If you could have one VST Instrument that emulated a hardware workstation, giving you enough polyphony to produce a complete arrangement with a fairly standard computer, would you be interested? Steinberg and Wizoo think you would...
The use of software instruments is almost ubiquitous in music production today, it's easy to forget that less than five years have passed since Steinberg released the first versions of Cubase with support for VST Instruments. While the idea of a computer program that generated sound was nothing new, VST Instruments represented the first time such a program could be integrated so tightly within a sequencing environment, using the same VST plug-in technology that was already popular for software effects. At the time, Steinberg supplied Cubase with the Neon synthesizer, a simple subtractive synth that didn't sound so great, and used most of the processing of my humble G3 for a few notes, but was still exciting because of the technology and working method it promised! Neon was soon followed by Steinberg's own LM4 sample-based drum module, then other developers started developing VST Instruments and technology to incorporate software instruments into their products, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Most software instruments usually dedicate themselves to offering one particular method of creating sound, so you might have a synth, a drum player, a sampler, and so on, all running as separate VST Instruments. This leads to a situation where you need to have a handful of different instruments loaded in order to put some ideas into your sequencer, which isn't necessarily a bad thing; but this practice forces you to create a set of templates that preload certain instruments when you need to start writing.
While there are obviously dedicated instruments (synths, drum machines, and so on) in the world of hardware instruments, there's also a breed of device known as the workstation, which bundles samples, synthesis and effects into one easy-to-use and immediate system. Korg popularised this concept with the famous M1 and are still the market leaders with their Triton range of instruments, although modules like Roland's JV/XV series, and Yamaha's TG/XG series also took the studio by storm when they were released during the '90s. So much so, in fact, that I'm willing to guess that 90 percent of the people reading this article will own or have owned one of the aforementioned devices.
While the software market is flooded with subtractive synths and samplers, there have been relatively few attempts at the software workstation or 'sound module'. IK Multimedia's popular Sampletank 2 software gets close to the concept, providing a streamlined interface to a large selection of sample-based sounds, as does Plugsound. However, nobody has really come close the immediacy of using an instrument like a Korg Triton, and this is where Steinberg and their collaborators Wizoo — the design team is the same one responsible for Virtual Guitarist and Xphraze — hope to score with their latest collaboration, Hypersonic.
Hypersonic is supplied as a VST Instrument for Mac and Windows users, and Mac users also get an Audio Units version for running under Logic. Each instance of Hypersonic is 16-part multitimbral with a maximum of 1024 voices (64 voices for each part), and you can have up to 32 individual outputs, which are assigned through 16 output banks. These output banks can be configured as either stereo, mono, or quad, although the latter quad (four channels on one fader) output is only available to Cubase SX v2 and Nuendo v2 users — in all other hosts, a Quad channel will be displayed on the mixer as four mono channels.
In terms of the sound library, Hypersonic is supplied with a 1000-preset patch library that cover a huge range of instrument types. And although Hypersonic does play back sample-based material, this is just one element of a patch's sound, as Hypersonic also contains a virtual-analogue synth engine (featuring two oscillators with multiple waveforms, pulse-width modulation and sync capabilities), a three-operator FM engine (one carrier and two modulators in parallel), and a wavetable synth engine. And, of course, no workstation would be complete without a healthy selection of effects: Hypersonic allows up to 64 effects to be used simultaneously, four for each individual Part.
As you'll come to realise, Hypersonic is incredibly modest when it comes to using your computer's resources and, as such, Steinberg advise Windows users to have at least a 500MHz Pentium III- or Athlon-based machine (although a 1GHz processor is recommended), and Mac users to have at least a 500MHz G3 or, preferably, a G4. You'll need 256MB of RAM to run Hypersonic and 300MB of free hard disk space. If you're thinking that these requirements seem a little low when compared to similar products, take a look at the 'First Compressions' box later in this article for more information, as this situation is not all it seems.
Hypersonic is the first VST Instrument from Steinberg that requires a hardware copy-protection device (often affectionately referred to as a dongle) to be attached to your USB port in order to run. Cubase and Nuendo users will already be familiar with the type of dongle that's supplied with Hypersonic, and the good news is that it's possible to transfer the licence from a Hypersonic dongle to your Cubase or Nuendo dongle, saving you from having to have two dongles plugged into your computer. The bad news is that I've heard of some users having problems with the drivers required for Hypersonic's copy protection, where you might need to reinstall your sequencer or contact Steinberg for a new code when there's an error transferring licences.
