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A sad day for an influential animation studio

July 19, 2019 Leave a comment


As some of you might have noticed, my inclination towards orchestral music is partly influenced by its use in Japanese animation. And I’m glad that such popular use makes orchestral music more relatable to more people.

There was that one anime series that helped me develop an appreciation for brass and wind instruments. Hibike Euphonium. It is produced by Kyoto Animation.

It is unthinkable, that only yesterday, July 18 2019,  as of this writing, more than 30 employees from Kyoto Animation have passed away because of a freak arson attack.

When it comes down to it, all these websites, movies, TV shows, software, gadgets and technology, everything else that nature didn’t produce on its own, they’re all made by mere mortal people. In many cases, by wonderful benevolent people.

You’re free to call me spammy, opportunistic, “click-baity” or whatnot… but behind this website is yet another mortal person. I’m just another dude with a website. But since you’re reading this, you may just be like me. A person who loves great art and artists, and is saddened when they become victims of unfortunate events.

If you’ve reached this part of my post and would allow me to have a selfish request, perhaps you could take part in helping Kyoto Animation heal. I have donated 50 bucks to the GoFundMe campaign, run by John Ledford of Sentai Filmwoks:


It is sad that no amount of money would ever bring back the lives that have been lost. But any amount, big or small, would help.

Categories: Music making Tags:

An updated list of free orchestral sample libraries

March 13, 2017 3 comments

that can be played freely.

Updated: 2017 September 25

So much has happened since my inactivity and it is surprising to see how much more sample libraries for MIDI orchestration are now available. Some of them just appeared this year (as of initial writing in 2016). Many of you must have already heard of the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra (SSO). I believe that SSO has triggered others to make more orchestral instruments accessible for all.

With free sample libraries and DAWS being accessible to anyone, there is no reason why your musical ideas should never be heard. Today, we’re very fortunate as it is now possible to make good sounding orchestral music with zero budget (except for your computer and internet connection which you might be using right now to read this website).

Hint: If you just starting to learn about sample libraries, check out my unofficial introduction.

Scope and limitation


This list will be limited to instruments found in the orchestra and only those with formats that can be played with free software (freely obtainable i.e. plug-ins, VSTs etc). This would typically be SFZ and SF2. Less used formats such as GIG and DLS may also appear. Emphasis will be given to libraries released by their original creators, or derivative works that add more functionality or usability not present in the original.


Formats that require purchasing proprietary software are excluded. If you wish to find a list of more instrument types with more formats, check bigcat1969’s big list (where some instruments listed here are shamelessly taken from). I also might avoid big “generic” GM collections that do not suggest their use for orchestras. GM soundfonts are also commonly re-combinations of what is already available elsewhere. Other acoustic instruments such as guitars and drumsets (the one found in rock bands), although occassionally used in the orchestra will not be listed simply to avoid making a very big list (for now, at least).


I will also make a few exceptions for free VST’s/plugins as they fit the “freely playable” category which is ultimately what matters. Note though that VSTi’s are platform/OS/architecture dependent.


Instead of listing their instruments individually, it is simpler to visit the websites of these generous people and see what more they offer (beyond what I can cleanly list).

