BIAS Peak is arguably the best-established stereo audio editor for the Mac, and has now reached version 4, with a new look and new features including a convolving reverb. Version 4 onwards supports only Mac OS X, but for any OS 9 diehards out there, the installation CD also includes version 3 for OS 9. Peak 4 requires Mac OS 10.2 or later, and though you can run it on a basic G3, a G4 or G5 is needed if you want to use the convolution process in real time. Upwards of half a gigabyte of RAM is recommended, and your audio interface must support Apple's Core Audio standard. Peak makes effective use of dual-processor G4 and G5 systems.
Peak has to be authorised via the BIAS web site, otherwise it will fall asleep after 14 days. You must provide your serial number and other details in order to gain an authorisation code that unlocks the program permanently.
Most of the features that have been carried over from earlier versions of Peak were explored in more depth in our review of version 3, so I won't dwell on them in any depth — to find out more, you can read that review in the January 2003 issue, or on-line at www.soundonsound.com/sos/jan03/ articles/biaspeak.asp. As before, Peak's main claim to fame is that it offers more sophisticated stereo editing facilities than most multitrack sequencer packages. It's also very much a 'Swiss Army knife' program, as it can handle and convert a number of commonly used audio file formats, including AIFF, WAV and SDII (including SDII Regions), and it has an impressive armoury of DSP tools and effects. Audio files can be accommodated up to 32-bit and up to whatever sample rate your hardware can support. All editing tasks are non-destructive until a project is saved, and file conversion and other processes can be organised as batches for unattended processing. There's also unlimited undo/redo with a full undo history.
One of the first things I noticed about Peak 4 was that the whole 'Aqua-style' facelift introduced in version 3 has been given a Panther-style brushed-metal makeover that enhances clarity as well as the overall aesthetics. I always found Peak's icons a bit difficult to interpret, but they are much better in this version and the meters are also easier to read. The toolbar and buttons are resizeable, and as before, you can create your own custom control bar containing only the tool icons of your choice — though there's still no obvious way of creating and storing multiple toolbar setups for different tasks, as the toolbar settings are stored as preferences. I still feel this could be a useful future addition.
As with earlier versions of Peak, you can create a playlist file that's compatible with Roxio's Jam CD-burning software, but you no longer need Jam to burn audio CDs, as version 4 of Peak has full Red Book CD-burning capabilities built in. As with Jam, you can create playlists using 24-bit files, which are dithered to 16-bit immediately prior to burning, and you can edit the transitions between songs, with the ability to create crossfades between tracks. For those users who'd rather stick with Jam, a full version of Jam v6 is included with Peak 4.1 onwards, which became available shortly before I finished this review.
The core of the program has been optimised for use on the new generation of multi-threaded, multi-processor Apple computers, full Audio Units support is now included for insert effects (though it's still VST-only for the Vbox effects routing matrix), and there are up to five effect insert points that can accept VST or AU plug-ins. Vbox, for those who haven't encountered it before, is a matrix into which you can drop VST plug-ins and then connect them in series/parallel combinations to create multi-effects or mastering processing chains. Each plug-in has its own mini-metering and bypass button, and there are also master Vbox input and output level meters. In addition, Peak 4 includes a selection of new processing tools, the most notable of which is the Impulseverb convolving reverb.
The editing ethos of Peak is that regions of an audio file can be selected and saved in a 'drawer' for later reassembly in a playlist (or several different playlists). Playlists may be used for creating albums, with Vbox effects and processors applied with different snapshot settings for each track (Region) if necessary. Vbox may also be used to apply a blanket effect, such as limiting, to a whole playlist, which allows small level changes to be made to individual songs within the playlist without the risk of clipping. However, the Playlist is also an essential tool for editing and rearranging individual songs where you need to remove sections, copy sections or rearrange the order of a piece of music. Playlists can use regions created from different source files and regions may be viewed on a file-by-file basis or as a global Contents list showing all regions for all the files in a project. Peak caters for the independent processing of left and right channels where such is required but, as you'd expect, edits can only be made to both parts of a stereo file, so as to always keep the two channels in sync.
Most stereo editors owe a debt of gratitude to Digidesign's now-defunct Sound Designer II. There's invariably a main window showing an overview of the audio, with a larger, zoomable window that shows you the section of audio you're currently working on. Peak sees the original concept embellished considerably, but for the benefit of old SDII users like myself, it is possible to configure the key commands and control strip icons to work in almost exactly the same way. Furthermore, Peak can open multiple audio documents simultaneously, each document with an individual undo history, and should you need to, Peak allows the user to trigger up to 10 audio documents using the number keys 1-0 on the Mac keyboard. This could have some interesting applications in theatre or as an alternative to CD backing tracks for gigs.
The other major piece of SDII legacy is the way in which sections of audio can be marked, saved as Regions, then reassembled in a playlist. This is the tradition way of editing a song or creating a good mix from two or three takes. New regions appear in the Contents drawer and multiple playlists can be created using the same audio material (as you may need to do when doing several alternative remixes of a track). When a project is stored, the audio file and playlist files are saved separately.
Peak can record audio via your interface or you can import existing files — in either case, you start work with a New Peak Document. Peak also allows audio to be recorded through a VST plug-in when using Core Audio, which can save time when you know exactly what process you need. Existing files in AIFF, Sound Designer II, WAV, AAC, 24-bit Wave and Broadcast Wave, Quicktime, Raw, System 7 Sound, Sonic AIFF, Paris, Jam Image, AU or MP3 formats can be opened by dragging and dropping them onto Peak's icon or by opening them from the File menu. Peak can work with numerous compressed audio file formats, such as AIFF/AIFC and Quicktime files that have been produced using the MACE 3:1, MACE 6:1, IMA 4:1, QDesign or Mu-law codecs. Peak's own MP3 encoding has been improved and now works at up to 320kbps, while the new version can also provide AAC (MP4) encoding. As before, there's Quicktime Movie and DV (Digital Video) clip support offering sync of video to audio to an accuracy of better than a single frame. Peak will also open split stereo files such as may be generated by Pro Tools or BIAS Deck, which it then saves as interleaved stereo audio files. After editing, files can be converted to a reduced bit depth using POWR dithering, but as the CD-burning function offers dithering within the playlist, it makes more sense to keep projects at 24-bit until you come to burn the album master.
Playback may be started by clicking anywhere in the overview waveform or by placing the cursor in the main waveform display and then hitting the space bar. Users with smaller monitors may wish to turn off the overview display to conserve space. If you select only one half of the waveform, then only that channel plays back, which is useful when looking for problems that exist in one channel only. You can opt to have the audio scroll beneath a stationary cursor or the cursor can move over the audio, which means the screen is redrawn every time the cursor gets to the right-hand edge. Those with marginal computers may be better off switching their monitors to a lower colour resolution if the screen redraw places too much demand on their available CPU resources. Once a section of audio has been selected, it can be played back with a user-determined amount of pre-roll and post-roll, and markers can be inserted or deleted as required.
Many aspects of Peak's appearance can be configured as user preferences, including defining custom keyboard commands and determining which icons are displayed in the toolbar. A Pencil Tool is available for redrawing sections of the waveform, with various smoothing options, and there's also an automatic click-removal facility that works well providing the click is recognised as such in the first place (it must be a sharp transient). Peak also offers dynamic or tape-style audio scrubbing.
Peak For Sound Design
BIAS Peak's sound-design capabilities have been used on a significant number of major-league movies (not to mention for sample library creation) where its inbuilt processing, such as pitch-shifting, convolution, time compression/expansion and now the new 'harmonic rotation' can be put to good use. Apparently a number of sound designers also make use of Peak's batch processing facility so that they can speculatively try convolving a whole batch of audio files with the audio they're trying to process, just to see what comes out of the other end. Often the least expected combinations throw up the most interesting results. SMIDI support is available for transferring samples to and from SMIDI-compatible samplers, which can be used via SCSI (or Firewire-to-SCSI adaptors); supported models are the Emu E4, ESI32, ESI4000, E64 and E5000, Kurzweil K200, K2500 and K2600, Peavey SP/SX and Yamaha A3000, A4000 and A5000.
Peak includes all the standard DSP tools we've come to expect from serious editors, such as sample-rate conversion, normalisation, audio reverse, gain changes, fade-in, fade-out and so forth. It also includes the well-respected POWR dithering algorithm for bit-depth reduction (also used by Emagic and Digidesign), a workmanlike four-band paragraphic EQ, automatic click repair and a waveform redrawing tool that has an effective smoothing option to help avoid clicks or other artifacts. And of course Peak has always had a few more off-the-wall effects up its sleeve, such as Rappify, Reverse Boomerang, Convolve, Amplitude Fit (a granular normalisation process that can make everything equally loud) and now the new Impulseverb.
Impulseverb is a convolution-based reverb processor, which comes with over 250MB of impulses to play with and offers real-time preview of the effect type and wet/dry mix prior to saving a convolved version of the file. Peak has included off-line convolution for many years now, and it is incredibly useful for sound-design work, but now you can also 'misuse' Impulseverb in a creative way to achieve very strange effects for long sound files by using a short section of audio (up to two or three seconds is typical) in place of a reverb impulse response. If you like this kind of weirdness, you might also want to try the new Harmonic Rotate function (it sounds like a cross between ring modulation and an off-tuned radio), but if you're the type who likes to settle down with a good book, then the new Sqweez VST dynamic compressor/limiter plug-in might appeal.
For the user with slightly different requirements, there's envelope-based dynamic tempo change with markers and a whole range of sample-manipulation tools. Peak is particularly adept at working with sample loops using tools such as Loop Surfer, Loop Tuner and Crossfade Loop. A Phase Vocoder (Fourier analysis and resynthesis) process is available for time or pitch massaging, but how natural it sounds depends very much on how far you need to deviate from the original. I tried a 15 percent speed increase of a mix I'd done and the result sounded rather disembodied!
