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04 July 2013

SOUNDIRON OLYMPUS CHOIR Review | £389 / $549


REVIEW
In the Soundiron Olympus Symphonic Choral Collection...
Soundiron Mars Symphonic Male Choir | £285 / $399
Soundiron Venus Symphonic Female Choir | £285 / $399

It's rare that one hears a human voice on a modern, chart-oid record. The artist may be billed as a singer, but what you often get is the pitch and time-corrected rasp of a synthesizer triggered by the performer's voice. In dance circles, there's no shame in smashing together crass rhyme and having the vocal glitch away like a demented Stylophone, but it's a bit rich when allegedly proper singers are used to trigger that auto-tune grind.

Soundiron sampled a 33-voice female choir for Venus
However, such a phenomenon has little to do with Soundiron's rather splendid Mars and Venus symphonic choirs, together known as the Olympus Symphonic Choral Collection. Yep, 'splendid' has given away the conclusion of this piece, but stick with it for revelation of fearsome facilities.



While robo-singers have become the bane of 21st Century pop, virtual choirs are nothing new, whether generated by synthesis or triggered from samples. For the former, you'd expect the vowel sounds of 'ahhh', 'eeee', 'pooh' and precious little else, while the more realistic, sampled presentation oft gets silly at the extremes of pitch - chipmunks and yawning monks, it seems.

If you can't afford to hire a choir, but need a section capable of ranging from male basso profondo (whale chat) to the heights of female soprano (bats), plus all the vowel and consonant sounds needed to produce a lyrical performance... That's one large walnut to crack no matter what the audio source.

Soundiron has taken a thwack at it, not through means of synthesis, but by assembling sizeable male and female choirs and recording them trolling (in the singing sense) a heap load of vocal takes at a huge range of pitches. Naturally, such a brute-force approach makes for a massive sample library and, in cutting no corners, that's exactly what the developer delivers: 44.6GB of installed sampled content comprising 41,821 samples grouped into 699 nki instrument presets and 229 nkm multi-instrument banks. Sampling is at 48kHz, 24-bit and you may need a bigger boat.

If halfway serious about exploring the riches of choir-laden arrangements, you'll appreciate the benefits of a very powerful computer. While Soundiron recommends a quad-core CPU addressing 8GB RAM, think bigger to enjoy true creative freedom when mounting Olympus. And don't forget to factor in the full version of Native Instruments Kontakt, if you've not already got it (the free Kontakt Player is not enough). Kontakt 4.2.4 is the minimum requirement, but 5.0.2+ is needed in order to load certain tempo-related patches.

Once adequately equipped, there's spiffing stuff to be had. Olympus boasts patches capable of true legato, which is essential when aiming for realistic transitions between notes in that it avoids the giveaway of re-triggering a note's envelope at each step. In addition, we've a Speed control by which to define the speed at which notes slide from one to the next and when set to zero, you've a great-sounding pitch-drift effect to play with.

If unfamiliar with Italian, the product's 'marcato' capability means you can add emphasis to words - a halfway house betweem legato and staccato. Further, staccato sequence construction also features. Relative dynamic range is wide, from pp (pianissimo) to fff (Motörhead), and can be adjusted via a Dynamics rotary among the front-panel controls.

The question on the lips of the choir-curious is likely along the lines of 'what about having it sing lyrics?'. To this end, and presumably with an eye firmly on the horror soundtrack genre, Olympus contains whole phrases comprising Hail Mary, or Ave Maria, in two languages, and a wealth of components by which to build, quite easily, your own, admittedly oft-nonsensical, liturgical burbles. Not English gibberish, mind you, but Slavonic and Latin, which is actually very cunning indeed.

You've doubtless noted the crap/posh divide in horror movie music. Cheap flicks make for dramatic bangs and howls, whereas up-market productions veer towards mysterious choirs murmuring away in liturgical Latin for that 'Damien quietly chews out an exorcist' effect. It's unusual to be confronted with a rabble versed in Slavonic (Russian) liturgical-speak; even more so, a bunch of native Latin speakers.

The cunning is that you'll probably get away with nonsense when straying from the root angelic salutations of both libraries. Add in the whoops, shouts, sweeps, clusters and chants available and you've potential for an apocalyptic film soundtrack, or a particularly dainty death-metal ditty. Time to get in the mood with a short teaser featuring the Mars component of this Olympian collection...



Well now, how's that for sound quality? Both the 33-voice female choir and 30-voice male choir, featuring members of Volti, the SF Symphony Chorus and SF Choral Society, were sampled via 12 Neumann (what else?) large-diaphragm mics in stage and hall configurations in a real church - yes, the gaff of God features in the captured ambience. Hence you've a choice of acoustic spaces that lend themselves superbly to further processing with Venus' and Mars' built-in convolution reverb or your preferred flavour of plug-in or outboard.

You'll discover the nitty-gritty of Olympus' components, including the principles behind its powerful 'poly-sustain' and 'pseudo-legato' implementations, at the product web page, and acquire more insight by downloading the manuals for both Venus and Mars. As for look and feel, you'll see from the screenshots that considerable thought has been given to design, with suitably decorated GUIs for both Latin and Slavonic. What you don't get is a Library entry for the left-hand panel of Kontakt's interface. However, the important thing right now is how it all sounds in full throat, to which end...



