Three High-end Hybrid Synths – A Side-by-side Comparison

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Omnisphere 2, HALion 5 and Falcon are all superb software instruments of incredible depth which offer an overwhelming list of capabilities.  We offer a comparative feature evaluate herein.

 

by David Baer, Jan. 2016

 

Consider poor Paris – not the city, but rather the fellow from Greek mythology who was tasked with judging which of three smokin’-hot babes was the most desirable.  Of course, in his case, the fact that the babes were all vindictive goddesses who would be more than a little displeased at not being chosen did not help matters.  Well, when asked to judge which instrument is the most desirable from the group of Spectrasonic’s Omnisphere 2, Steinberg’s HALion 5 and UVI’s Falcon, that’s no easy matter either, but hopefully the outcome won’t start an epic war.

Actually, this is not going to quite be that kind of evaluation.  There will be no final “and the winner is …”.  Instead, the intent is to offer a survey of relative strengths and weaknesses so that the prospective buyer has a reasonable solid base of information from which to proceed with his own evaluation.  But make no mistake – each one of these instruments can be objectively called “smokin’-hot”.

Why these three instruments in particular?  They are all multi-timbral, sporting multiple MIDI input and audio output channels, they are all feature-rich hybrid synthesizers and sample players, they are all relatively expensive and they all sound absolutely glorious.  We don’t include Kontakt here because it has no synthesis capabilities.  We don’t include synths like Synthmaster (just one of many examples) because it is lower-end as far as sample playback goes and is not multi-timbral.  No, these are the big three “luxury vehicles” by many peoples’ accounting, and they deserved to be grouped alone in an elite class.

Before we begin, here are just a few notes on conventions.  For brevity I will be dropping the numbers from the instrument names.  If I say something like “instrument X has “the unique capability …”, I mean unique just among the three under consideration.  The term “wavetable synthesis” means the commonly accepted (but often mistakenly applied) meaning that the oscillators can seamlessly morph among two or more different waveforms with a position control.  If I say “unlimited”, I of course do mean “within the bounds of what your CPU can handle”.  Finally, I’m not going to sprinkle screenshots of various features throughout – if I did, we’d need so many it would just be a distraction.

 

Fundamentals

Let’s start with some basics like prices, formats and authorization mechanisms (a show-stopper for many).  All instruments are available on both PC and Mac in both 32 and 64 bit except as noted.

The retail price of Falcon is $349 USD.  Having just been release in late 2015, it’s too early to tell what sale prices we can occasionally expect, but UVI is not adverse to an occasional sale and future bargains can be anticipated after the initial excitement abates.  Formats are VST 2, AU and AAX and standalone.  Falcon is 64-bit only, however.  Authorization is with an iLok account, but a hardware dongle is not required.

Halion has a retail price of $349 USD, but Steinberg has been known to offer decent sale prices, so patience may be rewarded (I got my own copy for next to nothing in a Cubase/Halion bundle deal).  Formats are VST 3 and AU for Mac, VST 2 and VST 3 for PC and standalone.  Authorization is with an eLicenser, which will cause no grief for Cubase owners but might make others pause.

Omnisphere lists for $499 USD.  Spectrasonics has not been known to have sales, but modest (and I do mean modest) discounts can be had from third-party sellers.  Formats are AAX, VST 2, AU and RTAS.  No standalone support is offered, which I think is pretty shabby for the most expensive instrument of the three.    Of course, you can use a free VST host like SAVIHost … but still.  Authorization is the most customer-friendly, however, with a challenge/response activation scheme.

 One final comment on pricing.  Falcon has just been introduced at the time this is being written.  As you read on, you will see that it will be a fierce competitor to Omnisphere and HALion.  UVI has definitely thrown down the gauntlet – and one hell of a gauntlet it turns out to be!  How Spectrasonics and Steinberg react with pricing will be interesting to observe.  As my favorite newscaster likes to say “watch this space”.

 

The Big Picture

At the top architectural levels, there are structural similarities shared by all three instruments.  We have multiple slots at the topmost level into which patches can be placed (I’m using a common terminology just for the moment – patches in HALion are called “programs” for example).  Each of the slots can respond to different MIDI inputs.  Omnisphere has eight slots and HALion has a maximum of 64.  If the Falcon documentation specified the maximum number slots, I could not find it, but it’s a generous number.  The patches produce sounds that are routed to an internal mixer which can output audio to one or multiple audio channels.  Insert FX at various levels are available, but all three instruments supply four auxiliary send channels for efficient FX sharing and have internal bus structures that are almost mini-DAWs in that regard.

Each patch is made up of multiple sub-patches: there are two of these in Omnisphere and an unlimited number in the others.  Below the patch level is where things start to diverge – considerably.  When we get down to this level, the comparison starts to become apples to oranges to apricots.  There certainly are similarities at the lower levels, but the structures are substantially different.  So let’s examine the voice architecture of each instrument in detail, starting with Falcon.

But before we dive in, and because there’s no other logical place to put this, let me offer an important tidbit for that tiny portion of the synth community for whom alternate tuning capabilities are critical.  You’re in luck – such is supported in all three … now read on.

 

Voice Architecture – Falcon

 

A Falcon patch is called a program in which there is a fixed number of hierarchical levels: programs contain layers, layers contain key groups, and key groups contain oscillators.  There is a certain amount of control at each level.  For example, all levels have a gain and pan control.  The layer level offers a unison capability and portamento control.  Most of the action is at the oscillator level.  Oscillators can be synthesis-oriented or sample-oriented.  In Falcon, the mapping of multi-samples has one sample zone per oscillator, an unusual way to do things, but don’t overthink it and you’ll probably be fine.  Because synth and sample oscillators share the same role at this level, an interesting side effect is that you can direct Falcon to play synth oscillators in round-robin fashion – something I don’t believe has ever been found elsewhere.

There are eight synth oscillator types:

  • Basic analog – one oscillator with the usual fundamental analog waveform types, PWM, sync, unison (in addition to that found at the layer level).
  • Analog stack – eight oscillators much like those in basic analog but with a few limitations; all with individual gain, pan, pitch settings; all but the first can be synced (to oscillator 1).
  • Drum – geared specifically toward creating synthetic percussive sounds.
  • FM – just what the name implies; more below.
  • Noise – just what the name implies, but with fifteen varieties including Crackle, Dust, and other tantalizing selections.
  • Organ – emulation of an electronic organ with eight “drawbars”.
  • Pluck – something unique; more below.
  • Wavetable – offers morphing wave playback along with some interesting unison manipulations.

The FM capability is a four-operator engine with self-feedback for one of the operators.  This is a more advanced FM than that found in the other two instruments.  A variety of topologies (algorithms in DX7-speak) are offered – eleven different operator configurations to be specific.  It would be possible to duplicate most of the six-operator DX7 patch by putting another parallel key group in place.  But about a half-dozen of the DX7 algorithms use feedback structures that are not to be found in Falcon, so not every DX7 sound can be recreated.

The wavetable oscillator can import user tables and, interestingly, modest-sized graphic files from which wavetables are constructed.  This oscillator has another significant trick up its sleeve.  It can do phase modulation.  This is something like where one portion of the wave is stretched on the x-axis while another portion is squashed (like Bend+, etc. for you Massive users).  So, even if the wavetable contains but a single wave (and many of the factory presets are in fact just single waves), this oscillator has some nice capabilities.

Pluck is the other completely unique synth capability.  It combines a single waveform playback, noise and a physical modelling to produce the type of sounds implied by the name.

Of sampling oscillators, we have seven, one of them specializing in sliced rhythmic samples and two specializing in granular synthesis.  These are:

Sample – basic traditional sample playback: a sample triggered at a higher pitch plays back faster than one lower.

  • Stretch – for pitch shifting samples without speed alteration.
  • IRCAM Stretch – like Stretch but higher quality and more processor-intensive
  • IRCAM Scrub – similar to Granular but with IRCAM Stretch quality
  • Slice – for slice-delineated formats like REX and Apple Loop files.
  • IRCAM Granular – basic high-quality granular synthesis.
  • IRCAM Multi Granular – a multi-voice version of IRCAM Granular.

So what’s all this IRCAM business?  IRCAM is an abbreviation of the name of a French institution which in English translates to Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music.    UVI being a French company, the affiliation seems natural.

That will have to do for now.  We could easily devote an entire article to Falcon oscillators (and may well do so in some future issue of SoundBytes).

 

Voice Architecture – Omnisphere

 

Compared to Falcon, the voice architecture appears to be much simpler.  A sub-patch in Omnisphere is called a layer, of which there are two varieties: synth and sample.  But there’s much more depth to it than that. 

The fundamental source of sound when choosing a synth source is a wavetable selection of which there are several hundred delectable selections to choose from, including many vintage analog varieties as well as much more.  For the sample option, and this is what Omnisphere is probably most famous for, there is a vast sea of sounds to draw from, much of them exotic and unusual, and many of them are not to be found in any other source.  Parameters appropriate to the sound source type are visible in the UI: for synth, for example, we have a Sync control whereas we have a Sample-Start for sample.

Once a basic sample or synth wave is chosen, a group of sub-editors is available to further shape and manipulate it.  These are:

  • FM – frequency modulation, naturally.
  • RM – ring modulation.
  • WS – wave shaper.
  • UNI – unison.
  • HRM – Harmonia, more below on this one.
  • GRN – granular synthesis.

Each of these offers a great amount of manipulation, far more than can be even hinted at here.  Just as one example: although FM offers only a single modulator (i.e., a two-operator configuration), the modulator can be any of the 400 synth waveforms.  Most such manipulation is available for both sound source types.  Harmonia is a device allowing the addition of four additional sound sources, each with its own pan, level, tuning, and for synth sound sources, shape, symmetry and sync.

Unlike the other two instruments, Omnisphere sample manipulation is a closed system.  The underlying playback machinery is probably quite sophisticated, given how polished the sound is.  But it’s strictly hands-off as far as the end-user is concerned and we can only speculate about the niceties of the technology.  But this might actually be good news for the user in that that there will be no decisions as to which quality of stretch processing to make, for example, because there’s no user-control available for such things.

 

Voice Architecture – Halion

 

Halion is much closer to Falcon than to Omnisphere, but there still are significant differences.  The patch here is called a program.  The basic unit of sound playback is called a zone.  Multiple zones may be contained in programs, but an intermediate level called a layer may be introduced.  In fact, layers may contain layers, resulting in an arbitrarily deep hierarchy.

There are four types of zones:

  • Synth – traditional synthesis; more below.
  • Sample Oscillator – all-in-one sample playback, excluding granular synthesis.
  • Organ – another eight-drawbar organ emulation similar to that in Falcon.
  • Granular – just what is says.

The synth zone is a composite device with three oscillators, a sub-oscillator, noise and a ring modulator.  The wave types are usual analog types but also include special cases that act either like two-operator FM or a variant of ring modulation.  Other variants provide a sync capability.

Unlike Falcon, there is just one sample-player oscillator type, but it handles multiple duties like playing sliced samples.  There’s no doubt that there are nuanced differences, but don’t make anything of the fact that Falcon has multiple sample player oscillators and HALion has just the one.  The one in HALion performs a variety of duties.

HALion offers an important alternative at the zone level.  It comes with over a dozen fully realized instruments based upon the underlying sound production capabilities.  For example, there is Trium, a fully functional subtractive synth that has pretty much the same capabilities as the synth oscillator but more straightforward to program.  The difference is that is has been given a user interface that actually looks like that of a subtractive software synth.  Likewise, there’s Auron, a self-contained granular synth from the looks of the UI.  It would appear that HALion has a private scripting language used for creating these embedded instruments which is not available for end-user or third-party sound designer use.

 

Filters

Let’s move on to another key factor: filters.  Fortunately we don’t need to spend a lot of time here.  Everybody is a winner!  Seriously, all three instruments come with a fine collection of both clean and characterful filters of all variety.  While the filter collections don’t completely duplicate each other, there’s much to love in each instrument, and in my opinion, this area will not be a factor for most musicians in choosing one instrument over another.

