A chance meeting with a leading choral composer sparked a major new Spitfire library.
It's a well established pattern that large orchestral sample companies, having dished up the traditional four courses of strings, brass, woodwind and percussion, eventually get around to serving dessert in the shape of a choir library. Spitfire Audio's users have been banging their forks on the table and demanding such a thing for years, and their wish was finally granted when the company announced its new choral offering in October 2018.
The library didn't follow the path most would have predicted — in fact, it came about as a result of a random encounter. Spitfire's Christian Henson was working in a studio complex in North West London when "a striking looking American chap" dropped by to check out the facilities. Introduced as "someone who does a lot of choral compositions", the visitor then disappeared into the studio of Henson's colleague Paul Thomson a few doors away and exchanged pleasantries before taking his leave. Minutes later, it simultaneously occurred to the two gobsmacked Englishmen that the dashing American was none other than Eric Whitacre, a world-famous choral composer whose work both held in the highest esteem. A flurry of emails ensued, laying the foundation for what was to become a fruitful and enjoyable collaboration.
Spitfire's Eric Whitacre Choir (EWC for short) features 22 singers handpicked from the award-winning Eric Whitacre Singers, a globetrotting professional choir who, as luck would have it, are conveniently based in the UK. Under the direction of their US maestro, the singers' performances were captured from multiple mic positions in AIR Studios' Lyndhurst Hall, Spitfire's home from home and recording location for most of the company's projects.
This library doesn't run on Kontakt: it's housed in a new plug-in format designed with the assistance of "design and user experience agency" UsTwo, creators of the Escher-inspired Monument Valley video game. The samples work only with this new sound engine, which comprises two plug-ins: the EW Choir version, and the more elaborate EW Choir Evo Grid, which offers comprehensive control of the singers' evolving performances (more on which later). Both are included when you buy the library.
Though Spitfire confusingly refer to them as "stand-alone plug-ins", they need to run inside a host program such as Logic X, Cubase or Pro Tools, and will not operate in stand-alone mode on your desktop. Unsurprisingly, this is a large collection — its 88,550 samples, compressed down from their original 279.1GB size, constitute a 164.6GB download. Those left languishing with a slow broadband connection may therefore be tempted to order the library on hard drive, which entails extra cost.
Word‑building facilities are conspicuous by their absence in this library. Unless you count 'na na na' and evolving sounds such as 'mmm hyah', there are no phrases or phonemes, and there's a conspicuous lack of the liturgical Latin chants which became a fixture in sampled choirs after Eric Persing of Spectrasonics unleashed them in Symphony Of Voices many years ago. The decision to omit a word‑building feature was driven by Mr Whitacre, who felt that the synthetic, disconnected nature of separate vowels and consonants would dilute the purity and organic flow of his singers' voices.
Before getting bogged down in technical details, I'd like give you an idea what this sampled choir sounds like. Eric Whitacre's compositional background holds the key: the smooth, rich and luscious texture of his choral music has no doubt contributed greatly to its success, but a less immediately obvious attribute is his use of harmony, which often introduces clashing tone or semitone intervals and clusters. The effect of such dissonances resolving to a straight major or minor chord is pleasing, but requires highly accurate tuning — as the composer himself writes in one of his scores: "If the tight harmonies are carefully tuned and balanced they will shimmer and glow."
Happily, EWC measures up on both counts: its smooth, sleek, lush texture ticks the 'high-class ear candy' box, while the samples are solidly and beautifully in tune throughout — I've yet to hear one bad or wobbly note — so even when the singers perform a semitone clash, the effect is agreeably musical. All the long notes are looped; according to the maestro, the choir employed the 'staggered breathing' technique wherein some singers pause for a breath while others continue the note, which accounts for the ultra-smooth, 'endless note' quality of their looped sustains.
EWC follows a conventional SATB structure. The four sections' ranges overlap to a considerable degree, creating great opportunities for layering. Much of the library is dedicated to tutti performances featuring the whole choir singing together; these are perfectly balanced across the entire range, and feature seamless transitions between the female altos and male tenors. This superior blending reflects the fact that the singers have extensive experience of working together; many of them are close friends of the choirmaster, and the personal bond is evident in the warmth and musical focus of their deliveries.
I'm not a fan of operatic vocal vibrato, so was pleased to find the default singing style here is plain and natural. This stylistic neutrality makes the choir equally suitable for symphonic arrangements and pop BV's, but if you're a fan of the big, wobbly vibrato, you can hear it at work in the 'Nonvib to vib' evolution style. The main vowel sounds ('aah', 'ooh', 'oh' and 'mmm') have a monophonic legato option which works in the standard way: overlap two consecutive notes of anything up to an octave apart, and you'll hear a smooth, natural slide from the first note to the second. I found the legatos highly playable for melody lines at slow to medium tempos. They also sound equally smooth and will speak quickly in fast passages, though as with all ensemble legatos, the effect sounds less natural at higher speeds.