  1. Mattias Westlund’s Sonatina Symphoni Orchestra (SFZ). A complete orchestra package.
  2. Signal Experiment’s looped update of Mattias Westlund’s Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra (SFZ), requires SSO to be present. Brass, woodwinds, choirs and solo instruments from SSO have been looped.
  3. Versilan Studio’s VSCO (VSTi) and VSCO2 (SFZ). Chamber orchestra instruments.
  4. Signal Experiment’s free instruments (SFZ). Strings, brass, woodwinds ensembles, and “phase aligned” pianos.
  5. Bandshed’s No budget orchestra (SFZ). Individual instruments making up the orchestra.
  6. Paul Battersby’s Virtual Playing Orchestra (SFZ). A brilliant mix of Sonatina, No budget, Versilian CE and other freely re-distributable orchestral samples.
  7. HED-Sounds’s Aegean Symphonic Orchestra (SF2). SF2 based on Paul Battersby’s Virtual Playing Orchestra with some improvemnts.
  8. Nando Florestran’s orchestral soundfonts (SF2)
  9. Ethan Winer’s collection (SF2). Cello, basson and orchestral percussion.
  10. Space Harmony’s collections (SF2). Orchestral, world music and other acoustic instruments.
  11. Merlin orchestral/GM soundfonts (SF2).
  12. S. Christian Collins collection (SFZ). Articulated orchestral strings, taiko drums and more.
  13. Linux Sampler instruments (GIG). Piano, Tuba & Violin
  14. Freepats collection (SF2). Piano, violin & other instruments. The popular Salamander Grand Piano can be found here.
  15. Patcharena‘s collection (SFZ). Double bass, cello, ensemble strings, marimba, xylophone & other instruments
  16. Karoryfer’s samples (SFZ): Cello, doublebass & other unique instruments
  17. DSK Music’s VSTis (VSTi). Includes windows VSTs for orchestral collections (Overture), strings, brass, choirs, and many other instruments.
  18. Anthony Deaton’s New Horizon Orchestra (SFZ). Orchestral precussion and grand pianos.
  19. Soni Musicae: Harpiscord (SF2), House Organ (SF2) and Concert Gand (GIG)
  20. Keppy Studios Pianos (SFZ & SF2). Steinway Piano, an SFZ export of TASCAM’s CV Piano and more pianos!
  21. Bigcat Instrument’s piano collection (SFZ & VSTi)
  22. Don Allen’s Timbres from Heaven GM (SF2)
  23. The MuseScore Orchestra Soundfont (SF2)

Individual instruments not covered above

To be categorized when similar instruments get critical mass.

  1. Soundkey’s Cellofan Cello (VSTi).
  2. Sound Magic’s Neo Piano (Piano One) (VSTi, AUi)
  3. TASCAM’s CV Piano (via beatproduction) (VSTi). Note: this is not updated and said to be buggy. Keppy’s SFZ port might be more compatible.
  4. Mihai Sorohan’s muted trumpet (SF2)
  5. Noise Crux’s Brass Ensemble (SFZ).
  6. Xavier Hosxe’s flute (SF2)
  7. Production Voice’s Estate Grand LE Piano (SFZ)
  8. HED-Sounds’s Salamander C5 Light (SF2). Based on the well known Salamander Grand Piano, but optimized to be just 24.5MB from over a Gigabyte originally.

Intermezzo (case study)

April 26, 2013 Leave a comment

Cavalleria Rusticana (~1880). The stairway, lying (resting?) guy and ladies panicking are reminiscent of the last minutes in the Godfather III.

The song

Warning: If you haven’t seen them yet, the links that lead to youtube videos can be spoilers.

I wouldn’t have been familiar with this song if not for the movies or TV shows that used it. It is probably best remembered for the tragic ending in The Godfather 3. I have actually seen that scene in a black and white furniture television when I was very young, but my dad, having watched it already changed the TV channel, so I did not remember the song from that movie. Next, I’ve seen my friend playing a black and white video wherein there is this boxer warming up in slow motion. As I eventually found out, that was from the opening credits of Raging Bull. It definitely has cult appeal and  I partially remembered the tune, but I wasn’t interested enough to dig further. It was not until the 31st episode of Rurouni Kenshin, that I really got interested with this song. By that time it has reached 31 episodes, the characters and story must have grown on me, hence making Intermezzo one of my favorite classical pieces. The unfolding story, artistic animation and the music, simply made a very powerful emotional combo (that could probably make a normal person cry).

The score

Since this is an old classic, it is very likely that a computer playable sheet music is available out there. PDFs are available at IMSLP, MIDIs are available from various sources, but the best I was able to obtain was from, creater by MaestroMoi.  Since majority of the transcription has already been done, I had the luxury of neat picking further, almost obsessively, trying to make the score look  identical to the one available at IMSLP, and incorporating the additional woodwinds parts in a much recent transcription, also from IMSLP. I could have just used one of the google-able MIDI files, but that would have spoiled the fun and learning process.

From the score, I learned that the 2nd violins and A clarinets are played divisi (divided further into smaller groups playing different parts, it would look like double stops when notated). Hence, I should balance the volume to avoid making it sound that there are twice as much second violins or clarinets. Articulations markings in the score would also help me decide how to modify the MIDI.

Anyway, here are the files:

  • MuseScore score. Size A3.  I find the A3 size compact enough but still legible when scaling to an A4 printout.
  • MuseScore exported PDF. Note: some symbols are not optimally arranged.
  • MuseScore exported MIDI.
  • Skaiju edited/tweaked MIDI tweaked and articulated with Sekaiju.  This is 4.3 times larger than the “un-articulated” version.

The complexity of the score also helped me learned more of MuseScores features like putting notes on the next staff instead of using more ledger lines, and putting beams over notes in different bars (which starts to look odd if the bar is in a different line or page, revealing room for improvement in MuseScore). I also found it helpful to modify the score layout to make it the page as long as possible so I don’t have to navigate to different lines or pages when editing an instrument part.

Divide and conquer

At some point in the working process, it is easier to use sheet music for the individual instruments, instead of the full score.  Fortunately “parts” were also available from  IMSLP.  Since I focus at one instrument at a time when tweaking MIDI, it is convenient to have the full instrument part in one page. Extracted parts also speed up work by avoiding confusion or distraction from other instruments. It is also helpful to put the bar number in each bar, not just the first bar in each line  (you may want a print out). Since parts are not always available, re-writing the score in MuseScore would also give you this advantage.


The usual suspects plus AAMS:

  • MuseScore: converting the visual score to something that can be made into MIDI
  • Sekaiju: Further MIDI tweaking (expression and articulation)
  • Synthfont: Rendering the MIDI with soundfonts
  • Freeverbtoo: For reverb
  • AAMS: For EQ mastering based on a reference recording


The samples used are mostly from the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra, with a few exceptions

  • Organ. Jeux d’orgues
  • “Low harp” aCoUsTicBaSs from the Jazz Page. Since the lowest harp notes in the pieces are not audible with SSO.

I’m not very particular about these other instruments since the strings dominate the sound. The strings and woodwinds are also from SSO worked fine. I’m not quite happy with SSO’s harp, but I just let it be since it is not as loud as the rest. For reverb I used a cathedral preset in freeverbtoo. I actually thought whether I should go for an IR convolution reverb, but I probably made a “mistake” by starting out with the snappy and convenient “go-to” freeverbtoo, that it became difficult to make the piece sound the way I like with other reverb VSTs.

MIDI tweaking

Since I’m very familiar with how the song, this proved to require more effort than my usual re-arrangements. In short, I had higher standards because I had an easy and definite way of benchmarking, i.e. listening alongside an actual recording or the my mind’s “ear worm”. The score helped me decide how to tweak the MIDI by:

  • Slightly overlapping slurred/legato notes
  • Modifying the MIDI velocity depending on the note’s dynamics (e.g. p pp ppp). Actually MuseScore will take account of dynamics when exporting to MIDI, but you would still want to make adjustments to get it sounding right.
  • Separating notes that stick end-to-end. If the same note/pitch is played in succession without a gap in between, weird buzzing sounds would result sometimes. Also, it is likely that musicians in the real would also make a short pause in such cases. Can anyone bow the same note twice without pausing in between? Probably not, but the natural reverb and decay of the sound will feel in this gap, just like when a pianist steps on the sustain pedal.
  • Modify Expression (MIDI CC11) to control loudness, e.g. in notated crescendos and decrescendos, and where ever I feel like changing the volume. CC7, volume, also works similarly, but I did not tweak this part. I also used this to minimize the piercing or ringing sound from high notes at the end (from oboe and 1st violin). This also explains how the MIDI file got more than 4 times larger (still small at 47KB) since many data points are used to draw expression curves.
  • Randomize harp note starts by a slight amount to make it sound “human played.”
  • Add the low harp work-around. As I mentioned earlier I couldn’t hear the first low notes of the harp, so I added a supposedly pizzicato contrabass for that part, which was then rendered with an acoustic bass guitar.

