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Beyond MIDI with Synthfont

December 19, 2012 Leave a comment

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!

Sekaiju tutorial: A simple example (Part III)

December 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Introduction

It’s been a month since I had written Part II of this tutorial back in Hungary, and Christmas is now a few days ahead. By now, Sekaiju 3.4 is already released with a few added features and bug fixes. So now, I finally had enough pressure to finish the Silent Night midi project I’m working on. One of the reasons for this great delay is that I would rather use other free music notation tools such as MuseScore, Finale Notepad or Musink which I just recently discovered. Another is I would guess that many DAW oriented users do most of their work through the Piano Roll, which was already discussed. Anyway, enough of these excuses. Let’s just finish this tutorial series and enjoy the holidays!

If you haven’t seen them yet, I would suggest you go through the following tutorials:

Again, here is the basis of the MIDI file we’re building from scratch. Since this part would be about using the Musical score editor, we just copy the score directly as we see it. Perhaps, one motivation for using a MIDI editor instead of a dedicated notation editor is that you can further tweak the notes in the Piano roll, deviating a bit from notation to make it sound more human and expressive, since as I had mentioned before, MIDI and music notation are not equivalent. As we chose the key of C, there is no key signature indicated on the score.

Silent Night

Silent Night by Franz Gruber, from Wikifonia. [Published by benoit on December 14, 2006 © reserved by Musicopy]

Creating notes through the Musical Score

Showing the Musical Score window

If you have the file (from the previous tutorials) opened, a Musical Score representation can be shown by selecting the “Show new Musical Score Window” button (♫) in the main toolbar or in the “View” menu.

Basic editing tools

Minus the Line tool, the editing tools in the Musical Score window are mostly identical to those found on the Piano Roll. The major difference is that you can not resize a note by dragging. Instead, you select the notation symbols that correspond to the note length you want to use.

Sekaiju: Pen, Erase, Select, Preview

Toolbar Buttons found in both Musical Score and Piano Roll windows. From left to right:Pen, Erase, Select and Preview.

The buttons are the Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview. When selected, these buttons do the following:

  • Pen:
    • Draws a new note with a pitch determined by its position and duration by the the selected note symbol
  • Eraser:
    • Erases an existing note.
  • Select:
    • Selects multiple notes and allows multiple notes to be simultaneously moved.
    • Also works for a single note.
    • Allows keyboard or menu actions like Copy, Cut, Delete to the selected notes.
  • Preview
    • Plays existing notes when the cursor is dragged on top of them (you will see a vertical line).

Towards the right of the toolbar, length indicating music symbols can be seen:

Sekaiju: Musical Note Symbols

Buttons for selecting the note length: Whole Note, Half Note,Quarter Note, Quaver Note, Semi-Quaver Note, Demi-Semi-Quaver Note and Dotted/ Triplet modifiers

These buttons determine the length of the note that is added when using the Pen Tool. The first 6 buttons, are the (common?) note lengths.While the last two, the “dot” and “triplet” modifies whichever note you have selected among the first 6 buttons.

Entering notes through the Musical Score interface.

Continuing the flute (melody) track

1. From our previous work, look at the staff corresponding to the Flute track. It should be easy with the tracks labeled. There is no need to explicitly select the track as notes are entered on the staff that you click, and the staves are already separated for each instrument (unlike in the Piano Roll where all the track’s notes are using the same workspace). If you add a note on a staff of a different instrument, that instrument’s track gets selected.

2. Zoom to a comfortable level by clicking the plus or minus (“+” or “-“) buttons at the lower right corner along the scroll bars or by using “Ctrl +” or “Ctrl -” shortcut keys.

3. Set the position quantization. Since the smallest note is an eight note or quaver (♪) and the notes on the song are multiples of a semiquaver, we could choose 60-Quaver from Snap dropdown (third). We have to do this because, unlike other score editors, note entry is position dependent. For example, if you create a whole note on an empty bar and click somewhere in the middle, the whole note will start roughly where you clicked and go beyond the bar, causing tied notes instead.

