In the rush to offer revolutionary new types of sounds to desktop musicians, the software synthesizer market has, until recently, ignored the tried-and-true instrument category found in so many keyboard players' studios: the multitimbral workstation. Steinberg aims to fill the gap with Hypersonic, a soft synth that has many of the features of traditional hardware workstations.
If you need a palette of familiar sound types — from grand piano and choir to synth bass, solo brass, drum kits, and mallet percussion — Hypersonic will take good care of you. Most of the sounds are excellent, and some of them are phenomenal. And Hypersonic isn't just about sample playback; it goes further with a selection of modeled analog and FM presets and some drumbeats that automatically sync to the host sequencer's playback tempo. Like a hardware workstation, it has a good suite of built-in effects and is 16-part multitimbral. It even has an arpeggiator.
Unlike most hardware workstations, however, Hypersonic doesn't allow users to program patches in detail. Although the instrument's designers put lots of effort into making it easy for musicians who are unfamiliar with synth programming to customize the existing sounds, the deeper level of sound sculpting and customization is missing. Perhaps that's not a big deal for 90 percent of musicians 90 percent of the time, but it's definitely something of which you should be aware.
Once Hypersonic is installed and authorized, getting started is incredibly easy, thanks to the large and clearly laid out front-panel window (see Fig. 1). The 16 Part slots are on the left side of the panel, with output volume sliders located conveniently beside them. The right side of the panel has a programming window in which you'll see one of six pages: Load, Edit, MIDI, Mix, FX, and Setup. Clickable buttons let you select pages and mute individual slots.
Below the programming window are six Hyperknobs, which you use to make (or to automate) basic changes in the sound. The Hyperknobs' assigned functions depend on which patch you've loaded. In many cases, they are high-level controls that will alter several low-level voicing parameters at once. With the patch 70ties Rock Organ, for instance, they're labeled Perc Damp, Color, Tone, Perc Depth, Rotary Speed, and Dirt. Switch to Rich Stereo Vibes, which can be active in a different slot at the same time, and the Hyperknobs change to control Balance, Color, Tone, Warmth, Detune, and Release.
Below the Part slots is the Hyper Display, which gives you helpful information in certain situations. Clicking on it opens a virtual expansion bay, revealing an onscreen circuit board into which virtual sound chips can be loaded. At this writing, Steinberg hasn't released any add-on sound sets (though Wizoo is now shipping three Hyper Modules). I'm glad to hear that Hypersonic's developer is thinking ahead, but it would be even better if the plug-in could load WAV and AIFF files and assign them to presets. (Steinberg points out that HALion is available to anyone who wants additional control and file-importing capabilities.)
I had some initial problems getting Hypersonic authorized, mostly because my computer's three USB slots were already occupied. Hypersonic can use the same USB dongle as Cubase SX 2.0 (my sequencer of choice), but the procedure for transferring the license from the Hypersonic dongle to the Cubase dongle is not as well documented as it could be. I got things straightened out by uninstalling Hypersonic and starting over.
For the most part, I was thoroughly impressed by the quality of Hypersonic's factory patches. The stylistic coverage is wide, from vanilla American pop and new age and vintage instrument stylings to aggressive British techno. The multisamples are way above average, with smoothly matched split points, very reasonable Velocity cross-switching, and nearly undetectable loops. About 250 MB of samples are included in the installation.
In all, Hypersonic supplies a couple of hundred patches in more than 40 categories, ranging from Natural Drums, Electric Basses, and Saxes to Moving Pads, Soundscapes, and Sound FX. There's also a category containing 100 factory combis.
How many patches are there, exactly? It's hard to count them, because some items are included in two folders. Some categories contain as many as 40 patches, while others contain only a few. In addition, the categories aren't organized in any detectable order, which makes finding particular sounds more difficult than if they were alphabetized (see Fig. 2). A built-in search engine lets you call up lists of patches that match specific criteria such as instrument types or keywords.
You can save and load your own patches and combis. Those are supposed to appear in the Load page along with the factory patches and combis, but they didn't in the software I had for review. Fortunately, you can load them from the Setup page.
