Sounds of voices and strings rise from the chilly shores of the Baltic.
“Estonians believe that in singing, we have power.” (Tõnu Kaljuste, founder of the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir.) For the Estonian people, the power is political as much as musical. In a massed vocal workout to end them all, 300,000 Estonians (nearly a quarter of the population) gathered at a national song festival in May 1988 to assert their right to independence, joining hands to sing patriotic songs which had been forbidden since the post‑war Soviet occupation. Faced with this non‑violent ‘Singing Revolution’, the Russian leadership eventually capitulated and formally recognised the independence of Estonia and the other Baltic states in 1991.
Orchestral Tools’ latest library aims to harness some of that vocal power, albeit with a slightly smaller line‑up. Recorded in the Republic of Estonia’s capital on the shores of the Baltic Sea, the eponymous Tallinn is a collaboration between the Berlin‑based sample company, Michael Pärt (son of renowned Estonian composer Arvo Pärt) and British composer Richard Harvey, erstwhile member of the 1970s crumhorn‑wielding Gryphon band — a positive multinational alliance to give hope in these insular Brexit times. To cut a long story short, Michael Pärt introduced Harvey to the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir for a recording project in the early 2000s, after which the impressed composer suggested to his OT friends that they should try to do a sample library with the choir.
So it came to be that an Orchestral Tools delegation fetched up in Tallinn just before heavy quarantine rules were imposed — a day later, and the project would have been scuppered. In a city almost completely empty of tourists, OT spent a week in the hallowed space of Niguliste Kirik (St Nicholas’ Church), spiritual home of EPCC and frequent recording location for Arvo Pärt’s music. Since the choir and the Tallinn Chamber Orchestra frequently perform together, it was decided to also sample the TCO’s string players.
OT boss Hendrik Schwarzer explains: “We try to deliver our collections as a complete ‘sound world’ idea. When the choir sings they have the strings up front, so it felt like a must‑have to deliver the chamber strings together with the choir. When we arrived at the church we thought, ‘why not do the organ as well?’ It’s an amazing organ with a lot of different colours and registers, used for many classical recordings.” The church’s second, smaller organ was also sampled — Schwarzer notes that both instruments were in perfect condition and that the medieval church’s long reverb tails ensure a sonic blend between the voices and instruments.
Tech Specs & Cash Flow
Tallinn runs exclusively on Orchestral Tools’ free Sine player — be sure to download the latest version, or you might encounter a bump in the road. Sine requires as a minimum Mac OS 10.13 or Windows 10 (Windows 7 is not officially supported), an i5 processor and 4GB of RAM, with 16GB of RAM recommended. The library is 43.3GB installed — not over‑large by modern standards, but if you have to rush out and buy a new hard drive to install it, do yourself a favour and make it an SSD type.
As mentioned in previous OT reviews, underneath Sine’s utilitarian shell lurks a cool purchase system which should gladden the hearts of cash‑strapped musicians. When you open the player it logs on to your OT account, where you can view the products you’ve purchased to date along with others that the company hopes you’ll buy. All Sine libraries can be bought one instrument at a time, so you can grab (say) the solo flute from Berlin Woodwinds Soloists, download Junkie XL Brass’ six‑player French horn section, or cherry pick one of Tallinn’s choirs, string sections or organs. This means you can avoid buying a whole collection merely in order to get one or two sounds you need. However, if you’re minded to buy many instruments from the same library, there comes a point where it’s cheaper to purchase the whole thing in one go.
Founded in 1981 by the aforementioned Tõnu Kaljuste, the mixed‑voice Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir has achieved multiple Grammy‑winning status and is now regarded as one of the world’s leading choirs. Its vocal sound differs from other European ensembles: choirmaster Lodewijk van der Ree describes it as combining “the full‑bodied, warm sound that you associate with Russian choirs and the agility and lightness of the Scandinavian choral sound.” To my ears, one of its chief attributes is the minimal use of vibrato, which makes the singers sound simultaneously more pure, grounded and approachable than their ‘trained’ operatic and classical counterparts.