Another style of note is the rhythmic 'Na na na', a repeated-note delivery in the Steve Reich vein. This locks to your host tempo and is nicely synchronised across all sections. However, the rhythmic 'lah', 'nah' and 'dee' repetitions, though very effective, are not tempo-sync'ed. The effects section contains some usable atmospheric material, but is a little skimpy. The EW Choir plug-in gives access to all the performance styles, and you can take your pick from single patches like 'Sopranos Long Aah', or presets such as 'All In One' or 'All Aah', which group together multiple styles.
I should point out two restrictions: pitch-bend is currently only implemented in the legato patches, and it's currently not possible to layer different sections (say, sopranos and altos) within a single plug-in — that requires a second instance. Spitfire say they're working on new features which will enable more user customisation of presets, and point out that you can already layer multiple techniques within a preset by shift-clicking on the ones you fancy.
The Evo Grid is an ingenious creative feature which has been in Spitfire's locker for years. A solitaire-style 'peg board' enables you to assign an evolving sound to any or all of nine pitch zones across the keyboard. There are 51 rows available for different evo styles, each with its own volume and pan controls — you can randomise the evo selection within different regions of the grid and alter single elements at will. Seeing a little coloured light come on when you insert a peg is strangely gratifying, and creates the impression that you're doing something technically clever without actually uttering a note of music.
For ease of navigation, the evos are divided into six categories: simple, dynamic, episodic, clashes, rhythmic and special, each assigned its own colour code. All of these styles feature long notes which continue indefinitely for as long as you hold down a key. I found the evolutions to be subtle, intriguing and original, and most importantly, highly enjoyable to play.
My favourite evo styles (and there are many) include 'Aah eh aah' and 'Ooh aah ooh', both beautifully lush, floaty, moving-vowel sounds. I also relished the other-worldly, tranquil humming of 'Breathy mmms', and the amazing, slow shifting back-and-forth movements of 'Mmm aah mmm'. While these lovely vocal textures work supremely well for quiet chord pads, they can also belt it out when you push up the mod wheel and access the louder dynamics — none more so than the fortissimo 'Aah full out', a powerful, extra-loud long-note delivery geared for a massive, triumphal Hallelujah choir effect.
The evo dynamic swells are no mere crescendos: they slowly rise to a peak, gently subside then repeat in a hypnotic, slow oceanic movement. Described by Spitfire as "the sound of a single vowel combined with short bursts of another", the 'episodic' evos are unique — the collective burbling of 'Mmm hyah' has a ruminative flavour, as if the choir members were quietly muttering among themselves about what dishes to order from the local Indian takeaway. Having decided, they celebrate with the amazing 'Ooh nah' delivery, which sounds fabulous when played with big, wide-voiced chords.
'Clashes' capture the composer's trademark close harmonies with minor second (semitone) and major second (tone) intervals, both sung in a choice of static or evolving styles. I found that playing the semitone and tone intervals at the same time creates some enthralling harmonic mayhem. Static minor third, major third, fourth and fifth intervals are also included, with the latter two getting the evo treatment — though those intervals are hardly clashes, they do produce some mad-sounding chords if irresponsibly layered as detailed above.
If you want some real dissonance, I recommend the beautifully soft and spooky 'Microtonal shift'. On the darker side, 'Cloud grace aah' oscillates between the root note and a minor second, evoking ghostly female lamentations, and 'Microtonal cluster aah' ticks the horror film box by starting off in unison and then gradually drifting randomly up and down in pitch. Hold on, what's that noise in the attic?
The evos are topped off by 'special' performances, highlights of which include 'Breathy ooh' (an ethereal blend of tone and pure breath), the other‑worldly 'Harmonic' (a tremendous, unique, slow and intriguing vowel evolution) and the mesmerising shifting textures of 'Cyclical'. Great, inspirational stuff.
As mentioned, the visual aspect of the EWC plug-in was handled by design agency UsTwo, who say of themselves, "ustwo [sic] is constantly challenging the definition of what it means to be a digital product studio". Sounds exciting, perhaps they're thinking of reopening as a Laundromat or golf shop? Joking apart, these guys have come up with a pair of elegant, tasty-looking, resizable GUIs. Much as I appreciate the uncluttered look, the minimalist aesthetic goes a bit too far for my taste — I'd rather see words on screen than meaningless symbols. And while the '50 Shades Of Light Grey' colour scheme is tasteful, the lack of contrast is occasionally an issue: it's a pain to have to squint to see whether something you clicked on has actually changed colour (though to be fair, my eyesight isn't the best).
