QuickStart tutorial
Play and record midi files and live midi instruments...
Change between dozens of SF2 sound fonts and VST instruments...
Filter the sound stream...
Create a cost-effective beginner's piano...
...all this with SynthFont2 and a few mouse clicks
A SynthFont2 Quickstart Tutorial, Part 1
by Eric Keller (erickeller.ch)
Update: Version 1.0, December 2016
At a price that is difficult to beat (15 EUR/$17), SynthFont2 is one of the most powerful
programs for exploring the midi world. Many people consider this to be simply the best
midi player for Windows.
I work with sound and music all day long. For many years, I used the precursor program
SynthFont (still available) to listen to my midi files. Recently, I have been impressed with
the new features found in the new SynthFont2 program. To explore SynthFont2 more in
detail, I share with you this quickstart tutorial to the key features of the program.
Download SynthFont2: http://www.synthfont.com/
What can SynthFont2 do?
The program is very flexible. It has many uses:
•
It plays all types of midi files. A midi file contains a series of instructions to play a
piece of music with one or several instruments. It does not contain the final sounds,
just instructions which instrument(s) should be used and in which way the music
should be played. To be able to listen to midi files, we need a program that
translates the content of midi files into actual sounds. This is most often done with
SoundFont files. This is the core task of SynthFont2.
•
SynthFont2 makes handling SoundFont files easy and transparent. A
SoundFont file is a collection of instrument sounds that are used to interpret a midi
file. As the name suggests, a SoundFont file acts like a font used for text files: in
interpreting the contents of a midi file, it can be simple and functional, or it can be
sophisticated and powerful. A general midi SoundFont file (a “GM file”) contains
recordings for at least 128 melodic and 47 percussion instruments. Western
melodic instruments are represented with half-tones, plus optionally, with extra
versions for different sound durations and attack velocities. Each sound collection
for an instrument is called “a preset” or "a patch".
•
There are dozens, if not hundreds of free SoundFonts available on Internet. Not all
are equally good. To find out which are the best for your purpose, one usually goes
through lengthy comparisons. This means switching from one SoundFont to
another. That is very easy to do in SynthFont2.
•
You can also change instruments for an individual midi channel. SynthFont2 is
thus great for experimenting with different instruments, for example when verifying
a transposition to a different instrument.
•
SynthFont2 lets you examine the niggly innards of a SoundFont file. This makes the
program particularly helpful for those who wish to build new SoundFont files. A
special program (“Viena”) is also available on the SynthFont site exactly for that
purpose.
•
Next, you can filter or reproduce the sound with an ASIO/VST device. By
plugging ASIO/VST devices into SynthFont2 (many of which are free), you can
experiment with a wide variety of filters, for example to emphasize treble or bass, or
to make the sound brighter or less intrusive, or you can listen to your midi files with
a VST plugin.
•
Let's define ASIO and VST. ASIO provides a direct internal interface between
programs like SynthFont2 and the Windows sound system. This reduces latency*
and provides greater flexibility of handling sound within the Windows system. VST
is a wrapper for interfacing filter plug-ins, sound effects, instruments, or entire
programs in the Windows environment. (*Latency = e.g. in a piano track, the time
between hitting the key and the sound coming out of the loudspeaker.)
•
Many companies have released ASIO/VST instruments and sound modification
devices (filters) that can be used as plug-ins in SynthFont2. Some are commercial
sound reproduction programs, like Piantoteq, DSK and Addictive Keys, while others
have been produced by freeware developers (see e.g. Xavier Kalensky's
substantial kx77free contributions).
•
You can connect an electronic piano or other midi instrument to your
computer and use SynthFont2 for real-time, live instrument practice or for
giving concerts. Below we'll show you how to connect your piano to SynthFont2
and how to reduce the latency to acceptable levels. SynthFont2 is highly optimized
to give you the best live instrument performance on your machine.
•
The program produces sounds for your internal loudspeaker, for a headset,
or for a file recorded in any of various file formats. In this way, you can listen to
your midi files, or to your own performances, or you could even pool various
instruments for a live performance. Moreover you can record midi files or live
performances in various sound formats, such as MP3, WAV, OGG, MP4/M4A,
FLAC or WMA at 16-, 24- or 32-bit precision.
