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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *