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electronic MUSICIAN

BIAS Peak 4.1 (Mac)

By David Rubin | July 1, 2004

After a decade of steady evolution, BIAS Peak continues to offer desktop musicians and sound designers one of the most flexible, straightforward, and feature-packed stereo editing programs for the Mac platform. EM last reviewed Peak in 2003 after the program had generated much buzz with its jazzy new Aqua-compatible user interface and its early support for OS X's Core Audio protocol.

Roughly a year later, BIAS debuted version 4, and although the current version is less revolutionary than evolutionary, it offers many noteworthy improvements. Most of the program's basic specs are still the same. For example, Peak still supports resolutions up to 32-bit and sampling rates up to a whopping 10 MHz. And the program supports an impressive and growing list of audio formats — both common and obscure — yielding wide-ranging compatibility for a variety of music, audio, multimedia, and sound-design applications. BIAS has also improved its audio engine by adding support for multithreading and multiprocessor CPUs. Further, along with its existing VST plug-in compatibility, Peak now fully supports Audio Units plug-ins.

EM thoroughly covered Peak's main features last year (see the Peak 3.11 review in the April 2003 issue), so to avoid repetition, I'll limit this review to the new tools and changes in version 4.1.

INTERFACE FINESSE

Although Peak boasts a number of under-the-hood changes, many of the program's new features are aimed at enhancing and further refining the user interface (see Fig. 1). For example, the Jaguar-style windows in version 3 now have the brushed-metal look of Panther and its family of applications. More importantly, the toolbar buttons now reside in a separate window that you can drag around and resize as a vertical or horizontal strip of any width or as a rectangular cluster of any size. The buttons can also be resized from a diminutive 16 × 16 pixels to an elephantine 64 × 64 pixels, which is good news for the visually impaired and anyone else who is tired of squinting at miniature icons.

Peak lets you assemble your own collection of buttons in the toolbar window, so you can have only your favorite tools appear onscreen. The program now provides buttons and reassignable keyboard shortcuts for most of its editing and processing commands. I love the flexibility and improved efficiency that the new toolbar window offers, although I wish BIAS would colorize the icons to make them a bit easier to distinguish.

FIG. 1: BIAS Peak's new Panther-style user interface includes a slide-out drawer (on the right), and improved set of VU meters, a new customizable toolbar, and a cursor overlay with continuous readouts.

The recording process in Peak is the same as it has been all along, but the earlier Aqua-influenced VU-style meters have been updated with more detailed high-contrast meters that look great. The meters still share the resizable Transport window with the transport controls and the redesigned and much clearer faux-LED Counter display. With the Transport window stretched all the way across the bottom of my 18-inch monitor, the meters span a respectable 10 inches. That, together with adjustable peak-hold settings, makes careful audio monitoring a snap. Just beneath the meters, a new Master fader lets you quickly adjust the playback volume with great precision.

Peak's Audio Document window is largely the same as in the previous version, although the overview above the main waveform display can now be hidden by clicking a small triangle in the upper-left corner. Peak still offers its assortment of 18 user-definable color schemes, with presets ranging from subtle to garish. As in earlier versions, I still prefer my own combinations.

The new Audio Document window differs from its predecessors by sporting an information drawer that slides out on the right side when you click a button in the upper-right corner. The drawer provides a variety of reference, looping, region, and other useful data along with a set of buttons for displaying the relevant details. At the bottom of the drawer is an x-y controller that also shows duration of the current selection, distance to the nearest marker, and beats per minute. (Peak can automatically guess the tempo of a selection.) The drawer is a nice addition that can improve your workflow in a number of projects.

A related workflow addition in the Audio Document window takes the form of an optional data field that follows the cursor as you move it around the waveform display. The lightly shaded, transparent cursor-information overlay provides continuous readouts of the same parameters as those that appear at the bottom of the slide-out drawer. The overlay lets you enlarge the waveform display to fill the screen horizontally without sacrificing the dynamic cursor information.

More often than not, however, I found that the overlay seemed to be in the way, and it was sometimes distracting when I wanted to simply eyeball an edit point. Additionally, the overlay field is frequently difficult to read — especially with certain color schemes — and its transparency allows the waveform to show through and compete visually with the readouts, which only adds to the distraction. Surprisingly, there's no toolbar button to toggle the overlay on and off; you have to use a key combination or select a menu item. I'm sure that some people will find the cursor overlay to be useful, especially for certain tasks, but I prefer using the slide-out drawer when I need a running update of important parameters.

