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Steinberg HALion | Behind-the-Scenes Developer Interview

Synth Morph halion

Please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your role in the "Steinberg Virtual Instrument Team", if I can speak it so?
My name is Michael Ruf and I am the project and team lead of what we call the "HALion Team", which is in fact the team that is responsible for most of the Steinberg instrument plug-ins. Besides my managing tasks I am also designing the user interfaces for the instrument plug-ins and expansion libraries.
Thanks to our Steinberg UI framework and, recently, the addition of the HALion Macro Pages Designer, I am also able to build a lot of UIs, independent from our programmers which is a big plus for our teamwork, since I can concentrate on design and workflow while the programmers can do some serious stuff.
Steinberg used to start the software sampler revolution with the release of HALion in 2001, overtaking the first version of Kontakt (2002). Three years later, introducing the HALion 3 (2004), this software instrument became a solid and relatively feature rich sampler platform. However, after this point the development and the future of the HALion family became uncertain for years. What was the cause of this outage?
Since I joined Steinberg only in 2007, I cannot really tell you much about the development before that time, but when we set up the new HALion team in 2007, we were completely aware that the existing code basis had evolved over quite a long time and had come to a point where it was rather difficult to keep up with new technologies like the transition to 64-bit computing. So, the decision was made to develop the whole HALion engine from the ground up, allowing us to create a really modern, modular and flexible engine as the foundation for our future instrument line.
I remember reading a promising forum post around 2009 announcing the successor of HALion 3. Signs clearly indicated that this new thing called "HALion 4" will be the start of something completely new from Steinberg. Could you please tell a bit more first about the birth of the new development team dedicated for making top VST instruments?
You know, several members of the HALion team look back on a common history before Steinberg. Four colleagues and I already worked together since the mid-nineties for different companies like Creamware, Wizoo and Digidesign. And in 2007 we got the chance to join Steinberg and to build up the new HALion team.
So, when we started to design the new HALion 4 platform we could bring in years of experience with complex hardware and software systems and create a fresh and modern software engine for virtual instruments. Of course, we knew that this development would take some time to make it right and therefore, we were very happy to get the chance to release The Grand 3 as a first instrument using HALion 4 technology already in 2009. I think HALion Sonic was the next big step in 2010 and then finally we had HALion 4 ready to be revealed to the world. That was a big moment for us.
Regarding the size of the team we also saw a continuous evolution over the years and today the team consists of 15 people.
Dwelling on HALion 4 a bit more, what challenges did you face during the making of the HALion 4 concepts, transforming the original "software sampler" idea into a complex "sound creation system"?
Of course, the whole development was quite complex, but as I said, we already had worked on pretty complex projects before and knew what was important for us and of course our users. Nevertheless, we had to overcome some challenges like the design and implementation of the configurable user interface or the development of all the new synthesis features like oscillators and filters, effects, etc. Another important point was that we also needed to maintain compatibility with HALion 3 but without having to make unwanted compromises regarding flexibility or quality of the new engine.
I especially like certain parts of the Synth zone generators, like the extreme screaming sound of the cross-modulation oscillator setups or the quality of unison algorithms available at multiple levels in the HALion architecture. Similarly, the granular and now the wave-table implementation does not leave much to be desired. What do you focus on during the sound generation research process when implementing a new type of synthesis?
I think, in an open system like HALion 6, emulating classic synths 1:1 doesn’t make much sense.
When we designed the Synth zone our main goal was to cover the full range of subtractive synthesis without compromising the sound. With the Granular zone our focus was to make this type of synthesis intuitively useable. For the Wavetable zone and editor our goal was to not only offer high-quality playback, but also easy creation of wavetables. Since technological innovation can be the source of new creativity, we certainly do this with the musician in mind.
Can you benefit directly from the instrument maker know-how of your parent company, the legendary Yamaha?
Of course, it's a good thing to be part of the big Yamaha family and there is a constant technology exchange between Steinberg and Yamaha. During the HALion 4 development we also had several touching points from which we could benefit; especially their contribution regarding the development of the initial HALion sample library was a big plus for us.
The flexible user interface of HALion handles the complex workflow in a very manageable way, with the ability to spread modules all over the screen and being visible all at the same time, or in a different scenario, just focusing on the single module we are working with. Such an inviting, sharp and clear user interface, at this level of customization must have been a challenging task from both programming and design point of view. However, some customers are eagerly waiting for some user-interface improvements like the overhaul of the HALion modulation system with more visible feedback. Can you comment on this?