However, I didn't personally experience any copy-protection issues during my time with Hypersonic, so I have no complaints. And, in fact, this hardware method is in some ways preferable to Xphraze's CD-ROM-based protection, which actually prevented me from installing the product on my IBM T40 laptop.
Hypersonic's main interface consists of a single window that's split into three basic sections. At the top on the left, there's the Part area and level strip that together show a list of the loaded instruments with basic level controls. To the right is the Display area. Here, you can select from a series of pages where you choose sounds and configure patches and Hypersonic's system settings. And, along the bottom, you'll find the Performance sections, which offer an on-screen keyboard, information about the currently loaded patch, and performance controls.
The list of patches in Hypersonic is shown in the default Load page selected in the Display area as a tree-view-styled list where the patches are organised into folders based on the general family of sounds to which they belong, such as acoustic pianos, drums, and so on. Loading a patch is simple: double-click on the appropriate patch and it will be loaded into the currently selected slot in the Part area, where there are 16 slots in total to represent 16 MIDI Channels. One thing I noticed here is that, initially, it's easy to double-click a patch while forgetting to select a different Slot, losing whatever instrument was previously loaded into that slot in the process. A quick 'load last instrument' key would have been neat, but this is a minor quibble.
Each Slot in the Part list has a corresponding Mute, Link and Level control, and the first and last of these are fairly self-explanatory. The Mute button mutes the corresponding Part in Hypersonic, working independently of any Channel/Track mutes in the host, and also doubles as a MIDI Indicator when a Part is in normal playback mode. The Level control adjusts the volume of a given Part, and this also responds to Controller 7 (volume) Change data, such as that generated by a MIDI volume fader in Cubase's Inspector.
A common criticism I've heard of Hypersonic's Mute button is that there isn't a corresponding Solo feature, but to be honest, I wondered why there had to be even a Mute button — your host sequencer already has plenty of Mute/Solo functionality, and it's easy to forget you've muted a Part in Hypersonic once the window's closed.
The Link control allows you to 'link' slots together so that MIDI input from one channel can trigger multiple slots at the same time. For example, if you load a piano patch into the first slot and a string patch into the second, you can enable Link mode on the second slot so it also responds to data sent on the first MIDI channel — the result would be piano and strings playing together at the same time. This is a great way to layer sounds, and you can layer anywhere between two and all 16 slots to create fairly vast sonic creations. The only caveat is that you can only Link a Slot to the Slot or group of linked Slots above, which means Slot 2 can be linked to Slot 1, but Slot 3 can only be linked to Slot 1 if Slot 2 is already linked to Slot 1. This is easier to experience rather than explain, and, in practice, it just means you have to plan ahead if you want to create specific layered sounds. It is however possible to have multiple linked groups of slots in a single Part list, so you could link Slot 2 to 1, and Slot 4 to 3, for example.
Once you start getting into Link mode, you'll be able to get more out of this feature by exploring Hypersonic's MIDI settings page, which allows you to set key and velocity ranges for a Part, along with a semitone-transpose setting, and a tuning option in cents. Using these settings in combination with Link mode allows you to create more interesting combinations by transposing or detuning layers against each other, or creating keyboard splits in terms of pitch and velocity. The MIDI settings page also enables you to set the maximum number of voices for a Part (between one and 64), and there's a parameter Lock so that the settings on this page aren't reset when you load a new Patch into a 'locked' slot.
Getting back to the main interface, the Level control, as mentioned earlier, allows you to adjust the volume of a given Part, and also includes an indicator that highlights the current setting of a Level control. However, by right-clicking on the Level label at the top of the level control strip, you can set the indicators to one of three other modes besides Fader Value: Velocity, Polyphony, and Audio Level. These three modes turn the indicators into animated VU-style meters that illustrate either the velocities of incoming notes on a given Channel, the polyphony usage of a Part, based on the maximum number of voices set for that Part, or the audio output level of a Part. These modes don't offer any numerical values to make them indispensable, but they can still be quite helpful.
What A Performance
In keeping with the way Wizoo's sample libraries and products such as Virtual Guitarist are organised, you can select between three different quality settings in Hypersonic's Setup page. When you first load Hypersonic, it's worth noting that the quality setting is actually set to the middle, Default, value — for the best quality you'll need to select 'XXL', and for slightly less quality but better performance, you can select 'Eco'.