Tallinn’s eight female alto and soprano singers span a collective range from F3 to C6. You can artificially extend these limits if you wish, though I wouldn’t recommend pushing the top note any higher! Bathed in a holy reverb, the women’s pure, translucent, perfectly tuned ‘oohs’ give way to a triumphant ‘aah’ when you push up the mod wheel, with an extraordinarily effective legato mode rendering note transitions superbly smooth, expressive and playable. The quiet meditative humming of the ‘mmh’ sustains also has an excellent legato patch which works well for meandering, ethereal high melodies.
We’ll draw a veil over the women’s ‘vibrato longs’, which sound forced and completely out of character with the rest of the library. The natural order is restored by the ‘dynamic longs’ patch, a great, subtle evolving vocal texture featuring a slow, hypnotic back and forth morphing between ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ vowel sounds. Overall, the softness and purity of the EPCC women’s voices is beautifully atmospheric and lends itself to a wide variety of musical styles, the most obvious application being TV and film music.
Tallinn’s eight‑piece male choir performs over a D2‑A4 range, thereby creating a considerable pitch overlap with their female colleagues. The men’s articulations match those of the women. A superb modwheel‑switchable ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ patch is distinguished by the tenors’ ineffably pure high register, which is completely devoid of any whiskery roughness. Described by Richard Harvey as the silkiest tenors he’d ever heard, these guys’ extraordinary voices sound super‑smooth and soaring, with more than a hint of liturgical reverence.
The men’s legato sustains patch can cope with anything you throw at it; while it easily keeps pace with fast lines and ornamental twiddles, it’s also great for solemn, contemplative melodies. Honey‑smooth and a pleasure to play, this artic is an inspiration for chordally minded composers like myself to think melodically. Thankfully, the male ‘vibrato longs’ are less over the top than the women’s version, sounding more like a standard classical/operatic delivery. ‘Wide longs’ features a sustained ‘eeh’ sound sung in octaves, while ‘dynamic longs’ complements the drifting, oceanic ebb and flow heard in the female choir’s rendition.
Though Tallinn includes no wordbuilding feature, both choirs perform looped sustains in a choice of 12 syllables: ‘Sta’, ‘Le’, ‘Mi’, ‘Fra’, ‘Ne’, ‘To’ (as in top), ‘Fo’ (ditto), ‘Nu’ (sounds like ‘no’), ‘So’, ‘Wa’, ‘Su’ and ‘Lu’. A more emphatic short‑ note set of syllables omits the ‘Ne’ ‘So’ ‘Wa’ and ‘Lu’ options, which shouldn’t be a show‑stopper. The syllables are mapped as round robins, so you can select the ones you want. Personally I’d be inclined to omit the sibilant sounds, which get obtrusive after a few repetitions.
Inevitably, the choirs also utter some vocal effects. ‘Random longs tonal’ consists of nonsensical burbling and whispering accompanied by a sustained unison note, while the atonal version (mapped to a single key) is more ambiguous: the women randomly chant what might be Estonian multiplication tables, while the men perform a sinister snake‑like hissing accompanied by a Babel of disembodied spirit voices. Push up the wheel, and you’ll hear a mutinous low‑pitched ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ muttering akin to that heard in the House of Lords after a Labour Government announces the imposition of a wealth tax. I haven’t yet thought of a musical use for this articulation.
Tallinn’s chamber choir and orchestra have travelled the world together, playing hundreds of concerts and developing their collective phrasing, a process described by their founder as musically ‘breathing together’. The TCO string players adopt the same minimalist approach favoured by the singers, using (in Michael Pärt’s words), “very little vibrato, just enough to add some depth”. This bypasses the histrionics of Hollywood action blockbuster film music and produces a light‑touch string sound more attuned to today’s thoughtful small‑screen dramas.
The violins have an unmistakable wintry atmosphere: when you play in octaves in the top register, their long notes seem to pierce the night sky with a cold, unwavering light.
