Online Review:
Halion String Edition
by Steinberg



Ages ago I bought my first synthesizer that could produce strings: the MT32 by Roland. Even longer time before that I owned a keyboard that had tapes in it, producing a sound that can be best described as a group of badly tuned violins playing in a sand storm. Hiss, hiss, hiss.... The tapes always broke on crucial moments. So after a lot of repairs, it was not only hissss, but "tick tick" as well.

I sold the thing when digitized violins came on the market. The first one I bought was as said the MT32. I remember when the violins of this little synthesizer came through the boxes in my studio for the first time, I almost fell of my chair. It was for that time a great miracle how they were able to put such a quality into such a small box. I used the MT32 a lot, enriching it's of course -to nowadays standards- very poor string violins sound with effects, reverbs and what have you to make it as acceptable as possible.

Newer synths came in, the violins got somewhat better. I bought a D110, which made great improvements compared to the MT32. And I bought the U110 later, with even better, broader and more realistic violin sounds. Then came the JV880 into my audio life, with new improvements in the strings corner. But whatever they tried at Roland (and other suppliers for that matter), the violin sounds were still too "plastic", too artificial. But nevertheless usable when mixed "into the horizon" with care and a right feeling for proportions. By the way: all synths are still in my studio, except for the MT32. Not used daily anymore, but sometimes the good old sounds are needed, so I'm glad I never sold them.

Today, our quality standard is much higher than the MT32 was able to meet, but to my opinion even most expensive synthesizers are not able to produce a 100% live sounding string section. You still always can tell: it's synthesized, no matter the sometimes very good quality.

Well: finally a satisfying solution is here. We had to wait for it for a long, long time, but the satisfaction is total as far as I am concerned and was worthwhile the waiting. Let me tell you something about: the Halion String Edition, by Steinberg.



* The Halion String Player. Click for enlarged image.

String Edition: 9 CD's and a book.

Halion String Edition contains a huge pile of samples of strings in all variations thinkable. Be prepared with enough hard disk space when you decide to buy Halion String Edition. You get 1 CD with the player program (for both Mac and Windows), a very well written en detailed manual, and 8 CD's filled from side to whole with samples. When all the musical bits and bytes are finally installed on your hard disk, about 5,4 GigaByte is occupied by these samples. Wow, this calls for a quick rush to your hard disk dealer to get a bigger one, or maybe even better an extra one.


* The full Halion CD collection displayed in front of our test Mac, where the Halion player is visible and running under the Cubase SX environment.

Be sure to use a 7200 rpm disk, though slower disks will work too. The hard disk speed is important: the Halion player does not load the whole sample in memory, but only a first portion. The faster the disk, the shorter the pro loaded portion can be, and the more samples you can use at the same time. The screen shot below shows the popup menu, where you can determine your streaming model.


* Right clicking in the "wood" of the player pops up the options menu. Here you choose the sample playback quality, the quality of resampling, and the speed of the hard disk stream.

High disk streaming means that Halion loads only a very short portion of the sample into RAM (about 0.5 seconds). The rest is streamed from your hard disk. The lower streaming speed you choose, the larger the pre loaded portion will be. This makes the use of Halion on slower hard disk and systems possible, but puts extra demands on the RAM logically. The Low stream option, chosen in the screen shot, is a good average, or compromise if you like.

The resampling option in the pop up menu determines your quality, mostly when retuning or pitch bending. The Best setting is recommended, unless your computer gets hick ups.

The quality option speaks for itself. Set in to High for best audio, the Low option produces less good results.

System requirements.

In average, your Mac or PC should be equipped with at least 512 MB of RAM and a separate 7200 rpm hard disk where the samples and programs can be stored. The rule of thumb for hard disk recording (use a dedicated disk for audio storage, otherwise you will get glitches) applies to the Halion String Edition as well. The amount of RAM should be up to 1 GB if you want to play several best quality programs (XXL, see below). Furthermore, you'd better have an ASIO 2.o compliant audio card, otherwise you will most definitely run into latency problems. Latency problems are not only for the Halion, but apply to all VST instruments, of course.

Two versions of the Player.

