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…..

After what was perhaps the worst year in memory for the musical instrument industry, the 2010 Winter NAMM show rolled into Anaheim, California January 14-17. NAMM is the premier US trade show for musical instrument manufacturers, and while the fortunes of individual music technology companies ebb and flow, there continues to be interesting products on the horizon. While several major players like Apple and Native Instruments no longer attend trade shows, stalwarts like Korg, Roland, and Yamaha still continue to use NAMM as a showcase for new products. In what’s perhaps a sign of the times, many smaller music technology companies sat this show out, or opted for private, more informal meetings in lounges and coffee shops. So for me, NAMM 2010 was more about talking to people than seeing things, and in some ways, that human connection made this year’s show all the more satisfying. Over my next few blog posts I’ll report on some of the things I observed at the show this year.

Each year at NAMM there’s always one centrally located booth that serves as a reliable rendezvous point for music tech geeks to meet. While in past years this has been the Didgidesign booth, the torch passed to Ableton this year, and the booth they shared with Cycling 74 was this year’s hub for many at the show. In many ways, this was symbolic of the change the industry is experiencing. Avid, the parent company of Digidesign, is phasing out the Digi brand identity. Since they had nothing new to show, their booth was mainly a set up for private meetings, largely devoid of products, and the name Digidesign was nowhere to be found. A well-placed source confided that at the corporate feeling was that the majority of customers really identify with the name “Pro Tools” as the brand identity for that particular family of products, and the Digidesign moniker had little relevance to both new and future customers. Expect about twelve new products from Avid in the coming year, and your new M-Box will clearly be an Avid product.

While one industry goliath is clearly consolidating, Ableton is becoming more of a presence. They’ve done this not by expanding their product line, as is usually the case with any manufacturer, but rather by opening their product architecture and partnering with other companies to extend Live’s capabilities. At this year’s NAMM, Max for Live was a reality, and in the six or so weeks since it was officially released, there’s been a flurry of activity as scores of MAX gurus and aficionados adapt their signature patches for use in Live. Included in the Max for Live release are patches from the stash of Ableton co-founder and electronic music pioneer Robert Henke. While the buzz around Max for Live may be substantial, the truth is that Max programming is not for everyone who uses Live. The value of this collaboration to most users will really be the open architecture that allows forward thinking hackers to expand the capabilities of Live according to their own muse. I expect to see a cottage industry of MAX for Live developers to spring up this year, offering any user access to additional tools that will bring both utility and innovation.

The big new news for Ableton this year was their collaboration with DJ stalwarts Serato called The Bridge. While Live has always had the basic functionality needed by a digital DJ, there’s really a cultural difference between DJs and live electronic music performers that’s defined the tools for each. Some artists, like Richard Devine who’s all over Native Instrument’s Traktor for live performance, can migrate between these tools, but by and large, a DJ’s point of reference will be decks, hardware or otherwise. The collaboration between Live and Serrato respects this and provides users a bridge between their respective programs. Serrato decks show up in Live, and a DJ set done with Serato can be saved as a Live session with three stereo tracks, one for each of two decks and one for a bounced mix of the two. Included here are all effects and realtime moves, so in essence, a DJ set can be further refined or serve as the starting point for a completely new hybrid work. Over the years, Ableton has become a tool that provides a platform for both spontaneous creation and refinement of musical ideas, and this year’s developments expand the scope of users who will benefit from this.

NAMM 2010 Demo of the Bridge

Tight integration with performance controllers is now a big part of Planet Ableton. The AKAI APC40 and the Novation Launchpad, that were released last year, each have a slightly different design approach. While the APC40 provides a complete control solution for both clip launching and mixing and effects, the Launchpad is a more portable device optimized for launching clips in the heat of battle. At a fraction of the size and half the price, the Launchpad has been very successful with performers, but a big complaint has been the lack of faders. AKAI unveiled the APC20 at NAMM that addresses this with the addition of eight fades to a set of “launch pads.” All of this is good news for anyone using Ableton Live, as this is only the start of what will be a number of hardware control products that will be coming out in 2010.

NAMM 2010 Demo of the AKAI APC20

AES New York

Nov 01 2009

The Audio Engineering Society held it’s annual convention in New York City the weekend of October 9. The event has a number of components from work group meetings that discuss proposals for various audio standards, to technical papers and workshops, as well as the mother of all professional audio trade shows. This year’s show was noticeably smaller, as the economy forced many to cut back from their usual presence. Nowhere was this more evident than the eerie absence of Digidesign. While Pro Tools 8 captured this year’s TEC award for DAW Technology, the company spent the year downsizing, losing many key engineering and management positions. Prior to the show, Digi announced Eleven, a new product for guitarists, leaving many in the pro audio community wondering if the company was shifting its attention to the potentially more lucrative mass market. While Pro Tools remains a kind of industrial standard, one wonders what might happen if an industry standard goes out of business…

While the industry as a whole is having a hard time, there’s a common thread that runs through all the players who are weathering the storm and made it to AES, they all have a real love for high quality audio, and regardless of shifting trends and economic conditions, they’re in it for the long haul. Nowhere was this more evident then at API, who manufacture high end analog mixing consoles and modules. This year theuy celebrated they’re 40th year in business with a party and concert featuring guitarist Sonny Landreth with guest Bob Weir of Grateful Dead fame. Their slogan, "celebrating 40 years of ups and downs" says it all. With the rise of DAW systems and "mixing in the box" many thought the end was near for many of these manufacturers. API was quick to realize that the analog technologies they developed for high end consoles could be repurposed for the digital age. Their "lunchbox" series of preamps, EQs and compressors provides a flexible and cost effective way to assemble a high quality, analog signal path for a variety of recording and mixing scenarios.

Sonny Landreth and Bob Weir of Grateful Dead

Although AES is primarily a pro audio show, a number of musical instrument manufacturers make an appearance. Korg has a stake in both camps with their revolutionary MR series of digital recorders, a decidedly pro audio product on one hand, and their line of keyboards a dominant player in the instrument arena. This year they rolled out the SV-1, a new modeled stage keyboard that’s designed from the ground up to be a players instrument. To emphasize this, they’re promoting it with video presentations from respected players such as Neil Evans from the group Soul Live. Korg also rolled out a new version of the fabled Korg Wavedrum. The original was an innovative product that was really ahead of it’s time, and while it was a kind of secret weapon for innovative percussionists, it never really took off in the mass market. The drum itself is not a pad, but uses a drum head to provide the feel of an acoustic instrument. The drumhead serves to provide input to a physical modeling engine capable of sounds that range from organic to electronic. Korg updated the design and dropped the price, and with a renewed interest in electronic performance, this will be an important addition to just about any performer’s arsenal.

Moldover in Brooklyn

One of the real highlights of the weekend was a trip to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg district for a late Saturday night performance by Moldover, who I featured in one of my early blog posts. He’s now a resident of San Francisco, but he was on an East Coast tour supporting a new CD release Circuit Board Instrument. While Ableton Live was the engine for the show, his laptop was off to the side, out of the spot light. As a key proponent of "controllerism," Moldover believes that electronic music performance should be an entertaining visual experience for the audience, and this show was a tour de force of that aesthetic. After years hacking and customizing existing controllers, he’s now using a custom-built unit. It faces the audience and his nimble manipulation of the controls provides a clear visual connection to the sound that’s being produced. Combine this with good writing, guitar playing, and clever use of effects processing, and you get a thoroughly engaging performance.