4. Use the beat markers as guides. Note that in each bar/measure (bounded by blue vertical lines), there are 3 vertical gray lines. This indicates the beats in our 3/4 time signatured-song. Also use the measure numbers as a guide.

5. Choose the Pen tool and select a note symbol corresponding to the note length you want to enter. Since we are using a music sheet as a guide, we simply copy the note symbols as we edit. Enter the note with the correct length by clicking on the appropriate location on the staff. Remember that note entry is position dependent (like in the Piano Roll).

Dotted notes and triplets are obtained by pressing down one note length then also pressing down either the dot (“.”) or triplet (“3”) buttons to modify that note length.

Sekaiju: Musical Score Note Entry

Note entry through Sekaiju’s Musical Score window.

Continuing the strings (harmony) track

1. The same procedures as with the Flute track, except that you will be putting notes into the Strings staff. There is no need to explicitly select the Strings track as it already has a separate staff. Notice that it is using a bass staff which makes more sense with the notes we previously entered with the Piano Roll.

As in the previous tutorial, for simplicity, I only used the root of the indicated chords in the transcription and play them an octave below the melody.

Silent Night: Measures 10-21

Silent Night: Measures 10-21. Flute and strings. The whole song is available as a MIDI file.

Quirks

As the musical score editing behaves very similarly to piano roll editing some unusual things can happen.

  • Notes can overlap. You place a note that starts before the previous note of the same pitch ends.
  • There is no “page view” or “wrapping”. You have to scroll horizontally to see the rest of the song.
  • There is no concept of “voices” so note entry is dependent on position. You can easily create notes that don’t have to be vertically aligned.
  • Similarly, there is no concept of rests. For example, if you place a quarter note on an empty bar, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the start of that bar.
  • Notes can not be dragged-resized. Just erase and replace with the right size, or use the Piano Roll instead.
  • I haven’t figured out how to tie notes. The last “Peace” note in Silent Night is longer than a whole note, two tied dotted half notes. Of course, this is easy to remedy in the Piano Roll. But this is one of the expected shortcomings of Musical Score editing not a main purpose of Sekaiju.
  • Likewise, I also don’t see any quick way to flatten or sharpen a note. This would be used if there are accidentals in the song. This can be done of course, but not like how you normally do it in a full blown score editor.

Moving forward

This is a very simplified version of Silent Night, as the emphasis is really getting familiar with Sekaiju. The MIDI file is available for further study. As an exercise, I would suggest completing the chords by adding thirds, fifths and sevenths instead of just the root notes (refer to a chord chart if necessary). Also the built in MIDI synth of Windows sounds too cheesy to be enjoyable. Hence, a big step (big in improvement, not so much in effort), is to use the MIDI file with Synthfont or other DAWs together with good soundfonts, VST instruments and VST effects.

Also, for what it’s worth: Merry Christmas! :)

Categories: Music making Tags: , ,

Piano keyboard markers for learning to read music

December 7, 2012 Leave a comment

At some point in time I wanted to learn sight reading. Inspired by the idea of fretboard markers [1,2] that helped me memorize guitar scales (I made one myself using office supplies), I made a keyboard marker that combines the features of an actual staff commonly used for children and a turned staff based on Wikimedia’s turned keyboard for note names and midi numbers. I suggest using Blu Tack or something similar to stick it on the area immediately above the keyboard (double sided tape or glue will leave a mess).

CDP-200R with staff markers

CDP-200R with staff markers. The dark vertical lines point to the notes that are in the lines of the staff.

The size of the markers are based on a Casio CDP-200R which is supposedly standard size. That’s as far as I can remember (exact numbers had long been forgotten now).  The whole image/page takes an A4 area (landscape layout) and should be printed with that settings. The image file’s resolution is 300 dpi (3508 x 2480). I aslo made a PDF version available (58.1 KB). The markers come in 4 variants on the same page.

Piano keyboard markes

Piano keyboard markers. Print, cut and stick to your piano keyboard. A PDF version is aslo available.

