Review – Steinberg’s Halion 5

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If “God is in the details”, then it’s fair to surmise that the design engineers of Halion underwent a profoundly religious experience when creating this instrument. See why.

by David Baer, Jan. 2014

Noted 20th century architect Mies van der Rohe famously stated: “God is in the details”.  If this sentiment is correct, then it’s fair to surmise that the design engineers of Halion, Steinberg’s powerhouse hybrid synth/sample-player, underwent a profoundly religious experience when creating this instrument.  The details in Halion are uniformly elegant and impeccable.  We’ll take a close up look at Halion 5 in this review.

Before I go further and say nice things about Halion (and I will be saying many nice things), it’s reasonable to point out up front that the instrument requires an eLicenser dongle.  For users who already have one in place (a group that includes owners of Steinberg’s Cubase DAW) this won’t be an issue.  For others, however, this may be a show stopper.

Two (of Many) Fine Details

Before we look at the overall instrument, I want to substantiate the above assertion about excellent details with two specific examples, the LFO and modulation matrix implementations.  First the LFO.

Much of the function of the LFO, of which there are two polyphonic units per zone, can be gleaned from just looking at the interface.  All the typical LFO capability is there and then some.  In addition to the usual collection of wave forms, there are two sample and hold random shapes and a log shape.  The function of the Shape control is dependent upon the wave selected.  For example, with one of the sample and hold choices, it varies the response between abrupt and smooth.  Five different envelope modes are provided, such as Sustain and Fade Out.  We not only get separate delay and fade-in settings, we also have a fade-out parameter.  All in all, this is as complete an LFO implementation as I’ve ever encountered, and it’s all completely straightforward to use.

Let’s move on to the mod matrix.  Again, the interface clearly illustrates the function.  For each entry (there are thirty two available), we not only get a source/destination combination, but also an adjacent slot to designate another modulator controlling the depth of the primary source.  A classic example is an LFO modulating pitch with the mod wheel modulating the LFO depth.  Modulation can be bipolar or unipolar.  The range of modulation is right there in front of you and you have the option of using other than linear response curves.  Again, this is as good a scheme as I’ve seen anywhere.  A few other synths have equivalent level of control, but rarely is it so straightforward to harness.

Superior design choices like this are found everywhere in Halion.  For example, any place there is a key-follow control (and there are quite a few), you also have the opportunity of specifying the center key … no more guessing or needing to do experimental calibration measurements.  I could go on, but I suspect you’re getting the idea.  There is an abundance of well thought out design in this instrument.

The Big Picture

Now let’s take several major steps back and look at the overall capability.  Halion 5 has four separate sound generation engines: a highly capable sample player unit, a three-oscillator (plus) subtractive synthesizer, an organ device that produces the sound of a classic drawbar organ, and finally a granular synth engine.

Comparisons to two other high-end instruments beg to be made, those being to Kontakt and to Omnisphere.  Halion 5 has immensely powerful sample playback capabilities that rival those in Kontakt.  And like Omnisphere, there is both sample and synthesis capability under the hood.  Like both, Halion provides an extensive set of on-board effects and a multi-bus architecture for broad flexibility with effect sends.  Also like both, Halion 5 is multi-timbral, capable of running multiple programs responding to different MIDI channels and producing multiple audio channel outputs.  And most importantly, like both Kontakt and Omnishpere, the sound of Halion 5 is glorious.  In other words, Halion 5 is a major league player all the way.

Halion provides a hierarchical program structure in which programs are comprised of layers, and layers are comprised of zones.  The zones are where the sound-engine type comes into play.  Layers help to organize programs by grouping zones.  Programs are at the top level and multis (multi-timbral patches) are comprised of multiple programs.

We could devote an entire article to a discussion of the Halion 5 sample playback technology and just begin to scratch the surface.  Suffice it to say that it’s very complete.  You have velocity layer crossfading, round robin playback (with multiple sample selection strategies), exclusion groups (e.g., no simultaneous open and closed high-hat), and so much more.  Halion offers import capability on a number of “foreign” formats including sound fonts.  Sadly, support for SFZ files is inexplicably lacking.  But that’s a small complaint about an otherwise splendid implementation.

With the synth, we have a reasonably complete implementation of a three-oscillator subtractive instrument.  This doesn’t quite compete with some other synth-only instruments like Synthmaster, but it’ll take you quite a ways, given that it includes features such as oscillator hard-sync capability, a sub-oscillator and multi-oscillator (unison) mode.  While you’re not likely to be abandoning your DIVA or LUsh-101 instruments after you install Halion, you’re nevertheless likely appreciate this synth for the ability to layer synth and sample sound production so seamlessly.

Next let’s consider the two sound production capabilities new to Halion in version 5.  We’ll come back to the organ sound engine shortly.  That leaves the granular synth engine to discuss.  Granular synthesis seems to me to be of primary use to producers of soundtracks and soundscapes.  It’s one of those capabilities that you’ll either appreciate a lot or hardly at all.  Maybe it’s just me, but I find granular synthesis of limited value in musical applications.  All of this is to establish my disclaimer that I’m not the right person to ask about an opinion of granular synthesis features.

All that being said, Halion 5 certainly seems to have an extensive set of capabilities in this area.  This is another topic on which an entire article could be devoted and we don’t have space to cover it deeply here.  But this subject is also a good time to introduce Halion’s “macro” instruments.  These are Steinberg-supplied GUIs which “front-end” Halion’s low-level controls with a GUI representing a virtual instrument.  The technology used in doing this is not documented, so this would appear to be a Steinberg-only play (kids, don’t try this at home!).  One of these instruments is called Auron, and it is an encapsulation of a stand-alone granular synth.

But there is no better illustration of how useful the macro-instrument feature can be than the virtual organ pictured below.  Yes, you could construct identical sounds in the basic Halion editor pages, but with the virtual instrument, it’s all in front of you.  The native Halion sound editor is for the organ engine is not as intuitive.

Halion ships with eight prepackaged virtual instruments, including a Mellotron-type instrument, two subtractive synth implementations, the aforementioned Auron, B-Box which is a drum machine, and others.  The virtual instruments work a little differently than those in Kontakt in that you cannot save presets within the instruments.  Rather, you configure your settings and then save the Halion program which retains them as a whole.

Special Effects

Between the extensive bus capabilities and the on-board effects on offer, Halion has the feel of a mini-DAW.  There are two main types: MIDI effects and audio effects.  We’ll look at audio effects first.  If you are the developer of a high-end sound module, it probably doesn’t hurt that you have a full-blown DAW development operation in-house, given the body of effects source code you probably have at your disposal.  Steinberg has not been stingy in spreading that wealth around in Halion 5.

Briefly, here’s what’s there by category:

  • Reverb and delay
    • Convolution reverb
    • Algorithmic reverb
    • Multi-delay
  • EQ
    • Parametric EQ
    • Graphic EQ
  • Filter
    • Auto-filter (most impressive – just read the documentation on this one!)
    • Morph-filter
    • Wah-wah
  • Distortion
    • Amp
    • General distortion (tube, clip, bit reduction)
    • Tape saturator
    • Octaver (additional voices)
  • Modulation
    • Chorus
    • Flanger
    • Step flanger (sample and hold responses)
    • Phaser
    • Tremolo
    • Ring modulator
    • Rotary (Leslie speaker)
    • Vibrato
    • Vintage ensemble
  • Dynamics
    • Compressor
    • Limiter
    • Expander
    • Gate
    • Envelope shaper
  • Panning and Routing
    • Stereo pan
    • Surround pan
  • Halion 3 legacy effects (a lengthy list as well)

But just listing the effects doesn’t tell the whole story.  Many synths have a notable list of effects, but individually they can be rather unimpressive.  Not so with Halion’s effects.  You’d be able to use many of them as your bread-and-butter DAW effects and not feel compromised.

The other effect category is MIDI.  There are fewer of these than in the audio effect collection but several are consequential.  FlexPhraser is one of those.  It provides the user with a flexible and powerful arpeggiator and phrase player (i.e., sequencer).  The documentation on FlexPhraser goes on for thirteen pages; that’s how much functionality is there.

Then there’s MegaTrig, a super-powerful mechanism used for controlling playing styles and articulations.  It provides Boolean conditions (and, or, not) to be used with events (note-on, sustain-on) to tailor a program’ sample playing response to an exacting degree.  As far as I know, Halion does not provide a scripting language (at least one that’s documented), but MegaTrig largely eliminates the need for one.

And there’s more: the MIDIPlayer module, the Drum Player Module, the MIDI randomizer and modules dedicated to unique situations like the True Pedaling module.  All in all, this is an impressive and powerful lineup.

Is Halion 5 for You?

Well, let’s address the elephant in the room before anything else.  Even if Steinberg loses the dongle requirement, Halion is not going to supplant Kontakt any time soon as the preeminent sample player software.  Kontakt is simply too well-established.  It’s not that Kontakt is necessarily a better technology.  Instead, I would suggest that the network of Kontakt sound developers which has evolved (like Hollow Sun, Soniccouture, and many others) are not likely to abandon their position without very compelling reasons.  Halion has little third-party sound development happening and I see no signs of that changing.

Now, if your interest is in doing your own sample/sound development, that’s another matter.  I think a good case could be made why Halion is a better choice than Kontakt (all those Godly details, remember?).  Also, Kontakt is just a sample player and Halion has other attractive capabilities.

And this brings us to the one significant negative thing I have to say about Halion, which will be relevant to those wanting to do their own sound programming.  The Halion 5 documentation, as far as it goes, is excellent.  The two-hundred-fifty (or so) page manual is detailed and clearly written.  Each editor is described with clarity and the text is easy to comprehend and well-illustrated.

What’s missing, however, is some information on how all the pieces fit together.  For example, I looked in vain through the documentation for a description on how to initialize a patch.  I found out eventually, but only from a Groove3 video.  And the image of the organ instrument “macro” included above?  Once again, I had to go to Groove3 to learn how to create an instrument that had it.  Halion is a magnificently deep instrument.  The documentation is only about two-thirds of what is needed and what it deserves.

Halion 5 currently has a retail street price of $350 USD, with academic versions available for $209 (I’m not sure how carefully one’s academic credentials are scrutinized by some of the sellers on E-bay).   $350 is a lot of money, but then it’s less than the price of Omnisphere, so draw your own conclusions.

I got my own copy of Halion bundled with Cubase 6.5 for just about the current price of Halion alone, so I know that significant savings are occasionally available.  Were it not for my interest in Cubase, I would have ignored Halion in the first place due to the dongle requirement.  To me, dongles are (barely) acceptable when it comes to DAW software because a DAW is what ties everything else together.  Halion would not have made it onto my machine if the dongle hadn’t already been present for Cubase use.

At the time of my Cubase purchase, Halion seemed to be just frosting on the cake.  My eye was initially just on the cake, but I’m delighted to report that the frosting turned out to be most excellent indeed!

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