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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

by Eric Keller and Kenneth Rundt

Updated December 2017

(This article also appears on the support page of www.synthfont.com/TutorialX.html.)

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 quick-start 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:

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

Start-up operation with an SF2 soundfont

SynthFont2 is ready to use as soon as you've installed it.

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.

An important caution: Different soundfont files are recorded with different amplitudes. For example, General User GS was recorded with maximum volume, while Nice-Keys-Sal-Giga-JN was recorded with average 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 this tutorial, we concentrate on a quick and easy application, those needed by a piano learner. Future articles may address the needs of other and more advanced musicians. E.g. applications useful for composers are discussed in "All-in-one Composing with SynthFont2 and EastWest Virtual Instruments".

Here are some types of users:

  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.
  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. They have two options: either save the composition in MIDI format, or create a MIDI link between the composition software and SynthFont2. This is a bit trickier and needs 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 modification can become relatively complex. There are tutorials on the SynthFont site to guide you.
  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

Here are some soundfonts that are noted for their piano presets:

Plug in a VST

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.

Here is a nice free VST instrument package, the WayPiano on http://www.simonlarkin.net/releases.html. Be sure to get the X86 version.

Insert a VST plug-in into SynthFont2

Play a VST plugin instrument

Select Track

Several instruments and the VST program

Filtering

SynthFont2 makes filtering easy. Let's try a handy example.

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

The idea is to create a good-sounding piano for the lowest possible price: You buy a relatively cheap MIDI keyboard, you plug it into your computer, and the output sounds "like a real piano". Is that possible?

At the end of 2017, the answer would be: possibly, if your computer is fast enough. I will take you through two options, an easy option with the free program MuseScore2, and a more complicated but possibly faster option using SynthFont2.

MuseScore2 Option

SynthFont2 Option

Up to this point, setting up SynthFont2 has been a piece of cake. This is about to change if 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 labelling 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 (USB2 is generally fine).

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.

Play your instrument with a soundfont file

Reduce the latency

If you're running SynthFont2 on a reasonably modern desktop computer with just one 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:

Live performance with a VST instrument

Now let's use a VST instrument in a live performance.

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. Eric ran the following comparison.

Piano synthesis on the SynthFont2 was compared to the pianos in 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 real-time piano emulation at this time.

After much comparison between the three piano emulations using a series of headphones, the Bösendorfer Imperial won out (the Steinway came a close second). The bass end was fine for all three pianos, but the treble end remained relatively weak everywhere, in that the keys lacked the natural sound contours that I know from real grand pianos. The least deficient emulation was the Bösendorfer Imperial with its crisp and natural treble.

It's against this virtual piano that I ranged the free soundfont pianos used in SynthFont2. Out of the dozen or so SF2 pianos I compared for this tutorial, Nice-Keys-Sal-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. Since it emulates a Salamander grand piano and occupies a substantial 900 Mb size, this is not surprising.

Moreover, the Nice-Keys/SynthFont2 combination even scored better than the built-in piano emulation found in Eric's keyboard, which is a highly-praised P45 by Yamaha. So it seems that you can do very well with a SynthFont2 soundfont emulation.

But what can be found in the Bösendorfer Imperial emulation, which with its 10 Giga is still more than 10 times bigger than the Nice-Keys Salamander piano? In addition to yet 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 no documentation was found 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 respectable initial piano learning environment.

Here are a few more details. After much testing over several years, here is what Eric found to be the best investment path for his own piano learning:

About the authors

Eric KellerEric Keller: Audiophile and great lover of classical music, he currently works full-time with musical sound synthesis. In tune with current trends, he favours 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 compose music. Find out more on http://www.erickeller.ch.

Kenneth RundtKenneth 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.