Loop Surfer is ideal for anyone wishing to create or edit sample loops, and crossfade looping is supported with user-variable duration and shape. If you know the tempo of the material, Loop Surfer can use that to extract loops of the correct length, but if not, there's a Tempo Calculator that will attempt to work it out based on the length of a selected section of audio. There's also an intelligent Guess Tempo that tries to calculate the tempo of a selected section of rhythmic audio, and Peak can also automatically divide files into regions dependent on audio threshold levels in a similar fashion to the Strip Silence command in Logic.
A key part of any stereo editor is the Nudge window, which allows you to manipulate and fine-tune the transitions between selected audio regions. Peak's Nudge window is also loosely based on that found in Sound Designer II, though it's somewhat more elaborate and includes the ability to manipulate crossfades with a visual display of what's happening. You can view the waveform either side of the edit and you can adjust the region start and end times at the transition on the fly as you audition the result. Two Nudge buttons, with a user-definable nudge time, can be used to fine-tune the edit placement, and fades can be dragged into place as needed. Regions boundaries may also be adjusted via scroll-bars in the Nudge window, and these offer a fine degree of control.
In previous versions of Peak, I found the limitations of the Nudge window quite frustrating, but now it's a lot more user-friendly, with plenty of visual feedback. A number of significant improvements have been made, though it still seems that you can only audition one transition at a time. Most of the time this is perfectly fine, but there are occasions where you may be pasting in a very short section of audio, such as a single note, drum hit or syllable, where you need to audition two transitions for the edit to make sense. On the plus side, there's now a scrolling cursor that enables you to correlate what you hear with what you see. When Preserve Timing is off, both Region markers can be moved independently, and the waveform display may be zoomed horizontally down to single-sample resolution. The ability to view three Regions rather than two would still be a welcome addition, but on the whole, the Nudge editor is now a joy to use.
Just as I was about to close this review, an update to Peak 4.1 became available, the big news being that Roxio's Jam v6 Red Book CD-burning software is now included at no extra charge, as is SFX Machine LT, a cut down version of the full-blown SFX Machine plug-in. Peak still has its own CD-burning facilities, but Jam is included for the benefit of those audio professionals who are used to working with it and who may also need to use some of its more advanced features, such as the ability to write ISRC codes when mastering. Jam may also be configured to launch Peak as its default audio editor.
SFX Machine LT, which supports both AU and VST plug-in formats, comes with 21 effects presets and has a randomise feature to allow serendipity to take a hand when you run out of ideas! It is especially useful for creating unusual effects and as such is as useful in sound design as it is in standard music production. Users can upgrade to the full version at a discount price via an upgrade link built into the plug-in and you can read a review of the full version in the July 2003 issue of Sound On Sound (www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul03/articles/plugin0703.asp)
I have to say that Peak is the first stereo editor package that's made me think I could finally abandon my old copy of Sound Designer II without feeling too insecure. Peak is of course a much more sophisticated program than SDII, but as an editor, it is fast and largely intuitive. I had a couple of crashes with version 4.02 but after updating to 4.03, and later 4.1, I found Peak very solid and the visual redesign has made the program much friendlier than earlier versions. The PDF manual has now been augmented by an optional ($25) well presented paper manual and the introduction of Audio Units support makes perfect sense now that it is the official Apple plug-in format.
Because nothing is made permanent until a file is saved, multiple levels of undo are always available, and it is easy to delete segments or add sections of silence to a recording, which is vital for any dialogue-editing applications. All the traditional DSP functions work predictably well and the new convolution-based reverb is also very effective as well as being simple to use, though I'm less convinced by some of the weirder inclusions. Nevertheless, there are creative people out there who will love them, so it's better to have them than not. For me, it's things like editing, waveform drawing and declicking that are the most important, as they are fundamental to any editing task. Those provided here work extremely well, though automatic click recognition only works on very obvious fast transients. The drawing tool has an effective smoothing option, so most short-duration artifacts can be disguised without leaving any audible glitch or thump.
Vbox seems to have changed little since the last time I visited Peak (other than being reformatted as a four-by-four matrix to give the user more screen space), and the one criticism I had of it remains — there's no simple way to pan parallel sound streams to create stereo multi-effects other than by inserting a dedicated panner plug-in. A pan control at the end of each output stream is all that's needed! The ability to set up snapshots of VST plug-in settings for each Region in a playlist was included in version 3, but it's a great feature and well worth another mention.
Peak has really matured as a stereo editor, and its comprehensive set of tools makes it so much more than just a stereo editor, though of course there's always the lower-cost Peak LE or Peak DV for users with simpler requirements. Especially in light of the recent announcement by TC Electronic that there will be no more development on the rival Spark, every Mac user involved in editing, sound design or mastering should take a very close look.