Exhale by Output (through Bestservice.de)
We examine one of the most unusual, appealing and original instruments found in VST world. It is truly unbelievable what can be done just with a collection of vocal samples and a few effects.
by A. Arsov, Jan. 2016
What It’s All About
It’s a vocal engine. What exactly does that mean? Actually it’s a Kontakt player based instrument that uses vocal samples as a base for the included presets. The end result is very impressive as all those vocal samples become almost unrecognizable, being heavily manipulated with all the tools, effects and modulators that are available inside the instrument engine. Presentation video clips somehow don’t show the full potential of Exhale because most of the presets are more for ambient-oriented music, but as soon as you start building melodies from the more vivid presets you will find Exhale to be one of the most inspirational and useful instruments of the latest round of releases. The main catch is that most vocal libraries sound somewhat fake – they are almost there, but you can still recognize the take is not a live recording. Exhale presets were not intended to sound like a recording take made with live vocalists, but in most cases, when you build a melody, it sounds like a real, live vocalist take that has been heavily processed with some weird effects. Of course, presets don’t bring any specific words or long phrases. In most cases they are some “doo, doo-woop” and “yea – yeaah” sort of phrases, but they sit perfectly well as background vocals. Or even better as a short vocal line to spice up your instrumental. The only bad news is that you can’t use your own vocal samples, but the main reason for that is quite simple: to preserve the high quality of material – as all those included vocal samples are professionally recorded by professional session vocalists or band vocalists and are already pre-produced. After all, we get more than 500 presets, and if this is not enough we can make our own, choosing up to two included vocal samples for the Note play mode or a bit of a longer sample like a vocal phrase in Loop or Slice play mode, further manipulating it (or them, in Note play mode) in many possible ways, tweaking various parameters. Or if you are the less adventurous type of fellow, just changing parameters on existing presets. After watching some video clips I realized it’s not rocket science and actually every user can do it without too many problems. Everything is straightforward and quite logical inside the Main window, also inside the Engine window where you can go far deeper with the manipulations, changing vocal samples or basic parameters.
The first things we notice in the main window are four sliders for controlling the most useful parameters for a chosen preset. Those parameters are different for different presets and can be easily changed by simply pressing the Macros button in the upper right corner. You can assign any of the 24 parameters to each slider. The sliders are visible in all of the three main play modes.
Note play mode offers 250 presets containing various effected voices made from syllables, short vocal voices, or even vocal pads chromatically ranked over the keyboard. This play mode is perfect for building short-to-medium-length melody phrases that sound quite unique. As you know, most of the well-known hits contain simple hooks that can sound somewhat idiotic but still amazing since they are played with some special sounds. As soon as you try to recreate this logic in your songs, playing a simple melody with your synth, it just sounds idiotic, a long way from amazing. I tried to make a few such melodies with Exhale and the end result is quite appealing because Exhale sounds really unique, giving a steady character to those simple melodies.
The next play mode is Loop, where we can find another set of 125 presets bringing various loops ranked over the keyboard inside every preset. Loops can be tuned to fit your songs, just press the Key selector button near Macros in the right-hand corner and you will get the full rank of key notes that allow you to set the main key, and furthermore, there are two small buttons below that allow us to choose between major or minor scale. All those loops can be more useful than you think. In the past I’ve used plenty of similar sounds for transition between different parts in composition or between some vocal parts. Of course, I have spent some quality time making such samples, manipulating a phrase or a word that I took from the main vocal take, and here we have it already processed, just a click away.
The last play mode is Slice. We can call it Skrillex mode, as it offers 125 sliced vocal phrases that are ranked slice by slice through the keyboard. I watched some video clips, how to recreate Skrillex vocal chops in various DAWs, and I have to say with Exhale it can be done in a second, and with a little trial and error you can get really impressive results that can put life back into a song previously headed for a dead end. Actually Exhale is a great “song saver” tool.
At the bottom of the main window is a preset browser where at the upper two rows we can choose between 12 different categories – or tags, as the Output team like to call them. With those categories you can filter your search by mood or character. So, at least if you are looking for some poppy phrase you can easily avoid all the Atmo sounds with slow attack.
