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Steinberg’s Absolute 5 Ticks All the Boxes

George Hess • March 2022Technology • March 18, 2022

Back in the hardware-only days of the 1980s, every great new keyboard synth came with an equally great price tag. Even when they started putting out rackmount versions for about half price, a fully-equipped studio required an investment beyond the reach of the average musician.

As computers became more powerful, software synthesizers appeared, which made it possible for anyone to have a high-quality collection of software instruments at a fraction of the cost of their hardware ancestors. 

At the forefront of the new technology was Steinberg, which developed the VST (virtual studio technology) format in the mid-’90s. Initially, for FX, they added an instrument format in 1999, and one of the strengths of their flagship DAW, Cubase, has been its excellent collection of instruments and FX. Over the years, many of these instruments have been beefed up and released as standalone products, but even then, you could still spend a princely sum if you bought them individually. 

Native Instruments led the way in making virtual instruments affordable with their Komplete collection, and Steinberg followed suit and released Absolute. Now, you could have an arsenal of keyboards, synths, drum machines, samplers, and sample libraries for well under $1,000. 

Version 5 of Absolute was released this past year, but this one seemed to slip under the radar, unlike some of their other products. That’s too bad because it’s a great product and value. The package includes 6 separate instruments and over 130 GB of content.

 Installation could be a little less cumbersome as you must first download the Steinberg Download Assistant app to download the software and content and then use Library Manager to install it in the location of your choice. Considering the size, you’ll want to have it on an external drive. (Warning: plan on the better part of a day to download and install the package.) As with most Steinberg products and e-Licenser dongle is required.

Front and Center
The collection’s premier instrument is HALion 6, which they call a sampler, but is much more than that.

HALion functions as a sample player at its most basic level, though when you load one of the instrument libraries, it, in essence, becomes that instrument. Each one has a unique graphical interface for setting parameters specific to the instrument, and the samples can also be edited using the global Halion controls and FX. 

HALion comes with 28 instrument libraries that include various synthesizers and modeled instruments, including pianos, organs, world instruments, percussion, and even a Mellotron-emulation. The sounds vary from pretty good to outstanding, though all are an improvement over the stock sounds included in most DAWs. 

There are two new HALion instruments in Absolute 5. Electric Bass fills a gap from previous versions. The Music Man, Jazz, and Precision bass samples are solid, and you can select various articulations, including a pretty convincing slap and pull. You can also set the player’s genre, such as country or jazz.

The Amped Elektra is a unique electric piano, with a sound unlike the standard Wurly or Rhodes found in most libraries. The three amp models and FX add to the distinctive sounds. 

Of course, HALion is also an excellent sampler, quickly taking recordings and turning them into usable samples. You can slice sounds and assign them to a wavetable, or map it to individual keys. And beyond that, you can warp it out in many ways. 

Presets can be layered using both samples and various types of synthesis engines, including granular and wavetable. On top of all this, you can create your own sample libraries with custom interfaces that can be distributed without an additional license. 

One thing I really like is that the program is multi-layered. While it’s incredibly deep, you can quickly learn to use it as a host for the instruments without the other features getting in the way. But when you are ready, you can go really dig in. 

Absolute also includes the HALion Sonic sample player for those who just want to play the instruments. However, as Sonic doesn’t support the graphic instrument interfaces, I found myself heading to the full version most of the time. 

A Different Drummer
HALion covers most of the instruments you’ll use, but there’s still a need for dedicated drum programs. I got my first look at Groove Agent when I reviewed the Jazz Essentials library a while back. It’s a solid drum program with excellent sounds, loops, and controls. It has all of the tools you’d expect from a pro-level drum program, and with multiple mics, built-in FX, and a mixer, it also serves as an excellent teaching tool, giving students a chance to work on their mixing techniques, too. 

Groove Agent uses pads to trigger sounds and loops, so there’s no need for a drum machine-type instrument, but electronic drums sounds are another story. Backbone starts with samples and provides four modules, ReSynth, Pitch, Filter, and Amp, to modify them. The results are reminiscent of the 808 kits but with more options. 

Sample This
My students know one of my pet peeves is sampled digital pianos, especially the ones included with DAWs. They just don’t capture the depth of sound and overtones and are pretty easily identified as fake. In that category, I’d have to include the two sampled pianos in HALion. So The Grand is a welcome addition to Absolute. It includes convincing samples of Yamaha, Bosendorfer, and Steinway grand pianos, as well as an upright and the Yamaha Electric Grand (my back hurts just writing that). There are detailed controls for resonance, pedals, velocity curves, and on-board convolution reverb.  It doesn’t quite measure up to expensive high-end sampled pianos, but it is leaps and bounds above what stock instruments provide. 

Padding the Bill
As the name implies, Padshop is for creating pads, and it’s one of the more interesting instruments I’ve used. At first glance, it looks like a basic sample player. But as you dig in, you find that it’s granular. It slices up sounds and then lets you manipulate and resequence them. I was really impressed with how easy it was to create unique, exciting pad sounds. 

Trim the Phat
Finally, no collection would be complete without a virtual analog synth and Absolute doesn’t disappoint. Retrologue’s three oscillators and resonant filters produce a classic phat analog sound that’s great for leads and synth basses. A new instrument collection, the Sounds of Soul, has been added that mimics the classic synth sounds of the ‘70s.

Bottom Line
This package covers all the bases. HALion works on so many levels. The drums and pianos are solid, and the synthesizers are impressive. The massive amount of content is a bonus, but you can also spend hours creating your own. 

Absolute 5 is available for Mac and Windows and supports VST, AU, and AAX format. As you would expect, it works best in Cubase. One welcome change was better support for Apple’s AU format, which Logic requires. Previous versions of Steinberg instruments included AU versions, but they were always balky, if they worked at all. Most of the instruments in this version are working fine in Logic on my M1 MacBook Air running Big Sur, though I could not get Backbone to load. 

So, is this appropriate for schools? I’d say yes. The days of a simple music tech lab with only a MIDI keyboard are over. While it may suffice for middle school, older students need access to more sophisticated sounds and equipment. For most programs, it isn’t practical to equip every station with high-end gear for recording and production, but you will want to set up at least a few of these stations. Absolute is a cost-effective way to provide virtual instruments of considerably higher quality than those included with any DAW. 

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