Monks. Gregorian. Abbey. Chant. If those four words won’t give you an Enigma, nothing will.
In 1990 Michael Cretu released MCMXC a. D. to the world under the project name Enigma. I must confess that it was the first time I heard anything that could be called Gregorian chants. I liked it, a lot. It had a feeling of history, grandeur, mystery and relaxation. Also, the drum beat was awesome as well. There is nothing quite like an AKAI MPC groove with a swing value of 62%. The following years there was practically an explosion in Gregorian Monks singing on newly released records, some good, others not so good.
Fast forward to 2014 and I’m sitting here with a fresh copy of Eduardo Tarilonte’s library Cantus – Gregorian Chants, published by Best Service. Before we get any further let me try to explain what Cantus actually is. Is it a choir library? Well, ”kind of”. Is it unique? Yes, very much so. Apart from a few samples from different indie developers and some Russian monks vocal chants there isn’t really much else that resembles Cantus. It really is a one-of-a-kind product.
I’ve always been interested in vocal sampling, from the early years in front of my AKAI X7000 with 0.7 seconds sampling time @ 44.1 KHz. The loops I could make on that thing resembled an electric razor at best. Well, technology has gotten a long way since then and the vocal libraries of today are nothing short of amazing. I still use an “old” EastWest Symphonic Choirs patch, the “S FULLCHORUS MM NN MOD.nki”. It takes up a whopping 26 MB. But it’s good so I continue to use it.
Word building in vocal libraries have been along for quite some time now. A few have done so-and-so and others have nailed it pretty good. Cantus boasts with word building as one of it’s greater strengths as well as a powerful legato engine, we’ll talk more about that in a little while.
So yes, Cantus is a choir library but not in the usual sense. There is more to it than that, but also less. Confusing? Again, ”kind of”, but I’ll try my best to explain what it is. Cantus is a deep sampled Gregorian monks chant sample library. There, I think I nailed my explanation quite well. No? I’ll try it one more time: Cantus is a Kontakt powered sample library from Eduardo Tarilonte featuring Gregorian monks chanting with word builder technology and a powerful legato engine. Ok? Good. Worth noting is that Cantus has already won an award as “Sample library of the year”. That really raises my expectations. A lot.
Installation is straightforward. If you have a boxed version you’ll be up and running in no time but if you have the download version there could be some waiting time depending on your internet connection speed. The whole library weighs in at just about 2.8 GB of data. The library works with both the free Kontakt Player as well as the full version of Kontakt (of course). There are 21 patches in total.
Lets start from the back shall we?
Often when I get a new library I try it in reverse. What I mean is I try out, for me at least, the least inspiring patches/features first and save the most promising for last. I think I’m pretty safe in thinking that everybody interested in getting Cantus is not wanting it for it’s soundscapes. Correct? Be that how it may, there are a total of 19 soundscape patches included with Cantus. The sound is difficult to describe but could work very well as a bed for the choir to sit on. I’m not too fond of soundscapes really, I like to create my own but these are very well built with four kind of layers in each patch (NOTE: some patches only have one layer). All layers have individual volume and you have control over both attack and release as well as reverb level and expression. So in short a lot of good sounding patches but I’m eager to move on.
The patch “2 Cantus Chants.nki” is a patch with a LOT of chants, it loads in at 453 MB. I haven’t counted but the manual states that there is 20 chants (one chant per key switch) split up in 400 different phrases. This is phrases, not chromatically sampled voices. Each key/phrase can be thought of as a little tune in itself. The manual says its nearly 60 minutes of music in total and I won’t argue with that and call it a fact.
You again get control over attack time, release time, reverb level and expression. A bonus here is that you also get to control the offset, how far into the phrase you want to start. And speed! Want it to go a bit slower? No problem. Faster? Even better.
I haven’t tried them all but the ones who stood up a bit from the rest were the “Lament – Soloist 1” (key switch C2) and “Jeremiah Prayer – Soloist 2” (key switch A1). Again, I’m having issues (yeah, it’s probably just me) with using phrases or loops. I don’t like to work that way, they are just not for me, sort of. I found that these phrases had another very important duty. They let you know how monks actually sing, how the chants are composed and performed. It was kind of nice to have a sort of audible dictionary of chants right there in front of me.