•
Note 1: ASIO [Audio Stream Input/Output] and VST [Virtual Studio Technology] are
formats defined by Steinberg Media Technologies GmbH.
•
Note 2: MIDI should theoretically be spelled with capital letters, because it is the
abbreviation of “Musical Instrument Digital Interface”. But I follow common use and
spell it in small case throughout this tutorial.
•
Note 3: To edit midi files, many musicians use MuseScore 2, a powerful free music
notation and editing system. The midi output of MuseScore 2 is directly compatible
with SynthFont2.
In short
SynthFont2 lets you...
...play and record midi files
...play midi instruments in real time for daily practice or for live performance
...filter the sound stream
...build new SoundFont files
...record your performances
Startup operation with an SF2 SoundFont
Midi
file
SF2
Sound
Font
Speaker
Headphone
File
SynthFont2 is ready to use as soon as you've installed it.
•
Right out of the box, it plays a midi file to your currently selected Windows
playback device (speakers or headphone). The midi file is 33H_R&P.mid, found in
the SynthFont program folder.
•
For this, it uses a minimal SoundFont file, found in the same folder, called
GMGSx.sf2.
•
Launch SynthFont2 and click on “Play to Speakers” (button at center top). Click
again to stop.
•
You can change the midi input file with the menu File/Open Midi or Arrangement
(Ctrl-O).
Change the SF2 SoundFont
You can set the default SoundFont under the File menu. It's a good idea to change to a
more powerful SoundFont rapidly. Most are free of charge.
•
A good and commonly used SoundFont for all instruments is the full FluidR3 GM
font, found here (among other places): http://www.synthfont.com/SoundFonts.html
•
Another good SoundFont for all instruments is the SGMv2.01-JN-SMP found here:
https://sites.google.com/site/soundfonts4u/
•
If you are on a computer with limited resources or are strapped for space, here is a
smaller, but fairly good SoundFont file for all instruments: General User GS
(http://www.schristiancollins.com/generaluser.php).
An important caution: Different SoundFont files are recorded with different amplitudes.
If you change from one to the other without reducing the amplitude, you are at a risk of
damaging your hearing. SO PLEASE, REDUCE YOUR OUTPUT VOLUME EVERY
TIME THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR SOUNDFONT.
SynthFont2 for everyone
SynthFont2 and its precursor SynthFont have found many different users. In Part 1 of
this tutorial, we concentrate on a quick and easy application, those needed by a piano
learner. Future sections of the SynthFont2 Quickstart Tutorial will address the needs of
other and more advanced musicians.
Here are the users we distinguish:
1. Piano and other keyboard users (electronic synthesizers, harpsichords, organs).
These users are looking for an easy way to connect the keyboard to the computer
to obtain a variety of good instrument emulations. They generally look for the
highest and most appropriate sound quality at the lowest possible price. Their
technical needs are relatively circumscribed, which is why we concentrate on this
group in Part 1 of this tutorial.
2. Composers. They generally use other software (e.g. MuseScore 2 or others) to
create the composition, but they want to play it using SynthFont2. There they have
two options: either save the composition in midi format, or create a midi link
between the design software and SynthFont2. This is a bit trickier and needs some
detailed explanations.
3. Performers. They may have a midi file of a piece for a performance. They use
SynthFont2 to evaluate the tune – in some cases even changing it (transposing it)
– and making arrangements. Some like to mute a track and play an instrument of
their own. Track changing can become relatively complex, and those details need to
be explained.
4. Choir directors. This is a special but surprisingly sizeable group. They are similar
to the above, but they do have some special needs.
5. Karaoke fans. This is another special group. Although SynthFont2 supports
Karaoke files, there are other and fancier Karaoke players around. However these
other players don't support SoundFonts and VST instruments.
6. Mr. or Ms. Everyone who simply enjoys listening to midi files. For example, there is
a user who has a collection of more than 5000 midi files with just piano music.
Some are from old paper rolls, some are newer. Recently he needed to sample
them all into MP3 files on a USB stick, since the media player in his car doesn't
support any other format. Even that was possible with SynthFont2.
