Review – HALion 6 from Steinberg
HALion 6 is the latest incarnation of Steinberg’s flagship virtual musical instrument. It’s broad in scope, deep in functionality, and deserves your considerable attention.
by David Baer, Jan. 2018
HALion 6 is a hybrid synth/sample player/sampler that is an extremely capable and attractive virtual instrument. Steinberg bills it as a “VST Sampler and Sound Creation System” (although it comes in more flavors than just VST). The only real competition it has in terms of overall capabilities is from UVI’s mighty Falcon hybrid synth/sampler. You could also say that Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere also competes in this space except that Omnisphere is quite limited in terms of importing user-supplied sample content. Notice that above I used the designation “sampler” not “sample player”. That’s not sloppy use of words. HALion 6 brings a true sample-capture capability which probably makes it unique among all virtual instruments claiming to be “hybrid” in some fashion.
If HALion 6 where a car, you might be tempted to call it “a Mercedes-class vehicle”. It is the product of meticulous engineering, uncompromising attention to detail, and elegant design (spoiler alert: I think rather highly of this software). Before getting into it, however, let us dispense with the necessary details.
The software is 64-bit only. Registration is via an eLicenser account, but for the first time, the eLicenser dongle is not a requirement. One side-effect of this change is that users will be unable to retain HALion 5 on the same system upon which they install HALion 6. It is PC and Mac-compatible. Formats are VST 2, VST 3, AU and (another first) AAX. A 1920 x 1080 screen or larger is recommended. The factory content requires 30 GB of disk. A full-content demo download is available (URL at bottom of this article). However, owners of HALion 5 will see the demo overwrite it when installing. If you decide not to upgrade, you will need to reinstall the earlier version. This inconvenience should go away in future releases.
We’ll defer pricing information momentarily. First, you should understand the makeup of the HALion family of which there are three members:
HALion 6 – this is the Big Kahuna on which we are focusing here. I reviewed HALion 5 some time ago. That can be found here, (and, please, there’s no need to point out that I got the capitalization wrong the first time out).
HALion Sonic 3 – this one has nearly all of its big brother’s playback capability, but lacks a number of editors for content creation. For ordinary users, most of the editors will not be missed. However, the two important functions that might be are the ability to import samples and the ability to edit wave tables. HALion Sonic 3 is a subset of HALion 6 – when you install HALion 6 you end up with desktop shortcuts to both (at least on Windows that’s what happened). We reviewed HALion Sonic 3 in our last issue; read that review here.
HALion Sonic SE 3 – is a free download from Steinberg. Basically it’s useful for running commercial libraries (of which Steinberg offers a few) but its editing capabilities are quite restricted. You may, however, use a library-supplied instrument UI to create instrument presets and save them for later recall.
I think Steinberg has done something very wise with this new release. It would appear that Steinberg may have adopted the viewpoint that widespread access to the free version of HALion will ultimately promote wider market penetration of the commercial versions, and that new third-party content is needed to achieve that goal. So, in HALion 6 we see much in the way of new developer capability (of which, more later) that was not present in previous HALion versions. This may indeed prove to be just what’s needed to get HALion more firmly established as a top-tier virtual instrument. Here’s why:
It’s common knowledge that Kontakt is the de-facto sample player of our time. However, boutique developers of low-priced sample libraries must pay Native Instruments a sizeable fee to allow their customers to run their offerings on the free Kontakt Player, which is often prohibitive. So, those developers can only sell to those who own the full version of Kontakt.
There’s much in this new HALion release to suggest that this could change. Sound developers of Kontakt content can now create that content in HALion 6 to sell to users for use on the free HALion Sonic SE 3. This is because they can now create control panels (UIs) that accompany the sounds. This was never possible prior to HALion 6. And of course, this same motivation might apply to developers of non-sample-based content. Imagine if you are a developer trying to decide which instrument to choose for which you will create sounds. You want to pick something that lots of people own in order to have a market base into which you may sell. Well, if that instrument is both free and high-quality, one solution is staring you in the face.
To sum this up: developers have, for the first time actually, a compelling motivation to produce content for HALion. They can sell it to users who do not have any additional ownership (purchase) requirements. If I were a provider of Kontakt-based libraries, I would be taking a serious look a porting some of my material to the HALion world. A whole new set of potential customers, those musicians who do not own the full version of Kontakt, potentially await. And of course, Kontakt only does sample playback – there’s no synth capability to be found at all. So on that front, there’s not currently even any competition from Kontakt.
I found only one third-party HALion offering currently for sale (available for all three of the HALion versions). This is Celestial Spheres from Touch the Universe. It is a huge collection of very innovative presets that deliver the spacey, evolving sounds you’d expect, given the name of the collection. Touch the Universe developer Timothy Ivory had this to say about HALion 6: I really love Halion. Creating Celestial spheres was one of the most fun times I’ve had in my endeavors in sound design.
The scarcity of third-party content is a clue as to how little market penetration that HALion probably enjoys. Removing the dongle requirement should help Steinberg getting more copies on more DAWs. But if I were in Steinberg’s marketing department, I would energetically lobby for a free demo library of HALion sounds that would run on the free HALion Sonic SE. Just put it out there for all to access as an easy-to-install download. And it would need to be good to entice people to give it a try. IKM’s Syntronik is a great model here. The free Syntronik sampler has 50 presets that are musically useful and compelling advertisements of the quality to be found in the commercial products. Steinberg might be well-served to embrace this model for raising awareness about HALion. If the HALion family of instruments just had more visibility, many more musicians might eagerly join the party.
So, Which Version for You?
Back to pricing: HALion 6 currently lists for a street price of $350 USD (with an educational discount of about 40% available to qualified buyers). Steinberg has occasional sales (not frequent – maybe once per year) in which significant savings are available for a short time period. HALion Sonic 3 lists for a street price of $150. So, do you need all the extra editing capability for that extra $200? Only you can decide, but as pointed out above, be mindful that there are two activities that may be of interest to the run-of-the-mill user: loading sample custom content (or outright creating it), and creating/editing wave table data. For doing either of those things, the $200 premium may be justified. However, for the musician who primarily works with presets and does no more than light tweaking, the $150 price of Sonic 3 looks mighty attractive. There is a great deal there for the money.
Now, let’s start to explore what’s in HALion 6. The instrument is so broad and deep that we could devote an entire issue of SoundBytes to the subject and still not be able to cover everything. So, this examination will hardly be exhaustive. I will cover some of the same ground covered in the HALion 5 and the HALion Sonic 3 reviews cited above. But our main focus will be on two things: what’s new to HALion 6 and what’s only found in HALion 6 but not the HALion Sonic versions.
In general, the architecture of HALion 6 (hereafter, just “HALion” for brevity) is complex and may seem intimidating at first. But nowhere is it illogical. A bit of patience will be required upon first encounter, but that patience will be rewarded. Just don’t expect to gain mastery of this instrument in an afternoon. The user who just plays presets could easily do that, but to do even modest preset tweaking may require a bit of study first. To actually create sounds from the ground up, whether with samples or synth capabilities, will require more than just casual familiarization.
As for the documentation, in typical Steinberg fashion, it is detailed, accurate and comprehensive. The HALion 6 manual, at over 550 pages in length, is nearly twice the size of the HALion 5 manual (and there’s even more content about the scripting technology available online). But the documentation suffers from the usual shortcomings of Steinberg manuals. The index is so brief as to be essentially useless. The other problem is that there is no good place for the beginner to start, no 30,000 foot view to bring a newcomer up to speed.
Steinberg does have some decent introductory videos on youtube (search for “Getting Started with HALion”). Also, if you have a Groove 3 all access pass, be sure and check out the HALion offerings there. The HALion 5 tutorials are still relevant – HALion 6 has had much new functionality added, but very little of what was in the previous version has changed.
HALion is a multi-input, multi-output instrument. There are 64 slots that can hold programs, with each of those slots/programs responding to a different MIDI channel (four MIDI ports, 16 channels on each). Multiple slots can be programmed to accept input from the same MIDI port/channel as well.
Audio output can utilize up to 32 stereo channels. Internally, there are local buses into which FX processes can be inserted and four send-buses for send FX as well.
The basic unit of sound creation is the “program”. A program is a hierarchical structure consisting of between one and four layers at the top level. Layers may contain other layers. Signal flow is always top down. A layer may contain MIDI modifiers (this is how the arpeggiator capability is delivered, among other things), buses (into which FX can be inserted) and zones which are the things responsible for actual sound production. An example layer configuration using one of the factory presets is shown to the right.
Layer nesting is provided primarily as a means of sharing resources. Two sibling layers might call for some of the same FX modules. Making those two layers subordinate to a common parent layer means the FX can be put in the parent, avoiding multiple copies of the processing in the siblings.
There are five types of zones: synth zone (oscillators with typical subtractive synth wave capabilities), sample-player zone, organ zone (drawbar organ capability), wavetable zone and granular synthesis zone. The synth zone oscillators are capable of some FM-like sound production, but there is no multi-operator DX7-like FM capability in HALion (score one for UVI Falcon, which is a little ironic given that Yamaha owns Steinberg).
We don’t have space for an exhaustive look at these zone types here. Suffice it to say that they are quite powerful. The sample playback capabilities rival those in Kontakt and provide most of the essential capabilities in a full-featured sample-player, but they are delivered in a somewhat different fashion. Kontakt-savvy users will require some reorientation to function in HALion. HALion imports a lengthy list of sample format types (see that list here). Unfortunately, SFZ-file-compatibility is still absent – I had hoped this shortcoming would have been corrected in version 6.
One great thing about the HALion architecture is how well it lends itself to composite sounds. A program can incorporate not only multiple zones of the same kind for a thicker sound, it can mix samples, synth oscillator sounds, granular sounds, and so on to the sound designer’s heart’s content. The sample layer shown above provides such a combination using a sample zone and a synth zone.
Modulation is accomplished the old-fashioned way: via a modulation matrix. That said, this is as elegant a mod matrix as you are likely to find. The only significant shortcoming to my mind is that FX parameters cannot be modulation targets.
Speaking of FX, there is a full complement of very fine modules (if you’re Steinberg and you’ve got the Cubase code base in house, there’s much with which to work, after all). Below is the list of current modules. Not shown is the collection of legacy modules which is nearly as long a list.
Modulators include all the usual varieties. The LFOs are particularly elegant, supplying not only such niceties as both delay and fade in but fade out as well. There may be more powerful modulators to be found here and there, but few sound designers are likely to feel like they are lacking all the tools needed to get the job done.
Window and Editors
HALion has a very sophisticated windowing system, which is a good thing given the number of unique windows that implement all the various forms of functionality. The full UI image at the start of this article shows the default full window layout. Any window can be undocked and float. The user may define personal layout preferences that can be saved. The various different windows can be seen in the selection menu just below.
Most of these are editor windows. The neophyte really is best served by viewing some video tutorials about finding one’s way about in HALion. For editing sounds, there are myriad sub-editor windows involved for zones, modulation, FX and more. Jumping around in these is often most effectively accomplished using the program tree (example seen above). But this is a very complex landscape, so don’t feel despair if at you feel lost during initial encounters. I cannot imagine anyone who would not feel at least a little bewildered. But as stated earlier, there is little that could be called illogical here. Once accustomed to the organization of HALion, you may find you will work with admirable efficiency.
Let’s look at one example of a portion of the Sound Editor function. Below is a section of a longer scrollable area that contains an envelope editor and an LFO editor.
A little further down the page you can see the sample editor. It offers a pretty solid capability, but let us focus on the role of HALion as a sampler for content creation. There are two relevant functions: sample capture and sample editing. You might say “Who needs a sample capture capability? I can just use my DAW for that.” The advantage that HALion supplies is that it automates some of the repetitive things you might need to do manually when recording a full sample set. Recording of successive samples can be triggered with level thresholds or MIDI note on/off events. The base-frequencies can be successively assigned automatically with instructions like: use chromatic spacing, use white keys only, etc. Missing is the ability to say “use steps of minor thirds” or “use steps of a whole-tone scale”, which would be extremely useful in some circumstances.
Once the sounds are captured, they need to be edited: trimmed, level-normalized … whatever. And much of the time samples need to be looped. Good looping can be the key to great sample quality, and it’s often quite challenging, particularly when dealing with stereo samples. Finding optimal loop start and end points is difficult enough, but when you’ve got to do that for two concurrent signals, it can get a whole lot harder. The loop optimization tools in HALion are not bad. But I cannot fathom why Steinberg left out a technology they have in-house and presumably own. In the Wavelab sound editor (even the entry-level Elements version), there is a feature called the Loop Tone Uniformizer, and the manual even has a section entitled “Looping Audio Which Is Not Very Well Suited for Looping”. Hopefully we’ll see capability this brought into HALion in the next version.
In any case, here’s what the Sample Editor looks like.
