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A Cruel Angel’s Thesis

January 21, 2013 Leave a comment

That’s the title of the last song I’ve uploaded in my soundcloud account four months ago. (and now I have a proper alibi for the title of this post)

… and perhaps that best describes my current situation. Nothing near to what the song’s lyrics imply (I don’t even understand it). But it is at least the first song that comes to mind. My cruel thesis is the academic type. This is the third time in my life that I’m writing a thesis, and I always feel terrible how I couldn’t do a lot of other things while on this stage. So if you could bear with me for a moment, here comes my rants as a grad student. :-)

Slides: http://xkcd.com/365/

On being Batman

Having been blessed with several talents, or at least that’s what I choose to believe :P, I’ve mastered the art of living day and night time identities. In other words, being a scientist by day, artist by night. I don’t mind not hanging around with (what I consider) normal people doing normal stuff. I find my freedom in being alone, taking control of my time, doing the things I like. But no matter how tempted I am to share how exciting I think my life is,  I don’t let people at work know about it.

Paid grad school can be different from other jobs since you can be expected to devote more than just a 9 to 5 workload. At least that’s how it is in my unfortunate case. Unlike normal jobs, there’s a wide variation in what your bosses can be in grad school. There’s no guidelines, rules or standards on what an academic “supervisor” should be. And that where things can go wrong. A few weeks ago,  I was asked to draft two papers at the same time, on top of the other two that I am already writing, and I had to finish in a week. I start to feel like the poor nameless hero in PhD comics. With such expectations, maintaining a secret identity is your protection. Otherwise your boss will think that you’re fairing well and still have enough time in your hands, and then, give you more work to do. Worst your boss will even blame your extra activities from preventing you from being the “best” you could be.

Abstinence

This is just temporary. While the thesis is still a demanding task. Because when I come back to my hobbies, I know how engaging it can be, and how many hours it will take away from what should have been work or proper rest (For some reason, my dreams are far more interesting than reality, making waking up difficult. I’d probably take the blue pill). Making music is fun, but it requires mental effort and creativity. And when I’m on it, it can keep bouncing in my mind for the rest of the day, not leaving space for other tasks.

Am I in the wrong career?

Not really. It’s more of I’m in the wrong work environment. I know several successful friends who have the same day time career as me and enjoy their after work hours doing a variety of creative stuff. Let’s face it. WHOLE day serious work is unhealthy and counterproductive. That’s why avoid doing it. In the right amounts, I do enjoy my work. And I manage living two (or more) active lives when my daytime work load is at normal levels.

My “Batman job” is not really “work”, and, being my own boss, I can fool around as much as I want, while still being productive. I believe that the world has so much to offer that focusing in one thing is a sad thing to do. Maybe that’s my idea of living a full life. Expressing your self in all the ways you can. Giving back to the world where ever you could. Not just in my daytime work.

I just can’t wait to get over this damned thesis!

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An unofficial introduction to soundfonts

January 10, 2013 Leave a comment

Preface

It may be weird to be discussing this article after having gone through more advanced topics before. But then again, the purpose of this blog is to inform people, especially the beginners. I have side tracked a bit as other related topics of interest come and go. Since I had temporarily run out of such topics, I now return to the purpose of establishing this blog. Hence, I will be discussing something quite elementary. Soundfonts.

Soundfonts

Soundfonts are called soundfonts in analogy with word processor (type setting) fonts. It is helpful to think of them as virtual instruments –musical instruments that exist in your hard drive (this is the future! :D ). Soundfont files commonly have the extension sf2. Just as you can change the fonts in a document or web page, you can also change the instrument for a given piece of music (e.g. piano to guitar). But you can go further by specifying a specific instrument (e.g. Fender Stratocaster to Ibanez Jem). Soundfonts enable you to do such changes digitally. For example, soundfonts can be used to go beyond the usual limitation of having cheesy sounds unfairly associated with MIDI.

The soundfont technology was developed by Creative back in the 90’s.

Usage of the term soundfont

Although it may be more correct to use the term “sample library” as a general term, the term soundfont seems to be frequently used even for other similar non sf2 formats all around the internet. The term “sample“, on the other hand, could be ambiguous as it may also include melodic more-than-one note sound segments intended for quick “copy paste” or remix music.

Beyond synthesizers

Back when memory was expensive synthesizers were used to electronically produce different instrument sounds. Doing so relied on real time processing which is also expensive back then. In short, there were a lot of technical constraints that prevented the production of realistic instrument sounds. Eventually, memory became large enough to store samples of recorded sounds, offering more realism over synthesized sounds. (Analog/digital audio synthesis still remains an important sound production tool by itself, producing new and interesting sounds that have their own appeal.)

What are all those Creative Soundblaster stuff?

Soundfonts had been around since the mid 90’s when computer RAM was not as big as we have these days. Hence special soundcards such as the Soundblaster AWE32 loaded soundfonts in their dedicated memory. The memory of these soundcards were still not so much in today’s standards, hence many old soundfonts were made as small as possible.  Today, computers with at least 2GB of  RAM are quite common allowing soundfonts to be used regardless of what soundcard model is equipped in your PC. In some cases, a soundcard is not even needed. This is particularly beneficial for laptops where you have little control over the shipped soundcard.

Using soundfonts

Based on my experience (and bias), if I would suggest a newbie, the easiest way to use soundfonts in Windows is to use Synthfont. But that is for the purpose of converting a MIDI file to an audio file such as wav, flac or mp3. Some programs that use soundfonts are meant for other uses which I will list below:

  • Converting MIDI to audio formats such as MP3
    • Synthfont
    • timidity++ (or twsynth in Windows). Not as straight forward as Synthfont.
    • DAWs with MIDI capability, but can be beginner-overkill with a lot of other features
  • Playing a MIDI device connected to your computer:
    •  Syfonone
    • Also DAWs with MIDI capability, but that may be overkill for just leisurely playing an instrument
  • Playing MIDI files without converting them
  • Overriding Windows cheesy GM.DLS sounds: BASSMIDI

If I remember correctly I first learned about soundfonts through a 2009 example in youtube that uses Winamp. Other hints I found when figuring out how to use soundfonts was to use timidity++ or fluidsynth. However, I was not yet so soundfont-savvy back then so I failed to learn them. I was already using synthfont by the time I noticed timidity++’s Windows port, twsynth, and I also already configured VLC media player to play MIDI files by using the fluidsynth library and a multi-instrument soundfont. I eventually learned that soundfonts are widely used with DAWs. But at first I only knew about LMMS which crashes a lot, ruining the musical and learning experience.

How are soundfonts created

Creating soundfonts would be a big jump for someone who has just started to learn using soundfonts. But it doesn’t hurt understanding how they are made, and it would also allow you to use them better. If you can, it can be very rewarding, even profitable. However, before you can create soundfonts, you should first know how to sample an instrument. Sampling involves recording individual notes, then mapping them based on their  pitches (this is an oversimplified description).

Assuming you already have a set of instrument samples, SF2 files can be created using Viena (the only existing free program I know). Traditionally, soundfonts were made with Creative’s Vienna (note the spelling differences). But I’m not sure whether Vienna is free, and all those soundcard hardware requirements are only confusing. One caveat is that the SF2 file format is gradually being superseded by other formats with more features such as the SFZ format which is much easier to create.

Is bigger better?

1. Timbre is independent of size

Audio quality is often technically defined as resolution (bitrate and sampling rate). But a real instrument’s quality is determined by its timbre. One could sample a cheap guitar at 32bit and 98kHz, but that does not necessarily make it better than a more expensive instrument sampled at half the bit and sample rate. One could sample all the white keys of a cheap piano and end up with a larger file as opposed to a Yamaha/Kawai/Steinway/Bösendorfer with just three samples per octave.  The sampling hardware and environment, i.e. the recording setup, will also affect the final sound. And if recorded properly, cheap instruments may actually sound better! Hence numbers alone are not enough, and you should just let your ear decide which timbre or tone sounds better. As an example, one soundfont I like that is surprisingly small is Cohen’s Alto SaxThe Jazz Page also contains good sounding small sized soundfonts. Of course timbre preference is complex and subjective and those are based on my preferences and biases. You should not just blindly imitate them. In fact, I still change soundfonts/VSTi’s for a given instrument from project to project as some of them seem to blend better with others.

2. More samples are needed for more realism

A single acoustic instrument can produce infinitely many uniquely sounding notes. Even the same note can be played in many different ways. And even if the same note is played in the same way, subtle differences will still manifest as you would see if you compare the waveforms of the recorded samples. Taking these variations into consideration requires the use of multiple samples for the same note or pitch. The following are common categories for mapping out the possible unique sounds of a given instrument pitch.

  • Velocity layers. In music notation terms there is piano, forte and their variants are somewhat related to playing velocity. In a real instrument, velocity has more subtle effects than just changing the volume. A piano, for example, will sound brighter when the keys are depressed faster. Many free soundfonts, however, do away without velocity layers.
  • Articulations. Articulations emulate the musicians playing techniques. For example, a note plucked on a guitar will sound different whether or not it has a vibrato. The violins and its relatives in the string section of the orchestra also have many articulations such as bowed (arco) and plucked (pizzicato).
  • Variations. Even when playing a note at the same velocity and articulation in a real acoustic instrument, it is rare, if not impossible, to produce notes that sound exactly the same. What makes human playing human is the imperfections, subtle randomness and variations. Hence high quality libraries systematically swap different recordings for the same note, a process known as round robin. One of round robin’s benefits is the prevention of the so called “machine gun” effect that happens when the same note repeated in fast succession sounds strangely artificial, breaking the illusion of realism (like in an obviously repeated segment in a dance remix).