SF2 Soundfonts for the piano, synthesizer, harpsichord or organ
Now let's see how SynthFont2 plays piano sounds with SoundFonts. Here are some
SoundFonts that are noted for their piano presets:
•
•
•
•
The “Nice-Keys” range of SoundFonts at
https://sites.google.com/site/soundfonts4u/ (Eric’s personal favorite because of the
high-quality piano patch)
Timbres of Heaven (a very bright and present sound)
http://midkar.com/SoundFonts/
Maestro Concert Grand http://sonimusicae.free.fr/matshelgesson-maestro-en.html
(very nice sound)
Yamaha Disklavier Pro http://www.vstplanet.com/Instruments/VST_Piano6.htm
As above, choose a midi file with “Open Midi or Arrangement”, click on “Play to Speakers” .
Click again to stop.
Plug in a VST SoundFont program
VST
soundfont
program
Midi
file
Speaker
Headphone
File
Soundfonts can also come in the form of a VST program for reproducing midi files with
commercial products like Pianoteq, Addictive Keys, Galaxy Pianos or Garritan's Aria
Player. Some VST programs (like Pianoteq or the Aria Player) contain a built-in midi
player, but others like Addictive Keys or the Galaxy Pianos do not. SynthFont2 lets you
play your midi files with the advanced Addictive Keys or Galaxy VST program.
You may already have some VST plugins on your computer. Search your disk for “VST
Plugins” and check your Program Files folders for commercial products such as these:
AAS, Applied Acoustics Systems, Cakewalk, Steinberg, Native Instruments, Garritan, or
others.
Insert a VST plugin into SynthFont2
•
Inserting a VST plugin is a bit more complex than selecting a SoundFont.
•
Careful: Currently SynthFont2 can only access 32-bit VST plugins. So be sure to
download and select a 32-bit (x86) version.
•
Most VST SoundFonts are part of non-free commercial products, but here is one
that is free and that we can use for illustration: http://www.dskmusic.com/dsk-sf2/.
•
Download the file, unzip it, and move the entire folder into the Steinberg plugins
folder in your Program Files folder (C:\Program Files). If the folder does not exist,
create
two
subfolders
structured
like
this:
C:\Program
Folder\Steinberg\VSTPlugins\. At the end it should look like this: C:\Program
Folder\Steinberg\VSTPlugins\DSK SF2\.
•
In SynthFont2, click on the AddFx button. It is in a frame in the center of the main
screen, called VST Effects (“Fx”). This is a direct access to the VST Instruments
tab in the Setup and Options dialog.
•
First, enable the “All” button in the bottom panel. This assures that your instruments
will automatically show up in the middle panel.
•
Now select the VST Instruments tab. Click on “Add...” and navigate to your VST
plugins folder. When asked “Do you want to add VST Instruments as well?”, you
can safely click “yes”. A list of VST plugin folders is built up in the upper window in
green and a list of VST instruments will appear in the main panel in black.
•
If your instrument is not yet shown, select a green plugins folder, then load a midi
file with the red Add File button in the bottom row.
•
Now SynthFont2 knows where your VST plugin instruments are. At the end, be sure
to save these folder references (“Save” button at the bottom).
Play a VST plugin instrument
•
Be sure that the tracks button is marked. This is easily forgotten and leads to
great frustrations when you don't hear any sound!
•
Select a midi file with the Open Midi or Arrangement file button in the top row. The
relevant midi tracks show up in the tracks window at the bottom. If you don't see the
tracks, be sure that you are in Synth Rack mode (left, third row of buttons).
•
Click on the VST Instr button, found above the midi sound file. In our test case, this
is DSK SF2.
•
Click on the VSTI Prog button. This presents the graphical interface of the VST
program. Now you can change individual parameters in the program.
•
Click “Play to Speakers” (top row of buttons). You should now hear the midi file
through the VST program.
•
Here is a very nice and free VST set of instruments, the WayPiano on
http://www.simonlarkin.net/releases.html. Be sure to get the X86 version.
Filtering
Midi
file
SF2
sound
font
filter
Speaker
Headphone
File
SynthFont2 makes filtering easy. Let's try a handy example.
•
Go to http://sonimus.com/products/soneq/. This is the site for the freeware version
of a simple-but-powerful equalizer. Of course, SynthFont2 already has a great
equalizer (SynthRack/VST Effects panel), but the soneq equalizer is useful for a
simple example.