HALion also provides a wavetable editor, and a very capable one at that (and where is your wavetable editor, UVI Falcon?!). It is quite powerful – far too deep to discuss here. A picture of the editor will have to suffice.
HALion ships with a huge collection of presets – something like 3200 for HALion Sonic 3 and another 200 on top of that in HALion 6. Fortunately, the Media Bay browser makes finding suitable content a fairly efficient process.
HALion includes fourteen virtual instruments. While programs can be built from the ground up using the various editors, the virtual instruments provide UIs that are much easier to use. One note to sound developers: the virtual instruments are not present in HALion Sonic SE 3. If you want to create content that ports to the free player, you will need to use the lower-level capabilities and forgo use of the virtual instruments.
So, what are these virtual instruments? There are fourteen of them included. There is not one but two virtual subtractive synths, for example, that presents oscillators, filters, envelopes, and so on in a UI that will be immediately useable by anyone who understands subtractive synth programming. There’s a Hammond-like organ, a Mellotron-type device, world instruments and percussion, a beat box, a variety of synths of several types and more.
Prior to HALion 6, creating virtual HALion instruments was off limits to those outside of Steinberg. Now the capability is there for any developer. Creating simple UIs to accompany a set of samples, for example, is not all that difficult. But creating highly sophisticated UIs is a possibility. Not only is there an editor in HALion for setting up the UIs, a powerful scripting capability is on board for the serious developer to leverage. We’ll see a couple of the included UIs in a moment.
New to HALion 6 are four sample-based instruments that are quite impressive. We have two pianos. Raven is based on an Italian grand. It is the more pop-oriented of the pair and boasts six velocity layers. Eagle is based upon a German grand. It is a nicely expressive instrument with twelve velocity layers.
Then there is the string collection, Studio Strings. While it is not the equal of a high-end (read way-expensive) dedicated orchestral string-section library, it offers a number of useful articulations and should be entirely adequate for adding strings that sit down in a mix or for many non-classical applications. Then there’s the brass collection, Hot Brass. This is decidedly pop-oriented, as its name might suggest. It’s aimed at everything from easy-rock to reggae applications. It contains horns and saxophones – yes, the saxophone is a woodwind, not brass, but the saxes really do make sense here. To the right you can see the list of the various possibilities offered in both the brass and the string collections.
There are some new synth-based virtual instruments as well. Granular synthesis is not a new capability in HALion 6, and Steinberg provided a virtual instrument, Auron, in HALion 5. Now we have another virtual instrument, Skylab, seen below. Skylab combines granular and conventional sample playback capabilities for truly fascinating results. This one is well-suited to all manner of cinematic or soundscape applications and comes with an impressive collection of sounds.
Wavetable synthesis is a capability new to HALion, and Steinberg has included a dedicated virtual wavetable synth instrument, Anima, to allow good leverage. Given the excellent wavetable editor also included in HALion 6, this makes for thoroughly desirable wave-table synth capability. HALion Sonic users will be limited to use of whatever wavetables are in the factory content (or additional purchased libraries). Fortunately, there’s a lot of potential in that factory content. But only HALion 6 owners will be able to roll their own wavetable content. The Anima UI is seen below. Note that it sits atop eight easy controls, which have not been mentioned. Suffice it to say, easy controls are can easily be provided in any preset and can be used as a lazy-man’s solution for providing programmability without resorting to a full UI.
Is HALion for You?
Steinberg has made a bold statement with this new release. All three versions, even the free HALion Sonic SE 3, merit attention. For the gig musician, HALion Sonic 3 has a whopping load of content – great pianos, a drawbar organ, brass (and sax), strings, drums/percussion, more synth sounds than you would ever practically need and much, much more. It’s a huge value (and a really huge value if a sale comes along). There’s so much in HALion Sonic 3 that a potential customer will have to strongly weigh the worth of parting with additional money to acquire HALion 6 (it’s more than twice the price of HALion Sonic 3). But for the serious producer, that should be an easy decision. There’s so much there in the high-end product that it can hardly be regarded as anything other than fairly-priced.
With the new capabilities Steinberg has introduced in this incarnation of the HALion family and the shackles and restrictions it has removed, Steinberg will hopefully see a blossoming of interest in the HALion line. This software certainly deserves wider attention than it seems to have enjoyed so far. Attracting a group of A-list independent sound developers to create new content will certainly help. I hope that happens – nothing but good will come of it if it does.
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