Tag Archives: osx

Steinberg HalionSonic

Versions tested: 1.0.0 and 1.5.2
DAW: Cubase 5.5.1 and 5.5.3
computer: iMac 2.16 GHz Core2Duo, 3GB RAM
computer 2: MacPro 2.66 GHz Xeon W3520, 12GB RAM

When I first got this I thought it was a dud. But it’s not. It is actually really good. Okay, version 1.0.0 sucked, much too heavy on resources to be practical. But 1.2.x was better and 1.5.2 is just fine, if still somewhat heavier on the system than Kontakt 5 and even PLAY v3.

The list of stuff to like is long. First of all, thank you Steinberg/Yamaha for creating a VI that is not impossibly bloated; 12GB is still a very sizable amount of data, but compared to Goliath’s 40GB or Kontakt’s 50GB its footprint is positively dimunitive.

Another big “like” is the GUI. Anybody familiar with the basic layout of hardware workstation/samplers will have no problem getting used to HalionSonic. Every parameter I like to tweak is easy to find and adjust, and in spite of the multi-timbral layout it is possible to tailor the sound comprehensively before you even need to think about external processing.

The biggest “like”, however, are the sounds. Despite its relatively modest size, HalionSonic really takes the fight to Kontakt 5 and Goliath. Although they all have their strengths, I daresay that HalionSonic is the best all-rounder of the three, even though it is waaay cheaper than the other two!

For starters, it is the only one with decent acoustic piano sounds. No wait, they are more than just decent, they are really, really good! Unfortunately, the strong acoustic pianos are ultimately let down by unconvincing Rhodes sounds, which is weird as even Cubase’s stock EP’s work better for me. The other sounds all range from usable to surprisingly good, but the highlight (other than the acoustic pianos) for me has to be a wide range of fresh-sounding synth patches.

On the downside, while it is really nice of Steinberg to offer the 1.5 content update, it is unusable for me, as the installer will NOT let me install the content anywhere other than the “MacHD” system drive. I have all my sample libraries -including HalionSonic’s original content!- installed on a dedicated drive, but the 1.5 update installer inconveniently ignores this possibility. I upgraded to 1.5.2 and had to pass on the additional content, bummer. I really hope Steinberg is on the ball with this and that they will offer a fix soon. see update below

Finally, for the money it is simply a great deal. Considering that both Kontakt 5 and Goliath are significantly pricier (not to mention obese) I think Steinberg really has a very attractive proposition in HalionSonic. In fact, I like HS so much I am thinking of shelling out another $100 to upgrade to and see what Halion4 is all about. For those looking for a good all-round soundset, I can’t think of a better alternative.

update:
Piko (see comments) from Steinberg HQ sent me an email detailing how the content update CAN be installed on other hdd’s. It is actually very straightforward, and I am positively embarrassed that I did not figure that out myself. BUT: for Steinberg USA support to tell me that it is not possible is simply incompetent! Wake up, guys, learn your product.

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GARRITAN STEINWAY BASIC

Versions tested: 1.04
DAW: Cubase 4.5.2 and 5.5.1 and 5.5.3
computer: iMac 2.16 GHz Core2Duo, 3GB RAM
computer 2: MacPro 2.66 GHz Xeon W3520, 12GB RAM

This was an impulse buy. Garritan had just put this up on their site for $99 as a download and it was instant gratification that made me do it. I love being able to purchase and download right away.

Everything was straightforward and painless, from the paypal transaction to the 3+ GB download, from installation to activation (which requires a virtual keycard, a very elegant approach to anti-piracy). The whole process took less than 30 minutes and I was ready to play.

As Garritan states explicitly on their site, this instrument needs a weighted keyboard. With a semi-weighted action there isn’t much there. With my dirt-cheap Yamaha KX-8 controller the piano came to life.

The basic sound is very good, nicely recorded samples, with a warm and velvety character. This is great as most other digital offerings (software and hardware) tend to lean towards the brighter side, something that works well for pop and rock but isn’t always desirable for acoustic-oriented stuff.

A disadvantage is that this instrument sounds gentle and civilized all the time, it refuses to bark and growl when you really hit it fortissimo. But it works well for intimate stuff.

