Taking the idea of 'found sounds' to another level, Soniccouture's Geosonics plunders the natural world for its most unnatural sounds.
I first I heard the sounds of this new Kontakt instrument on a BBC Radio 4 documentary, surprisingly enough. My ears pricked up at the eerie tones captured from incredibly long stretches of fencing wire that criss-cross Australia. These remarkable recordings were made by Chris Watson, a founder member of influential Sheffield band Cabaret Voltaire and for many years now a leading BBC natural history sound recordist. As luck would have it, the documentary also caught the attention of Soniccouture and became the catalyst for Geosonics, a Kontakt instrument featuring these and many other extreme location recordings from Chris.
Transforming ambient atmospherics such as wire, crashing ice, chirping frogs and wailing winds into playable musical instruments must have been a formidable challenge, but based on my experience with Soniccouture's Konkrete 3 earlier in the year, I was keen to hear how it panned out. I only had to contain myself a little while longer until the download (of just under 6GB) completed and I'd performed the usual Kontakt library authorisation.
Geosonics is divided into five instruments: Wires, Ice & Water, Swamp, Wind and Original Recordings. The exotic artifacts of Original Recordings could either inspire your own patches or act as aural treats to be unleashed when the lust for wide open spaces grows too strong. The other four instruments have been carefully supplemented by more traditional sampled material, such as choirs, synths, flutes and so on. The whole lot was then handed over to accomplished sound designers including Ian Boddy, Biomechanoid and our very own Martin Walker.
The interface is open and welcoming, its backdrop prettied-up with location shots to set the scene. Each instrument consists of two pitched components (the 'traditional sampled material' referred to above), plus one natural recording spread across the keyboard, complete with a reference to its triggering key. This provides a useful extra dimension as, by switching off Focus, you are presented with a whole keyboard's worth of possible alternatives, each key offering a different slice of the current ambience. Hours can drift by as you try them all, but assuming you hear one you prefer, it is slotted into the patch effortlessly by re-enabling Focus.
It's equally easy to substitute the pitched samples by the more common method of selecting them from a pull-down list. After that, you've got a familiar set of modifiers at your disposal for each of the available sources. For fine tonal control of the rumbles and whooshes, there's a low-pass and a high-pass filter, plus two envelopes and two LFOs. Jammer, an arpeggiator, is present too, and has more than the average set of randomisation options, including randomisation of timing, velocity and notes.
Not surprisingly, it's the raw recordings that put Geosonics in a class apart and, thanks to their supreme quality, the extremes of transposition (±36 semitones) yield even more unusual landscapes. Helpfully, the playback start point can be adjusted, which is just what you need to pluck sonic gems from long, varied recordings, although perhaps the control could offer finer resolution. The natural sounds are presented in glorious stereo, but you can narrow this down with a twist of the Width control if you prefer something more intimate.
There are no hidden programming depths, but if you'd rather throw a dice than tweak envelopes and filters, the Mutate option will be popular: it randomises the current patch. It's a fairly subtle process, unless you hold down Shift before taking the option, in which case the randomisation is greater and the results more extreme.
With such spacious material to sift through, you could forgive Soniccouture if they'd skimped on the effects, but they haven't. There are two bus effects, each well-stocked with delay, phaser, chorus, compressor and more, plus an independent send level to the convolution reverb. The reverb is accompanied by a wide selection of impulses from Soniccouture's own library of spaces, along with fresh impulses from the same bewildering range of far-flung places. Perhaps for the first time ever, you can hear the sounds of a frog chorus that inexplicably finds itself amongst deep water shrimp or inside a glacier.
The first instrument fallssquarely in the 'interesting but odd' category. These were the recordings that started it all: sounds of fencing wire in the Outback, or, more poetically put: "like guitar strings strung across the landscape and played by wind and rain”. Here's my short selection of favourite patches to give you a flavour.
Pink: imagine a cavernous cathedral with a distant organ set against a dark backdrop. Metallic hits take over the higher registers, and if you turn off Focus, a selection of alternate twangs and crashes become available.
Oh The Effing Drama: great patch name! I'm hearing a wounded PPG synth crawling into a vast, deserted iron foundry to die. This is exactly the sort of otherworldly magic that should be filling the spaces in Doctor Who, instead of all those syrupy strings!
Toward Clarity: even without the natural backdrop this is an effective, reverberant 'sonar blip' patch. The atonal wire recordings add the impression of an alien space that could unsettle any TV or film drama.
