Ever fancied arranging 'Oops, I Did It Again' for a full choir? Well now you can, courtesy of Symphonic Choirs, the latest virtual-instrument sample library from East West and Quantum Leap.
While the sample world seems to be overflowing with quality orchestral libraries, the same is not true for the obvious complement to the orchestra — the choir. Admittedly, choral music is a somewhat more specialised genre but, for film and media composers in particular, the use of choral parts is a common requirement. Way back in 1997, Spectrasonics' five-disc Akai/Emu Symphony of Voices library set the standard for sampled choral sounds. It fully deserves its 'classic' status and can still be regularly heard in film and TV music.
Of course, sample technology has moved on considerably since that time, and competing products have subsequently appeared. One of these is Quantum Leap's Voices Of The Apocalypse, a four-disc Gigasampler library that got a five-star Sample Shop review from Mark Wherry back in October 2002. Again, VOTA has proved a popular library, and it also included one unique feature — the ability to 'build' words from the comprehensive sample set that consists of every consonant and vowel sound for both the male and female choirs.
Despite being capable of some excellent results, one of the criticisms levelled at VOTA was that the word-building process was rather clunky in operation. QL's new release, produced in collaboration with East West, is Symphonic Choirs, and, as well as being the largest choral library currently available (nine DVD-ROM disks containing over 38 Gigabytes of sample data), it comes with a dedicated application for turning text into sung phrases, the appropriately named Word Builder. This application has been written by Nuno Fonseca, who also developed the word-building utility for VOTA. As with other major releases from East West/Quantum Leap in recent months, Symphonic Choirs is available for both Mac and PC using Native Instrument's Kompakt as the playback front-end. So, providing you are not a member of a professional choir, is Symphonic Choirs a good thing?
The Symphonic Choirs package consists of three elements: NI's Kompakt, the extensive sample library and the Word Builder application. There is little to say about the first of these that hasn't already been covered in SOS. Just as it was when supplied with Colossus and RA, which I looked at in recent issues of SOS, Kompakt is a cut-down version of NI's flagship Kontakt software sampler, and the Symphonic Choirs samples set can only be used with the dedicated version supplied here, or the full version of one of NI's software samplers. It's worth mentioning that you need a DVD drive for the installation, plus of course that slim-and-trim 38GB of hard disk space to put the library in. In terms of host computer specification, East West recommend that you own a minimum 3GHz Pentium III or Athlon-based PC running Windows XP, or a 1.8GHz Mac G5 running OS 10.2.6 or later, with a minimum of 2GB of RAM on either platform.
The sample library itself can also be divided into three components; a series of Kontakt Multis for each of the five choir sections (Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass and Boys), individual Kompakt Instruments for the same five sections and Kompakt Instruments for three soloists (Soprano, Alto and Boy Soprano). In principle, the two sets of individual Instrument Programs are similar to more typical choir-based sample libraries in that they offer various performance combinations including vowel sounds, consonant sounds, vibrato, staccato and a selection of special effects such as whispers, falls and shouts. Many of the Programs include velocity and mod wheel control of the sound for extra expressive options, while the three soloists all have key-switched performance articulations available within their Programs, as you can see from the screenshot at the head of this article, which shows a soloist Program loaded. The blue keys contain the samples, while the brown keys select the key-switched performance articulations.
The section Multis really come into play with third element of the overall package, Word Builder. This sits between the normal MIDI data input (the melody of the line to be sung) and the Kompakt Multi. Each of the special Multis is arranged across five MIDI channels and contains a combination of the vowel and consonant samples. Given the user-specified phrase, Word Builder then splits the MIDI input across the five channels of the Kompakt Multi to sequence the various vowel and consonant sounds together to create the required phrase. As made very clear in both the advertising and documentation for Symphonic Choirs, it is worth noting that Word Builder can only be used with these specially designed Multis. The individual Instrument Programs — both of the choir sections and the soloists — cannot be used with Word Builder.