The user adjustability is somewhat limited, there is quite a few parameters but I can’t say they do a lot for the basic sound. The EQ is not bad, but I never use it. I do have the reverb on most of the time, but I usually replace it later on. Then there is the resonance, maybe my ears aren’t great but I don’t really hear it doing much, unless at extreme settings and that isn’t always a good thing.

An important ommission is lack of MIDI channel select, no big deal in a DAW, but it limits standalone functionality for live use.

Nevertheless, at $99 it is grrrrreat value, but Garritan has since raised the price to $149. Still not unreasonable, but no longer an absolute bargain. At $99 it competes directly with Alicia’s Keys and I would recommend it. As it is, I still like and use it a lot, but I’m not sure I’d give in to instant gratification at $149.

update
All Garritan Steinway products have been discontinued. Current owners can download the latest (64-bit compatiable) ARIA player to ensure compatibility with the latest hosts. Sad to see it go. I had been waiting on an upgrade path to the Pro version since 2010, but it never happened.

FOCUSRITE SAFFIRE LE

This is going to be one short review. There really isn’t much too say about the Saffire LE. It does the job it is supposed to do just fine, sounds decent and requires very little attention or care.

Earlier drivers were not as solid as the current one, with occasional glitches, but nowadays it is stable and reliable; the only quirk I encounter every now and then is that it fails to sync up when the computer comes out of sleep mode (or restart) but that does not happen often and dis- and reconnecting the cable takes care of that.

Within Cubase I normally have the buffer on 256 samples as that is the sweet spot for my aging iMac, but I have used the LE at 128 without problems. Sharing the firewire buss with other devices is a mixed bag, it worked fine with an Iomega HDD but with a WD Mybook not so much.

The mic preamps do the job, but no more than that. To me that is the LE’s weakest link, you’ll get the signal but it is a little thin and when you hit the limit things sound nasty. Line levels are slightly low, too. That could be the price you pay for a buss-powered device. Connectivity is good, though, and the software control panel/mixer is easy to understand and adjust.

This box is never going to win any awards, it is unassuming and not anything special. But it does not get in the way of you and the music and facilitates the recording process well enough.

For the money you can’t complain for what you get. Nothing is great, but everything works well. A good first audio IO for people on a budget. Nice.

edit:
As an afterthought: I suspect that this unit is really an M-Audio interface disguised as a Focusrite. when I check the system processes in OSX’ Activity Monitor there is only an M-Audio firmware root process, and I don’t own or have connected any of their stuff.

EASTWEST QUANTUM LEAP GOLIATH

Versions tested: PLAY 1.2.5 and 2.1.1 and 3.0.21
DAW: Cubase 4.5.2 and 5.5.1 and 5.5.3
computer: iMac 2.16 GHz Core2Duo, 3GB RAM
computer 2: MacPro 2.66 GHz Xeon W3520, 12GB RAM

INSTALLATION
I bought Goliath for $250 (including iLok + shipping) about one year ago when Soundsonline had one of their many 50% off deals. The package arrived promptly and I was brimming with anticipation, thanks to rave reviews and EW’s reputation for great sound.

The install took about two hours (6 DVD’s totalling 40GB) and required registering the iLok etc. For some reason the authorization failed and I was unable to use it. Thankfully, EastWest’s e-mail support swiftly replied, they uploaded the auhorization code to my iLok account and I was good to go. Or so I thought.

I started my DAW (Cubase 4.5.2 at the time) to immerse myself in some serious sound exploration, but when I opened an instance of PLAY (Goliath’s engine) Cubase “unexpectedly quit”. After several unsuccessful attempts I tried PLAY in stand-alone mode but fared no better. I managed to open the application but loading sounds would cause it to crash.

Again, EW support was most helpful. They always replied e-mails within 24 hours and did point me to the solution eventually, which turned out to be an updated version of Yamaha Studio Manager. It required some back-and-forth, reinstalling and updating but the issue was resolved so now I could finally go and get inspired.

SOUND
I have to say that I was not that impressed. Perhaps I expected too much but I found that Goliath is a few miles short of being the all-purpose workhorse it wants to be.

