The Bulgarian choir specialists go epic with a trilogy of choir libraries.
Strezov Sampling’s back story is a familiar one: a bunch of full-time composers and arrangers, battling with the usual impossible workloads and cruel deadlines imposed by their hard-hearted employers, create their own easy-to-use sampling tools which produce great-sounding results without requiring hours of programming. In a win-win situation, the sample collections are subsequently spiffed up and made available to the wider musical community, to the general satisfaction of all.
Founded by orchestral composer George Strezov, the company’s debut release was Storm Choir 1 in December 2012. A stream of orchestral and choir sample libraries followed, including a 20-piece chamber string ensemble, a large pizzicato strings group, solo strings, brass and woodwind ensembles, grand pianos, and percussion collections containing taikos, timpani, low toms and bass drums.
While the company’s instrument titles have been well received, the Sofia-based company have scored particularly highly with their choirs. Building on the success of Storm Choir, Strezov’s sampling team created a choral trilogy — Wotan Male Choir, Freyja Female Choir and Arva Children’s Choir — each of which we’ll examine here.
Originally released in the dying days of 2015 and updated a year or so later, Wotan features separate sections of 10 tenor and 10 bass singers recorded at the Sofia Session Studio, a capacious, hall-like space with a high ceiling optimised for recording large orchestras and choirs. The inspiration for the library was the powerful low voices heard in ‘The Bridge Of Khazad-dûm’ song from The Fellowship Of The Ring, the first part of the 2001-2003 Lord Of The Rings epic film trilogy. The singers enter at 1:05, creating (in Strezov’s words) a “powerful male choir sound that gives you the chills.”
Looking to achieve a generally more stirring sonority than that of the mixed-voice chamber Storm Choir series, Strezov hired a larger, all-male line-up of basso profondos, baritones, high tenors and dramatic low tenors. This masculine troupe delivers its performances with panache, with the profondo guys living up to their name by stretching down to an unfeasibly low contrabass G1. Pitched in the orchestra’s bottom octave, this subterranean, guttural vibration has little pure musical value, but as well as being a candidate for the Guiness Book Of Records and a first in a sample library, it’s a useable vocal effect with combined horror-film and comedy potential.
Wotan presents its basses and tenors separately and also in a combined, cunningly-named ‘Men’ patch with a split point of F4, creating a collective three and a half octaves span (see the ‘Contents & Ranges’ box for more details). In a nod to those working with less powerful systems, ‘lite’ versions of the patches are provided. The choir sings eight different syllables (more on which below) at three dynamics in a choice of sustain and staccato styles, as well as bellowing them in a deafening fortissimo and uttering them in a tender whisper.
Recorded with multiple round robins, these attention-grabbing shouts and whispers are included in the main patches and automatically sound when you play a very loud or very quiet note. While that could come in handy, I found it intrusive for general playing purposes, so was relieved to find you can turn them off on the GUI’s mixer page. Alternatively, if you want to feature these deliveries, you can edit their velocity settings or load them as separate patches. Also included is a slim menu of eerie Ligeti-style atonal cluster chords, recorded at multiple dynamics.
On first listen, Wotan’s male singers exhibit a fairly soft, controlled timbre which sounds particularly warm and appealing in the tenors’ patches. However, their full dynamic potential is revealed when you push up the mod wheel: this activates the basses’ and tenors’ belting louder dynamics, which will cut through the densest orchestral din.
Strezov’s Freyja Female Choir was released in September 2016. Consisting of separately recorded sections of 10 altos and 10 sopranos, the library mirrors the structure of the Wotan choir but adopts a less overtly dramatic approach, focussing on a softer and more emotional sound which George Strezov says was inspired by the magical sound of choirs in old fantasy films and games. To this end, the fearsome yells of the Wotan crew are absent, but a nice set of urgent, confidential breathy whispers is included for each of the library’s eight syllables.