•
Click on Downloads and go through the procedure to obtain the VST effects
module.
•
During installation, feel free to deselect the 64-bit components of the module, since
SynthFont2 works with the 32-bit versions.
•
At the end of installation, the VST effect is found here: C:\Program Files
(x86)\Steinberg\VSTPlugins\SonEQFree.dll.
•
In SynthFont2, find your way back to the VST effects tab (Click on Setup and
Options, select the VST effects tab).
•
If necessary, add the VSTPlugins folder given above with the green Add... button,
and likewise, add the SonEQfree VST effect with the red Add file... button.
•
Save the modification and the SonEQfree title shows up in the central effects
window. The checkmark shows that the modifications of this filter will henceforth
apply to the midi-to-sound chain.
•
You can modify the filter while the music is playing.
•
Click on the title to present the equalizer interface. Many sound modifications are
possible in this module, but here is an easy one to start with: In the high-frequency
section, set the gain button to the top 12-o'clock position and click on the various
numbers: 6, 8, 12, 15 kHz. Those frequencies will be boosted by the filter.
Filtering is quite a science, and many VST effects, from moderately to highly complex can
be found on Internet. There are few programs that make experimenting with these filtering
modules much easier than SynthFont2. I can't think of any.
Live piano performance
Midi
instrument
SF2
sound
font
optional
ASIO
interface
Speaker
Headphone
File
So far setting up SynthFont2 has been a piece of cake. This is about to change as we
ready SynthFont2 for a live performance. We'll take you through the setup for your daily
instrument practice, or for a live concert performance. It may become a bit more
complicated, but you'll probably like the result.
Connect your keyboard to the computer with the usual midi connection
Old style piano: If your piano has two round midi connectors, you need a midi-to-USB
adaptor to translate the midi signal from the piano into an USB signal for the computer.
Nowadays, this is no problem. Such adaptors sell for EUR/$10 or less and show very rapid
conversion times. The signal arrives at the computer within 10 ms. The one thing to watch
for is the IN and OUT labeling of your connectors. In the midi world, IN has to be
connected to IN, and OUT has to be connected to OUT.
New style piano: Recent keyboards have been equipped with direct USB cable
connections. This feeds the midi signal directly into the USB port on the computer.
It might happen that the computer does not recognize a piano when it's connected to a
USB hub. This is particularly frustrating on portable computers or tablets that only have
one USB slot. There is no magic solution. With my Surface Windows 10 laptop I had to try
a whole series of USB adaptors to find one that reliably transmitted the midi signals. The
one that finally worked was a passive portable hub from NTrust (about 40 EUR).
Find the midi signal and adjust the latency
Once your piano is correctly connected to the computer, the midi signal will be fed to
SynthFont2.
•
After connecting your keyboard, launch SynthFont2.
•
If you haven't done so yet, select a SoundFont you want to use (“Set default
SoundFont file” in File menu).
•
Open “Setup and Options” (second button at the top left). In the top left panel of the
IO Ports tab, you should see the name of your keyboard below the word [NONE].
•
Before closing the Setup with “Save”, we set up the latency. Look at the bottom of
the IO Ports panel where you see the heading “Settings for playing from MIDI input
in real time...”.
•
For the moment, make sure that “Use ASIO” is disabled.
•
Look at the bottom right. Here are two editable boxes for specifying the latency.
SynthFont2 has already filled them in with conservative values. On my Surface PC,
the initial values were: Samples/buffer: 3072 and Number of buffers: 4. On your
computer, this may be different.
•
These numbers specify the delay between hitting a key and computer output. The
lower the numbers, the better, but you must avoid crackling or skipping noises in the
output. Be sure to take your time to get this adjustment just right, well before any
public performance!
•
Test the playback (press the button). You should hear a clear siren sound. If you
hear any crackling or skipping in the sound, increase the number of samples and/or
buffers. If you don't hear any problem, you can try lower values. Typical values are
2 buffers with 3072 samples, 3 buffers with 1536 samples or 4 buffers with 1024
samples. On my main computer, I use 4 buffers with 1024 samples.
•
You may have to get back to this adjustment if you notice any crackling or skipping
during sound reproduction.
