In this week’s episode of Logic Pros, we are stepping into the world of Exhale. A perfect follow-up to our review of Output’s Substance bass engine, the company’s Exhale Kontakt instrument for Logic Pros X (and other DAWs) boasts a wide array of vocal samples, loops and phrases fed through a complex synthesis engine resulting in one of the coolest vocal plugins for Logic I’ve used in a long time.
Outside of typical, organic lead vocals, many of the sounds made with voices in contemporary music (think vocal samples and effects used in electronic and hip-hop music) are often done with your basic sampler like an EXS 24 or in specialty instruments like Alchemy. But Exhale adds in some cool tricks for pros while offering up an almost dubstep-voice-in-a-box synth for beginners.
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Exhale is split in to two pages: The Main Page and the Engine Page. From the Main Page we can select sounds, adjust the macro controls, access our user created patches and adjust what key the vocal patches playback in. The Engine Page is where all the magic happens. Here we find the FX Engine, Rhythm modulation tab, trigger options (ADSR, etc) and Output’s Flux parameters, all tools that provide some pretty interesting vocal effect possibilities for the sound you select, along with the ability to customize the actual sound sources each preset is made from.
Exhale comes packed with vocal sound options for creating everything from lush ambient chord progressions and swells, right to modern glitch motifs and high-pitched choppy melodies. Output’s engineering team has split the presets into three very handy categories: Notes, Loops and Slices. All of which are accessible from the Main Page, directly below the large Macro sliders (more on these below). All of the sounds available in the instrument are organized in one of these three categories followed by a bank of tags (“Dirty, Airy, Lead, Electro”, etc.) to help you get the vibe you’re after.
Notes Mode blends two user selectable vocal sound sources chromatically across the keyboard. In other words, the sounds in this mode can be played on your keyboard like any traditional sound with full polyphony (multiple notes at once, chords, traditional melodies, etc.).
Loops Mode is made up of around 40 different loop banks with 13 different loops each. In this mode, all of the 125 presets will have 13 vocal loops mapped to each key or pad on your controller (from C2-C3).
Slices Mode is very similar to Loops Mode. It is made up of 40 vocal phrases chopped into 13 pieces each. Each of the 125 Slices presets have 13 vocal fragments (or pieces/samples) mapped to a key or pad on your controller just like in Loops Mode (from C2-C3). Anyone familiar with sampling old records will be right at home here and for those just getting started, it doesn’t get much easier than this.
Along the very top of the UI, you’ll find tabs for moving back and forth between the Main and Engine Pages, followed by the small disk icon for saving our own presets (which will then appear in “User” in the tag bank) and a preset selector. Moving to the right we get the the Macro enable button (more on this the modulation section below), a quick help button (?) and most importantly the Key Selector:
When using the Loop or Slices Modes, you’ll find the Key Selector is enabled in the top bar of the interface. From here we can set the key of the samples in each preset to match our song. We can also choose between Major and Minor keys. Because in Notes Mode the sounds/presets are mapped chromatically to your keyboard, the key selector is disabled.
The Engine Page is basically split into two sections: the Source Panel along the top and the FX Engine from there down. The Source Panel is contextual based on which of the three modes you’re currently in (Notes, Loops, Slices). This is where we can choose the sound source or sample/loop bank, basic envelope settings, tuning the samples, EQ and more.
When in Notes Mode, each preset or patch is made of two vocal sound sources, as mentioned above. So the Source Panel is split into an A and B side where we can choose to load up new vocal sample sound sources along with a series of controls independent to each: tune, pan, EQ, the ability to reverse the sample, and even edit which part of it to playback across each key on our keyboard (start and end points).
When in Slices or Loops Mode, we can edit each vocal sample mapped to each key individually as well as load up new banks. Simply press the sample/note you want to edit and the Source Panel will flip to that key. We can adjust the volume, speed, formant tone, pitch, pan and more of each sample individually. We can also choose to loop or reverse each of the samples in a patch/preset individually, which is particularly cool. For those not familiar, the Formant Shift control essentially allows you to change the sound of each vocal sample dramatically from something really deep and breathy, to very bright and childish sounding without actually changing the pitch. I find it to be be extremely handy in creating personalized patches.