I will give a nod to Omnisphere, however, for one lovely filter feature that we see too infrequently.  All filters are stereo and there is a control that allows cutoff to simultaneously be raised on one side while being lowered on the other.  This can be used for some sweet stereo manipulations.

 

Modulation

Again, we have marvelous solutions on all fronts, but the implementation is quite different in each.  We’ll first consider how modulation is applied (i.e., specified) and look at modulation sources after that.

Let’s begin with HALion, which has at once the most sophisticated and yet the least modern solution.  In HALion, we get three pre-allocated envelopes in a zone for amp, filter cutoff and pitch.  Everything else gets specified using the modulation matrix.  That’s the less-than-state-of-the-art part.  But what an elegant modulation matrix it is – in fact, it’s the best solution I’ve seen anywhere for this sort of thing.  For each entry, we can easily and clearly specify min and max values, a secondary source (e.g., mod wheel controlling vibrato depth) and can supply a custom mapping curve.  What’s unique (and I wish it were found literally everywhere) is that for key-follow as a modulation source, you can specify the pivot note.  Not only is this never seen anywhere else, no developers seem to ever bother to even document what the fixed pivot note is.

Moving on to Omnisphere, yes we have a modulation matrix here as well, but it’s mostly useful as a reference and for subsequent modulation tweaking.  There are dedicated envelope controls on the UI for amp and filter cutoff control.  Other modulations can be specified in a couple of ways.  The easiest is to right click a control and add modulation via the context menu.  The main page of the UI also has an easy-to-use section to add modulation or to edit existing modulation.   All and all, this is a perfectly satisfactory solution.

In Falcon, we have no modulation matrix anywhere.  Modulation can be added or modified with a right click of any control.  You only have to play with this system a short time before you fully appreciate what a thoroughly nice job the designers of Falcon did on this front.  And the only limit to amount of modulation is the ability of your CPU to manage it.  There are no mod-matrix slots that might eventually be all allocated.

As for modulation sources, my favorite are those found in HALion, but only by a very narrow margin.  HALion has the most elegant LFOs around, offering not only delay, and rise, but even a fade-out time control.  Falcon’s LFO is nearly as good, lacking the fade out, but allowing for user-supplied waveforms.  In Omnisphere, we only have a delay time but no rise.

All three instruments have basic ADSR-type controls and all offer highly flexible MSeg envelopes as well, of both the unipolar and bipolar variety.  All three have perfectly capable step modulators, but Omnisphere has an edge here in that it offers a way to tie the timing to the groove of a MIDI file.

But as I said at the top of this section, there is plenty to be happy with in all cases.  I can’t see modulation capabilities being a make-or-break factor for any of these instruments.

 

FX

I’m starting to repeat myself, but what a cornucopia of effects we have in all three instruments.  And in all cases, there is a highly flexible way of placing effects in the signal path where they can offer the most efficiency.  We can place FX at various layers in all cases, and in all cases there are send buses to employ when that makes the most sense.  Given the length of this article, I’m just going to suggest that the interested reader check the respective web sites if detail is required.

 

Ease of Use and Documentation

These are all deep and complex instruments, no doubt about it.  If any of them gives the untrained user a chance of sitting down and figuring out how to use it with no additional guidance, it’s probably Omnisphere.  I think both HALion and Falcon would send all but the most experience veteran of software synthesis away in frustration.  But although Omnisphere is possibly the most intuitive of the lot, it too would be no easy nut to crack without some guidance.

That’s not to say that any of these instruments are illogical in their interface.  There’s much method in all cases, and after just a modest amount of experience, one can feel like an efficient sound design practitioner.  In Omnisphere, we have the ubiquitous drill down metaphor present throughout.  In Falcon and HALion, both have a tree view that brings the overall organization into perfect clarity – once one has learned how to interpret the information therein.

So, in short, some good training is highly recommended and some dedicated study will pay off handsomely.  For that, the first place many of us would think of turning would be the documentation.  So, how good is that?

