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Steinberg Halion 1.1 Review

April 1, 2002
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Steinberg's Halion is a multitimbral, multioutput software sampler that features direct-from-disk streaming of samples. Disk streaming lets you use large acoustic-instrument samples, and Halion comes with a ton of them. Halion supports several common sample formats, including Akai, E-mu, SoundFont, Giga, and REX, so you should have no trouble finding additional content suitable for your needs. As expected, it supports AIFF and WAV formats, as well.

Halion is a VST2 Instrument capable of playing a separate program on each of 16 MIDI channels. Its 12 virtual outputs (four stereo pairs and four mono) make it possible to apply separate digital signal-processing effects to different programs. If you use a VST host that supports multiple outputs (which, at this time, means Steinberg's Cubase or Nuendo), you can get a lot of music out of a single Halion instance.

I tested Halion 1.1 using Cubase VST/32 5.1 on a Mac G3/300 MHz with 384 MB of RAM running OS 9.1 and on a Pentium III/700 MHz PC with 128MB of RAM under Windows 98SE. The Mac had an Emagic AW8 audio card, and the PC used an Emagic EMI 2/6 USB interface. Although both systems are well above the manufacturer's stated minimum requirements, the speed of the Mac and the limited RAM on the PC were barely adequate. To take full advantage of Halion's multitimbral, multioutput, and streaming features, you need some serious CPU muscle, a huge amount of RAM, and a fast hard drive, preferably one that's dedicated to Halion streaming.

OUT OF THE BOX

Shortly after its initial release, Steinberg introduced an update, Halion 1.1, which should be available when you read this. Much of the audio content has been revised for version 1.1, and for obvious reasons (size being chief among them), it is not downloadable. You can download the latest version of Halion from Steinberg's Web site, and version 1.0 users can contact Steinberg to receive the new content.

Like other synthesizers and samplers, Halion's programs are organized into banks of 128. In typical fashion, you can select programs on individual MIDI channels using MIDI Program Change messages. Halion calls its programs Instruments, and each Instrument consists of samples, a keymap, and various parameter settings, such as those for filters and envelopes. You can load and save individual Instruments or entire banks.

Although Halion can play samples directly from your hard drive, it must load a portion of the file into RAM in order to achieve low-latency playback response. Banks that contain many programs can take a long time to load and can absorb huge chunks of memory. Therefore, tailoring banks to individual songs is generally the most efficient approach. (Halion's audio files include individual Instruments but no banks.)

THE HALION VIEW

When you first open Halion, it displays the Macro Page View, providing access to some of the most frequently used parameters from Halion's seven other Page Views (see Fig. 1). The Macro Page View is half the size of the others and, therefore, a more convenient place to work; no doubt you'll spend most of your time there. In the Macro Page View, you can assign any Instrument to any MIDI channel and to any of Halion's 12 audio output channels. You can also adjust filter, filter envelope, amplifier envelope, tuning, and LFO settings.

The other Page Views — Keyzone, Chan/Prog, Env/Filter, Mod/Tune, Waveloop, and Options — offer more settings, graphic-editing features, and, in many cases, the ability to apply settings on an individual-sample basis. When you edit settings in the Macro Page View, the changes are global but can be applied absolutely or relatively to the individual sample settings. For example, if you edit the filter cutoff on the Macro Page View in Absolute mode, the cutoff setting for each sample will jump to the new value. In Relative mode, each sample's filter cutoff will be offset from its existing value by the amount you specify.

Halion's other Page Views are typical of multitimbral samplers but offer some unique editing features. Each view shares a common display called the Program List, which does much more than its name implies (see Fig. 2). The Program List is hierarchical and lets you open a sublist for each Instrument to show the samples it contains. Samples can be dragged from the list to Keyzones, and multiple samples can be selected, allowing some of their parameters (such as filter, envelope, and LFO settings) to be edited simultaneously. The Program List is where you choose whether edits apply to the whole program or to selected samples and, in the latter case, whether the edits apply absolutely or relatively.

The Chan/Prog Page View is a map of Halion's 16 MIDI-channel assignments; it has drop-down menus for selecting the program and audio output for each channel. The Keyzone Page View shows the arrangement of an Instrument's samples across MIDI note and Velocity zones. You can drag samples there from the Program List and import samples in various formats from your hard drive. Samples can be freely dragged and sized in the Keyzone Page View, and overlapping regions can be layered or crossfaded.

The Waveloop Page View is Halion's mini sample editor. You can't actually edit or process samples there, but you can set start and end points as well as define a sustain and a release loop. (The release loop, when activated, plays until the end of the amplitude envelope's release portion.)

The Env/Filter Page View is for adjusting filter, amplifier, and envelope settings (see Fig. 3). There you can edit settings for individual samples, groups of samples, or all samples simultaneously. That means you can have separate filters, amplifiers, and envelopes for each sample. In a multisampled Instrument — a piano or stringed instrument, for example — you might use slightly different settings for upper and lower sections of the keyboard.

The ability to specify settings for individual samples or groups of samples becomes even more valuable with mapped samples such as drums, percussion instruments, and sound effects. With a different sound on each key, you frequently want unique filter settings — a highpass filter to take a little of the bottom off a kick drum and a resonant bandpass filter to punch up a crash cymbal, for instance.

Halion's envelopes are flexible and permit as many as eight break points with individual segment shapes scalable from convex to concave. You can graphically adjust all envelope break points and segment shapes.

