Peak Pro 6

BIAS' Peak Pro is a longtime standby for audio production on the Mac, used by musicians, podcasters, sound designers, and other audio producers. As a dedicated waveform editor, it focuses on editing stereo audio and fine-tuning individual audio assets. It includes specialized tools for recording and prepping files and loops for use with other applications or hardware samplers. It can also help polish and export finished tracks for mastering or CD production.

The company's current challenge is building on this already-mature product. Peak Pro 5's answer was to bundle additional software and improve the core editor; as a result, it's really best to think of Peak Pro as a suite of sound tools. Peak Pro 6.0.4 features a variety of editing and playlist tweaks, new podcasting features, and still more bundled utilities and effects. But while the new features and tweaks may please loyal users, Peak Pro's core editor hasn't entirely kept pace with increased competition and evolving workflows.

Bundles and extras

Judged as an audio editor alone, Peak may seem pricey, but even the LE version comes with some bundled extras, and the Pro and XT editions come with lots of additional, complementary tools. With Peak Pro, you get a powerful EQ and compressor, SoundSoap noise reduction, WireTap Pro for routing audio from other apps, the SFX Machine multi-effect, a year-long membership at Broadjam.com, and bundled sound content. XT adds more advanced noise reduction, analysis tools, and significant dynamics, pitch, and spectral effects. The plug-ins are high-quality tools, and could be worthy additions to your toolbox even if you own the bundle of effects in Logic Studio.

New tools for podcasters

A sample editor like Peak can be ideal for podcasting and other similar audio editing tasks, as it focuses on stereo recording and editing, in contrast with the broader feature sets in software like Apple's Logic Studio (). Many of the enhancements in Peak Pro 6 are aimed at advanced users, but some of its most notable improvements aid podcasters.

Peak Pro 6 now publishes podcasts directly with the dead-simple Publish Podcast command. You can add metadata for iTunes () and music players and generate podcast RSS feeds. With Peak, you can not only export the file, but publish your podcast locally or to MobileMe () and FTP servers without leaving the program. You can even submit your podcast to the iTunes store in the same step. BIAS bundles Ambrosia's excellent WireTap Pro utility, so you can easily record voice chats from apps like Skype or iChat AV.

Peak Pro adds voiceover ducking, an essential feature for podcast production that automatically reduces the volume or "ducks" background sound under your voice. That helps to make sure your podcast host can speak without being drowned out by a background music track. The feature is implemented in a way that may frustrate novices, however. Because Peak doesn't include true multitrack editing, you have to use the clipboard to perform the ducking process. Most annoyingly, there's no live preview, so you'll have to use trial and error to find the best settings.

Finally, Peak adopts a high-contrast scheme that makes its icons more readable. Peak focuses exclusively on mono and stereo editing, but in return you get some powerful, quick-to-use sound design and audio tweaking tools.

Even the low-cost Peak LE includes the podcasting features, but serious podcasters may want to consider the full bundle in Peak Pro, as it includes BIAS' SoundSoap for cleaning up noisy recordings. Users shouldn't expect noise reduction miracles, but the tool can be handy.

Playlists, loops, and effects

Playlists remain the best way of assembling CDs or end-to-end series of audio files. In Peak Pro 6, the Playlist window has been overhauled with an improved UI, quick assembly of tracks, merge and split functions, and custom volume envelopes. For pros, enhanced export includes DDP (Dolby Digital Plus) support for CD production in the Pro and XT versions. For everyone else, there's a Send to iTunes export. Playlists in Peak clearly outshine the aging WaveBurner Pro included with Logic Studio.

Another strong suit of Peak has always been its loop creation tools. The Loop Surfer, a tool for creating seamless loops from audio files, remains useful. It's now augmented by Perceptual Looping, which is intended for monophonic, continuous sounds. The feature can create unique results you can't get elsewhere. If you work with hardware samplers, you'll love Peak's looping features; users of loop-editing music software and software samplers may not need them as often as they once did, though, because those tools include their own, more sophisticated loop processing facilities. While Peak is good at finding and creating seamless loops, it doesn't include facilities for working with individual slices (beats) inside loops.