These singers are veterans of many recording sessions, and it shows. The altos make a lovely, vibrant sound over an unusually wide range which extends up into soprano territory. I particularly like their quiet sustains, which sound wonderful when you solo the ambient hall mics and pile on lashings of convolution reverb, creating a heavenly, floating sonic sensation. The tonal quality is maintained in the altos’ strong-sounding louder performances, which will hold up well when combined with male voices in a full arrangement. The sopranos sound equally great, beautiful in their low register and commanding in their higher range, though a few wobbles can be heard on certain syllables on one or two of the top notes.
For Freyja (pronounced Fray-ah), Strezov Sampling introduced a new ‘agile legato’ sampling technique which allows users to play polyphonic true legato intervals with every syllable in the library. This means that the smooth single-line contouring we’ve become accustomed to hearing in orchestral and choir libraries can be extended to multiple simultaneous melodic movements and chords.
Though this is not a new concept, I have to say its implementation here is both impressive and musically effective: providing you play in a proper legato style (ie. joining up notes), the singers’ intervals sound gloriously fluid and convincing, a triumphant affirmation of the brilliant interval-legato sampling technique. The legato patches default to a polyphonic mode which allows you to overlap notes, but if you prefer you can remove any overlaps and play old-school monophonic melodic lines, or even turn off the legato transitions and play the samples as straight sustains.
The final chapter of the Strezov choral trilogy brings together two of Bulgaria’s leading choirs in one package. In the blue corner, the Sophia Boys’ Choir; in the red corner, girls from the Bulgarian National Radio Children’s Choir. As in Freyja, alto and soprano sections from each choir were recorded separately, this time at two dynamics. I was pleased to see the inclusion of classic ‘ooh’, ‘ah’ and ‘mm’ sounds (the latter a fabulous timbre to layer with soft strings and keyboard pads), and enjoyed the moving-vowel, mod-wheel-activated ‘mm-ooh-ah’ bonus patches.
As you’d expect, the two choirs exhibit subtle differences in tone; the boy altos sound a touch more open and breathy than the girls, while the reverse is true for the sopranos. I also found the boys’ note attacks to be generally a little more assertive. However, such comparisons are academic: both of these childrens’ choirs are excellent, and their lovely, uplifting, rich, pure sound will grace any arrangement.
Arva also offers alto and soprano girl and boy soloists, performing a restricted set of wordbuilding syllables and Strezov’s trademark polyphonic legatos. Though the latter is a nice feature, the soloists sound most effective in monophonic legato mode, which enables you to glide from note to note using the same vowel sound.
George Strezov remarks that “recording the children was a tough task, very exhausting both for the performers and our post-production team.” That’s not to imply that these choirs were difficult to work with, but it would be hard for any group of kids to maintain concentration throughout the rigours of a long sampling session. Nevertheless, these young singers, combining musical assurance with the slightly vulnerable quality inherent in a child’s voice, will touch the hearts of listeners.
At the heart of Strezov’s choirs lies a powerful wordbuilding feature which allows you to string together multiple syllables (listed in the ‘Wordbuilding Syllables’ box) into virtual lyrics within Kontakt. To ‘write’ your words, you choose an empty position on the dashboard and click on a syllable in the list to the left; the editor will automatically switch to the next empty position, so you can repeat the procedure up to a limit of 30 sounds. The selected syllables play through in sequence, changing to the next step each time you play a note or chord. You can start the sequence from any point (or repeat a word) by assigning one of the keyswitches provided on the GUI to your desired start syllable.
The syllables themselves may be customised by adjusting their attack, release and volume settings: there’s also a very useful ‘start offset’ control which allows you to trim off the front of the samples. I found this is a good way of creating the simple ‘ah’ and ‘ooh’ sounds which are the stock in trade of old-school choir libraries: you can load the ‘niya’ and ‘buh’ syllables and use the offset control to trim off the initial consonant. While that sounds clunky on paper, it actually works surprisingly well. Similarly, you can remove the final consonant of a syllable such as ‘chak’ (which normally sounds automatically when you release a key) simply by turning off the release samples.
