Points of Kontakt – Union Chapel Organ from Spitfire
Spitfire delivers a pipe organ library sampled in London’s storied Union Chapel that bears the usual high quality and attention to detail we’ve grown to expect from this company.
by David Baer, Sept. 2016
In this month’s Points of Kontakt we look at (yet!) another pipe organ instrument. I have never denied I am a sucker for pipe organ libraries, so here is one more about which I’m delighted to write. Spitfire’s approach to putting this library together differs in a few significant ways to what others have done for sampled pipe organ instruments, and we’ll examine these variances in detail shortly.
First let’s get a few mandatory details out of the way. The price is £149 GBP, which is a bit on the high side of what we normally cover in this column. However, as you read on, you may see that the amount of work that went into this library was significant, and the price is not overly inflated. Also, note that unlike much of Spitfire’s catalog, this one requires the full version of Kontakt. Spitfire does have a track record of one lone sale last year, and perhaps another will happen again later this year – but whether that happens again is anyone’s guess at the moment.
The Union Chapel has become an almost legendary venue for both classical and popular performances, with a list of artists that include Elton John, David Byrne, Amy Winehouse and Ray Davies. The venue, being originally an actual chapel, not surprisingly has a pipe organ. The organ was built in the Romantic-era fashion around 1877. Just a few years ago, it received a major restoration – an undertaking probably much needed for something that old. The result is nothing less than marvelous. We have an organ that sounds fresh, in-tune, well-voiced and everything a good organ should be. At the same time, this organ represents the very best of the style of organ building a century (and a bit) ago, a style that delivers a rather mellower sound than organs built to current practice.
Organs can sound great (or otherwise) based on both their internal structures (pipes, pipe cabinetry, et.al.) and also on their environment (the ambience of the building in which they are housed). Both elements need to be satisfied to have a superb-sounding instrument, and if Spitfire’s library is any indication, both elements are indeed present. On offer is truly a glorious, but subtle and rich sound. But in addition to the organ and venue, I believe much of the credit must go to the Spitfire engineers who clearly went the distance to make this work so well.
The actual organ has three manuals, Great/Choir/Swell, and a full pedalboard. The list of stops is as follows:
- Open Diapason 8
- Stopped Diapason 8
- Trumpet 8
- Flautodolce 8
- Clarion 4
- Principle 4
- Mixture 3
- Twelth 3
- Fifteenth 2
- Claribel Flute 8
- Dulciana 8
- Viol dAmore 8
- Concert Flute 4
- Piccolo 2
- Contra Gamba 16 (Open Only)
- Open Diapason 8 MW
- Salcional 8
- Vox Angelica 8
- Flote 4 MW
- Mixture MW
- Open Diapason Wood 16
- Ophicleide 16
Those wishing to learn more about organ pipes and so forth may wish to take a look at an earlier Kontakt pipe organ review I did in which an introductory tutorial is included. You may find that here:
Look for the section titled Pipe Organ 101.
Below the basic UI. It’s quite straightforward. Each of the stops has a button to engage it. More on the UI later.
Concert pipe organs frequently have either mechanical or electrically-effected mechanisms that can couple manuals to other manuals and/or the pedalboard. We do not know what is available on the original instrument but multichannel MIDI and the Kontakt multi capability make all that irrelevant. With a Kontakt-based organ library, we can throw together whatever combinations of stops we’d like. If the original organ did not make it possible to, say, add a 16’ diapason pedal rank stop and an 8’ Viol dAmore choir rank stop, we can nevertheless do so here.
And this gets us to the first major departure from standard practice chosen by Spitfire. Every other organ library I’ve seen delivers a tutti “stop” for the whole instrument and in some cases a tutti “stop” for individual manuals. A tutti stop isn’t an individual organ stop, but it’s the sound of all ranks engaged. A manual-tutti is all the ranks associated (or belonging to) a manual. Providing a tutti makes sense from the standpoint of processing efficiency. It’s where organists go when it’s time for the big, dramatic climax. But rather than requiring all the individual sample sets playing concurrently (one sample set for each stop), if we instead are provided a sample set where all the pipes are engaged, much processing overhead may be avoided.
But Spitfire didn’t do it that way. If you want a tutti, you must engage all the stops (I know, we haven’t gotten to the UI yet, but we soon will). There are a few sample sets in this library that deliver the sound of multiple pipes, but these are all intended for conveniently adding higher-register sounds (and not always at octave offsets) to lower-register stops.
To make a long story short, getting a tutti, an all-guns-ablazin’ sound can use up a lot of voices. But it doesn’t come close to ending there, because two other factors cause even more voices to be called into service. I am not offering this as a criticism here, but owners of older computers with insufficient horsepower to handle hundreds of concurrent Kontakt voices may be constrained to use less than the full capability of this instrument.
Next let’s address another way in which Union Chapel Organ has approached the implementation of a sampled instrument very differently than convention. Every other sampled pipe organ I’ve looked at (three others in total) has addressed reverberation by supplying a convolution impulse of a large space. This makes a lot of sense – pipe organs can be expected to be in large halls, churches or even cathedrals. The success of such an approach will depend much on the quality of the reverb impulse, but the results can be striking when doing it this way.