The surprise in Peak Pro 6 is that it's an exceptionally good host for plug-ins, with some sonic capabilities that aren't accessible even in tools more associated with plug-in hosting. BIAS' Vbox has always been a powerful tool for assembling VST and Audio Unit effects plug-ins. You can apply these to audio files, record effects and instruments, or even play instruments live. In Vbox 3, you can add envelopes to those plug-ins. The routing matrix has an improved UI, but the killer feature is cross-synthesis, which allows special effects like modulation, vocoding, and convolution. For sound designers, this is a real dream. It allows you to take existing sound material and third-party plug-ins and use them in new ways, and provides a compelling argument for choosing Peak in place of more generalized music production tools when you want to cook up strange new sounds.

Vbox is one of Peak Pro's best features; it allows you to create complex and powerful routings of bundled and third-party plug-ins. Now you can add cross-synthesis capabilities for special effects like vocoding and convolution.

Editor improvements

Peak's user interface has gotten some cosmetic tweaks. Peak is nothing if not packed with editing features, but this functionality produced a toolbar of icons that could get unruly in past versions. A new high-contrast background is far easier to see, and it's adjustable if you don't like it. Finally, tool tips show you what those icons mean and what shortcuts can access them. The multi-window interface is now magnetic, so windows will snap to the edge of the screen for a neater layout.

These changes are welcome, but Peak's UI isn't as efficient as those in competing offerings like Adobe Soundbooth (), Apple Soundtrack Pro (), and Audiowave Wave Editor. The magnetic function doesn't compensate for the fact that the Toolbar still floats rather than being docked to an edit window. Icons can be a confusing way of communicating abstract editing concepts, and there's no text label option of the sort available in Firefox and other applications. You'll still wind up juggling floating windows rather than more convenient edit panes.

It can be worth putting up with these inconveniences for some of Peak's editing niceties and DSP (digital signal processing) power, but there are other, non-cosmetic areas of the software that seem overdue for a refresh. Because Peak doesn't include true multi-channel editing, combining layers of audio files is more awkward than in it is similar editing tools. Crossfade curves have some editing options, but you can't, for instance, create Bezier curves for smoother crossfades. Plug-in effects allow real-time preview, but some included DSP effects have no preview at all. Most internal edit functions require destructive edits, so auditioning changes means trying something and then using multiple undos. There's also no spectrum view for editing.

Peak has nice automation capabilities, but there's no Apple Automator or AppleScript integration. These are all features that have become commonplace in competitors. That doesn't mean you should rule out Peak, however, because in its stronger areas, it remains a unique tool. But that does make it all the more frustrating that BIAS hasn't added some of the features--like spectrum view, better curves, or multitrack and layering capabilities--that have appeared in rival programs. The core editor remains the likely draw for many users, so while it is mature and powerful as it is, it's also the tool of which users may make the highest demands.

Macworld's buying advice

Even in an era of do-everything music workstations, tools like those in the Peak bundle can be production lifesavers. Peak's a strong choice for anyone doing audio production, though it faces increasingly strong competition from the likes of Apple's Soundtrack Pro and Audiofile Engineering's Wave Editor. If you're a sound designer looking for deep sonic capabilities, Vbox's cross-synthesis alone could be worth the price of Peak Pro. For podcasting, playlist editing and CD export, and sound design, Peak Pro 6.0.4 is a big winner. As a bundle, it remains an exceptional value. But you may find that Peak's loop editing features aren't as relevant to newer music software workflows; and if you want fully non-destructive editing, surround sound editing, sound layering, and multitrack audio editing and recording, you may want to consider some of Peak's competitors. Peak has the sonic depth, podcast savvy, and bundle breadth its rivals lack. If it can update its core editor with some of their newer features, it'll again be the tool to beat.

[Peter Kirn is a musician and composer, and the author of Real World Digital Audio (Peachpit, 2005). He runs the music tech site createdigitalmusic.com.]

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