LeafBIAS: Peak -- Audio Editing

It's been a rather long and boring period in electroacoustic music for several years, as we regroup and polish ideas that were defined a decade or more ago. Most fields seem to move that way, in bursts with plateaus, it may be just a mark of the "human condition", as we reach out to new methodolody and tools, first adventurously, then moving back for more perspective.

LeafPreamble on musical tools

It's very unusual for me to feature any specific musical tools on the website. The main exception we've made for several years now is the encomium I posted about Mark of the Unicorn's "Digital Performer" (I usually call it "DP"), the musical tool I've used the longest, since 1984. Back then it was a basic MIDI sequencing program, which grew gradually, as everything else did, feeling its way ahead, responding to what many musicians and composers discovered they needed and requested. In the mid-90s full digital audio recording, editing and playback was added, and it's become a favored tool for many music professionals who regularly work in the media. It's fast, very powerful and easily customizable, the interface is logical and attractive, and I find myself enjoying using it, even during long, difficult projects. The MotU company also makes some really lovely hardware boxes (I regularly use several of them), interfaces for MIDI, HiDef digital audio in/outs, synchronization, and several other tasks.
Anyway, regularly I receive questions from some of you about what software and hardware tools I use, or would recommend to others. Okay, let's address that topic a bit here. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have no contractual arrangement with the companies who make these tools. They neither solicited these comments, nor even knew about them when I created the pages, and I don't get paid anything to post this information here -- it's intended for the musicians among you, and for those who are merely curious. But over the years, many letters, e-mails, f2f meetings and phone calls, I HAVE become good friends with many of the principles of the companies. It was inevitable, as we discovered we had many things in common, much more than the mere specific tools described here.
A final caveat: like many artists, composers and musicians, I'm a Mac user, have been since they first came out in March '84, so the programs described here represent Mac versions.

The second software tool I've grown to rely on is a similarly high-powered, versatile music notation program, Finale, which I began using way back in 1987. As with MotU, I was a beta tester for most of the initial years while Finale was being defined and refined, tracing down and describing in detail "handfuls" of the expected early bugs (um, yum!), and reporting on awkward or missing interface methodology. By now these tools have grown nicely mature and stable, with new features thoughtfully added, and new "hooks" to changing OS's and the latest breed of real world interfaces taken care of with each update and upgrade. I'd hate to try to work without any of them!
While DP can also create decent generic printed scores when you're in a hurry or need only the basics, much of the time a serious musician will also need (I sure do) the "whole kit and caboodle", an ultra flexible tool to create detailed publishing quality notation for everything: lead sheets, conductor's full scores, individual instrumental parts, complex contemorary compositions, and whatever lies in between. The tool of choice for many of us is most definitely MakeMusic's Finale. Again, it's fast, powerful, customizable and attractive, and has whatever you'll need to create simple through highly complex music manuscripts. Yes, it has a long learning curve, but the newest versions allow the beginner to simply rely on many excellent defaults, while picking up and tweaking what you need as you go along and continue to learn. Nice.

We're regularly discovering that we can look to the newest ultra fast computers to carry ever more of the simultaneous workload in creating new compositions, songs, demo tracks, and so on. While I still prefer "distributed processing" in my studio, splitting tasks up over many dedicated devices, there are times now when I break this rule a bit. I allow the computer to run a few tasks at the same time, more the old "band in a box" notion. The most useful of these shared tasks right now is operating your MIDI sequencing and digital audio software while at the same time you activate one or more sound generating "plug-ins." For me the most useful and fun to use has turned out to be the excellent acoustic instrument libraries plus sound engine by Garritan Corp., their GPO (all the resources of a symphony orchetra), Jazz & Big Band (like it says), and the one that blows me away, the Stradivarius Solo Violin. Read about them on their new dedicated page HERE.

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LeafCreating & editing audio with finesse and ease

Then when you've created your final mixes, and want to begin polishing them for the final mastering stage, or at any time you're working on detailed audio components, tracks, and samples, you're going to need an excellent stereo/mono audio mastering tool. It has to be fast, simple to use, with lots of hidden away features you can call on when needed. There should be a clean interface, the ability to view audio flexibly, in wide angle through microscopic close-ups, and an open-ended ability to add plug-ins and various audio interfaces. For me, there was a long search to find a worthy successor to long unsupported, then discontinued Sound Designer II, a surprisingly good early audio editing program I began with in 1991.
I searched around a long time, and finally found something much better. It's called "Peak", and is made by the small west-coast firm, BIAS Inc. Bright, lovely people (this field seems to attract intelligent, empathetic creative souls -- just a general observation about all four of these companies and others like them), and very responsive to musicians and engineers needs and feedback. I can honestly not think of anything less than positive to say for BIAS Peak. It does more than advertised, and has become my audio "Swiss Army Knife" toolkit. Let's take a quick look at its main editing window. The calibrated audio waveform displays (both CU and overall views) occupy the center of the window and utilize most of the space. Each of the small square buttons above the waveforms (with a helpful mnemonic icon on each button) performs a specific editing task, and you can arrange them, add or subtract more as desired. The menus at top are thorough and logically laid out. Down at the bottom you have the usual tape transport control buttons, plus two excellent wide audio level meters to the right of the controls, and a timer / location window to their left. Clean layout, very sensible, easy to learn.

Typical Peak Editing Window
(click for full res view)

Instead of trying to further describe the interface, take a look at the screenshot here, with Peak opened to a simple stereo audio file (it's a decaying reverberation tail in this case). I've limited the size of it for web purposes. But generally I open Peak's window out fairly large on the 23" monitor, so that quite a long length of audio at reasonable magnification can be viewed at once. The program thoughtfully facilitates a customized look including the use of colors. Here I've chosen some earthtones to go with the background desktop on my G5 screen. The menu commands and a lot more are customizable, too. Let's hear it for software that lets us choose what works best for our own needs and esthetic sense!
Because BIAS is a company that aims to please, it listens to those who use their tools day in and out. Let me mention a quick example, one I watched take place, so can speak about it first-hand. It may not be the most important part of an audio editor, but the way the waveforms are displayed at varying magnifications can make a big difference in intuitive speed of intricate editing.
Since I spent decades editing audio on recording tape, I was pleased that those vintage skills could be carried over into the computer domain. The chance to SEE the audio while listening became the new trick in DAW editing, and like most of you I became very fond of it. But originally Peak used an unusual display method for all but their highest magnified waveforms. They performed a "D.C. Rectification", which means that the swings positive and negative, or up and down onscreen, were merged together into only one direction, let's say "up." Then that image was mirrored downwards identically, to create the resulting waveshapes. It was bold and attractive, and also saved half the RAM display room (helpful when computers were smaller and slower). Trouble was, you couldn't tell which way the signal was moving when it crossed the zero baseline. It was too easy to grab two snippets you might try to edit together, thinking they would match really well, only to learn that you were creating a loud click as the wave suddenly doubled-back on itself.
A screen comparison will show what was happening. On the left below we see the older waveform display format. I've selected a region, shown by the taupe background (the non-selected background is light beige). It's not clear that this small region could be cut out without incident. The asymmetry of many audio waves is lost, too, plus it creates a uniformity and busy appearence not present in the actual audio. A few stalwarts like me asked BIAS if they could rework the displays to show the actual AC waveshapes, while keeping the depiction bold and clear at a glance. And that's what they did. They even let me kibitz -- we traded audio files and monitor wave images back and forth over a few months.

Original Waveform Display
(ambiguous DC rectified audio)
New Waveform Display
(accurate AC audio)
Improvements in audio display (click each for full res version)

The new display to the right is what you now see when making a careful edit selection. This is the same audio and region as in the left view. But the display method has become A.C., not D.C., and what an improvement! The zero crossings are clear, which has the wave moving up, which has it moving down. When you splice in or out you can check that the direction and slope match well, so the transition won't add an audible click. And instruments with less symmetrical timbres can be studied easily. I was impressed at how undogmatic BIAS is, how they want Peak to continue to remain on the cutting edge of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) design and implementation.
The same thing happened with their audio scrub mode. Tape-deck mode, which IMHO is still the best way to find many kinds of subtle editing points, was originally very sluggish and clumsy. Again BIAS listened to us and reworked it into something much more responsive. Ditto with a few other small but irritating interface issues, once the problems were brought up and documented, they reworked the program to fix them. Nothing is engraved in stone, and software must adapt and change to keep up with the times, to be sensitive to the needs of those who use the tools regularly.
There's no need to list here all the features in the latest versions of Peak, you can find them at their website. But they include every small or major manipulation and polishing trick I can think of: level changes, EQ, sample tweaking, fades in or out, looping, morphing, cleanup, echo, reverb, and on and on. I could spend a whole page just describing the impressive new SoundSoap 2 and Pro tools for "invisibly" declicking, decrackling and denoising older, compromised audio. If the basic program doesn't have what you want, some plug-in probably will.

(click to read on BIAS's web page)

= A new interview =

Several months ago I agreed to do an interview for BIAS about my initial experiences with using Peak, and some of their fine audio plug-ins, like: SoundSoap, SoundSoap Pro, "Freq4" equalizing, and PitchCraft, among lots of others. Randy Albers, who conducted the interview, and I had a grand old time talking shop; his questions were to the point, and included a general overview as well. He recorded more than an hour of conversation and managed to edit it all down into this concise online article. It's posted on the BIAS Peak website. To read it, simply click this screenshot above (taken from their artist interview web page which links to all of their current and past interviews). Or just click HERE to open a new window on the BIAS artists page, and navigate from there.

--Wendy Carlos

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Wendy Carlos on BIAS Peak
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