We find out how well Steinberg's new take on the virtual orchestra conducts itself...
Recreations of orchestral instruments have come a long way since the first fizzy string and brass patches appeared in our hardware synths. While synthetic versions of orchestral sounds still have their musical applications, many recording musicians and composers need their orchestral sounds to be as realistic as possible. When writing music for picture, TV and film composers often need to mock up a convincing sampled orchestral score for the director to approve or, when budgets are limited (which is most of the time!), for use in the final audio mix.
For those with limited resources — financial or in terms of computer horsepower — products such as Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO) or East West/Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra (EWQLSO) in its cut-down Silver Edition format have provided a decent introduction. For more demanding composers, at the other end of the spectrum would be libraries such as EWQLSO Platinum Edition or, more recently, VSL's Vienna Instrument series (reviewed in SOS July 2006). There are, of course, products that sit between these two extremes (EWQLSO Gold Edition, for example) and Steinberg's new Halion Symphonic Orchestra (HSO) falls firmly into that camp. HSO covers all the major orchestral instrument groups in some 27GB of sample data, but isn't priced too far out of reach of the cash-strapped UK media composer, and as its title suggests, it is provided with a custom version of Halion Player as the front-end.
HSO provides instruments for all four major sections of a symphony orchestra: strings, brass, woodwind, and percussion. For the strings there are solo, tutti (large single-instrument sections), and ensemble (multiple sections mixing violins, violas, cellos, and double basses) programs provided. The brass programs include solo and tutti (usually based on a group of three) types, while the woodwind and percussion programs are generally based upon solo instruments. A full list of the instruments and program types is readily available as a PDF from the Steinberg web site, so there is little point in me reproducing these details here except to say that for the majority of orchestral work, HSO covers all the instrumental bases. Do note, however, that instruments such as piano and harp — both often associated with classical and orchestral music — are not reproduced here. While I can understand there being no piano (Steinberg have The Grand to plug that gap), the harp is perhaps a little more surprising.
For the majority of the instruments, the combination of program types covers the most frequently used performance articulations such as legato, staccato, spiccato, pizzicato, and trills, with a variety of other 'expression' style programs also included. As with most modern orchestral libraries, however, HSO also includes a large number of key-switched programmes. These offer different performance articulations within a single program, with the user switching between them via a number of MIDI notes located outside the normal range of the instrument. This makes it possible to play a complete performance (for example a string line that moves between legato, spiccato, and pizzicato) in real time without have to break it down into several MIDI parts and record it in a number of passes. These programs (the most comprehensive of which Steinberg term Combis) do, however, contain greater numbers of sample layers and so occupy more RAM when loaded.
HSO is supplied on four DVDs and accompanied by a printed manual. A Steinberg Key is required for licensing purposes, but is not included — allow an extra £20 if you don't already own one. While the total library runs to 27GB, this includes both 16-bit and 24-bit versions of every sample. Disk space aside, the inclusion of both is a distinct plus. While the 24-bit versions offer superior sound quality, the 16-bit versions still sound very good to me and clearly offer some advantages in terms of lower system demands.
Installation proved straightforward enough but, given the volume of sample data, it's worth laying in some supplies before you get started! While I did all my testing with the VST instrument format of Halion Player within Cubase SX, the package includes support for stand-alone, DXi2, AU, and Rewire versions. It's also worth noting that the final section of the manual provides a very useful tutorial on arranging for orchestra, and this is supported by a short example project on the installation DVD. While this could only ever be the most basic of introductions to the subject matter, it is excellent to see this kind of support material included — somebody deserves a pat on the back at Steinberg!
Halion Player was reviewed by Derek Johnson in SOS November 2005, and I'll therefore only provide the briefest of recaps here. A few minor cosmetic differences aside, the only major difference worth noting in the Halion Player supplied with HSO is the RAM Save option. As with the similar function within VSL's Vienna Instrument series, this automatically scans the project and unloads any HSO samples not currently used within the project. These samples can be reloaded later if required, but this can release a significant amount of RAM. Alongside the various 'Eco' programs, the 16-bit samples, and the other options for fine-tuning system performance, Steinberg have done an excellent job of trying to give HSO users flexibility when it comes to the computer resources demanded by the library.
While Halion Player doesn't include the comprehensive editing facilities of the full version of Halion, the eight Q Control knobs provide useful editing possibilities. Within many HSO programs these tweak the Ambience (amount and time) and Body (the amount of body resonance) settings. The technical details of the Real Ambience feature are a little thin on the ground in both the manual and on the Steinberg web site, but it is described as a 'true recorded ambience'. However it is achieved, it sounds very good and certainly seems to place many of the sounds in a 'real' space.
The string section is the true heart of the orchestra and is therefore critical to the success of any sample library. The string samples included within HSO may already be familiar to some people, as they are taken directly from Halion String Edition 2 (see the box elsewhere in this article for details) — itself an improved version of HSE which Mark Wherry gave a very positive review to back in SOS March 2003. The basic structure of the HSE 2 and HSO string sections is very similar to HSE, so Mark's review is well worth a re-read for some background. However, the samples themselves have been reworked and the collection now includes some fairly comprehensive solo instruments as well as the section and ensemble patches.
As with the original HSE, the programs are split into four main types; Xfade, Xswitch, Velocity, and Velocity With Pitch-bend, although many of these come in key-switch varieties also. Xfade provides the most realistic performance, with crossfades between sample layers of different playing dynamics controlled by the Crescendo Controller (which uses MIDI Expression, although you can set up the MIDI Modulation to control this instead). This makes for very smooth and expressive crescendo or decrescendo performances, but given that all the sample layers are playing at the same time it's also therefore the most resource-hungry of the program types. Slightly less smooth (but still very good), and slightly less demanding, are the Xswitch programs, while the Velocity programs control sample layers in the more usual fashion. In the Velocity With Pitch-bend programs, velocity determines the initial sample layer played, while the pitch wheel is used to raise or lower the volumes as the note is held.
In terms of performance articulations, the tutti programs cover similar territory to HSE, with legato, tremolo, pizzicato, spiccato (similar to staccato in sound, but achieved by a different bowing action), trills, expression, and accents all available. Many of these come in different varieties. For example, there are loud and soft legato programs and loose and tight pizzicato, while the spiccato includes options for control of the up or down bowing action.
The tutti programs are also split into two sections, with each based upon different samples. Within each section, there are also some 'A' and 'B' programs which use different samples based on slight variations in playing style (for example, different attack). Combining the A and B programs can create some very impressive results, particularly if the parts of performed separately (that is, the MIDI parts are not just copied or quantised to death) and given their own dose of the Crescendo Controller. The sounds themselves are excellent and, with suitable time and effort to master the different articulations and the various performance controls, it is possible to create some very realistic string sections — from small and intimate to big and aggressive.
Solo instrument programs are supplied for violin, viola, cello, and double bass and these are split into Xswitch, Velocity, and Velocity With Pitch-bend types, with plenty of keyswitch options available. These programs include similar performance articulations to the sections, but with the added bonus of some fast-attack, short- and long-bow staccato (as opposed to spiccato) and ornament programs. The violin and viola legato programs feature quite a strong vibrato that is gradually introduced as a note is held. This sounds wonderful in the right musical context (sad, lyrical melodies for example), but might not suit all situations. Unlike the Garritan Stradivari Solo Violin (reviewed in SOS August 2006), there is no way to control the speed of the vibrato here, but, that comment aside, these are very playable solo instruments and a welcome addition to the palette of string sounds available in HSO.
Many media composers like to have more than one string library available so that they can mix and match sounds for greater variety and flexibility. It also means that 'bigger' string sections can be created without the danger of them simply being based on multiples of the same samples. If you already own a full orchestral library that you are happy with, then Halion String Edition 2 — which contains the same sample set as the HSO string section — might fill that niche.
As well as offering suitable upgrade routes to HSO from both HSE and HSE 2, Steinberg are currently offering a special UK trade-in deal for owners of any other orchestral sample library. In fact, 'trade-in' is perhaps not quite the correct term, as all Steinberg require is proof of purchase for the competing product, so you still retain use of your original library. At this price, HSO is an absolute steal and would be an excellent way of expanding your orchestral palette.
For the brass section, the instruments covered include trumpet, trombone, tuba, and French horn. The structure of the programs is very similar to that of the strings. With the exception of the tuba, both solo and tutti programs are provided and, minus the Xfade options, the same technical options are present. There are fewer programs for each instrument or small group than with the strings, but the choices made by Steinberg seem sensible and cover the key articulations in each case. For example, the trumpet tutti programs include a keyswitched Combi, standard legato, soft legato, loud legato, accent, diminuendo, and staccato. As with the strings, there are also a small number of legato and staccato ensemble programs offering combinations of either trumpet and trombone or tuba and horn — another way in which computer resources can be saved if you just need these instruments to play in unison.
The sounds themselves are very good indeed. While I occasionally found myself adjusting the amount of ambience for certain programs, the trumpet and trombone go from soft and warm when played pianissimo through to strident when played fortissimo. As should be the case, the horn and tuba instruments are less aggressive at louder performance styles, but the horns do have a nice rasp in their lower register. Overall, while HSO perhaps lacks some of the less common brass articulations that might be found in a top-of-the-range orchestral library, at this price point the instruments are both very playable and capable of very realistic results.
The woodwind collection comprises solo versions of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, piccolo, English horn, and bass clarinet alongside a small number of ensemble programs. For the flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon, a keyswitched Combi program provides the most playable instrument, while separate legato, accent, trill, ornament, crescendo/decrescendo, and staccato. The piccolo, English horn, and bass clarinet feature fewer programs, dominated by legato and staccato articulations.
