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BIAS INC. Peak Pro XT 5 (Mac)

February 1, 2006
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BIAS Peak has a long-standing reputation as the premier sample editor for the Mac, and for quite a while, it was the only one. Although Peak is no longer the only game in town, enhancements in playlist management and CD burning, new DSP processes, augmented plug-in support, and numerous user-interface improvements keep Peak, version 5, squarely in the running.

Peak comes in three flavors: Peak LE ($129), which is a low-cost, basic sample editor; Peak Pro 5 ($599), which is fully equipped; and the Peak Pro XT 5 bundle ($1,199), which includes the Master Perfection Suite of plug-ins ($599) and SoundSoap audio-restoration software ($599). Optional add-ons include multitrack audio-only sequencing with Deck 3.5 (called the Studio edition) for $200 and Disk Description Protocol support with the optional DDP Extension ($399). In short, you can have everything BIAS has to offer for $1,798. For this review, I'll focus on the Pro XT 5 bundle.

What's in the Box?

The Pro XT 5 package consists of four installation CDs and printed manuals for Peak, SoundSoap Pro, and Master Perfection Suite. The manuals also come in PDF format. Peak now uses a USB hardware copy-protection key (dongle), which is a first for Mac sample-editing software. Activation of the key along with product registration is required. It's managed seamlessly online, but it can also be accomplished offline if necessary.

SoundSoap Pro and its little brother SoundSoap 2 are audio-restoration Audio Units, DirectX, RTAS, and VST plug-ins that can be used in any audio application that supports those plug-in formats. Both versions of SoundSoap are also available for Windows XP. SoundSoap 2 is for basic noise reduction and click, hum, and rumble removal. With few controls, it's easy to use and does an excellent job (see Web Clip 1). SoundSoap Pro has advanced controls for hum removal, click and crackle removal, noise reduction, and noise gating. It takes a bit longer to set up, but it allows for extremely fine control over the results.

FIG. 1: Peak''s Audio Document window makes waveform editing and marker placement a breeze.

The Master Perfection Suite consists of six mixing and mastering plug-ins: GateEx for noise gating and downward expansion; PitchCraft for pitch correction and formant shifting; Repli-Q for spectral matching; 4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-band EQs named SuperFreq; 3- and 5-band compressors named Sqweez-3 and Sqweez-5; and the multipurpose analysis plug-in called Reveal. Although those plug-ins install in the global VST plug-ins folder, they are currently usable only in Peak. Versions usable in other hosts are in the works and will be free to current Master Perfection Suite owners.

Peak Pro 5 also ships with a small collection of audio content: loops from PowerFX and ambient sound effects from sound designer Steve Cerilli. Rounding out the package are a free suite of 34 VST effects plug-ins from Maxim Digital Audio (mda); Dreampoint's Freeverb-c reverb plug-in; and my personal favorite, SFX Machine Lite.

In Your Face

One of the best aspects of Peak, in terms of graphics and customizability, has always been its user interface. You can choose your own colors for all display elements, and the waveform is clear at all zoom levels (see Fig. 1). You can freely assign key commands to most common tasks, and you can also create buttons in the Toolbar and entries on the context menu, which pops up when you right-click with the mouse.

Peak has many clever tricks for navigating its Audio Document window. For example, you can lock region and loop markers so that the beginning and end markers move together or so that markers at the same location (such as the end and beginning markers of adjacent regions) move together. You can split a region into two regions with a single keystroke. Selection boundaries and marker locations can be set to snap to a variety of grids, including zero-crossings, bars and beats, CD frames, and a user-defined number of samples.

Peak's looping tools are outstanding. Loops can, of course, be defined from the current selection, but they can also be defined by length in bars and beats using the Loop Surfer. Once defined, Loops can be nudged one sample at a time in either direction. The Loop Tuner can be used to match the start and end points, and you can invoke crossfade looping when you can't get a smooth transition by other means. Additionally, you can now toggle the Loop On/Off Flag when saving AIFF files.

Scrubbing has been improved with the addition of tape-style scrubbing, which mimics the behavior of manually moving the reels of a tape recorder with the playback head engaged. Jog and fixed-position dynamic scrubbing are still available, with scrub times ranging from 10 to 600 ms. (The scrub time sets the size of the audio chunk that is looped during scrubbing.) The high quality of Peak's scrubbing results from its new sampling-rate-conversion algorithm, which is state of the art.

An edit-history tab has been added to the contents drawer, and it is more convenient for managing edits than opening the separate Edits window. Unfortunately, the edit history is still cleared when an audio file is saved, although you can preserve the edit history until quitting Peak by using the Save a Copy As option. A save-project option that includes the edit history would be a welcome addition to Peak's bag of tricks.

Tools of the Trade

Peak 5 has four new processing tools on its DSP menu: Envelope From Audio, Normalize (RMS), Auto Define Tracks, and Strip Silence. Envelope From Audio extracts the volume envelope from selected audio and makes that envelope available in any of Peak's envelope-based tools, such as Fade In, Fade Out, Gain Change, Amplitude Fit, and Plug-In Envelope.

Unlike standard normalization (which is also available), Normalize (RMS) uses an algorithm that maximizes the root-mean-square (RMS) level of the signal. RMS more accurately represents the perceived volume; therefore, using Normalize (RMS) on different audio files will result in a better match.

Strip Silence has three functions: removing, reducing, and gating portions of an audio file or a selection that falls below a user-defined threshold for a user-specified minimum amount of time. Reducing and gating are useful for controlling low-level content — a poor man's version of SoundSoap. Removing silent sections completely is useful for joining separate loops or riffs in files containing several such segments.

Removing silent sections is especially useful in conjunction with the Auto Define Tracks tool, which sets region markers around clips separated by silence in an audio file. Setting regions first, then stripping the silence between them reduces the file to its real content. You can then burn a CD directly from the Audio Document window, and each region will become a separate CD track.

Play It Again

Playlist management and CD burning have been completely redesigned, and that is probably the biggest and most welcome change in Peak 5. Peak supports CD indexing, PQ subcodes, ISRC, and CD-Text. In addition to the list window, there is now an interactive graphical display that allows you to arrange playlist events on a timeline (see Fig. 2). You can also use the graphical display to trim playlist events and adjust crossfades and gaps. Other handy playlist features include Slip and Shuffle nudge modes and optional snapping to CD frame boundaries.

FIG. 2: Playlist management now has a graphical interface for easy track, gap, and crossfade management.

Playlist events are taken from regions of open audio documents. If you have a bunch of separate audio files that you want to burn to CD, you can open each of them, define a region that contains the whole file, and then arrange them as events on the playlist. You can also chop one or more audio files into regions and use the playlist to sequence the regions in any order you like.

All edits made in the playlist are nondestructive, meaning the original audio data remains unaltered. Trims and crossfades are done on the fly. Furthermore, each playlist event can have its own plug-in effects chain using Peak's V-Box technology.

Once you've created a playlist, you can use it several ways. You can burn a Red Book audio CD directly from Peak. If you've purchased the DDP Extension, you can export the playlist as Disc Description Protocol files for commercial CD manufacturing. You can export the playlist as a Jam Image file for use in Roxio's ubiquitous Jam CD burning software. You can also export the playlist as an AIFF file or in Sound Designer II format with all playlist events marked as SDII regions.

Plug for Plug

With Peak you can insert VST and Audio Units effects plug-ins to process audio-document playback in real time. The processing can be printed (bounced), with automatic latency compensation, as a destructive edit to the entire audio document or to a selection. Bounces can be undone like any other edit. In addition to your own plug-in collection and the previously mentioned free collections supplied with Peak, Peak Pro 5 includes two proprietary BIAS plug-ins: Sqweez, a basic compressor-limiter, and Freq-4, a 4-band parametric EQ.

Beyond inserting and bouncing individual plug-ins, you can arrange multiple plug-ins in complex series and parallel configurations using Peak's V-Box virtual rack. V-Box can have as many as 99 rows and 99 columns (that's 9,801 plug-in slots), but for practical purposes the default 10 × 10 configuration is sufficient. The routing is not always as transparent as it might be, but V-Box is still powerful.

V-Box allows you to mix VST and Audio Units plug-ins, and it now supports virtual instrument plug-ins in both formats. You can play your virtual instruments along with audio documents, you can process virtual instruments with effects plug-ins, and you can record virtual instruments directly into new audio documents. You cannot, however, record a mix of a playing audio document with a virtual instrument.

Master of the Universe

The Master Perfection Suite, which is part of the Peak Pro XT 5 bundle, features multiband compression, multiband parametric equalization, gating, pitch- and formant shifting, matching EQ, and an all-purpose signal analyzer (see Fig. 3). All the plug-ins have four temporary storage buffers for quick comparisons. The user interfaces are clearly laid out; my only complaint is that numerical parameter entry is awkward because you must backspace digit-by-digit through the current entry before entering a new value.

FIG. 3: V-Box technology allows multiple plug-ins to be configured in series and in parallel.

The multiband EQ and compression plug-ins, which come in a variety of band counts, sound great and do just what you would expect. The matching EQ (Repli-Q) analyzes the EQ spectrum of reference and source audio, and then computes an EQ curve to match the source to the reference. You can fine-tune the effect by adjusting Matching and Smoothing sliders.

GateEx affects noise gating and downward expansion. It has controls for attack and release time, gate depth, expansion ratio, hold time, and hysteresis (the difference between the gate-open and gate-close thresholds).

PitchCraft is for transposition and formant shifting as well as pitch correction (see Web Clip 2). Within reasonable limits, it can be used to correct vocals and create background harmonies, and it works well with most solo material. You set the transpose and formant-shift amount in semitones and cents. For pitch correction, you choose a tuning (Equal, Mean, Pythagorean, and so on), a scale (Major, Phrygian, or Blues, for example), and a key. PitchCraft then shows you the allowed notes on a graphical keyboard, and you can further adjust the scale manually.

Reveal analyzes the audio passing through it and displays the results on seven meters: Oscilloscope, Peak and RMS Power History, Peak and RMS Level, Spectogram, Spectral Analysis, Phase Scope, and Pan Power. The meters can be viewed simultaneously or individually. The simultaneous display is great for quickly spotting problems, but the individual displays show much more detail when making corrections.

The Peak Experience

Peak covers a lot of territory and does most things quite well. It excels at bread-and-butter sample-editing tasks, and its built-in DSP tools cover all the bases. Version 5 ups the ante in CD burning and playlist management and puts Peak at the front of the pack in those areas. V-Box brings a higher level of flexibility to plug-in management than is available elsewhere. The XT bundle adds high-end mastering and audio-restoration tools, and although the graphical user interface is a little touchy, all the right stuff is there.

The competition in sample-editing software for the Mac has heated up in recent years, and the various offerings now differ in price and features. For its combination of features and ease of use, Peak remains a worthy contender.


Len Sasso is an associate editor of EM. Visit his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

BIAS
Peak Pro XT 5

audio-editing software
Peak Pro XT 5 bundle $1,199
Peak Pro 5 $599
Peak LE 5 $129

PROS: Excellent graphical playlist management and CD burning. Easy-to-use, customizable sample editor. State-of-the-art sampling-rate conversion. V-Box multiple effects manager. Excellent suite of audio-restoration and mastering plug-ins.

CONS: Can't save during playback. Undo history deleted when quitting Peak. Plug-in controls are touchy. Numerical entry is awkward.

FEATURES....3
EASE OF USE....3
AUDIO QUALITY....4
VALUE....3

MANUFACTURER

BIAS, Inc.
www.bias-inc.com

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