The four-volume EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra library broke new ground as the first 24-bit orchestral library with multilayered samples of every note recorded simultaneously from three different mic positions: close-up (C) for individual details; a front-of-stage array (F) for a full stereo sound; and a back-of-the-room setup (S) to capture the natural reverb of the recording space. For Symphonic Choirs, producers Doug Rogers and Nick Phoenix have again teamed up with recording engineer Keith O. Johnson. Applying the same recording techniques (with the same equipment) in the same concert hall, they've created a unique, high-end sampled choir library that installs from nine DVDs and weighs in at a hefty 38 GB.
As in the Symphonic Orchestra library, the samples from the three mic positions are phase-aligned. You can freely combine them to deliver just the right amount of reverb or to move groups or soloists closer (more C, less F, little S) or farther away (little or no C, a soupçon of F, heavy on the S) in the final mix.
FIG. 1: The EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs library uses a dedicated version of Native Instruments Kompakt as the front end.
That level of control makes the orchestral and the choir libraries ideally suited to 5.1 surround mixes: record a matched set of patches, and use one of the C patch's channels for the center-front, both sides of the F patch for left- and right-front, and the S patch for the rear surround channels. Working with the room's great-sounding natural reverb eliminates the need (in most projects) for external reverb units or plug-ins. And it enables Symphonic Choirs to integrate seamlessly with the Symphonic Orchestra collection, yielding a lush, convincingly real-sounding, organic blend that would be difficult to re-create with other libraries. Furthermore, Symphonic Choirs includes a powerful application called WordBuilder that further raises the level of realism by enabling the sampled choirs to actually pronounce words and syllables instead of repeating the same sound over and over.
Symphonic Choirs employs a dedicated version of Native Instruments Kompakt as its front end (see Fig. 1). Kompakt functions in standalone mode or as a plug-in under a VST 2, a DXi 2, an AU, or an RTAS host. As in the orchestral library, you can load multipatch presets (multis), or you can load individual Instruments (in this case, choir sections or soloists) into any of Kompakt's eight slots. If your computer has the horsepower, you can get as many as 256 notes of polyphony. (For more on using a 3-mic-perspective library and dealing with its substantial processing demands, see the EastWest/Quantum Leap Symphonic Orchestra review in the December 2004 issue of EM.)
Symphonic Choirs consists of five sections: soprano, alto, tenor, and bass (SATB); and a separate boys' choir. Solo samples are also provided for soprano, alto, and boy vocal parts (although they can't be used with WordBuilder). All of the patches sound fantastic and are wonderfully expressive, with a great sense of presence and smooth transitions from one Velocity layer to the next. I was disappointed, however, that there weren't any solo tenor or bass patches. Those would have come in handy for creating the sound of a small group of soloists, such as a Christmas-carol ensemble or a barbershop quartet.
The SATB sections are offered with Normal, Legato, Staccato, and Slurred articulations (keyswitching changes from one to another); the boys' choir includes only Normal and Legato options. The mod wheel is used mostly to crossfade between samples with more or less vibrato and with a more-or-less forceful delivery (“hard” as opposed to “soft”). Nonvibrato patches are also provided.
It's easy to create any kind of choir by loading the appropriate section patches into the Instrument slots in Kompakt. Several ready-made, 5-octave Full Chorus Church patches are also included, but with only the S mic perspective. They're great for improvising or for quickly sketching out a part. The mod wheel lets you dial in a light amount of vibrato. The overall sound is warm and rich, and it may be all you need for many projects.
Most sampled choir libraries consist entirely of a few vowel sounds (such as ah, oo, or ee) sung at different pitches. Symphonic Choirs, of course, has all of those sounds, and many musicians buy the library just to use it in the traditional way for backup harmonies and pads. But Symphonic Choirs has far more to offer than two or three vowel sounds. In fact, it provides a complete set of vowel sounds, such as oh, ah, oo, ee, uh, and ih, as well as more than two dozen consonant sounds (including a rolled R). In theory, you could create words by triggering different vowel and consonant samples from different patches on different MIDI channels, but constructing words from scratch would be an overwhelming task. Fortunately, Symphonic Choirs comes with WordBuilder, a program that enables your virtual vocalists to pronounce lyrics as they sing (see Fig. 2).
FIG. 2: WordBuilder is a powerful program that converts written text into its phonetic -components and then triggers the appropriate samples in the Symphonic Choirs library. The colorful graphic display lets you edit the playback of individual vowels and consonants.