For Falcon students, there’s pretty good news.  The document (roughly 200 pages of it) is nicely organized in a PDF manual.  It has no index but does have a detailed table of contents.  There are actually two versions of the manual: the basic one and a print-friendly one.  I recommend the print-friendly version with its black characters on white background for all purposes.

HALion has a very detailed manual (c. 300 pages) with both a table of contents and an index.  However, in typical Steinberg fashion, the index is so sketchy as to be essentially worthless.  Making matters worse, Steinberg chose to cram four different language versions into one PDF file, a deeply annoying decision that makes navigating the pages all the more difficult.  Beyond those issues, there’s good news and bad.  The good is that the documentation found in the manual is clear and detailed.  This is a superb reference manual.  The bad news is that there’s no high level instruction on how all the many, many pieces fit together.  It’s almost worthless for initial learning purposes.

Omnisphere offers a lengthy PDF of roughly 600 pages.  But good luck trying to find anything – there is neither a TOC nor an index, and the organization seems to be rather haphazard.  For the most expensive instrument of the three, I feel a bit cheated on the documentation front.

 

Automation and Macros

This area may seem like a picky detail until you actually need to make use of it, so it’s actually a fairly important topic.  All three instruments offer such a vast number of parameters that every control cannot be made an automation parameter (although MIDI-learn is dead-simple in all three and available to use to your heart’s content).  Fortunately, setting up for automation is easily done for Omnisphere and Falcon, and not all that hard in HALion.  In the first two cases, right clicking any control allows you to make it an automatable parameter.

In HALion automation is limited (per program) to mute, solo, level and pan, plus eight quick controls.  “Quick control” is Steinberg-speak for what would usually be called macros.  In HALion there are eight of these, and they can be used to control multiple other parameters in the program.  For example, as with any good macro implementation, you could define a macro to open one filter while reducing the cutoff of another.  Macros can turn an already good patch into an even more musically expressive one.

Falcon does HALion one better in that there is no limitation on number of macros.  They aren’t quite as easy to assign nuanced parameter manipulation (e.g., make this control go from 66% to 33% as I turn the nob from full off to full on).  But they are powerful nonetheless.

Omnisphere comes up short as far as a macro capability is concerned.  For the most expensive of the three, this shortcoming seems a bit of a serious lack.

 

Factory Content

The sounds in any instrument are a very subjective matter.  What floats my boat may be of zero interest to you and vice versa.  But we must at least attempt to address this area, however perfunctorily.

I think there would be few that would argue that this is where Omnisphere shines, and does so almost blindingly.  In terms of sample content, not only does Omnisphere offer about five times the raw sample content in terms of size as the other two, that content has become the stuff of legend.  We have long had the iconic burning piano.  Version 2 adds to the lore with the musical stalactites that the engineers had to spelunk to sample.  If anything justifies the premium price of Omnisphere, I think it must be the factory sample content.  However, this is a lot of fairly exotic fare.  If you are doing cinematic fantasy scores or new age ambiance, just as two examples, you will probably be in heaven.  On the other hand, if you need sounds for conventional popular music, it may not suit your needs very well.

For that type of pursuit, I think you would find HALion more to your liking.  There’s a lot more conventional fare here, and, no, it’s not the stuff of legend.  But if you need a trumpet or a cello, you’re in luck – try finding a cello that’s not strangely altered in Omnisphere.  That’s not to say there isn’t some very nice synth content as well in HALion.  There most certainly is, and there are some great sounds that demonstrate what a powerful combination synth and sample layering can be.

Falcon has rather modest factory content that should probably appeal most to those principally interested in synth sounds.  UVI has a huge amount of other sound content available which is immediately compatible with Falcon – obviously not for free.  However, UVI’s Digital Synsations instrument was given away as a free purchase bonus recently.  So a lot of folks, including myself, were some of the lucky recipients who will already have this on their DAW.  I installed Digital Synsations and promptly forgot about it.  But I was absolutely delighted when it showed up in the Falcon browser.  Not only could I load any of the programs, the UI of the Digital Synsations instrument appeared within Falcon.  The bonus was that any of these programs could be further manipulated in Falcon as if they were natively programmed.

