Steinberg and Wizoo's latest collaboration aims to provide high-quality string sounds at an affordable price, with a software interface to make string arranging so easy that even drummers can manage it. Have they succeeded?
Ever since the release of orchestral sample libraries for Gigastudio such as Garritan Orchestral Strings (GOS) and Dan Dean's solo instrument libraries, amongst others in 2001, the demand for high-quality orchestral sample libraries, and string ensembles in particular, has grown stronger than ever before. Additionally, the expectation in the scope and quality of such orchestral libraries has also grown, as developers such as Gary Garritan, Dan Dean, Sonic Implants, and now the Vienna Symphonic Library (VSL) and East West with Quantum Leap (EWQL), continue to push the boundaries in their products.
However, while these aforementioned libraries aim to be as easy to use as possible, they are still unashamedly aimed at professionals with experience in orchestration and a reasonable budget. For musicians who simply want the same ease of use their sound module's string patch affords them, but with the sound quality offered by the high-end libraries, it could be said that there's a gap in the market; and this is precisely the gap Wizoo and Steinberg hope to fill with their latest collaboration: Halion String Edition Volume One.
Halion String Edition (HSE) Volume One is essentially a 5GB ensemble string library supplied on eight CD-ROMs, with an extra CD-ROM containing the installer application and a tailor-made version of Halion that's required to load and play the Instruments. This special version of Halion is known as the Halion String Player (HSP) and runs as both a VST Instrument on Windows, OS 9 and OS X, and also as a DirectX Instrument in Sonar, a fact that should earn Steinberg a few brownie points amongst users.
Installation is a relatively painless affair, except for the fact it can take around 45 minutes; but you can't, as they (nearly) say, have your high-quality, multi-disk sample library and eat it. As a side note, however, with more users owning computers capable of handling DVD-ROM media, we can hopefully look forward to day when this kind of product is available on a single DVD.
Steinberg suggest a 400MHz Pentium II or compatible AMD processor for Windows users and a 500MHz G3 with a 100MHz system buss for Mac users as the minimum processor requirements for running HSE. However, I think a fast Pentium III, Athlon or G4 should be considered the practical minimum. Obviously you'll also need 5GB of free hard disk space, ideally on a fast 7200rpm drive that's dedicated to streaming samples, and Steinberg state 256MB as the minimum amount of memory required, although they recommend 768MB or more for the best performance.
In terms of section sizes, HSE utilises a respectable 16 violins, 12 violas, 10 cellos and eight double basses, and although separate first and second violin programs are included for some articulations, both include 16 players, which is perhaps a shame as providing a smaller second-violin section could have provided more variety. By means of comparison, GOS has 22 violins (also available as 12 and 10 first and second sections) and 10/8/7 (violas/cellos/basses), Sonic Implants use 14/6/5/4, VSL has 14/10/8/6, and EWQL's Symphonic Orchestra Strings uses 18 and 10 violins with 10/10/9.
The strings were recorded across 16 tracks in Nuendo at a 24-bit resolution and a 48kHz sampling rate, using Brüel & Kj r, Schoeps, Neumann, Sanken and Sennheiser microphones, a StageTec TruMatch 28-bit mic preamp and A-D converter. The fact HSE also plays back at 24-bit makes it the first high-end string library to do so until EXS24 MkII versions of other libraries and the EWQL Symphony Orchestra appear — Gigastudio 2.5 is restricted to 16-bit playback.
The so-called Vienna orchestral placement was used (violins to the left, violas to the right, cellos mid-right, and the basses covering the full width on the back row) to record the string orchestra, meaning that you don't have to pan the instruments yourself
— they will automatically sound correct and natural.
The manual supplied with HSE is commendable, being easy to read and offering real insight into the aims and use of the library. Musical suggestions are given for most features, and a short string-arranging tutorial should give some ideas for beginners on how to best use the library. Yes, the manual could probably do with a little editing, and yes, the string-arranging tutorial isn't going to replace a good orchestration guide, but on the whole, it fulfils its task without intimidating the user.
The first time you use HSP, you'll be prompted to locate the folder containing the sounds, and when you load HSP subsequently, it will automatically load the 'halionstringplayerdef.fxb' file in the root of the Halion String Edition folder. This contains a single low-memory 'full strings legato' Instrument by default, and you can overwrite this Bank with your own configurations, so you don't have to load your most common or favourite programs manually every time you want to use HSP.
For Mac users wanting to use HSE with Logic on OS 9, there's a problem with the first release that prevents the Instrument files being correctly recognised. Fortunately, this problem can be rectified by downloading replacement Instrument files from the Steinberg site.
To load Instruments into HSP, as with Halion, you have to make sure the appropriate Channel is selected, and use the generic File commands provided on the plug-in's toolbar by the host application. While I can see the sense in this approach (which comes in particularly useful when you want to save Banks of all 16 Instruments), I would have preferred to be able to select Instruments via an intelligently organised pop-up menu from the plug-in itself, as on Spectrasonic's Stylus, Atmosphere and Trilogy. An internal pop-up menu does allow the selection of loaded Instuments, but this isn't quite the same. However, minor quips aside, after taking a few moments to familiarise yourself with the layout of Instrument files in the HalionString Edition folder, finding the Instruments you need shouldn't be much of a problem.
Many of the Instruments are provided in XXL and ECO versions, the naming terminology of which should be familiar to anyone who has used a previous Wizoo/Steinberg product: XXL Instruments are the full, memory-hungry versions, while the ECO Instruments offer reduced-memory versions that use fewer samples. Again, the icing on the cake here would be if HSP, like Virtual Guitarist, contained a global or channel-specific ECO/XXL switch (where there's a choice), rather than leaving it to you to manually load the required program.
The basic layout of the library consists of separate violin (with some further first- and second-section divisions), viola, cello and double bass ensembles, along with some full string patches (referred to as '4-in-1' Instruments) that feature samples from all the ensembles spread across the entire keyboard. As with other libraries, these are great for trying out ideas and writing with, before polishing off your arrangements with sounds from the individual Instruments later on, or for keyboard players who don't want the hassle of multi-channel setups and want an easy replacement for their workstation sounds. As an added bonus, HSE also provides a selection of pads (with slow, pad-like attack and releases) reminiscent of the Enya-esque string pads you'd find on sound modules, but with a substantially better depth of sound.
So what about the Instruments themselves? The legato Instruments are available in 'A' and 'B' versions across all ensembles (except the '4-in-1' and pad Instruments), with the attack on the 'A' Instruments being slightly more firm and the overall sound being fairly bold, while the 'B' instruments have a marginally softer attack and feel more suitable for expressive lines. Wizoo recommend doubling the 'A' and 'B' Instruments when you want a really big sound, or using them for adding variation to divisi writing (when you want counterpoint within one ensemble, for example).
My only slight issue with the legato samples, which is purely a matter of taste, is that the overall sound is incredibly balanced and uniform across all velocity layers. This is ideal for expressive and realistic crescendos, but it would have been a nice bonus to have some legato samples that were soft and grainy, with the bow just barely touching the strings, or some harsh fortissimo varitations with an aggressive attack, as in most of the larger string libraries.
Another point to consider is that the amount of vibrato in the legato Instruments is set in stone, with what the manual describes as a 'medium' amount that gradually gets stronger towards the stronger velocity layers. In fairness, this is a reasonable artistic decision to make, but I think it's inevitable that some users will find themselves wishing for more or less vibrato in various situations. In my case, I'll confess that as a fan of indulgent Romantic orchestration, I would have liked a bit more, but many people would disagree with me and find what's provided totally right for their musical needs.
In addition to the straight legato Instruments, there are additional legato Instruments featuring slides for building portamento into your melodic phrases. The use of portamento is cleverly controlled via some switch keys located at the very bottom of an 88-note keyboard, which means that aside from transposing with smaller keyboards, you'll really need an 88-note keyboard to make the most of these Instruments. Holding down one of the three key-switches while playing a note within that Instrument's range will trigger either a slide up, a slide down, or an octave-slide up.