For a while it was helpful, but you need disciplined practice to fully appreciate it. As I hardly have any time to “read” music and I’m usually too tired when I get home, so I mostly play by ear and (muscle) memory, I’m removing it from my keyboard now. As for software assisted learning, I would recommend Prestokeys which is now much more exciting with Windows touchscreen devices getting more common (it’s icon can be seen on the desktop screenshot of my Windows 8 tablet in a previous post). For learning pieces, in a graphical and less mentally challenging way, I use Synthesia with the aid of a monitor mounted on top of my keyboard (I used a netbook in the past). For simultaneously learning pieces and music reading, there is also Piano Booster. And for ear training, there is GNU Solfege.

Happy music learning!

Numbered references

  1. To be added when remembered :P
  2. Fret Daddy: http://www.fretdaddy.com/
Categories: Music making Tags: ,

MIDI on Windows 8 (Acer W500)

November 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Basically, MIDI input works. But there are several Windows installation related problems (not MIDI related though). If MIDI worked before (in Windows 7), I think it should be fine after an upgrade.

Despite all that hype about the iPad and Android, I never really jumped in since that meant leaving a lot of things behind. I should admit, more than 60% of my work, or my life for that matter, is done through a Microsoft Windows machine. Being an occassional Windows programmer, there’s just so much to miss from a classic good old fashioned all purpose operating system. iOS and Android are rather specialized to phones and tablets. And doubts start to arise when USB peripheral devices come to mind. I also dislike how the iPad or Kindle devices prevent expansion through the lack of SD card slots or USB ports, which also shortens the lifetime of the built in solid state storage device.

Windows 8 on the other hand, is meant to be a successor of the Windows series. Hence, it is designed for a broad range of computing devices. Though I suspect that they might trim features here and there depending on what kind of device it is being installed on. MIDI input worked on my tablet back when it was running Windows 7 Pro. Now, I need to find out if that would be the case on Windows 8.

Although there have been reports of earlier releases of Windows 8 not supporting MIDI devices, this seems to work smoothly on my W500 that had been upgraded to a recent official release (for roughly 20 USD). My USB MIDI keyboard (Korg microKey) is recognized by Synthesia (which is the MIDI application most likely to be used with the device). As can be seen in the screenshot below my Korg microKey is recognized and used (A3 note is pressed). The Microsoft GS Synth is still also present.

Synthesia on Windows 8 with MIDI input

Synthesia on Windows 8 with MIDI input (also my first Windows 8 screenshot). USB MIDI input device recognized and used. Microsoft GS Synth still exists.

It’s not completely Metro (thankfully)

Windows 8 introduced the Metro GUI which is best used for touch screen devices. But it did not remove traditional “windows” applications (those boxy things with borders and buttons on the top right corner that we easily take for granted).  There is now a distinction between “Desktop” and “Screen” apps. Desktop apps are the ones we are most familiar with from previous versions of Windows while Screen apps are designed for a more recent touch interface (big buttons and fonts, support for gestures, simplified UIs, etc). If you successfully install and run a non touchscreen good old fashioned app, a familiar looking desktop and taskbar will appear behind the window of that app (the start menu is gone though, but there are alternatives). That also hints that there is a good possibility that your previous DAW/MIDI programs will still run. It’s supposed to be the next Windows after all. In fact, Sekaiju which is made with an old version of Microsoft Visual C++ (Win 9x era) works on Windows 8 (after going through some paranoid security questions).

Sekaiju on Windows 8

Sekaiju on Windows 8 “desktop mode” with some recorded notes. The Korg microKey MIDI controller is also seen in the device manager.

Windows 8 installation annoyances

Something always goes wrong. Especially when trying new things.

1. My SD Card was formatted!

Both the local drive and the removable SD card in my device are 32 GB. At first I was having trouble that the installation does not want to use the disk I’ve selected and formatted. As it turns out the solution was to remove the removable SD card from the tablet. And as it further turns out, it appears that installation was selecting and formatting my SD card!!! Farewll backups. Although I had backed up the primary drive with Macrium Reflect, files that were only in the SD card will have to be restored with special means (Photorec seems to be helpful. EaseUs Data Recovery may do a better job, preserving file names and folders but it is much more expensive than Windows 8!). Moral lesson, remove SD card or any other unnecessary media before installing Windows 8.

