's an automatic latency compensation facility for Audio Units and VST effects.
A further benefit of Peak 's plug-in management facilities is that both VST and AU plug-ins used in the V-Box matrix (once saved as a user preset) can be opened in other programs, even though the other programs may not support both formats. I'm told that this function is technically not the same thing as a wrapper — it simply supports both AU and VST effects and instruments. In practice, this generally works fine, but I did have 'unexpected quitting' a couple of times when combining plug-ins from different sources and in different formats. This is not really surprising, as not all third-party plug-ins are happy to play nicely together.
BIAS were one of the first software companies to include a convolution reverb process as standard, which is one reason why earlier versions of Peak became so popular with film sound designers. Convolution may be used both to create 'sampled' reverbs and to 'convolve' one sound with another, to produce something completely new and abstract. Peak's Impulseverb has had a cosmetic update and gain controls have been added for both the impulse response and main audio source. Other than that, it is functionally similar to the previous version.
There are no direct alternatives to Peak on the Mac platform, although i3's DSP Quattro (last reviewed in Sound On Sound April 2003) improves with every incarnation, so that may be an option if you need something less heavy-duty. There's also Peak LE 5, as described in the main body of the review, which currently costs even less than DSP Quattro. On the PC/Windows platform, Steinberg's Wavelab is the obvious 'big-gun' contender.
Some of the improvements in Peak Pro 5 are hidden under the hood and are therefore less obvious — for example, the refined time- and pitch-manipulation algorithms that include a new transient mode to help prevent artifacts when percussive sounds are being processed. BIAS have always been very concerned about the quality of sample-rate conversion and their SRC routine now appears to be one of the best available. (After all, there's no point in recording at high sample rates and then using an SRC to provide a 44.1kHz CD version if the SRC is going to negate any benefits that recording at a high sample rate might have had in the first place.) An industry White Paper that I saw at the NAMM show earlier this year compared Peak 's SRC to that of 11 other mainstream audio programs and concluded that Peak 's was amongst the best out there (the paper is available at www.bias-inc.com/products/peakPro5/resampling, for anyone who is interested in seeing the results in full). The SRC algorithm is also utilised to provide high-resolution tape-style audio-playback scrubbing via Apple's Core Audio. Where quick and dirty sample-rate conversion is required, however, Peak can be set to use faster, less sophisticated algorithms.
In addition to upgrading established algorithms, Peak Pro includes some completely new DSP processes, such as the aforementioned Auto-Define Regions, a Strip Silence function and the ability to derive an envelope from an audio signal. The already comprehensive Batch File Processor has now been updated to enable the preservation of file resolution and type, while a new Recover Audio File command gives users a fighting chance to recover part or all of damaged audio files.
Some improved features take the form of additional convenience tools, such as the new Region Split command, and Unicode support that allows file names longer than 32 characters to be used. Audio files of up to 10GB can now be worked on without you first having to split them up, while waveform drawing has been updated, allowing more meaningful audio phase information to be shown in the audio waveform window. SMPTE HD units (relating to frames of High Definition TV picture as opposed to PAL or NTSC) have been added to the time display, but one of the real biggies for those working in multimedia or game development must be the addition of the facility to Snap to CD Frames, PS2 or Xbox Units in the Actions menu.
While Peak Pro 5 no longer needs Jam to take files to the CD pre-mastering stage, the days of included audio-DVD mastering are still some way off, so a special trial edition of Minnetonka Audio's Discwelder Bronze DVD-Audio disc-burning software is bundled with Peak Pro. The trial version enables users to burn up to five DVD-A discs, after which there's an opportunity to upgrade to the full version at a preferential price. However, I still find it frustrating that although surround sound has been with us for a long time, there's no straightforward integrated editing and Audio DVD-burning application that will let us take a bunch of surround WAV or AIFF files from a DAW and turn them into a playable surround album in one or more of the currently popular surround formats. Maybe if more effort went into this area across the board, surround would catch on more seriously in the project studio marketplace. As it is, it seems to be attracting very little interest.
As before, Peak Pro 5 will only let you edit one stereo audio file at a time — it is not designed to handle multitrack or surround-sound projects — but it still offers vastly more functionality than the waveform editors built into the mainstream DAW packages — including Deck, BIAS' own multitrack DAW. While drag-and-drop is supported in the Peak Playlist window, you can't drag files from the desktop to the main edit window, or to the contents window, which feels a little odd, as most DAWs routinely allow you to do this. You can drag files to the application icon in the dock and they do open, however.