3. Multiple instruments in one file

Some soundfonts contain multiple instruments bundled into one file. Common example are GM (General MIDI) collections and orchestral soundfonts. They may appear big, but the individual instruments contained could be over optimized, possibly having less quality than a single-instrument file. Besides, it is usually better to be picky with each individual instrument you use. Bundled GM soundfonts don’t offer variety and might be shipped with a lot of filler stuff you’ll never use. Nonetheless, some applications such as VLC media player and MuseScore can only use one soundfont for all instruments (underneath, they both use fluidsynth).

Other sample library formats

Having been around for decades, it is understandable why SF2 is automatically implied by the term soundfont (a relationship similar to bitmap and bmp). But today, the SF2 format is only one of the many sample library formats. Many new formats take advantage of the increased computing power not available in the days of SF2. Since some are not directly usable or not 100% compatible to some DAWs a sampler/sample player VST is needed to use them.

  • SFZ. Introduced by Cakewalk. Use Cakewalk’s sfz player or Plogue’s sforzando. It is easily constructed requiring only the wav sample files “as is” and a text file containing definitions and instructions on how the wav samples are used.
  • GIG. Tascam’s Gigasampler. The Linux Sampler (also available for Windows) is originally built for this format.
  • DLS. You may not be aware of it, but if you play a MIDI file in a Windows computer, what you hear, by default, is based on the gm.dls file.
  • Formats that require a commercial/proprietary player (consequently I’m least familiar with).

Where to get soundfonts

There are a lot of soundfonts available in the internet so using a search engine is probably the most practical way of getting them. Listed below are a few websites that contain lists and links to soundfonts.

You can find more orchestral instruments on my dedicated and updated list of free orchestral sample libraries (sf2, sfz, etc).

Legal issues

Why should a beginner care about such things as legal issues? Can’t we just download and enjoy everything the internet has to give?

It’s up to you. I’ll just state what I think about it. The remainder of this article may be optional.

If you care about the legality of your project, then you should be careful that the soundfonts you use are not a rip-offs of a commercial (or even free, yet uncredited) soundfont. This is likely to happen with “repackaged” soundfonts built from multiple sources. Sometimes people will make a smaller version of a large soundfont or modify it in other ways, then distribute it. Doing so might violate the original creator’s copy right terms. For example, the Squidfont Orchestral soundfont is said to be a rip off of Miroslav Philharmonik.

Even worst, some shady “companies” will rip off others’ hard work and profit from it. Such ripping off had happened to the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra. Although it rarely happens (or is rarely reported :( ), buying does not necessarily ensure that you’re getting clean legal guilt-free stuff. Hence, it is best to check your sources especially if you want to share or sell it to others.

If buying can wait, wait until December

January 1, 2013 Leave a comment

When I told my land lady before that I wanted a piano in my room, she advised me to buy one in December as prices would go down.

The same rule applies for virtual instruments and other music making software. If you can wait, wait until December. I had seen many discounts, and hence, was able to purchase Miroslav Philharmonik Orchestra and Kontakt 5 at 1/3 and 1/2 their regular prices respectively. In fact, there are too many such promos, that I decided to only discuss the products I actually bought and just give a more comprehensive link in KVR Audio for the rest. Elsewhere in the interwebs, audible (UK) has given a 30% off on all audiobooks (I’m a lazy reader) and Actual Tools sold their multiple monitor taskbar with a 50% discount. For sure there are more discounts for other products during the December holidays.

Christmas has some good effects. I would like to believe that deep in their hearts, vendors just simply want to give, when they are possessed by Christmas spirits. But of course, marketing wise, Christmas promos get them more publicity, attract customers who would otherwise never buy their products, and for those selling tangible stuff, get rid of the year’s unsold products. In any case, if you are not tricked into impulsive buying, it is a win-win situation IMHO.

So, if you think a product is great, but have no immediate use for it, it may be good idea to be patient and wait. Also, if it software delivered via download, you don’t have to worry that it will run out of stock. If the software is famous/reputable, its website would most probably still be around within the year.

You might even realize that you can actually live without it as time goes by and you discover alternatives. :)

Risks and considerations

What you could worry about is that the price may go up as you wait. There is the possibility of inflation, and prices may rise with continuing software development expenses. But so far, I’ve seen price increases are moderate when they do happen. Another consideration is major software upgrades. There are a lot of complaints when software undergo extreme make-overs like when MS Office 2007 was introduced. As the most affected are those who are used with the previous version, this may not be a problem for new customers. I haven’t used any previous versions of Guitar Pro before, so unlike what others may claim, I find Guitar Pro 6 to be just fine. Whether or not an upgraded version will be discounted or for free if you have a previous version is another concern. It could be sad to pay extra a few months after buying a previous version.

Coda

What a great way to start a year by waiting for it to end. I actually don’t feel very comfortable talking about all that buying stuff and whatnot as I prefer talking about free stuff which all of us can appreciate. But as consumers or prosumers, buying things is just part of getting things done.

Happy New Year! :)