Marketed as a modern vocal engine for today’s modern sound, EXHALE is the newest instrument developed and released by Output, the creators of REV and Signal. It works with both Kontakt 5.3.1+ and the Kontakt 5 Free Player, which is great for those who don’t own the full version of Kontakt 5.
EXHALE comes with around 8.5GB of samples, all of it accessible through one single .nki. It is clear from the layout and color scheme that it is the younger brother of Signal, Output’s previous instrument. The similarities are not limited to the colors (which at this point creates a sense of identity to the products released by Output). EXHALE was very likely built over the same engine used in Signal, as both instruments share many similarities, as for instance, the four macro sliders in the main window, and the possibility of selecting two audio sources for creating a compound, more complex final sound.
In terms of sonority, however, EXHALE is quite different than its predecessor. With a library based exclusively of vocal samples, EXHALE comes out as an interesting and versatile modern-sounding instrument, with an overall synthetic/electronic sonority that manages to keep the expressive quality of its main sonic material: the voice.
EXHALE is not a vocal library in a traditional sense. It could and probably would fit a traditional orchestral environment, but definitely not as a standard vocal or choir library would do. This is not what this instrument is about. To give a better description of it, EXHALE uses voice samples to create beautiful and intriguing pads, rhythmic/percussive loops and other kinds of synth-like instruments. It has a pop sensibility in it, a quality that is already present in the samples themselves (they were recorded in a dry environment, much in the way one would do to record vocals to a pop song). As the guys behind EXHALE put it on Output’s website: “As musicians, we’ve always wanted (and could never find) a vocal product that captured the modern sound of today’s records and most creative scores.”
EXHALE works in three different modes: Notes, Loops and Slices. It comes with 500 (five hundred!) presets: 250 in Notes mode, 125 in Loops mode, and another 125 in Slices mode. All presets are exclusive to one mode only, meaning that each mode has its own particular set of presets that is only accessible when that mode is selected. The difference between the modes is meaningful and really gives you a different instrument to work with.
The 3 modes of operation
In Notes mode, EXHALE allows you to select up to two sound sources which are chromatically mapped to the keyboard. This is the closest EXHALE gets to a traditional keyboard instrument, allowing you to create harmonies as you would do on the piano or a synth. In the sound source selection window, there is a nice visual representation of each sample that informs you about three main qualities of each sample: 1) if it is a male voice, female voice, or group/choir; 2) if it is a one-shot, a pad-like (non-ending), or a looped sample; 3) and finally, if it has any movement up or down in its pitch. This is cool as it allows you to more quickly select samples with the desired musical properties without having to listen to them.
In Loops mode, the user has access to two pages containing 20 banks of samples each. Each of these banks contains 13 samples mapped non-chromatically to 13 keys of the keyboard (from C2 to C3). As here the mapping is non-chromatic, a transposition device was added to this mode, so that the user can transpose the original sample as he or she needs. Each of the 13 notes in a Loop bank has individual volume, tune, pan, reverse, and loop playback controls.
Slices mode is pretty similar to the Loops mode, with the difference that now the samples in each bank are essentially made of vocal phrases, some with, some without words.
EXHALE has two main screens: the Main page and the Engine page. A Macro page is also available, with a specific functionality, which I will mention later.
In the Main page, the user can select one of the three modes of action, tweak the macro sliders and select presets. There is a nice preset filter that filters the presets based on their sonic qualities (Airy, Pad, Lead, etc.).
The macro sliders function as macro controllers that tweak groups of FX all together. Each preset brings a different configuration, and the cool thing here is that these FXs are completely customizable by the user through the Macro page.
The Engine page gives access to all the FX plugins used in EXHALE. Here, the user can fine-tune each of the effects on a preset and transform the sound as he or she wishes. On the upper part you have independent volume, pan, tuning and reverse controls for each of the two sound sources, and naturally, you can also choose the samples you want to work with. The FX Engine can also be turned off, so you can listen to what I believe are the raw samples.
The Macro page has a very specific function: it allows you to select a macro slider to visualize what is currently attached to it. You can also edit the configuration of the macro sliders simply by selecting one of them and going back to the Engine page. There, you’ll then be able to click over knobs to attach them to or detach them from that macro slider which is selected. EXHALE allows you to attach up to 6 knobs to each macro slider. Not all the knobs in the Engine page are attachable, but the amount of things that can be done are quite remarkable.
The Macro page also allows you to change the label of each macro slider, so that you can name your sliders properly, according to the kind of effect that you have created with the knobs you attached to that slider.
EXHALE is a complex beast, yet incredibly user-friendly and easy to learn. Its sound quality is out of debate. Its sample pool is made of top-notch sound recordings, and the engine is just amazing, highly customizable and really easy to operate. Needless to say, there is more in EXHALE than I managed to cover here. After working with it for a while, I still feel I haven’t explored and discovered it in its full potential, so by no means you should take this review as an authoritative one.
If you are after a standard vocal library, EXHALE may not be what you need. However, if you want a great tool that will allow you to explore a myriad of sonorities and create all sort of sounds based on the expressiveness of the human voice, then EXHALE is certainly a good bet.
Before I finish, I wanted to mention a couple of things I missed in EXHALE that, nevertheless, does not diminish its merit. The first thing is velocity control. All samples in EXHALE are mapped to the full dynamic range scale, and as a result, by default the instrument is not velocity sensitive. However, it is possible to add velocity sensitivity in the Advanced Settings, the little gear button in the center of the Engine page. Very smartly, this addition is not done through a switch, as one could maybe expect, but through a knob that basically allows you to say how much sensitivity you want. By default, this knob is always at 0; when it is turned at 100%, EXHALE becomes fully dependent on the velocity information coming from the MIDI input. This is cool, as you can adapt the keyboard sensitivity to the kind of sound that you’re working with. Given the importance of dynamics control in many genres of music, I found this button was a bit hidden, but anyway, after really no time using EXHALE you get used to opening the Advanced Setting to adjust it as you need, so, no big deal.
There are two more minor things that I missed: a Favorite tab in the preset browser, for storing the presets I liked the most; and some kind of search field where I could type the name of the preset I wanted in order to find it quickly. I’m not sure if this is doable from the inside of a Kontakt instrument, though, as my knowledge of KSP writing is limited. Maybe these functions need to be implemented in Kontakt itself first. There is a workaround for the absence of a Favorite tab, which is saving the presets you liked as User presets. This way they will appear in the User tab in the future.
As I said, none of these things diminish the merit of EXHALE. All in all, it is a very interesting and unique instrument to have, with a truly distinct sound. In terms of cost/benefit, EXHALE may look a bit expensive at first sight, but it certainly pays off if you consider what you get. When buying EXHALE, you receive not only 8.5GB of samples, but also an amazing engine with which you can literally multiply the number of sounds you get from the samples, as it allows you to alter sounds considerably.
To conclude, I wanted to explore EXHALE’s possibilities to see what I could get out of it, so I decided to write a track exclusively with EXHALE’s sounds. I did some really minor tweaking on the presets I used, and used a bit of compression in the mix. That’s all. The rest is pretty much how EXHALE sounds right out of the box. Hope you enjoy the result: