By Carlos Garza
|Capturing the nuances of a symphony orchestra in a sample library is no easy task but several products are aiming to do just that. Manufacturers such as Vienna Symphonic Library, Garritan, East West, Miroslav Vitous and Steinberg are a few of the companies working on the challenge.
The most compelling products offer multiple performance variations and controls. HALion Symphonic Orchestra (HSO) is a new product from Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH, a subsidiary of Yamaha Corporation that offers real-time performance features found in some of the most expensive libraries at a price well under $1,000.
The 15,000 individual samples supplied on DVD-ROM require 27GB of disk space for both 16-bit and 24-bit versions. The stand-alone player is used for live performance and playback from ReWire applications. HSO also runs as a VST, Dxi and Audio Units plug-in. A Steinberg Key device (not included) is required to use the library. A single device can be used for multiple Steinberg products.
As the name implies, HSO includes strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. The 1250 programs include solo instruments, ensembles and tutti sections all performed, according to Steinberg, by a leading European orchestra.
The strings include solo and ensemble violin, viola, cello and bass. Articulations include legato, spiccato, pizzicato, tremolo, portamento, espressivo and trills. The brass section includes solo and tutti trumpets, trombones, horns and solo tuba.
Woodwinds include solo flute, oboe, clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, piccolo and English horn. The percussion family includes timpani, bass, snare, tambourine, tubular bells woodblocks, temple block, finger cymbals, vibraslap, triangle, sleigh bells, cymbals and gongs.
As with many sample players, the HSO software keeps a short bit of each sample in memory and streams the rest from disk. RAM and CPU use can be managed through the number and size of voice buffers and the minimum sample memory settings. The RAMSave™ feature frees memory by monitoring the notes played in sequenced MIDI tracks and dropping unused samples.
Users can selectively reduce the anti-aliasing quality in order to get more voices, for example, during recording, and then switch to a higher quality setting when bouncing or mixing tracks. “Economy” programs, which use fewer samples, are available for some instruments.
The “Q Controls,” seen in previous HALion products, are a set of eight MIDI-assignable controls that vary by program. Examples include, attack velocity, bow sound, “body” and “air.” Room ambience was recorded with the samples but can be controlled separately in level and duration.
I tested HSO with Logic Pro on a G5 Quad with 4GB RAM and Pro Tools on a G4 Dual 1GHz with 1.5 GB RAM. I monitored through Mackie HR-824 speakers. A Yamaha Motif ES-8 and a 2-octave Oxygen 8 were used as MIDI controllers.
My project was a short film score calling for both emotion and dynamics. I focused on strings since they are so important in film music. HSO offers alternating up and down bowing programs, a feature that overcomes the “machine gun” sound you hear from keyboard strings. I played the alternating spiccato string programs in the solo violin and viola and was amazed at the realism and ease of use.
The combination, or “Combi” programs, available in all instrument groups, are effective but require a little practice to get realistic performance variations. The string “Combis,” for example, include short notes, long notes, tremolo and trills. Articulations are selected by holding a switch key outside the instrument range.
I found a small annoyance in the half-step trill of the solo viola xSwitch Combi, which was noticeably louder than the other articulations. The other Combis, including the corresponding violin are well matched though. This can easily be fixed in the mix or avoided by recording trills separately.
The performance and tone controls offer plenty of tonal variety. For example, in the vibraphone program, the “Body” Q-control adjusts weight while “Presence” controls the mallet attack, simulating soft or hard mallets.
Percussive instruments derive their volume and tone from the initial hit and change little as the note decays. Strings, brass, woodwinds and percussion rolls, on the other hand, are capable of complex note dynamics. MIDI note velocity therefore controls percussion dynamics well but is less effective for other instruments.
Steinberg developed the Crescendo Control as a solution. Crescendo can be mapped to modulation wheel, breath, foot or expression controllers. The Xfade programs use Crescendo for continuous crossfade of samples, while the Xswitch programs switch between samples (requiring less memory).
The Crescendo Control can be used to create very natural sounding performances, especially in the strings and brass. By cross-fading actual samples played at different volumes, HSO has captured realism that can’t be simulated with volume and filter controls. Mastering Crescendo Control is a piece of cake. Combining it with key switch control is another thing, but it’s much easier than learning the violin, oboe, trombone, etc.
Most of the instruments sound very convincing to my ears. The solo strings are very expressive and the string sections are closer in quality to a more expensive library than they are to other libraries I’ve heard for under $1000.
The range of instruments and articulations cover the needs of basic symphonic mock-ups for education, film composing and pop music accompaniment. You won’t find esoteric articulations used in advanced orchestration, which is no surprise given the price. My wish list for a product update includes harp, celesta and muted brass.
While the stand-alone player and ReWire are required to use HSO with Pro Tools, ReWire can be useful even with DAW programs such as Logic Pro that support the Audio Units plug-in. Using ReWire I was able to keep my favorite HSO instruments in memory while switching Logic “songs.” This approach can also be used to optimize memory and CPU use under certain conditions.
HSO worked flawlessly on the G5. Memory limits on the G4 restricted the number of instruments that I could use at once but it worked fine with planning and occasional bouncing. HSO ran without problems as a Logic plug-in on the Quad and it seemed to run even smoother as a ReWire application.
This is an excellent sounding set that strikes the right balance between ease of use and flexibility. The inclusion of both 16 and 24-bit samples combined with advanced features make HSO a valuable tool for live performance and professional recording. Many composers will appreciate the inclusion of both first and second violin sections, something that even higher priced libraries occasionally skip. Others will miss the harp and muted brass.
With a little practice, the Crescendo Control can create very believable performances and the results are impressive. The Combi programs take more effort to master but the effort pays off and the price, sound quality and advanced features make HSO an excellent value.
(c) 2006 Carlos Garza