BIAS Peak v2.02

Sound Editing Package

Published in SOS June 1999
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Reviews : Software: ALL

Is BIAS Peak the natural successor to the ageing Sound Designer II, or can the old dog still show it some tricks? Paul White finds out.

BIAS Peak is a Macintosh-based audio editing package that can be used for a number of different applications, including stitching together songs from sections taken from various takes, chopping up and rearranging songs, dialogue editing, sample editing and sound design. There's also a playlist feature that can be used both to rearrange material and to compile entire albums. For CD-burning, finished playlists can be saved as a Jam image file so that they can be burnt using Adaptec's Toast or Jam CD-burning software. For non-Jam users, there's also an Applescript link between Peak and Toast to automate the burning process, and a copy of Toast is included on the Peak CD-Rom installer.

Support for many popular samplers is built in, and a number of sample-transfer protocols are implemented: SCSI, SMIDI and MIDI. Peak (which is now at version 2, or, to be absolutely precise, 2.02) also offers a number of powerful DSP audio processing functions, amongst which are some unusual and highly creative ones, so whether you want to create interesting loops, unusual sound effects or edit entire albums, the chances are that Peak has the necessary tools to do what you need.

BIAS PEAK V2 £349
pros
Supports audio without extra hardware as well as a wide range of audio interfaces, including Digidesign Pro Tools systems.
Configurable user interface with good set of DSP tools.
Wide range of tools for editing and sound design.
Ability to transfer files to samplers and to save files in various Internet audio formats.
Can use host processor-based Premiere plug-ins as well as TDM plug-ins with the appropriate hardware. Audiosuite support should be in place by the time you read this.
cons
Toolbar design makes some of the icons difficult to interpret.
Some areas of the user interface could be tightened up to make operation slicker in a time-pressure environment.
summary
Peak is a powerful all-rounder suitable for rearranging songs, compiling albums, editing samples and designing new sounds or loops.

Most of my sound-editing experience is with Digidesign's Sound Designer II, which uses a mixture of both destructive and non-destructive processes combined with a simple playlist, a relatively small set of tools and only a single level of undo. Peak takes a somewhat different approach in that virtually all edits are undoable until the file is saved, after which the audio file is changed to reflect earlier edits - it's rather like a word processor in that respect. This approach lends itself to multiple undos, and indeed Peak keeps a list of edits so you can backtrack to any stage in the project since the last save.

Because Peak is more of a multi-purpose editing package than Sound Designer II, it includes many more functions and options, which could lead to a potentially confusing user interface. To get around this, Peak v2 is highly customisable - it's possible to create a toolbar button for just about any function, and you get to choose precisely which buttons you want to see in the toolbar. The result is a custom user interface for whatever type of work you're doing, so if you only want to do SDII-style editing, you can build yourself a very simple set of tools. In addition, Peak v2 can print a cue card of the shortcuts you've set up. When the toolbar is full, another row of buttons is added beneath the first, but you can resize the window to show only the first row of buttons if screen space is scarce.

To use Peak, you'll need a Power Mac or a G3 running System 7.5 or later with at least 32Mb of RAM - and rather more if you intend using Pro Tools TDM hardware. System 8.5.1 is recommended for G3 users, though I got away with System 8.5. QuickTime 3.0 or later must also be installed, though a copy of this comes on the install disc. Sound Manager should be v3.3 or later. If you don't have any audio hardware, you can use the Mac's own 16-bit audio I/O. Many popular soundcards can be used via the Macintosh Sound Manager, and version 2 also includes support for Digidesign TDM hardware, including Mix/24. Peak can support 8-, 16-, 24- or even 32-bit audio files, and works with Adobe Premiere plug-ins. Those with Pro Tools TDM hardware can use TDM plug-ins, and the update to version 2.03 (which should have happened by the time you read this) will add support for Digidesign Audiosuite plug-ins.

In this multimedia world, it's important to be able to work with a number of different audio file formats, so in addition to AIFF and SDII, Peak v2 also supports Red Book, QuickTime, Wave, RealAudio, Shockwave, SUN.au, MP3 and System 7 sound formats. This opens up opportunities for developing sound for Internet applications.

New In v2

Existing Peak users may want to know what is new in version 2. From the screenshots, you can see that the user interface has evolved somewhat, but although the colours used on the waveform screen can be customised to a wide extent, the appearance of the toolbars is fixed with a black background and non-resizable buttons. Personally, I don't like this - but then art is subjective! Holding the cursor above a button causes its function to be displayed at the bottom of the screen. I'm told that a designer is currently working on revamping the appearance of the interface, so hopefully this aspect of the software will improve in the near future.

The ability to support 24- and 32-bit audio files is new, as is playback and recording with Digidesign DAE hardware, though Audiosuite support was not available at the time of review. Additions have also been made to the onboard DSP processes, including Loop Tuner, Pitch Change and DC offset correction. For AV use, there's also a QuickTime movie window and SMPTE sync support. File support has been added for the Ensoniq Paris system (PAF-format files) and it's now possible to select the left and right channels separately for processing. Also new is the ability to burn CDs from the playlist.

Window Frames

Peak's main edit window shows the stereo sound file to be edited as an overview waveform (the entire file) at the top of the screen, and a zoomed-in view of part of the file at the current cursor position is displayed at the bottom of the screen. The user-definable toolbar sits at the top of the screen and includes the transport controls while a further bar provides the various cursor modes, the default being the arrowhead for selection. A hand-shaped cursor allows waveforms to be moved from left to right within the window and there's also a pencil tool for drawing or reshaping existing waveforms. A magnifying glass zooms in and out while two further buttons enable blend (a gentle crossfade between edit points) and activate 'loop during playback'.

  Peak & Samplers  
  Peak 2 provides SMIDI sampler support for Emu's E4, ESI32, ESI4000 and E64, Ensoniq's ASR-X, Kurzweil's K2000 and K2500, Peavey's SP/SX and Yamaha's A3000. Akai and Roland samplers don't use SMIDI but have their own SCSI-based transfer protocols that Peak 2.0 supports, though Akai omitted SCSI-based transfer support from their new S5000 and S6000 models. Standard MIDI transfers are possible using Opcode's OMS - the only problem is that they take forever!

Individual samples can be transferred from the sampler to Peak or vice versa, and crossfade loops can be created within Peak prior to transfer. Peak isn't designed as a full-function sample editor so things like keygrouping and envelopes have to be dealt with in the sampler itself, but for editing the actual samples, it's a very powerful tool providing no more than one loop per sample is needed. The details of sending data back and forth to the various supported samplers are covered in detail in the manual, but on the whole, the procedure is straightforward, especially via SCSI.

 
The other main windows are the Contents Palette, which lists all the Regions, markers and loops that you've created, and the Playlist window into which Regions can be dragged. Once in the playlist, regions may be played back in any order, with or without spaces, and a comprehensive Nudge function is available enabling transitions between Regions to be auditioned and fine-tuned.

In previous versions of Peak, pressing the Space bar caused playback to start from the beginning of the file. Now there are various preference options, including the original, plus other variants with or without preroll. I found the most useful mode to be the one in which playback starts from the current cursor position or selected region start point, and stops automatically at the end of the selected region. Playback may be halted manually by hitting the space bar.

Two different scrub modes are available from within the preference window - tape-style and dynamic. Tape scrubbing allows the mouse to be used to move the audio play backwards or forwards from any point at a speed proportional to the mouse movement, not unlike scrubbing in Sound Designer II. Dynamic scrubbing loops around a short section of audio at the cursor position, so no matter how slowly you move the cursor, you always hear something - and at the correct pitch. The sound is pretty garbled, rather like fast cue on a DAT machine, but it's incredibly useful for homing in on the attack of percussive sounds. The scrub loop length is selectable from 10mS to 600mS, but dynamic scrubbing isn't available when working with DAE, as Digidesign's hardware doesn't support this mode of operation. Selected audio can be auditioned, either with or without pre-roll, and when Blending is enabled, consecutive edits are crossfaded over a short period to avoid clicks. The blending envelope and time can be edited if necessary.

Recording

Audio may be recorded directly into Peak or imported after being recorded within other programs. Peak can also import the 'dual mono' files used by programs such as Pro Tools, after which it can convert them to a single interleaved stereo file. SDII Regions may also be imported along with audio files, providing they are in SDII or AIFF format, and CD audio extraction is supported.

Recording may take place directly to disk or via a plug-in effect, but first it's necessary to select the appropriate recording parameters in the Recording Options dialogue window. Here you choose which disk to record on to, what file format to use, whether to use split or interleaved files and so on. The Hardware Options box, accessed via the Recording Options box, allows the sample rate, bit depth, source (analogue or digital) and digital sync status to be set. On-screen meters monitor the incoming signal level, which should be set as high as possible without ever clipping. Other than that, recording is about as simple as using a tape machine, though as mentioned earlier, it's also possible to work with files that were recorded with other programs or even to import audio from an audio CD. This latter option relies on the Mac's CD-ROM drive being able to support audio extraction.

Editing

Peak provides a very interactive editing environment, insomuch as it's possible to make edits as the audio is playing. Editing is accomplished within the lower waveform window, and though it's possible to process left and right channels independently, it's not normally possible to edit them separately - the manual describes workarounds for the rare occasions when you might need to. The main editing functions are based around cut, copy and paste as well as the ability to mark up regions for use in the playlist, and as with most such programs, selecting a region of audio involves clicking and holding down the mouse button, then dragging the mouse horizontally to highlight the required section. It's also easy to select audio between adjacent markers - the best method for longer selections. Once selected, audio may be cut, copied and pasted freely, always with the ability to undo anything that doesn't work out.

Edits are generally best made at zero crossing points, and a preference option can force all edits to snap to the nearest zero crossing point, but even so, a little blending is usually wise to ensure a seamless transition. Peak allows you to deploy markers within the audio file, which may be named to make navigation more logical. A progress bar appears whenever audio files are being processed or while files are being opened or saved.

"Any Mac user with an audio sequencer would benefit from Peak, as it provides a number of features either unavailable within most audio sequencers or it makes available tools to do the routine jobs better."
One thing that always used to drive me up the wall about Sound Designer II is that if you want to delete a second or two of audio somewhere in the middle of a long file, you then have to go out to lunch while the program moves all the following audio back by the appropriate amount. Peak does this non-destructively, so the process is almost immediate - ideal for cutting 'ums' and 'ers' out of dialogue. Undo is also lightning fast, and a cut or copied piece of audio may be inserted into the middle of an existing file equally quickly. Conversely, cut or copied audio may be used to replace an existing piece of audio at the cursor position. Other familiar edit functions include the ability to crop a selected piece of audio so that everything else is removed, silencing a selected region and creating fade-ins and fade-outs. A graphic editor allows fade shapes to be edited by adding and dragging points, and custom shapes may be saved for future use. A similar facility is available for editing the blending crossfades. Most of these functions are pretty standard for any audio editor, but being able to undo these edits prior to saving is very useful.

Markers may be placed in the audio file either on the fly or when playback is stopped. Adding markers on the fly is a good way to mark edit points, and you don't even need to worry about being absolutely precise as you can always drag them around later to get the positioning accurate. Peak also allows one loop to be created within each audio file, and loop markers are available for this purpose.

You might reasonably ask what happens to markers if the audio file is edited to change its length or arrangement. The answer is that there are two options - any marker can be referenced to absolute time or it can be anchored to the audio so that it moves along with any edits. A toolbar button is available for detecting markers and any named marker can be located quickly by typing in the first few characters of the marker name. Both markers and regions can be nudged in fine increments to get their position exactly right.

I mentioned loops a little earlier, and Peak includes a feature called Loop Surfer that helps automate the process of finding a rhythmically correct loop length - useful if you're editing drum loops and suchlike. You tell Loop Surfer the tempo of the song you're working on, then select the start of the audio to be looped and enter the number of bars and beats the loop should cover. The appropriate length of audio will then automatically be selected so as to encompass the number of bars and beats entered, and the ends of the selection marker will change to loop markers. Peak even includes a guess tempo facility based on the analysis of percussive events within the audio file. Multimedia users may also be interested to know that Peak can edit QuickTime audio, though it can't edit QuickTime movies.

Effects

Peak incorporates a number of useful DSP functions, as well as providing support for Adobe Premiere third-party plug-ins. The latter should be placed in the Peak Plug-Ins folder, and like the editing, they are non-destructive until a document is saved - unless you actually record through the plug-in. Premiere plug-ins are set up by auditioning a short loop of audio held in RAM: once set, they can be applied in real time providing you have the necessary spare processor overhead to accommodate them. Alternatively, the real-time operation can be disabled, allowing you to make a hard off-line edit to the audio file.

