Review – Strezov Sampling Freyja, Wotan and Árva
Strezov Sampling’s newest choral bundle emphasizes a natural sound, musical performance and a short learning curve. Are these the voices you’re looking for?
by Per Lichtman, July 2017
Freyja, Wotan and Árva are a trio of choral libraries (available individually or as a combined bundle from Strezov Sampling for $879 USD) for the full version of Kontakt Player 5 (actually 22.214.171.12433, to be specific) or later. I found this especially helpful on a test system with OS X 10.8, since Native Instruments stopped supporting Kontakt in 10.8 and earlier in more recent versions (like 5.5). If you’re interested in an easy to use yet powerful and expressive choir bundle that spans men, women, boys and girls (as well as boy and girl soloists), sampled in recorded in Bulgaria, then read on.
What Sort of Choir Library Is It?
This choir bundle covers a wide range, with a minimum of eight syllables (ten for the children choirs in Árva), sustains, staccatos, scripted legato and (for Freyja and Árva) sampled interval legato. All the sustains are looped, so they can be held for infinite durations. The bundle features extensive divisi sampling: each of the three libraries is divided into two ranges: basses and tenors for the men in Wotan, altos and sopranos for the women in Freyja and two sets of altos and sopranos for the children in Árva.
Additionally, Árva recently added a whole new folder “Árva Soloists” which features multiple syllables for a girl alto, girl soprano and boy soprano – omitting the boy alto for that soloist category. However, the boy alto gets an “ooh” legato patch, as do the other three soloists – and both the boy alto and boy soprano also have an extra “ah” legato patch. There are three microphone positions (close, decca and hall) each of which sounds quite audibly different from the others, with the close mic position getting nice and “close” and the hall being strongly colored with pleasant hall reverb, without an excessively long tail. There are release samples that can be switched on and off, and to my ears they worked seamlessly and highly effectively in all cases. Each choir (with the exception of certain bonus patches, like the clusters) features between two and three dynamic layers (three for Wotan and Freyja, with two sampled for Árva and a third interpolated between them), an additional whispers layer for the women in Freyja with both whisper and shout layers for the men in Wotan (with Wotan also featuring a clusters patch). The children in Árva have neither cluster, nor shout nor whisper layers. The whisper and shout layers are unpitched staccato with 6x round-robin provided for each of the syllables. The sustain syllables don’t have round-robins, but the pitched staccato syllables feature 2x round-robin.
The main patches for all three libraries in Strezov’s choral bundle feature the “syllabuilder”, a syllable based sequencer with lots of tweaking capabilities that still remains easy to use. Most syllabuilder patches offer a choice of eight to ten syllables (depending on the library) and they can be put into sequences up to thirty syllables long. Each of these thirty spots in the sequencer can have its own attack, release, volume, sample offset and even choice of sustain or staccato sample for the syllable. You can use the same syllable multiple times in the sequence with different settings – for instance having it used as a sustain at one point and staccato in another. Other options include enabling and choosing one of three legato lengths for the syllable when activating “agile legato” mode (done by holding the sustain pedal). There are also additional power user options (like the ability to have the sequencer automatically fade from one syllable to another) but you don’t have to delve into those to get great musical results. In fact, you can literally open up a syllabuilder patch and just start putting syllablles into the sequence at random and still often come up with something pleasing. The important thing is, as you get more specific about what you want, the interface lets you tailor your sequence to fit that.
The default tab of the “Syllabuilder” sequencer is divided into several areas. In the upper left, you’ll find the keyswitches, which have the note number of the keyswitch on the top and a number on the bottom, indicating the location in the sequence that the keyswitch resets to. By clicking and dragging the number beneath a keyswitch up or down, you can change the syllable on which you start. To the left is the list of syllables on offer. The center of the pane is taken up by the syllable sequence itself – you can click on any slot here to edit its settings. In the lower right you’ll find the syllable controls: sustain vs. staccato, legato settings, rhythm settings if an automatic fade is activated, attack length, release length, slot volume and sample offset. Sample offset can be used to skip consonants, for example. In the upper right you’ll find the syllabuilder’s equivalent of a file menu: reset to default state, load a preset, save a preset, “insert point” mode (which allows you to insert a syllable in an earlier slot and shift the following ones), delete mode, “quick words (a handful of word combinations you can insert at once) and (perhaps most importantly) settings.
Clicking on the settings icon (a gear) brings up the second and final pane, with level, mute and output controls for the three microphone positions on the left. In the center you’ll find the velocity crossover points for “ppp” (for whispers) and “fff” (for shouts) if the patch has them. Underneath that you’ll find some very important configuration options.
First, there’s the “Agile Legato for HLS” option: when this box is checked, any slots that you enable legato for in the syllabuilder can have scripted legato activated by using the “HLS Controller”. By default, the HLS controller is your sustain pedal – and if you depress the sustain pedal, it will keep using the current syllable with scripted legato transitions between each note (like a melisma). This is the one aspect that took me a minute to get used to in the interface so I’m pointing it out to you early on. If you disable the checkbox, you won’t get scripted legato with the sustain pedal held down, no matter what settings you selected in the syllabuilder sequencer.
Next there’s the “Overlapping Notes” option, which switches the syllabuilder between monophonic mode (when the option is unchecked) and polyphonic mode (when the option is checked). The next option is “Release Samples”, which can be unchecked if you don’t want to hear release tails (leave this on by default and only uncheck it if you want drier releases). There’s the “Auto Rest to last KS” option, which makes the syllabuilder stop advancing and just keep repeating whatever syllable you selected via keyswitch. If you haven’t hit a keyswitch, it will just repeat the first syllable in the sequencer.
The next option is enabling and disabling the convolution reverb impulse, with level slider that lets you control the level of the reverb relative to the dry signal. This 32-bit reverb impulse from the hall actually sounds surprisingly good, making it one of the few cases where I actually frequently use reverb that came with a sample library. The final option lets you choose the HLS controller, which is mapped to the sustain pedal (CC64) by default. I know I mentioned this earlier but I’ll revisit it since when I first opened this page, HLS didn’t mean anything to me, and I want to save you a bit of time: when this CC is set to its maximum value (which means holding down the sustain pedal if you are using the default) then you’ll stay on the current syllable until you let go. If you have agile legato enabled, then any syllable with legato settings enabled in the sequencer will now have “agile legato” scripted transitions. In other words, the HLS controller (sustain pedal by default) is how you toggle between Agile legato mode, staying on the current syllable, or moving through the sequence from syllable to syllable without Agile Legato. If you don’t use the HLS controller, the legato settings in the sequencer don’t affect anything.
Wotan: The Men
Wotan is the oldest of the three libraries, but nonetheless has some unique things to offer. For instance, it features basses with the most extended low range of any sampled choir I’ve ever worked with (all the way down to G0 in Kontakt’s mapping, nearly two-and-a-half octaves below C3 a.k.a. Middle C) while still extending up to E3, above middle C. I want to give full credit here – they didn’t just simply stretch samples – for the articulation I checked, the waveform for the low-G spans spans only a wholetone in the mapping and the highest G had its very own sample. Kudos! The tenors also span A1 to C4 (an octave above middle C). As one would expect (and can be found throughout all the libraries in the bundle) the dynamics scale upward as the pitch increases, with the lowest pitches being the quietest.
The main syllabuilder patches offer eight syllables: “Buh”, “Chak”, “Ki,” No, “Niya”, “Rih, “Seh” and “Tuhm.” The syllable selection is one of many reasons why Wotan has the ability to offer the most aggressive sounds of any of the three libraries included in the bundle – though it’s far from being limited to that.
Wotan is also the only library in the bundle with a clusters patch, featuring sampled cluster performances. The choir samples ten basses and ten tenors – each of which gets their own patch, and is also featured in a combined “men” patch that stacks the samples from each. The main patches can play “whispers” and “shouts” when very low or high velocities are used, respectively – there’s also a patch that only includes the whispers and shouts for those looking to save RAM. Then there’s a “clusters” patch that features a total of six clusters: basses low, basses mid, basses high, tenor low, tenor mid and tenor high.
Wotan does not feature any dedicated legato patches – though it can make use of the same helpful “Agile Legato” capabilities in the syllabuilder patches as do the other two libraries.
Freyja: The Women
Freyja was the second library sampled, featuring ten altos and ten sopranos. Like Wotan, there are dedicated patches for each of the sections (as well as a combined patch that stacks the layers from each) but while Freyja features whispers (both in the main syllabuilder patches and in a dedicated patch) there are neither shouts nor clusters. In the syllabuilder, the eight syllables on offer are “Luh”, “Dak”, “Si”, “Mo”, “Liya”, “Rih”, “Sheh” and “Ruhm”. The Freyja syllabuilder patch for altos spans C2 (an octave below middle C) to F4, while the sopranos span C3 (middle C) to C5.
Unlike Wotan, Freyja features five dedicated sampled interval legato patches for both sopranos and altos: “Ah legato”; “Ah slow legato”; “Mah legato”; “Mm legato” and “Mm slow legato”. Each legato transition is sampled up to an octave and the normal legato patches are quite responsive, while the slow legato patches have a very noticeable delay before the audible transition starts (in exchange for a longer transition overall). These sampled interval legato transitions are a huge improvement over the scripted Agile Legato in Syllabuilder and they work well at every dynamic, sounding equally convincing, natural and easy to use at the bottom of the modwheel range as they do at the top.
The ranges for the legato patches vary significantly: sopranos Ah legato /Ah legato slow (C3-C5); sopranos MAh Legato and Mm legato/Mm legato slow (C3-F4); altos Ah legato/Ah legato slow (E2-E4); altos MAh Legato and Mm legato/Mm legato slow (E2-C4). The differences in these ranges may affect which patches you use for a given passage.
Árva: The Children
Árva, the choir of children, is the most recent library and is divided into two parts: Arva and Arva Soloists. We’ll tackle Arva, the choir, first. In the main syllabuilder patches we find six options: boy altos; boy sopranos; boys stacked patch; girl altos; girl sopranos and girl stacked patch. The ranges are the same for both boys and girls in the main syllabuilder patches: altos span the range G2 (below middle C) to C4 (an octave above middle C). Sopranos span C3 (middle C) to G4 (an octave-and-a-half above middle C). This gives each of the combined patches (boys and girls respectively) a two-octave range from G2 to G4. The ten syllables on offer are “Luh”, “Pan”, “Ki”, “No, “Liya”, “Rih”, “Son, “Lah” and “Liyum”. You won’t find clusters, whispers or shouts, but you get more different choirs, and then soloists on top of that – making it the most varied of the three choir libraries in the bundle.
As far as legato patches, there are “Ah, “Mm” and “Ooh” legatos for all four choirs in Arva. Note that the girl legato patches have the same range as the syllabuilder patches, but the boys have their range reduced by two semitones at the bottom: A2-C4 for the boy altos and D3-G4 for the boy sopranos. There’s also a folder of legato “bonus patches” which have the modwheel control crossfading between either “Mm” and “Ah” or “Mm”, “Ooh” and “Ah”.
There are also additional soloist patches. For the syllabuilder soloist we have different vowels depending on the soloist. The boy soprano has “luh”, “ki”, “no” and “liyum”. The girl alto and girl soprano have“ki”, “no”, “lah” and “liyum”. The ranges for these syllabuilder soloist patches vary somewhat from their respective choirs: boy and girl soprano (D3-F4) and girl alto (A2-C4).
For the legato patches, we find “Ooh” legatos boy soprano, boy alto, girl soprano and girl alto. The boy soprano and boy alto each get an “Ah” legato patch as well. The ranges are as follow: boy soprano (D3-F4), girl soprano (C3-F4), boy alto (A2-C4) and girl alto (G2-C4).
The legato scripting, both for the child choirs and the child soloists, is the best I’ve encountered in any children’s choir sample library I’ve used to date. While using soloist samples convincingly in an exposed context is naturally more difficult than a choir (by its very nature), it’s comparatively easy to take the soloists here and use them to enrich the sound of the respective choir.
A Few of My Favorite Things
One of my favorite things about Strezov’s choral bundle is just how well all the pieces work together. First, there’s the attention to detail in programming the dynamics (which functioned exactly the way I wanted throughout the modwheel range, out of the box, across all libraries). Then there’s how robustly the legato programming works (I didn’t run into stuck note issues whether I used it in polyphonic or monophonic mode) and how musical the sampled legato intervals sound. The convolution reverb impulse sounds great on the choir and is one of the few cases where I found myself using a lot of a built-in reverb impulse. On the other hand, as long as I left the release samples on, things often sounded great even without any reverb at all – and all the microphone positions helped make the legato transitions work better together than any individual position on its own.