Let’s start with the positives. I like EW’s warm signature sound. The orchestral stuff is definitely a step up from other all-in-ones or hardware workstations, and the included reverb sounds great. The choirs and solo voices are wonderful, too.
Acoustic guitars sound very nice, there is a fairly realistic Lakland bass, decent acoustic drumkits, and some nice pad-like patches. Percussion sounds great too, as do many of the ethnic instruments.

The electronic drumkits are a mixed bag, with some of the sounds really knocking and some others sounding dated.

On to the negatives, with the undisputed #1 being the acoustic pianos. They suck. Really. This bit on the soundsonline site correctly states

“GOLIATH includes the entire 32 Gigabytes of content from Future Music magazine’s VIRTUAL INSTRUMENT OF THE YEAR – COLOSSUS, PLUS an additional 8 Gigabytes of new content from the latest EASTWEST/QUANTUM LEAP collections, including the Sound On Sound magazine 5 STAR awarded EASTWEST/PMI BOSENDORFER 290 PIANO”

which I find misleading as it had me believe that a stripped-down version of their QL Piano was included. Not so.

Perhaps there was a time that the PMI Bosendorfer could be considered great, but it certainly is not now. My hardware keyboards sound better and feel more like instruments, as does the $99 Garritan Steinway Basic.
Likewise, the Rhodes is pathetic. Maybe someone else could find a use for it, but not me, and I have tried. Clavinets fare no better, and Goliath’s only saving grace for keyboardists is the B3, which is pretty good to my ears.

The synthesizer section is mediocre. The aforementioned pad-like patches are fine, but the analog emulations are a waste of space. They could work for some non-critical parts, but PLAY’s inflexible engine and lack of tweakability really kill it as a synth.

PERFORMANCE
I have to say I like the GUI’s looks, but there are some ergonomic flaws. For example, the fact that you can’t input numeric values makes it hard to copy settings.

What’s more, on my machine (an aging 2.16GHz Core2Duo iMac with 2GB RAM, but well above minimum sys reqs) performance was unreliable, and I found that I had to bounce every instance right after creating the part.
Multi-timbrality is a no-go area, which is acknowledged sotto voce by EW as they recommend not to use it and open multiple instances instead.

In both standalone and VST mode I occasionally encounter the following problem: when I load and replace sounds frequently (like when I’m auditioning sounds for a part) some sort of high latency is introduced and it becomes unplayable. Only quitting the instance (or application in standalone) and reopening it resolves this issue.

On the upside, when I upgraded to Cubase 5.5.1 PLAY’s performance improved. It is pretty stable now, and appears to run a little leaner, too. After a few months of hassle-free operation I took the plunge and upgraded to PLAY 2.1.1

Maybe I should not have, because it immediately ‘unexpectedly quit’ Cubase again. It works for the most part, though, and the GUI looks a little better.

CONCLUSION
All in all, I am reasonably content with Goliath because I got a good deal, but I would not recommend it. It is not the allrounder EW claims it is and the PLAY engine hasn’t worked all that great on my machine. There are some sounds that I really like and use frequently, but the rest is just sitting there clogging up the hard drive. Had I paid the full amount for it, I would have felt royally screwed.

To be competitive it should be priced at $150-200, work flawlessly and have a smaller GB footprint. To be fair, other users may not have encountered these problems, but if the reports on the net are anything to go by, mine is not an isolated incident.

EW’s minimum system requirements are a G5 1.6GHz, 2GB RAM, Mac OS 10.4 or newer. I find that hard to believe. In my experience, you’d need at least double the RAM, a dedicated harddisk and waaay more CPU power. My computer hits the ceiling when I play 5 simultaneous voices with one of the choir sounds.

All this notwithstanding, Goliath has got me wishing for more of EW’s orchestral and acoustic stuff. A new computer should arrive this summer and if PLAY performs better on it, I might just want to give the Composer’s collection another look.

edit (September 24, 2011):

I installed PLAY 3.0.21 and it really makes a difference. Although my gripes with the UI have not been addressed, it is a major improvement in terms of stability and efficiency.
To give you an idea of the efficiency, it now runs leaner within Cubase 5.5.3 than Steinberg’s own HalionSonic, go figure.

I thought it would be fair to post this in light of the criticisms I have spouted above.