PLUGS AND PROCESSES

Peak's robust editing and processing tools from version 3 have been carried over to version 4 essentially unchanged. These include the program's unlimited Undo/Redo command (with random-access edit history), user-configurable fade-in/out envelopes, and ability to perform edit commands and processing during playback. However, several new features have also been added to Peak's growing feature set.

For example, the familiar Pencil tool has a new Magic Pencil mode. To eliminate a pop or an unwanted spike, simply click on the offending anomaly, and the Magic Pencil tool will smooth out the waveform automatically. This is a much simpler task than having to redraw the waveform by hand. I tested the Magic Pencil tool using a scratchy old recording and was pleased to discover that it worked very well. If cleaning up old recordings is important to you, you'll also appreciate Peak's improved waveform display that shows you all of the clicks and pops, regardless of image size.

FIG. 2: Peak includes a new impulse-response reverb called ImpulseVerb. Its simple user interface belies its rich sound and powerful processing capabilities.

For most Peak devotees, however, the editing-tool enhancements are likely to be overshadowed by the program's significantly expanded plug-in support. As in version 3, Peak still supports VST plug-ins and comes bundled with Vbox SE, the flexible plug-in matrix for combining and routing effects. But with version 4, Peak has fully integrated Audio Units (AU) plug-ins, greatly expanding the available processing options. Additionally, the new Plug-ins menu offers five inserts per audio file, so you can mix and match VST and AU plug-ins as needed. Because Vbox SE appears as a single plug-in, you can create submixes of VST plug-ins and combine those with other mixes or submixes; if your computer is up to the task, the processing possibilities are staggering. As before, you can also use Vbox SE separately if you prefer to not use the inserts.

Peak has expanded its processing capabilities by adding several high-end DSP effects. My favorite is ImpulseVerb (see Fig. 2), an impulse-response-based reverb that leverages Peak's existing Convolution algorithm. The Altivec-optimized ImpulseVerb comes with a huge library of impulse-response files offering sampled reverb that captures a wide range of environments — from bedrooms, bathrooms, elevators, and corridors to Italian cathedrals.

ImpulseVerb's user interface is easy to use, with a drop-down menu for presets, a Preview button, and a Wet/Dry slider control. A Space Envelope button opens a separate window in which you can select or create an envelope shape that controls the reverb's length, attack, and decay characteristics. ImpulseVerb is easy to work with, and experimenting with it is a lot of fun. Best of all, it sounds terrific, with a number of presets offering a lush, full-sounding, natural ambience. I only wish there were a Bypass button for making quick before-and-after comparisons.

ImpulseVerb is not limited to using impulse-response files. Because the reverb is based on Peak's Convolve effect, ImpulseVerb has the ability to generate its effects from any file that is copied to the Clipboard, yielding an infinite palette of sound-design possibilities. For example, I used a recording of a mantle-clock chime and applied it to a recording of a nylon-string guitar. The resulting guitar track acquired metallic, ethereal sounds as if small bells were in the room and were responding to the music.

Another new DSP effect called Harmonic Rotate alters the frequency spectrum of a selected region by rotating the frequencies around a horizontal axis and assigning them to amplitudes from different parts of the selection. It's pretty hard to conceptualize, and it's even harder to predict the results. If you have the time to experiment, though, you might generate some worthwhile new sounds with this effect.

FIG. 3: Peak 4.1 includes Sqweez, a high-quality VST compressor/limiter plug-in with 14 presets, covering a range of applications.

The Harmonic Rotate interface consists of an unmarked slider (to increase the effect) and two checkboxes, labeled Real and Imaginary, that apply different types of spectrum calculations. As you slowly drag the slider while in preview mode, you often pass through one or more “sweet spots” where the results are interesting and potentially usable. Although Harmonic Rotate is easy to use, it's a bit too unintuitive for my taste. Sound designers, however, may find it valuable for generating new sounds and textures.

Another of Peak's new effects is a high-quality compressor/limiter VST plug-in called Sqweez (see Fig. 3). It sports independent stereo input and output meters along with Threshold, Gain, Attack, Release, Ratio, and Knee controls. Auto Gain and Soft Clip modes are also provided. Sqweez's 14 presets cover a modest assortment of applications, from mastering to heavy compression.

