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…..