To use WordBuilder, you must first load one of the specially designed multis into Kompakt. These multis consist of five presets that consume a block of five consecutive MIDI channels. Together, the presets supply all of the necessary phonetic sounds for producing words. Type your lyrics into the Text Editor section of the program, and based on its internal 100,000-word pronunciation dictionary, WordBuilder instantly breaks down the words into their phonetic elements. It also simultaneously translates the English words into the standard phonetic alphabet and into the program's own Votox alphabet. Buttons on the left let you choose which kind of text appears onscreen. For example, the phrase Fly me to the moon is translated as “flAi mi! tu! d!a mu!n” in the standard phonetic alphabet and as “FlaE mEE TO t!u mOn” in Votox. (Comparison tables and explanations are provided in the documentation.)
Beneath the Text Editor section, the Time Editor shows the text in a sequencer-like graphic display. Each word's phonetic components appear as colored bars along a timeline where they can be shortened, lengthened, crossfaded, time-shifted, made louder, and adjusted in a variety of ways. That's important because you can't just type in lyrics and have them come out sounding perfect right away. In most cases, you'll have to carefully edit each word to get the performance that you want. Many common words have multiple pronunciations, and most words need to be adjusted to emphasize the right syllable and to properly match the pronunciation to the tempo of the music. WordBuilder's Learn feature makes it easier to adapt the syllable lengths to the note lengths, and the Solo function isolates a word, allowing you to focus on it until you get the desired pronunciation.
For example, when I typed in the word valley, the choir seemed to swallow the second syllable a bit on some of the notes. I located the second syllable (it had two elements), stretched it a bit, adjusted its volume curves, and slid it back a tad to reduce the overlap with the first syllable. That did the trick. A little more fine-tuning, and I had the sound that I wanted. Adding a slight gap before consonants and boosting their Velocity offset often helps to emphasize them; adjustable controller envelopes for each phonetic element provide plenty of control in shaping the pronunciation. WordBuilder can also trigger the keyswitches that change the choir's attacks from Normal to Legato, Staccato, or Slurred. (You can learn more about using the program at www.soundsonline-forums.com.)
EastWest recommends that you learn WordBuilder's Votox alphabet. You can then enter exactly what you want without relying on the program's interpretive skills. You'll also have to use Votox (or the standard phonetic alphabet) if you want to enter foreign languages and non-English phrases, such as be-bop-a-doo-wop. You can even adjust the English pronunciations to take on a regional accent. WordBuilder's Add dialog box lets you save your new alternate settings for future use. (EastWest has also created a free database of additional Votox words and phrases for downloading.)
If you have Steinberg Cubase SX or Nuendo versions 2 or 3, you can use WordBuilder as a VST Module Architecture MIDI plug-in. In Cakewalk Sonar 4, WordBuilder can run as an MFX plug-in. PC users will have to add a MIDI loopback program to supply the virtual MIDI cables when WordBuilder isn't used in plug-in mode.
Based strictly on its own merits, Symphonic Choirs is undeniably a first-rate library. In fact, it's one of the nicest and most flexible sampled choir libraries I've used. The 24-bit recording quality is top-notch all the way, and the chromatically sampled, multilayered patches are consistently responsive and realistically expressive. I also enjoyed experimenting with some of the nonstandard patches, including clusters, crescendos, falls, and especially the slightly creepy whispered words.
Adding WordBuilder to the package raises everything to a whole new level. If you're willing to invest the time and energy in shaping your performance, the results can be rewarding. You do, however, have to dive in and muck about quite a bit with phonemes, diphthongs, and other phonotactic elements of speech to get a performance that is natural-sounding and reasonably intelligible. You may never get the level of clarity and enunciation that a good live choir with an experienced choir director can deliver. But you can definitely create a virtual choir that sings words instead of just repeating vowel sounds, and that's pretty amazing. For some great MP3 demos of Symphonic Choirs in combination with Symphonic Orchestra, go to the EastWest Web site (www.soundsonline.com) and click on the EW/QL Choirs link.
David M. Rubin lives and works in the foothills outside of Los Angeles. He is the author of Power Tools for Peak Pro (Backbeat Books, 2005).
PROS: Top-notch 24-bit recording quality. Full collection of vowel and consonant samples. WordBuilder application enables pronunciation of lyrics. Three-mic approach offers excellent control over natural ambience. Standalone and plug-in options available. Full surround-sound capability.
CONS: High processing demands. Lacks solo tenor and solo bass samples. WordBuilder does not work with the solo patches.
EASE OF USE 4
AUDIO QUALITY 5