Choral libraries featuring only children's choirs are unusual — yet the atmospheres and textures they provide have many uses.
Following the release of their Requiem choral library in late 2010, Tonehammer have produced an all‑new children's choir entitled Liberis. According to the makers, its 45 youthful vocalists sound "angelic” but the samples can also generate a darker, more scary atmosphere where required. You can read the SOS review of Requiem at /sos/dec10/articles/tonehammer‑requiem.htm. Since Liberis shares many of the adult choir's features, we'll concentrate here on the new library's unique characteristics and examine some technical details more closely.
If 45 children in one room sounds like a recipe for trouble, rest assured that these Liberis choristers are no randomly recruited bunch of playground scallies: the singers are all members of the award‑winning Piedmont East Bay Children's Choir, based in California's Bay Area, now in its 25th year and boasting extensive international performing experience. The choir is led by Robert Geary, who also conducted Tonehammer's Requiem singers. Liberis' children are mainly girls aged between eight and 12, with a roughly equal split between soprano and alto voices; in addition to full choir performances, the library also features three soloists (two girls, one boy).
More than 13,000 24‑bit/44.1kHz samples were recorded over a two‑week period in a 1950s West Coast Presbyterian church, the interior of which has been subject to extensive acoustic design — moulded curves, planes, baffles, reflectors and diffusers are built into the walls and ceiling, and tall, flared structures flanking the altar reflect sound outward into the room. The church's columns form curved arches, thus avoiding the ricochet sonic reflections caused by unbroken, parallel flat surfaces. All this results in an acoustic which the producers say amplifies sound evenly throughout the space, without creating hard echoes, dead spots or harsh resonances.
Tonehammer recorded the choir from three microphone positions: 'stage' (five or six feet from the singers), 'mid' (15 feet back) and 'far' (high up in a rear balcony about 75 feet from the stage). Every patch in the library is presented in a choice of these three positions; in addition, a corresponding set of multis loads all three mikings, making it simple to set up 5.1 or 7.1 surround mixes.
Anyone who's ever bought a sample library will eventually have to decide what to do with its product box. These oversized cardboard containers tend to sit around on shelves taking up valuable space and gathering dust. Since you can't legally re‑sell the library, a logical solution would be to throw away (sorry, recycle) the box after installation and re‑house the DVDs in some kind of compact storage unit, but after spending hard‑earned cash on a product, one is naturally disinclined to bin its impressive shiny packaging.
Tonehammer are one of a growing number of companies who sidestep the issue by selling their samples exclusively as downloads. To facilitate this, they issue customers with the 'TH Installer', a small, simple program that optimises download speeds. (Customers can also use their own web browser to handle the download if they prefer.) Broadband speeds where I live are risibly low, so I was pleased to note that this installer made a significant improvement to our normal sluggish connection speed. Though I experienced no glitches, it was also reassuring to know that the TH Installer can resume downloading where it left off in the event of an interruption.
The library (11.9GB in size) is packaged as a collection of compressed .RAR files totalling about 8GB. After downloading these files and extracting their contents, you have to run another small program supplied by Tonehammer, which installs the Kontakt user-interface images and templates. If you neglect to do this, as I foolishly did, the user interface displays incorrectly as a dull set of grey boxes resembling an online census form, but once the images are installed correctly, the GUI opens in its full technicolour glory.
If all you want initially from this children's choir are straight sustained notes, you can load the '8‑vowel pad' patch and take your pick from 'ah', 'eh', 'ee', 'ih', 'mm', 'oh', 'ooh' and 'oo' sounds. If you're wondering, the 'oo' delivery sounds noticeably different from the 'ooh', the latter being warmer, softer and more intimate. While all these performances sound attractively bright, lush and tuneful, my personal favourite is the 'mms', a quiet, vibrant hum capable of spine‑tingling results when played chordally. Possessing an ethereal, quasi‑symphonic quality reminiscent of soft orchestral strings, this is a truly inspirational timbre.