As with the previous Symphonic Orchestra library, Professor Keith O Johnson supervised the recording process for Symphonic Choirs, using the same concert hall and recording arrangements employed for the orchestral library. All the recordings were made at 24-bit resolution using three mic positions. The 'C' (close) mic position reproduces the sound heard when standing directly in front of the singers, while the 'F' (full) position represents the sound from the very front of the stage and consequently contains more of the concert hall's natural reverberation. Finally, the 'S' (surround) mic position represents the sound at the back of the hall (the manual suggests the front row of the balcony) and therefore contains the full acoustics of the hall. Each Multi and Instrument is therefore provided in three versions.
This approach to the recordings provides three obvious advantages to the user. First, the output from the different mic positions can be used control the degree of ambience, either by using a particular mic position or by blending them as required. Second, output from the different mic positions might be used to create a surround sound mix — and this clearly has applications in a film music context. Third, with both having been recorded by the same team, in the same concert hall and using the same microphone configuration, blending the sounds of Symphonic Choirs with Symphonic Orchestra ought to produce a very coherent mix.
After I'd made some sandwiches and poured myself a stiff drink or two, installation of Symphonic Choirs proceeded without any problems on my test system — although given its size, it did proceed for quite some time! Registration of the Kompakt front-end involves a quick visit to the NI web site, but is painless enough. As with other Kompakt-based instruments reviewed recently in SOS, Symphonic Choirs is provided in all the common plug-in formats for both Mac and PC and as a stand-alone application.
Word Builder is installed separately and is also available as a plug-in and a stand-alone application. However, the plug-in formats for Word Builder are VST-MA (Module Architecture, supported by Cubase and Nuendo from v2 upwards on PC and Mac) and MFX, for use with Sonar 4 under Windows XP. The implication is that users of other sequencers will, at present, need to use the stand-alone version of Word Builder (above).
While the potential star of the Symphonic Choirs show is the combination of Word Builder and the section Multis, the various Instrument Programs are also worthy of comment. In short, if you do need just some pad-like 'aahs', 'oohs' or 'mmms', then Symphonic Choirs is more than up to the task. For each of the four adult choir sections, individual Instruments are available for eight vowel-based sounds and 15 consonant based-sounds. These Instruments feature dynamic crossfading (changing the character of the sound) and four key-switched articulation options (normal, legato, staccato and slurred/sliding). The Instruments for the Boys section differ slightly, in that the vowel sounds only include two key-switched attacks; normal and legato — but in other respects they are the same as the adult sections.
A small number of 'effects' Programs are also included for each section with performances such as unpitched whispered words, evolving vowels, slides, shouts and falls. Slightly fewer options are provided for the Boys section. In addition, four 'Full Chorus Church' Instruments — provided in just the 'S' mic position — are also provided. These are all based on vowel sounds and include mod wheel control over vibrato depth. While they do not offer the detailed control of working with the individual sections, these single Instruments are excellent for a quick mock-ups or situations where you need a simple background choral 'wash'.
Individual Kompakt Instruments are also provided for three soloists. Individual Instruments are provided for each of the Soprano, Alto and Boy soloists and each features a number of key-switches to control the syllable being sung and the style of the singing. These mainly feature vowel sounds sung with non-vibrato, vibrato, slur and other expressive options. The Boy soloist also features random Latin syllables and these could easily be strung together to construct a mock (or genuine!) Latin phrase. For convenience, the final element for each of the soloists is a pre-configured '5.1' Multi consisting of the 'C', 'F' and 'S' mic positions and ready for use in a surround configuration.
While experimenting with these various component Programs I was, without exception, impressed by the quality of the sound. The sections are very full sounding and, when combining them to form a full Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass ('SATB') chorus, the results were extremely good. The contrast between the three mic positions is both obvious and useful. The 'C' position is very much 'in your face' and would be ideal if you wished to apply your own reverb. The 'F' positions have noticeably more ambience but are still very clear. As a result, I found myself starting with these versions before blending in either a little of the 'C' or 'S' sound as required. In contrast, the 'S' versions sound very lush and warm, and are extremely effective for constructing choral pads.
