Bias Peak 4 Review
Jul 5, 2005Bias Peak is one of the most famous audio editing software. Our fellows Doug Edge and Richard Zvonar from AudioMidi review this world's most popular stereo audio editing, processing, and mastering application for the Mac.
|What Is It?|
Peak is an editing application for mono and stereo sound files. It can operate on a wide range of file formats, including the common (AIFF, Sound Designer II, WAVE, QuickTime, MP3) and less common (System 7 Sound, Sonic AIFF, Paris, etc.) with bit depths from 8 to 32 bits. It can save files with a variety of compression algorithms and generally can serve as an all-around file conversion utility, but for many users its greatest value will be as an editor and sound file processor. Editing can be performed destructively by cut-and-paste methods or non-destructively using a playlist function. Similarly, audio processing can be destructive, using a built-in suite of DSP functions (Change Gain, Change Pitch, Fade In/Out, Repair Clicks, etc.) or non-destructive by using Peak as a host for VST and Audio Units plug-ins.
Historically Peak can be seen as the successor to such "classic" 2-channel editors as Sound Designer and Alchemy. Although a decade ago these programs appeared to have been sidelined by the evolution of Pro Tools and the growing number of audio-capable sequencing applications, the interest in a modern equivalent became abundantly clear from the public response when BIAS (Berkley Integrated Audio Software) first demonstrated Peak at the NAMM show in January 1996. At the start of the show the mom-and-pop team of software designer Steve Berkley and marketing director Christine Anuszkiewics (now also a Berkley and a "real" mom) were tucked away in a corner of the "dreamers zone" of Hall D, where they were visited by the usual modest cadre of tire-kickers. But by the weekend it was impossible to penetrate the crowd massed at their booth, so densely did it fill the aisle. Building on this initial flush of interest, the company itself has similarly "bulked up" in the succeeding eight years, though the family character remains.
The latest versions Peak 4.0/4.1 have added a new look and plethora of bells and whistles, but the most significant changes are the fundamental performance improvements thanks to multi-threading and multi-processor support. The program has also kept pace with Mac OS X in its support of Audio Units plug-ins.
Peak's user interface offers a nice balance between simplicity, flexibility, and plenitude (look it up) with a main waveform editing window (one for each currently open sound file) and a choice of five floating windows: Transport, Toolbar, Contents, Movie, and Playlist. The editing window has two panes: 1) an optional overview that always shows the entire file and provides quick navigation (click anywhere and playback will start from that point on the timeline), and 2) a working area that can be zoomed to any magnification from individual sample to the entire file. There is also a slide-out Contents "drawer" showing any Markers and Regions that have been defined.
The four other windows can optionally be open or not, depending on the tasks at hand and your particular editing style. The Toolbar and Transport windows are slim and unobtrusive, by default residing along top and bottom of the screen (though the Toolbar can be reshaped to any rectangular proportions). The Transport contains a meter and volume slider that can be as long as your monitor allows. The Contents window is a global equivalent of a document file's Contents drawer; it lists the Regions and Markers for all open documents. The Movie window displays any QuickTime movie whose sound track you may be editing. The Playlist window is a particularly flexible environment for nondestructive editing. We'll discuss it further in the Editing section below.
Peak offers four ways to access most common commands: menu selection, keyboard shortcuts, a contextual popup menu (Control-Shift-click), and a graphic toolbar. Especially nice is that the shortcut keys, contextual menu, and toolbar can be extensively customized via Preferences. For instance, if you find that "Command-Shift-[" doesn't really speak to you as "Zoom Out all the way" you can change it to whatever you like. As if this weren't already civilized enough, you also have the option to save these preferences as an external text file-very handy for work groups sharing a copy of Peak but having differing "mind maps." Oh, and by the way-you can extensively customize Peak's color scheme, with individual color assignments for several graphic elements.
One of the most common uses of Peak is for editing mono or two-track stereo sound files, and as with most functions this can be done either destructively or nondestructively. In destructive mode the standard Copy, Cut, and Paste commands are supplemented by Replace, DuplicateŠ, Insert, Insert SilenceŠ, Silence, Delete, Delete except Audio, and Crop. In some cases the differences between these functions are subtle but significant. For instance, Paste, Replace, and Insert all write the contents of the Clipboard into the sound file at the selected insert point, but Replace overwrites the existing data, Insert causes the data to the right of the insert point to "slide" later in time (similar to tape splicing), and Paste behaves like Insert if no data are selected but if a region is selected then the contents of the clipboard replace it. Insert Silence allows you to specify a given length of silence (like splicing in a piece of blank tape), whereas the Silence command simply "zeroes out" a selected range of audio. Duplicate could just as well be called "Repeat Paste"; it inserts a specified number of copies of the Clipboard contents into the sound file (good for stutter effects).