There is a sweet little “Edit All” menu there as well for making broad changes to Source Panel parameters across all the samples in a particular patch in Loops and Slices Mode. For example, if you wanted to change the Speed with which all of the samples playback in a particular patch, you could do so quite quickly from here. Nice.
Exhale’s FX Engine is a very powerful modulation tool that seems to peel away some of the complexities inherent with modulation routing for some, while still maintaining a fairly configurable mod matrix for the rest.
There is basically one main modulation source housed in the Rhythm tab. From here we can choose from a step sequencer or an LFO to modulate the 6 Mod Effects in the row directly below labelled in yellow (Volume, Pan, Filter, Phaser, Talk, Saturate). Each Mod Effect has a corresponding yellow Mod Sider where we can set the amount of modulation hitting that parameter. All FX Engine settings can be saved as FX presets which is a really nice touch. This allows us to recall just the FX parameters of one patch and apply them new/other sounds, expanding the instrument’s sonic palette considerably in my opinion.
Along the bottom, in white, we have the 7 insert effects. There is no modulation options with these per say, but we do have a nice list of effects to beef up your patches. Reverb, Dirt (Distortion), Motion, Tone (a sort of interesting EQ), Delay and a sweet little Pitch effect not unlike the one found in Substance. once we are getting some modulation options built right in to the Pitch effect including flutter and a loop able envelope. This can be great for making crazy pitch bent leads as well subtle vibrato and more.
Output’s Flux parameter is in full force here as well. Essentially another layer of modulation on top of the main Rhythm option, Flux allows for additional fluctuations in the main Rhythm modulation rate/pattern allowing us to create interesting poly rhythms and interesting alterations to the core sound.
Output has continued its trend of large Macro controls in the forefront here. On the Main Page we have 4 faders that we can freely assign up to 6 parameters to each.
When you click the “Macros” found in the top bar of the interface, the Engine Page becomes the Assign page. This simply means that once this mode is engaged we can quickly hover our mouse over (just about) any parameter on the Engine Page to quickly assign that control to a particular Macro.
Select the Macro control you want to assign it to in the top bar and then once you hove over a control you can assign it, override the assignment that ha already been made or quickly find out if the Macro control you selected is already maxed out with 6 parameter assignments. Then just flip back to the Main Page to adjust the depth and other parameters on those assignments.
I tend to assign these Macro controls to physical sliders and pots on my MIDI controller which can result is some wild alterations to the main sound and a fantastic way to get a more human sounding performance out of Exhale.
In my time with the instrument, I found it to be quite useful for both lead sounds (heard above once all the drums kick in), harmonic/polyphonic ambience and background vocal loops (heard above right off the top). I also found it quite useful for creating full on sample-based hooks and choruses (heard below).
Should You Buy It?
For the style of music production I am most interested in, Exhale is a creative wonder to behold. I can, in some ways, imagine it being a little more gimmicky than useable for some producers, but the synthesis engine backing up these vocal clips goes a long way. The idea of creating unique ambient pads and even interesting rhythmic swells with vocal tones should peak the interest of any music maker no matter how much they hate electronica, and Exhale has the guts to do it.
My main gripe with the plug is its inability to play nice with other vocal samples. As far as I can tell there is no easy (built-in) way to add your own audio samples and run them through Exhale’s brilliant synthesis engine. It would have been nice if there was a very simple way to load up my own audio samples here, but it doesn’t appear to be the case.
Update: Output has since let me know that it would have loved to include this feature and that it’s more to do with the limitations of Kontakt.
It also may have been nice if we could assign the Rhythm LFO/Sequencer to modulate particular parameters on the Mod Effects, but that doesn’t appear to be directly possible. However, I never really found myself at a loss for modulation possibilities as the Macro, Flex and wacky Pitch effect really fill in the gaps anyway (just like with Substance).
While at first glance it seems as though creatives might hit a limit with Exhale in terms of vocal clips and phrases (inherent with these types of vocal sample-based plugs), after months of creating sounds with this thing, the end is still no where in sight for me. I found the ability to mix and match the actual sound sources the presets are made of and the control with which we have to play them back to be very creative and musical for my work flow. Loading FX Engine settings from any patch to new sound sources etc. also really lends to its ability to go the extra distance.
The amount of fun I have been having with this thing over the last few months is well worth the price of admission. Output looks to be quite good about supporting its products after release as well, considering the expansion packs already available here.