Interestingly, no Tenor or Bass soloists are provided. The manual suggests that this is because these solo voices rarely appear in film scores. I don't think this is a major omission by any means, but it does reveal who East West have in mind as the potential purchasers of Symphonic Choirs. My only other comment would be that, compared to Spectrasonics' Symphony Of Voices, the palette of Symphonic Choirs is somewhat less diverse — there are no Gregorian chants, for example. Without doubt, though, the advances in sampling technology mean that Symphonic Choirs is putting the most impressive sampled choir sounds currently available into the hands of composers — even before we consider the potential of Word Builder...
The most intriguing elements of Symphonic Choirs are Word Builder and the special Multis designed to work with it. The application interface uses the same styling as Kompakt. The Voice section has slight differences between the stand-alone and plug-in versions; in the former, the MIDI In/Out options can be set in this section, while both versions include useful MIDI connector icons that blink to indicate MIDI activity. In the plug-in version, though, because Word Builder is placed as an Insert within a MIDI track, the MIDI in/out routings are set within the host sequencer. The Type setting specifies the type of choral section to which this instance of Word Builder is connected, and this needs to match the type of Multi loaded in Kompakt.
The phrase to be sung is entered in the Text Editor. This can be entered in standard English, Phonetics or Votox, a phonetic alphabet created specifically to work with Word Builder. East West recommend that regular users get to grips with it as, once mastered, it allegedly provides more precise control over pronunciation of words. Usefully, Word Builder includes a 100,000-word dictionary and can convert between the various formats. Using one of the phonetic alphabets, Latin phrases also seem to work fine — although if your Latin is a little rusty, see the 'Lessons in Latin' box on the right for some inspiration.
The section that requires the most head scratching (initially, at least) is the Time Editor (the lower right section in the screen below). When a phrase is first entered, each syllable is allocated a certain default time length and these are displayed within the Time Editor for the selected word. Syllable lengths are not allocated in an arbitrary fashion; consonants are generally short, while vowels have longer sustains as would be the case for a real singer. By default, each word within the phrase is triggered by a single MIDI note (or chord) although, as described below, this behaviour can be changed. However, it is also worth noting that some syllables (which are triggered by the MIDI note off event) are only sung after the 'off' position on the time line. Therefore, to avoid the Program starting a new word before finishing the previous one, it is useful to leave a gap between the MIDI notes that trigger consecutive words.
The default syllable lengths assigned in the Time Editor can be adjusted by dragging the coloured bars. Syllables can be overlapped; this creates a fade and is useful for smoothing out the pronunciation of certain words. However, in most cases, users will want the tempo of the sung phrase to be controlled by a sequence of MIDI notes. It is here that the Learn button (shown on the previous page) comes into play. This function allows Word Builder to learn the timing and length of each MIDI note within a phrase (either played via a MIDI keyboard or from a sequencer track) and to then adjust the lengths of the syllables within each word to match. On the whole, this works well enough but, for all but the most simple of phrases, I still found some minor manual editing was required to make the pronunciation clearer.
Further phrase tweaking is possible in the Letter dialogue box (above), which allows the attack type and relative velocity of each syllable to be adjusted. Again, this can be useful for adding clarity to the pronunciation or to add emphasis to particular syllables within a sung phrase — although volume swells are probably more easily added via MIDI continuous controller #11 (Expression).
While it is difficult to resist getting Word Builder to conjure a selection of common expletives from the Symphonic Choirs Boys section, once this novelty has worn off, Latin phrases can still be good fun for scaring elderly relatives or small children. If, like me, your Latin is not so hot, you might want to check out this link, which was posted by a user on the East West forums: www.yuni.com/library/latin.html.
This includes a huge list of short Latin phrases with English translations and, as well as the religious examples such as 'Agnus Dei' (Lamb of God) or 'Sanctum Sanctorum' (the holy of holies) there are also some classic one-liners. I can't vouch for the accuracy of the translations provided, but particular favourites of mine are 'Sane ego te vocavi. Forsitan capedictum tuum desit' ('I did call. Maybe your answering machine is broken') and 'Suntne vacci laeti?' ('Are your cows happy?') but there are countless others.