With the introduction of Peak 4.1, BIAS has added yet another tool for processing audio files with delay, filter, modulation, and other assorted effects. Peak 4.1 includes The Sound Guy's SFX Machine LT, a “lite” version of the popular VST plug-in. SFX Machine LT includes 21 presets that have the potential to twist and mangle your audio files (in a creative way); an upgrade path to the full, 300-preset version is available. (For a review of SFX Machine, see the November 2003 issue of EM.)

BURNING DESIRE

During the past several upgrades, Peak has continued to bolster its CD mastering and burning capabilities. In version 4.0, the program offered the ability to burn audio CDs directly from an audio document as well as from a collection of regions that had been assembled in the Playlist window. Peak's Playlist window remains one of its most powerful features, even if you aren't burning CDs.

The Playlist window allows you to organize regions in any order, apply user-definable crossfades before and after each track (region), specify individual gap times, adjust the gain for each track individually, and apply VST effects in real time to any track. The improved Nudge Regions dialog box lets you create custom fade-in/out curves, allowing for more control when crossfading between playlist events (see Fig. 4).

FIG. 4: Peak's powergul nondestructive Playlist window lets you apply real-time VST effects and custom fades to each track.

It is disappointing that Peak still does not allow you to synchronize playlists to incoming SMPTE time code, so that you could trigger events at specific times while locked to a videotape workprint. That would make a handy post-production tool for nondestructively testing dialog, sound effects, or short music cues. Nowadays film composers and sound-effects editors can simply capture a video as a QuickTime movie and run it in sync within Peak, so this feature is not nearly as important as it once was.

The Playlist window's transport controls allow you to play the tracks (with the effects included) as if they were already on a CD. When you are satisfied with the results, you can burn the tracks directly to a disc or save everything as a Jam Image file for burning in Roxio Jam or Toast.

In fact, BIAS now bundles a fully functional version of Jam 6.0 with Peak 4.1 — an excellent addition to the audio-editing software package. You can now move directly from your playlist into Jam to finalize the CD by adding track indexes, ISRC (International Standard Recording Code) data, PQ subcodes, and other important details that are necessary for mastering commercial CDs. You can also set Jam's preferences to open Peak as the external waveform editor for Jam. This feature ultimately allows you to edit seamlessly back and forth between the programs.

TAKE A PEAK

Peak's capabilities and its set of features have grown substantially since the last time that EM took a close look at the audio-editing software program. In addition to the main highlights covered in this review, some less flashy features are worth noting. For example, Peak now supports MP3 encoding rates up to 320 kbps, and the program now includes a handy Bit Usage Meter that allows you to analyze bit-depth and saturation problems.

In spite of Peak's many new features and improvements, the user interface remains attractive and accessible, and the program hasn't lost its intuitive design. I would still like to see SMPTE time-code support for the playlist, and I would like to have a printed owner's manual included in the package. (You can purchase a printed manual from BIAS for $25.) In general, though, it is difficult to complain when a high-end program like Peak adds a bunch of new tools and DSP effects and also throws in Jam 6.0 and SFX Machine LT, just to sweeten the deal. It seems abundantly clear that when it comes to Mac audio editors, the appropriately named Peak is once again at the top of its game.


EM contributing editor David Rubin lives and works in the foothills outside of Los Angeles.

Minimum System Requirements

Peak 4.1

MAC: G4/300 MHz; 256 MB RAM (512 MB recommended); Mac OS X 10.2 or higher; hard drive with at least 18 ms average seek time; 330 MB disk space (for full installation with ImpulseVerb)

PRODUCT SUMMARY

BIAS
Peak 4.1 (Mac)
stereo audio-editing software
$499
Upgrade Peak $149
Upgrade Peak LE $399

FEATURES 4.0
EASE OF USE 4.0
DOCUMENTATION 3.0
VALUE 4.0
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Well-designed user interface. Supports high-resolution audio. Excellent meters. Full-featured nondestructive Playlist editing. Supports VST and AU plug-ins. Includes an excellent impulse-response-based reverb effect. Comes bundled with Vbox SE, Jam 6.0, and SFX Machine LT.

CONS: Cursor information overlay can be distracting when active. No support for external SMPTE time code. Printed manual must be purchased separately.

Manufacturer

BIAS
tel. (800) 775-BIAS or (707) 782-1866
email sales@bias-inc.com
Web www.bias-inc.com

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