Union Chapel isn’t a cathedral, but it is a moderately large space in which reverberations are going to be a big part of the experience. Spitfire completely shunned the idea of adding reverb, instead going with four banks of microphones: close, stereo (mid-distance), ambient and outrigger. These banks are successively further from the pipes, although I’m not sure what differentiates ambient and outrigger.
Each stop then has four sample collections, one recorded with each mic. But it doesn’t end there. Each stop has pairs of sample sets for note-playing and note-release. As might be expected, note-playing samples are looped (and very expertly so, I can attest). Note-release samples do not loop. They are one-shots, but they may last for quite a few seconds. Thus, the reverb is built into the samples, and the amount of reverb is controlled to a great extent by the mix levels of the four mic banks. The more ambient and outrigger is mixed in, the more reverb is naturally achieved.
The mix of mic banks is controlled in one of two ways. On the basic UI, seen previously, there is a section labelled Easy Mix. The control on the right allows for positioning between close and distant. When clicking the lower wrench icon, we get an alternate display seen below in which individual mic levels can be individually set.
Here’s why we start to see some serious voice-count build up with this scheme. Consider playing just one note for a registration that uses eight stops. For note-on, we have eight voices right off the bat. Release that note and we continue to have eight voices, gradually reducing to zero as the release samples get finished. In some cases this might be about four seconds after the note release. So, eight voices … no big deal, right? OK, now play a fast three octave glissando! Now we’ve just bumped the voice count to nearly 300 concurrent voices. That’s assuming we are only using one of the microphone bank sets. If we use two, double that number.
But there’s still one more wrinkle. The swell manual ranks actually have two times the number of samples. One pair (note-playing and note-released) was recorded with the swell enclosure louvers closed. Another pair was recorded with the swell enclosure louvers open. Using the dynamics control (defaulted to the mod-wheel), the mix of the closed and open swell stop samples can be controlled. In the case of these stops, double the number of voices used.
There is one mystery regarding the use of swell ranks. The dynamics control just mentioned affects all the stops, not just the swell stops. This does not mimic the behavior of a real organ and I must wonder if it’s a bug. Multiple requests to Spitfire for clarification went unanswered, so I remain puzzled on this point.
One final point. When a note-off happens, there is a brief crossfade between the note-playing sample and the note-released sample. So for a very short time, voice count actually doubles. So, just bump Kontakt’s maximum sample count to the highest allowed. Sooner or later you will need it.
I want to reiterate, I’m not suggesting there is a problem here. I never once got audio discontinuities after setting a very high voice count maximum. But Union Chapel Organ will call an amazing number of voices into play, so be prepared.
Controlling Registration and Other Things
Because this is Kontakt, we can define a multi that has individual presets that respond to different MIDI channels. As a result, we can easily mimic a multi-manual setup that allows for independent keyboards (and pedalboard), just like the real thing. If you happen to have a multi-manual MIDI-organ controller (and, of course, possess the technique to use the foot pedals), you can play just like you were using a real pipe organ.
For most of us, that’s not a possibility. But if we are playing music actually composed for organ, it’s likely we will want to take advantage of changing registrations. Using a sequencer, this is no problem. We can just use host automation to change the stop selections as needed. An alternative is to use Kontakt key switching. An option (see image above) is provided for which you can define a 22-note range of consecutive keys to engage each of the 22 stops. In practice, this is a little awkward, since the notes associated with all the stops you want engaged must be held at the same time – not always possible even if you have two hands free.
The one thing I would most like as an enhancement would be user-definable registrations, captured as presets, which could be called up using a key-switch scheme. That said, I have yet to see a really good solution to this challenge in any sampled pipe organ.
Another option is provided that allows for individually assigning microphone banks to each stop. For example, you could use the close-up mics for a diapason or flute stop to minimize the mellow quality. Then make an assertive reed stop like a trumpet sound less strident by using less close-up and more ambient mic in the mix. Most users would not go to this trouble, but for a high-profile soundtrack, for example, this amount of detail might be well justified.
Finally, each of the mic banks can be directed to a different Kontakt output. This might be well applied for a surround sound situation. Spitfire’s general predilection to offer broadly cinematic solutions is clearly in evidence in the case of Union Chapel Organ.
So far, I’ve concentrated on the use of Union Chapel Organ as a realistic pipe organ. But there is rather a lot more. Spitfire has also included a variety of presets that use their eDNA engine to provide some other-worldly sounds, again with considerable cinematic possibilities. At least, I believe this is part of the base package available to all purchasers. Because I already have the full eDNA library on my DAW, I can only assume this will be there for all and not just for those owners of eDNA.
I wrote about eDNA in some detail recently, and you can find out more about that here:
Is Union Chapel Organ for You?
Spitfire has conformed to their usual excellent practice of making extensive demo videos available. You can view these with confidence that you will be making an informed purchase decision after doing so. The one downside is that, for now, the videos are the only thing akin to documentation. An online manual is supposedly in the works, but it’s not there yet. If you are puzzled about how to use some feature, your only recourse is to watch the demo videos until you get to the section that talks about that which is in question.
Make no mistake, though. This is an extremely high-quality production and clearly a labor of love. There are some less expensive alternatives available, and some very good ones at that. But Union Chapel organ is in somewhat of a class by itself. Other than needing a little more powerful way for users to define and switch custom registrations, this one has no weaknesses.
Find out more, view the demo videos and/or purchase here: