Developing Nordic Spheres – Interview with Mats Lundgren & Amina Hocine

April 19, 2023
Posted in News
April 19, 2023 Paul Virostek

Developing Nordic Spheres – Interview with Mats Lundgren & Amina Hocine

“It breathes life into any movie, tv, or game’s score”

A comforting sound from a steel thermos. Bells from an old wall clock played with a bow. Exploding artillery shells and the rhythmic pounding from the pistons of an almost 100-year-old boat. Pole Position’s newest creation presents unique possibilities for composers of cinematic music with its over 170 included presets and around 150 different instruments.

Nordic Spheres: What is it?

Mats Lundgren: Nordic Spheres is a musical instrument software plugin that has been created by me, Mats Lundgren, and Amina Hocine from Pole Position, in collaboration with Germany-based company Sonuscore. It runs with the free Native Instruments Kontakt-player and all software development has been done by Sonuscore, eminently coded by programmer-extraordinaire Nico Dilz, whereas all audio content has been created by Pole Position Production. Tilman Silescu has acted as creative director and producer for the project.

Also Pole’s eminent co-worker Eric Thorsell has been involved and crafted a bunch of samples for the sound-effects category included in the soundbanks.

What does it sound like?
Mats: Nordic Spheres is excellent at creating vast soundscapes, it can be the icing on the cake on your cinematic soundtrack. It can be both subtle and gentle, but can also create harsh tones, close to noise that would do very well in a horror soundtrack. With the stroke of a key, it breathes life into any movie, tv, or game’s score.

Easiest way to learn more about its different sounds and features is to watch this video, courtesy of Tilman at Sonuscore:

And how does it work?
Mats: Nordic Spheres has four sound-engine slots, which means that it can simultaneously load and handle four individual instrument-patches. The main feature of Nordic Spheres however are its two grain-engines. In each of them you can choose a sample and by settings left-right markers decide exactly which portions of the two samples you want to use for playback.

With the mod-wheel you can then freely move between the two markers and in that way, in conjunction with individual envelopes, filters and effects, create extraordinary soundscapes. Since many of the grain-samples contain lots of information the possibilities are almost endless in terms of variation and expression.

The other two slots can play either “Sustains” (i.e. the traditional way of playing back looped sustaining pads) or short (arpeggiating) samples, we call them “Hits”.

The tech behind Nordic Spheres though is only one side of the coin. The other side is of course the audio that Pole has created and provided, all the meticulously curated and processed material that makes up the sound banks.

If you want to take a closer look at how to work with Nordic Spheres, have a look at this video:

How were the sounds created?
Amina: I’m doing my master’s in electro-acoustic composition at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, and there I’ve developed and built an instrument called a foghorn organ that is inspired by the sound of foghorns. It’s made out of PVC pipes and other HVAC components and is driven by compressed air. This sound felt perfect for Nordic Spheres since for me it evokes a feeling of space and sometimes loneliness that can be associated with this part of the world. Another sound I made, Trösten (the comfort) is made out of a steel thermos I carry around with me everywhere, being pushed against a table, making a somewhat unnerving, yet beautiful sound.

Here’s an example of how the foghorn organ was used within a preset:

Mats: Some source material can sometimes be found in the most unexpected places. For one of the Sustains, one called “Trembling Pad”, I used the sound of an exploding artillery shell. Last autumn we did field recordings at Bofors Test Center where they test-shoot big-gun ammunition and we managed to get 155mm ammunition exploding over the microphones, which made extraordinary sonic effects and with shrapnel raining all around. From one of these explosions, I was able to extract RX overtones that I later mixed with a marimba tremolo that Amina recorded.

I chose the frequency in RX and inverted the selection, like this:

The resulting sound is as follows:

After looping and tidying up it would sound something like this:

After mixing it all together with the other source the result was this Sustaining pad. Amina crafted the last, distorted, layer, which is one of many examples of how we collaborated with the material.

