Review – Celestia by Impact Soundworks
Impact Soundworks Celestia promises heavenly sound design with a vast palette of tonal sounds and textures for creative audio designs. Can it take your listeners into the cosmos?
by David Baer, May 2014
In this installment of Points of Kontakt, we’ll be taking a look at Celestia from Impact Soundworks. This instrument/library requires the full version of Kontakt 5.3 or later). Before getting into the details, let me point out up front that this is a bit more expensive than what we typically cover in this column, today’s price being $139 USD. On the other hand, Celestia is huge, so don’t be scared off by sticker shock. The other important point is that, to my mind at least, the instrument will probably be of more interest to those involved in producing soundtracks or soundscapes. There is certainly much purely musical capability within, but the buyer will be paying for a great deal of textural/noise (as opposed to tonal) content.
In Impact Soundwork’s own words: Celestia: Heavenly Sound Design. This instrument is a hybrid composer’s dream: hundreds of synthetic and acoustic sound sources, rich editing, deep synthesis features, and endless ways to create unique variations. Rather than dark and gritty sounds, we instead focused the library and presets on the lighter end of the spectrum…Celestia: Heavenly Sound Design. This instrument is a hybrid composer’s dream: hundreds of synthetic and acoustic sound sources, rich editing, deep synthesis features, and endless ways to create unique variations. Rather than dark and gritty sounds, we instead focused the library and presets on the lighter end of the spectrum…
This first thing one needs to do is to get a sense of the term “heavenly”. My initial supposition was heavenly as in Elysian Fields, as in Paradise. But “heavenly” can also mean cosmic, as in the stars and planets in the heavens. Having spent some time with Celestia, I think it could go either way but I’m inclined to associate more of a cosmic vibe to what can be done with the instrument.
The Big Picture
Celestia provides a two-level playback capability in which two identical playback engines can each play one of the many provided sample sets. We’ll get to what sounds are provided shortly, but let’s just focus on the overall instrument for the moment. The main UI (pictured below) consists of the dual layer upper section for sample selection and tailoring, and a multi-purpose lower portion offering the global functions of effects, sequencer and performance controls (portamento, etc.).
Let’s start with the dual playback engines – they are very straightforward. You select a sound from one of ten categories (much more on these momentarily). We have the usual selection of volume, pan and tuning (plus or minus one octave). Three dedicated envelopes are provided for amplitude, pitch and filter. We have a single LFO for filter only.
The filter can be LP, HP or BP, with adjustable cutoff and resonance and cutoff can be set to track relative to note pitch. All in all, anyone with even a light exposure to synth programming will come up to speed with little effort.
Only a few controls need explanation. The Constant and Sample knobs control sample start position. This can be used in two ways. Obviously, specifying randomness in the sample start position introduces variation in repeated notes. But the Constant control, which specifies a fixed offset into samples is of particular use. Many of the samples have a distinctive attack sound. Moving the start position a little past this point really gives you a whole new sound, so many of the sample sets actually serve double duty.
The Monaural button is of obvious purpose. Many of the samples have a decidedly stereo quality, and in some cases it may be useful to suppress that.
One tab in the lower portion of the screen gives access to the onboard effects (which can be seen in the screen shot above). From the screen image, you can easily see what’s on offer – all pretty standard fare. The reverb, however, warrants special attention. This uses the native Kontakt convolution effect and Celestia comes with a small but lovely set of possibilities (seen right).
What’s significant is that the reverb is more than a reverb in this case. Think about what convolution does. Yes, convolution is mostly used to realize rich and natural actual reverberation in most situations. But convolution processing is actually like an N-drop delay, where N is a very large number, the time between drops is inaudibly short and each drop has a custom parametric EQ setting. So, convolution can perform all sorts of marvelous sound manipulation. And Celestia takes full advantage of this with some impulses that have an almost magical affect. Of course there’s a selection of halls and rooms. But options like “Extra Shimmer”, “Raindrops” and “Glittering” are something else entirely and cannot be described in words.
The two other lower tabs are for performance controls and a sequencer. They are pictured below, and I’ll leave it to the images to tell the story.
Did I mention that Celestia in huge? How huge? Just consider that it took me approximately six hours to audition all the individual sounds and the 550 or so factory presets. The sounds are organized into ten categories: Acoustic, Airy, Bells, Glassy, Motion, Noise, Plucks, Texture, Vocal and Warm. The entirety of what’s on offer is shown below.
Of course, it’s a tossup with some sounds as to whether they are noise vs. texture, and “Warm” is not a particularly precise designation, but I’m sure you get the idea.
The sample sets can be separated into two major categories: tonal sounds and texture (or noise if you prefer). In the case of the latter, mostly found in the Noise and Texture groups, you’ll see that many sounds are paired, one of the pair having the NT prefix. The NT may stand for “No Tuning”, but I think “No Tracking” is a better guess. The NT sounds all sound at the same playback rate (pitch would not be an accurate word in this case). All of them sound identical to the middle C sound of the non-NT twin. This is very convenient in that when layering a tonal sound with a noise sound, the sound designer will only want the tonal sounds pitch to vary according to keyboard position. And remember, you can tune an NT’s “pitch” up or down an octave, so there’s plenty of flexibility.
As to the tonal sounds, it’s useful to further categorize them as vaguely tuned, coarsely (or rustically) tuned and precisely tuned. Vaguely tuned samples include various bells and instruments like Gamelan. Coarsely tuned includes many ethnic sounding instruments, including a number ethnic flutes. Precisely tuned means just that. Among these, “Glass Dulcimer”, “Solar System” and “Harpesque” are beautiful beyond words to these ears.
There is a huge number of factory presets pre-programmed that mostly layer two sounds, although a few just use one layer to good effect. The presets are reasonably well organized into categories (e.g. “Pads”, “Rythmic”, “Synth Poly”, and “Pads” has four subcategories. But a word of advice: as you audition the presets, keep notes. With this ocean of presets, finding your way back to favorites will take a while.
It seems to me that the Celestia user will benefit more from designing custom sounds rather than relying on the factory presets. It’s utterly simple – so simple that no prerequisite sound design skill is needed to accomplish satisfying results.
Is Celestia for You?
Let’s talk first about the price. Yes, it’s more than one might be accustomed to paying for a Kontakt library requiring the full player. But I think the price is probably competitive with a number of other cinematic sound libraries in the marketplace. I have little experience with that type of library, but I think another valid comparison is to an Alchemy library, which go for around $60 USD apiece. Celestia provides enough raw material to be the equivalent a couple of Alchemy libraries, so once again, the price is not exorbitant for what you get.
But I do think this instrument will be of most interest to those needing sound-track-type audio. That’s not to say that exquisitely musical audio cannot be produced with Celestia – it most certainly can. But Celestia delivers much that will be of little interest to the purely musical composer or performer. If that describes you, be aware that there’s probably a lot of Celetia’s capability that you won’t be utilizing.
There is an excellent 30-minute video at Impact Soundwork’s web site in which developer Andrew Aversa does an extensive show-and-tell. Potential buyers will certainly want to check it out here: