Field Test: BIAS Peak Pro XT 5 Bundle

May 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Jason Scott Alexander

MAC PROGRAM FOR EDITING, MASTERING, RESTORATION AND AUTHORING

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BIAS Peak has established itself as a top stereo audio editing and mastering application on the Mac for many years. Five generations in, a host of new features has been added to the already robust application, addressing today's challenging editing needs, as well as the demand for CD creation and online delivery. Add to this the latest batch of BIAS mastering and sound-restoration tools, and Peak Pro XT 5 aims to be a one-stop stereo production and authoring solution.

Graphical placement in the Playlist window allows precise visual adjustment of crossfades, track times and indexes. Note the 4x4 Vbox matrix, which lets you chain instruments and effects.

System requirements include a G4 or G5 desktop, iBook or PowerBook with at least 400MHz processor running OS 10.3.9 (CD Text requires Tiger), 256MB RAM and an available USB port (or USB hub) for the included copy-protection key. I tested it on a G5 dual 2GHz with 2GB RAM and Pro Tools HD Accel hardware. The current version runs on the new Intel-based Macs under Rosetta, and Universal support for PowerPC and the new Intel-based Macs should be available by the time you read this.

A PACKAGE DEAL
The bundle's core technology components include Peak Pro 5 (Mac only), and both SoundSoap 2 and SoundSoap Pro (Mac and Windows), BIAS' highly acclaimed noise-reduction plug-ins. A new six-pack of included plug-ins — the BIAS Master Perfection Suite (available for multiple hosts on Mac and Windows by the time you read this) — represents an integral part of the XT bundle. For an extra $200, you can get the XT Studio Edition, which includes BIAS' Deck 3.5 DAW software, adding full multitrack and 5.1 surround production. This bundle could be ideal for radio producers, for example, who are just getting into podcasting and now need the ability to arrange multiple tracks of music, voice, sound effects and more.

PLUGGED-IN
Though Peak operates solely as a stand-alone application, much of its newfound appeal is thanks to plug-in technologies. Because of this, Vbox, Peak's intuitive graphic effects routing window, has been updated to Version 2, and now supports Audio Units and VST plug-ins, as well as VST and Audio Units instruments, complete with automatic latency compensation and playback via a dedicated keyboard window or from an external MIDI controller.

As in previous versions, plug-ins can alternatively be instantiated via the five inserts. However, using Vbox 2's intuitive 4×4 matrix, you can mix and match instruments and effects, moving and re-routing them to create elaborate serial or parallel chain configurations. Custom configurations can be saved as Vbox presets for instant recall, and you can expand the matrix up to 99×99 cells — CPU willing!

Ideally suited to this kind of arrangement is the all-new Master Perfection Suite. Pitchcraft is an extremely powerful, real-time pitch-correction and transposition plug-in that handles everything from minor intonation problems to more outrageous sound design tasks, with and without formant correction. Repli-Q is an innovative EQ-matching plug, while SuperFreq is a 4, 6, 8 and 10-band paragraphic providing forensic- and mastering-quality equalization across a 20 to 20k Hz range, including -24dB to +24dB gain values, 0.1 to 30 bandwidth “Q” values, and a choice of peak, notch, high/low-shelf, high/low-cut filters on every channel. Based on Peak 4's powerful compression plug-in Sqweez, Sqweez-3 and -5 are multiband, linear-phase compressor/limiter plugs featuring fantastic graphically representational viewing and editing of threshold and EQ across all available bands, with individual bypass, solo and intuitive filter crossover handles for each band. A variable “digital ceiling” slider controls the clipping headroom of the integrated soft-clip function.

GateEx is a super-charged look-ahead gate/expander tool with real-time graphical audio analysis as it's playing, allowing you to precisely set gate thresholds and tune out chatter using the unique Hysteresis knob. Finally, Reveal is seven powerful analysis tools in one plug-in interface, providing oscilloscope, peak and RMS power history, spectrogram, pan power, spectral analysis, Lissajous phase scope, and peak and RMS level meters.

Space doesn't allow me to go into detail on these plug-ins' exemplary interfaces, except to say that they look and feel fantastic, are great fun to work with and sound like a million bucks. I do enjoy the A/B/C/D compare toggles at the top of each plug.

Many of Peak's onboard DSP algorithms have also been improved, including Change Pitch, Change Duration and Sample Rate Conversion. New functions have also been added, such as Auto-Define Regions, Strip Silence and Envelope From Audio.

ADDED TO THE PLAYLIST
In addition to the Playlist window of old, there is now a graphic waveform view featuring optional staggered or linear views with optimized Quartz 2-D drawing and transparency, allowing for precise visual adjustment of crossfades, track times, indexes and more. The Playlist also features unlimited undo/redo, support of keyboard-triggerable controls for auditioning and nudging, and bounce to multiple word lengths via POW-r dithering.