The tremolo Instruments provided will add suitable colour to your arrangements, whether for mysterious suspense in the lower registers, or Nino Rota-style melody lines. And the additional 'tremolo with accents' Instruments are very welcome; they trigger a tremolo sample that starts with an accent when you play a note with a MIDI velocity of at least 100.
Rounding off the long bows are half- and whole-note trills, which are available in separate Instruments, or combined in a single Instrument and switchable via key-switches. And like the tremolos, these are beautifully controlled with a clear and defined sound.
The long bow Instruments are available in four categories ('Xfade', 'Xswitch', 'Velocity' and 'Velocity with Pitch-bend'), which provide a choice of expression controls. The Velocity Instruments offer the traditional way of controlling dynamics — a low velocity would trigger the piano samples, for example. But, more interestingly, while the 'Xfade' Instruments aren't velocity sensitive, they do allow you to smoothly crossfade between the velocity layers using the continuous Crescendo Controller assigned with HSP, which is mapped to the mod wheel by default.
The 'Xfade' instruments are a tremendous benefit (especially when it comes to making tremolos 'breathe' a little), but as you may have read before, they are also the sampling equivalent of a black hole when it comes to your computer's resources. Every note you play with an 'Xfade' Instrument requires up to four voices of polyphony, which means that using 'Xfade' Instruments on all Channels simultaneously is going to use up your system's resources pretty quickly.
To compensate for this and provide more economical alternatives when writing, the 'Xswitch' Instruments also make use of the Crescendo Controller, but the switch between velocity layers is sometimes obvious, although a combination of 'Xfade' and 'Xswitch' instruments can mask this. The advantage of 'Xswitch' Instruments is that they only require one voice for every note played, and the fact they're able to preserve the Crescendo Controller data makes them useful as economical substitutes.
I found the Crescendo Control itself very sensitive, but with a bit of practice, you can achieve some incredibly expressive and realistic results with the 'Xfade' instruments. However, I noticed the 'Violin I A Legato' Instrument had an audible changeover point, which I suspect is due to a faulty Instrument, because the 'Violin I A Legato with Portamento' Instrument crossfaded perfectly.
The last control category is described as 'Velocity with Pitch-bend' ('VelPB'), which is a neat way of combining the 'Xswitch' and standard 'Velocity' Instruments by taking advantage of the fact the pitch-bend wheel has a default central position. With a 'VelPB' Instrument, velocity determines the initial volume and layer, and you can use the pitch wheel to increase or decrease the volume and layer while the note sustains.
An important point to mention with the legato Instruments is that, unlike on just about every other high-end sample library, they are all looped — break out the champagne! Sample-library developers often hotly debate whether the tremendously involved task of carrying out all this looping is worthwhile, but there's no doubt that from a player's point of view, looped legato samples are great for trying out ideas.
When it comes to short bows, only a spiccato articulation is provided, although this is somewhat compensated for in the large number of variations provided. Firstly, as with the legato Instruments, there are 'A' and 'B' variation sets, this time supplemented by up and down bow sets as well, with the 'A' variation producing a lighter sound with a firm attack, and 'B' offering a thicker woody sound, which is particularly fierce on the cellos. The bass spiccato samples are only available in one down-bow flavour, which is suitably aggressive and should move a fair amount of air in your subwoofer!
However, HSE goes one step further with its spiccato articulation and offers an Instrument featuring automatic up and down bow alternations. Admittedly, HSE isn't the first library to offer this, but it is the first library that doesn't require additional programs to be set up and used alongside your sampler, a fact that highlights the advantage of self-contained libraries running as virtual instruments. The automatic Instruments offer a number of key-switches to change the bowing to only up or down bows, or to begin alternating again starting on either an up or down bow, which is very, very useful indeed.
