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STEINBERG HALion Symphonic Orchestra

April 1, 2007

FIG. 1: Like other software built on the HALion Player platform, HALion Symphonic Orchestra is 16-part multitimbral and allows you to route each part to individual stereo outputs.

For at least as long as synths and samplers have existed, musicians have aspired to putting an orchestra on their desktops. Achieving that goal has been a gradual process; sampling techniques have improved, realism has increased, and large sample libraries have become more affordable. Software instruments focusing on complete orchestras and priced under $300 are available from developers such as Garritan and MOTU. At the other end of the spectrum, premium virtual orchestras that cost $2,995 and up are available from Vienna Symphonic Library, SoniVox, and EastWest.

Taking the middle ground, Steinberg's entry is HALion Symphonic Orchestra (HSO), a sample library paired with a custom version of HALion Player. Composer Claudius Brüse is largely responsible for HSO's content. He's the developer behind Steinberg's HALion String Edition and The Grand, and HSO borrows much of its content from the former. Because HSO is built around HALion Player, it offers advantages such as real-time disk streaming and the ability to delete unused samples from RAM.

HALion Player is 16-part multitimbral, allowing you to load as many as 16 instruments or ensembles in a single plug-in. If you need more and your computer can handle it, you can open additional plug-ins. HSO supports AU and VST on the Mac and DirectX and VST in Windows, and it runs as a standalone application that supports ReWire.

Opening Night

I installed HSO on my dual-processor 2.3 GHz Apple Power Mac G5 with Mac OS X 10.4.8, 4 GB of RAM, and a 165 SuperDrive. I ran HSO standalone and as a VST plug-in in Steinberg Cubase SX 3.1.1 and an AU plug-in in Apple Logic Pro 7.1.1 and MOTU Digital Performer 4.61.

Four DVDs contain installers for the standalone version, plugs-ins, and sample content. After running the installer for the application and plug-ins, I ran separate installers for HSO's 16- and 24-bit content; you can install either or both. It took about an hour to install all the content, which added up to about 27 GB. If your computer is connected to the Internet, you run Syncrosoft's License Control Center application to authorize a Steinberg-compatible USB key (which is not included) using a code that comes with the software.

Across the Board

Like other HALion Player-based instruments, HSO's graphical user interface presents you with 16 Program Slots, each with a pull-down menu for loading programs and fields to specify MIDI channel, volume, panning, and output (see Fig. 1). Clicking on a button in each slot selects that program for editing, and a Category field lets you narrow down the listed programs to a particular instrument type, such as brass or woodwind.

A sound-editing section below the Program Slots contains eight soft knobs called Q Controls, and the selected program determines which parameters they control. In addition to standard parameters such as Attack, Velocity, and Pan, Q Controls provide hands-on access to parameters such as Body, Air, and Ambience. The manual doesn't explain every parameter, but you can quickly gain a feel for their effects by experimenting with them. Two additional knobs control volume and tuning for all parts simultaneously. A small display tells you how many voices of polyphony are being used. On the far left are a virtual LED indicating when effects are applied and a button to disable them.

FIG. 2: Clicking on the Options button opens a dialog box in which you can assign MIDI controllers and make adjustments that affect HSO''s demands on your computer.

The large Options button opens the Player Options dialog box, in which you can specify parameters concerning RAM allotment, sampling quality, and MIDI controller assignments (see Fig. 2). A pop-up menu lets you assign crescendo control to one of four MIDI sources. You can also assign MIDI Control Changes (CC) to the eight Q Controls, but I discovered a minor bug when I tried to scroll through a list of MIDI CCs: the scrollbar didn't work. Fortunately, I could use MIDI Learn to assign controllers.

Clicking on a slot's Program menu reveals an alphabetical list of choices. If you prefer to view instruments grouped into folders by family and type, you can select Show Content By Category in the Player Options dialog box (see Fig. 3). When that option is selected and you click on a slot containing a program, the folder containing the current program is open by default, which is quite convenient when you're choosing from similar articulations of the same instrument.

FIG. 3: You can choose to either list all programs alphabetically or, as shown here, list them grouped into folders by instrument category.

Clicking on HSO's onscreen keyboard lets you audition sounds at any Velocity, depending on where you click. The keyboard displays sample mapping for the currently selected program in alternating blue and green groups. Keys designated as keyswitches are labeled ks if they toggle and kr if they're momentary. To the keyboard's left, a Disk LED glows green when samples are streaming and red when they're unable to load quickly enough (I never saw that happen). Beneath that is the RAM Save button, which deletes any unused samples from RAM — a handy way to conserve computer resources.

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Expressive Types

HSO offers several techniques for changing articulations on the fly, thereby allowing you to control musical expression in real time. It provides four main program types, each with its own method for playing different layers and controlling volume. Any program type may incorporate keyswitching.

XFade programs let you crossfade between layers using whatever controller you assign to control crescendos. Because the controller affects loudness, you won't hear anything until you engage it. The same can be said of XSwitch programs, which instantly switch from one layer to another whenever the controller's value crosses a threshold.