While all the instruments have plenty of character, I particularly liked both the flute and the bassoon. The legato flute has a wonderful breathy quality and grades into a nice vibrato that is strong without being overdone, while the bassoon is suitably dark and full in its lower register. All these instruments are interesting to play, and the Xswitch programs make it very easy to add the dynamics required to create a realistic performance. I did notice an occasional small change in level when keyswitching between the legato and staccato articulations at some dynamic levels, but nothing that detracted significantly from the overall performance.
- Mac: Mac OS X v10.4, Power Mac G5 2GHz minimum (Power PC only), 1GB RAM, 27GB free hard disk space (for both 16-bit and 24-bit samples), DVD drive, Core Audio compatible audio hardware, Steinberg Key, and an Internet connection for license activation.
- PC: Windows XP Home or Professional, Intel/AMD 2GHz processor minimum, 1GB RAM, 27GB free hard disk space (for both 16-bit and 24-bit samples), DVD drive, ASIO-compatible audio hardware required for low-latency operation, Steinberg Key, and an Internet connection for license activation.
The percussion instruments are split into a number of groups: pitched, skinned, wood, and metal. Given how most real percussion instruments are played, it is not surprising that all the programs are simply velocity based. As well as programs for individual performance articulations, a full keyswitched version is provided for each instrument.
In the pitched group are timpani, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, tubular bells, and a small bell. While these are perhaps not HSO 's strongest suit, all serve their purpose well enough and the timpani are suitably huge at high velocities with a nice roll articulation to go with the straight hits. The skinned percussion includes snare, gran cassa (bass drum), and tambourine. There are a few more articulations here — for example, the snare includes normal hits, flams, both short and long rolls, and a snares-off program, as well as the usual keyswitched program. The bass drum sounds impressive when played hard and the tambourine features normal and rolled performances. The long roll programs for all of these are nicely looped and can therefore be held as long as required. Woodblocks, templeblocks, and vibraslap make up the wooden percussion. Three different woodblocks are included, and each is presented with both wood and felt beaters, while two templeblocks are provided with beater choices of stick, leather, or wood. The vibraslap comes in a long and a short variety.
The largest percussion group is the metal percussion. This includes suspended cymbals, piatti a due (pair of cymbals), tam-tam, triangle, cowbell, small bell, sleighbells, finger cymbals, dobatchi (cug gong), and campane di messa. Of these, the cymbals and the tam-tam are particularly impressive: the former offer plenty of choice with drumstick and mallet options, plus various rolls and crescendo options; and the latter sounds suitably huge, with a long and natural fade to silence.
Halion Player is certainly a lean front-end for HSO, and it is very easy to use. The Real Ambience sounds very authentic on most of the instruments, although I'd probably opt for adding a convolution-based 'concert hall' reverb via my sequencer's mixer if a really big sound was required. On my newish dual-core Athlon PC, I was able to build up some quite complex arrangements without things grinding to a complete halt. Even so, I think Steinberg have been very shrewd in spending so much time and effort on features aimed at reducing both the RAM demands and the strain on the hard disk. Indeed, I'd be more than happy to work with the 16-bit versions of these instruments while composing, moving to the 24-bit programs only when it was time to create a final mix. That said, demanding virtual instruments such as orchestral libraries are crying out for access to more than 2GB or RAM. As a PC-based musician, I'm hoping Windows Vista will eventually resolve this.
Even having used the library for a relatively short period, there are a small number of items I'd place on my wish list for the first update. It would be nice if load times could be made a little shorter, although given the quantity of data being shifted, this is perhaps unavoidable with certain setups. Given my comment above about moving between the 16-bit and 24-bit versions, a very useful addition would be an option to automatically switch between 16-bit and the equivalent 24-bit programs, either for an individual instrument or for all instruments loaded in a single Halion Player instance. While this process would leave you twiddling your thumbs for a couple of minutes, it would certainly be a lot easier than doing the same job by hand. It would also be nice to see a harp added to the instrument list.
The manual suggests that splitting the HSO instruments across multiple hard drives provides a way of increasing system performance, as the disk streaming is shared. Unfortunately, the documentation doesn't provide any technical details as to how this should be achieved, although I suspect that this would require a RAID system, where several physical hard drives appear as a single drive letter to the operating system. Steinberg should perhaps document this more fully for users.
On the whole, Steinberg have done a remarkable job with HSO. It manages to combine an excellent collection of orchestral instruments — both in terms of playability and sound quality — into a library that is easy to use and very competitively priced. With the 16-bit programs, even a half-decent system can handle some full orchestral arrangements without too much track freezing and audio bouncing. This is important, and it means more time spent composing and getting the performance details right rather than being distracted by the technicalities of making the library function.
What constitutes a 'good' sound in the context of orchestral instruments is, of course, a matter of personal taste. However, if you are in the market for a mid-priced yet well-specified orchestral library, HSO is most certainly worth auditioning alongside the existing competition.