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Steinberg Halion Sonic

Virtual Sound Module
Published January 2011
By Sam Inglis

Steinberg's new sound module software features a rich sound library, a powerful synth engine and the benefit of parent company Yamaha's workstation wisdom...

Steinberg Halion Sonic

If I was asked to nominate the most under‑rated product of the last decade or so, one of the first things to come to mind would be Steinberg's Hypersonic. Developed by Wizoo, Hypersonic was a very usable attempt to create a multitimbral sound module along the lines of Roland's JV1080, but as a VST Instrument. It was versatile, it was easy and quick to use, and in general, it sounded much better than it had any right to, given the compact size of its sample library. And when Hypersonic 2 came out in 2006, it retained all of these core virtues, but added an excellent arpeggiator, an expanded sample library, and, best of all, the ability to edit every parameter in every sound, should you so wish. Since these parameters included fully fledged subtractive, FM and wavetable synthesis engines, Hypersonic 2 concealed a remarkable amount of power beneath its unassuming exterior.

However, by the time it came out, it was already clear that Hypersonic 2 was likely to be the final version, as Wizoo had been taken over by Steinberg's rivals Avid. Much of the original Hypersonic content would soon reappear as the free Xpand! plug‑in bundled with Pro Tools, but that was the end as far as Cubase and other VST or AU‑format hosts were concerned.

By this time (are you keeping up at the back?), Steinberg themselves were also under new ownership, as part of the leviathan Yamaha empire. It made sense for Yamaha's expertise in designing synths and sound modules to be brought into the Cubase world, and so it was, initially as part of the free Halion One instrument bundled with Cubase 4. Halion One sounded good and could be very useful, but offered only very limited potential for editing, so anyone whose explorations of MIDI went beyond the most basic dabblings was likely to want something more sophisticated. There were and are a number of third‑party options (see the Alternatives box), but these have now been joined by a new offering from Steinberg and Yamaha: Halion Sonic.

Multi Madness

The browser window allows you to search for sounds under a number of different criteria.The browser window allows you to search for sounds under a number of different criteria.

Conceptually, Halion Sonic is very similar to Hypersonic 2 and, indeed, to many other workstation sound modules, virtual and otherwise. Each instance is up to 16‑part multitimbral, and it is based around a familiar hierarchical architecture. At the top of the tree is the Multi — in essence, a snapshot of all Halion Sonic settings. Multis include up to 16 Programs, each of which can have its own MIDI channel, keyboard zones and so forth, plus four global send effects, four global master insert effects, and settings for the built‑in mixer. Each Program is, in turn, composed of up to four Layers. A Layer can be either a set of samples plus associated playback parameters, an emulated analogue‑style synth engine, or one of a number of other sound‑generating units. Each Program can have up to four insert effects, as too can each of the four Layers within it — making it possible, by my arithmetic, to set up a Halion Sonic Multi that includes no fewer than 328 effects processors, if you want to. There is a comprehensive nested preset system that allows you to save Multis, Programs and Layers independently, and the factory content is all tagged with helpful metadata, allowing you to easily narrow down your search for the right Program to only, say, percussion Programs that are synthetic and appropriate to Industrial music.

Halion Sonic is also big on arpeggiation. Really big: not only can every Program have its own arpeggiator, but so too can every Layer within every Program. These are not your common‑or‑garden arpeggiators, either. Their so‑called FlexPhrase design incorporates over 1500 patterns, designed, in many cases, to reproduce complex playing styles such as flamenco guitar, and allowing you to convincingly 'play' an instrument just by hitting a single note.

Everything But A Sampler

Some of the editing parameters for the first Layer of one of the bass guitar Programs. This Layer provides a number of different keyswitched articulations (or Expressions), which are selected using the greyed‑out keys at the bottom of the on‑screen keyboard. In the lower half of the window, you can see the FlexPhrase arppegiator. Below that, you can see the eight Quick Controls.Some of the editing parameters for the first Layer of one of the bass guitar Programs. This Layer provides a number of different keyswitched articulations (or Expressions), which are selected using the greyed‑out keys at the bottom of the on‑screen keyboard. In the lower half of the window, you can see the FlexPhrase arppegiator. Below that, you can see the eight Quick Controls.