I also used CC11 to apply a longer fade out on long notes. Without modifying this volume, the long note will only start fading out close to the end. This release time is about 0.5 seconds for SSO. It may not always sound natural if a long note is near full volume for most of the time then, just fade out for a  short time only towards the end. Musicians may play a long fading note. Especially since, unlike MIDI, musicians know beforehand how long the note should be. This may not always be the case though, so you should trust your ears in the end. I think this applies more if there is an anticipation of more silence after the long note, or if the long note ends a phrase.


We’ve had enough talking, let’s now hear the music.

One difference I notice from real recordings is that there are more pronounced solo instruments. I.e., my ears can distinguish a solo violin on top of other violins. The ensemble sound provided by SSO is somewhat more “homogeneous”, or there is no dominating solo instrument within the ensemble. This may have to do with the mic placement in real recordings.

Automatic mastering using reference recordings

I also tried out this new cool tool, the Automatic Music Mastering System. AAMS adaptively applies EQ settings on an audio file based on references or even based on other recordings you have. Unlike the usual EQ with loads of presets, AAMS first analyze the original audio file, and then decides how much of each frequency band to boost or attenuate. And it uses a lot of frequency bands instead of just a typical smoothened out curve with 3 to 10 peak regions. What I’ve done is choose a reference recording, have AAMS analyze its spectrum, and make my MIDI orchestation output have the same spectrum. To be on the safe side, I used a reference file with an Open Audio License from Wikimedia:

It doesn’t have to be the same song, but it’s reasonable to assume that reference based automatic mastering will give best results if the reference is playing the same notes as your project. In most cases, it may be enough that the reference has the same style or genre or instruments, i.e. it is enough that it sounds similar to what you want. What I’ve done is closer to exactly what I want.

AAMS Intermezzo Spectra

AAMS Intermezzo Spectra. The Red and Blue plot shows the spectrum of my project while the yellow and green plot shows the spectrum of the reference obtained from Wikipedia. Overall, they look similar, even rising and falling at the same frequency regions.

AAMS Intermezzo Suggestions

AAMS Intermezzo Suggestions. How my project audio file should be equalized. Notice how there are a lot of frequency bands. I wish I understood what this plot means beyond knowing that it looks cool.

Interestingly, the spectra didn’t differ so much meaning that the SSO + Freeverbtoo combo already sounds realistically mastered enough to begin with. That may also be the virtue of classical orchestra music being more reproducible, keeping the recording setup as simple as possible and having no special effects whatsoever. But I can still imagine many cases wherein AAMS could be a lifesaver, especially if your speakers/headphones are not the best you could get, then you could still be safe if your song sounds like a professionally mastered reference song through quantitative spectral merits. It may also help if you feel that your sample libraries are not sounding the way you imagine it should.


Although digital MIDI orchestration  motivates us to create our own orchestra compositions, it is  a good learning experience to work on an existing that tune you know well. This raises your standards as you try to best replicate the known song. It is like the difference of drawing a fictional face you imagined, and drawing a portrait of someone you know well. The former does not impose a definite right and wrong. Making covers also makes you aware of what the tools are capable of, and what are their limitations.

Happy music making!

Farewell (case study)

April 20, 2013 Leave a comment

After a long break from making music due to my thesis, here I am again! This time I’ve decided to share my workflow on a recent project. You can listen to the final result below:

The song

Album art from the Escaflowne Original Soundtrack 3 from which the original music can be found.

The song is part of the Vision of Escalowne‘s original soundtrack (third CD album). I’ve seen this anime more than a decade ago, made cassette copies of my sister’s CD, and listened to it regularly back in highschool. For a cartoon, it has a soundtrack that goes beyond what you would normally expect. It’s one of the reasons I got hooked into orchestra music (as opposed to the serious and profound classics that is less accessible to my less mature mind back then). It’s composed by Yoko Kanno and Hajime Mizoguchi and (probably) performed by Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra.  The  score was based on this transcription by ThePochaccos and all thanks to him/her for doing a great job.