The batch processor is great for repetitive jobs, such as converting a folder full of audio files to a different format, or applying a sequence of processes to all of them. The RMS Normalisation process, designed to match average dynamic levels, is still a long way from being intelligent enough to optimally match the subjective levels of different styles of music on the same album (ballads would tend to sound too loud compared with heavier rock songs, for example), but it is infinitely better than using peak normalisation on everything and can be very useful when preparing material for the Internet or for Podcasts. The smoother tape-style scrubbing makes marking up edit points even easier than it was before.
As the manufacturers are very keen to point out, Peak is currently the only Mac waveform editor to support both VST and Audio Unit plug-ins within the same environment. Despite the fact that software samplers have virtually decimated the hardware sampler market, Peak continues to support the most popular models of hardware sampler, and now that there's also a MIDI input feature and soft-synth support (as I've already mentioned, both VST and AU), sounds can be played, recorded and processed entirely from within Peak. However, it might have been nice to include specific support for the more popular soft samplers, such as Emagic's EXS24.
As I use Peak only for special projects, usually mastering and file editing, I don't feel completely familiar with all of its operation and the toolbar icons still sometimes leave me scratching my head. The 'tool tip' info that comes up when you roll the mouse over an area helps here, but some days I still finding myself longing for the simplicity of the old Sound Designer II software, which I'd learned to use very quickly for editing and compiling. In Sound Designer, I particularly liked the way you could use a couple of keys to mark the starts and ends of selections on the fly without first having to create markers. However, in Peak you can place markers on the fly and then use a keystroke to 'change markers to regions'; although the process is one step longer it's still pretty straightforward.
Perhaps allowing the user to add colour to some of the toolbar icons would be a simple step forward, and adding Logic-style screensets might also make sense now that the program has grown a few additional windows. Another feature that might help is to have the currently assigned key command displayed alongside the 'tool tip' information, as you can configure so many things now that it's a job to remember them all. Of course, the beauty of Peak 's being so configurable is that if all you need is a Sound Designer alternative, you can can set up a limited set of toolbar icons and key commands that feel familiar.
One thing in Peak that seems a bit 'clunky' to me is how you have to manually zoom in to the playlist waveform overview to see your crossfades in detail: in Sound Designer II or Jam, you simply click on the required part of the playlist and the crossfade window opens. As far as I can see, you can also set up only one nudge value in Peak, whereas SD II allowed coarse and fine values to be set up. Maybe function-key combinations to increase the nudge time by a factor of 10 or 100 would be useful here? A final request, if technically possible, would be the ability to place a track-start marker in the middle of a piece of audio without first having to perform an edit — for example, between two tracks that segue into one another or during an applause section in a live album. To be fair, this is now easier than it was previously, as you can use the new Region Split command, but having it all in the Playlist window would be neater.
In the Peak 5 Pro XT package you also get both the Soundsoap 2 and Soundsoap Pro noise-reduction and audio-restoration plug-ins, which came out very well in our reviews when we checked out the the stand-alone versions. On top of that, as mentioned earlier, there's the Master Perfection Suite of plug-ins, offering mastering-quality multi-band (three and five bands) dynamics, the Repli-Q 'fingerprint' equaliser, new analysis and metering tools and a serious parametric equaliser. Unfortunately you can't yet open these plug-ins directly in other DAWs, such as Logic, but there are plans for an update that will allow this. BIAS have confirmed that they are going into the beta-testing stage on the Master Perfection Suite for AU, RTAS and VST on Mac OS X and Windows XP, with a projected release time of summer this year. It will be a free update for all XT users and will also be available as a separate bundled product.
Examining the individual components of the suite in turn, I'll mention Repli-Q first. This works in a similar way to other 'fingerprint' EQ products, in that it 'learns' a source frequency response and a target frequency response, then calculates a complex EQ curve to make the source match the target. The degree of detail in the EQ curve can be reduced using the smoothing slider, while the degree to which the source is processed can also be adjusted. Providing you're careful with this tool, you can make mixes of similar styles of music match in sound more closely, and also make DI'd acoustic guitars sound more natural by using a real miked acoustic guitar recording as the reference. You soon learn what this kind of processor can and can't do, but don't be afraid to experiment, as there's lots of potential. One example that came to my mind was creating your own speaker emulator by processing a DI'd guitar sound against a reference from a miked combo.
