R.I.P. Peak

Jun 08 2012

It’s odd to find oneself writing an obituary for a piece of software. Like an old friend, electronic musicians and sound designers, spend countless hours in the company of their core toolset, learning the history, working through the bugs, and celebrating the quirks. So when BIAS, makers of the Mac audio editing software Peak, announced it had ceased operations on June 6, legions of users bowed their heads. Software doesn’t really die, but when a company goes under, it’s more like your old friend has just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. You’ll continue to use it while it fades into the sunset, finally succumbing to some OS incompatibility down the road.

I first discovered Peak when it was released as a public beta in 1995. At the time, Digidesign’s Sound Designer software was the leading Mac audio file editor. It too, was soon to be another old friend to fade away. At that time, one of the most useful things you did with an audio file editor was to transfer files from a sampler, edit and process them in some way, and send them back to the sampler. Peak did this really well, and in addition to basic looping and normalization, it included some interesting DSP options such as a Phase Vocoder, and Reverse Boomerang, which mixes in a reversed copy of a selected region of audio with the original. Peak was originally conceived as a creative utility by Steve Berkley for his work as a grad student in electronic composition at Dartmouth. When it was released as a commercial product in 1996, it distinguished itself as a tool for sound design and not just for audio editing. Features like batch processing are indispensable to anyone working with sound libraries, and Peak soon became an industry standard.

Another ground-breaking feature Peak offered early on was unlimited undo, which meant that a sound designer could mangle a file to their heart’s content without ever rewriting the original, encouraging exploration and experimentation. In my work, I’ve taken short, seemingly insignificant pieces of sound, noise perhaps, and created a rainbow of colors and textures from them. In many ways, I’ve used Peak to reinvent sound I’ve recorded, and through this, I’ve started to hear the world around me in a different way.

Peak soon evolved from it’s sound design roots into a capable tool for mastering. While the term mastering implies processing an individual file using EQ, multiband compression and limiting to us in an age of digital distribution, Peak included tools that facilitated the creation of a credible CD master. For many of us who earned a living distributing the content we created on CD, this ability was quite useful. As noise reduction features became available, Peak became useful for post production and audio restoration. Many of these features found their way into products BIAS created for the mass market, and their entire product line spanned utilities for the consumer to high-end tools for the demanding professional. A smart business plan, yes? Unfortunately, in a very competitive and rapidly changing marketplace, perhaps not smart enough. Who knows…

One of the realities of working with a digital toolset is that, unlike a wrench or a hammer, nothing lasts for ever. There’s no hammer version 2.0 that requires an update, you don’t have to discard the old one when a new one comes out, and it will always be there. In a box somewhere I have many of the carpentry tools I watched my grandfather use as a child. What do I hand down to my son? A box of floppy disks…..

MetaTools…

Sep 02 2009

I’ve always been obsessed with finding tools that were unique and personal, secret weapons, if you will. While a good part of my career involves finding creative, interesting ways to use ubiquitous tools, my job gets harder (or easier, for that matter) as production tools become common appliances. Let’s face it, just about everyone has Pro Tools, and tips and tricks are easy to come by. So when there is something interesting that’s off the radar, I try to do a little evangelizing. Over the years, my all time favorite sound design tool has been something called Metasynth, and with the new, version 5 release, I’m back on the soapbox.

Metasynth is the brainchild of San Francisco programmer Eric Wenger. Wenger originally made a name for himself developing the Bryce image processing plug-ins for Photoshop. Coming from this visual orientation, he wondered if some of the techniques developed for manipulating visual images could be used for sound. The result was the original version of Metasynth, first released in the late 1990s, that was most notably used for sound design on The Matrix. Since then, the program has evolved at the methodical pace one might expect from an iconoclast developer. Version 5 takes advantage of Macs with Intel chips, multi-core processors, 32-bit files, along with a host of incremental improvements. Metasynth is a standalone application and not a plug-in, only available for the Mac.

The Metasynth Image Synth

The Metasynth Image Synth
Metasynth is based on some very simple visual metaphors. The grid is a unipolar frequency domain display; time is displayed left-to-right, and pitch from bottom to top. Pitch can be scalar, with virtually any tuning, or frequency-based, making Metasynth a powerful tool for composition as well as sound design. The brightness and color of each pixel represents amplitude and position in the stereo spectrum, red for left, green for right. Blues are ignored and can be used to construct grids or other visual elements that won’t play back. These elements make for a sonogram representation of sound. While a sonogram is usually thought of as an analysis of an existing sound, Metasynth uses this visual interface to create and process sound as well as display it. Metasynth can import an image and construct a sound representation by treating it as a sonogram and simply reading from it. One might think that by importing an interesting picture, a similarly compelling sound might result. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Most images we respond to visually have little immediate use in Metasynth, although Aphex Twin did use a kind of self portrait to synthesize sound he’s used in his work.

Over the years, Metasynth has evolved into a complete system for processing sound and composing electronic music, but it’s not for the faint of heart. While the basic idea is easy to understand, the overall package is so different from any other piece of music software, you really have to commit some time to learning the program. Thankfully, the documentation is complete and the tutorials are clear, illustrating practical ways to use all aspects of the program. In addition, there’s a healthy user community with plenty of examples of music made using Metasynth. All this is available with the free demo version, available online.

MetaTools…

Sep 02 2009

I’ve always been obsessed with finding tools that were unique and personal, secret weapons, if you will. While a good part of my career involves finding creative, interesting ways to use ubiquitous tools, my job gets harder (or easier, for that matter) as production tools become common appliances. Let’s face it, just about everyone has Pro Tools, and tips and tricks are easy to come by. So when there is something interesting that’s off the radar, I try to do a little evangelizing. Over the years, my all time favorite sound design tool has been something called Metasynth, and with the new, version 5 release, I’m back on the soapbox.

Metasynth is the brainchild of San Francisco programmer Eric Wenger. Wenger originally made a name for himself developing the Bryce image processing plug-ins for Photoshop. Coming from this visual orientation, he wondered if some of the techniques developed for manipulating visual images could be used for sound. The result was the original version of Metasynth, first released in the late 1990s, that was most notably used for sound design on The Matrix. Since then, the program has evolved at the methodical pace one might expect from an iconoclast developer. Version 5 takes advantage of Macs with Intel chips, multi-core processors, 32-bit files, along with a host of incremental improvements. Metasynth is a standalone application and not a plug-in, only available for the Mac.

The Metasynth Image Synth

The Metasynth Image Synth
Metasynth is based on some very simple visual metaphors. The grid is a unipolar frequency domain display; time is displayed left-to-right, and pitch from bottom to top. Pitch can be scalar, with virtually any tuning, or frequency-based, making Metasynth a powerful tool for composition as well as sound design. The brightness and color of each pixel represents amplitude and position in the stereo spectrum, red for left, green for right. Blues are ignored and can be used to construct grids or other visual elements that won’t play back. These elements make for a sonogram representation of sound. While a sonogram is usually thought of as an analysis of an existing sound, Metasynth uses this visual interface to create and process sound as well as display it. Metasynth can import an image and construct a sound representation by treating it as a sonogram and simply reading from it. One might think that by importing an interesting picture, a similarly compelling sound might result. Unfortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Most images we respond to visually have little immediate use in Metasynth, although Aphex Twin did use a kind of self portrait to synthesize sound he’s used in his work.

Over the years, Metasynth has evolved into a complete system for processing sound and composing electronic music, but it’s not for the faint of heart. While the basic idea is easy to understand, the overall package is so different from any other piece of music software, you really have to commit some time to learning the program. Thankfully, the documentation is complete and the tutorials are clear, illustrating practical ways to use all aspects of the program. In addition, there’s a healthy user community with plenty of examples of music made using Metasynth. All this is available with the free demo version, available online.

