An Audiophile Sampler

One of the hot items audiophiles were able to score at last month's 2005 CES was a hybrid SACD that Ray Kimber was handing out. Labelled IsoMike Tests 2005A, the disc is beautifully packaged and sports dozens of recorded snippets of vocal music, string quartet, piano, marching band, orchestra, blank pistol, and a local janitor.

Recorded with Kimber's home-grown IsoMike technique, employing a specially made heart-shaped baffle and microphone array, the piano excerpts are from an upcoming John Atkinson/Stereophile/Robert Silverman release, and the instrumental ensembles offer a variety of perspectives, all of them startling in clarity.

But what caught my ear were the first 19 tracks, featuring a mixed chorus—massed human voices are one of the toughest sounds to capture on disc. The IsoMike technique, as demonstrated here, shows great promise, and I look forward to hearing complete works recorded with Kimber's setup.

Two weeks later, I was at the NAMM show in Anaheim, and what caught my ear this time was another collection of choir samples. This set, also on disc (a bunch of them actually), again sported an audiophile pedigree: it was recorded by "Prof." Keith O. Johnson of Reference Recordings fame.

But here is where the two samples diverge completely. Johnson's vocal recordings are part of a new product from EastWest Communications, a company that sells sound samples of live musicians and instruments to studio musicians for use in a computer/workstation recording environment.

Called Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs, the set is a complete library of 24-bit recordings of the human voice, phonetically sampled and meticulously looped for playback with a computer and keyboard. What this means is you can type in the words to your score using a phonetic alphabet and special text editor, and then hear real voices sing your words while you play or program the notes. Punch up a medium-sized boys choir and have it sing the text from your tax return as a Bach fugue—and it actually sounds natural. The sample library includes five choirs—boys, alto (female), soprano (female), basses (male), tenors (male)—plus solo singers. All singers were recorded in position and chromatically sampled with multiple dynamics (non-vibrato, light vibrato, and heavy vibrato) and include slurred legato available on all vowel sounds.

And because Prof. Johnson was involved, the library includes three great-sounding simultaneous stereo microphone setups (close, stage, and hall), so users can mix together any combination of mic positions to control tone and ambience. This is a serious tool for composers, and because of its high resolution, the entire set weighs in at 37 Gigabytes.

The Quantum Leap Symphonic Choirs set hits music store shelves later this spring for around $1000. Good luck trying to discern high-resolution recordings of real voices from sampled phonemes from now on.