In order to bring order to all this cutting and pasting, Peak offers a slick set of navigation, audition, and "markup" tools. Some of these allow you to move the insertion point around efficiently, some regulate the visual waveform display, some control the creation of Markers and Regions, and others control playback modes. Typically, there are several variants of a given function, or there are several commands that can work smoothly together. For example, control of playback can be as simple as pressing the spacebar to start, pressing again to pause, and pressing a third time to resume playback from the pause location. If a portion of the waveform display is selected then only that portion will be played back; otherwise playback starts from the beginning of the file. If you press Command-Spacebar, playback will be done with your choice of pre-roll and post-roll times. You can also choose to loop during playback, and the looping behavior can be turned on or off on the fly. If you're searching by ear for an edit point you can Control-drag across the display for "scrubbing" playback, or you can Control-Option-drag for dynamic "jog" scrubbing.
Peak's Marker implementation is similarly well developed and efficient. You can drop Markers on the fly by typing Command-M during playback, then adjust their positions as needed by dragging or by direct numeric entry. The range bound by two Markers can be selected merely by Command-clicking anywhere between them, and it can be permanently defined as a Region with a single command. To speed things up even more, a range of audio can be defined as a Region and placed in a Playlist with a simple Command-K.
|Playlists And Cd Burning|
Peak's Playlist window is a region-based environment for nondestructive editing as well as a quick and easy way to assemble cuts and burn CDs. The Playlist is itself a separate document that contains pointers to Regions in one or more open sound file documents. Regions can be dragged into the window either from the Contents drawers of sound files or from the global Contents window, and they can be arranged in an ordered list where each Region can be assigned a fade-in and fade-out time (and shape), individual track gain, gap duration, and even live processing using VST plug-ins inside Vbox (see below). Editing of the fade functions is done in sub-windows, as is the entry of time and gain values (I find this a bit cumbersome - these numeric values should really be editable in the list itself). There is also a Nudge Regions window that allows you to fine tune the transitions by modifying the Region boundaries and by setting crossfade parameters graphically. My overall impression of the Playlist feature is that it works OK but that it still has a way to go before it is as easy to use as the rest of Peak. It seems more suitable as a way to burn reference discs than it is for serious CD authoring. For the latter it is preferable to use a dedicated tool such as Roxio Jam, and the good news is that a full version of Jam 6 is now bundled with Peak.
Along with Peak's strengths as a sound file editor are its sound manipulation capabilities. Many of these features are built into the program. Peak's DSP menu contains over 30 Digital Signal Processing functions, ranging from such basics as Fade In/Fade Out, Convert Sample Rate, and Repair Clicks to more sophisticated processes such as the Phase Vocoder and Reverse Boomerang. These functions are all "destructive" in the sense of permanently altering the sample data they are applied to. However, two of the effects processes (Harmonic Rotate and ImpulseVerb) afford a Preview mode, so you don't have to "fly deaf" while setting up their parameters.
The quality of these functions is generally pretty good, as long as you know what you're doing and your expectations are realistic. For instance, Change Pitch gives decent results for smaller transpositions and for certain classes of sounds, but it can't achieve the degree of naturalness of high-end algorithms that feature independent formant control. Use it judiciously (e.g. don't try to transpose a vocal by an octave) and you should be satisfied. Similarly, Change Duration sounds pretty natural for smaller values but gets weird (as you'd expect) when you push it to extremes. I'm actually quite a fan of extreme pitch/time processing and have been known to stretch sounds (particularly voices) to more than ten times normal duration. I can attest to the fact that Peak's time stretching has a lot less of that nasty door-spring quality than its predecessors.
One particular jewel among Peak's DSP collection is the new ImpulseVerb, BIAS's entry in the convolution reverb field. Convolution is an effect created by multiplying the spectra of two sounds together. If one of those spectra is the impulse response of a particular reverberant space then the convolved result will have the reverberant quality of that physical space. ImpulseVerb comes with a large collection of impulse response files, ranging from small rooms (bathrooms and hallways) to grand spaces (churches and cathedrals). You can also provide your own impulse response files (such as the varied and sometimes bizarre Spectral Relativity collection) to achieve surprising results.
If you want to go beyond Peak's built-in DSP, you'll be pleased to know that it serves as a ready host to a wide range of plug-ins. Peak allows you to mix and match both VST and Audio Units plug-ins with a set of five inserts arranged in series (Insert 1 feeds Insert 2 and so on). Each of the five plug-in can be selected from either the VST or the AU list and all five concurrent plug-ins can display open editing windows. If you're happy to chain processors in a simple series this may be all you need, but a much more flexible interface, which at present supports VST only, is provided with a helper application named Vbox. This plug-in manager can be configured as up to a 10x10 patching matrix supporting both series and parallel connections (you can see only 4x4 at a time or 5x5 in standalone mode). Don't expect to "load up" Vbox with 100 plugs, though. Your CPU will limit the maximum amount of DSP resources available and each plug-in will make its own particular demands. Think of that 10x10 matrix as a workspace in which to build a variety of multi-effects patches. Once you've designed a useful effects combination you can save it as a Vbox preset, so you can have a library of custom patches always on call.