Halion Sonic is not a sampler, in the sense that you can't bring your own samples into it, but it is based on the engine behind Steinberg's forthcoming Halion 4 soft sampler, and borrows much of that program's potential for deep editing. (It clearly also has something in common with Yamaha's Motif series of synths and modules, though it's not clear how similar the two are.) There seem to be several different types of sample‑based Layers, which can get a little confusing. Some provide multiple editing pages covering typical sample parameters such as filter and envelope settings, while those that offer keyswitched articulations group everything together in one editing page, and drum kits are different again, with independent settings for each sound. Either way, if you want to tweak it, chances are it can be tweaked.

For immediate, hands‑on tweaking, the interface provides eight 'quick controls', allowing you to make changes without having to delve into page after page of editing parameters. They can be assigned to multiple parameters simultaneously, and I was a little surprised to discover that they can have separate roles within a Program and within each Layer in that program. This makes them potentially very powerful, but it can also be a bit disconcerting to discover that they've suddenly started controlling something else because you've switched to a different editing page. The quick controls are joined by a mysterious golden glowing orb, which turns out to be quite a neat X‑Y controller, and which too can be assigned to different parameters within each Layer of a Program, and by eight MPC‑style pads, which can be used to trigger drum hits or phrases.

The sample library is larger than Hypersonic's, at a shade under 6GB, but this is still relatively modest by today's standards, and, in most systems, shouldn't require installing extra drives or any of that malarkey. Unlike Hypersonic, Halion Sonic uses disk streaming for its sample‑based patches, and there are the usual global settings allowing you to balance the proportion of each sound that is pre‑loaded (thus eating up RAM) versus streamed from disk (thus consuming hard drive bandwidth). A much‑trumpeted and very refreshing feature of Hypersonic was instant patch loading; Halion Sonic Programs mostly take a few seconds to load, so you wouldn't want to do so mid‑song. You can chain up to 128 Multis to be loaded in sequence either via manual control or from MIDI Program Change messages, which could be useful for use on stage.

Factory Fresh

Here I'm editing a typical Halion Sonic drum kit. The large keyboard in the lower editing pane allows me to select an individual; drum to edit. The upper pane gives me comprehensive control over that drum's own sample playback parameters, effects send levels and so on. However, there's no way to recombine individual drums into new kits.Here I'm editing a typical Halion Sonic drum kit. The large keyboard in the lower editing pane allows me to select an individual; drum to edit. The upper pane gives me comprehensive control over that drum's own sample playback parameters, effects send levels and so on. However, there's no way to recombine individual drums into new kits.

I started my exploration of Halion Sonic by going through the factory Programs. These are, by and large, very impressive, and their workstation synth heritage is obvious in a 'larger than life', occasionally cartoon‑like feel. There is a large selection of analogue‑style synth patches (see box, right), which are mostly excellent, brimming with warmth and character and yielding not a hair in quality to many dedicated virtual analogue synth plug‑ins. There is a decent, if not exactly comprehensive, selection of orchestral instrumentation, with various ensembles, such as small and large string sections, joined, in most cases, by playable solo instruments. The woodwind section is a mixed bag, though: a really evocative clarinet is paired with an indifferent flute and something that I only recognised as an oboe because it was called 'Oboe'.

Steinberg are keen to point out that Halion Sonic makes use of their Expression Maps, and a few of the orchestral patches employ keyswitched articulations, but only in a fairly limited way. For instance, there are a couple of string ensemble patches that let you switch between tremolo, pizzicato and legato, but few of the solo string instruments offer any different articulations. And, oddly, there are instruments such as trombone where several different articulations are provided, but as separate Programs rather than as keyswitched layers within a single Program.

Keyswitching is, however, used to greater effect elsewhere. With a solid basic sound and 11 different articulations on tap, you can create a pretty convincing bass line with the Fender Precision included here, while the nylon‑strung guitar is an obvious showpiece.

I was less taken with the drum kits. Not that they are bad, exactly, but they aren't much different to the ones that come free with Halion One, and although there's a lot you can do to shape the individual sounds, there's no way to create your own kits or reassign drums to different MIDI notes. At the very least, I'd hope to find separate drum Layers or Programs containing, say, all the kick drums and all the snare drums spread out across the MIDI keyboard, but no: all the kits come pre‑assembled, and there's nothing you can do to swap out individual drum sounds. Sample parameters for each drum are editable in minute detail, so it seems odd that the kits themselves are so rigid.

This Halion Sonic organ Program is composed of four separate Layers — three to handle the drawbars and one for percussion.This Halion Sonic organ Program is composed of four separate Layers — three to handle the drawbars and one for percussion.The keyboard category boasts a couple of nice harpsichords, plenty of horrible FM pianos, and an adequate Rhodes and Wurli, but highlights a feature of the factory library I wasn't all that keen on: too many of the factory Programs are, for my tastes, too heavily effected. Without exception, all of the factory electric piano patches are phased, chorused, distorted or tremoloed, and almost every Program in the library features lavish dollops of reverb applied at the Program insert level. I've nothing against the effected patches per se: many of them sound good, and some are inspirational. But it would be nice if they were accompanied by some more basic, clean sounds, and I got tired of having to turn off the reverb every time I loaded a Program. (I don't know about you, but I'd always rather apply reverb globally as part of the mix than as a separate insert on every sound within it.) Disabling the amp simulator reveals the Wurli Layer, in particular, to be somewhat lacking in dynamic variation.

Tuned percussion is also dominated by effect‑based patches, from which a delicate and dry glockenspiel stands out, and the Piano department likewise gives the impression that a few decent basic sample sets have been padded out through unnecessary addition of effects, but thankfully the basic Concert and Natural pianos both sound good.

There's also a decent selection of rock and jazz organs, which are put together in a slightly odd way. Rather than use a sampled Layer, or a single Layer that models all the drawbars, the organ Programs employ four separate Layers — one to do the basic 16' and 8' drawbars, the next to handle the 5 1/3' drawbar, the third mopping up the odd harmonics and the fourth adding percussion. Each drawbar layer has separate Note On and Note Off articulations, so you can get that characteristic 'click' when notes are released as well as struck. It seems a rather roundabout way of modelling the Hammond organ, and is neither as flexible nor as intuitive as a full drawbar model, but it sounds pretty good.

As for what isn't in the sound library, it's fair to say that non‑Western musical traditions are not catered for at all. The helpful 'Ethnic' sub‑category in the Program browser contains precisely two entries: a half‑hearted kalimba, and the annoying lead sound used to play the Knight Rider theme in Punjabi MC's 'Mundian To Bach Ke'. This definitely limits Halion Sonic's versatility for soundtrack work and the like, and even in mainstream pop and rock it would be nice to have some ethnic percussion.

All in all, then, what you get is pretty much what you'd expect from a good‑quality modern workstation synth — possibly one made by Yamaha and beginning with 'M'. 'Natural', 'raw' and 'unvarnished' are three adjectives I would not choose to describe the Halion Sonic sound set, but if 'polished', 'smooth' and 'lush' set your boat afloat, you'll be like a pig in the proverbial here.

Flexing Muscles

Halion Sonic's virtual  analogue synth engine. This screen shows filter settings in the top editing pane and the modulation matrix in the lower pane. Halion Sonic's virtual analogue synth engine. This screen shows filter settings in the top editing pane and the modulation matrix in the lower pane.

Browse the factory Programs, and you'll come across a good number with names like '12 String Auto Strum', 'One Finger Walking Bass' and 'I'm Not Feeling Inspired Today, Please Make My Music For Me'. (I made the last one up, but you get the idea.) These are showcases for the FlexPhrase arpeggiator, and many of them are very impressive indeed. Some of the strummed guitars would be surprisingly convincing in the right mix context, while the more complex phrases in the 'Construction Kit' banks could probably be dropped straight into a track as lead lines without many people noticing. Sensibly, most of those designated for use with synths are fairly basic, replicating the classic arpeggiators and step sequencers you'd find on analogue synths, while the FlexPhrases intended for 'real' instruments are often more complex, playing little riffs, chordal rhythms or drum and percussion grooves, as appropriate.

Editing includes the ability to alter the timebase of a FlexPhrase relative to global tempo, choose a degree of swing, and decide whether you want it to trigger immediately a Note On is received or wait for the next beat or bar. However, it's not possible to edit the phrases themselves, nor import MIDI files and have them converted to FlexPhrases; and while phrases controlling Loop‑based layers can be dragged into your sequencer as MIDI parts, the same doesn't apply to others. This is not always a problem, but it makes the drum grooves much less useful. When you load a drum FlexPhrase, it usually plays the same one‑bar rhythm on every key, so there's no easy way of incorporating fills or variations. You can achieve a limited amount of flexibility by loading four separate drum Layers into a single program, each with its own FlexPhrase arpeggiator, but this hardly seems an efficient use of Layers. It would be much better if you could simply have lots of phrases spread out across the keyboard for triggering a single Layer or Program.