The final patch
On to the final patch then, “1 Cantus, the Monks.nki”, featuring word building technology and a scripted legato engine. It’s quite big, it takes up 0.99 GB loaded. As it turns out this is in reality two patches, or I should perhaps describe it as two different modes in one patch. When opening up the patch you are in what could be called “key switch mode”. If you take a look at Pic 3 you see a bunch of red and green keys, those keyswitches control which articulation you play. Starting with the leftmost red keys they give you the sounds you see in Table 1.
All these have beautiful legato transitions. If you unselect the “Solo” button in the right of the interface you can play chords (non-legato) and it feels almost like a regular choir patch. But the sound, wow. Playing small chord transitions with the mmh patch almost made me forget to continue this review.
The green ones are phrases, like Corpus, Dominus and Sanctus. I just said that I don’t like phrases but these are different, very differrnt. They are chromatically sampled. When you have selected a phrase, say Sanctus, and hold a key, the monks start singing ”Saaaa-” and if you just hold the same note the will sing the whole phrase to the end ”-nctuuuus”. You can adjust the speed if need be, up or down. The real beauty is when you start to play legato when they hit a vowel and you get legato transitions on that same vowel. You can continue to play other keys and the monks will sing as long as you play new keys. If you hold on they will after a while end, on the vowel used on the transition. In our Sanctus example you have two vowels, a and u. If you wait until ”Saaaanctuuu-” and start to play new notes the legato transitions will be on the “uuu”. Quite brilliant if you ask me.
Oh, let’s not forget this nifty little control called “the sustain pedal”. It lets you play a note, press the pedal, release the note and when you play the next note you will have moved to the next syllable. It took some practise to get the hang of it but it’s a very simple control. If you’re used to entering MIDI CC’s in you DAW then it’s no problem if you don’t want to practise pedal-vowel-sliding.
There is actually more key switches. In the upper register there are some ”Sss” sounds, six short and five long ones. They are useful at the end of the words you want to end with, that’s right, an Sss. A bit lower there are ten different inhale type of sounds. Useful in the rests of the chant. Can add some more realism if you’d like to put it that way.
So, the king of the crown then, the Wordbuilder. As you can see in Pic 4 when you activate the Wordbuilder you get a few boxes. Each of these boxes can hold a phrase or a word/syllable. Which one is up to you. They function in the same way as the previously discussed phrases. You hold a key and it sings to the end, you play legato on the vowels and the vowels are the transition. After one box is played through the next one becomes active. It’s kind of a phrase sequencer, sort of. There is also functions for skipping a box, going back or forward and resetting to the first one.
Creating your own “chant” is really straightforward. You select the box you want to edit and in the lower left of the interface it appears a button called “Words/Syllables”. There is lot to choose from in the popup that shows after clicking that button. The manual states 120 different elements. That is a lot. In Pic 5 you can see a small selection. Everything is nicely laid out and instantly understandable. Take the phrase “Lacrimosa”, you can choose to insert the whole phrase or one of it’s components like “La”, “Lacri”, “Lacrimo”, “cri”, “crimo”, “crimosa”, “mo”, “mosa”, “sa”. It takes a bit of trial and error to get what you want but it’s dead easy. There are also functions for inserting a blank step in-between two populated ones as well as delete, copy and paste.
Underneath the “Words/Syllables” button there is another one called “Phrases”. This is kind of a library for your chants. Select one and all your boxes will populate with that chants different words and syllables. If you make a good one, remember to save the patch and you will have instant access to it from this menu.
Each of the boxes can have it’s own settings of attack, start, length and speed. You can also MIDI-learn the various controls so you can change them on the fly. There is a special control wired to the Modulation Wheel, let’s call it an articulation selector. We have Slow (0-10), Fast (11-117) and Staccato (127-127). You can in the settings choose to have this mapped to velocity instead.
Working in the Wordbuilder is fast, easy and actually quite more fun than you might imagine. There is enough control to get the chants to sound really convincing, limited only by the amount of time you put in. But then again, you could simply just populate a few boxes with ransom syllables and play away. It totally just works.