One of my favorite patches is Natural Grand Piano, which is extremely realistic and playable. This piano compares well to dedicated hardware electronic pianos that cost thousands of dollars. The harpsichord is full and meaty — great for modern recordings — but it sounded more authentic to my ears after I applied some judicious EQ. As with the piano, you can separately adjust the amount of key-release noise.
The electric piano and Clavinet categories are full of useful sounds, not gimmicks. The mallet percussion (see Web Clip 1) and brass patches are also outstanding. There are no solo French horns, however, and no oboe. Finger Jazz Bass has a menu of pops and slides in the upper octaves, suitable for emulating a real player's techniques. The tone of this bass includes plenty of round-wound buzz, but because Hypersonic furnishes Tone and EQ Hyperknobs, you can either tame the buzz or roll off the low end, depending on your needs. On the other hand, some sounds that I would have expected to find are missing: there are no big, splashy rock hi-hats, and the only jazz guitar is an FM simulation.
Here and there, the sound set drifts toward the lowest-common-denominator philosophy of General MIDI (GM) — not a good thing. That tendency is evident in the GM-style drum-kit key mappings and in throwaway presets like Auto Menu, which has five different automobile sound effects, each playable in one octave. A few isolated patches, such as Orchestral Perc (a Velocity layer program in which pizzicato acoustic bass, timpani, snare drum, and a rock crash cymbal are successively added to the tone as you strike the key harder) are simply inexplicable.
Thirty of the patches are one-measure beat loops. Those programs use the arpeggiator (in sync with the host sequencer) to step through the single-drum sounds assigned to the bottom two octaves of a 61-note keyboard. The loops play at normal pitch when you play the C above Middle C, and transpose without changing tempo when you play a higher or lower key. While you can't edit the loops, you can add extra kicks or ghost snare hits by triggering the appropriate key at the right spot in the bar, or you can program entirely new loops using the separate samples. Electro and hip-hop (see Web Clip 2) are better represented than any other styles.
Hypersonic's main competition in the software-based synth-workstation market is IK Multimedia SampleTank 2 (see the review in the April 2004 issue of EM, or find it online at www.emusician.com). SampleTank 2 L, which retails for $100 less than Hypersonic, ships with four CDs of sounds (everything in the Hypersonic sound set is on one CD). SampleTank 2 XL, for $100 more than Hypersonic, gives you a whopping eight CDs. Bear in mind, though — more is not necessarily better. I much prefer Hypersonic's vibraphone and orchestral strings to SampleTank XL's, for example, and SampleTank makes do with only one Clavinet. The most substantial difference, however, is that SampleTank is an open system, and is capable of loading not only raw WAV and AIFF files but Akai S1000/3000 presets. SampleTank also offers significantly more in the sound-programming department and has a more comprehensive MIDI implementation.
If custom tailoring the factory presets with the Hyperknobs doesn't produce the sounds you need, the next step is to click on the Edit button, which opens the voice-editing pages. In these pages you can adjust the octave, the semitone, and the fine-tuning. You can edit the filter and amplitude envelope generators, choose a different filter type, change the filter cutoff and resonance, nudge the Velocity sensing, and fiddle with a few other useful settings.
A single Hypersonic patch is made up of as many as 16 Elements (64 for drum patches), and all of the parameters I just mentioned can be edited separately in each Element. If a voice layers three samples, for instance, each of the sample-playback Elements will have its own edit page. Some of the Elements can be effects processors rather than sound sources. There's also a higher-level page for parameters that will be applied to the whole patch, such as pitch-bend depth, glide time, and arpeggiator settings.
Sounds good so far, but we're about to hit our heads on the ceiling. First of all, the choice of Elements for a given patch is not user-programmable. If you want to create a patch that uses three sample-playback Elements for three-oscillator sounds, you have to start with a patch that already has the configuration you need. But there's not much point in going about it that way, because you can't choose the waveform for a sample-playback Element.
Voice programming in Hypersonic always involves tweaking an existing patch. Do you want to layer the marimba with the trumpet? Unless you can find a factory patch that already has such a layer, the way to do it is to assign a marimba patch to one of the slots in the combi and a trumpet patch to the next adjacent slot. Then you can adjust the marimba and trumpet parameters so that they'll blend in they way you have in mind, but you will have to store and load the two patches separately.
