Output EXHALE Review
Output, the company that made a name for itself with SIGNAL and REV came out with something new: EXHALE. They are calling it a vocal engine. At first, I was thinking, “oh no! another singer who recorded all kinds of sustained notes and mapped it on a keyboard”. But that’s not something the guys at Output would do.
“As musicians, we’ve always wanted a vocal instrument that was cool, creative and modern…so we decided to build it!” – says Gregg Lehrman (Output Founder).
At first glance, here are some of the main features: 500 Unique Presets, 3 Modes: Notes, Loops & Slices, 10 GB raw material, Custom FX Presets, Custom Macros Per Preset, NKS Support, Snapshots for Maschine, Macro Editing, Main and Engine Pages, Automatable Insert and Mod FX.
EXHALE runs within NI’s Kontakt Player. If are familiar with SIGNAL or REV, you will certainly recognize the design, as well as some functionality. Exhale consists of three major modes. You’ll find those selectable in the center of the interface: “Notes”, “Loops” and “Slices”. Below that, we find an extensive library of presets, which changes with the “mode” we select. Four big faders are pre-mapped for every preset and control different parameters of the sound. What they control changes in every preset. Some examples are Shape, Wetness, Dirt, Filter, Spread, Pitch…etc.
The Original sounds themselves come from several professional vocalists, whose voices Output recorded for this purpose. These are then mangled, looped, and tweaked within the engine to create the presets that come with the engine. There are quite a few of them and they have a lot of variety. Almost all knobs have a midi-learn function, which is handy. EXHALE also supports NI’s NKS mapping. So, in this case, I just pull out my Kontrol S61 and start jamming.
After installing I could- literally- just load it up and start jamming. No hassle. The interface felt intuitive and the preset library even gives me some tags to choose by. I was somewhat surprised by the sound. But in a good way. I expected it to sound much more “vocal-y”. I could certainly tell that all the sounds were vocal-based. But within each category, I found various presets that feel and sound more like pads, leads, and textures. Some of them sound especially good when played “MPC style”. Overall, the presets are much more flexible than I expected.
I often found myself thinking of an effect I wanted to use, just to discover it was already mapped to one of the faders. The loops and slices are also key-adjustable, which I only noticed later. A little square in the top bar (next to the macros) shows you the key and scale. Clicking on it lets you change them, and also shows you how far from the original key you are diverging. This is indicated by the little yellow bar, under the root-note letter.
Some of you will surely know how much time it takes to go crate-digging for vocals and to process them right. Especially if you want to use them live, or play with them in MPC-style. I think the “slices” and some of the “loops” will turn out to be a real-time saver for those occasions. Sure, for very specific stuff we will still have to go dig on the Internet. But in general, I could see myself turning to EXHALE now. Seeing this makes me think that, more and more, designers take into account the needs of modern producers.
After having jammed for half an hour or so, I’d had a lot of fun, but also felt like I had reached some of EXHALE’s limits. It turned out I was wrong and had only scratched the surface. I will now take you a little deeper, into the engine.
Under The Hood
What I had looked at, so far, was only EXHALE’s main page. If I click on the “ENGINE” -field in the top bar I get to…well…the engine. There is much to see here. Depending on the “mode” I am in, the layout looks a little different. Not different enough to go over everyone separately, though. If you went to the ENGINE while you had a preset loaded, you would find the same preset here. There, you can tweak it to your heart’s content, or use it as a basis for something new, which you could then save for later use.
There is virtually nothing you can’t tweak here. The sample used, the key it gets mapped to, equalizer, effects, gate, panning, step sequencer…the list goes on. Any of these are also mappable to one of the faders. You can switch the effects on and off and control the mix-amount as well. If you hop over to the “MACROS” tab in the top bar…yes, you guessed right– you can create macros. Which, in this case, means controlling several different effect parameters via one of the four faders on the main page.
By loading the empty preset (the first in every mode), you can also go in, and start from scratch. Here is why this is valuable: because I found, that most presets are so filled with processing, that it’s hard to tell what’s inside them. And while deconstruction can teach you a lot, starting from scratch I discovered, some samples are also great with a little less processing on them.
The one big drawback, for me, was that I could not find any way within the engine, to plug in my microphone and record my own voice or use some of the samples from my hard drive. Within such a cool and well-thought-out environment for vocal processing, I found myself wishing for a way to create presets based on my own vocal files, not just my own processing. I guess there are limits to everything. Maybe I am not the only one wishing for this and they patch it in later.
After spending around 4 hours in total with EXHALE, overall I can say I like this vocal magic box. It offers a lot of depth if you want it, but also provides a great out-of-the-box experience. The sounds are different than what I expected but very good in quality and certainly useful in today’s productions styles.
Both the main page and engine page have a very understandable interface, and it’s up to the user how much distraction they want to have while writing a track. I wouldn’t call this an essential part of anyone’s Kontakt library, but it is a very good addition. It certainly saves time and is fun to use. And for its price, it is satisfying.
Potentially, you could go crate-digging for vocals, mess with them for hours, put effects and automation on them and come up with a similar result. But if that’s your choice, it probably means you have that much time to spare, and also the knowledge of how to process your vocals, to get similar quality results. I’m glad EXHALE can take that off my hands so I can focus more on the creative side of things.
EXHALE is available in VST, AU, RTAS, CoreAudio, AAX 32-bit & 64-bit format, also available as a standalone application. For Kontakt lovers, it requires NI Kontakt FULL or Free Kontakt Player 5.3.1 or higher.