2. Product key won’t work if you clean installed over a previous Windows.

Formatting before installing a fresh OS had always been the preferred way as “upgrading” always had issues. The problem when activating, a clean install is not seen as an upgrade, and hence the upgrade product key is thought to be invalid. “Fortunately”, many had the same problem and someone came up with a work around. Quoting from a brilliant, wonderful human being named BinaryInk as I found in the answers.microsoft.com forum

“The work around for this, while probably not officially supported for obvious reasons (they want more money), is to change a registry key. This was posted for Windows 7 update keys doing the same thing on a forum (though I had an update version AND did a clean install MULTIPLE times without having to do this) but worked without an issue on my laptop running Windows 8 regardless.

1. Run the registry editor (regedit)
2. Find the following key: HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\SOFTWARE\Microsoft\Windows\CurrentVersion\Setup\OOBE
3. Change the value for ‘MediaBootInstall’ from 1 to 0
4. Open an elevated command prompt (run as admin)
5. Run the following command: slmgr -rearm
6. Reboot

If you already entered your key, check the activation: for me it was already activated and I needed to do nothing more. If not, type in activate windows and type in the key; it should work. Also, do yourself a favor and export this key from regedit and save it somewhere if you ever are required to do another clean install. I know I did.”

Categories: Music making Tags: , , , ,

Gifts I’ve received for supporting the next generation You Rock MIDI guitar

November 18, 2012 Leave a comment

Back from Hungary to my hometown, I found these on my mail box:

You Rock Guitar gifts

A lifetime’s worth of plectrums, stickers, and funky earphones — gifts I’ve received for supporting the development of the next generation You Rock Guitar in Kickstarter.

A few months ago I decided to support the development of the You Rock Guitar Pro in Kickstarter. So I decided this time to give a little review about the You Rock guitar (YRG)…

I’m an owner of the early version (YRG-1000) of this guitar as I’ve seen it before in thinkgeek and knew that it is a great concept. First, it is a MIDI device. Any app you know that will work with a MIDI device can be controlled by this. It does not require special drivers, just like many MIDI keyboards. It can use either USB or 5 pin DIN connection. In my opinion, it is the poor man’s replacement for the Roland Gk-3 plus GR-50/55. It is also probably my first possession that introduced me to the wonderful world of MIDI that eventually snow balled to DAWs, soundfonts, VSTs and all that digital music production stuff. It can also be played as a stand alone “electronic” guitar (though considering its size and how much circuitry and memory can be crammed into it, the built in sounds may be as cheesy as Windows GM) and as a game controller (though the leading guitar games use 5 button toys… anyway that widens their market as it will also include imaginary guitarists and this makes a room for developing  a more real midi guitar game).

Unlike other MIDI guitars, the YRG does not use a separated switch per note on its fretboard, hence it looks much cleaner and more guitar like. Since the strings are not segmented, sliding up and down the fretboard becomes possible as in a real guitar. The strings use a sort of touch sensor instead. As there’s no need to push the strings like switches (I’m assuming this is how it’s done on other MIDI guitars based on how they look), tapping on the fretboard is much easier (even compared to a real guitar). But since they are not real suspended strings, they can not be bent, although with little practice, the whammy bar can be substituted for the same effect.

What prevented me from using the YRG-1000 more often is it’s not so responsive strings for the right hand. If you’ve play a real guitar, you have to pluck harder than usual for the YRG-1000 to produce a sound. That was undesirable for a self proclaimed guitar virtuoso like myself. It limited it’s playability as you lack control on the notes softness or loudness. The greater force required also made finger picking less comfortable. It’s sensitivity/responsiveness is the main feature I wished that they continue to improve. Anyway, Inspired Instruments claim to have improved this part in the second generation YRG.