Further productivity enhancements include preserving file resolution and type in the Batch File Processor; a new action for recovering some damaged audio files; and New Region Split command for faster region creation. Multimedia developers will appreciate Snap-to-CD Frames, PS2, Xbox Units or Custom Expression Evaluator in the Actions menu, making loop edits trouble-free. A much-appreciated high-resolution tape-style scrubbing facility also enhances the ability to find edit points.

FEEL THE BURN
Peak Pro 5 now offers 100-percent replication-ready CD burning with radio-crucial ISRC entry, writing CD track indexes, PQ sub-code editing, CD-Text and other advanced features conforming to the full Redbook specification. BIAS currently offers an optional extension for DDP file export, making it the only company to offer a cost-effective non-hardware — dependent DDP authoring solution for the Mac. Netcasters and online content providers can import and export WAV, AIFF, MP3, MP4 (AAC) and QuickTime formats. I am disappointed not to see support for Ogg Vorbis, RealAudio, Flash and Windows Media.

PEAK PERFORMANCE
I've always loved Peak's powerful and nondestructive capabilities for detailed editing and manipulating audio that is typically not provided by DAWs, but the redesigned Edits History in the Contents Drawer in V. 5 is a real treat. With unlimited undo/redo and the ability to navigate back and forth in time to individual edit steps (much as how you would browse edits history in Photoshop), I used this feature to bounce between and compare many different crossfades, level changes, plug-in settings and segment placements with a single mouse click. Changes are not permanently applied to the file until you save it.

The redesigned Playlist also features unlimited undo/redo and allows sections of audio to be strung together in a specified order. Though its conventional use is clearly for assembling a Redbook CD playlist, I found it worked quite well when working on lengthy podcasts as I could develop them “modularly” or pre-map shows. For instance, I created templates where the intro theme music, featured music spots, public announcement/commercials and outros are already mapped.

Master Perfection Suite delivers all the goods a budding D.I.Y. mastering engineer would want, but I found Repli-Q's unique EQ-matching/linear phase capabilities particularly useful in a post-production setting. Because it can match spectral characteristics between files, I used Repli-Q to combine multiple vocal and instrumental takes that had been recorded in different environments or with different mics. Repli-Q did a wonderful job, preserving the symmetry of the waveform and the shapes of sharp transients with amazing accuracy.

Another high-quality process I found useful in Peak 5 is the new RMS Normalization DSP tool. Using an averaging approach to normalization (rather than peak), this tool allows you to enter the desired “average level” and then limit the “digital ceiling” to prevent clipping — all without the increased noise floor associated with regular normalization. The result is that the dynamics are evened out and the file's amplitude high and low points are maintained but brought closer together, creating a much louder-sounding file. This is great for boosting the volume of material that was recorded at too low a level or, if used on multiple audio documents, to make sure that several files have a similar overall level.

SoundSoap Pro can be fine-tuned to remove subtle artifacts from dialog during post-production.

SoundSoap 2 is like magic. Literally a set-it-and-forget-it plug-in, you tell it to “listen” to isolated noise, and within two seconds, it's on its way, removing clicks and crackles, hiss, hum, buzz, turntable rumble and more in real time. There can be a slight bit of aliasing detectable at extreme settings, but for the most part, preservation of program material is extremely good. For the trickiest of restoration tasks, though, SoundSoap Pro worked like a charm. Perfecting its myriad broadband and complex noise filter controls certainly takes some practice, but there likely isn't a dusty tape or ruined vinyl that can't be resurrected by its powerful parameter set.

MORE THAN AN EDITOR
There's something for everyone in this upgrade. Serious sound designers will benefit from the enhanced Vbox plug-in compatibility and virtual synth support. Broadcast and multimedia producers will love the new batch editing and playlist features that make child's play out of working with large volumes of audio, not to mention the efficiency of work flow that the high-resolution scrubbing and new region split command provide.

The biggest advancement, though, is in mastering and CD authoring. Master Perfection Suite brings a superb-sounding high-definition toolkit not only to Peak, but to any other application that supports VST plugs. And the replication-ready CD burning with optional DDP file export has been sorely needed on the Mac.

Will this unseat dedicated mastering systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars? Probably not. And without multitrack capabilities or edit lanes, Peak remains kludgy in composite editing and is not a candidate for working on surround stems. With so much offered in one bundle, though, Peak Pro XT 5 represents the most comprehensive stereo audio production-through-delivery solution you'll find today.

Prices: $1,199; Studio Edition, $1,399; Mac only.

BIAS Inc., 800/775-BIAS, www.bias-inc.com.


Jason Scott Alexander is a producer/remixer who develops frontier technologies for the recording industry and commercial radio.






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