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Beyond MIDI with Synthfont

So what do you do with a MIDI file that sounds1 like a cheap toy when played with your computer? Load it on Synthfont!

There are a lot of suspicious websites and software out there when you search for “MIDI to MP3”. I doubt that most of them would improve the sound quality. They just convert the format, and you have no control over how the resulting MP3 file sounds. Although they may serve the purpose of making your arranged music more compatible to more players and devices, it is still painful to listen to. In many cases, you simply have a much bigger file.

This is why it is better to go beyond a passive format conversion and take control of the process. Give your hard work the quality it deserves. It is also a fun learning experience that can open doors to new hobbies or even new career opportunities. Knowing that you can create high quality music tracks, with just your computer, is quite empowering.

Even if you can tweak the MIDI further through automation and control changes, it is not very motivating if the instruments still sound bad (just like how having a bad sounding real musical instrument discourages you from playing it). Also, there are many instruments or instrument ensembles that are not included in the General MIDI specification. What concerns me most, is that you don’t have ensembles for violins, violas, cellos and contrabasses. Instead you have generic “strings” (instruments 48 to 51).

A Beginner’s DAW

After being initially discouraged by the complexity and bloat of other free digital audio work stations (DAWs), I eventually found something that simply does what I want to do. Synthfont makes it straightforward to apply soundfonts and VSTs to an existing MIDI file. It is “MIDI-centric” not containing audio editing/recording functions like those found in audio editors like Audacity or Wavosaur. It is also not bundled with annoying loops and samples that you’ll never use. (I find it both ridiculous and discouraging how some DAWs boast that they are bundled with gigabytes of samples).

Getting better sounds using soundfonts and VSTs

To demonstrate a simple comparison, the MIDI resulting from the previous Sekaiju tutorial was modified. Notes were made shorter than notated to emulate the player’pauses. The chords were voiced out and split to different string instruments. Slightly higher velocities were also assigned to shorter notes. Below, you can listen to two versions of the same MIDI file. One is rendered with Window’s default synth while the other is rendered using free soundfonts and VSTs from the web.

Silent Night in Synthfont

Silent Night in Synthfont using custom soundfonts, VST instuments and a reverb VST effect.

  1. Rendered2 using GM.DLS3 found in “WINDOWS\system32\drivers\”. This is how it would have normally sounded if played directly as MIDI file with the default Windows sounds.

  2. Now, this version uses custom soundfonts, VSTis, and VST effects.

    The following were used:

Although the second example is far from the best possible result, it is much more pleasing than the first one. Normally, I’d spend more hours until I become happy with the results, but I have a self imposed Christmas deadline. Like any artwork, a good musical arrangement should take its time. There are also a lot of free soundfonts and VSTs out there, aside from what I’ve used. So there is plenty of room for experimentation and improvement.

Similarly, there are also other good DAWs out there, both free and commercial. But back then, when I was starting, the other free alternatives were not the easiest to learn, and were a bit overkill. Hence, Synthfont, because of it’s “plug and play” paradigm and ease of use with existing MIDI files made it a winner for a beginner “DAW-ist” like me (wow, that sounds like some kind of religion). Its website actually has a tutorial, but I never really read it as things are quite straight forward to figure out. On the funny side, I always discover something new because I never really read the tutorial. :P This just shows that I don’t have to ingest tons of information before I can get satisfactory results.

Other tools of the trade:

These are little tools frequently used for other practical stuff when creating MP3 files. Their functions can also probably be done through Synthfont, but it is just far more intuitive to use dedicated tools. Furthermore, they can be used independently of what other software you use to create MP3 files.

  • Mp3 Gain: Normalize the volume of your Mp3 file, so you don’t have to adjust the volume when your player goes through different files. 92 dB is standard while softer pieces such as piano solos seem to go well with 89dB.
  • Mp3 Tag: Add more meaningful extra information in your MP3 file. Let people know where it came from.

Foot notes:

  1. The sounds are NOT in the MIDI file. But we commonly associate cheesy sounds with MIDI files because of the Roland GS Sound Set used by the Windows SW Synth (which dates back to 1996).
  2. This defeats the purpose of using Synthfont. But I think it is more preferable to do it this way compared to installing one of the many other competing not-so-well-known converters you may find online.
  3. It is possible to replace GM.DLS and get better default MIDI sounds.

Happy holidays/music making!

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