In practice, I left Hypersonic set to 'XXL' since the programming seems to be so efficient that it didn't make much difference on my computer. This was clearly a major design aim for the team behind Hypersonic, as programmer Paul Kellett explained. "My initial thought when we first started making a workstation was that it had to have loads of voices and not use all of the computer's resources. So that was my main focus, and a lot of effort went into making it efficient. A hundred-and-something voices shouldn't be a problem, even on last year's or the year before's computers. I tend to develop on slower machines deliberately, just so I can check it's going to work for everyone. There's no point a developer having dual-processor 2GHz machines and then saying 'well, it works fine for me!'"
As an example of Hypersonic's efficiency, one Project using a fully loaded instance of Hypersonic set to 'XXL', playing back around 20 MIDI tracks, with 22 effects enabled, used between 30 and 40 percent of my 1.3GHz Pentium-M's processing power (see above). And in terms of memory usage, the 16 loaded Patches for this instance of Hypersonic used up just 34.2MB for all manner of synths, basses, drums and other instruments. One word comes to mind: impressive.
Patching It Together
If you've ever used a hardware workstation, you'll know that it's not always easy to find the patch you want, and this is one area where Hypersonic's well-thought-out architecture becomes apparent. The Load page features a search field where you can type in a keyword for the sound you're looking for, and a Search Results folder at the bottom of the list is opened to present a list of suitable patches — type 'piano' to find the piano sounds, for example. Cubase SX and Nuendo v2 users will be accustomed to this method of finding patches already, since the Patch Selector already offers this functionality, and Hypersonic's category folders also show up here as well.
However, the big advantage in searching for patches using Hypersonic's interface is that the search facility doesn't just take the patch names into account: every patch also contains a number of keywords to describe the character and tone of a sound, which are also searched when you're trying to find an appropriate patch. For example, you could type in 'nasty synth' to find a suitably nasty synth sound, and right-clicking on the search field before entering any text reveals the base keywords in a pop-up menu that you can use in your search string. This is a great example of how computer-based interfaces can really make an instrument better, and I think this is often an area where Wizoo score over their competition. Spectrasonics' Atmosphere might be a great-sounding instrument, for example, but how quick is it to navigate through the list of available patches?
Another tremendous bonus with Hypersonic is that the Patches load really, really quickly. So quickly, in fact, that most of the time you wouldn't even realise there was any delay between selecting and being able to play a Patch — just like the good 'ol days, some might say! But seriously, with so many Patches on offer, coupled with the easy navigation system, you can select different sounds and try out new ideas really quickly. This is especially beneficial to Cubase and Nuendo users who might want to keep the Program Change pop-up menu open and use the cursor keys to select different Patches during the playback of a Project.
Some of the patches in Hypersonic's list are preceded by a pair of wavy lines, indicating that they're layered patches containing more than one particular sound, such as (to use a familiar example), piano and strings. While you could use the Link mode, as described in the last section, to construct such layered sounds, the disadvantage with this approach is that you end up using two or more slots. Layered patches, by contrast, contain multiple sounds that can be used within a single slot. And, unlike on a hardware workstation, because a Hypersonic patch can contain a large number of elements, and each element can generate up to 64 notes at once, a layered piano and strings patch still offers the maximum polyphony of 64 notes. Layering doesn't cut down your maximum polyphony, in other words. However, you can't create layered patches yourself — in fact, you can't create any sounds in Hypersonic from scratch yourself, and even the options you are offered for sound-editing are relatively limited, though it is still possible. For more on this, see the box above.
As sampling rates and bit depths increase, coupled with the size and meticulous detail of sample libraries such as the Vienna Symphonic Library, many people find comfort in the old 'bigger is better' adage when judging products, assuming that the size of the library is proportional to its quality. While this can often be the case, judging Hypersonic's 250MB collection of samples against, say, Sampletank's 4.5GB library is completely misleading, since one of Hypersonic's most clever achievements has been to compress a much larger library down to the 250MB collection that ships with it, providing a large selection of high-quality sounds without using up your computer's resources unnecessarily.
To find out more about this, I asked Hypersonic programmer Paul Kellett to explain how and why Hypersonic's sample library was kept so lean. "All the sample data is compressed on disk and in memory, so it doesn't take up much RAM and the patches are quick to load. In order to keep the memory usage to a minimum, no sample data gets loaded more than once if it doesn't need to be. So you can load up various pianos, and if they use the same piano sample, it's only in memory once.
"I'd looked before at what Gigasampler was doing in terms of compression, and they've got a 2:1 compression algorithm. It was quite easy to figure out what it was doing, so I did something similar." However, the big difference between the way Gigasampler can compress sound and the way Hypersonic's sample data is compressed is that Wizoo opted to use a lossy form of compression, whereas the method employed by Gigasampler is lossless. "I decided to make ours slightly lossy, but in listening tests in a decent studio we couldn't tell any difference between the slight loss in some of the samples and no loss, so I don't think anyone will notice the difference."
In using Hypersonic, I had to agree with Paul; I wasn't ever aware of any artefacts due to the compression. It's a tricky balancing act to use enough compression to drastically reduce the file size and memory requirements, while not losing enough data that it makes an audible difference. And there's another technical issue, too. Paul: "The really tricky bit is coming up with a way of compressing the data so you can play it back easily without any significant CPU load. The compression to do that is far more complicated than the decompression — it takes 10 times longer than real time to compress the data, just so it can play back with a really simple algorithm."
So to what extent were Wizoo able to compress the sample data for Hypersonic? "It's down to around eight bits per sample, so if it was 16-bit, it's half the size, and if was 24-bit, it's a third of the size."
The Hyper Display & Knobs
A nice touch in the bottom-right area of Hypersonic's interface is the Hyper Display, which offers textual feedback when activating certain commands, such as Link mode, and which, more usefully, contains a description of the currently loaded patch. Some of this information can be slightly humorous, such as the description for the 'Transylvania Pipes' patch: 'Bright thick pipe organ. Great for those contemplating world domination.' Others offer handy playing tips such as, 'Clarinet. Knob 1 selects mono mode. Natural loose tuning.' for 'Loose Clarinet'. While it's a small detail, it's a nice one.
Another great feature designed to make playing with Hypersonic easy is the set of six Hyper Knobs, located just above the on-screen keyboard at the bottom of the window. Every patch contains six pre-programmed parameter controls that assign the six most significant sound-shaping parameters in a patch to the Hyper Knobs, providing the user with immediate access to the most important performance parameters in a patch without having to delve into the Edit page. The Hyper Knobs are labelled appropriately on Hypersonic's interface for the patch loaded in the currently selected Slot, and are easily adjusted by using the mouse.
However, once you start using the Hyper Knobs, you'll soon be wondering whether you can assign these six controls to MIDI controller numbers — and, of course, you can. By default, the Hyper Knobs are assigned to controllers 16 to 19 and 80 and 81 respectively, although you can change this to one of eight other choices by clicking on a knob's label and choosing from the pop-up menu. You can't assign a controller number of your choice to a Hyper Knob, which may disappoint some users, but there is the option to make your selected controller number only control the Hyper Knob. As the manual says, this Exclusive option could prove useful if you want to use the sustain pedal to toggle the rotary speaker in an organ patch rather than sustain notes.
Although you can't create your own Hypersonic Patches from scratch, you can save your own versions of existing Patches based on edits carried out in the Edit page. When you access this, Hypersonic presents you with a subset of pages, each one representing an element used in a Patch. When you select the Edit page for the first time, Hypersonic brings up a Patch Overview edit page where general settings for the Patch are configured, such as the pitch-bend, mono and glide settings, along with the parameters relating to the arpeggiator, such as Mode (direction), the number of octaves the arpeggiated notes will span, the number of notes in the arpeggio, and the sync and latching options.
The other Edit pages available for a Patch are represented by a series of boxes that run vertically along the left side of the Edit page, representing a top-down structure for the signal flow. Each synthesis or sample element in a patch has its own Edit page where you can adjust filter and amplifier envelope settings, for example, and any of the settings for Patch effects are also duplicated on the effects element pages (marked 'FX') within this overall patch-editing structure.
In terms of controlling the actual sound, aside from basic velocity- and filter-enveloping options, and standard range and tuning controls, there's really only one control, Waveform Adjust, which offers different functionality depending on the type of sound generator used in an Element. For a sample-based Element, Waveform Adjust moves the start point of the sample further forward, whereas for a virtual-analogue Element, it adjusts either the pulse width or the sync, depending on the type of waveform used for a given Element. In an FM Element, Waveform Adjust modifies the amount (or depth) of the modulation, and in a Wavetable Element it selects the waveform within the wavetable.