In most cases, controllers in the main window give you everything you need. But if you want more, to make a preset from scratch or to tweak some other parameter (like increasing the pan amplitude or changing the wave shape inside the Rhythm panel – the latter can drastically change the character of the preset), further adapting the preset to your personal needs, then you want to try the Engine.
Pressing the Engine button in the upper right corner you get a new window with three horizontal rows of controllers. The first row is different from Note play mode, while the second and third rows are more or less the same for all three play modes.
In the first row for Notes play mode we get an option to select up to two different vocal samples that will serve as the source for the preset. By clicking on any of those two vocal icons a new window opens where we can find 80 different vocal clips ranked into four different categories: One shot, Pads, Tape 1 and Tape 2. Of course this is just the beginning of a beautiful friendship, as there you can set pan and volume. Then you can reverse the sample, determining which part of the sample will be triggered, or you can even select the Stack option allowing you to constantly retrigger the sample by using the sustain pedal. After selecting the source voices we are back in the first row, where we can set equalization for every sample as well as an ADSR envelope. Both options offer a very advanced set of controllers, so fine tuning is quite an easy task. Actually, all controllers in Exhale are really well done, offering a very good level of editing.
In Loop and Slice mode, in the first row, we get the same set of EQ, ADSR, reverse and volume controllers along with speed and formant shift knobs, and a wave window where we can set the start point for the loop or slice depending in which play mode we are in. We can also set a different tuning for each slice or loop, but I prefer using the before explained Key option that assigns loops and slices automatically to a key of a song.
In the second row is the Rhythm panel where you can set the level and shape of the sample modulation over time. You can select between various wave shapes or even using the step sequencer with a various number of steps. For both options, wave or step sequencer, we get a huge number of patterns and by choosing some of the more complex ones you can drastically change the end result. Making a new preset can be a really joyful task. I hope that Output will start some preset exchange option on their home page. It would be nice to try out what others have done.
The third row is set for Mod effects, where we can apply different effects to the Rhythm panel, setting the pan, filter, volume, phaser, and “Talk” – a formant filter and saturation. Of course all these effects have additional controllers.
Under the set of Rhythm panel Mod effects is a row of insert effects that are applied to all sounds without being effected with modulation. Compressor, reverb, delay, pitch, dirt (covering three different effects, Screamer, Lo-fi), Motion (covering the Flanger, Chorus and Rotator) and Tone where we can apply some basic filter types along with a three-band EQ.
What can I say? Writing this review was quite a frustrating experience, because for most of the presets that I tried I immediately got some ideas for a song, so instead of going through the whole Exhale instrument I had to save every idea that I got under different names, setting the right tempo, writing down some background chords, opening a new project and trying to go through the whole engine for review purposes. At the end of the week I made few songs for stock libraries where Exhale was used for the main hook. I made a few pop sketches for some future projects until I finally decided to disconnect the keyboard from the laptop and go through Exhale just by using the virtual keyboard in Kontakt, so I finally managed to get through all its functions without being distracted by inspiration. Not that I’m an especially inspirational animal, but Exhale is simply such a tempting instrument, so different from any other instrument I’ve ever putted my fingers on. Even the most simple phrases sound so good when you play them through Exhale. Over the years I have become rather picky, taking only the best from the best (that’s the secret behind my very positive attitude in almost all reviews) but this one is really something special. Exhale is an absolute winner for 2015. One of the most original and useful tools that I’ve had over the years. In combination with my new YouRock YRG-Gen 2 midi controller this becomes an absolute killer. It goes well with metal, pop, rock, IDM, cinematic and, as seen from Output video clips, ambient-chill electro stuff.
Maybe it could be fun to use your own samples, but then I presume the result wouldn’t be so appealing, so I will forgive that. The only thing that I miss, or maybe I should say, that I would like to see, is the before-mentioned preset exchange section on Output’s website.
For more information visit the Bestservice site:
or the Exhale site: http://output.com/products/exhale/
For $199 USD or €223 EUR you could get a piece of pure inspiration. The best fake vocals that money can buy.