•
Now exit the Setup and Options window with “Save”.
Play your instrument with a SoundFont file
•
In the main panel, click on the second big button at the right, called “Turn Midi Input
ON”. SynthFont2 reserves a whole series of midi channels for real-time
performance.
•
For any existing midi file, the track box(es) will be disabled. For clarity and to lighten
memory load, it may be good to close any midi files that are already in SynthFont2.
•
Play your instrument. You should hear the selected SoundFont for your keyboard
instrument.
•
If you do not hear any sound, turn the midi input off (again, second button from the
right) and go back to the Setup and Options dialog, IO Ports tab. Check the fourth
panel at the bottom right. Did you select the right output channel? Is the volume up?
You may have to test the general sound output for your computer. Windows
sometimes takes quite some time to change from one to another sound output
channel.
Reduce the latency
If you're running SynthFont2 on a reasonably modern desktop computer with just one
instrument input, the above configuration should be good enough, even with very large
SoundFonts. However, if you interface several midi instruments, and/or run on a computer
with limited resources, and/or use a huge SoundFont, you may have to help the system
reduce the latency. Otherwise you get unacceptable delays as you play your instrument(s).
SynthFont2 solves this problem in an elegant fashion. Here is how:
•
Download ASIO4ALL from the original developer at http://www.asio4all.com/, or
from a reputable download company. BE CAREFUL: bad virus infections have
been reported in versions downloaded from other sites!
•
Install ASIO4ALL in the usual manner. After installation, you probably have to reboot
the computer.
•
Launch SynthFont2 and open the Setup and Options window (IO Ports tab).
•
At the bottom of the window, enable “Use ASIO”. ASIO4ALL shows up, together with
the output channel.
•
If you want to change any parameters, click on the “Show ASIO details” button. The
ASIO4ALL graphic interface pops up to let you change the options.
•
It is not guaranteed that the ASIO path will function, because ASIO4ALL may report
that the only output path is already occupied by another application. Your mileage
may vary, in which case you may have to disable ASIO.
Live performance with a VST instrument
Now let's use a VST instrument in a live performance.
•
(As above) Your keyboard is visible in SynthFont2.
•
(As above) No midi file is necessary.
•
(As above) You have entered one or more VST instruments into SynthFont2 and it
is visible in the VST Instruments tab in the Setup and Options dialog.
•
Click the button “Turn Midi Input ON”.
•
As with SoundFonts, SynthFont2 reserves several midi tracks for live performance.
At first, the default SoundFont is entered as an instrument.
•
Do not click on any channel track.
•
To change to a VST instrument, click on the “VST Instr” button and select your VST
Instrument. Then exit.
•
The VST instrument of the main track has been changed. Since you are just playing
a single keyboard instrument, the other channels have remained unaffected, i.e.,
they still show the SoundFont name. Don't let that bother you.
•
You can now play with your VST Instrument.
How good is SynthFont2 real-time performance in surround sound?
Once all parameters in SynthFont2 and in your computer sound system are well set up,
the performance can be amazingly good. Let me give you a sense of how good it appears
to my ears.
To compare SynthFont2 live performance with a free SoundFont I reached into the high
end of SoundFont construction.
Recently I got the Galaxy II Grand Piano Collection with a modern Bösendorfer Imperial, a
1929 Bösendorfer Baby Grand and a Steinway Grand Piano recorded in 5.1 surround
sound (about 250 EUR). This is an awesome SoundFont collection with more than 6,000
samples in 24 bits, making 30 GB altogether. It boasts separate SoundFonts for up to 13
velocity zones (fast-slow/hard-soft combinations) to assure a wide dynamic range. It's hard
to do much better in piano emulation at this time.
After much comparison between the three piano emulations using a series of headphones,
the Bösendorfer Imperial won out. The low end was fine for all three pianos, but the high
end remained relatively weak everywhere, in that the treble keys lacked the natural sound
contours that I know from real grand pianos. The least deficient emulation was the
Bösendorfer Imperial.
It's against this competition that I ranged the free SoundFont pianos used in SynthFont2.
