Sonokinetic’s Tutti Vox is a choral sample library, but it’s not like other choral sample libraries...
Chanting, swelling and ahh-ing choirs are up there with some of the greatest Hollywood soundtrack excesses, and it’s easy to understand why. They’re an immediately evocative musical texture; opulent or spiritual one minute, menacing and portentous the next. Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana arguably set the standard for really muscular, dramatic writing. But works like Ligeti’s ‘Lux Aeterna’ with its microtonal clusters, used so effectively in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, have also become important models for composers writing for horror and sci-fi films.
Sonokinetic’s Tutti Vox is a sample library that takes some cues from these works, and for the most part mines a dark, cinematic choral vein. It’s for Native Instruments Kontakt 5.1 (and higher) and runs on the free Kontakt Player too. It comes in versions assembled from 16- and 24-bit samples that are otherwise identical, and occupy roughly 19GB and 25GB respectively. You can install both if you’ve got disk space to burn.
Tutti Vox, then, actually presents as three distinct Kontakt instruments called Core, Lingua and Spoken.
Spoken is the simplest. It maps a little lexicon of vowels plus about 50 one-, two-, three- and four-syllable words and phrases to MIDI keys C1 to C6. Playing one of those keys triggers the vowel or word in a straightforward one-shot fashion, but with Kontakt’s behind-the-scenes time-stretching sync’ing the natural speech rhythm, without pitch change, to your DAW’s sequence tempo.
As the name suggests, nothing in Spoken is pitched — ‘ominous chant’ is nearer the mark, and the effect is heightened by the wet acoustic, with a good two-second reverb tail, that’s permanently stamped into the samples. But there is a good deal of flexibility. The orange and red boxes in Spoken’s interface (which is less complicated than it looks) can be clicked to toggle ladies’ and gents’ voices on and off for each syllabic grouping. The same can be done on the fly with keyswitches too, though bizarrely only a gentle key press will mute, and only a strong one unmute. Male and Female voices can be separately panned, dynamic response adjusted smoothly between key velocity and mod wheel position, and the pitch-bend wheel temporarily adjusts playback speed up to about 25 percent above or below the DAW sequence tempo.
Now’s a good time also to mention the four mic positions on offer: Close, Decca (tree), Wide and Far. They offer steadily decreasing direct to reverberant sound balance, and while Close and Decca are probably what you’d choose to feature Tutti Vox in the mix, the more distant ones are a real asset in constructing a big stereo image, slotting in your choir behind a virtual orchestra library, say. Apparently Sonokinetic used the same recording venue for Tutti Vox as for some of their orchestral libraries, so if you’re using any of those it should be easy to achieve a good coherent result. There’s no mechanism for mixing the separate mic feeds incidentally, though there’d be nothing (other than CPU considerations) to stop you running and driving multiple instances of Tutti Vox in parallel, and mixing them in your DAW.
The next instrument, Core, will probably be the main event for many composers and producers. It also offers pre-recorded, tempo-sync’ed samples, but many are pitched and much longer in duration. The emphasis here is on spooky special effects — rises, falls, glisses, weird murmurs, Berio-inspired aleatoric chattering and whispers — which Sonokinetic group together as Glissandi & Clusters, Vocal Effects, Beds Atonal and Beds Tonal. The Kontakt interface displays fabulously helpful little graphic-score and word prompts, along with the MIDI key that’ll trigger them, so you can be up and humming instantly.
If the default provision of 13 vocalisation types seems a bit sparse, clicking on any of the coloured boxes will greatly reassure you. Graphical pop-up menus appear, for the most part tabbed, letting you quickly audition and load hundreds of alternative vocal effects, and to some extent set up the key mapping as you want it. The really great thing here is that many non-looped phrases come in perfectly timed two-, four- and eight-bar tempo-sync’ed variants, so they’re really easy to use and align in a sequence (assuming you’re writing in a 4/4 time signature). As well as the glisses and clusters, there are one-shot or looping vowels and breaths, both male and female shouts, and (for the full spine-tingling effect) 20 whispered words and phrases.
Tutti Vox’s so-called beds are typically long samples or loops and they’ve been programmed such that if you build up a whole chord’s-worth of them slowly, note by note, playback position stays sync’ed across all the notes — very useful. Also, while a single ‘Beds Tonal’ sample is always present, the other 12 slots are completely user-configurable. So if you want 12 clusters, or 12 whispers, or any other combination, it’s doable. You have control over attack speed too, because in Core it’s mapped to the pitch-bend wheel: down for crisper, up for longer.
Some of the straight clusters and aleatoric phrases are gloriously freaky, and Tutti Vox lets you mangle them further via a built-in effects panel. It includes a flexible filter (offering low-, band- and high-pass characteristics in parallel), a three-band EQ, convolution reverb with seven deliberately unnatural impulses, and a stereo delay. By default all the sample slots feed the effects section, but click the little cog icon and each slot is overlaid with configuration controls including a button, ‘FX’, that removes the slot from the effects feed. There’s also per-slot volume and pan, and a way to control the time-stretch behaviour, with ITM (Intelligent Tempo Mapping) letting Tutti Vox itself make the best of any extreme DAW playback tempos, or manual overrides for half, normal and double-speed playback. Another button will (when appropriate) display the musical score the singers worked from in the session, and ‘P’ purges the slot of its sample, silencing it and freeing up a bit of memory.
There’s one more ‘under the hood’ view too, brought up with a little ‘dot’ icon. This overlays many more dots on the sample slots themselves, and they denote the current state of the Tutti Vox’s round-robin sample allocation. It’s not just for show either; you can enable or disable playback of individual round-robin alternatives by clicking on them, so you can skip any you don’t like, set up rhythmic pairs, or force a single sample to be used repeatedly for a deliberately artificial effect.
Finally, we come to Lingua, the least intuitive of the Tutti Vox instruments to learn initially, but potentially the most impressive.
Essentially, we’re back to words and syllables again, some of which we saw in Spoken, but here they’re pitched, and there’s potentially a sequenced element too. Without going into the tedious detail of it, a Quick Play mode lets you load any word or phrase from the always-visible Word Book into one of four word-pattern sequencers. Only one of those can be active at one time, selected either with keyswitches (with corresponding glitch-free transitions), or with the mouse. Tutti Vox will then ‘sing’ the sequences when you play in the pitched part of the key range. Words advance sequentially in response to a non-legato playing style, or you can select them random-access style with more keyswitches. It’s just as easy to construct long eight-slot phrases, single-slot looping vowels (the closest Tutti Vox gets to a conventional choir library), or little syllable pairs or groups that cycle round and round. Despite the fact that there’s no heavyweight scripting here to try and smooth syllable or pitch transitions, the effect can be amazingly effective, and once you get the hang of the interface it’s really quick to set up.
All four choir sections (which can also be individually panned) can be flexibly deployed across the key range, in layouts that include normal SATB pitch allocation as well as big octave or unison stacks. That’s true also of Advanced mode, but here each choir section gets its own longer, four-bar word pattern that advances rhythmically. There’s potential for exciting complexity here, with independent phrases in different choir sections, sung phrases over sustained vowels, and much more.
As you’ve probably gathered, Tutti Vox is far from a ‘normal’ choral library. In fact it’s downright quirky, both in the evocative musical material it offers, and the rather unique user interfaces Sonokinetic has cooked up for it in Kontakt.
It has what must be the most extensive offering of choral special effects of any product out there, offered in a way that’s really easy to incorporate into a sequence. As for sung words, it’s not as flexible as some other instruments (see the Alternatives box). You’re stuck with the selection Sonokinetic have provided, and the idea of forming others from individual syllables is clearly not part of the design brief. But the ratio of impressiveness-to-programming-effort, so to speak, is fabulous. All three instruments are easily mastered, helped by outstandingly clear instructional videos and a good user manual, and they deliver results fast.
Downsides? Well, I came across a few... With all phrases having been recorded at only one original tempo, 110 bpm, some can sound pretty weird, and not always in a good way, when Kontakt tries to time-stretch them to DAW tempi lower than about 70 bpm. CPU-spikes and glitches occurred for me when using more than a few notes of polyphony in Lingua’s Advanced mode, as that makes for a hell of a lot of simultaneous time-stretching. Reckon on bouncing down those parts in a big arrangement, or be prepared to use large DAW buffer sizes. There are minor sample-session cock-ups in the Spoken instrument, with at least one round-robin of the ‘OH’, ‘EH’, ‘EE’, and ‘NN’ syllables presented with little environment noises, and ‘HM’ having a full-on too-many-pies squeaky chair moment. ‘SS’ and ‘ZZ’ aren’t quite right either — some non-sibilant vocalisations have crept in. I don’t much care for the horizontal slider indicators in the Kontakt interface, because at extreme settings they almost disappear into the black background. I wish Lingua’s Advanced Mode sequence lengths weren’t fixed at four 4/4 bars, to sometimes work better with shorter patterns or other time signatures.
But despite all that, I liked Tutti Vox a lot. The choir that has been sampled is top notch, of an ideal size and scale, covering everything from ethereal to evil. Check out some of Sonokinetic’s web site audio previews to see what I mean. Performance, consistency and reliability of the Kontakt instruments was good across the board. Everything loads within a couple of seconds from a solid-state drive. And above all, this is a tool that is quickly learnt, invites experimentation and, in the cut and thrust of hard work, gives good-sounding results in no time at all.
8Dio’s (formerly Tonehammer’s) Liberis and Requiem, not to mention Cinesamples’ Voxos 2, include non-standard ‘extended technique’ vocalisations and quite flexible syllabic phrase construction. Also, well-established tools like EWQL’s Symphonic Choirs boast a word-builder feature that let them sing pretty much anything you care to program. These products are much better ‘straight’ choirs as well, but arguably come with a longer learning curve.
A good proportion of Tutti Vox’s word provision is drawn from a Latin/Christian tradition. So all the old favourites, including ‘Christe’, ‘Sancti’, ‘Mortem Tua’ and ‘Salvatoris’, are very much in evidence, ready for uses seraphic or sinister.
Most other words and phrases have no direct religious connotations, despite sounding as though they might. ‘Spitu Nama’, ‘Kupu Skumu’ and others are apparently just verbal nonsense, albeit rhythmic and vibey, that’d go down a treat in some sort of Indiana Jones-inspired temple scene. A few have Scandinavian, East European or even Maori undertones. For example, ‘Raskas’ is (according to Google Translate) Finnish for ‘heavy’, and ‘Stalu’ is a creature from Serbian folk-tales that likes to eat humans... But otherwise there seem to be no other specific language borrowings.
- A broad offering of tone clusters, glissandi, evolving beds, spoken and whispered words, and sung chants.
- Fine-sounding source choir with a good balance between sheer scale and agility.
- Highly informative, easily-learned Kontakt interfaces.
- Fast sample loading and reliable performance, utilising Kontakt’s Time Machine Pro.
- Only preset words rather than an open-ended ‘word builder’ feature.
- Some aspects of the user interfaces not always immediately intuitive.
- Not a fully featured ‘normal’ choir (though many pitched, looped vowels are offered).
With its very direct, accessible presentation of many thousands of samples, Tutti Vox delivers all manner of extraordinary choral effects with the minimum of fuss and effort.