Review – Strezov Sampling Rhodope 2 Ethnic Bulgarian Choir
The newest entry in Strezov Sampling’s Next Generation Choir series features the exotic sound of twenty women’s voices performing lower-range Bulgarian singing.
by Per Lichtman, July 2017
Rhodope 2 Ethnic Bulgarian Choir (available from Strezov Sampling for $329 USD) for the full version of Kontakt Player 5 (actually 126.96.36.19933, to be specific) or later, joins Freyja, Wotan and Árva as the newest member of Strezov’s Next Generation Choir Series. It’s an entirely new library, featuring none of the same recordings as Rhodope 1, which, among other things, used a different sampling approach and a choir half the size. The all-new recordings are performed by Cosmic Voices, a single section twenty woman choir conducted by Vanya Moneva that spans the same two-octave range as the altos in Freyja (E an octave below middle C to E an octave above middle C) for the legato and syllabuilder patches. The performances, vowels and syllables differ from the other members of the Next Generation Choir Series, but the interface remains the same – including support for the same Syllabuilder 3 presets. For more on that, see our review of Strezov’s choral bundle in this issue here. Notably, the Rhodope 2 Ethnic Bulgarian Choir has the most comprehensive list of patch types for an ensemble in the series: multiple interval legato types, clusters and FX and syllabuilder (with both whispers and shouts). Each of these patch types is found in at least one of the other Strezov choir libraries (and Arva uniquely features soloists) but none of the others contain all of the above. Of course the real question for many people will be “what does an ethnic Bulgarian choir sound like”?
My Own Journey to the Ethnic Bulgarian Choral Sound
The first time I remember hearing the distinctive sound of Bulgarian throat singing was when Yasunori Mitsuda featured “The Great Voices of Bulgaria” (more specifically, their mixed choir) in his original score for the 1998 game Xenogears. It honestly sounded like no choir I’d heard before, and the most distinctive parts for me were the women voices, particularly the difference in the vowels and the style of note transitions. It struck me as extremely passionate, yet ethereal and otherworldly, drawing my attention to harmonic structures I rarely heard in classical choral literature. A few years later in 2002 I would learn a little bit more about the performance techniques as some of my friends studied Bulgarian throat singing with Kate Conklin at the California State Summer School for the Arts, and yet the sound remained no less magical to me. So when I sat down to review Rhodope 2, a choir sampled in the same hall by the same team as Freyja (a more traditional and western sounding women’s chorus) I was especially curious to hear just how subtle or great the differences would be.
What’s Included and How Different It Sounds
When placed next to the altos in Strezov’s own Freyja, the interface feels completely familiar – just about all the functionality you’re used to is here. Nonetheless, there are a few organizational differences that pop out right away. First off, there’s the patch list: Ah legato; Eh legato; syllabuilder; clusters and FX; whispers and shouts. The legato and syllabuilder patches all cover the same sampled range (E below middle C to E an octave above middle C). Let’s compare that to the altos in Freyja, where there’s also a syllabuilder patch (though it uses different sounds), the whispers are only available in a combined context (with altos and sopranos combined) and the legato patches use the Ah and Mm sounds, with normal and slow sampled intervals for each (and patch that crossfades between the two). Since the syllables in the syllabuilder are different in each library the most direct comparison can be made using their respective Ah legatos.
Setting aside the differences in ensemble size (there are twice as many altos in Rhodope 2 as Freyja), the “ah” sound itself in each library is actually a different vowel. In Freyja the vowel is more akin to the rounded “a” sound in the word “all” – in Rhodope 2 the mouth opens wider and the sound more, sounding a bit more like the “a” in the word “action”. The differences get more pronounced as you start to fade between the dynamic layers. Where Freyja covers three highly lyrical (and easy to blend) dynamics from a quiet pianissimo to a loud (but never edgy) forte, Rhodope 2 starts off at a mezzo-forte and blends upward into an intense fortissimo “shake” singing layer unlike any other library I’ve ever used (including Voices of the Apocalypse). For dynamic range reference, with the default mic settings (but with reverb disabled) middle C in Rhodope 2 covered -16 dBFS at the lowest modwheel position to -10.3 dBFS at the max. By comparison, Freyja skewed heavily toward the quieter dynamics, going from -28.2 dBFS to -18.4 dBFS. Since Strezov Sampling has been very vocal about emphasizing maintaining the original dynamics in their recordings, this difference can be attributed to the sound captured in the microphones, as opposed to any post processing.
Pressing onward, the syllabuilder offers a very different collection of sounds from Freyja: tul, day, tip, lor, han, mir, ket, yon, zey and yul. The resulting phrases you can build sound entirely different from those in Strezov’s other libraries: haunting at lower dynamics and bursting with passion at the top of the range. I found myself completely unable to approximate the sound with more western sounding choral libraries.
There are notoriously few choral libraries catering to the Bulgarian choral tradition and I have yet to get hands-on time with any of them, so I’ll address this on a conceptual level. The most direct competition comes from Impact Soundworks Vocalisa Slavic Women’s Choir. Vocalisa breaks the women’s choir into sopranos, mezzos, altos, soloist and full choir. The sounds sampled are “eh”, “mah”, “yah”, “ree”, “shteh”, “svah” and “oh” along with mordents, turns, clusters, FX and breaths. You’ll notice that these differ greatly from the sounds in Rhodope 2 (though there’s a small overlap) and unlike Rhodope 2, there are no interval legato samples. From the audio demos in the walkthroughs it’s clear that Vocalisa’s recordings have a much drier studio sound than those in Rhodope 2. In other words, I would imagine that anyone really passionate about a multi-sampled Bulgarian women’s chorus would want to own both as there is little overlap between the two. Those looking for more loop-based products or purely for soloists have more options, like “Orpheus” from AudioGrocery.com’s Bulgarian Vox Trilogy.
Is It Right For You?
If you’re looking for a large women’s chorus that sounds unlike any western one, with a great hall sound, Rhodope 2 is the first one I’d check out. The interval legato samples are great, the differences in performance style are preserved and the textures are quite unique. In addition, the “ah” or “eh” sound can be mixed in with more western choirs to make the sound a little bigger and more intense at dramatic moments. Whether you’re adding Rhodope 2 to your existing collection of Strezov Sampling choirs or buying it on its own, the library has a great sound, is easy to use and comes highly recommended.