Unfortunately it is not a public domain score, so I won’t be able to share it that easily. But basically, I transcribed the video using MuseScore. It is not that difficult, there are parts in the piano that need “voices”, but the whole piece is mostly strings (for me., that’s actually easier and more fun than emailing the youtube user). (I hope to share something public domain next time).

I’ve been itching to get Reaper for a long time already, but so far, my projects are not too complex, so  this setup is still fine.

Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra

For this song, I decided to do a proper demo of SSO. I’ve always used multiple orchestra samples and layer the different results in Audacity. Using SSO by itself has also revealed some of its shortcomings. Sometimes the release does not sound well, giving an unnatural sound at the end of the note (i.e. in long contrabass notes or in violas). I work around this by shortening the note until the odd sounding part is no longer audible. The slow attacks also made it less favorable for fast short notes, making them sound mushy, and making the melody less defined. I try to remedy this by increasing the note velocities or decreasing the note velocities of the background instruments. I wonder whether using a VST SFZ player, instead of Syntfont’s native sfz support, might give better results, but I have not really explored this option.

Manual looping*

Update: As it turns out, this manual looping workaround was unnecessary ans I should apologize for the misinformation. My mistake was to directly load the sfz file to Synthfont (an older version back then) instead of using an sfz playing VST. SSO strings loop nicely with Plogue sforzando. The text is maintained for historical purposes and as it may still be helpful for other libraries that do not have looping in them or, for another application, to hide the distinct repetitive sound of looped samples.

Another shortcoming of SSO is its lack of looped samples for some instruments, which has forced me come up with a tricky work around. The first note of the first violins is 9 bars long (31 seconds at 70 BPM!). At first I thought of editing the SFZ samples, but that seemed overkill for a single note. So next, I imgained how a real orchestra would actually play a half minute note. If it were a single violin, the maximum amount of time you could slide the bow over a string would be limited by the bow’s length and the minimum bow velocity needed to produce an acceptable sound, maybe five or 10 seconds (my imagination’s approximation). Restarting the bow slide would have made a new note. But an ensemble of more than 10 violins doesn’t have to simultaneously restart their individual bowing. So while one violinist restarts there are about 10 others who are still bowing midway, hiding the restarting guy and creating an illusion of continuity. That’s my guess.

Back to the MIDI editor, I implemented “manual looping” by making an extra first violins track (not to be confused with the second violins in the score). I broke the whole 9 bar note into shorter segments that can be played by SSO. The extra violin track continues the note when it’s about to end in the original violin track. Then the original violin track continues the note when the extra violin track’s note is about to end. Hence, by alternating and overlapping these two violin tracks for the same note, I get a manually looped violin note. To mask the attacks of this repeating violin, I align them with the attacks (note start) of the other instruments in the score. Of course, these alternating violin tracks must have the same volume and panning and go through to the same effects chain.

It may also be worth noting that the SSO updated sustain violins worked better for this trick.

Guitar = Guitar Pro

Since I can’t compete with a real orchestra, I generally avoid making inferior copies of something that it is already great (except for personal studies or demos). Who would listen to that? At the very least, I would change an instrument to give a different feel that is worth listening to. Hence, I changed the piano part into guitar. Being a more common and accessible instrument, and being a long time guitar player myself, I could relate more with the sad sound of a guitar.

I’m also known among my friends for advocating Guitar Pro (GP) as a virtual guitar addition to their DAWs. Even though I play guitar well (used to?), and own many guitars (too many to remember), recording guitars with my limited laptop studio setup has never given me satisfying results. GP actually started as a tablature study program (coincidentally at the age when I was crazy about studying guitar tabs). When it started out, there was a free alternative that can do as much, Tux Guitar. But since Guitar Pro’s introduction of RSE (realistic sound engine), it has, in my opinion, left Tux Guitar far behind. GP would not integrate with a DAW like a VST or soundfont, but it’s notation based interface, optimized for guitar articulations, makes it far more intuitive than any VST I know. GP can simulate vibrato, hammer on/pull offs, ringing, chord “brushing”, harmonics and many more with a few mouse clicks and without having to tweak MIDI parameters.  And the demos sound realistic enough for me (listen or download here). It’s probably the guitar equivalent of Finale + Garritan combo, but at a price below a hundred dollars. Software that unify sophisticated music notation and virtual sound production is really something we should be thankful for (although I would also hope for piano roll integration).