Last week I participated in Berklee’s annual Music Technology Weekend Workshop…. basically an MTEC lovefest. This year’s group was the best in recent memory, with lots of enthusiasm and great questions. My sessions this year included a basic sound design workshop using Native Instruments Reaktor, a session on remix techniques using Pro Tools, and one on various and sundry plug-ins I call "Plug-ins You Never Heard About in School." While many of the participants at these sessions are up on the current crop of music technology products, I’m always surprised to see that there is little knowledge of what’s available outside of the mainstream industry. So, every year I scout out interesting plug-ins, that for many are off the radar, and come up with a collection of things that are unique, providing capabilities and twists that you might not see in higher profile commercial products.

One of my big points when talking to anyone about plug-ins is that anyone can build a well-stocked collection without breaking the bank, and most of the plugs on my annual list are either free or cost a nominal amount. There’s a perception that since the cost of commercial software can really add up, mere mortals have to make do with a limited pallet or, god forbid, use cracks. Not true. You just have to do a little digging and be prepared to put up with a few bumps in the road.

Now, before you get ready to load up you plug-ins folder, there’s a few things to keep in mind. Some of these plugs are beta, works in progress, or shall we say, etudes… As such, you have to adjust your expectations, and perhaps do a little head-scratching to understand what they are doing. With some of these, that might not be entirely clear to the developer. In some cases, these may not work with current operating systems, and some may just crash inexplicably. But, the rewards here are sound possibilities you won’t find elsewhere, and to a sound designer, secret weapons are everything.

What you’ll find below is a listing of the plug-ins we had a look at during my MTEC Summer Workshop presentation. As luck would have it, the August edition of Electronic Musician magazine has its own listing of cool plug-ins put together by their staff editors. You’ll see some overlap here, as well as a few things from the Windows world that I haven’t mentioned.

I’d like to do something a bit different with this blog entry. Instead of me giving you a rundown of these or let on to which happen to be my favorites, I’d like you to download some of these on your own and post a reply to this blog entry with reviews of your favorites.

In addition to the plug-ins listed here, check out the comprehensive listing found at: www.dontcrack.com.

And most of all, have fun!

Name
Type
Format
Cost
URL
Augustus Loop Synthesizer Mac AU Beta-free http://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk
TAL-U-No-62 Synthesizer Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://kunz.corrupt.ch/
Automat Synthesizer Mac AU Free http://www.alphakanal.de
SoundMagic Spectral EFX Processing Mac AU Free http://www.michaelnorris.info
CamelCrusher EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.camelaudio.com
Ambience EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
Bouncy EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
Crazy Ivan EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
Cyanide * EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
LiveCut EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
More Feedback Machine EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
79.00 http://u-he.com
Triple Cheese Synthesizer Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.u-he.com
Rumblence:zoyd Synthesizer Mac AU Beta-free http://www.u-he.com
Soundhack Freesound Bundle EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.soundhack.com/
Simple Convo 88X EFX Processing Mac/AU, VST Free http://acousmodules.free.fr
StormGate EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://araldfx.com
Vinyl EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST/RTAS
Free http://www.izotope.com
Meringue EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
19.00 http://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk
Minky Starshine Synthesizer Mac, PC
AU, VST
49.00 http://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk
Crossfade Loop Synth/Effect Synthesizer/EFX Mac, PC
AU, VST
29.00 http://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk

 

Last week I participated in Berklee’s annual Music Technology Weekend Workshop…. basically an MTEC lovefest. This year’s group was the best in recent memory, with lots of enthusiasm and great questions. My sessions this year included a basic sound design workshop using Native Instruments Reaktor, a session on remix techniques using Pro Tools, and one on various and sundry plug-ins I call "Plug-ins You Never Heard About in School." While many of the participants at these sessions are up on the current crop of music technology products, I’m always surprised to see that there is little knowledge of what’s available outside of the mainstream industry. So, every year I scout out interesting plug-ins, that for many are off the radar, and come up with a collection of things that are unique, providing capabilities and twists that you might not see in higher profile commercial products.

