Zero-G Ethera 2.0 and Ethera Soul Editions are Kontakt instruments (full version required) which evolved from the Clara’s Vocal freebie from a couple of years ago. They include three broad categories of sounds: vowels, phrases and pads. Everything here is created from recordings of one vocalist – Clara Sorace.
Vocals are tough to sample or synthesize in a way that will sound natural, which is why I’m so fascinated by various attempts to do it. Some attempt to comprehensively imitate everything a human could sing, others use models of vocals as a starting point for all kinds of weirdness, and the third major approach is to focus on a small selection of the human voice’s capabilities such as a few vowels or pre-recorded phrases. Ethera falls mostly into the third category, with a bit of the second also present.
Open Up And Sing Aah
My favorite part, out of everything in both Etheras, is the legato instrument in Ethera 2.0. This is just two vowels (“oh” and “ah”) in staccato and legato versions. There’s only one dynamic layer, but the best part is that the long notes feature true legato sampling at all intervals up to an octave – that means if you play an A and then a C a minor third higher, a sample of a real transition from that A to that C is used. That means a whole lot of samples, but the result is definitely worth it – the sound is very natural, and with the big default reverb makes me think of the sort of wordless vocals in lush green forest scenes in movies or games.
Legato can also be turned off for polyphonic playing, and cleverly if legato is on while the staccato articulation is selected, the first note of each phrase is staccato but as long as at least one key remains pressed, the following notes are long legato notes. There is scripted vibrato with adjustable speed and depth, which works quite well for adding expression, and the legato transition speed is adjustable, though turning the speed up by much sounds considerably less natural. The one weakness here is that there is only one dynamic layer, so if you use the vocal in multiple scenes or multiple tracks, it will sound recognizably like the same vocal – it’s not possible to milk a whole lot of variety out of this.
Not Just Padding
If the legato instrument is my favorite, the pads in Ethera 2.0 were the most pleasant surprise. I mean, pads are just pads, I was just expecting more “oh” and “ah” stuff, but without legato. It turns out there’s actually quite a bit more here, with various vowels, loops of two different vowels, a piano and vocal pad, some more processed sci-fi stuff, and even a few short phrases such as “amor mio”.
It’s all very cinematic, and if the legato instrument made me think of forest scenes, the pads mainly evoke scenes set in cathedrals and other Italian buildings from the Renaissance. The pads are also stretched to unnaturally low notes, for fairly convincing male choirs and synth-like low-pitched drones, and should generally cover a whole lot of cinematic vocal pad needs.
To Coin A Phrase
In terms of file size, the phrases are the largest component of Ethera 2.0, at over 1 GB compressed. They cover an enormous amount of ground, from soul to EDM and from abstract wordless vocals to entire songs split up into phrases. If you need a few seconds of female vocals in a style that’s not total horror movie creepiness or rock, it’s probably here, though it can sometimes take time to go through all this stuff to find the bit that will work for a particular use.
There’s quite a bit of control, with features such as two separately controllable offset points, and a time-stretch mode where vocals can be adjusted in time and pitch (though of course they won’t sound very natural with large adjustments), as well as a reverse phrases instrument for out-there weirdness. The only thing missing is an instrument that would allow for taking a selection and turning it into a playable chopped vocal – if you want to do that, you’ll have to render a bit of vocals and reload it into a sampler. Going through the phrase instruments it’s obvious that Clara Sorace is not just a really good singer, but also one with a convincing command of a very wide range of styles.
But Wait, There’s More
There’s also the “extra” folder, which includes more unusual pads and a few more legato portamento vocals (like legato, but with slower more gliding transitions between notes). These are not as detailed as the main legato instrument, with the main difference being that there don’t seem to be any round robins here, but still very usable. There’s some really neat stuff here which is unlike anything in the main folders, for example, an instrument which instead of using the mod wheel for vibrato uses it to crossfade between “oh” and “ah” samples.
A Little Bit Of Rhythm And A Lot Of Soul
Ethera Soul Edition, which is an independent Kontakt library and not an add-on, is similar, but somewhat smaller and focused more on soul sounds. It’s still basically split into a legato instrument, pads and phrases. The legato instrument is quite a different beast, being a full-range choir whose legato is scripted using the classic SIPS Kontakt scripts, which make for an ugly advanced controls tab compared to the rest of the interface but work well. It’s split into two octaves of female vocals, and more than one octave of what I assume are processed faux-male vocals, but which sound convincingly like real male vocals. It only sings one vowel – “ah”. The higher notes in each range start off quite strongly and with a lot of character, which is what gives this choir a soul sound, very dissimilar from classical choirs which would not sound quite this dramatic.
The polyphonic sustains likewise feature a smaller selection of sounds, with three solo voice pads, two softer choral pads, and a very dramatic short (not extremely short, but something like martele bowing on violin – a powerful attack, quick heavy vibrato, and volume which then fades gradually) “ah”. This might not sound like a lot, but the solo voice pads range from a rather soft “ooh” to a fairly hard “ah”, so by switching between those and the short “ah” it’s possible to build up a rather dynamic and expressive soul choir.
The phrases are, again, the largest part in terms of disk space taken up by the samples, and though the number of phrases sets is smaller, most of them have a very large number of keys assigned to phrases, and the folder is over 500 MB compressed. This includes a huge selection of “woo”, “yeah”, “mmm”, “I know I know I know” and other things like that, performed at various tempos, expressions, and dynamics, with some lyrics as well. There’s even a Christmas song and a few words in choral form. I get the feeling that Clara Sorace had a lot more fun with this part than anything else in either Ethera. Sure, on some level it’s a giant bucket of cliches, but they are cliches performed convincingly and without going over the line into over-the-top cheese. If anyone remembers Ceephus and Reesie, In Living Color’s parody of Ashford and Simpson, there’s none of that here. It’s more like the bits of female vocals you’d want to sample from a classic soul album. I think a male equivalent, with some James Brown and Ray Charles style phrases, would make a great sequel.
In general, the Soul Edition of Ethera is more focused and specialized, and includes something very rare in the virtual vocalist world – non-classical choirs with a ton of character.
But What About The Humans?
With any kind of synthesized or sampled vocals, the bottom line is often – wouldn’t it be easier to just call up a singer for a recording session? After all unless you need a large choir, it’s not really that hard to get live human vocals. After playing with Ethera for a while, I had an Eureka moment – these instruments will cover a lot of those situations where you need very short or very simple vocal, and it’d be a shame to bother a singer for a 15-second or 2-minute recording session. There are some cases where a short vocal is needed which neither Ethera can do, and the main scenario which comes to my mind is backing vocals where just a few specific words are needed with the right notes and rhythm to fit the song – there something like Vocaloid is needed.
Other than that, though, wordless abstract vocals, rich pads, tribal howls, short phrases – this covers a lot of the kind of stuff which often gets thrown in at the end of recording sessions because it’s not worth setting up a separate session for. This should really appeal to media composers for whom efficiency is very important, as well as to hip-hop and EDM producers who often want some vocals but not a full song’s worth, or want some clean a capellas to remix without copyright issues. If the question is “can this virtual singer compete with real human singers”, then the developers and vocalist have done a great job of picking their spots and focusing on sounds for areas where a virtual singer can often win the battle because of simple logistics.
Ethera 2.0 ($99.99) and Ethera Soul Edition ($79.99, or $139.99 for a bundle of both) don’t attempt to do everything a singer could sing, but they do a great job of covering a wide range of common vocal needs and in many situations will even be serious competition for human singers.
More info: Ethera 2.0 and Ethera Soul Edition Bundle
Zero-G Ethera Bundle Review
Ethera 2.0 and Ethera Soul Edition don't attempt to do everything a singer could sing, but they do a great job of covering a wide range of common vocal needs. In many situations, these two libraries can even be considered a serious competition for human singers.