The Mod/Tune Page View provides 12 modulation routings, and again, you can assign them to individual samples, groups of samples, or all samples. Modulation sources include most types of MIDI messages, two built-in LFOs, a noise source, a glide, either envelope generator, and 12 user-definable constants. Any modulation source can be scaled by any other modulation source. Destinations are filter cutoff, resonance, volume, pan, pitch, and any of the 12 constants just mentioned. The LFOs offer sine, saw, and pulse waveforms and can be delayed and synchronized to MIDI tempo.

The Mod/Tune Page View is also where you assign sample groups, set the amount of glide (aka glissando or portamento), and set Raw and Drum sample-playback modes. Assigning samples to the same sample group lets you restrict the polyphony of that group. Typically, the polyphony is restricted to one note (a function often called Hi-Hat mode). When a sample is set to Raw, all of its parameter settings are ignored except the amplifier-related settings: Velocity, pan, envelope, and spread. In Drum mode (which automatically turns on Raw mode), the loops and sustain are also ignored, so the sample plays from beginning to end in one shot.

The last Page View, Options, is for global settings that affect the overall performance of Halion. Those include the amount of each sample to preload into RAM (which applies to all samples in all Instruments), the number of notes (which sets the disk buffer size), and the playback quality (which can be used to limit bandwidth and reduce CPU load). Settings you make in the Options Page View, together with audio-driver settings (particularly the driver's buffer size), have a profound effect on Halion's performance. Options is also the page where you can import third-party samples and audio files.

With any software sampler or synthesizer, there are always trade-offs between real-time performance (latency), audio quality, and the number of notes or tracks. On my relatively slow Mac, the highest audio-quality setting with a one-second RAM buffer and a minimal ASIO buffer provided only five or six notes before sounds started breaking up and dropping out. On the other hand, medium quality (which still sounded fine), four-second buffering, and a larger ASIO buffer supported 32 notes along with a couple of audio tracks. (The latency caused by the larger ASIO buffer made real-time playing impossible, however.) In a nice touch, you can override the quality setting when bouncing to audio files, which means you can have more notes during playback but still retain the highest-resolution output when you do your final audio rendering.

THE CONTENT

Halion comes with four CDs containing more than 1.7 GB of Instruments and samples. The program devotes more than 1 GB to four instruments from Wizoo: an acoustic piano, a nylon guitar, drums and percussion, and a six-string electric bass. Presumably, the reason for such large Instruments is to show off Halion's streaming technology. The primary advantage of streaming is that you can make use of a sound's natural decay rather than loop a portion of the sample, which always sounds somewhat unnatural. The sounds Steinberg has chosen illustrate that well, and if you do a lot of work with acoustic music, you will find them quite useful, especially the bass and guitar Instruments.

Because the individual samples in those four Instruments are huge, one way to save memory is to use fewer samples in each Instrument. To that end, the piano, guitar, drum, and bass Instruments come in three sizes: XXL, MID, and ECO. (You can hear an example of the differences in the mp3 file Quartet, which is a piano, bass, drum, and guitar blues starting with the ECO versions, crossfading into the MID versions, and crossfading again into the XXL versions.) Four-second RAM buffering for the four-Instrument bank required 54 MB for the ECO version, 93 MB for the MID version, and a whopping 220 MB for the XXL version.

The rest of the Halion content supplies 200 MB of electronic-instrument samples from Wizoo and 500 MB of loops and tools from eLab. The collection features Magnetic Instruments (electronic pianos, Clavinets, guitars, and organs), Electronic Instruments (including synth basses, electronic drums, pads, and leads), and selections of drum loops and music loops ranging in tempo from 65 to 170 bpm. Most of the Instruments sound good, but the collection is not extensive, and you'll quickly wind up looking for additional content in those areas.

IS IT FOR YOU?

Halion is clearly a formidable product, and under the right circumstances, you get a lot of performance for your sampling dollar. But the decision to choose Halion comes with many caveats. You need a very fast computer with a lot of RAM for maximum performance. In addition, you must have a large, fast hard drive with a fast bus; for the best results, you'll need to dedicate a drive to Halion streaming. Finally, to take full advantage of Halion's multitimbral, multioutput features, you need to use Cubase or Nuendo as your VST host.

Halion's 1.7 GB of content is good and should be a factor in your purchase decision. The big instruments from Wizoo are well recorded, and even the economical versions sound great in most acoustic projects. The Wizoo collection of electronic instruments and sound effects is less generous but does cover the bases. The eLab collection of loops and tools is also outstanding. Although some eLab material has been overused, you'll still find plenty to like if dance music is your thing.


Len Sasso can be contacted through his Web site at www.swiftkick.com.

Minimum System Requirements

Halion

MAC: PPC 604e/250; 128 MB RAM; OS 9.0

PC: Pentium II/266; 128 MB RAM; Windows 95/98/ME/2000

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Steinberg
Halion 1.1 (Mac/Win)
software sampler
$399

FEATURES 4.0
EASE OF USE 3.5
AUDIO QUALITY 4.0
VALUE 4.0

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Multiple MIDI channels and audio outputs. Flexible per-sample modulation routings. Large Instrument collection.

CONS: Requires very fast computer and hard drive. Features limited in VST hosts other than Cubase and Nuendo.

Manufacturer

Waldorf/Steinberg North America (distributor)
tel. (818) 678-5100
e-mail info@steinberg.net
www.steinberg.net

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