The chamber strings sampled here consist of five violins, four violas, three cellos and two basses, sampled as four individual ensembles. Overall, the players’ lack of vibrato creates an austere, icy sheen, with expression mainly stemming from dynamic variation. A good example is the ‘dynamic waves’ artic, which mirrors the choirs’ evolving vowels in an endless, slow and undulating repeated cresc‑dim movement — a rather mesmerising effect, like watching the tide come in. The tremolo version of this style is dramatic and unsettling, a great tension‑builder which the cello players seem to relish.
Though Estonia enjoys warm summers, the violins have an unmistakable wintry atmosphere: when you play in octaves in the top register, their long notes seem to pierce the night sky with a cold, unwavering light. The four violas are effective for midrange chords and folksy, Scandi‑inflected hurdy‑gurdy‑like low fifths, while the minimal vibrato heard in the cellos’ louder deliveries adds a little warmth and expression which lends itself to melancholy chord voicings and solemn low notes. Despite their lack of numbers the bass players sound positively massive, supporting the ensemble with their profound, rumbling bottom octave.
Performance variants include soft sustains whose expressive slow crescendo works well for creating a mood of hopeful expectancy, with the cellos again taking top marks. Unaccountably played by violas and cellos only, the ‘fragile longs sul tasto’ artic is somewhat unassuming, any potential lushness lost due to the small section sizes. All the sections have a usable and technically solid legato patch which lacks the flamboyant portamento glides used in romantic string playing — subtlety and restraint are the order of the day. As Mr Kaljuste puts it, “minimum is maximum”.
The pleasant‑sounding ‘single bows expressive’ (medium‑length notes incorporating a slight volume swell) is arguably the strings’ most emotive style, while the violin players can’t resist upstaging the rest of the band by throwing in a cheeky little crescendo swell on their short portato ‘carrying notes’. Though played vigorously (particularly by the basses), the staccato samples are not a substitute for the modern cinematic spiccato style, which requires a much faster bowing action. Using the mod wheel on the well‑played tremolo patches creates massive scary crescendos, but for more delicate soundscapes there’s a unique portato flageolet (harmonics) delivery, an interesting artic which can be used to denote an element of surprise.
Restored to glory after the devastating bombing raids of World War II, the historic St Nicholas’ Church houses two excellent pipe organs, both kept in tip‑top condition for their regular recital and recording duties. The larger of the two instruments was built in 1981 and has 4711 pipes, four manuals, a set of pedals and 63 stops, numbers to strike fear into the hearts of any sample recordist. I dread to think how many hard drives were used for sampling this thing. In 2012 the church acquired a smaller chancel (aka ‘choir’) organ with two manuals, pedals and 17 stops, a less intimidating sampling job which the producers nevertheless approached with equal diligence.
Orchestral Tools sampled various single and combination stops of both instruments. Each organ has three patch types: the first combines manuals and pedals in one playable instrument with a range break at C2, the second contains the manuals only and the third holds the pedal samples. The latter two are useful if you want to set manuals and pedals to different MIDI channels, but strangely they’re only available when you buy the full collection, which seems to go against the grain of OT’s modular purchase approach. (See box below for a description of selected organ patches.)
As with all OT libraries, Tallinn’s samples were recorded from multiple mic positions — to be precise, seven for the choirs, six for the strings, four for the main organ and three for the choir organ. All instruments feature close spot mics, an A/B miking for added warmth and ambience and a distant surround position; the choirs and strings also offer two Decca Tree options along with some alternative A/B mics. Mic positions can be individually downloaded after you buy an instrument, and you can subsequently delete any you don’t need.
While the majority of today’s orchestral libraries go for a big, dramatic sound propelled by battering drums, this intriguing collection distinguishes itself by dispensing with percussion and concentrating on a more subtle underscoring approach. As today’s TV dramas move into more subtle psychological realms, Tallinn’s minimal, restrained approach seems to offer the ideal accompaniment, and its pure, distinctive Nordic tones and textures are sure to find favour with composers, producers and songwriters.