Peak's own DSP functions are Add (which adds or mixes a section of audio copied to the clipboard to audio at the current cursor position), Change Gain, Invert, Reverse, Normalize, Sample Rate Convert, Fade in and Out and so on. A less obvious function is Amplitude Fit, which normalises successive small groups of samples (called grains) as short as 30mS in duration, then crossfades between them to make all sections the same level. The result is rather like vicious compression. Then there's Convolve, which applies the sonic character of a section of audio copied to the clipboard to any other section of audio. The result is subjectively similar to vocoding, but less obviously filtered-sounding. It's certainly a great tool for designing unusual sounds. Other creative effects include Modulate, which can create ring modulator-like effects, Phase Vocoding for pitch shifting or time expansion/dilation, and Rappify, which makes hi-fi sounds lo-fi. Phase vocoding avoids the warbling produced by conventional 'slice and dice' pitch-shifters, but it has weird side-effects of its own (sometimes creatively useful) if you try to change time or pitch by more than a few percent.

Peak also has its share of corrective tools, include Repair Clicks. This works best on digital clicks as it is able to recognise them by their fast rise time, and once a click has been located, it is removed and the gap filled with a 'guesstimate' based on what is at either side of the gap. The manual suggests that the click-location procedure may be less successful with vinyl recordings as their clicks don't have the same fast rise time as digital clicks, but some improvement may be possible if the clicks are identified manually. If the clicks are easy to find, Peak will work through the file, stopping at each suspected click so that you can ask it to repair it. Individual clicks need to be dealt with by selecting a small region either side of the click before processing.

Yet another processing trick is accessed via Threshold, a function that allows an audio file to be divided into sections on the basis of amplitude. A number of other packages use this technique to break drum loops down into separate beats and so forth. Peak v2 also provides a Batch File Processor that can apply any series of processes to any number of audio files via a scripting system. Once you've defined the processes to be applied, any files dragged onto the Peak application's icon are processed once the Batch Processor has been configured - leaving you free to go out for a curry! According to the manual, you can even drag an entire hard disk into the batch processor and all its audio content will be treated, though I didn't try this as there's audio on my hard drive I want to keep as it is!

Mastering

The playlist section of the program operates separately from the editing section, so you can create as many different playlists as you like based on the same material. The playlist can be used to compile songs from individual regions, or it can be used to compile albums from original songs. However, because the Jam disk image file treats each region as a new track, songs that have been stitched together from various regions should be bounced to a new, single audio file before being added to the album playlist if you're planning to burn a CD-R. As you'd expect, the playlist is completely non-destructive, and Premiere plug-ins can be applied to the audio in real time without changing the original sound file if there's a need.

To create a playlist, Regions are dragged from the Contents Palette window to the Playlist window, though it should be remembered that regions can only be used in SDII or AIFF audio files. Controls along the top of the playlist window provide the key tools required plus the transport controls for playback. A trash can is provided for removing files from the playlist, the button with the large X handles crossfades, there's a nudge tool to bring up the Nudge window (very useful when fine-tuning edit points in a rearranged song), a Burn CD button and a Bounce Playlist button. Crossfades are stored on disk as separate files and are computed before playback, so for long crossfades, there may be a short pause before playback starts. Because the crossfades are stored on disk, there's no time limit to fades as there is with SDII, which holds all its crossfades in RAM.

  Peak & The Internet  
  Peak is now equipped to prepare audio files for Internet use via its ability to save files in RealAudio 5.0, 3.0 and 2.0. Similarly, files can be encoded as ShockWave or MP3. The necessary RealAudio encoder extensions are bundled with Peak, (some utilities for the other formats have to be downloaded from their respective web sites) and using RealAudio, it's possible to select from a number of data compression options to find a compromise that best suits the audio material being processed and the transmission bandwidth available. It should be noted, though, that some of these compressed formats are 'export only' options - for example, Peak can't import RealAudio compressed files, though it will read compressed AIFF or QuickTime (u-law, IMA, QDesign) documents. With the recent release of QuickTime 4.0, Peak has the ability to open MP3 files. More sophisticated users may be interested to know that Peak can also create copy-protected RealAudio files.  
The Nudge Regions dialogue box is very important as it allows transitions between regions to be auditioned: at the same time, the waveforms either side of the transition are visible within the window. The scale of the visible waveform can be changed, and the amount of pre-roll and post-roll set as required. The region boundaries may then be nudged independently or together as the audio plays, but there's no moving cursor so it's impossible to keep what you see in sync with what you hear. Admittedly, Sound Designer II has no waveform view at all in the nudge page, but its sensibly set-out Nudge buttons and moving time cursor make it rather easier to use in my view.