One of my big points when talking to anyone about plug-ins is that anyone can build a well-stocked collection without breaking the bank, and most of the plugs on my annual list are either free or cost a nominal amount. There’s a perception that since the cost of commercial software can really add up, mere mortals have to make do with a limited pallet or, god forbid, use cracks. Not true. You just have to do a little digging and be prepared to put up with a few bumps in the road.

Now, before you get ready to load up you plug-ins folder, there’s a few things to keep in mind. Some of these plugs are beta, works in progress, or shall we say, etudes… As such, you have to adjust your expectations, and perhaps do a little head-scratching to understand what they are doing. With some of these, that might not be entirely clear to the developer. In some cases, these may not work with current operating systems, and some may just crash inexplicably. But, the rewards here are sound possibilities you won’t find elsewhere, and to a sound designer, secret weapons are everything.

What you’ll find below is a listing of the plug-ins we had a look at during my MTEC Summer Workshop presentation. As luck would have it, the August edition of Electronic Musician magazine has its own listing of cool plug-ins put together by their staff editors. You’ll see some overlap here, as well as a few things from the Windows world that I haven’t mentioned.

I’d like to do something a bit different with this blog entry. Instead of me giving you a rundown of these or let on to which happen to be my favorites, I’d like you to download some of these on your own and post a reply to this blog entry with reviews of your favorites.

In addition to the plug-ins listed here, check out the comprehensive listing found at: www.dontcrack.com.

And most of all, have fun!

Name
Type
Format
Cost
URL
Augustus Loop Synthesizer Mac AU Beta-free http://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk
TAL-U-No-62 Synthesizer Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://kunz.corrupt.ch/
Automat Synthesizer Mac AU Free http://www.alphakanal.de
SoundMagic Spectral EFX Processing Mac AU Free http://www.michaelnorris.info
CamelCrusher EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.camelaudio.com
Ambience EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
Bouncy EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
Crazy Ivan EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
Cyanide * EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
LiveCut EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.smartelectronix.com
More Feedback Machine EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
79.00 http://u-he.com
Triple Cheese Synthesizer Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.u-he.com
Rumblence:zoyd Synthesizer Mac AU Beta-free http://www.u-he.com
Soundhack Freesound Bundle EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://www.soundhack.com/
Simple Convo 88X EFX Processing Mac/AU, VST Free http://acousmodules.free.fr
StormGate EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
Free http://araldfx.com
Vinyl EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST/RTAS
Free http://www.izotope.com
Meringue EFX Processing Mac, PC
AU, VST
19.00 http://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk
Minky Starshine Synthesizer Mac, PC
AU, VST
49.00 http://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk
Crossfade Loop Synth/Effect Synthesizer/EFX Mac, PC
AU, VST
29.00 http://www.expert-sleepers.co.uk

 

MAX 5

Apr 26 2008

Perhaps the most anticipated software development this spring was the release of the MAX/MSP/Jitter version 5 from Cycling 74, which came out last week. For those of you who don’t already know, MAX is object oriented programming environment for sound, music, video applications. Wikipedia has a very good overview and history of the program listed under Max (software).

MAX FM2

A MAX/MSP Patch

 

While updates over the years have focused on, new objects and support for new OS technologies, the basic look and feel of MAX hasn’t changed much since it’s initial commercial release from Opcode. (Does anyone remember them?) MAX 5 addresses this with a complete rewrite of the entire underlining code, aligning it with current hardware and OS software platforms. A revised user interface includes a variety of on-screen de-bugging tools. Some of these, like a visual display of signal level at any connection, easily translate into powerful ways to learn about signal flow and processing. Visually, objects are much easier to look at, and a new user interface view separates the underlying patch structure from how it appears to a user/performer. Last year Cycling 74 announced an alliance with Ableton, makers of Live, and entire look of the new release of MAX looks a lot like its German cousin.