Siren Call: a perfect blend of pitched and unpitched components. It's a strange mixture that's gong-like one moment, a wailing wind the next.
With just under 100 factory patches to show off its wares, Wire is packed with weird, absorbing and frequently unwholesome atmospherics. I love it!
The next instrument recalls the wide expanses of the North Pole, Iceland and other bleak arctic places. In it you'll hear battling shrimps, hydrophone recordings from within glaciers and the uncanny crackle of water as it freezes. On working my way through the 90 factory patches, the studio temperature seemed to drop tangibly.
Distant Horn: consists of filtered woodwind and a choir dipped in icy slush gathered from some of the planet's least 18-30-friendly resorts. It's the ideal patch with which to announce you are going outside and may be some time.
Free Dive: a shimmering, almost orchestral pad peppered with metallic tones and the whistle of a resonant filter wailing at you across a desolate sea.
Lifeforms: recordings from under the ice add a percussive edge to this gradually shifting pad.
Lonely Shore: the mournful cry of a flute lost in the lapping waves. Instant soundtrack material.
This collection is smaller and less immediately usable than the others, but I challenge anyone not to fall in love with its joyous assembly of frogs! Admittedly, some patches are frog-free, but where's the fun in that?
Cave Dwellers: a distant synth teams up with very vocal marsh frogs that growl and chirp for all they're worth.
Jammer Percussion: a manic sequence with a group of micro-frogs trying to get a word in edgeways. If you turn off the Jammer function and remove the two pitched components, those versatile frogs become an effective, hard-edged percussion ensemble.
Vapourizer: a breathy organ accompanied by the plaintive cries of banjo frogs. Those guys scream like no amphibian I've ever heard, and I've hung around a pond or two in my time.
Swamp Electronische: Focus is set to off in this one, so it's basically oodles of tree frogs acting like possessed wind chimes.
The Wind collection is probably the most versatile of all, combining atmospheric desert or polar winds with selected choirs and woodwinds. The standard is high and here is just a small selection from my personal highlights:
Dance Of The Winds: an almost conventional patch setting sine waves and choirs amongst a rustling, rattling wind.
Desert Pulse: this is ideal 'tension bed' material formed from a distorted sawtooth wave and a wind that's almost a drone.
Dune Glimmer: the natural component roughly resembles a wave sequence from a Waldorf synth. It's a remarkable sound that, at times, hints at garbled speech.
Flying Low: imagine an electric piano accompanied by a demented robot and you're halfway there. Complex yet playable.
Lonely Planet: a sublime, breathy, phasey pad complete with a lush wind backdrop. After playing this, see if you're ever satisfied with plain white noise through a filter again!
Swarm: Psychotic bees swirl angrily around the railings at an abandoned air base. Could be useful anywhere you need to scare someone's pants off.
These final patches are based exclusively on the original recordings and are quite liberating as blank canvases. As long as 'select by MIDI' is ticked, tweaking them couldn't be easier. Press a note to audition the different sections of the recorded ambience, then transpose, filter and edit the envelopes and effects to taste. If you yearn towards the conventional, click on Focus in order to set any individual key as the backdrop. You can then select regular pitched components as before and build something from scratch. However, Geosonics isn't really about the conventional, as you've probably gathered.
Due to the complex, immersive nature of the recordings that form the bedrock of these instruments, it's easier to hold a note and sit back in wonder than it is to slip them seamlessly into your latest tune. Fortunately, the sound designers have tamed at least some of them and, aided and abetted by a worthy selection of 'normal' samples, have created a large collection of patches you'll want to discover uses for. Admittedly some are practically a soundtrack by themselves, but the interface is pretty straightforward so modifying them isn't hard.
At its best Geosonics adds atmosphere, ambience and a feeling of space that at times encroaches on orchestral grandeur. Unashamedly 'out there', for subtle pads, evocative textures, shifting harmonics and unfathomable sound design, there's really nothing that compares. If you sometimes dream of losing yourself in bleak locations but aren't keen on frostbite, or if you are generally enthused by swamps but have no affinity for biting insects, Geosonics provides a sonic adventure you can enjoy safely any time. I sincerely (and selfishly) hope that it marks the first in a series of collaborations.
- Mac: OS 10.6 or higher (latest update), Intel Core Duo.
- PC: XP, Vista, Windows 7 or 8 (latest Service Pack, 32-/64-bit).
- Stand-alone or plug-in (Audio Units, ASIO, Core Audio, WASAPI, RTAS (Pro Tools 8 or higher).
- Requires Kontakt 5 or the free Kontakt Player.