There are two versions of the player, both installed automatically. The XXL player, which should be used on well equipped machines, and which will bring you the best quality. And the ECO player, which needs significantly less RAM, but at the cost of realism and dynamic response. Steinberg advices you to use the ECO version only when the XXL player runs into trouble on your Mac. On our G4/500, equipped with two 7200 rpm hard disks and 512 MB of RAM, the XXL version ran smoothly with 8 different complex violin tracks, and no inserted effects. But that was more or less to the limits of our G4/500. Sometimes at the first run of a track, the VST performance ran into the red zone. The next run however, and all runs after that, no problems.

When producing complex stuff with Halion String Edition, you constantly will have to take a close look at the VST performance. Of course a good old workaround will do even the most complex jobs for you. Meaning: if your Mac or PC is getting in trouble, and you still need the best quality and high disk streaming: compose the tracks in dry mode (no inserts), then do an audio mix down to your hard disk, and after that start post production with effects etc. This will put less strain on your processor during composing, and much less stress upon yourself, I can assure you. We used this procedure and managed to pile up more than enough simultaneous violin tracks into a complex arrangement without flying into the red VST performance zone.

Learning curve.

Though the player itself is simple and has a good user interface, it most definitely will take time until you are able to use String Edition at its full power. Just playing the sample is simple, but getting the life into your production using the right expression, attack and response is a totally different matter. Above that, the use of programs, disk streaming settings and quality need some exploring to find the best suitable settings for your machine. It needs some testing and practice to get the right balance. You need to this only initially: when the correct settings for your machine are found, you can save them as the start up program, so that you do not need to find it out all over again. Handy.

There are four ways to modulate the crescendo of the samples: modulation wheel, breath controller, foot controller and expression. This is a handy feature. Put four keyboard players in a room and ask them which is the most favorite way to bring expression into what they play. The answers will be a nice variation between the four controller types, built in this Halion player, that's for sure.

Maybe I am wrong, but from what I have experienced the last week or so, testing Halion String Edition, it will take a while before you have this wonderful string package under full control. Well, to be honest: I don't mind. In the end I will be able to produce truly live sounding string arrangements, which I -until now- only could dream of. The step from the MT32, I started with a long time ago, to this Halion package is huge. So what the hack the extra effort: I will fight my way to the best result.

The manual that comes with Halion String Edition will help you a lot. I know most musicians are not much of a manual reader, but in this case I advice you to do your home work and learn about all the features one by one, before you start serious producing. The efforts will pay itself off with great music and quality joy!

As we discovered it would take us time to learn Halion String Edition to it's full power, we decided not to use the String Edition in a real time production, something we normally do when testing software. See: Example, below.

Program types.

To give you an idea of the complex quality possibilities of Halion String Edition, we give some attention to the program types of this package. There are four main program types, each with its specific way of controlling volume and layer cross fading/switching: Xfade, Xswitch, Velocity and Velocity plus Pitchbend.

Xfade can best be described as the most heavy dude of the club. In the XFade programs, the crescendo controller blends through the different layers (for example from pianissimo to fortissimo) by cross fading between the layers. The gives the most authentic sounds, but also asks most of the processor and hard disk since all layers are played at the same time.

Xswitch is more economic when it comes to system load, since the expression controller switches from layer to layer, rather than blending them into each other.

Velocity controls expression by choosing e.g. the fortissimo layer when a high velocity value is issued by the keyboard. This method is used when playing synthesized violins in a normal synthesizers, and many of you will know how to bring some life into synthesized violins using velocity.

Velocity plus Pitchbend acts the same as Velocity, but includes a pitch bend controller that additionally controls expression. At the cost of no pitch bend being available. In other words: Velocity controls the initial expression, while the pitch bend controller adds the possibility of controlling volume while notes are held.

Wow, that was some technical stuff as far as I am concerned. I did not do deep research to find these facts: they are on page 28 and 29 of the english manual. After having read the text three times I more or less understood what is explained on those pages, and I started experimenting to find out what is exactly meant here. After some hours of learning and trying I felt I got grip upon the possibilities of these four programs. But I also understood rather quickly it will take time until you can use them at their full power. As stated before: Halion String Edition as a somewhat heavy learning curve which is however absolutely worth to climb.

Sections.

Halion String Edition is divided into instrument sections. The Violins section is divided into A and B, that give -when played in two tracks- the violin sounds the vivid character that is so characterizing for this product. Also, the Violins section contains stuff like Spiccato and some other specials. The Violas section contains the alto range in the string section of the orchestra. The Violas have an A and B section too. Then the Cellos to fill in the tenors and baritones of the string orchestra, also divided in A and B. Then the Double basses, that speak for themselves. The 4-in1 program contains a combination of the four sections mentioned, and provides an easy way to play string layers that sound warm, broad en -to my opinion- very complete. This combi has some limitations compared to the use of the four separate section programs, of course, but it will do in a lot of situations.

There is a lot more technical stuff I could describe here, but I will not do so. Hearing is believing, so quickly read my conclusion and rating, and then check the example below to find out if I am talking nonsense, or that Halion String Edition indeed is the big dream coming through.

Voices.

In the Halion String Edition player, the maximum number of voices per channel (of which you have 16 in total) is 64. If you experience cut offs of notes, the number of voices can be brought to a lower level; using the Voice limit settings. In case a channel reaches it maximum of voices that can be handled by your computer, the Voice limit function look for the "oldest" played voice and fades it out. You can imagine this can cause unwanted effects and early cut offs of parts of your composition. If this occurs, the Voice limit settings will help you out. A handy, but also a needed function, as overloading your system can occur rather quickly using this VST instrument.


* With Voices (right) you determine the number of voices assigned to a chanel. The chanel (1 to 16) is set with the left option. The middle option let's you choose between 1 of 4 stereo outputs.

Conclusion, rating.

Just plain simple: to me Halion String Edition is a long term dream becoming reality. Ever since I bought the MT32, I was longing for the quality and live sounding strings I found in this Steinberg product. Halion String Edition brings you the strings with the quality of a top orchestra right under your keyboard. The sound quality is more than superb at the best quality levels and transparency, enabling you to produce the best in orchestral string arrangements. Provided you have a well equipped Mac or PC, 500 Mhz or higher, at least 512 MB RAM or higher. If you meet these hard ware requirements, and would like to own your own superb orchestra strings section, the Halion String Edition is for you.

I can type a lot more words to express my audio joy here. I won't: this product deserves a rating of 9.5+ for it's really super quality and great care of detail it was produced with. One of the makers behind this product is Claudius Bruese, who in the past was involved with the The Grand VST instrument (piano samples) and worked on the Waldorf Wave synthesizer. Those of you who know the name Bruese and what it stands for will immediately understand that Halion String Edition stands for high quality. The only reason Halion String Edition does not get a 10 is that it contains violins only. My dream of good violins came through, as stated before, but another dream is not fulfilled yet: a complete symphonic orchestra. The strings are a very important section of an orchestra, but all the other instruments make it complete. I guess (and hope) we can expect more from Claudius Bruese and Steinberg. In that case, I dare to write here that -if quality is as good as in Halion String Edition- I will rate a 10 in advance ;-).

Example.

Since Halion String Edition needs some time to learn, we decided not to bore you with a beginners production. We even would not dare to do so: it most probably would not give birth to a production that shows the full power of the String Edition. And such would not be fair towards the producers, who took so much effort to get this product in such a perfect shape to you.

So we changed strategy. At the Steinberg website you can find several files demonstrating the power of Halion String Edition perfectly. We downloaded these files, glued them together, and re-arranged them somewhat in Cubase SX. Now, you can listen to the power of Halion without downloading several files.
Please note that the file is in mp3 format. Although we use the best mp3 compression techniques available (Fraunhofer), the quality of the audio is less than the original samples of course, due to compression.

halion_review.mp3 (4,8 MB).

Strings only.

By the way, for Halion users. The string player only will play the String Edition. The standard format for Halion is not recognized. Compared to the full Halion, this player has some limitations, but also some additions. The player is limited to the Macro page which has been redesigned and enhanced to meet the requirements of the string samples. The mono outs have been dropped. Controls for filter, envelopes and LFO's are not in the string player: you do not need them since the samples are very well designed and accurate. The Halion string programs have been extended with a lot of features to meet the requirements of playing string programs as well.

More info at www.steinberg.net or the Halion website.


All reviews in AudioMac.net are written by Peter J. Bloemendaal. All rights reserved.

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30.03.2003