Currently, the Word Builder plug-in only functions with Cubase, Nuendo or Sonar. Users of other sequencers will need to work with the stand-alone version. This has the same functionality, but is perhaps a touch more fiddly to set up, as it involves using a MIDI loopback connection of some sort. Fortunately, this configuration is described quite clearly within the documentation and on the East West web site. I did most of my own testing using the VST-MA plug-in via Cubase SX v3.1, and both Kompakt and Word Builder behaved 'as advertised'. I did, however, experiment with the stand-alone version too, and had no problems getting Word Builder to talk to Kompakt via a MIDI loopback utility.
In use, one or two aspects of Word Builder are a little quirky. For example, in Cubase, key commands have to be disabled in order to type text into the Word Builder Text Editor — regular key command users will find this a bit irritating. A second oddity was the 'Hold Syllable On' function. This allows a MIDI controller to be assigned to enable a sung word to be held over several MIDI notes, effectively stretching the word over a melodic phrase. I could not make this function work under SX and, having searched the East West on-line forums, it seems that one or two other SX users have reported the same behaviour. However, the same forums produced a usable work-around. As it is usually a vowel sound that would be sung in this fashion, the vowel can simply be repeated as a separate word within the Text Editor for each note in the melody. Presumably East West and Quantum Leap will be working on these sorts of issues for an update to Word Builder.
Two other practical aspects are worth mentioning. First, each instance of Word Builder can hold only a single phrase. A separate MIDI track, each with an instance of Word Builder is therefore required for each phrase. These can, of course, all be routed to the same instance of Kompakt so, for example, the phrases to be sung by the Tenor section only require a single instance of Kompakt to be available.
Second, and perhaps more significantly, in order to use Word Builder with a full 'SATB' choir, four instances of Kompakt would need to be run, each with a suitable Multi loaded. By choosing the 'lightest' of the Multis (based on the 'C' mic position and with fewer velocity or key-switched layers), I was able to work quite happily on my test system, but attempting the same with some of the more expressive Multis soon generated 'memory low' messages. While the 'track freeze' options within SX provide a suitable work-around, professional composers using Word Builder and Symphonic Choirs on a regular basis would probably wish to follow the advice given in the printed manual — use a very well-specified machine or spread the workload across multiple computers.
All this said, the combination of Word Builder and Symphonic Choirs is capable of some truly remarkable results. Is Word Builder perfect? No, it is not — it does take some time to learn how to use it and, even with experience, some manual tweaking of pronunciations and phrasing is required to add a sense of 'life' to a part. However, a useful comparison here is with Yamaha's Vocaloid (reviewed back in the March and December 2004 issues of SOS). While Vocaloid is also capable of amazing results, crafting an entire solo lead vocal is a major undertaking. With Symphonic Choirs, the task is less daunting, as the very nature of a choral performance makes the absolute clarity of the diction less critical. As a result, obtaining convincing results from Word Builder and Symphonic Choirs requires much less effort on behalf of the user, and I could imagine experienced users soon learning to make fairly light work of individual phrases.
Symphonic Choirs takes the 'virtual' choir to a new level. The sound quality of the sample library is simply magnificent; these sounds would add class to any musical production. Word Builder is both remarkable in its conception and fun to experiment with — but it can also be frustrating to the new user, so go in with your eyes open and, expect to invest some time, at least initially. I hope East West have the energy and resources to keep developing the potential of Word Builder, and I'm sure suggestions from users will provide useful input to this process.
I can see this library appealing to hobbyist, educational and professional markets, although the two former groups ought to heed East West's recommendations about the need for a high-end system in order to keep the work-flow efficient. However, as film and TV music budgets are nearly always tight, Symphonic Choirs is undoubtedly going to be a solution that many a media composer will turn to. In that context, it is most certainly worth the asking price, and the computer resources required to get the most out of it are unlikely to be a major concern. As with East West's recent world and ethnic instrument library, Ra, I think you can expect to hear Symphonic Choirs coming to a film score near you soon. Highly recommended!