Review – HALion Sonic 3 by Steinberg
Steinberg’s HALion Sonic 3 is a powerful all-in-one workstation containing nearly any sample you’d need for composing, plus synths, and much more.
by Rob Mitchell, Nov. 2017
Steinberg is the innovative music software/hardware company that is behind many great products such as Nuendo, Wavelab Pro, Cubase, Groove Agent, Pad Shop Pro, and HALion. The Germany-based company has been around since 1984, and they have built a loyal following over the years. For this issue of SoundBytes Magazine, I will be taking a look at HALion Sonic 3. It’s Steinberg’s powerful multitimbral workstation which contains over 25 GB of sample content, more than 3,200 presets, virtual analog, wavetable and granular synthesis, plus a large amount of effects.
HALion Sonic 3 uses the Soft e-Licenser copy protection which is installed along with the instrument, and uses an access code for downloading and activation. On the PC, you’ll need 64-bit Windows 7 or higher, at least 4 gigabytes of RAM (8 is recommended), and a VST2, VST3 or AAX compatible host. On the Mac, you’ll need OS X 10.11 or higher, at least 4 gigabytes of RAM (8 is recommended), and a VST3, AAX or AU compatible host. It is also available in a standalone version.
Halion Sonic 3 is a very full-featured piece of software, and more than just a “lite” version of Steinberg’s flagship instrument, HALion 6. So, what’s missing in HALion Sonic 3 that is present in Halion 6? The easy answer is that HALion 6 has everything needed to develop additional content – things like a sampler capability, a wavetable editor, the tools for developing hosted instruments with custom GUIs, and so forth. We plan to cover HALion 6 in the next issue of SoundBytes Magazine.
After you are all squared away with the download and activation, you will be ready to load some sounds and take it for a spin. Along the top of the main display are the MIDI and audio settings, record/playback controls, tempo and time signature, CPU and disk usage meters, and more. I will get to how you go about recording within the workstation (you could also trigger it with MIDI from your DAW), but first I wanted to cover a few other items.
If you’re like me, you might want to hear some examples of how a new plugin sounds before you start creating your next masterpiece. To audition some of the programs in HALion Sonic 3, you just click the “Load” button. This will bring up the Load Dialog, a browser with columns of information for selecting by Category, Sub-Category, Style and Character. You are able to change the column’s type to what you’d like. For instance, you could change the column header from “Character” to “Genre”, or maybe you’d like it set to “Date Modified”. You can click on where it says “All Instrument Sets” to get a graphic display of the many included content sets. If you select one of those (say you pick “Model C”) then it will show all the presets that are in that sound set. After you’ve selected one of the many presets, you can click on the “Edit” tab to see the main controls. This is where the editing of the sound takes place for the preset. The controls that are displayed will differ with every sound set. This is one of HALion Sonic’s many strengths because there are just so many types from which to choose. I took my time in browsing through many of the presets, and there is a high quality of sound within the huge 25 GB library. A large variety of instruments have been included: orchestral instruments, drums, guitar, bass, organs, pianos, brass, many ethnic types of instruments, chromatic percussion, vocals, woodwinds, and more. One thing you can’t do is edit the samples themselves. I don’t think that’s really an issue though, as there are just so many types of sampled instruments in the first place. Steinberg has already done that work for you, so you can get on with the production of music. If you are more interested in the importing, editing and manipulating of the audio, you may want to take a look at the full-blown HALion 6.
I wanted to mention something here about the synthesis, as it’s not only a great source for many sampled instruments, but it has a good deal of synth-related material as well. I will cover a few of those now.
When I was browsing around through the huge number of presets, I ran into some of the synthesis-based instruments that make up HALion Sonic 3. One of those is named “Anima”; a dual-oscillator wavetable synth with its own modulation matrix, envelopes and 24 filter choices. The two main oscillators can have up to eight-voice unison with detune and stereo spread, plus Anima has a sub-oscillator as well. An arpeggiator is also included, and there are two LFOs. The wavetable that is loaded can be viewed in 2D or as a 3D version which you can rotate around in different directions.
Another synthesizer instrument is the virtual analog “Voltage” synth. It is a basic virtual analog synth with two oscillators (each has saw, triangle, and square waveforms), a noise source with four types available, two LFOs, 24dB low-pass filter w/distortion, and it has its own arpeggiator. The arp is actually quite nice, and it has several settings you can tweak. There are many different patterns that can be loaded in, and you can save your own as well.
Skylab is another synth included in Halion Sonic 3. It has a good deal of sampled material with which to work and includes two modes: Sample and Grain. Sample mode uses a basic load-it-and-play approach – pretty straightforward sample playback. Its filter section and distortion can add varied types of character to the audio, and the envelopes and LFOs are very similar to the Anima synth. The real fun starts when you switch it to granular mode, as additional controls appear for Position, Duration, Level and Pitch. Each of those also has a random control that lets you dial in many more variations for the sample playback (e.g. grain duration and pitch randomizing). Some of the other controls let you set the amount of grains and configure the stereo width. Skylab also has a modulation matrix to assign targets for modulation and an arpeggiator. It’s really quite a good granular synth. Both Skylab and Anima merit dedicated reviews since there is so much packed into both of them.
To make a backup rhythm for some of the synth/sample-patterns and melodies you might be using, you may want to load in the sample-based B-Box. It is a step-sequencer type of drum plugin. It isn’t as flexible as most of the full-fledged drum plugins you can find today, but it has some nice features. There are several different type of samples for each part. For example, there are 128 different kick and snare drum sounds, 32 high, mid and low toms, 64 crash cymbals, and many others to choose from. It has three velocity settings per-step (mouse wheel changes the amount), up to 128 steps, coarse/fine tuning and panning per instrument, distortion, as well as filter cutoff and resonance. Delay and Reverb top off the drum sounds with some added effects. B-Box isn’t the only source for drums in HALion Sonic 3, but I thought it deserved some extra attention.
Since this is a workstation, you can load up to sixteen different instruments on the left side of the display. Each one you load in has its own Mute and Solo buttons. Clicking the MIDI tab brings you to the page where you can split these up over the range of the keyboard, or maybe you’d like to have them set to different MIDI channels for use with multiple keyboards, or just have them set to be triggered in your DAW. Besides setting the MIDI channel, you are able to set the polyphony amount, transpose +/- 64 semitones, velocity range, and enable controller filters. On the Mix page, the individual instruments can be panned, have their levels adjusted, and each of them has four effect sends (more on the effects later).
Clicking the Edit tab brings you to a display where you can change a program. Each program can consist of up to four layers with a different type of sound on each layer. The five layer types are drums, samples, synth, sliced loop, and instrument. So you could add up to four instances of the same instrument (or two of one instrument and two of another, etc.), with each adding a different type of dimension to the overall sound that is created. Maybe you’d like a Mellotron type of sound in one layer, a wavetable synth in another, a third layer could be a string section, and the final layer might be for a brass section. Mute/Solo buttons for each layer of the program are here, FlexPhraser on/off (more on this later) as well as pan settings and controls to adjust the four effect send levels.
Speaking of effects, there are four effect busses available. Each of the busses can have up to four effects loaded in. These can be routed to the main output or to one of the other fifteen individual outputs. Each effect has its own Bypass, Edit and On/Off buttons. Clicking the Edit button will bring up the controls for that particular effect. Another nice function is that you can easily click-and-drag to move an effect into a different slot or bus, or copy it to another slot. Click/drag moves it, and Alt-click/drag will copy that effect. Besides those four busses, there are also four effects slots available on the main output. These effects could be used for overall EQ or maybe some compression, reverb, etc. Some presets are included for each effect, and you can save your own. Here are just some of those that are included: IR reverb, EQ, Resonator filter, Morphing filter (X/Y pad and several filter types built-in), Distortions, Vintage Ensemble, Flanger, Chorus, Delay, Compression, Expanders, Stereo panning, and several others as well.
The FlexPhraser and Pads function are both very useful. The FlexPhraser can be used to make pre-made chord strumming and arpeggiated patterns. These can be easily accessed (there are loads of them already on board) or you can create and save your own. They are organized in the dropdown menu by types such as Synth, Bass, Guitar, Piano, etc. Loops can be played by individual slice or the full loop. The pads on the left side can play back chords, and it is very easy to set them up. Right-clicking on a pad brings up a menu where you can use the Snapshot Chord feature. You just click on each note of the chord you want it to play (or play it on your MIDI keyboard) and then click the pad again when you’re finished. Many other controls are available to alter the way the phrases are played, such as Swing, Gate and Velocity Scale, Hold, Trigger Mode, and much more.
It’s a Workstation
Along with being an awesome source for so many varied sounds, you may record your ideas into the plugin itself. There’s no need for a DAW if it is just used for some quick ideas. Of course, it wouldn’t completely replace your DAW of choice as it just isn’t as flexible. However, you can record your separate tracks one after the other using different instruments, and use the built-in metronome to help keep you in time with all of your tracks. The MIDI file that is created from all this can also be saved, or you can choose to load one that you worked on earlier. One way you could start a recording is to split up your keyboard into sections (on the MIDI page) and have each instrument set to the same MIDI channel. Then you enable the metronome if you’d like, click the record button, and start playing your first track. After playing/recording that first part, you can stop the recording when you’re done. After you hit record for the second time, you could just play the keys in one of the other sections of the keyboard (assigned with a split) on a different instrument. Of course, this doesn’t work every well unless you have a large MIDI keyboard, preferably with at least 49 keys. Another way to do this is to have each instrument on its own MIDI channel, so then you can use all of the keys for each instrument.
The Quick Controls let you assign what you’d like to make it easier to modulate a certain parameter. It might be a control that is hidden away within the displays, and normally you might have to dig down a bit to find it, but when you use these Quick Controls it is very easy. Right-clicking on a control (such as filter cutoff) brings up a menu. From there you can select to assign it to one of the eight Quick Controls. These can be assigned per-program. The curve settings can also be adjusted for each, making them logarithmic or exponential. This depends on the curve having either a positive (more of a logarithmic value) or negative (more of an exponential value). The Sphere Control is located to the right of the on-screen keyboard, and it lets you adjust two different parameters such as cutoff and resonance. It works much the same as the small joystick that’s found on some hardware keyboards does; making changes to the sound as you moved the stick.
HALion Sonic 3 has many more features I couldn’t get to in just this one article, but one thing is certain: this is a highly capable workstation with a huge potential. It overflows with sample content and very useful synths. Steinberg thought through the details in this product extremely well. I appreciate how you’re able to save and load different sections of the workstation: the separate programs, multis and/or layers each may be loaded or saved. Another nice addition is that you’re able to minimize the size of the display to only show the more important controls. This will give you back some of your valuable screen real estate. It would be a helpful if Steinberg eventually adds different display sizes for larger monitors, but for now it has a good middle-of-the-road size on my 1920 by 1080 resolution display.
If you want more customization, scripting, sampling, and other added features, I recommend HALion 6. I for one happen to really like HALion Sonic 3. With its all-in-one production capabilities, excellent samples and synths, it can easily guide you into your next musical masterpiece. HALion Sonic 3 retails for $249.99 USD. You can upgrade from HALion Sonic 2 for $99.99 USD or from HALion Sonic for $199.99 USD.
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