There’s nothing really new here, but I would be happy if a newcomer in digital music production/midi orchestration would learn something from this. Note that the only tool that costs money is Guitar Pro, although I’ve also donated a small amount to Synthfont as it is very useful to me and it was the first thing to exactly match what I was looking for before, a simple tool that applies soundfonts and VSTi’s to an existing MIDI file that is not as overkill as a full blown DAW. With diligence, passion and knowledge of what great tools are available out there, making quality music, one that you can mix in to your iPod or MP3 player, is no longer a thing that can only be done with professional thousand dollar studios.

Happy music making!

If there’s such a thing as “world music”

March 22, 2013 Leave a comment

This is the closest thing I could imagine.

Maybe someday, with greater bandwidth, the world1 can sing together?

Happy listening!

  1. A larger representative of it.


February 10, 2013 Leave a comment

Planning to give a gift to the person you admire this coming Valentine’s? If that special someone is an aspiring rocker (that are also usually admirer/stalker magnets), these fantastic air guitar strings might be that gift you’re looking for! It is also wouldn’t hurt your budget, emphasizing that it is your thoughtfulness that counts.

Air Guitar Strings!

Quoting from their website:

…Our strings are made of the best available air, that has been cold filtered to remove 99.99% of all toxins, smogs, acid rain residue and greenhouse gasses. Best of all, our strings have a LIFETIME GUARANTEE! Yessiree, you heard me right there Yngwie, if our strings don’t last the lifetime of your air guitar, just send them back and we will replace them at no charge!

Can any other offer beat that?!

… so I was on a procrastination streak, looking for inspiring ideas from Pointless Inventions, and googled something I found interesting, “air guitar tuner”. But I missed the point that you need strings before you can tune a guitar, my bad. This is the best marketing idea I’ve seen so far! :-)

PS: Maybe someone should also create a VST or soundfont for an air guitar. Complete with velocity layers and round-robins samples. Just saying.

PS: Those of you who may not now, Yngwie is s Swedish gutarist famous for his Statocaster’s anorexic fretboard and neo-classical style. He’s too famous that there’s no need to know his last name, or spell his given name exactly either if you want to look form him.

Categories: Just for fun Tags:

An unofficial introduction to VSTs

February 1, 2013 Leave a comment


If soundfonts are static files that gives you unique sounds in your DAW, then VSTs are interactive applications that give the same functionality. And even more. Being programs with graphical user interfaces, they are much more flexible than soundfonts. This flexibility may explain why some people believe that VSTs are better than soundfonts. But that is not always true.

VSTs commonly have the DLL extension (or other dynamic loadable libraries or executable extension depending on your operating system). The VST specification was developed by Steinberg back in 1996 (and has been updated since then). And if they ask you in class, VST stands for Virtual Studio Technology.

Different types of VSTs

VSTs may be categorized based the types of input and output they have.

VST Instruments (VSTi)

VST instruments have the same purpose as soundfonts.  They take MIDI data as input and output corresponding audio data. In comparisson, soundfonts are “static” files containing sampled data while VSTi’s allow user interaction adjusting knobs here and there and using different setting presets. Imagine tweaking the tone or gain knobs of an electric guitar or its amplifier.


Synthesizers generate sound programmatically. The sounds are not stored on the disk but are calculated as needed. Various audio synthesis techniques and physical modelling are used to emulate instrument sounds. There are also dedicated synthesizers that allow you to design your own sounds. Some examples of synthesized instrument VSTs include Spicy Guitar, Cellofan and Synth1.


Real acoustic sounds are complex in nature. Therefore it would be a challenge to accurately synthesize them, especially for real time playing. Hence, romplers or samplers share similarities to soundfonts as they also use static files that contain the sample sound data. Due to the bundled extra data they are typically larger than synthesizer based VST instruments. The VST instruments in DSK Music are examples of romplers (that’s also where I learned the term).