In the EW Choir plug-in, eight patches are visible on screen at one time, and you can right click on an arrow to access additional techniques. The Technique Switcher allows automated patch selection via a moveable block of keyswitches, or if you prefer you can change patch via MIDI CC, velocity switching or playing speed. Each patch can also be assigned its own MIDI channel, while retaining a global MIDI channel for the whole preset.
An ostentatiously large knob defaults to a reverb control, so you can add extra ethereal wash to the grand echo of AIR Studios' great hall. Additional delay and tape saturation effects are provided in the EW Evo Grid plug-in, which also has a mixer and ADSR facilities. On-screen filters allow you to reduce the large patch list to a manageable selection, and edited patches can be saved as user presets within the plug-in. There's also a play button to preview each sound, very handy when getting to grips with the huge patch list!
I'm glad to see Spitfire have given users all the available mic positions for this library. Their former policy of selling extra mic positions in expansion packs was, frankly, a pain in the backside. In addition to the various individual mic positions are three useful stereo mixes by Jake Jackson. While the tuttis represent a perfect blend of the four sections, Spitfire have thoughtfully supplied separate mics for the sopranos, alto, tenors and basses within the overall tutti mix, so you can adjust the volume or solo a group of voices if you wish. Of course, since the tutti samples were performed live by the whole choir, spill from other sections is evident when you do this.
Eric Whitacre's Midas touch continues with this stunning collection. It doesn't attempt to cover the same territory as other choir libraries — there are no word‑building facilities, and a distinct lack of pre-recorded Latin phrases to spin into your budget horror film soundtrack (quite a relief for me, I hated my school Latin lessons!). Instead, Eric Whitacre Choir concentrates on core musical values: a world-class choir singing in a top studio with beautiful, pure tone, spot-on tuning and precisely co-ordinated dynamics, recorded by a highly capable and musically aware sampling team. Mr Whitacre personally conducted every sample in this majestic collection, and he has every reason to be proud of the results.
Large self-contained SATB choir libraries with multiple mic positions include East West/Quantum Leap's Hollywood Choirs and Symphonic Choirs, Cinesamples Voxos 2, 8Dio's Silka Choir, Insolidus Choir, Lacrimosa Epic Choir and Requiem Professional (the latter formerly Tonehammer), Fluffy Audio's Dominus Choir and Virharmonik's Voices Of Prague. Though on the small side (2.1GB), Performance Samples' Oceania has been well received, and if you're happy to work with a single mic position, Vienna Symphonic Library's Vienna Choir is of a high standard. Not all these titles offer four separate sections or real-life tutti, so check the company websites for details! This list excludes unisex and children's choirs.
A few words on the choir master. Blessed with film-star good looks, a charismatic stage presence and a happy knack of writing music which combines harmonic flair with easy-on-the-ear popular appeal, Eric Whitacre (not to be confused with Scots home organ guru Eric McWhirter) is a marketing man's dream. Born in Nevada in 1970, he wrote his first choral composition in 1990, graduated from the Juilliard School of Music as Master Of Music in 1997 and went on to receive international acclaim for his symphonic work. The golden touch continued through a successful recording career which saw Light & Gold, his first album as composer and conductor, top the US and UK classical album charts and win the 2012 Grammy Award for Best Choral Recording.
Along the way, our man launched the ground-breaking Virtual Choir online project, set up his own record label, received numerous prestigious commissions, delivered stirring keynote speeches to large global organisations and collaborated with industry heavyweights such as Hans Zimmer and Annie Lennox. On top of all that, he seems like a nice, modest guy... Doncha just hate him?
- This top-drawer choir sounds beautiful in the sumptuous Lyndhurst Hall acoustic.
- Accurate tuning and precise deliveries guarantee pleasing musical results.
- Some of the evolving long-note performances are stunning.
- The Evo Grid is a fun creative tool.
- No word‑building facilities.
Sampled choirs don't come any lusher than this. Featuring 22 vocalists from the Grammy-winning Eric Whitacre Singers, it was recorded under Whitacre's supervision from multiple mic positions in AIR Studios Lyndhurst Hall. The choir's strong suit is its smooth, luxuriant pad-friendly texture, enhanced by a large collection of superb evolving long-note styles. The performances are exemplary, the sound is spectacular and the tuning is superb. There are no phrases or word‑building facilities, but the raw emotional power of its grand, moving and symphonic sound will transform a score into a thing of majesty.