Although, my contribution to the kickstarter project is minimal, I strongly believe that it is worth supporting. MIDI guitars are far behind MIDI pianos, despite the fact that there are probably more guitarists as guitars are more convenient, size wise and price wise. A cheap guitar is not as bad as a cheap piano (whether acoustic or electric). Having a MIDI device, whether a piano or a guitar, is like having an instrument for all instruments. Looking at youtube videos of the Roland GR/GK series may give you an idea of what can be done with a MIDI guitar.

I won’t be buying right away when the YRG Pro is released though. Primarily due to my room running out of space. I’m also the type who waits for feedback from initial buyers. And depending on how much it turns out, I’m not sure yet whether a Roland GR/GK might be a better choice. And there are also shipping and import tax considerations in my location. It will be made of wood. That’s heavier. I’m also worried that the neck might no longer be detachable. One thing I really like with the YRG-1000 is how it easily fits in a normal school bag. I also personally don’t know how playable is the Gen 2 YRG. The YRG Pro will be using the same Gen 2 pickup, so maybe its improvements wont matter to me and I might instead settle for a Gen2.

Anyway, I think the picks and earphones are not bad as rewards for a little gamble on technology. And these little stuff, although commonly taken for granted, are very practical. I might make backing interesting projects a new hobby just for the fancy gifts (and the greater good), even without motive of acquiring the actual product being developed. I may still have doubts about the YRG Pro in this particular case, but it is still fun to have supported the Inspired Instruments team in a small way.

Categories: Music making Tags: , ,

A media player with waveform view? (foobar2000)

November 12, 2012 8 comments

Anyone who has worked with an audio editor like Audacity or Traverso DAW would know that for something normally invisible like sound, a picture really paints a thousand words. Even if you’re the casual soundcloud listener, you know right away from the waveform when a sound will be loud or silent. If you are transcribing or learning a song, scrolling through the waveform is much more intuitive than just looking at the track time. It may also come in handy if you want to quickly inspect the samples in an sfz or kontakt instrument.

Nonetheless, despite its usefulness, many popular media players (e.g. VLC, Windows Media Player) do not have such a feature. After all, a normal person is not likely going to stare at a sound player. Perhaps this is why soundcloud has its waveform view. To keep your attention. Imagine soundcloud using horizontal scrollbars instead. Ew…

As I have been editing tracks and samples recently, I thought that seeing the waveforms of songs I regularly listen to might improve my skills and intuition. Although I can somehow use Audacity for this purpose it is not designed as a player that will go through your play lists. You have to wait a little for it to load a file.

foobar2000 waveform

foobar 2000 with a wave seek bar component.

Fortunately, there is an audio player that has this capability, foobar2000. I’ve already been using foobar2000 for its other praised features such as playing an audio file unadulterated. But I haven’t dug into it’s menus and preferences to notice that it has a spectrogram visualization. Foobar’s shipped spectrogram is not exactly what I had in mind though. It’s too quick as it is zoomed into a fraction of a second. For something with a wider view, similar to soundcloud’s visualization, use wave seek bar component instead. It also allows you to jump to different regions of a track, visually, instead of blind trial and error as with most media players.

Did I mention that foobar2000 is an “audio player?”. Yes, we’ve gotten so used to “media players” playing both audio and video, but this is not really necessary. Of course a video player must also be able to play the audio contained in the video file so it is just thoughtful to extend this feature to videos without pictures. But there are audiophile developers who would rather make a great audio player than have something generic for both. And since there is a tight competition with all the good media players out there, chances are, you’ll get one for free.

Categories: Music making

Hungary, where I learned about SFZ internals

October 31, 2012 Leave a comment

It’s quite a coincidence how the first meaningful SFZ tutorial I found in youtube is made by a Hungarian. I’m visiting Hungary at the moment for other business matters, and I just happened to be killing time during the night, when I found this video tutorial for using Garritan’s Aria player to sample instruments.

(He’s just using Garritan to play the samples, so don’t let that “scare” you)

After seeing the video, I learn that sfz is like a markup language like html or ini files. Prior to this, I have never even thought about loading sfz files in a text editor (just loaded one now in SciTE). So unlike sf2, sfz files themselves do not contain audio, but instructions or mappings on how to handle audio files located elsewhere. I had always though that the wav files in the “samples” folder in the Sonatina Symphonic Orchstra was just there for curious people who want to tweak it. They’re actually the files loaded in the DAW. I even did not notice that the sfz files themselves are too small to contain audio data. Thanks to synthfont working smoothly.

