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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.

KRK RP5G2 & RP8G2


I used to own a pair of RP8G2’s a few years ago, and now I have a pair of RP5G2’s as secondary speakers. I like both of them, but there are a number of caveats.

First of all, the RP8G2’s are incredibly bassy, and this is greatly augmented when you place them on resonant surfaces (like a desk). When you have them on proper speaker stands away from the wall, it is not so bad and you could actually mix on them if you take the time to get to know them. But they are still bass-heavy and you have to allow for that when making mix decisions, which is -of course- not ideal. When placed on a desk and/or near a wall, they are only good for non-critical listening. But they are great for parties, as they go loud and sound good for most modern music.

I like the RP5G2’s much better. When used as nearfields they have enough low end for most styles except for really bass-heavy styles like Hiphop/R&B or EDM. They are also not as sensitive to placement as the 8’s. Downside of the smaller woofers is that they start to choke when pushed, they don’t go very loud. But you could get a reasonable mix balance on these, provided you listen at moderate levels and have something else to check the lowest octave or so with.

I would not call either of them neutral sounding. They actually sound a little polished and they are somewhat short on detail. My biggest beef with them (more so with the 8’s than the 5’s) is that they are a little fatiguing, especially over prolonged periods of time and louder levels. The 5’s do not go that loud so this is not as much of a problem with them, but it is definitely a part of the series’ character.

I somehow wonder whether the RP6G2 would be the sweet spot of the series? The 8’s are too bassy, the 5’s are too light and don’t go loud enough…

But with all that said, I think they are as good as it gets at their respective price points. The obvious competitors are the Yamaha HS and M-Audio BX series. Between these series it is really just a matter of taste as they are all competent stuff for the money. I went with the KRK’s because they sound a little more hi-fi. The Yamahas have a more forward “monitor” sound but lack depth. the M-Audio BX8 sounds similar to the KRK RP8G2 whereas the BX5 is -oddly- closer to the Yamaha HS50.

If you are looking for something on a budget, they are all good choices, so check them out (preferably in your own room) and get whatever works best for you. I do recommend to upgrade to better (but pricier) speakers as soon as you can afford it, though. These speakers do the job, but none of them will give you enough detail.

edit (September 24, 2011):
Thanks all for the comments. I kind of want to backtrack on the “fatiguing” statement. It was definitely an issue for me on the 8’s, but I have used the 5’s on an almost daily basis over the last few weeks and it hasn’t been a problem.

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.

ROLAND FANTOM X7

REVIEW 1 (as posted on the Sonic State website on Tuesday-Oct-04-05 at 04:12)
I’ve owned and loved the Roland XP80 for 5 years, and the Fantom X7 for about two months now. Here are a few of my observations: * If you are a keyboardist and you play live a lot, leave the Fantom off your shopping list. It doesn’t have a numeric keypad, so you have to scroll through humongous sound lists to find the patch/performance you need.

But…they have the “favorite” function? Yeah, that works okay for patches, but in performance mode you still have to scroll (with the dial or inc/dec keys) to get to your favorite! Why Roland forgot to address this simply beggars belief.

But…they have the “livesettings” function? Yeah, great. Unfortunately, switching between settings happens with nearly 1 second delay, which is unacceptable when you have to switch within the same song. The XP80 did a much better job, was a more thought-through design. You can switch between performances seamlessly, it has faders for volume and assignable controls, rather than the rotary knob-design of the X7.

My take on the X7 is this: some of the sounds are really excellent, the MFX are definitely two steps up from the XP80. Its samples and DAC’s are a lot cleaner and tighter than the XP’s. But why on earth did Roland abandon its time-honored JV/XV policy of including all the previous soundbanks in this keyboard?

Moving from a JV1080 to a XV5080 was ideal, because you had all your old patches plus a lot of very cool new ones. I miss a lot of the XP80 sounds, and the FantomX7 does not always provide better alternatives. And then the acoustic pianos… I don’t care what they say about multi-megabyte piano-samples, the samples might be better than the XP80’s but the resulting patches are less engaging and inspiring to play. The ep’s, however, are a lot better.
In spite of all my grudges, as a workstation it plain rocks. The sequencer, audio-integration and big colour-screen put it ahead of anything else out there. If that’s what you’re looking for then you’ll find this one a very satisfying buy. Let’s hope that Roland will address the live-issues in a future OS-update. So far, I’d rather have my XP80 back for gigs, but I’ll give this a few more months before I make a final decision. Roland, updates please!

 
REVIEW 2 (as posted on the Sonic State website on Thursday-Oct-06-05 at 02:40)
In addition to my previous comments, I’d like to say this: The X7 sounds very good in the studio. But I have noticed that it depends on high-end sound reinforcement a lot more than the XP80 did. The XP80 would sound roughly the same on almost any type of speaker/PA. It didn’t have a lot of presence in the midrange, but this actually helped in most situations as that part of the spectrum is always already very cramped (vocals, drums guitars etc.) The Fantom has a lot more presence but that can be a blessing as well as a curse.

I did an outdoor event last weekend on a fairly huge PA and it sounded divine. However, the night before I did a club gig and although the speakers (Mackies 450) are considered good, I couldn’t get the Fantom to sound like anything but a herd of elephants with the flu. The XP80 was a lot more consistent in this respect. To be fair, I have experienced similar problems with a Motif and Triton, so I guess the XP80 is an exception rather than the norm.

A good thing is the ease of use in the programming department. I don’t really do programming, but editing existing patches is now a lot easier than boiling eggs for breakfast. Downside: to get a more consistent livesound: you NEED to edit the existing patches. And another gripe: Why does it take 90 seconds to boot up? That is not cool during a gig…. All in all, I feel that this keyboard was made for DJ’s/producers, and not for keyboardists. Right up to the presets, which cover a disproportional large amount of techno/dance sounds but fail to satisfy in the acoustic instrument emulations.

Playability is generally okay, but aftertouch response is nowhere near as good as the XP80’s (but then, no keyboard’s aftertouch is as good as the XP80’s). The $64,000 question is: Is the Fantom X7 a worthy successor to my XP80? For live: Nooooooo! And I suspect that this aspect of the keyboard can not be improved by OS updates, as it is the very windows-driven nature of the OS that makes it unsuitable. Workstation: Sure. I mean, GUI, 8-track audio-recording, sampling, up to 512MB of RAM…you do the math.

 

REVIEW 3 (as posted on the Sonic State website on Sunday-Jun-17-07 at 06:40)
In addition to the reviews I posted in 2005, I’d like to inform you more about what I have found out about this instrument in the last two years. As stated before, the piano sounds are tiny, which makes for an unsatisfying playing experience, but lets the sounds sit extremely well in a mix. You will hardly need any EQ or compression to make it fit, so to speak.

As a stand-alone workstation it really is awesome, but although it was nice of Roland to include USB, its implementation is clumsy at best. You have to switch between MIDI and data-transfer mode, which is manageable (although it does mean that you have to close and restart your DAW everytime you switch back to MIDI), but you also have to unplug and reconnect the bloody cable everytime you do.

Also, other manufacturers have added far more comprehensive interfacing with computer-based DAW’s, Roland’s USB port does midi and…well, you can transfer audio and data to and fro, but this temporarily turns off all other functionality of the Fantom. So far, to my knowledge Roland has not improved any of the live-functionality or addressed any of the issues I pointed out in my previous reviews.

So it’s still cumbersome to use live, but in spite of all these complaints, I have sort of learned to live with them, and now I really do appreciate the versatility and quality of the sounds on offer. I still prefer them over Yamaha’s Motif or Korg’s Triton, although the former wins on points for features and functionality and the latter scores on playability. But the Fantom’s rich and detailed sound characteristics give it an edge all of its own.

ROLAND XP 80

REVIEW 1( as posted on the Sonic State website on Sunday-Dec-16-01 at 20:31)
I bought the XP 80 after years of working in studio’s where the JV’s 1080 and 2080 ruled the mix. I basically bought it to have access to all the same sounds you hear on commercial records, neatly packed into one keyboard. As such, it works fine for the keyboardists playing in Top40 orchestras, since you’re likely to find whatever sound you need to emulate most of the hit records in the last 20 years or so.

If your looking for your typical rockguitar-and-drums-defeating artillery it may not suit your style/taste, as the XP’s overall character is more one of detailed clarity rather than power-by-the-pound. But mind you, in patch mode those distorded leadguitars and wahwahs sound simply awesome.

The XP really is all the JV 1080 sounds with the 2080 display, and a lot of very handily positioned performance controllers. I love the fact that the transpose keys are defaulted to octave-shift, a well though out function when you are using the keyboard in split mode, got it? There are two assignable sliders ride above the pitch/mod stick, which I haven’t used much but might be convenient if you need that type of control.

Must say though that their position next to the volume slider is a bit of a bummer. But brilliant in its simplicity is the effects on/off buttons. There are three, multiFX, Chorus and Reverb, and they can be switched on or off individually. Try switching the delay on and off while you are soloing, sweet.

I don’t really use the sequencer that much, since I mostly work with Cubase. But it’s handy when you come in the rehearsal room with the sequence of your new song in the XP’s diskdrive, just load it and play the darn thing. I do use the drive also to store performance settings. Saves me having to sys-ex all data into Cubase for every song. Nifty features like taptempo control with a pedal really turn this one into a very smart live sequencer, though -again- I haven’t really used that.

Operating all this wonderful stuff is easy for anyone who has at least had two hours on any other digital Roland synth. Although I prefer the sound of for example Ensoniq’s late MR 61, Korg’s Trinity/Triton or the new Kurzweil PC 2, in terms of value for money I think the XP is still a great offer even now, which is like four years after its introduction?

Potential Fantom or XV 88 customers, forget those and get a XP 60 or 80 instead. Use the rest of the money to buy either expansion boards (some of those really sound much better than the ROM-sounds), or another module or so. If the XP had had the pianosounds of the Session board, with Rhodes and Wurlys from ’60s and 70’s board and some more bass and drums I would rate this a hands-down-5-outta-5. As it is, 4-outta-5 is not bad for a synth that is four years old.

P.S.: if you want an XV 88 because of the hammer action, better buy Roland’s new RD 700 with an extra expansion board. Saves you money on a shitty D- Beam controller I’ve never seen anybody use, and thei figure you want good pianosound if you are going to buy a hammer-action keyboard. compare the XV88’s pianosound with that of the RD 700, it really isn’t fair.

REVIEW 2 (as posted on the Sonic State website onThursday-Oct-06-05 at 03:00)
I recently bought a Fantom X7 and I would now like to praise the XP80 even more. It’s one of those RARE keyboards where they accidentally get almost everything right. Because of the neutral sound it will probably never attain “classic” status, but it really is the best all-round keyboard ever made (and I have compared it to your Tritons, Motifs and Kurzweils).

As a workstation, the Fantom X7 is phenomenal (lots of RAM, audio-recording, sampling etc.), but as an instrument it doesn’t even come close. Fortunately, I still own the XP80 (though it’s on another continent) and I’m gonna buy a second one just in case… Let’s hope Roland will figure it out, and release an XP90 with the XV5080 sound engine, USB2.0 connectivity (and please make the implementation better than on the Fantom), plenty of user memory etc.