It's difficult to argue with the evidence of one's ears. Let's just say that this is the richest, sweetest-sounding choral library yet to grace the Fell Surgery, and a good few have been fed to the cacophone in times past. The legato implementation makes for impressive realism, while control over speed of transitions, along with dynamic layering and blending between layers, makes bedding the sounds a breeze.

Keyswitches are coded into most of the patches so you can, with practice, jam the choirs - wholly infeasible in the physical world, unless you and the singers are psychic.

As mentioned, creating nonsense verse is a doddle, but how about something more structured? There are the aforementioned angelic salutations already bundled, sung in both Slavonic and Latin with the choirs' full complements, and a number of solo performances. The soloists certainly know how to belt or whisper it out, hence the renditions are top-notch, but the quantity of performances bundled is limited. Then again, this is a full choir library with little time for show-offs.

If you've extra readies, Soundiron has developed Voice Of Rapture: The Soprano, a sampled female soloist, and hints at more soloists to come. If they do wander in this direction, they'll be MuzoBloggerated too. Back to what is to hand and it's time to hand you over to Soundiron's Mike Peaslee and Gregg Stephens who'll explain the features of Mars' vocab workshop, the Phrase Builder...



As you can see, bolting together custom phrases takes some thought, as with any such library. The human voice is arguably the most versatile and emotive instrument there is (move over you violinists). Additionally, Russian and Latin ain't that easy for English speakers to master, appearing 'grammar heavy' with inflection. But with care and patience, Soundiron's tools are capable of yeilding realistic-sounding results.

Many will want to stick with basic vowel pads - 'ah', 'oo', 'oh' and 'eh' are available, as well as a softly rendered 'mm' - but the Phrase Builder offers more sophisticated pattern-mashing via its 16-phrase sequencer, each phrase of which can be loaded with up to 16 syllables. Digging deeper, we've the Marcato Sustain Builder, by which envelope controls are used to trigger vowel sounds. It's way more sophisticated than typical synthesizer-based choirs, but does take some figuring out. Soundiron recommends a mighty machine (64-bit and heaps of RAM) to cope with its demands. While you work out how powerful a machine you'll need, let's get the builders in...



You'll find a load more videos demonstrating Venus and Mars in Soundiron's channel on YouTube, and the manuals are pretty clear in their how-tos. What does appear to be notable by its absence is the dedicated means to have Olympus' choirs holler in English. One can't help but feel, however, that English is not a language well suited to olde worlde choral music. Yes, there are some popular works around, but do they really match the mystery and romance of Latin or the aggression of Russian? And, given that the choirs are synthetic, might we end up, not so much with the robo-warble of a soloist suffering T-Pain, but in a world of pain? Well, a roomful of synthetic, glitching garglers at least.

Unfamiliar language components mean you can fudge things to an extent, although it might be wise to run Slavonic sequences past a Russian to check for instances of inadvertent 'mat' (Russian for 'foul language'). Perhaps an English choir is something else we'll see in the future, and it'd be quite a coup for the developer that creates a realistic-sounding one. Meantime, wetware choirs still have their place, so for ultimate realism, do the decent thing and hire one.

If determined to stay in the virtual world, however, there is an aspect to this library that's oft overlooked by reviewers. The audio files at the core of Olympus are unlocked, in that they're not stuffed into inaccessible Kontakt Monolith files.

This means you can copy out likely sounding elements and maul them in, for example, wave-wanging powerhouse Celemony Melodyne. Or drop files into synthesizers that can use WAVs as a sound source. The possibilities for abuse of Mars' and Venus' core audio content are stellar, never mind planetary.

Coming back down to Earth with a ker-ching, we've VFM to ponder. On sheer size, this alignment of Venus and Mars deserves its Olympian monicker.

The built-in processors, special effects and sequencers are plenty powerful and the inclusion of sung, whispered and whooped vocal effects are both icing and marzipan on a rich and fruity cake. If that lot isn't enough to go on, soak up some more audio examples while budgeting...





For film, videogame and adventurous standalone composition in numerous atmospheric and/or emotive genres, Soundiron Olympus has heady heights. Sound quality is excellent, the editing tools go deep and the library makes possible a huge variety of choral treatments, from ecclesiastical to cutting-edge.

If MuzoBlog were to award awards, Olympus would pick up the big, shiny, value-for-money gong and Jereboam. It's a library aimed at professional users and the ticket reflects that, as does the quality of presentation and results. But, although we're all in it together, some are more in it than others and so may not be able to afford the package, even though it represents a healthy discount on the prices of Venus and Mars bought separately. By the way, prices given here are for download copies from UK distributor Time & Space which has its own nifty download utility that is able to cope with data glitches - very useful considering the size of the product, which is further enlarged with ambiences, drones, textures and FX exclusive to Olympus.

If you're neither rich enough to avoid paying tax, nor super-rich enough to evade it, let us part company with word of Olympus Elements, a slimmed-down version at a more clip-friendly £88.95 from Time & Space which includes NI Kontakt Player (£75.95 for an open library). Or, if truly up to your neck in it, £14.99 gets you a download of Olympus Micro Choir ($19.99 direct from Soundiron). It's effectively a demo pack which entitles you to $20 off the full product should you upgrade. Elements and Micro are not in Doktor Fell's Surgery right now, hence they're not up for a MuzoBlog review, so here's a video of Elements as a sign-off...