Amina: I also used bells I’ve removed from an old wall clock and played them with a bow. It makes the most haunting sound in the best of ways.

Mats: For the Arpeggiating hits we did a number of recording sessions just for that. We went to a friend’s studio, Mattias Olsson, who has a huge collection of unusual instruments. At his place, we recorded all kinds of stuff, including a celeste and a Fender Rhodes. We also sampled his grand piano using clubs that we hit on the strings to get a muffled sound, and we also played it with a pick. It was important to find instruments that would fit the tone of the library as a whole, more instruments were recorded than were actually used in the end. Everything included is there for the sake of creating something unique, and all hits have been crafted to blend in with the sus-pads and grains. In some cases they have been mashed up, so for example there is a charango there that’s been mixed with the autoharp, which gives a very nice result.

We also sampled a lot of material that we could use as a source for grains. We always record at 96kHz so that the material can be manipulated and pitched around as much as possible. For example, we took my old key harp (a traditional Swedish instrument that is played with a bow but notes are struck with a set of keys, it is mainly used in traditional folk music) and used it to produce all kinds of mysterious tones that would sound eerie, but also very beautiful in a sense.

Another featured instrument is the old wheelbarrow, which is in fact a sculpture made of bronze. It looks exactly like a full-size wheelbarrow filled with dirt, twigs, and leaves from garden work. It’s hollow and very resonant and weighs like 250 kg or so, so it’s a beast but looks very true to life. I was lucky to have it available for some time before it was put out on display, and I used a bow to play on the “twigs” that were sticking out which created some really cool sounds, scary and haunting.

Who came up with the name Nordic Spheres and what inspired the name?
Mats: Nordic Spheres was from the beginning Northern Spheres, a work-in-progress name that Tilman and his team came up with at the start of the project that stuck with us. They were seeking something that would associate with Pole, me and Amina being Nordic, but also something that would fit with the aesthetics of the sounds that we were creating. It works very well with the product and its atmosphere.

Later in the process, it was Amina’s idea to start using Icelandic, and later Swedish, Norwegian, and even Finnish, for naming different instruments and presets she was making. What was so great about it was that using different (and to most people) quite exotic languages gave the project air and a sense of direction and personality. It also in a way created a positive feedback loop since the names often inspire new ideas and creative paths, which in turn inspire the creation of new presets and sounds.

Amina: The idea was to find words in Icelandic that weren’t too cliché and not to make fun of it, but to find certain words where it could really add to the feeling of the sounds. Like the first word which we used, which meant ‘lighthouse’.

Mats: Ultimately it is very intriguing to open a preset called for example “þyrlu”. Even though it’s probably unclear what exactly it means (unless you’re Icelandic) it gives an idea and inspiration that hopefully nurtures the composition and work. At least that’s what we hope.

You developed this software in cooperation with the German music composition and production company Dynamedion. Is this the first time you guys are working together?
Mats: BOOM/ Dynamedion/ Sonuscore (Sonuscore is the division that creates music and software instruments) have been friends and collaborators of Pole Position since we first met them at GDC in 2016. Already then and there we decided that we should work together. Jointly we have released two sound libraries under the BOOM brand, World War 2 Tanks and Cars V8. A few years back we also co-developed a software called GRIP (that handles tracklaying wheel-to-ground interaction for film) that was released to the market in 2020.

Besides those, I have also made a guest appearance on their line of Origins instruments called Origins Vol.6: Muted Guitar and Harmonics. From that experience I knew Tilman quite well already, so there was no doubt that Sonuscore would be the perfect partner in developing a more advanced plugin. They have amassed such huge experience in music-software development and have released products such as Action Strikes, the Orchestra, and Elysion, libraries that countless composers (me included) use every day in music production. I’m super proud to be part of something that’s included in their catalog.

What does the process look like when you develop a software synthesizer?
Mats: The idea for creating a music software plugin had been brewing in my head for quite some time before we started developing Nordic Spheres. I had been working on a lot of computer-game projects for some years and had developed very useful techniques recording my own sound-source material and then manipulating that and making it work musically. So I figured that I could use these techniques and perhaps make something more out of it, but wasn’t sure just how to.

While working on the plugin that was to become GRIP I realized that I could use granular synthesis for playing back musical samples. Many of the sounds I create have lots of little dents and quirks in them, traits that make them unique and sound personal. To really be able to pinpoint those and control the playback of the samples made me understand that I potentially had something special to offer. I presented it to Tilman Silescu who liked it and we decided to create Nordic Spheres together.

As it happened, Nico Dilz was interested and already investigating how to work with granular synthesis in Kontakt, so it was an easy leap for him to script a prototype that we could use as a starting point. What he handed us was Granularis, a rather simple NKI (Native Kontakt Instrument) that could handle the granulation of only one sample. It didn’t have the effects and all the other features that Nordic Spheres has, but it was perfect for figuring out what could work for us. Granularis was used for quite some time, just for testing different ways of putting together and combining different sources and seeing what would come out of it. Sifting redundant samples was an important part of the process, more were discarded than made it through the needle’s eye.

It actually took quite a long time before the next step was taken toward a finished product. The idea for Nordic Spheres was presented sometime in late 2018 and it wasn’t until early 2022 that we continued the development in a modified version of one of Sonuscore’s already existing products. By then we had, using Granularis, accumulated a decent amount of samples that we thought would cut it. With this NKI we were able to combine the two grains in conjunction with Hits and Sustains, pretty much like Nordic Spheres is today. It didn’t have the looks and full functionality yet but it was able to do more or less what Nordic Spheres can. With this we finalized the different aspects (sustains, hits, loops, and particles) and perfected all samples.

At the final stage everything was lifted into the final Nordic Spheres NKI and integrated with the GUI by Nico and his team.

Other cool features on it?
Mats: There are a number of percussive samples included as well. They are all made by Amina and me and we tried to use unexpected sources for them, they don’t exactly sound like your average drum loop. For example, I sampled my piano and was able to create “woody” textures, it sounds really cool when played back at slow speeds.

Amina: With the loops, I tried doing something atmospheric, so it could be easily implemented with the other sounds. Sometimes the beat isn’t the main goal but a movement that pulls a sound forward. I used sounds from the wall clock and I also used some recordings I’ve made with a hydrophone at Skeppsholmen in the middle of Stockholm.

Mats: Another unexpected source was the tugboat that was recorded by Pole on the River Thames for the movie Dunkirk. It was a very old boat, built in 1927 with a super-interesting engine, and I used the beat of the pistons to create a rhythmic pattern.

The percussive loops are played back in the granulator, either in the stutter engine or with an envelope. The result is very cool-sounding and will be a great addition to a film score when something odd and unusual is required.

With almost infinite alternatives at hand, is Nordic Spheres still user-friendly?
Mats: Nordic Spheres is easy to use out of the box, installation is all automatic and Kontakt Player is compatible with all DAWs. The presets are quite many and varied so the presets available are many enough to create a good starting point for starting to use it and putting flavor to projects. The engine is pretty complex however so it may be a little effort to dig into its possibilities and deeper departments, but those who feel compelled will be richly rewarded.

Watch the official Nordic Spheres trailer:

Will there be more plug-ins to come from Pole?
Mats: After GRIP, this is the second software product that Pole is releasing. It is our explicit ambition to keep developing our own products and we also have two programmers, Johann Prell and Lorenzo Salvadori, on our team that are working on something that we can’t reveal just yet.

Besides that we are of course working on more sound libraries and recordings. There’s so much to be done, but it is a lot of fun!

Read More

Check out Nordic Spheres on the Sonuscore shop.

Learn more about Pole’s other plug-in, GRIP.

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