In addition to simple sequencing, two or more syllables may be linked together and played with a single note or chord on the keyboard. For example, you could link ‘ki’ and ‘no’ to produce the compound sound ‘kino’ with a single key press, and set the speed of the transition between the two sounds by clicking on one of the rhythmic values shown on the GUI. A further interesting refinement allows you to morph between linked syllables, which in conjunction with the sample offset control, opens up the possibility of creating moving-vowel diphthongs.
To connect adjacent syllables, you simply click on a small circle placed beside them on the GUI, and to morph between them, click on the circle a second time. In these modes, you can use the Syllabuilder’s rhythm controls to adjust the time each syllable will be held for before jumping to the next in the sequence.
Once you’ve settled on your lyrics, you can save your work as a preset and re-load it at a later stage — you can even load a preset (which uses the suffix nka, denoting a file used for storing array data from Kontakt scripts) into a different instrument from the one you used to create it, so you could work out your lyrical arrangement with the tenors and then import it into the basses patch. This facility extends across all three choir libraries, so you could create lyrics in Freyja or Arva and import them into Wotan.
The eagle-eyed among you will note that the syllabic content differs somewhat from library to library: however, the vowel sound of the eight principal syllables remains the same across each of the three choirs, and in practice the somewhat soft, blurred delivery of the initial consonant means that these sounds work together nicely.
Strezov’s Wotan, Freyja and Arva choirs share many characteristics: all three were recorded in Sofia Session Studio from close, Decca Tree and hall microphone positions and include a custom convolution reverb. Sustain and staccato syllables, polyphonic true legato intervals and the elaborate wordbuilding facilities described earlier are provided for each choir. The singers’ ranges overlap to a large degree (in fact, the tenors sing so high they could be mistaken for women), which means you can layer sections to good effect.
The libraries (respectively 5GB, 8.2GB and 8.1GB installed) require the full version of Native Instruments Kontakt 5 and up, and will not run on the free Kontakt Player. The makers suggest a minimum of 4GB of RAM, though (as with all powerful libraries of this type) I’d recommend more RAM to ensure a smooth ride.
On a musical note, the singers perform in the familiar European choral style; although there’s a hint of George Strezov’s beloved “primal Slavonic singing vibe”, this is not the ethnic Bulgarian throat singing sound made famous by the Bulgarian State Television Female Choir. That said, though their vibrato increases at louder dynamics, the singers avoid the heavy ‘molto vibrato’ associated with classical and opera singing, producing a plainer, less affected sound which will sit comfortably in a pop track as well as adding size, drama and a lush choral texture to orchestral cinematic soundscapes. In a word, these samples are versatile!
It’s worth noting that sustain pedal can’t be used in the conventional way in these libraries: it works instead as a switch for the libraries’ legato performances, trimming off the initial consonant and enabling you to hold the last syllable over a series of notes. While this increases playability, I do miss being able to sustain chords with my foot!
A more significant omission is the lack of a proper manual. Each library has a built-in set of integrated help pages which explain various functions in detail — no bad thing, but there are 23 pages, and you have to laboriously click through them ‘til the one you want appears. I assumed this text would appear in the product manuals, but it’s not there (though it is reproduced in the downloadable PDF manual for Strezov’s ‘Rhodope 2’ Bulgarian Ethnic Singing library).
These libraries are not cheap: since the company went to the trouble and expense of creating moody cover images for their manuals (including a set of sinister monk-like figures for Wotan, the leader of whom bears a disquieting resemblance to Monty Python’s Terry Gilliam), omitting this vital information is inexplicable. At the very least, it should be made available online on each library’s product page.
In an interview with Sound Bytes online magazine, George Strezov made this observation: “One of the main reasons why we started Strezov Sampling is because most of the commercial sample libraries out there which I used were... too perfect! I strongly believe that the magic behind music are those tiny imperfections that make things sound interesting and catchy. Otherwise it’s just too robotic!”
With that in mind, the company avoids EQ, noise reduction, compression and hard auto-tuning, and while employing some re-tuning inside Kontakt where absolutely necessary, strives to keep the authentic and original sound of the recordings and embrace the natural imperfections which occur in “candid, lively samples”. When auditioning the three choirs, I found that the aforementioned imperfections do occasionally rear their head on a few notes, but I didn’t hear anything which made me feel I’d have to avoid using a sample.
Whatever your feelings on the quest for musical (im)perfection, Strezov Sampling seem to me to have their musical priorities right, and their buyers evidently agree. As they move into the sixth year of their prolific operation, I wish them continued success, and look forward to hearing more of their sampling adventures.
Choir libraries with integrated wordbuilding facilities include EastWest Quantum Leap’s Symphonic Choirs and Hollywood Choirs, Cinesamples’ Voxos 2, 8Dio’s Requiem, Liberis Angelic Choir, Insolidus Choir and Lacrimosa Epic Choir, Virharmonik’s Voices Of Prague and Czech Boys’ Choir, Best Service’s Cantus and Mystica, Fluffy Audio’s Dominus Choir, and Strezov Sampling’s debut release Storm Choir 2. Vienna Symphonic Library’s Vienna Choir and Performance Samples’ Oceania also offer a selection of vowels and consonants for your sequencing pleasure.
A few words on the song which inspired Wotan. According to the Lord Of The Rings Fanatics Plaza Internet forum, ‘The Bridge of Khazad-dûm’ is sung in Khuzdul, an imaginary language devised by Lord Of The Rings author JRR Tolkien, which was the secret language of the Dwarves. The lyrics are, ‘Urus ni buzra! Arras talbabi filluma! Ugrud tashniki kurduma! Lu! Lu! Lu! Urkhas tanakhi!’, which apparently translates as, ‘Fire in the deep! Flames lick our skin! Fear rips our heart! No! No! No! The demon comes!’ — words we’ve all uttered on seeing the local UKIP parliamentary candidate heading down our garden path.
After a bit of debate about whether it was Orcs rather than Dwarves doing the chanting, forum user Draven-Jade (aka Scavenger Of Mordor) chimes in, “Hey, that’s really cool that they are actually saying something! Dude, that’s awesome! It makes the music so much more... meaningful? ...I always thought it was just a sequence of guttural grunts, but the real words are really really cool... I wish my school’s choir could sing that, but alas, the boys’ section sucks.”
Oh dear. Happily, thanks to Strezov’s efforts, users can now employ Wotan to construct songs in their own made-up languages while experiencing the satisfaction of hearing them professionally rendered by a set of accomplished grown-up singers. Beats the school choir every time...
Wotan Male Choir
- Ten Basses G1-E4
- Ten Tenors A2-C5
Freyja Female Choir
- Ten Altos C3-F5
- Ten Sopranos C4-C6
Arva Children’s Choir
- Boys altos G3-C5
- Boys sopranos C4-G5
- Girls altos G3-C5
- Girls sopranos C4-G5
- Boy solo alto A3-C5
- Boy solo soprano D4-F5
- Girl solo alto G3-C5
- Girl solo soprano D4-F5
Wotan: Buh, Chak, Ki, No, Niya, Rih, Seh, Tuhm.
Freyja: Luh, Dak, Si, Mo, Liya, Rih, Sheh, Ruhm/Ah*, Mah*, Mm*.
Arva Choir: Luh, Pan, Ki, No, Liya, Rih, Leh, Son, Lah, Liyum/Ah*, Ooh*, Mm*.
Arva Soloists: Boy — Luh, Ki, No, Liyum/Ah*, Ooh*. Girl — Ki, No, Lah, Liyum/Ooh*.
(* Available for legato patches only.)