Back to Hungarians, I also appreciate how, in general, they seem knowledgeable about music or musicians. I was having dinner with a group of biologists and the conversations eventually lead to wine, cars and then to artists like Edvin Marton and local groups, how many independent musicians are great in doing covers but bad with their own compositions (sorry to the indies out there), and how you can enjoy even a “bad” song once you play it with an instrument.

Elsewhere in Europe mealtime conversations lead to sports, gym, the weather or outdoor activities … hmm …

Anyway, for those interested in building sfz files, here is the reference from Cakewalk:

The sfz Format: Basics

If your DAW does not support sfz natively, you can get Cakewalk’s sfz player VST. Prologue also recently released a free sfz player called sfrorzando.

Happy sampling!

The Linux Sampler, something interesting (other formats also)

October 29, 2012 Leave a comment

It seems that the determining factor in choosing a sample format is not the format itself, but the availability of samples in that format.  SF2 seems to date back in the era of computers with 32MB RAM, thus being rather old, widely used and compatible to many DAWs. It is quite popular since there are a lot of free samples in this format (just look at hammer sound which dates back to 1997). I happened to learn about SFZ due to the Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra. Being more recent than SF2, it offers some advantages, such as sample round robin support and a more convenient way to build sample libraries (supposedly, I have not tried yet). Recently, I’ve been trying out the Kontakt Player as Kontakt (NKI) seems to be preferred by financially well-off musicians, and is therefore associated with good/professional quality (the free samples found on bedroom producers blog tend to have this format).

Linux Sampler

Nice dark theme too (Fantasia frontend hotlinked from wikimedia)

Another sample format that I recently wanted to try is the GIG (Gigasampler) format which is currently preferred by the Linux Sampler. Although I’ve been familiar with this before, the “Gig” made me think gigabytes, which scared me a bit. That is not necessarily true though. Furthermore, opensource/free software like the Linux Sampler have the mysterious power of motivating “prosumers” on sharing works they have done with it. In fact the reason I got interested in the Gigasampler format is the available samples in the Linux Sampler website which include a Yamaha Concert Grand and London Philharmonia Orchestra Instruments (licenses still pending though). Below is an impressive demo of the grand piano:

Update: This seems to be the same sampled piano on this site: http://sonimusicae.free.fr/matshelgesson-maestro-en.html

What is the best choice then?

I usually find this question irrelevant. Although there is certainly a best format in terms of programmability, flexibility, convenience when working with MIDI and other technical aspects, in the end it is your ear that decides which sample to choose. Being able to use any of the formats allows you to pick the best of all those worlds. My favorite beginner DAW, synthfont, supports SF2, SFZ and GIG (*most), though I’m still missing out in the NKI (Kontakt) world. This question will matter though if the same sound sample is offered in several formats. In which seldom case, I’ll personally go for SFZ being more advanced than SF2, more compatible to my DAW than GIG and not tied up to a proprietary sampler like Kontakt.

Other (free) software for creating instrument samples

  • Viena (SF2) (not to be confused with Creative’s Vienna)
  • SFZed (SFZ)


There’s also the SWAMI Project although I’m reluctant to recommend it as I’m not totally into Linux when it comes to Audio (reliance of its available DAWs on Jack is to blame in my case…) and it still needs donations before Windows (or Mac) versions would be released.

Categories: Music making Tags: ,

Sekaiju tutorial: A simple example (Part II)

October 23, 2012 Leave a comment

Creating notes through the Piano Roll

Having set the song’s general properties in Part I of this tutorial. We’re now ready for the most involving part, editing notes. If you haven’t seen the previous parts of this tutorial series, please go to the following links:

With a sheet music for reference, we can now see the value of Sekaiju’s Musical Score interface. But for now, we will discuss another commonly used note entry method in DAWs and other MIDI editing programs, the Piano roll. We will be “manually” converting a sheet music of Silent Night into MIDI.