Out of the dozen or so SF2 pianos I compared for this tutorial, the SoundFont Nice-KeysSal-Giga-JNv2.0 stood out for me. It had an even response throughout the tonal range and
to my ears presented the best audible texture at the high end. Given its substantial 900 Mb
size, this is not surprising.
Moreover, the Nice-Keys – SynthFont2 combination scored better than the built-in piano
emulation found in my own keyboard, which is a highly-praised and recent P45 by
Yamaha. So it seems to me that you can do very well with a SynthFont2 SoundFont
emulation.
But what do I get in my Bösendorfer Imperial emulation, which is still more than 10 times
bigger than Nice Keys with its 10 Giga? In addition to even better texture in the higher
keys, there are many more velocity zones, i.e. a better representation of different levels of
attack, from soft to hard, and from slow to fast. Possibly there is also a better integration
into the sequential evolution of sound events, but I found no documentation to support that
hypothesis.
The wider perspective: SynthFont2 in your piano learning path
Altogether, SynthFont2 with Nice-Keys is an estimable option for a close-to-zero dollar
investment for piano practice software. Get a simple keyboard with at least 61 keys
(preferably with weighted keys), hook it into SynthFont2, load the Nice-Keys SoundFont,
get really good earphones and you have a very respectable initial piano learning
environment.
Let me give you a few more details on this. After much testing over several years, here is
what I found to be the best investment path for my own piano learning:
•
Begin with the best earphones you can afford. Expect to spend about $/EUR 200
for solid earphones from Sennheiser, Bose or perhaps Audio Technica. An
interesting surround sound can also be obtained from the new generation of virtual
surround headphones. For example, the HyperX Cloud II Headset for about $100
shows excellent surround sound without noticeable latency, but it is still noticeably
weaker in clarity than a Sennheiser HD598 Cs. Your hearing will become more
discerning with time and you will be glad about your great attention to the selection
of your earphones. To me, that was clearly the best initial bang for the bucks.
•
By contrast, I would say, take it easy on the loudspeakers. I have experimented with
many combinations reaching up to KEF monitors for EUR 1200 or more. Where a
modest investment gets you top-notch earphones, even top-rated speakers can still
not match the same quality when used in piano emulation. It's curious: speakers
may sound fantastic for playing music recordings, but they very often fare poorly in
normal piano practice where we listen very closely to each individual sound. For the
money of the best speakers, one can still get a better-sounding acoustic piano!
•
Another quality anomaly may come from amplifiers and sampling rates. In testing
for this tutorial, I realized that my direct computer audio output was noticeably better
than that of my somewhat aged post-computer amplifier. So I dropped the amplifier
from the chain. Another surprising quality loss occurred with my DAC sound
generator which runs at 44.1 kHz rather than the 48 kHz sampling rate used by my
computer. Because the computer output was resampled at 44.1 kHz for the DAC, a
slight, but audible quality loss was introduced. As a result, I now listen directly to the
computer sound output, and the DAC generator has become useless.
Consequence: it's a good idea to test every single step along the sound
reproduction chain to obtain the best possible audio fidelity.
•
With increasing competence in playing, the quality of the keyboard becomes more
important. A weighted keyboard (lowest-priced $/EUR 400-500) gives your fingers a
good sense of the action found on acoustic pianos. At a given point, that may be a
good direction to take.
•
When will you outgrow the best free SoundFont on SynthFont2? Your ears will
decide. Don't be rushed. Some excellent comparisons of high-end emulations are
available on YouTube. I'd say, listen carefully, and buy only when you hear a clear
difference to your SynthFont2 piano.
•
And finally: nothing beats a top-notch teacher. Only a very good teacher can
convincingly and safely guide you to your personal music destiny.
About the author: Audiophile and great lover of classical music, Eric Keller currently works
full-time with musical sound synthesis. In tune with current trends, he favors all-digital
computer software-centered solutions, using a great variety of programs. For special
needs, he develops his own programs in Java. Years ago and now part of history, he
developed Signalyze, a signal analysis program for speech analysis. In a realization of a
life-long dream, he is learning to play the piano. Find out more on http://www.erickeller.ch.
About the co-author, Kenneth Rundt: Retired scientist and product developer. Main hobby
during the last 15 years has been to develop the SynthFont range of tools. Lives in Finland,
in the city of Turku.
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