What's truly problematical, though, is that the programmable parameters don't include LFOs. Some patches have vibrato or tremolo already programmed in, and with some of those the LFO depth is brought out to a Hyperknob (which allows you to modulate LFO depth from a MIDI controller). In other patches, LFO depth is assigned to the mod wheel but not to a Hyperknob. In some patches, however, the minimum vibrato depth is greater than zero, meaning there will always be vibrato — and there's nothing you can do about it. In no patch that I could find is LFO rate user-programmable — a lack of basic functionality that I found baffling.
Hypersonic has 34 effects algorithms, with the usual array of parameters for editing. Effects are available at three levels. First of all, a given patch might include one or more of its own effects; if it does, you can choose a different effect. In addition, there are four global effects and four per-patch effects in the mixer area (see Fig. 3). Each slot in the combi has only four sends, not eight, so you may need to think about which effects you want to be global and which you want to assign to individual patches. This system lets you conserve CPU power while also applying unique effects to single patches as needed.
Hypersonic is available only as a VST instrument, but because all of the major sequencers either support VST instruments directly or have wrappers, that shouldn't be a big issue. Hypersonic was stable and reliable running under Cubase SX 2.0, but I encountered a couple of issues that I hope will be addressed in a future release.
The program's six Hyperknobs can be automated under a VST host. They can also be assigned to MIDI controllers. The deeper voicing parameters, however, can't be automated, nor can they be controlled by MIDI. Given the absence of programmable LFOs, LFO sync is a nonissue, but I was surprised to find that Hypersonic's delay lines don't sync to the host tempo either. A sync button is in the effects-editing page, but it doesn't work. (I checked for updates on Steinberg's Web site, but although at this writing several months have passed since Hypersonic's release, no bug-fix update was visible on the site.) The arpeggiator does sync to the host sequencer, fortunately.
Unlike most instrument plug-ins, Hypersonic responds to MIDI Program Changes. When you select a patch in the Load page, its Bank Select and Program Change numbers are displayed briefly in the Hyper Display. After jotting down these numbers, you can manually insert the required MIDI events into your sequence track. Another alternative is to send Program Changes on channel 16, which will switch Hypersonic to a whole new combi.
For reasons that would be tedious to explain, it's advisable to skip the Load page when developing a song and select Hypersonic patches from the host application's track parameters area instead. (Until I figured that out, I was baffled when I saved a Hypersonic song and loaded it the next day, and some of the slots in my combi played the wrong sounds.) Another alternative is to choose Select Patch in the track parameters area. After you've done that, the Load page will work as desired.
CALL ME HYPERSENSITIVE
Hypersonic has a decent-size palette of useful sounds, although it is hardly comprehensive. It is great to have this type of high-quality workstation sound set available in a VST instrument, and I am sure Hypersonic will get a workout in my next few productions.
As a diehard synth user, I'm disappointed that Hypersonic's sounds can't be programmed at a deeper level, but programmability isn't the point here. (And, to be honest, I have a couple of cherished hardware synths in my rack whose editing features I haven't touched in years.) The point is to be able to grab sounds quickly and make music with them, and Hypersonic is well set up to do that. Its limited voice programmability is offset somewhat by the flexible effects implementation and the several synthesis types that are included in the sound set. In sum, Hypersonic is a worthy and welcome addition to the crowded soft-synth market.
Minimum System Requirements
MAC: G3/500 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Mac OS X 10.2; 300 MB free hard-disk space; USB port; Audio Units- or VST 2.0 — compatible host
PC: AMD K7 or Pentium III/500 MHz; 256 MB RAM; Windows 2000 or XP; 300 MB free hard-disk space; USB port; VST 2.0 — compatible host
FEATURES3.0EASE OF USE4.0QUALITY OF SOUNDS4.5VALUE3.5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Excellent sounds. High-level macro knobs for easy editing. Several synthesis types. Drumbeats and arpeggiator sync to host sequencer. Plenty of built-in effects. Multiple audio outputs to host. DSP-efficient.
CONS: Not fully programmabel. Delay line and LFO don't sync to host tempo. Most parameter changes can't be automated. Can't load audio files.