CANTON, Ohio, March 24, 2018: One of the most hotly anticipated virtual instruments in years has finally hit the market. Eastwest’s Hollywood Choirs arrives to us with a new WordBuilder plugin, many promises and numerous questions as well.
We test-drove this impressive new instrument using a Macbook Pro, 16 GB RAM, running El Capitan, with the samples residing on an external USB SSD hard drive. A Scarlett 2i4 provided the audio. We used Eastwest Hollywood Choirs (EWHC) compositionally in Dorico, exporting and realizing the results in Pro Tools 12.
What immediately becomes apparent with EastWest’s Hollywood Choirs– even before one engages the deep WordBuilder option – is that this is easily the best sounding choir on the market. Those choosing to spend a bit extra for the “diamond” version of the program have 13 microphones to mix and match. In addition, they can use the expanded reverb options in the required new version of Play, including a Neumann Binaural set.
The available sonic resources in Hollywood Choirs allow users to craft soundscapes running the gamut from a close-mic’d dry sound to the most ethereal European sacred music cathedral atmospheres, aided by new Impulse Reverbs on board. For inspiration alone, these sounds are worth having at your disposal.
Image 1: EW HChoirs Screenshot
Fortuitously during the writing of this review, I was asked to quickly compose a piece for a March 25 concert and recording session involving the excellent and oft-awarded Choir of the Polytechnic University in Szczecin, Poland. Having just received the Hollywood Choirs package for review, I plugged the “oo” instruments into my notation software. Happily, the quality and balance of sound proved an immediate inspiration.
Surrounded by excellent singers, the new work “tu autem Domine” soon took shape. Working in Dorico with mod wheel dynamics set as the expressive default, my dynamic changes also translated seamlessly into accurate playback.
I found an additional benefit when composing in Dorico. The eventual, exported MIDI file had mod-wheel dynamics already built in because of the dynamic markings in the score. This left very little remaining work for balancing and mixing in the digital audio workstation (DAW). From there it took about six hours to type in the Latin text, shape the WordBuilder performance, and ultimately bounce individual SATB practice tracks along with a complete ensemble rendition of the piece.
The results of this effort proved musically satisfying and professionally useful for a choir trying to learn difficult music in a short time. While the process above involved creating good practice tracks, it probably would have taken two or three hours more of additional shaping on this seven-minute piece to achieve a believable “Hollywood-quality” publishable track.
As such, given the relative ease of use and quick transition time between notation and believably sung mock-up, one could easily imagine this process becoming an integral part of the gold standard for choral composer workflow. Composers with some technological experience can count on about one week of invested time in order to gain facility with the interface.
Numerous readers will likely want to know if Wordbuilder (WB) now works easily within notation software. The answer: It does not. Given that a single instance of WB takes multiple instrument channels; and given that notation software VST plugin options generally allow you to send MIDI information to just a single channel, this pairing is not yet a good workflow match.
An additional issue involves the inability to easily sync the WB timeline with placement within the score. However, that’s something easily achieved using WB’s “learn” function in a DAW.
Even so, the various single vowel recordings are still a massive improvement over what typically passes for a standard choral sound with notation software packages. They provide plenty of accurate feedback and inspiration as well. For those seeking potential notation workarounds, a forum on soundsonline.com tackles the issue with detail.
The current Wordbuilder plugin definitely resembles its ancestor in look and feel. But in execution it is clearly a better product. As the demo below shows, we decided to put Wordbuilder to the test and have it sing one of the most difficult languages in the world: Polish.
The combination of sh-ch sounds, strange diphthongs and other intricacies gave WB a run for its money. Nevertheless, even if not perfect, the results are still impressive. For instance, although the “z” sound in “Boze,” similar to the first word in the French phrase “Je t’aime,” proved difficult to find, the packages generally demonstrated a deep versatility not available in any other package.*
*The text in Polish reads: “Panie Boze ratuj nas, zmiluj sie nad name” (“Lord God save us, have mercy on us.”) Semi-accurate Anglicized phonetics: “Pah-nye Bo zse rah tuy nos, zmee wooy sheh nod nah me.”
Example three: SINGING POLISH!
Wordbuilder’s recent update also allows users to cycle through various recordings of consonants and vowels. This is not unlike Spitfire’s “Cog” concept. So if the word “Latin” (set “La tin”) has aln “L” that’s too weak and a “t” sound that’s too strident, you can instead try writing the notation L2a t2in or L3a t4in. In other words you are no longer at the mercy of a single engineer’s recording decision. Instead, you enjoy greater expressive control, consideration for diction and linguistic options than ever before.
Image 2 – Votox in Wordbuilder
The new edition of WordBuilder includes recorded legato. This means you can specify whether the movement between two syllables should trigger a more legato sample.
However, in other ways, Wordbuilder still remains a hit or miss proposition. Some syllabic combinations work straightaway. Others demand more sensitive tweaking. On the other hand, if Wordbuilder can create effective (and effectively faked) sung Slavic language, then it stands as a powerful package indeed.
Recommendation: New users should print out their “Votox” chart from the instruction manual and master this syllabic language for best results. The numerous built-in phrases may not serve many practical purposes. Yet they provide a potentially great starting point to see how other effective phrases are constructed in Votox. Such knowledge helps considerably when you build your own preset phrases.
In the final analysis, WordBuilder is a choral plugin without peer. It shines as a small miracle within the current software instrument environment that integrates seamlessly within the improved and increasingly stable Play engine.
Our only general criticism of its host “Play” remains the still-missing ability to assign custom key-switches. This ability purportedly exists company-side. If made available, it could make a big difference in helping composers (especially those wanting to use notation software with midi CC or keyswitches) to navigate the demanding memory requirements of other Hollywood instruments.
Eastwest should strongly consider including this in a forthcoming update. However, while this would be a useful feature for other massive “Hollywood” instruments – especially with regard to using the software in a notation setting – it does not affect the implementation of Choirs in any way.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this instrument is not the deeply considered WordBuilder plugin. Rather, it involves the musical depth and realism of the mod-wheel controlled dynamics. The dynamic range of the instrument covers everything from a near murmur to the most desirable epic cinematic fortissimo. As a result, it enables a wide range of musical expression to match the quality IR’s in the software.
We should comment here on the pros and cons regarding expressivity in this instrument. As mod wheel dynamics are increased, so is vibrato. While the actual dynamic range and expressivity of the instrument is absolutely gorgeous, composers working in an older style will miss the ability to control volume separately to achieve a pure “non vib” sound.
Yet despite this limitation, the sound of this library – especially the diamond edition – is still unparalleled. It gives Eastwest plenty of room to continue building on a new generation of choral samples. Better still, the vibrato never becomes overbearing or detrimental to tonal clarity, as the previous examples demonstrate. In short, everything here is very tastefully done and properly balanced.
One of the concerns we have noted, with regard to previous entries into the “Hollywood” series, is its large system load. While providing some of the best sounding samples out there, the HW series currently requires a real beast of a system to run large orchestrations using its current instrumental.
This is one place where the new choirs instrument differs. There is an immediately palpable efficiency to this product. We were able to run four instances (including four instances of play) using WordBuilder along with various string instruments from other producers without experiencing crashes or system lag. This attention to efficiency certainly deserves mention and praise.
You will notice that unlike the previous SATB arrangement in Symphonic Choirs, we now have a Male/Female or High/Low division, per many other popular virtual choirs. Even if overlap between singer parts occurs, composers can still write for voices in their respective ranges and achieve strong results, even if they manually restrict ranges.
However, what composers will lack for instance, is the ability to set altos in a thundering top range, or achieve the specific airiness and fragility of sopranos at the bottom of their range. While this is a tradeoff, it is a tradeoff that ultimately provides better sound with greater resource efficiency.
One thing that other reviewers may not mention is this package’s potential use in educational settings. No longer are we in classic “midiot” territory. Instead, with Hollywood Choirs we possess powerful tools that can aid, rather than hinder, the thought processes of young composers.
One can easily imagine the pedagogical potential for enabling composition students to practice counterpoint and mock-up their projects with realistic results. One can imagine as well the educational value of the linguistic and orchestrational considerations necessary to get the most realistic results out of an instrument like EastWest’s Hollywood Choirs.
EastWest Hollywood Choirs in summary
In the final analysis, it is difficult to criticize the few things that are missing from Hollywood Choirs. It may very well be one of the best software instrument releases in years. Stable, efficient, musical, and highly affecting, this standard-defining instrument is also more than fairly priced (MSRP $599.00 for Diamond, $499.00 for Gold, or as in immediate addition as a part of their subscription program). From media composers to more traditional composers, Hollywood Choirs certainly is a front-runner for Virtual Instrument of the Year.
(Note: An NFR copy of Hollywood Choirs was provided to the author to facilitate this review. All opinions herein are entirely those of the author.)