On the whole, the Edit page is clearly laid out and far easier than editing the Patches on a Roland JV1080, for example. However, one small area for improvement is that the list of Elements only has space for 16 boxes, and some Patches use more than 16 Elements. In these cases, you click on the lowest Element or arrow, and the list scrolls down, while clicking the top Element allows you to scroll up through the list again. In large Patches you can easily lose track of where you are; adding a small scroll bar would be a nice bonus in a future version!
Once you start to explore Hypersonic's sound library, you'll soon begin to realise just how vast this collection really is — you'll be able to lose hours (if not days) going through what's on offer without too much difficulty. Despite the wealth of sounds on offer, all of the patches are well organised. Along with the search facility described earlier, this makes appropriate sounds easy to find.
Wizoo provided much of the sample content for Steinberg's LM4 sample-based drum VST Instrument, and have always had a healthy stock of drum, percussion and loop-based material in their sample library; so it should come as no surprise that the quantity and quality of Hypersonic's drum and percussion sounds is pretty high. The Natural Drums category provides plenty of acoustic drum kits, from fairly unprocessed kits to huge live affairs with stadium-sized reverbs, a kit with gated reverb for Phil Collins fans, some lighter jazz, soul and funk kits, and a neat lo-fi number. All of the drum sounds sound fairly punchy, although it's easy to pull this back using the onboard filtering where appropriate.
For those times when electronic drum sounds are required, Hypersonic offers around twice the number of so-called Contemporary kits compared to the acoustic provisions, with plenty of variation. Here you'll find an abundance of stylised 808 and 909-inspired kits named after musical genres where they might be useful, such as ambient, trip-hop, and two groups of hip-hop kits for German and American producers respectively — such is the cultural divide, apparently! Again, Wizoo have excelled for years at this type of material, and the quality and variety of the electronic kits is no surprise — the only comment I'd make, as a laid-back kind of a guy, is that some less aggressive kits might have made for more variety.
Complementing the selection of drum kits is a collection of Drum Loops, which are pretty creative and cover a variety of styles; although, again, they do lean towards the extreme rather than the sublime. The interesting thing with the loops is that they play back in sync with the tempo set in your sequencer, thanks to Hypersonic's built-in ability to slice loops, Recycle-style. What's more, the individual slices of a loop are assigned chromatically to the lower keys in a Patch, while the loop itself plays at various pitch offsets in the upper keys. Very cool!
There's a seemingly endless selection of percussion sounds, which are organised into chromatically mapped kits in the Natural and Contemporary Percussion categories, and chromatically pitched samples in the Percussive category. The Natural Percussion category features acoustic percussion instruments, including some Disco kits with all the bongos you'll ever need — and, er, Windchimes. Moving swiftly on, the Contemporary category focuses, as you might expect, on more electronic offerings, organised into kits labelled by suggested musical genres, such as trance, R&B, hip-hop, industrial, and so on. There are some truly great noises in this category, perfect for building interesting loops, or for those of a Goldfrapp-style percussive persuasion. The pitched percussion is equally useful, with an abundance of agogos, cowbells, and more, while the Mallets category is where you'll find marimbas, vibraphones and xylophones — but strangely, no glockenspiel!
The acoustic piano sounds are taken from the same source sample material used for Wizoo and Steinberg's grand piano VST Instrument, The Grand, and a selection of patches cover the natural type (relatively unprocessed), bright type (think Elton John), soft (think Schubert Impromptu), and honky-tonk (maybe this would be good for Scott Joplin). There's also a cool '70s-inspired phased piano patch. In terms of quality, the acoustic pianos are better sounding than most piano sounds that are supplied with workstation-style products, whether hardware or software, and are really quite playable. There are obviously better sample-based pianos available in a different class of product, such as the many piano libraries that have been produced for Gigastudio, but this is rather an unfair comparison, especially since Hypersonic's piano sounds sound really good in the context of a full Hypersonic production.
Of the other keyboard sounds, the appropriately 'over-the-top' pipe-organ sounds are a great deal of fun, especially 'Subsonic Church Organ'. On the pop organ front, there's also a selection of Hammond-esque patches that make use of Hypersonic's built-in rotary speaker effect, and some synth organ patches that make use of the analogue and FM synth engines. Many of the organ sounds, along with the electric piano and clavinet sounds, are taken from material used in Wizoo's Magnetica collection, and are of a very high quality indeed — the electric pianos all have suitable warmth and are exceptionally playable. Finally, for those who want to do Adams Family theme covers or, again, be Goldfrapp, there's also a handful of Harpsichord patches, including the rather brilliantly names 'Nastichord'.
Developing Themes: Paul Kellett & Mark Ovenden
I had the pleasure of visiting both Steinberg and Wizoo's headquarters last September, just as work on Hypersonic was being completed, so I took advantage of the opportunity to speak with the programmer, Paul Kellett (best known for his work on MDA's instrument plug-ins), and lead sound designer, Mark Ovenden, about their work on the project.
"The initial idea was a much simpler plug-in that Wizoo have wanted to do for a long time," explained Paul, "which was to use the company's sample library and add some synthesis to make a decent synthesizer. It sort of grew out of control, because we then thought it would be a nice idea if it handled other types of synthesis like FM and virtual-analogue, and also had a decent selection of effects. It turns out that doing a workstation in software is a huge job!"
"From a programming perspective, I started from stuff I had already for simple sample playback, synthesis and filtering. In fact, there are many things in Hypersonic that draw on work I've done before, but are based on past things I've done right and past things I've done wrong and learnt from. It's sort of best-of-MDA, in that there's lots of synthesis and filters and effects which are similar to things I've done before, but because it's now a year or two later, I can do it better."
Given that Paul and Mark's offices are only a couple of doors apart, I asked Paul if it was difficult to have people developing sound content while the plug-in code itself is still evolving. "I've learnt from past experience to keep the content a completely separate thing from the plug-in," explained Paul. "So after making the initial tools to make the plug-in capable of loading multi-samples, the content and the plug-in can be completely separate, and I can work away not caring what the sound content is going to be in the end, and the people doing the sounds can work away not caring about what the plug-in's going to do."
Paul previously worked on Steinberg's Virtual Guitarist and Groove Agent, and I was interested to know how programming Hypersonic differed. "Virtual Guitarist was alright, but it was structured so that users ended up with thousands of files on their hard disk, which turned out to be a bit of a problem. So in Groove Agent, we went the other way, and ended up putting everything into just three big files. But that meant people would have to replace enormous files if there was a problem. So for Hypersonic, we've gone for somewhere in between. There are no really huge files involved, in case there's something wrong in one and it needs an update, but there's a sensible number of things to deal with and it's all laid out logically on the hard disk. So if people really don't like the harmonica and accordion bank in Hypersonic, they can just delete the file, and the plug-in carries on working without it quite happily."
The sound-design work began at around the same time as Paul's programming, as Mark Ovenden described. "Wizoo have a fairly good set of resources now, with The Grand for pianos, Halion String Edition, and a lot of the synthesizer stuff, so much of the sample data already existed and just had to be reprocessed and reprogrammed. None of the samples are massive, but we made 'Eco' versions of anything that's over a certain size, so that users can be more memory-efficient if they need to be. Most of the sample-library industry is creating bigger and bigger libraries at the moment, but we were intentionally trying to keep it compact. In the end, we were pretty surprised at how small we managed to get it.
"All the sample data I started with in this project was in 16- or 24-bit stereo format, so there was a little bit of processing and looping, and I use Wavelab for this type of work. I was always a Mac guy, but a year and a half ago, I started to use Wavelab, and it's really great. I also use a large amount of customised automation with Quickeys, so it's very fast for me to drop a thousand samples in there and loop them.
"After the editing was complete, we built the instruments in Halion, which means you can test everything, and do all the mapping. Paul had a pretty good system for converting the data. We have a special development tool called Element Designer that has all the synthesis aspects, with a really ugly GUI. You can have up to 64 Elements per Patch, and each element can be a sample-based, virtual-analogue, FM, wavetable, or effects-based element. Most normal Hypersonic Patches are four to 10 elements layered on top of each other, with three envelopes available per element, and a big modulation matrix where everything can modulate everything else. Hypersonic users only see a really simple GUI with macro knobs, but the actual synthesis behind it is very complex and pretty sophisticated."
As explained elsewhere in this review text, the six Hyper Knobs make life simple for the user, but the flipside of this was a great deal of work for the sound designer. Mark: "The basic brief was to pick the six most dynamic and useful parameters for every patch. This added two months of work to the whole project for me. There are six thousand knobs in total and each one has to be labelled appropriately!"
Now that they've completed work on Hypersonic, it would seem that the team's next task will be... to continue working on Hypersonic! Paul: "Unlike some plug-ins, we don't want to leave it sitting at version one forever — we do want to update and expand it. Making it able to read sample expansions is an easy way to do that, so that we can expand it as and when we get more sample libraries. But also, we want to make it a bit cleverer and add some features, and particularly more control. There's a lot of hidden flexibility, features and synthesis parameters in there that the user doesn't get access to in version one, but it's all in there and I particularly want to give the user some more access to the clever stuff. Already, the legato playing of some Patches like the saxes and clarinets should sound a great deal better than your usual synth set to mono and playing legato."
The collection of bass and guitar sounds is also rather vast, with various categories covering synth, acoustic and electric basses, along with acoustic and electric guitars. I've always liked Wizoo's synth basses, and there are plenty of treats in this collection, some of which just use Hypersonic's built-in virtual-analogue synth engine. The Acoustic Bass category is perhaps the weakest, offering just two patches, but having said that, both are nicely playable upright basses.
The acoustic guitar is a notch above what I've heard in most hardware workstations, and there's a nice Patch that tries to be intelligent with the fret noise. However, Hypersonic's electric guitars deserve a special mention, because rather than being the obligatory poor workstation-style electric guitars we all know and love, they're actually pretty good. The reason for this is that Hypersonic includes respectable amp-simulator and overdrive algorithms, and these settings are assigned to Hyper Knobs. With a little bit of tweaking, you can usually come up with a sound that may not be utterly realistic, but is certainly convincing in the context of a full arrangement. The other neat thing about being able to adjust the amp tone of the sound is that you aren't restricted to the cheesy overdriven guitar sounds most people are used to hearing on this type of product — softer and slightly grittier sounds are also possible.
The string ensemble patches use the same basic material from Wizoo's evolving Claudius Bruese Orchestra sample library, which is available on-line at www.wizoosounds.com and forms the basis for Wizoo and Steinberg's Halion String Edition Volume 1, an orchestral strings VST and DirectX Instrument. As you would expect, this means the orchestral string ensembles aren't bad at all, with well-rounded legato patches, and spiccato and pizzicato patches that have a reasonable amount of character. Again, there are variations with octave doubles, various filtered and layered patches featuring harpsichords, pianos, guitars, choirs and so on. The only omission on the strings front is the lack of solo stringed instruments, such as violin and cello — but since these types of patches sound pretty bad on most workstations, maybe this isn't a great loss.
There's a useable collection of orchestral woodwind and brass Patches as well, but if you specifically want orchestral sounds in this price range, you might be better considering the new Garritan Personal Orchestra or EastWest's Symphonic Orchestra Silver.
On the synthesizer front, Hypersonic has plenty to offer and, again, this is no surprise. Firstly, the instrument draws on three real synth engines behind the scenes, and secondly, Wizoo have an excellent reputation for synth programming. There really are too many sounds to go through in detail, but there is category after category of cool sounds, including Poly Synths, Techno Synths, Arpeggios, Soundscapes, various special effects categories, Hard Leads, Soft Leads, Soft Pads, Bright Pads and Moving Pads. And on the subject of pads, the Vocal section also includes some amazingly huge synth choir soundscapes, such as Digital Choir.
The collection of synth sounds, in particular, makes use of many clever Hypersonic features where, again, the simplicity of the interface masks you from the complexity, which is exactly how it should be. The Arpeggio category of sounds all make use of Hypersonic's built-in arpeggiator, which you also can use with any other Patch, and there are also Xphraze-inspired features that you can hear in Patches from the Moving Pads category, for example.
If, after spending some time with Hypersonic, you do exhaust the current sonic offerings, don't worry; Wizoo and Steinberg have chosen to implement 'expansion slots': another workstation-inspired feature that will enable you to expand the available sounds and functionality of Hypersonic. Clicking on the small arrow located at the bottom of the Hyper Display reveals space for software 'expansions', and Wizoo intend on offering additional sample-based material in the future as Hypersonic expansions, which may include the ability to import and convert your own sounds from other sources.
Hypersonic includes 34 effects algorithms that can be used as both an integral part of a patch's sound (Patch effects) or as Global effects, so many Parts can share the same effect. They are as follows:
- Reverb, Hall Reverb, Non-Linear Reverb, Early Reflections.
- Delay, Stereo Delay, Long Delay, Tape Delay.
- Chorus, Quad Chorus, Space Chorus, Ensemble, Flanger, Phaser, Deep Phaser, Detune, Phase Shift, Pan/Tremolo, Rotary Speaker, Stereo Width.
- Wah, Talkbox, Shelf EQ, Parametric EQ, Enhancer.
- Limiter, Compressor, Multi-band [Compressor], Gate.
- Distortion, Overdrive, Amp Simulator, Bit Reduction, Modulate L/R.
Hypersonic allows you to have four effects simultaneously for every Part via four effects slots, which means you can have a maximum of 64 (ie. 4x16) effects for every instance of Hypersonic. The four effects can be made up from any combination of Patch or Global effects, but you can't use the same effects slot for both a Patch effect and a Global effect at the same time. The preset Patches contain effects settings already, of course, but it's easy to add or remove effects and adjust the parameters on the 'FX' editing page.
One question I asked myself when I first started using Hypersonic was how the effects were routed to the multiple outputs that are available, but this was quickly answered. The 'FX' page allows you to route the output of each of the effects slots to any output you like, and there's even a pan control, giving you plenty of flexibility in how you mix Hypersonic's effects. For example, you could route the global reverb or delay effects to a dedicated output and apply additional processing such as EQ or filtering from other plug-ins you might have installed on your system.
For mixing within Hypersonic, there's also an appropriately named Mix page where you can control the levels of the effects on each Part, the output for each Part and its panning. There's even a handy duplicate Lock toggle for each Part which prevents Mix (or MIDI) settings from being overwritten whenever you load a new Patch into that Part.
There's a cliché that's often wheeled out by those writing about music technology, which observes the fact that the amount of music written by an individual is often inversely proportional to the amount of gear that person has at their disposal. In some ways, this is understandable, since getting your head around the number of possibilities presented by many different pieces of hardware and software can often detract from the process of actually coming up with good musical ideas. And this is where Hypersonic can be both useful and fun: it has a broad enough scope to offer plenty of sounds, but at the same time is nicely self-contained and quick to work with.
Hypersonic is never going to compete with racks of computers running Gigastudio with the latest and greatest sample libraries; but, on the other hand, it isn't supposed to. To me, Hypersonic is intended as a creative instrument that provides a large collection of sounds, and is efficient enough to provide a generous amount of polyphony so you can produce fairly substantial arrangements without taxing even the most humble of computers. I can see Hypersonic being useful in large studios as a way of sketching out ideas, for example, before adding sounds from other sources if needed. I can also see it being a hit in the education market, where a computer workstation might have previously had a small sound module attached; there is now no need for extra sound-generating equipment with Hypersonic installed.
My first thought when I saw Hypersonic was that this would be a great instrument for laptop users. A couple of months with it only reinforced this opinion. I can safely say that anybody who makes music on a laptop will absolutely love Hypersonic, since the self-contained one-computer music-production environment is just what any laptop junky requires. As proof of this, I'm sitting finishing this review on a plane somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean, and I can safely say that Hypersonic makes in-flight music production better than I've ever experienced before!
Overall, it's difficult not to be impressed by Hypersonic. It's not that it's a revolutionary product; it's more that it's a great idea well executed. Its deceptively simple interface belies the complexity and amount of work that clearly went into developing the product, and the attention to detail in both the programming and sound design is exceptional. Oh, and it's also a great deal of fun.
- Incredibly efficient, both in terms of processor and memory usage.
- A large selection of playable and useable sounds, every bit as good as you'd expect from a hardware workstation, and in many cases better.
- An intuitive user interface makes Hypersonic quick and easy to work with, and makes editing Patches simple.
- The synthesis and effects algorithms add tremendous flexibility to the instrument.
- Although you can edit the patches fairly extensively and save your own, power users don't get full control over every parameter (at least, not in this version), and can't create new sounds from scratch.
Hypersonic may not be a new idea, but it's the most successful software implementation of the workstation concept yet seen, and one of those rare instances where the developers seem to have provided a truly well-thought-out product. Any musician who needs a quick starting point when writing, or an efficient mobile playback solution, would find it worth their while to check out Hypersonic.
£279.99 including VAT.