The Superfreq parametric EQ is as easy to use as any other parametric, and you can load versions with different numbers of frequency bands, according to your requirements, up to a maximum of 10. In general, when adjusting EQ frequencies using the mouse, I initially found it difficult to arrive at precise settings, until I realised that you can use the mini wheel on the top of the newer Apple mouse to change the values in a far more relaxed way. I also discovered that as you drag the mouse further away from the selected knob the resolution increases, so the designers have clearly thought this through.
The Sqweez mastering dynamics plug-in can be thought of as a multi-band dynamic-cut equaliser or as a multi-band compressor, and it has a very informative user interface that displays the dynamically changing gains in the different frequency bands. Personally, I find three bands enough to manage with for most routine mastering jobs, but it's always good to have the flexibility of more if you need it. I can't foresee ever needing more than the maximum of five bands.
Reveal is the only plug-in of the suite that doesn't actually apply processing, but it is immensely useful, as it offers an oscilloscope display of the audio waveform in stereo, a Peak and RMS power history, a spectrogram, a pan-power graph, real-time spectrum analysis (again, in stereo) and a phase meter. This collection of meters constitutes an extremely useful set of diagnostic and quality-control tools. For example, if one side of your mix is unaccountably dull compared to the other and you haven't noticed it, the spectrum-analyser display will show you right away.
By default, all the displays are visible at once, but there are tabs that allow any single display to fill the entire plug-in window. To the right of the window are high-resolution Peak and RMS level meters whose maximum range can be set to 48dB, 96dB or 144dB, so you can also get a pretty good idea of where your noise floor is during supposed pauses in the material.
GateEx is a practical combination of gate and downward expander and can be used both as an advanced noise suppressor during pauses and to increase dynamic range. The graphical side of this plug-in has been very well thought out, with a display showing the signal waveform relative to the threshold settings and also a dynamics graph showing expander characteristics.
Pitchcraft covers some of the ground already trodden by programs such as Auto-Tune, but it is also capable of pitch transposition with formant correction. A graphic display at the top of the screen shows where and how much pitch correction is taking place, and there's that all-important slider for setting how quickly pitch changes are carried out. Users can set their own scales for correction and the familiar piano-keyboard note display is shown at the bottom of the plug-in window (see screen opposite).
We've covered Soundsoap and Soundsoap Pro before, but it's worth reiterating that these are very simple to use, yet effective audio clean-up tools for reducing artifacts such as hum and rumble, click and crackle, and broadband hiss. Usefully, there's also a built-in noise gate for more assertive silencing of pauses.
Peak has always been an extraordinarily powerful program and this latest incarnation continues the trend. The underlying ethos of the software is very simple to grasp, so the main complication is remembering the keyboard shortcuts for the many functions that are now available. Creating custom toolbar sets is one way to help manage this. The only area of the program that I feel still needs work is the accessing of crossfade regions in the Playlist: I feel that Jam 's ability to let you click in the list itself and then open the relevant crossfade editor without any need for manual zooming is just a little more elegant. However, I've no doubt that the Playlist features will evolve in response to feedback from Peak users; after all, this is the very first version of the new Playlist window.
In the previous version of Peak, I really liked the garishly bright Peak file icons, as I could always spot these in any Mac window from across the studio. The new icons are much more tasteful and subdued — which makes them harder to spot. A simple thing such as a preferences choice of icon syle would be appreciated by this user.
Being able to freely combine VST and AU plug-ins is certainly a big plus, and I know that a number of people will appreciate the virtual instrument support. Peak Pro 5 XT also comes with those serious mastering, audio-restoration and sound-design tools that could save you a fortune in third-party plug-ins. In most instances, these — combined with what Peak already provides — will be enough to get you through most mastering or restoration scenarios.
I know from experience that no piece of software will ever satisfy all the needs of all potential users, but the designers of Peak have tried very hard to cover as many bases as possible. Inevitably, this has resulted in a program that has much more functionality than most people will ever fully explore, but BIAS have managed it in such a way that the features you don't currently need should never get in the way of the ones you use all the time. Peak Pro 5 is now a very mature and flexible piece of software, and aside from the minor suggestions I've made that relate to making navigation easier, I have very little to complain about.