MAX FM1

A MAX/MSP patch in presentation view

While many cutting edge artists and researchers are using MAX, people often ask about the difference between it and other “modular” sound synthesis tools, specifically Native Instrument’s Reaktor. Why would you use one and not the other? You can think of Reaktor as a greatly expanded software version of Alessandro Cortini’s Buchla 200e, which I talked about in an earlier entry. It’s a really great tool for building all sorts of software instruments. One of it’s strengths is the capability to design control panels that clearly display the parameters and functions you build into an instrument. You only see the controls you are going to use, and depending on the instrument, that can be a few, or many. While MAX 5 addresses this with its new presentation view, there’s more to MAX than building synthesizers.

The real power of MAX is that it’s a complete programming environment with objects to process, store and retrieve data input. These expanded capabilities make it a great to build all sorts of cool, interactive performance systems. Best of all, it includes Open Sound Control and Rewire capabilities, which means you can use it with a variety of other software, including Reaktor and even Reason. Got a Nintendo Wii? Your Wii controller sends all sorts of data about position and acceleration that the game receives via Bluetooth. Got Bluetooth on your laptop? You can program a simple interface using MAX that will take the data coming into your computer from your Wii controller and translate it into MIDI data that you can use to control Reaktor or Reason.

Pretty cool… That said, MAX (or Reaktor for that matter) isn’t for everyone. If you’ve got some hacker instincts, you’ll be able to get around MAX after working through the excellent tutorials that come with the program. Plan on a few weekends of focused study and experimentation and you’ll be on your way. Cycling 74 has a very good video introduction that will give you a taste of what the program is all about.

DNA Breakthrough

Mar 21 2008

For some time we’ve taken pitch transposition and time-stretching of audio for granted, with one caveat; only an entire audio signal gets processed. We’ve come to expect programs like Ableton Live and now Pro Tools to treat audio like butter, speeding up and slowing down loops, time correcting sloppy drumming and pitch correcting the wanna-be diva. The Waterloo of this technology has traditionally been isolating events within an audio file. If a singer hits the wrong note, it’s usually not a problem to correct, since it’s a single monophonic event that can be easily isolated and processed. What about when the piano player hits the wrong note in a chord? Well, that’s another take…. We’ve always operated under this assumption, and it was a great reason to record performances as MIDI data, since we had the freedom to freely manipulate individual notes a chord.

All this changed last week at Musikmesse, Germany’s massive musical instrument trade show, when Celemony debuted their Direct Note Access (DNA) technology. DNA can analyze an audio event, isolate individual pitched elements, and freely manipulate them in pitch and time. While I’ve said that changes in music technology products are often evolutionary, not revolutionary, this is a really big one.

Celemony started in 2001 with the initial release of Melodyne, the brainchild of German programming whiz Peter Neubäcker. The whole idea behind the technology was to allow users to edit the pitch and timing of a note graphically. Melodyne does this by analyzing the source and displaying the result as graphic data on a pitch and time grid. From here, the audio properties can be manipulated much like note and controller data in a MIDI sequencer’s graphic editing window. Opcode first introduced this concept in the late 1990′s with their StudioVision sequencer. Here, monophonic audio performances were analyzed and represented as MIDI note and pitchbend data. You simply edited the MIDI data, and rendered the result back to an audio file. Melodyne expands on this, bypassing MIDI altogether and greatly enhancing the resulting sound quality.

Melodyne is available in a variety of products from the entry level Melodyne Uno to the flagship Melodyne Studio. Starting in Fall 2008 with version 2 of the Melodyne plug-in, Direct Note Access will be incorporated into their full line and perhaps inspire some interesting new products.

Peter Neubäcker freely admits that he assumed extending the Melodyne model to individual note events in a chord was not possible. Only after challenging this basic assumption did the algorithms behind this begin to take shape. The DNA acronym works, since Direct Note Access is really about exploring the genome of the harmonic life of music. While the demo video is truly amazing, keep in mind that the types of performances here illustrate what may be the best case scenario for effectively using this technology. There are limits, and one wonders if DNA could root out a wrong note in a dense, orchestral recording. Still, what Celemony has come up with is nothing short of remarkable.