For louder, full‑throated climactic passages, Tonehammer recorded a set of emphatic marcato sustains sung in a choice of six monosyllables. Despite their tender age, the singers really make a big sound in these deliveries. I was also impressed by the accuracy of their staccato performances: the attacks of initial consonants such as 'la', 're' and 'tus' (the latter pronounced ancient Latin‑style, as in 'puss') are extremely well co‑ordinated. It only takes two or three singers to deviate from the stipulated pronunciation and/or tight timing and you can end up with sloppy‑sounding articulations, but these youngsters sound better drilled and more disciplined than some adult choirs I've heard.
The three soloists sound innocent and charming; the simulated legato mode provided for the boy and first girl sounds a little fake, but the second girl's real legato and portamento performances are close to divine. These three children sing from the heart without a trace of vibrato; there are a few moments of uncertain pitching, but I'd far rather hear such unaffected, slightly vulnerable deliveries than some 'trained' operatic diva belting out laser‑gun vibrato notes at 90dB.
Liberis' listening perspectives sound much as you'd imagine: the stage miking is the most full‑bodied, detailed and focused of the three, the 'mid' position introduces more room ambience and the 'far' samples sound comparatively distant and pleasantly diffused. All three share a clear, bright tone and a degree of built‑in room reverb that naturally increases with distance. The 'stage' samples would be my default choice for everyday use. Layering them with the 'mid' miking adds a luxurious halo (but doubles the CPU load), while the 'far' samples would work a treat if routed to the rear speakers in a surround mix.
TV and film soundtracks nowadays rely heavily on ambient soundscapes, to the point where (in some scores at least) sound design is virtually on an equal footing with traditional note‑based composition. Contemporary sample-library manufacturers accommodate the trend by supplying 'ambiences' and effects along with their straight multisamples. Hence, Liberis' ambient section (designed by Steve Tavaglione) provides a treasure trove of mysterious, evolving textures.
'Aleatoric' means dependent on chance, luck or an uncertain outcome, and the patch of that name certainly lives up to its name by outputting a subtly different cluster chord each time you press the same key. Hold down a note and the chord's pitches gradually mutate, forming new, transitory clusters. 'Amorphous' evokes the wailing of lost souls trapped in interstellar limbo, punctuated by a sinister veiled whispering of a kind you would not want to hear when trekking across a lonely moor on a winter's night. 'Prayers 1‑3' sound like psychedelic plainsong, while the devotional major‑key soundburst of 'Joyous' interjects a note of heavenly optimism. Unpredictable, mystical and highly atmospheric, these are patches where a single key‑push can produce an enveloping sound world, ideal raw material for those in search of abstract ear candy.
In addition to these layered, evolving performances, there's a collection of sung effects, including unisons that slowly drift out of tune; vocal percussion; hefty, detuned foot stomps; swoops; weird bird‑like chirps; breath effects, and so on. Such noises can be rendered more other‑worldly by applying Tonehammer's excellent convolution reverb presets, which include some great, spooky, creatively‑mangled effects.
As with Requiem, the Liberis choir chant and whisper a selection of multisampled, ecclesiastical‑sounding, Latin‑esque words that Tonehammer call 'poly‑sustains'. Amidst the worshipful tones of 'Adoramus', 'Amen' and 'Gloria' (what's she doing here?) are less familiar words, such as 'Morisuri', 'Oratsio' and 'Sibre'. The final vowel of each chant is looped and the concluding consonant sounds only when you release a key, a nice programming touch that gives you control over final syllable length.
Contrasting with these solemn, churchy intonations is a playful set of 'la‑la‑las' that efficiently evoke the joys of childhood but are (atypically) a little loose in the timing department. The poly‑sustain chants are presented in a choice of 100bpm and 140bpm speeds; tempo‑sync versions faithfully follow Kontakt's internal metronome setting, and there are also time‑stretch variants in which a rotary control can change the speed of the chant without affecting its pitch.
A very useful 'offset' control allows you to trim the front of the poly‑sustain samples. Small values will tighten up the attack, while larger values can remove entire syllables from the front of a word. (Only temporarily, you understand: resetting the offset to zero restores the sample to full length.) You can use this control to perform operations like changing 'Liberis' to 'beris' and trimming 'oratsio' down to 'yo' — good fun, and a handy way of expanding the syllable menu.
For more sophisticated word‑building, the library offers a total of 31 common consonant‑vowel combinations ranging alphabetically from 'buh' to 'zz' and featuring along the way a befuddled 'duh', an indignant 'huh' and that staple of the classical vocal world, a haughty rolled 'r'. I did my best to use these consonants to construct the defiantly meaningless lyric "Someone left the cake out in the rain”, but soon had to abort due to the lack of a designated 'L' syllable. I have to conclude that Liberis' syllabic menu (like that of Requiem) contains too many gaps to properly render every set of words you might throw at it, but it is nevertheless capable of creating a passable impression of lyrics being sung, a compromise I suspect most sampled‑choir users will settle for.
The Quick Chant Builder and Phrase Builder tools of Requiem also appear here. If you don't have the SOS Requiem review to hand, I'll remind you that the former device is a step sequencer that plays a user‑defined series of syllables at Kontakt's internal tempo when you hold down a key, while the Phrase Builder advances through your preset syllable list one step at a time each time you play a new note. In Liberis, these internal sequencers' syllable menu is limited to nine staccato and six marcato sounds, so using them to create any kind of verbal complexity is out of the question. However, both provide an easy, quick and fun way of stringing syllables together.
I always dread the moment in US made‑for‑TV horror films when children's voices are heard in the score singing (inevitably) 'Silent Night', accompanied by an orchestra written deliberately (I trust) in the wrong key. Thankfully, the Liberis children don't attempt this particular cliché, but they do have a stab at 'Ring‑a‑Ring‑a‑Roses' (US lyrics version) and 'Frère Jacques', performing a verse from each in various keys and also in a kind of 'Gremlins remix' with jeering atonal harmonies. Since these nursery rhymes are so readily identifiable and the samples so library‑specific, I'd personally hesitate to use them in a film score, but I'm sure someone will before long.
I was very impressed by the quality of Requiem's legato samples, so it came as no surprise to find that those in Liberis are pretty spiffing too. In these performances, the natural, plain, vibrato‑free delivery and beautifully pure tone of the children's voices is particularly affecting — it's a pleasure to hear them gliding silkily through melody lines, and the church acoustic adds a lovely resonance.
Legato portamentos featuring a pronounced pitch glide between intervals are a very nice addition to this library. Subtle slides between notes can already be detected in the children's legatos, but with the portamento articulation the glide is slower and more pronounced. I was pleased to see that Liberis' legato range has been increased from the industry standard 12 semitones to 15 — which means that you can program a portamento slide of an octave plus a minor third, a nice long 'travel'! As previously reported, the legatos are superb at delivering slow and mid‑tempo melodies, but aren't really cut out for fast lines.
Via some brain‑boggling Kontakt scripting, Tonehammer allow users to play simultaneous legato intervals of up to three voices; however, since each of the three legato movements is constrained to a user‑defined pitch range, there are marked limitations on the amount of contrapuntal movement you can achieve while still triggering true legatos. I found that attempts to play three contrapuntal legato parts yielded unpredictable and unsatisfactory results, but the legato polyphony worked reasonably well for duo performances, providing the two parts didn't accidentally stray into each other's legato zone! Of course, you can easily bypass these limitations and have as many simultaneous legato voices as you want simply by loading multiple legato patches inside Kontakt and assigning them to different MIDI channels.
Programming with Liberis is relatively simple; most patches have built‑in keyswitches for on‑the‑fly articulation changes, and you can also use an expression pedal to crossfade between different vowel sounds. The only hazard when working with the keyswitches is that Tonehammer have designated one of the switches as 'off', which (until you learn the keyswitch positions) makes it all too easy to inadvertently cut the choir off in mid‑stream!
Other performance‑shaping tools include a 'swell' knob, which controls the intensity of mod‑wheel‑driven crescendos and decrescendos, and a knob that controls the gating of the release‑trigger samples and release envelopes, allowing you to minimise room decay after note release. There are also speed and volume controls governing the rate and level of the legato transition samples, the latter enabling extra emphasis to be placed on inter‑note legato movements. All the on‑screen controls can be automated by MIDI control-change data, and each has a 'Learn MIDI CC#' function in case you want to change the default CC number.
Overall, I feel the producers have tried their hardest to wring every last drop of creative juice out of these samples, going out of their way to provide subtle controls that can have a telling effect on musical detail. Although not everyone requires this level of access, it will be welcomed by those who like to spend time fine‑tuning their MIDI arrangements.
Liberis' children's real‑life range spans just over two octaves, from 'G' below Middle 'C' to a high 'A'. To give users more 'pitch headroom', Tonehammer artificially extended the playing range to five octaves by stretching the bottom note down and the highest note up. Artificial though it may sound, I applaud this approach; it's useful to have extra octaves available when composing, and the extended low end does at least give a sketchy impression of adult bass voices. I wish more sample companies would adopt this practice, rather than rigidly limiting mappings to real‑life ranges — after all, if you dislike the synthetic quality of the stretched samples, you can always opt not to play them!
The sound of massed children's voices is pleasant and touching, and this fact alone ought to boost Liberis' sales. But beyond any sentimental associations, this vocal collection provides a characterful and distinctive timbre which will blend beautifully with many styles of arrangement, from orchestral soundtracks to commercial pop. With its strong evocation of innocence, nostalgia, religious devotion and a hint of darkness (all themes close to the heart of the Hollywood movie industry), this is a lovely, stirring library that film, trailer and TV composers will find particularly useful.
There are several top‑quality libraries on the market that feature children's voices as well as adult choirs: Cinesamples' Voxos Epic Virtual Choirs, East West Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs and Spectrasonics' Symphony of Voices each include a boys' choir and a boy soloist, though the last's origins in the hardware sampler era make it smaller in size than contemporary offerings. Dedicated children's choir libraries are few and far between: apart from Tonehammer's Liberis, the only one that springs to mind is Bela D Media's The Giovani Edition Voices Of The Young, which presents its 32 singers as separate 16‑voice boys and girls choirs.
Full Children's Choir
- Sustained (ah, eh, ee, ih, oh, ooh, oo, mm).
- Marcato sustained (ah, doh, fah, mi, re, soh).
- Staccato (ah, doh, fah, la, mi, ooh, re, soh, tus).
- Legato sustains (ah, ooh, mm).
- Portamento sustains (ah, ooh, mm).
- Latin‑esque words 'poly‑sustains'.
- 'La‑la‑la' chants.
- Children's songs extracts.
- Vocal and body percussion.
- Vocal effects.
- Sustained (ah, eh, ee1, ee2, ih, oh, oo1, oo2).
- Latin‑esque words 'poly‑sustains'.
Solo Girl 1
- Sustained (ah, eh, ee1, ee2, ih, oh, oo1, oo2).
- Latin‑esque words 'poly‑sustains'.
Solo Girl 2
- Sustained (ah, eh, ee, ih, oh, oo).
- Legato sustains (ah).
- Portamento sustains (ooh).
Liberis works with the full retail version of Kontakt 4.1.1 and up, which has to be bought separately — it will not work with the free Kontakt Player. The library requires 12GB of disk space and doesn't need to be registered or activated; Tonehammer protect their products with an individual watermarking system, which enables the makers to trace unauthorised copies back to the original buyer.
Kontakt 4 runs stand‑alone and as a plug‑in on Mac and Windows computers under Windows XP (32-bit), Windows Vista/Windows 7 (32-/64-bit) and Mac OS 10.5 or 10.6. Supported plug‑in/audio formats are VST, Audio Units, RTAS (Pro Tools 8 and higher), ASIO, Core Audio, DirectSound and WASAPI. Regarding system requirements, Tonehammer say: "We highly recommend that you have at least 4GB of system RAM, a quad‑core CPU and at least a 7200rpm SATA II hard disk with an 8MB buffer dedicated to sample streaming.”
- A versatile, world‑class children's choir recorded in a vibrant church acoustic.
- Three microphone positions ensure surround compatibility.
- True 'interval legatos' produce beautifully smooth melody lines and slides.
- Contains multiple syllables and some fun phrase‑building tools.
- Gaps in the syllable menu place restrictions on word‑building options.
Featuring the uplifting sound of a children's choir and three soloists, Liberis also offers some tasty, dark atmospheric ambiences. A classic but not over‑used sound, with many musical applications ranging from orchestral to pop, this is a must‑have for media composers.