 

Browsers

OK so you’ve got good factory content.  Now, can you find it?  Yes in all cases, but a resounding yes in the case of Omnisphere, which probably has the best patch browser and also sound-source browser I’ve ever encountered.  That patch browser also has a unique feature: find similar sounds.  I’ve played with this just a little and did not find the results to be all that rewarding, but your mileage may vary.

The HALion and Falcon browsers are both perfectly adequate (once you find them – hint: do a “load program” and you’ll get to them).  There’s also a preset browser (presets for oscillators, modulators, etc. as opposed to programs) in both instruments.

 

User Import Capabilities

As far as Omnisphere goes, this is a non-starter.  One of the most touted features of Omnisphere 2 was the ability to import user sounds.  But it turns out that the imports are individual files only.  Multi-sample sets with multiple versions for individual note or velocity ranges are not supported.  Spectrasonics justifies this with the following statement:

Remember, Omnisphere is not a sampler, is a synthesizer. The objective is not to play multisampled instruments like a sampler, but to be creative in transforming your own audio.

But this seems to me to be a classic case of “do as I say, not as I do”.  Clearly multisampling is employed without restraint in the factory content.

Fortunately, the story is much more positive for the other two instruments, both of which support a number of sound file formats and offer excellent support in mapping samples to internal ranges according to file naming conventions.  Both instruments are great in this regard, but I would suggest that Falcon gets a slight nod for superiority given that it supports the import of sfz files.  Hopefully the next version of HALion will address this deficiency.

 

Special Extras

Now it’s time to talk about a few things that these instruments do that none of the others can.  With Omnisphere, the most obvious feature is the Orb, a powerful tool for both sound design and performance.  If you don’t know what the Orb is, I don’t have time to explain it here, but there’s plenty of online information on it, and it’s well worth checking out.  There’s also an iPad app for Omnisphere which is good for live control and is especially well suited to use with the Orb in a performance situation.

HALion, being the only VST 3 instrument, has note expression in its special bag of tricks.  So far, this feature seems to have only modest adoption outside the Steinberg product line.  But those who have used it can be pretty passionate about its worth.  Note that most DAWs do not support MIDI editing for note expression, although Steinberg’s Cubase certainly does.

For Falcon, we’ve already covered a few sound-production features that are unique, such as the string oscillator.  But the biggest thing may be the fact that Falcon has a user-accessible scripting language.  This will probably be of little interest to the average user, but for sound designers, it could be a huge plus and significant motivation to develop sophisticated content for Falcon.  Also, the scripting capability opens up a number of tantalizing possibilities like OSC (Open Sound Control) and MPE (Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression).  The first, a network-friendly MIDI-like protocol (and much more), is said to be supported by Falcon, although no documentation on this feature is in evidence.  MPE is a bit like Steinberg’s note expression and seems to be a coming thing.  Although this could be a big deal in the future, good luck trying to find a DAW editor that will allow you to work with it as of right now.

 

Which One Is for You?

These instruments are clearly so capable that any one of them could keep a sound designer happily engaged for many months.  And each has so much depth that we’ve hardly done justice to how feature-rich each is.  If you are just a preset user, then the choice will be a bit easier – you can just base your choice on factory content and what additional content can be added.

If I were a soundtrack guy, I’d probably be most interested in Omnisphere.  For my own purposes, being primarily interested in synth-only music production, I’d probably gravitate toward Falcon, which for the moment seems to have the most powerful synth sound generation capabilities.

But keep in mind that HALion is likely to be the first one of the three to next release a new version, given that Falcon is brand new and Omnisphere 2 is came out only about six months earlier.  Now that there are three competitors in this high-end stratum, the pace of innovation and improvement will likely become even more intense.  I very much look forward to seeing what the next incarnation of HALion will have to offer.  As I suggested earlier: watch this space.

 

The author wishes to thank Mario Krušelj (aka EvilDragon) for critiquing this article and for supplying several insightful suggestions for improvement.

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