Tallinn Organ Stops
Pipe organ stops are so called because when pushed in they stop their dedicated rank of pipes from sounding — pulling them out opens up air flow to the pipes when a key or pedal is pressed, hence the expression ‘pull out all the stops’. Large pipe organs have thousands of pipes chiefly differentiated by ‘speaking length’, measured figuratively in feet — the nominal 8’ pipes sound at written pitch, 4’ pipes sound an octave higher, a 16’ pipe sounds an octave lower, and so on. There are also ‘mutation’ stops such as the 2 2/3’, which sounds an octave and a fifth above the written pitch.
Orchestral Tools sampled a total of 37 single and combination stops from the instruments’ manuals and pedals. Below are some of my favourites:
Main Organ — Manual
- Bordun 16’ + Querflöte 4’ + Quinte 1 2/3’
A good all‑purpose, cheerful yet reverent tone, perfect for keeping the congregation’s spirits up as they nervously wonder whether the bride’s going to turn up.
- Sifflöte 1’
An ultra‑high‑pitched, ethereal 1’ stop.
- Waldflöte 2’ + Nachthorn 2’
A magical high‑pitched wooden flute stop with a fairy tale atmosphere.
- Tutti 1
An imposing organ tone given a silvery high metallic edge by 1’ pipes, ideal for full‑bodied chords and quicksilver runs.
- Volles Werk
The most grandiose stop in the library, a stupendous full organ blast fit to greet one’s arrival at the Pearly Gates.
Main Organ — Pedal
- Bombarde 16’ + Subbass 16’ Pedal
Low notes reminiscent of the Close Encounters mother ship’s glass‑shattering blasts.
- Volles Werk Pedal
A seriously massive pedal stop to use in conjunction with the manual version. A real Judgement Day sonority — hard to follow!
Choir Organ — Manual
- Mixtur 4x 1/3’
A bright and appealing timbre given an exotic other‑worldly quality by its built‑in fifths.
- Spitzflöte 4’
The quintessential innocent‑sounding, child‑like wooden flute stop.
A handsome full organ preset, less apocalyptic than the main organ but better suited to song accompaniment.
Choir Organ — Pedal
- Tutti pedal
As with the main organ, a big bass sound to be used in conjunction with the companion manual stop.
Language In Our Lungs
Older readers will remember the time when British pop singers began to shed fake American accents and deliver songs in their native pronunciation. Once the Beatles’ Scouse‑inflected vocals had conquered the world, other strong regional flavours emerged, making it easy to hear that the Proclaimers are a Scottish band and that Billy Bragg hails from Barking rather than Memphis. In Britain the trend eventually culminated in Irish, Welsh and even Cornish speakers writing songs in their own language — check out ‘Ffordd Hir ‘Nol’ (‘Long Way Back’) by Welsh band Gogz — you might not be able to join in with the chorus, but you can be sure the singer isn’t using an imported vocal idiom to get his message across.
Choir master Tõnu Kaljuste has this to say: “The world’s professional choirs sometimes sound very similar, but choirs immediately start to sound different when they sing in their own language. Old Runic songs sung in Estonian have a particular sound, but if you translate them into Latin, for example, it sounds like (German composer) Carl Orff. In vocal music, language is a very important part of the composition.”
This point was clearly not lost on politician John Redwood, whose formidable rendition of the Welsh national anthem is still talked about in hushed tones in the Rhondda valleys. Lumbered with the new post of Welsh Secretary in 1993, the MP confronted the issue head on at a party conference by delivering the anthem in a language entirely of his own devising while simultaneously doing a terrific impression of a ventriloquist. A noteworthy performance by this seasoned campaigner, and a reminder that language need not be a barrier to self‑expression.
- An original and subtle sample collection recorded in a hallowed church acoustic.
- The choirs sing beautifully and the strings provide a perfect restrained accompaniment.
- Contains two excellent pipe organs recorded in the same space.
- Multiple mic positions offering a choice of perspectives are ideal for surround mixes.
- No proper manual.
There are plenty of sample libraries catering to the brash, in‑your‑face sonorities of action movies. Tallinn takes a different tack, exploring the delicate and minimal sound world of Estonian chamber choirs and strings along with two top‑class pipe organs, all of which can be bought separately.
Full library €478.80, individual instruments from €57.60. Prices include VAT.
Full library €399, individual instruments from €48.