Thank you for the nice words about the UI. It always is a big challenge to manage complex systems and there is no one-and-only way to present all information for every imaginable workflow. So, we needed to find a way to modularize the UI, to make it configurable and to allow to create different screen sets for different workflows. Luckily, we could draw from our large experience with music software, but we also looked at various development platforms which have to deal with a comparable complexity. It was also very helpful to see how software from other domains, like 3D applications, structured their UIs. Once we had the general concept ready, we were able to add editor by editor for the various components and modules and create a consistent UI experience.
Regarding possible UI improvements, I can only say that we are continuously trying to improve workflows where we can. And we have two main sources of motivation for that. First and foremost, we are listening to our customers and development partners and want to make their life easier, so that they can concentrate on the creative part of making sound and music with our software. Second, we are often our own customer when we build expansion libraries or even plug-ins based on the HALion engine. When we are doing this, we completely change the sides from software manufacturer to software users, and if we find that certain steps are too complicated or too time-consuming we address these issues with a next release. Improvements on the modulation system are, of course, part of our plan for the future, but at this point I cannot tell you in which release exactly this will happen.
Is there anyone in or very close to the development team who are using HALion for composition and sound design on a daily basis, giving you instant feedback on what to improve?  
Yes, of course. We are constantly communicating with our users and especially heavy users and well-known artists, like Paul Haslinger, are a great source for improvements and further developments. We also have a growing network of sound designers who are not only working on the sound but are also giving feedback on the workflows. So, we have a good balance in the development that relies on user surveys, our own input and the input from professionals who are using HALion on a daily basis.
In this situation how is it like to decide between user feature requests and staying true to your original vision of HALion?
Well, our vision is influenced by our customers because we’ve been listening to them since we started with the development. But in the end, I think, it is also our job to surprise our users with new features they would have never thought about. We are trying to keep the balance between both parts and the software architecture of HALion is clear and flexible enough to ensure that. This helps to add new features and structures while preserving the consistency and clarity of the big picture. So, in general, I would say that there is no conflict between user feature requests and our vision. Most of the time it's rather the question of having too many ideas and requests and to find out which one to include in the next version of the software.
What was the biggest challenge in making the current flagship, HALion 6?
From the start, HALion was meant to not only be an instrument but also a development system for sound libraries in which you could create really convincing and complex sample and synthesis-based instruments. That was already the case with the initial HALion 4 release. But with HALion 4 and 5, users couldn't individualize their creations with a unique user interface and there was no easy way to create self-contained libraries and to distribute them.
So, we needed to re-think the whole process of creating such libraries in a way that everybody can understand. This meant that we needed to add a complete GUI development system, so that users could create their GUI, what we refer to as "Macro Page", just the way they create their programs. This alone was an application in the application and quite challenging, especially since we wanted to make it as easy to use as only possible, with drag-and-drop capability and real-time editing.
The next big challenge was to add the Lua scripting engine, which would allow users to create MIDI modules, customize their workflows, enhance their Macro Page and so on. This was also quite a large and complex part of the HALion 6 project.
Then we had to build a Library Creator, which allows you to build your instrument library as one (or multiple) VST Sound container(s), including everything from samples to graphics, presets, scripts and so on. There again, we were aiming for a user-friendly system, where it should be possible to define what needs to be included in the container, simply by adding the final presets. The Library Creator will then run through all the presets and evaluate what’s needed, collect it and put in the container.
Finally, I want to mention the new wavetable synthesis which introduced new workflows and unprecedented sound creation possibilities, but also required a lot of groundwork and new concepts.
I think, I could go on for a while, talking about other areas where we put in a lot of efforts to make HALion 6 the most complete sound creation system, but let’s stop here…
Okay, could you then envision what the future may bring for the HALion platform?
As previously described, our vision was to make HALion "the" development platform when it comes to instrument and library creation. So, we are going to release lots of new libraries and synthesizers, developed by users and commercial companies. In general, I think the whole system is so convincing in terms of library creation and quality that we will be able to motivate more and more partners to join HALion.
And since everybody in the world can freely download HALion Sonic SE to run these libraries, and use them on any PC or Mac either in a VST 2 (PC), VST 3, AU (Mac) or AAX environment, there are really no more barriers to bring your instrument creations to life. Besides that, we are working on some pretty cool new ideas. Some of them will already be part of a bigger maintenance update this summer. There is a lot under way and checking out the latest version is definitely worthwhile.

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