For the technical details and specification for Halion 4 and Halion Sonic, please see my previous post here.
Being able to understand Halion Sonic at first glance is a daunting task. There’s very little real info that’s contained within the PR hype speak from Steinberg and the manual itself is particularly plain and offers few if any insights into the deeper, inner workings of Halion Sonic.
On the surface, what you get is essentially a box of presets that you can edit ROMpler style into your own creations. On their website, Steinberg touts Halion Sonic as having three special modes: disk streaming, drum machine and beat slicing. Don’t believe the hype as they say, as the disk streaming mode is the normal “play” mode in which you call up a preset, the drum machine simply refers to ability to select your own drum samples from within the library provided and assign them to keys, which is a common feature of software & hardware like this actually. And then finally, the beat slicer, which is Steinberg’s way of giving you a drum loop you can’t edit (or load your own) in one octave and then the same loop broken down into it’s component hits in the next.
On the whole, they’re nothing really above standard features and not really selectable as “modes”, which is all a bit misleading when you look at it that way. Also just as strange is Steinberg’s arithmetic in saying that it comes with 12 gigs of material. Halion Sonic comes on two DVDs (and also requires the separate purchase of a USB ELicenser dongle, if you don’t already have one!) and once installed, appears to contain a sparse handful of presets, most of which utilize the built in VA engine. Given that they were also advertising Halion Sonic as having material that was designed by parent company Yamaha’s Motif team, one can only wonder where all those gigs went. It’s quite possible that Steinberg put all of it’s eggs into one basket, as what’s on there is quite good and superior in quality to the instruments contained within the expansion pack offered on Steinberg’s website. Once you’ve downloaded and installed the expansion pack, it quite easily pushes the number of presets over the 1k mark as advertised, solving that bit of the mystery. It’s also worth noting that the expansion pack contains the Hypersonic, Halion SE and GM sound sets.
That’s what I feel that you pretty much get with Halion Sonic in terms of it’s presets: it’s more or less a high quality and largely expanded GM sound set. Overall, I don’t feel there’s enough quality or quantity in any one genre to enable a user to compose an entire radio ready composition on Halion Sonic alone. Weakest of all, in what was a bit of a major disappointment, are the drums. Most of them are variations on the standard Casio style drum sets, you know the ones I mean: clap blocks, chimes and whistles. Noticeably absent are techno or trance kits, an orchestral percussion kit and other standards such as brushed and jazz kits.
Up to this point it may seem like I’m being a bit down on Halion Sonic, but given what I’ve said so far, you have to take it for what it is: a teaser product for Halion 4. You’re mostly getting recycled user content with a dash of new stuff thrown in, even if it is completely editable as Steinberg promised. Interestingly though, is Steinberg’s complete under emphasis on what I would consider to be Halion Sonic’s best feature: the VA engine. In fact it’s buried so deep it’s almost impossible to find unless you know where to look. Loading a blank program may seem like the best way to initialize a patch, however that only allows you to load a multi-sampled program. To gain access to the VA engine, you have to go through the patch browser and search for the initialize patch patch and load it. Honesty, it was such a counter intuitive process I had to register for Steinberg’s support forums and ask for help!
Once you get it up and running, editing sounds on it and the sampler from scratch is a pretty straightforward process with no hidden surprises. Programming standouts include up to four LFOs per layer, two of which are polyphonic, a programmable step sequence modulator and an arpeggiator that Steinberg calls “Flexphrase” that plays, as you can probably guess, preset phrases, chord sequences and the like. None of them are user editable, unless you want to load your own midi files.
I want to pause here and go back and talk about the VA engine some more. As a certified synth nut myself, I can say with certainty that between the VA engine and the effects, Halion Sonic really is at the hardware level in terms of sound quality with these two items. Both are entirely worth the price of admission alone. At up to for layers per program and three oscillators plus a sub oscillator per layer and all of the modulation options, you can really create some dense and moving synth patches. The VA engine itself is rich and lush in harmonics and overtones. In fact, many times while flipping through the presets I heard something so deep and vast sounding I assumed that it was a sample, only to find out it was the VA engine, without effects!
So in conclusion, if you’re looking for mainly presets, Halion Sonic is going to leave you feeling a bit short changed. Given that the presets are already composed of recycled material and some bonus add ons, I don’t have much hope that Steinberg will be releasing sound packs. However if you do like the sound of the demos (take a listen to the one I posted below) you may wish to pony up the extra 100$ for Halion 4 and take advantage of the vast amount of sample CDs out there on the market in conjunction with Halion’s top notch effects to tweak them to your liking. Otherwise you can get a fair amount of use out of Halion Sonic if you enjoy programming and tweaking your own sounds. A multi-timbral VST VA of such a high quality is nothing to shake a stick at either.
And then finally, if none off that is really your bag, there are other products out there such as Sample Tank, that offers just as many presets with the ability to read sample CDs right out of the box coming in at just a bit under what Halion Sonic retails for.
As for me, I really like the synth engine and I’m hoping they offer an upgrade from Halion Sonic to Halion 4 as I’d like to combine the synth along with samples from various hardware synths and other sources.