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04 December 2010

STEINBERG HALION SONIC | £212

REVIEW
Cast your mind back. Back into the mists of time, far back to prehistory (circa 2001) and recall, if you will, Yamaha’s Motifs 6, 7 and 8. The team that worked on the multitimbral, 62-voice polyphonic hardware Motif workstation that set many a muzo’s ears alight in years of yore is the same team drafted in to work on Steinberg’s successor to softstation Hypersonic 2: HALion Sonic 1. It looks promising already.

While cosmetically similar to Hypersonic, HALion Sonic offers a good deal more than its forebear and goes way beyond the comparatively limited scope of the original Motifs. Now seems like a good time to front-load this post with some interesting numbers...




Sonic presents 16 stereo instrument slots for multitimbral operation (each slot addressed on a different MIDI channel) or stacking, a 12GB library of synths, hybrid and acoustic instruments which make for more than 1,200 presets, four tone-generation modes (streamed-from-disk samples, virtual analog synthesis, sliced-loop and drum), a 1,500-pattern FlexPhrase module for arpeggios and and realistic guitar/percussion performances, and 24 filter types. Oh, and a 32-slot mod matrix. Had enough yet? OK, you can morph between up to four of the filters in real time, there’re eight SoftPads for triggering individual notes, chords or whatever is assigned, 16 built-in effects and virtually ∞-note polyphony, depending on your system. Rather a lot, so tell you what, absorb this video clip for an idea of how HALion Sonic handles itself...

While the implications of the above waft around your frontal lobes, keep the occipital engaged to read of two immediate downers that drive some synthaholics to popping cerebral aneurysms. First, copy protection is by hardware dongle (calm down at the back). If you don’t already have an eLicenser, as supplied with Steinberg’s Cubase, among other products, you’ll have to stump up another £16 (US$24.99, €20, kr195) for one and wave goodbye to a USB port. Second, 64-bit operation is only available for Windows 7, not OS X. But before you bleed into your brain, a Steinberg spokesperson states that a 64-bit update for Mac is part of a scheduled product upgrade available in the near future. As for that dongle, slam not Steinberg, but scurrilous software pirates.
It does, however, help me segue into a nifty feature for Cuboids already possessed of an eLincenser and that is full VST expression support for powerful articulation editing in Cubase 5+. An explanation of this, along with a hefty dollop of Steinberg’s own spin, as well as minimum system specs, can be had right here. However, what you’re dying to hear is what it actually sounds like. Could be that an assessment can be made by challenging your cerebrum with this quintet of choice cuts... Going Nowhere No, the vocal is not Sonic, but the rest establishes trance-electro credentials Lucky Man No, not ELP, but Euro-blip-core... t'ing make danceflaw go boom. In (as it were) it Nokendo Hard-tune vox are not Sonic, but the rest might make you think God is a DJ. Or not Sonic Barrier Makes you wonder how the 'limp drums' allegation sticks. Dis go bang in da vicinity Your Touch While the lead vox need Listerine, the remainder is sweetly jazzy - heark ye e-piano There’s an awful lot more food for the primary auditory cortex at Steinberg's website, but now is the time for a biopsy of crowd response. ‘The drums are limp,’ it has been imputed. ‘The high strings are lacking,’ aver others. What I think people are trying to say is that Sonic lacks character; the signature sound that one either loves or hates. IMO, Steinberg and Yamaha did not set out to serve a characterful instrument. Like the Motif, it’s solid, has its moments, but is essentially a broad-based wealth of usable timbre feeding off an enormous pile. That’s not to say that Sonic doesn’t prompt a rush. The synthesis capabilities of this plug are mighty powerful and there are excellent timbres to be had straight out of the box, and that bear a good deal of tweakery using the might of pulse-wave modulation (PWM) synthesis, hard-sync oscillation, cross-modulation and a XOR mode that reaches towards ring-modulation. In both my view and purview, Sonic provides the building blocks of signature and it’s up to you and the capabilities of its built-in effects, plus the tools offered by your sequencing host, to trash matters to taste. My only major beef is that you cannot import WAV, AIFF or other audio types. That’s not to say you’re out of expansion options - at the time of writing, Steinberg announced the VST Sound Instrument Set Prologue Discoveries to augment the already available Synthesizers. Both downloadable expansions are £24.36 (€28.63, ~$35) and together bring more than 320 additional presets, in excess of 550 MIDI loops categorised into construction kits and are online for preview by headbutting this link. What you’ll be helping the developer to pioneer is VST Sound, a Steinberg expansion library media format that sits happily in Sonic’s rather nifty MediaBay and, like Native Instruments’ Kore architecture, enables you to hone in on the appropriate sound by clicking on descriptive words. If you do want your own audio files to feature in the mix, it’s a choice of tracking them in the host sequencer, or triggering from a soft sampler. Speaking of which, word has it that HALion 4 is due for launch in the Spring of 2011, so bookmark MuzoBlog - HAL4 is high on the list of things to review once it comes to market. I’d suggest that the best home for Sonic is, at present, a high-spec PC running Windows 7 with Cubase 5.5.3 as the sequencing host and a non-system SATA drive on which to plonk the library. Basically, one removes as many bottlenecks as possible so that the full multitimbrality of this VST workhorse can be fully realised. And I use the term workhorse advisedly, albeit on my own advisalment. As with a prior post concerning Toontrack’s EZdrummer, Sonic is a tool that suits the sketching songwriter. Yes, it’s wonderfully capable as a performance instrument and the ease with which you can edit keymaps for live use must be applauded. But stick Sonic in a project studio, or take it on tour to tap out new tunes in a Transit, and you’ll really get the point. It’s worth maxing out a PC laptop to tote a nifty array of excellent timbres that can be further addled, or replaced, when back at the studio workstation. And if you’re a Mac user, and can hold your horses, the forthcoming 64-bit update for OS X may catapult Sonic into the must-have bracket.
As for ease of use, a hemispherectomy need not hamper driving the thing at the outset. If curves can have gradient, then the initial learning curve is not steep, but becomes a rewarding brain-burn the further you delve. In other words, it goes deep and reading the manual reaps rewards. If you’ve already a massive farm of preferred tone sources and are not ready to embrace the Cubase muzo-space, then you’re not primed to take advantage of HALion Sonic’s true diversity and capability. There’s also the capability of your computer hardware to address - 16 notionally infinitely polyphonic voices can certainly gobble system capacity, and it does take a little time to load some of the more complex patches. Nevertheless, if you fancy the idea of adding a workstation to your studio, but have neither the cash nor physical space for a hardware example, Sonic provides a sterling solution. Numerous clean samples with an excellent PWM synth architecture riding atop and lush FX, at this price, make HALion Sonic acquisition a near no-brainer for folk seeking a flexible songwriting suite. I can see this plug replacing an awful lot of virtual instruments when setting up for sketching out an arrangement, and a number of its voices arriving in final production.
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