The manual claims that up to nine velocity layers are used for each bow direction, although I have to say that I certainly couldn't discern that many individually. However, what you can hear is a brilliantly varied and realistic spiccato texture that avoids, as the manual puts it, the 'machine-gunning' affect often associated with short-bow string samples.
The pizzicato Instruments are available in loose and tight variants for the upper strings, tight and very tight (which could be painful!) for the cellos, and 'whatever happens to come out' from the basses! Seriously, though, it's not that easy for a group of bass players to control a tight pizzicato sound, which isn't surprising if you consider the length and thickness of the strings — you could probably get a tighter pizzicato sound with an ensemble of upright Hoovers! Overall, the pizzicato Instruments were nicely rounded with a musical character that just cried out to be played.
The samples used in Halion String Edition Volume One are taken from a three-year sampling project started by Wizoo at the beginning of 2002 to sample a complete symphony orchestra, which is to become The Claudius Bruese Orchestra. The primary aim of this gradually developing sample library, as demonstrated by Halion String Edition, is to provide high-quality sounds that are easy to use for any musician who requires access to an orchestral palette.
Claudius Bruese has worked on many Wizoo products over the years, but is perhaps best known as the man behind Wizoo/Steinberg's The Grand VST Instrument, one of the finest sampled pianos currently available. In addition to his work with Wizoo, Claudius is a trained composer and sound designer who works in both Cologne and LA, composing for film and TV, and specialises in producing realistic-sounding orchestral mock-ups for himself and other high-profile Hollywood composers.
If you already own a software sampler and would like to use the sounds from The Claudius Bruese Orchestra without buying the full Halion String Edition Volume One, some of the programs are available for download at www.wizoosounds.com in EXS24, Giga and Halion formats. At the time of writing, the legato, pizzicato and tremolo programs are available, with marcato, spiccato, trills and senza vibrato programs coming soon. However, it's worth stressing that these are just ordinary multisampled instruments; they do not come with all the extra functionality of Halion String Edition Volume One.
As a footnote, if you buy your copy of Halion String Edition Volume One from Wizoo (via www.wizoo.com) and you've already purchased some of the 'Claudius Bruese' strings from www.wizoosounds.com, they'll refund you a voucher to spend there for the same amount you've already spent on the strings.
The HSP software provided really does make HSE the easiest orchestral library to use in an integrated MIDI + Audio sequencer environment, and, as the name and interface suggests, is based on Steinberg's Halion software sampler. In fact, the HSP interface is basically a stripped-down version of Halion's macro view, which takes away all the complication sometimes associated when using higher-end libraries with generic sampling software.
HSP retains Halion's four pairs of stereo outputs, losing the additional four mono outputs that are obviously redundant in this context. Initally I thought it was a shame not to have five pairs of outputs — one for each section plus full strings — but you can of course run as many copies of HSP as your host supports to get the number of individual outputs required. The overhead of running an extra instance of HSP, compared to the overhead of just playing the Instruments, would be negligible.
The user is left with very few decisions to make in the operation of HSP, and the only settings you can make are those affecting the quality and performance. As with Halion, you can select between a variety of quality and resampling options, where better means more processor intensive. Halion's 'Preload To RAM' slider (for controlling the balance between disk streaming and RAM-based playback) has been simplified into five presets from the same settings menu as Quality and Resampling.
Halion's Keyzone page isn't present in HSP, so you can't see which samples are assigned to which notes. To get around this, there's a nice touch in HSP's piano-style keyboard; the range of the current Instrument for the selected Channel is highlighted by small horizontal brown lines along the top of the keyboard.
In terms of computer resources, HalionString Player is fairly efficient. To give some idea of the performance you can expect, I loaded up the XXL '4-in-1' legato patch on my Windows-based test system, set Voices to 64, placed my foot on the master keyboard's damper pedal, and played an ascending 64-note chromatic scale starting from the 'C' three octaves below middle 'C'. Disk streaming was set to the default Mid setting, and during the test there were no audible glitches, with the CPU Performance meter in Cubase registering about 60 percent.
Given that most musicians are unlikely to need to play 64-note chords with a legato program, I think it's safe to say that if you purchased your computer within the last year or so, it should have no problem coping with even the most intensive string arrangements. And when it comes to polyphony, your computer is likely is to give up long before HSP, which has an upper 64-voice limit for each of the 16 Channels, giving a theoretical maximum polyphony of a staggering 1024 voices!
An aspect of Halion String Player that did become annoying was that the Voices parameter always resets itself to 16 Voices every time you load an Instrument, regardless of the previous setting. This reason for this turned out to be that the Voices setting is saved in the Instrument files themselves, so resaving the Instruments with your required polyphony neatly solves what initially appears to be a problem.
The up and down buttons on the Channel, Output and Voices controls only respond to single mouse clicks, and I thought at first that this was going to significantly increase my chances of developing RSI — setting Voices from 16 to 64 requires 48 clicks! However, I later found a neat and undocumented feature, which, like Halion itself, enables you to change these parameters by hovering the mouse over the up and down buttons and using your mouse's scroll wheel instead — if your mouse has one. This method also works for any of Halion String Player's other controls, including the piano keyboard, which can be scrolled via the wheel if the mouse is hovering inside the keyboard display.The only other minor point is that a 'used voices' indicator to show the current polyphony for the selected channel would be useful for knowing when you need to adjust the Voices parameter for that given channel, as in Gigastudio and EXS24 MkII — there's certainly space for it.
All things considered, there really is very little criticism I can level at Halion String Edition: aside from a few minor interface issues and a question of taste on the room and 'safe' legato choices, this is, quite simply, a great product that delivers on its promises. The only question remaining is whether these promises are sufficient and suitable for your needs.
I think Steinberg and Wizoo have been clever with Halion String Edition Volume One, aiming it squarely at musicians who require the quality of the larger sample libraries, but without the same number of articulations. Although both GOS and Sonic Implants' Symphonic Strings (SISS) are available in smaller, more affordable versions, they represent the scope of the full library using fewer samples, as opposed to providing full-quality versions of the most common articulations, as Wizoo have done.
However, this isn't to criticise either GOS Lite or SISS Mini, because they clearly cater for rather different musical demands. If you require a greater variety of articulations (eg. con sordino, or more types of short bows) both of these represent good value for money at £199 and $449 (around £300) respectively, putting them in approximately the same price bracket as HSE (assuming you already own a software sampler, of course).
On the other hand, Wizoo acknowledge that the Volume One appendage means that there'll be a Volume Two to cover more articulations, so you could buy Volume One now and Volume Two later as your needs grow. However, if this turns out to be the case, and Volume Two carries the same price tag, you're getting close to comparisons with the larger £700 libraries that Volume One otherwise neatly side-steps. With this in mind, choosing whether to purchase HSE comes down to taste (a simple question of which library's sound you prefer) and ease of use — a category that Halion String Edition Volume One wins hands down for me.
Putting my dreamer's hat on for one paragraph, one of HSE's most exciting aspects is what's to come when the same approach is applied to other sections of the orchestra — I can't wait to see what Halion Brass, Woodwind and Percussion Editions will offer! But it would also be good if Steinberg took this technology to its logical conclusion in Cubase and integrated it more tightly with the Score editor to offer Sibelius-style playback features. Imagine intelligent arco/pizz switching and active bowing symbols, for example — what more could you ask for?
Overall, the programming of HSE's Instruments is meticulous and musical, demonstrating the level of expertise you'd expect from Wizoo and Steinberg. I have nothing but admiration for those who have the patience to design these instruments and edit the sheer amount of data down into something so deceptively simple and playable.
In conclusion, I really liked HSE. If you want high-quality, easy-to-play string sounds in a VST or DirectX Instrument for less than half the price of the larger libraries, and have no desire for the more intricate articulations required for more detailed orchestration, Halion String Edition is absolutely what you've been waiting for.