Another great thing about the choral bundle is how natural many of the patches sound out of the box: while you’ll be able to do much more if you read the manual than if you don’t, you can pretty much sit down, pick some syllables at random and get a musical sound without a hint of tweaking. Part of what makes things work so well is that there’s a bit of bloom and movement in the sustains that is missing from many choirs I’ve used in the past. I always looked forward to adding these choirs to my pieces, and I didn’t have to spend lots of time tweaking to get a sound I enjoyed. The choirs here all sound expressive and musical, and layering different choirs in the same range (for instance Freyja altos, with Árva boy alto and Árva girl altos) can produce a very rich sound – especially if the Árva soloists are blended in (in the same way one can blend sampled solo strings into a sampled string ensemble)
In addition, the degree of divisi sampling was extremely important to the way I normally like to do my choral writing (which often ranges from 4-part SATB to 8-part SSAATTBB writing) and the ability to choose between three different colors for alto and soprano parts was a real treat. I also didn’t run into any glitches or issues and everything worked smoothly throughout the review process.
Strengths, Limitations and Competition
This Strezov choral bundle makes it easy to string together musically performed syllables (the syllables vary somewhat from library to library) using a simple Kontakt sequencer, features a scripted “agile legato” for melismatic writing and (for Freyja, Árva sections and Árva soloists) dedicated sampled interval legato patches for different vowels. If you are looking for a choir in that vein I would say that, while there’s much great competition (with new ones popping up all the time), in looking at Strezov’s choral bundle first, it holds its own against every other library I’ve heard, though preferences are personal of course.
Here’s a quick list of some of the competing choral libraries. 8Dio Liberis (children’s choir) and Requiem (adults’ SATB choir); CineSamples Voxos (adults’ SATB choir and children’s choir); Bela D Media Giovani Revive (boys’ choir and girls’ choir); Soundiron Mercury Boys Choir, Soundiron Olympus Choir (men’s and women’s choir); VSL’s Voices Complete (SATB choir); Performance Samples Oceania (24-person men’s choir and 24-person women’s choir). If you are looking for choral patches along with orchestral ones rather than a dedicated library, then one interesting option is the choral patches in Orchestral Tools Metropolis Ark 2. Ark 2 makes sense if you don’t need divisi writing but still want to get a low basso profundo range (and can live with the fact that Wotan extends a full major third lower), women voices and a children’s choir. I have yet to review the library, but my experience with other Orchestral Tools products has always been good. If you just want men’s and women’s voices, you can find those patches in Metropolis Ark I.
The obvious omission from all of these choirs (including Strezov’s choral bundle) is “word building”: the ability to phonetically write out text for the virtual choir to perform. While eight to ten syllables offer significant variation, it doesn’t offer much in the way of ability to realize a specific text using the choir. When it comes to “word building”, Strezov Sampling has an entirely different product line (Storm Choir 2) worth looking into, though notably it does not include children. The first choir I ever used with word building was of course Quantum Leap Voices of the Apocalypse – and its successor (EastWest Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs – optionally available with VOTA expansion) remains one of only a handful of choices for more comprehensive word building. But the best children’s choirs I’ve found with word building capabilities so far is the Virharmonic Czech Boys Choir, which features adult males (the “young men” choir), a boys’ choir (the “trebles” choir, as opposed to separate tenors and sopranos like Árva) and a boy soprano soloist.
In other words, Strezov Sampling’s bundle is far from the only game in town – but it’s a state-of-the-art library that offers something different from its competitors. Check it out first and then check out the competition to see the pros and cons of each. Personally, I find I’m not only using it every chance I can get, but I’m finding ways to work it into projects that might not normally include choir. It sounds that good and it’s really easy to work with.
Room for Improvement
If I were going to nitpick, there are a few ways in which Strezov’s bundle could be improved. First of all the oldest library (Wotan) will benefit greatly if it receives dedicated legato patches like Freyja and Arva. Second, the variation in syllables from library to library means that the user can’t simply use the sample syllable pattern for each choir. Third, the variation in range between syllabuilder patches and different types of legato patches means the user has to keep track of an extra variable – it would be easier if all the patches for a given choir had the same range.
None of these are major issues and often times they are understandable. For instance, when I used to sing a choir I definitely was steadier at top and bottom extremes of my range with some vowels than others, so I can understand that type of issue. There just really isn’t a lot to complain about.
Is It Right For You?
This choral bundle from Strezov is one of the very best and most versatile I’ve ever heard or used. The recordings are great, the divisi sampling is robust, the scripting and programming are both robust and the learning curve is shorter than with other choir libraries I’ve used. If you’re willing to trade more extensive “word building” for using a 30-step “syllabuilder” with eight or ten syllables and various single vowel legato patches, then you’ll be rewarded with a musical choir ready to cater to diverse material in just about any genre I can think of. Whether you’re looking to create renditions of classical music, add textures to your film scoring or do arranging for other genres from pop to EDM to prog rock, this a choral bundle with something to offer.