Summing Up

From a reviewer's point of view, Halion Sonic proves a slippery beast to nail down. Just when you think you've uncovered all its secrets, you click an innocuous‑looking button to be greeted with yet more new and unfamiliar editing pages, and I still can't be entirely certain that there aren't a couple more obscure types of Layer lurking within it waiting to be found. There seem to be at least six ways of doing nearly everything, but just occasionally something that seems obvious turns out not to be possible at all. There's a brilliant virtual analogue synth engine, yet some of the analogue‑style Programs actually turn out to be sample‑based. There's elaborate control over almost every aspect of sample playback, yet you can't create your own drum kits. And there's a ton of utilitarian global editing covering key ranges, tuning and so forth, which I haven't the space to go into here — suffice to say that if you want to do it, chances are it's possible.

There are times when it feels as though editing controls have been included for the sake of comprehensiveness, rather than because they are actually useful. In a sound module where all the sample‑based content is pre‑packaged and can't be unpicked or modified, is anyone really likely to want to make minute tweaks to graphical sample envelopes? In the context of some of the sample‑based content, it seems a bit redundant; and while it's great to have this sort of control in the virtual analogue synth engine, it would be more accessible there if broken out into a separate plug‑in with a larger interface.

Of course, just because the controls are there doesn't mean we have to use them, and most of the sample‑based Programs do sound good without any tweaking — at least in isolation. The original Hypersonic sound set was mostly smaller, dryer, and less superficially impressive, which in many ways I liked, as the sounds seemed to fit easily into mixes. The Halion Sonic set, by contrast, is expansive, rich‑sounding and often dripping with reverb and other effects. It's great fun to play with and can be inspirational, but I sometimes found it a bit indigestible when trying to squeeze it into a busy track. Overall, though, Halion Sonic offers a very decent sound set at an affordable price, with the added bonus of a superb virtual analogue synth engine thrown in.  

Alternatives

Leading contenders in the 'do‑it‑all sound module' market include Cakewalk's Dimension Pro, Yellow Tools' Independence, IK Multimedia's SampleTank and Emu's Proteus X2. The other route, of course, may be to go for a fully‑fledged soft sampler such as NI's Kontakt. However, although these tend to come with a generous built‑in sound library they're often far more expensive.

Virtual Analogue The Halion Sonic Way

One of the reasons why Hypersonic 2 perhaps didn't get the accolades it deserved was that much of its potential was hidden away in order to make it seem easier to use. Those who did spend some time with it will have discovered, among other things, a fully fledged analogue‑style synth engine that sounded good and offered all the flexibility you could reasonably expect. I hope that Halion Sonic's analogue‑style synth engine doesn't get overlooked in a similar way, because it's even better.

Load up a typical analogue‑style synth Layer, and you're granted the keys to three separate oscillators with additional sub‑oscillator, ring modulator and noise generator. These feed into a Rolls‑Royce of a filter section, where up to four different filters can be arrayed in a variety of configurations, with a truly comprehensive choice of filter shapes. These are complemented by more and better LFOs and graphically edited envelopes than anyone is ever likely to need, and topped off by a superbly specified modulation matrix and step sequencer. And that, of course, is just one Layer; since each Program can contain up to four Layers, the limiting factor on patch creation is going to be the user's time and energy, not any lack of power or control.

Of course, all this would be redundant if it didn't sound good — and fortunately, it sounds very good indeed, with a warm, thick, inviting sound that displays no obvious digital artifacts or nastiness. This part of Halion Sonic outperforms many dedicated virtual analogue instruments on its own, perhaps the only limitation being that there doesn't seem to be a way to bring in external audio for filtering or vocoding effects.

Halion Sonic Effects

I mentioned in the main text that there is a ridiculous number of effects slots within any given instance of Halion Sonic. The effects themselves will be very familiar to Cubase users, because they are, as far as I can see, taken wholesale from that program. Thus, although the 'Amplifier' within Halion Sonic looks rather different from Cubase's Amp Simulator, it has all the same parameters and sounds. So too in the case of the Reverence convolution reverb, the rotary speaker emulation, and so on. Fair enough, really: there would be little point in reinventing the wheel.

Published January 2011