Why not just use soundfonts then? Romplers allow more sound parameters to be tweaked. Advanced VSTs can also automate other rendition tweaks such as legato, chord detection, key-switching, arpeggios and many more that would otherwise require tweaking manually the MIDI arrangement. Companies would prefer to program their VSTs since this allows them to use special proprietary sample formats that protect them from being ripped off. They can also protect their products using license keys or other registration methods like how it’s done with many proprietary software.

Samplers/sample players

They are very similar to romplers. The difference is that it loads other samples/soundfonts that you may already have. Are they of any use if your DAW can already load samples directly? Yes. They may offer more control and compatibility to the samples being loaded. Examples include DSK’s SF2, Cakewalk’s sfz player, Plogue’s sforzando, Beat Zampler and Shortcircuit.

VST effects

Many stereo systems will have equalizers, or bass, treble and tone knobs. Some that allow microphone inputs will often have reverb or echo. Electric guitar amplifiers and effects would have a lot of knobs and pedals that alter the sound in many interesting ways. Equalization, reverb, echo and other effects can also be done in computer audio. Encapsulating these effects as a VST makes them modular and be used across different DAWs. VST effects take in audio data as input then output them as modified audio data (which in turn can be sent to another VST effect, a process known as chaining). Since they don’t use MIDI as input, they can also be used audio editors such as Wavosaur and Audacity. Kjaerhus Audio Classic Series contains several examples of VST effects.

Special purpose VSTs

Since VSTs are computer programs, and computer programs can be anything that brilliant programmers can imagine, there are many VSTs that do not fall in the instrument or effects categories. Examples include arpeggiators, spectrum analyzers, visualizers etc. Some VSTs will also have MIDI as an output, possibly modifying the input MIDI or detecting the notes of input audio. In the case of visualizers or analyzers the outuput is neither MIDI or audio.

Using VSTs

As with soundfonts, when I am asked by other beginners how do use VSTs, I just tell them to load them in Synthfont with a MIDI file. It handles VST instruments in a similar manner that it handles soundfonts. It also makes sense to use both VSTs and soundfonts in the same program. Digital audio work stations are expected to work with VSTs. Some VST hosts applications  will also you to play, without recording and editing around using a MIDI device as input. Bedroom producers blog has a good list of free VST hosts (I use Tocca’s VST Player, but its website is gone now). Recently, I’m also finding VSTHost to be quite convenient, being a minimal/simplistic nag-less VST Host.

Where to get VSTs

I don’t know of a de facto website where you can get VSTs and anything would suggest wouldn’t be any better than what you can find via google search. Anyone tech savvy enough to program VSTs would likely maintain their own websites. Hence, VSTs would be scattered all over the internet. In any case, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • DSK Music. The first free VST website I knew. They have a good collection of instruments.
  • MDA. An assortment of VST instruments and effects. They are now open source, hence the special mention.
  • 4Front. Various pianos and a bass VSTi’s.
  • Acoustica. Where you may find the Kjaerhus Audio Classic Series which contain effects such as equalizer, flanger, chorus, reverb and more.
  • KVR Audio. A great community where you can find a lot of software meant for sound developers/DAW-ists/digital musicians. It lists both free and paid VSTs.
  • VST 4 FREE makes an effort to list Free VSTs and seems quite updated.

This is obviously not a definitive or exhaustive list. There’s far too many of them, that I don’t even know if I’m suggesting the best ones. Just be happy that you have the freedom of choice! (Or sad that there’s too much to choose from. Reviews and forums can be helpful.) :)

Other formats

Just like any computer program VSTs are not directly useable across operating systems. But since VSTs seldom (if not) use advanced OS specific APIs WINE can do a good job in bridging this gap. Needless to say, Apple and Linux have their own native alternatives to VSTs. These are Audio Units (AU) and the Linux Audio Developers Simple Plugin API (LADSPA) respecitvely. DAWs can also have some sort of VST-like modules that are not usable to other DAWs.

Categories: Music making Tags: ,

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. :-)


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.


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


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 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.


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! :)