There is also another tab to take a quick look at. The settings. Here you can choose if you want the articulations to switch with the Modulation Wheel or via Velocity. You also have oral control over all the various legato settings, fade times and whatnot. All of these can also be controlled with automation if you so wish. I felt however that all the settings worked perfectly without the need to change a thing. I like that there has been some thought behind the values, it’s very playable from the start.
Quite often when dealing with samples there is a build up in the lower regions (approx. 10-50 Hz). It’s not something you notice right away but it will add to your mix and it will affect compressors and whatnot further down the mix chain. If you use the choir solo there is probably no need to do anything but I usually want to keep the lower end for the things that really matter in the low department.
In order to get rid of this all you need to do is add a high-pass filter set to around 60 Hz with a curve of your choice: 6dB, 12dB, 18dB, 24dB or why not 48dB. You can insert this filter on your channel in your DAW. Or you could insert it in the patch itself, see the box.
When it comes to vocals in general and choirs in particular there is one thing that is almost as important as the samples themselves. Reverb. Cantus is recorded with a very dry sound. This gives the ability to put the monks in your own preferred environment. Kontakt has a pretty good convolution engine and Cantus uses an IR called “SL LEX 224 XL Concert Hall” by default. You can easily set the amount of reverb via a slider on the front panel. The sound you get from the samples and the built-in reverb is good, and I mean really good.
I turned it off however (you turn it off by dragging the slider to the far left) just to hear what it sounded when applying some of my favourite reverbs. First I had to try with a Lexicon, just to see if I could match the built-in reverb. I added a send going to a bus with an instance of UAD Lexicon 224, my favourite ”digital” reverb. I could get pretty close but soon found myself upping the reverb time a bit and getting the reverb decaying a bit longer in the brighter area. You can see the settings I liked in the box below.
So, on to try some IR’s in AltiVerb. First stop is of course the “Religious” folder. Well, I can tell you that no matter what reverb you put on, Cantus sounds fantastic.Simply stunning in fact. I found I liked it the most when using impulses from real churches or chapels at about 7 seconds of reverb time, like Saint Etienne and the Margareta Kyrka in Oslo. But putting the monks through an impulse of The Great Pyramid or the Vigeland Mausoleum is just, well, don’t know how to put it but it just gets me smiling. Wide.
I use Samplicity’s IR’s a lot and same thing there. Practically every impulse in the Churches folder makes Cantus really sing. For a more ”intimate” chamber sound I really liked putting Samplicity’s Bricasti M7 Large & Deep Hall (3.9 sec) impulse on the send.
Whats left to say then? Cantus is easy to use. Instant gratification in both playability and sound. There are a lot of settings but the amount of time spent on setting these to a usable level in the first place must be quite high. You don’t need to touch anything really, not if you’re just wanting the choir to sing. You load it up and play. Simple as that. When you start to add other reverbs and putting it in a mix with other instruments it really, really shines. The word builder is both easy to get to grips with and the sound coming from it is very good. I mean VERY good.
My only gripe is the interface. While it is kind of mood-setting, half of the interface is an image but I’d rather have bigger boxes and larger controls. The sound gets me in the mood more than enough. The text showing you what articulation in the given phrase is called is totally incomprehensible. Also, the on/off switch on the different settings is quite hard to see if it’s on or off when viewed from a distance. And lastly, why use a Poser figure instead of a real photograph? But this really has nothing to do with how it sounds, and that’s the most important thing. It sounds nothing short of fantastic.
Eduardo Tarilonte also won an award this year for “Sample developer of the year” and I’d like to add “my voice to the choir” (pun intended!). Eduardo’s dedication to his libraries shows, or rather “hears”. He also gets the settings and hard work out of the way, the workflow is very smooth. I’m very interested in what he will make after this and I wish him the best of luck.
If you ever need to write something remotely connected to Gregorian monks chanting you’d be a fool not to try Cantus – Gregorian Chants. It’s fast to work with, has a very impressive legato engine, a really usable wordbuilder and sounds freakin’ awesome! Now I’m going back to the Mausoleum of Vigeland, chanting, humming, mmmming…
Cantus is available for €199 at http://www.bestservice.de/en/cantus.html