Note On Velocity controls expression in Velocity programs (labeled Vel). Like most multisampled instruments, Velocity programs select which layer to play in response to how hard you strike the keys. This technique sacrifices the ability to change layers continuously as a note sustains. Another option is Velocity with Pitch Bend (labeled VelPB), which lets you select the initial layer using Velocity and then control volume using Pitch Bend. Obviously, you lose the ability to bend pitch, but that's of limited use in most orchestral music anyway.

Performance Enhancement

You can improve your computer's performance by using 16-bit samples while assembling tracks, because they make fewer demands on your CPU, RAM, and hard disk. Then, when it's time to render tracks to audio, you can switch to 24-bit versions of the same programs for better quality. In addition, many programs are available in Eco versions, which require fewer resources.

HSO also lets you specify certain system values that affect computer performance, such as the maximum polyphony, the size of the voice buffer, and the length of samples preloaded from disk into RAM. Distributing the sample content on more than one disk can also improve performance, assuming your hard disks are equally fast.

Traditional Families

HSO's content focuses on the four primary orchestral families — strings, brass, woodwinds, and percussion — and provides solo instruments and ensembles in each family. The only orchestral instrument conspicuous in its absence is harp.

All four instruments in the string section are well represented in both solo and tutti forms. Legato and spiccato violins, violas, and cellos each supply two alternate versions, labeled A and B, which you can use to play divisi parts or to double a section's size without layering the same samples. Several programs use keyswitches to alternate bowing between up- and downstrokes.

Violin offers the greatest number of articulations, including short, fast, tremolo, trill, pizzicato, and staccato variations, among others. Two programs let you use the mod wheel to transition from 16 to 32 violins. Viola, cello, and double bass have almost as many articulations, with enough timbral variety to keep things interesting (see Web Clip 1). In ensemble programs, different string sections are mapped across the keyboard, and pads furnish layered groups of strings with very slow attacks.

HSO's brass instruments cover French horn, trumpet, trombone, and tuba, along with sections combining them. Although articulations include legato, staccato, accented, crescendo, diminuendo, loud, and soft, there are considerably fewer choices than with strings, and no muted horns whatsoever. Trumpets and trombones are available solo and in groups of three; French horns are solo and in groups of four. Some programs contain brass ensembles, most comprising a trumpet and a trombone or three of each.

Woodwinds supply bassoon, clarinet, English horn, flute, oboe, and piccolo, but no contrabassoon. All wind instruments are solo, and most provide a broad selection of articulations, with an especially good collection of trills. Only the English horn gets short shrift, with no more than legato and staccato variations. And although real orchestras often group bassoons, clarinets, flutes, and oboes in threes, HSO's only woodwind ensembles are splits, with bassoon in the lower octaves, clarinet and oboe in the middle, and flute on top.

HSO divides percussion instruments into two categories, Chromatic Percussion and Drums & Percussion. Chromatic Percussion comprises small bells, tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, and timpani. Drums & Percussion includes large and small cymbals, bass drum, a small collection of snares, and assorted percussion such as sleigh bells, tam-tam, triangle, and woodblocks. The Velocity layering is especially effective on the cymbals (see Web Clip 2). I appreciated the inclusion of snare rolls, bass drum rolls, and cymbal rolls, which many sample libraries overlook. A Percussion Ensemble program maps different instruments across the keyboard, with several notes assigned to each.

Where appropriate, programs for all instrumental families include release samples that contribute to their realism. In addition to natural decays, they capture a slight amount of room sound. If you need more, you usually have the option of using Q Controls to specify the depth, time, and volume of ambience.

Although it doesn't explain every parameter, the manual is quite helpful, and it features a brief introduction to arranging for orchestra. It also furnishes a tutorial on reconstructing the beginning of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. The installation disc contains project files and PDFs of the score to accompany the tutorial, and the result sounds quite convincing (see Web Clip 3).

Disproportionately Cool

HALion Symphonic Orchestra is an essential program that fills the niche between budget-minded and high-priced premium virtual orchestras. It works very well as a tool for orchestral composition and production in a variety of applications, from film scoring to fleshing out rock arrangements. Virtually all the instruments sound realistic enough to fulfill most musical duties for which you're likely to need them, but the strings are the real star of the show. They have the broadest selection of articulations, and the means to impart expression is well implemented.

Considering the consistently high quality and sheer volume of the included content, you get a lot for your money. To sweeten the deal, a cross-grade offer gives you a $450 discount off the retail price if you already own certain software, including almost any virtual orchestra that comes to mind. HALion Symphonic Orchestra doesn't deliver the depth of virtual orchestras costing several times more, but it is probably the best you'll find for under $1,000.

EM associate editor Geary Yelton lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.

virtual orchestra



PROS: Impressive flexibility at a reasonable price. Fully multitimbral. Abundant string articulations. Resource-saving features.

CONS: No harp, muted horns, or contrabassoon. No woodwind groups. Scroll-barbug.


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