Man Cave: Sampler Battles – HALion meets Kontakt

I recently wrote about sampling, and the joys of not losing hardware in a seething pit of wires. That leads to a discussion about whether hardware is really worth it, but that’ll come when my flame-proof pants arrive from eBay. For now, let’s question an assumption I made – about Kontakt.

Good Olde Kontakt

Kontakt is the default software sampler. If you buy samples it’ll come as Kontakt for sure, occasionally with a dog bone for the Reason and Logic people. In a way it’s good that there’s some kind of standard, but it’s not an open or versatile one. I hoped SFZ would be the one, but Alchemy went Apple-Embrace-Expand-Extinguish. Kontakt is a good sampler, but that’s about it. No great innovation has taken place in a while and others are trying ideas that NI seems to have abandoned

Due to secret men’s business I have the opportunity to review some Steinberg products. Today I want to look at the strangely capitalized HALion 6. We will see it’s not just a sampler, but more akin to a workstation such as the Yamaha Motif.

Bear with me

Rather than provide various ‘zooms’ of interface (such as Alchemy) there are three different versions of the software:

  • Daddy Bear – the full HALion, which makes new programs. If you’re a big tough electronic dude like me, you get this one.
  • Mummy Bear – HALion Sonic which can play back programs from a rather large library of Yamaha sounds and synthesisers.
  • Baby Bear – HALion SE which is free, comes with no libraries at all, but can still play programs, some of which you can get for free.

Straight away I must try to explain the terminology. A program is a virtual instrument based on the HALion engine, which may have a macro GUI, and up to 4 layers in which multiple zones can be placed. Try as I might I still get layers and zones muddled. The easy way to think about it is a layer is a split on the keyboard – bass down the bottom, piano up top. Or different articulations of a single instrument. A zone is like a single sample spread across pitches, but each can be an entirely different synthesis type. Middle C could be a virtual synthesiser, A# a wavetable.

HALion6-large

A simple program might have a layer with sampled piano. A complex program might have a GUI resembling a Blofeld, driving two layers of wavetable synthesis combined with a layer of virtual analogue synthesis, all passed through effects. You may have 32 programs running through the mixer in stereo or 5.1. There is a complex system for natural musical phrases and arpeggios, but a host sequencer is still needed.

A HALion owner can sell their work to HALion SE owners without royalties to Steinberg. A program provides all aspects of the HALion engine to any version – loading samples, wavetables, virtual analogue etc. It’s a bit like Reaktor or SynthEdit but based around the paradigm of sampling.

The price of great flexibility is great complexity. You have to move back and forward between multiple windows which show the program at different magnifications – a sample waveform here, a stack of layers there. It’s rarely skeuomorphic, sometimes tending to the look of a database. Never quite as confounding as Reaktor but not for the casual user.

Layers and zones

Most of the time you’ll just drag and drop a sample onto a layer, creating a sample zone, and get to work. Unusually, you can also sample sounds directly into HALion. Otherwise you can create new empty zones – a 3 oscillator virtual analogue, or drawbar organ, wavetable, granular, or sample. You can convert a sample over to a wavetable or granular sample. I didn’t find the wavetable conversion to work especially well for anything but simple waveforms. Being spoiled by Alchemy, I would really like to see an additive synthesis mode someday. The granular mode works fine, but not at the default settings – you will always need to fiddle to get a good result. The VA does a pretty good MOOG thingy. I’m not that interested in organs.

An Achilles file format

One thing I like about Kontakt is that it can be made to save monolith files – all the samples, compressed with all the settings bundled into one. That’s a killer advantage when you have multiple drives, 1000’s of samples and only hell knows where that one disappeared. But a monolith file takes your sounds behind a proprietary wall, locked away from any other software.

Here’s the problem – I have difficulty in explaining the way HALion saves files. Like most samplers, by default it saves a pointer to existing audio files unless told otherwise. It can also be asked to collect samples into a new folder structure. But the equivalent to a monolith is a complex business – a VST sound container is something that bundles everything from the macro GUI to the samples, that must be registered with the MediaBay and located in a library which can only be moved about by a library manager – it’s daunting to the new user. You could argue that it’s good shared studio practice, especially so that users of the smaller Halion Sonic can load up sounds. But it’s not an inviting part of music composition. Given the problem of accessing sounds from multiple hosts most people will just keep the samples where they are and pray that none go missing.

The Verdict

Unless you are a dedicated sound designer, you probably should stick with Kontakt, which does what it does and no more. Then, if you admire the extensive Yamaha library or the Motif, you can go for HALion Sonic. But if you have dreams of being a sound designer, and given that HALion SE is free to all, you could master the full HALion and come up with some impressive synthesisers that others may buy.

I’m really torn between having a Fantom style instrument and my existing neat and tidy Kontakt monoliths. Sadly I think the moment I start actually making music the latter will win.

Barbara rUFO

For the last 12 years, every four years, I have made music about a mythical place called Barbara Island. This year sees the fourth and last chapter, titled Barbara rUFO, and I would like to tell the whole story of how it came to be, and why it finishes in 2018. This is a longish story, but don’t worry I’ll keep it tight.

We could start late in the last century, when I found two painted wheat bags on a telegraph pole outside my house. One of them looks like this:

AlanPhilp1

At the time 2018 seemed a long long time away. But time speeds up.

Over Barbara Island

In 2006 the National Art School held a fund raiser. I was asked to contribute a live performance, and I said yes. The school is housed in a very old prison with small stone cells, but the show was to be held outside. As it was winter, they would supply tiki lamps. I thought ‘tiki lamps!’ and started to make something a little Martin Denny and a bit stormy. As it turned out the night was very stormy itself, and the show had to be held in a small jail cell. Not very exotic.

At the time I was making what was to be the last Severed Heads album, called Under Gail Succubus. This was a silly band name I had come up with years before – I always thought it worth using someday. I added the live show to the main album as a bonus, and thought it would fun to call it Over Barbara Island. And so – Gail and Barbara.

It was the last full Heads album (although many years later some shorter special projects went out under that name). In 2008, the band was lowered into a grave.

A funny side note is that a local agency tried adapting some of Barbara for a Coca-Cola advert. Three attempts did not get run-it-up-the-flagpole, and so sadly Things did not Go Better With Barbara.

Return to Barbara Island

In 2010 the body was exhumed for the Sydney Festival, and as a consequence I was asked to perform at another charitable event – this time for Rainforest Rescue. Again, yes, and again it seemed a good time for palm trees. This event was more bumpy bumpy and so Return to Barbara Island is a lot more streamlined that the volumes before or after. I made videos for each track, but the screen was a gaggle of hexagons and so no one really saw what I was showing. And like the previous event I don’t think there was too much benefit for the Rainforest, but I got an album out of it.

Around this time I wondered of there really is a Barbara Island, and there is. It’s very cold, but maybe not forever.

Barbara Channel Three

In 2013 Severed Heads played the Adelaide festival. We were both dead and alive, an echo, and I was desperately trying to come up with new material with which to move on. But being a full time academic, delivering a computer game for the festival, and being carer for an invalid spouse I was overwhelmed. It wasn’t going to happen in time.

It was 2014 before this material came together, and here was the four year cycle demanding that it be obeyed. So it was to be Barbara again. Channel Three refers to radio and there are many radiophonic touches – but much of what appears to be shortwave is actually synthesisers. I’d regained a hardware sound studio, including some of the gear I had owned back in the 1970’s, so there’s some familiar old sounds in there. But to buy the gear I needed the job that meant I never had time to use the gear.

When the UK magazine The Wire requested some music from ‘Severed Heads’ it was a horrible dilemma – this was me, Tom, not Severed Heads. But without the old name there was no interest. I had to supply them with some of Barbara, which mean ‘moving on’ was yet again defeated.

This is around when I pulled out my wheat bag with the UFO message. 2018 was four years away, and it dawned on me that there must be a Barbara FOUr, actually a Barbara rUFO in this year. I needed to go back to the wheat bags.

Barbara rUFO

By now I knew of the UFO Man, Alan Philp. I had seen him standing out in the mall, sun hat on and wheat bag around his neck. But by this time he had faded from the collective memory and needed to be brought back. In 2017 Severed Heads toured on an image that recalled his message.

A

But it was only in 2018 I found his image on a older blog site. This is Mr. Philp.

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We must respect the message that he gave us for decades. When the UFO comes this year, what will it want? Will be a handshake or a spanking? Will we end up gods, or meat Popsicles? This is what Barbara will tell us I hope.

Since 2014 I have become successfully underemployed, the band continues, the bad times that ran through all the previous chapters have faded away. I have just finished Barbara rUFO today. It is the last Barbara, and perhaps, UFO willing, the last normal album I do. It is time for change.

I hope you will like it, but please also hear the earlier chapters, they do not cost. I will let you know when the UFO lands.