I expect that most Peak customers are like me-real plug-in sluts, but just in case you haven't OD-ed on effects plugs BIAS has a special treat for you in the form of SFX Machine LT from the Sound Guy. Long-time Peak fans will recognize this as the latest incarnation of Earl Vickers' SFX Machine, a product that was at one time distributed by BIAS and which is pretty much of an "anything box." Earl has put together a cornucopia of effects built from delay, filter, pitch shift, modulation, synthesis and other elements. The GUI is simple (just a few sliders and number boxes) but the effects are anything but. The LT ("light") version is a teaser, with just 21 presets out of the nearly 300 in the full RT ("real time") version (you're encouraged to upgrade). RT lives up to its suffix by allowing you to change presets on the fly (no need to stop playback while you load a new algorithm) and by letting you assign a MIDI controller to any parameter using a learn function.
If you need to perform the same set of processing operations on a large number of files, you will certainly appreciate Peak's Batch Processor. For instance, if you need to convert a folder full of WAVE files to MP3s, you can simply open the Batch File Processor's Save Audio Document window, select the source and destination folders, and set up your Save parameters, including MP3 file type with bit depth and compression options. If you also need to normalize the files, or perform some other action on them, the Batch Processor offers a list of all the functions in the DSP menu from which to assemble your own processing macro.
Peak was born at a time when every sample editing program was obliged to port sound files between a computer and a hardware sampler for editing and processing, and BIAS continues to support several of these through SMDI (SCSI Musical Data Interchange) functions in its Sampler menu. Supported devices include E-mu Sampler (E-IV, ESI-32, ESI-4000, E5000); Ensoniq ASR-X; Kurzweil K2000, K2500 and K2600; Peavey SP/SX; and Yamaha A3000, A4000, and A5000. You will need a SCSI connection between your sampler and computer.
A classic tool found in most sample editing programs was the loop designer, a utility for creating a seamless sustain portion for use during held notes, with an inaudible splice point and a repeating loop that was either imperceptible or that resembled a natural vibrato. Peak offers a set of three looping tools. Loop Tuner (housed in the DSP menu) presents a window view of the splice point and allows you to slide the beginning and end of the loop into optimal positions to create a smooth transition. It's a simple interface with a pair of graphic sliders and independent magnification controls for time and amplitude axes of the waveform display.
When you simply can't find a smooth loop transition you may have to create one using Peak's Crossfade Loop function (found in the DSP menu). This is a "destructive" process that alters sample data surrounding the splice point. You're given a choice of operating on any of four regions (before and after each of the two loop splice points) and you can specify the length of the region to be processed. You can also design a "Blend" envelope using a graphic editing window and can save your creations in a library of functions for later reuse.
Loop Surfer is quite a different animal, with a metric orientation that is designed for today's loop-based music ŕ la Acid and Live. It's meant to be a quick and easy process: select an approximate region to be looped and hit "Command-J." You'll be given a window where you can set parameter values for the base tempo and number of beats in the loop. Peak will then make an educated guess at the exact loop boundaries and will start playing back the loop. If you don't know the tempo you can get Peak to calculate it for you using its Guess Tempo function. That's the theory at least. In practice you will still have to use your own ears and good musical sense to get useable results. I tried Loop Surfer with a variety of material and found that, while in some cases it did a superb job, most of the time I was much better served by my own sense of time. I could get a more musical loop by simply dropping in a pair of markers while playing the track and then looping the region between.
|Installation, Documentation, And Support|
Installation is a snap; launch the installer program and follow the instructions. You will then have a 14-day grace period in which to register Peak at the BIAS Web site. Once you have registered you'll be given your Product Authorization Code. Enter that and your serial number to permanently authorize the program.
The manual is first-rate. It provides substantial background information on digital editing as well as going through all aspects of the program in detail. It also includes a reference section and several appendices, including a substantial Troubleshooting section. The Index is quite useful. Buyers of a full version of Peak will get a printed copy of the manual; the upgrade version includes a PDF copy (which can also be downloaded from the BIAS Web site).
In my experience BIAS support is excellent. Both telephone and direct e-mail support are available, though you'll generally have to wait for a call back or return message. For self-guided research on your problem the BIAS-inc.com Web site provides an extensive FAQ on Peak and their other products, and there is an on-line user forum for registered customers (you'll need a serial number for access). Surprisingly, in addition to the forum there is a BIAS users' mailing list that is extremely active and is well supported by the company. Steve Berkley himself is a regular contributor. How often do you find the head of a company down in the trenches with the customers?
BIAS Peak is a now-venerable mono/stereo sound file editor that has matured gracefully and currently stands as the premiere application for sound editing and processing on the Macintosh. Its user interface offers a great deal of efficiency and flexibility, and this translates into speed for those who take the time to learn the key commands (or who program their own). Editing can be performed either destructively with a variety of cut and paste commands, or nondestructively in a Playlist environment. Peak also offers a solid and varied set of signal processing functions, and it plays host to both VST and Audio Units plug-ins. This latest version takes full advantage of the current Macintosh hardware and is both multi-threaded and multi-processor-savvy. Practically all aspects of the program can be customized, and most tasks can be accomplished in a variety of ways, allowing this to become a truly personalized working environment.
Article by Doug Edge and Richard Zvonar