A couple of demo Premiere plug-ins were provided with the program, which worked perfectly from within the Playlist, but as they were demo versions, it was only possible to use them in audition mode rather than real-time playback. The nice feature is that up to four different plug-ins can be used per region within the playlist, and to prevent abrupt changes at the region boundaries, the effect of the plug-ins can be set to fade in and out over a user-defined period of time - very neat.

Peak Practice

Becoming familiar with any new software is never easy, especially if (as is true in my case), you've been using a different software package to do the same job for several years. As you might have gathered from this review, I use Digidesign's Sound Designer II quite a lot, but I'm very keen to find a replacement editing package as Digidesign have decided not to develop SDII further. Insofar as it goes, SDII is very fast to use, but it's showing its age in a few areas, not least in its inability to utilise Digidesign's own TDM plug-ins, even if you have the appropriate hardware.

Peak is very much more flexible than SDII, but at the same time if you simply want to compile albums or edit up songs, it's easy enough to create a custom tool set to do just that. Marking up regions is just as easy as it is with SDII, as is compiling a playlist, but I feel the system for nudging playlist boundaries could be improved, not least by the addition of a moving time cursor and the ability to change the nudge increments from within the Nudge window. Crossfading is much more sophisticated than that offered by SDII with the ability to change the curve shapes and set independent durations for fade-in and out, but that sophistication also slows down operation slightly.

I originally had slightly mixed feelings about the non-destructive editing side of the system, because although you can implement as many undos as you like, you can only take editing back to the stage where you last saved, and being a paranoid type of person, I like to save every few minutes. Nevertheless, as SDII only ever offers one level of undo, I quickly came to the conclusion that this system is certainly no less flexible, and if you're prepared to risk two or three edits between saves, you can at least backtrack that far. The fact that changes are made permanent on saving also means you can get on with doing your edits, then let all the time-consuming file rewriting happen at your convenience rather than having it interrupt your work as SDII does. Similarly, Peak handles changes to the overview waveform very slickly, whereas SDII can take ten minutes or more just to calculate the overview for a one-hour album project.

The DSP functions included with Peak are incredibly useful, and though the click-removal algorithm doesn't always recognise clicks unless they are very obvious digital spikes, if you lead it by the nose and find the click yourself, it invariably repairs it much better than drawing in the missing data by hand. On the creative front, Convolve is a fantastic tool for mangling two sounds together to produce a completely new one, and I know that a number of sample CD sound designers use this function in Peak to create textural or abstract sounds.

"I originally had slightly mixed feelings about the non-destructive editing side of the system, because although you can implement as many undos as you like, you can only take editing back to the stage where you last saved..."

I tested the TDM side of Peak using the excellent Digidesign Mix/24 hardware, and once I'd remembered to assign an external drive to store scratch files (temporary files), it ran with no problem. If you forget to assign a scratch disk and your internal drive happens to be IDE rather than SCSI, you'll get a very unhelpful DAE error. This isn't a Peak problem but rather a function of DAE hardware. TDM plug ins can only be used globally, not in the playlist, so processing separate regions will involve bouncing the processed result to disk as a new file, then including it in a playlist.

Summary

Peak does so much more than I've been able to mention in this review, but I hope I've covered the main points. Within a day, I'd got reasonably fast at using it and there's nothing Sound Designer II can do that you can't find a way to do in Peak, though I did find some aspects of the user interface slowed me down a little. I missed SDII's ability to zoom in on a feature in the waveform display by using the mouse to 'rubber band' it.

In addition to basic editing, you get a sample editor, the ability to create audio files for the Internet and some powerful tools for looping and sound design. You can also produce Jam image files for CD burning. In may ways, Peak is a Jack of all trades, which means it's not as focused as some of the more application-specific packages, but the configurable toolbar goes a long way towards making up for that. Any Mac user with an audio sequencer would benefit from Peak, as it provides a number of features either unavailable within most audio sequencers or it makes available tools to do the routine jobs better.

Peak isn't perfect - software never is - but this package is continually evolving and improving, and in its present incarnation it's very powerful. Personally, I'll be very interested to see what the next generation of user interface looks like, and whether key tools, such as the Nudge box, can be improved further, but in the meantime, Peak provides Mac users with a much-needed audio toolkit in one sensibly priced package.

 information
£349 including VAT.
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