Silent Night

Silent Night by Franz Gruber, from Wikifonia. [Published by benoit on December 14, 2006 © reserved by Musicopy]

If you can read music, then you can interpret the notation and convert it to piano roll (I also realized that this is a great way of practicing sight reading without a musical instrument in hand). Each major division is a measure/bar and the minor divisions are quarter notes. Since we are using 3/4 time signature, we see 3 divisions per measure. For reference middle C is MIDI note number 60 which can be located in the sideways keyboard in the left.

As I mentioned previously in the introduction to Sekaiju’s user interface, zooming is done by pressing the little plus and minus (+ -) buttons along the scroll bars, or by using “Ctrl +” and “Ctrl –” keyboard shortcuts. (I have to rewrite it here as it was not obvious to me back then). Also, the Piano Roll window is shown by selecting “View -> Show new Piano roll window” or clicking the button with little purple rectangles looking like a piano roll.

Basic Piano Roll editing tools

I find it difficult to tell someone how to draw without telling him what the drawing tools do. Hence, I have to go through a few basics before we can create a simple song. Feel free to skip this section if you want finding things out through your intuition :).

Sekaiju: Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview

Toolbar Buttons in the Piano Roll. From left to right:Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview.

The buttons are the Pen, Line, Erase, Select and Preview. When selected, these buttons do the following:

  • Pen:
    • Draws a new note with a pitch determined by its position and duration by the set or previous note length.
    • Extends an existing note by dragging a note if it is close enough in the left or right edge of that note.
    • Moves an existing note by dragging when it near the middle of that note.
      • The note is played in the process, even if it is not moved to a new place.
  • Line:
    • Draws a series of connected notes with equal lengths connecting a starting point and an end point. As it goes through the chromatic scale, I seldom use this for note drawing.
    • Does the same in the automation part below the piano roll (where it is most probably intended to be used). Useful for making linear volume ramps.
  • Eraser:
    • Erases an existing note.
  • Select:
    • Selects multiple notes and allows multiple notes to be simultaneously extended to the left or right, or to be moved.
    • Also works for a single note.
    • Allows keyboard or menu actions like Copy, Cut, Delete to the selected notes.
  • Preview
    • Plays existing notes when the cursor is dragged on top of them (you will see a vertical line).

Entering notes through the Piano roll interface.

The flute (melody) track

1. We start by selecting the flute track (second) in the right panel. This means that notes we will be drawing will belong to the flute track. We may also select the flute track on the Track dropdown just beside the Preview button.

2. Set the snap length. Since the smallest note is an eight note or quaver (♪) and the notes on the song are multiples of a semiquaver, we could choose 60-Quaver from Snap dropdown (third). (I normally ignore those tick numbers when working as there is enough visual information in the piano roll).

3. Choose the Pen tool and start drawing on the piano roll grid area. Create notes by clicking on the grid. Each new note’s size will be the same as the previous note’s size (or the default size for the first note). Resize the notes by dragging their edges with the pen tool.

Creating notes on the Piano roll.

You may play your work at any point using the Playback button in the main toolbar or hitting the spacebar in your computer keyboard.

Adding the strings (harmony) track

1. Select the strings track from the right panel or the Track dropdown list.

2. Since there is only one chord per measure in the song, we can use a larger snap like 120-Quarter note.

3. Proceed with the Pen tool, just like when editing the flute track.

For simplicity, I only used the root of the indicated chords in the transcription and play them an octave below the melody. This may look quite boring as the first few measures use C chords. But there you have it, just repeat the steps to finish the song and you will get MIDI song file from scratch!

Silent Night in Flute and Strings.

The next and final part of this tutorial will deal with using the musical score window which may be easier if we are copying directly from a score as in this example.

Categories: Music making Tags: , ,

Sekaiju tutorial: A simple example (Part I)

October 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Introduction

Perhaps the best way to learn any software is to start with a simple step by step example that users may replicate.

I will be dividing this tutorial into several parts to avoid cluttering a single web page (and to publish the whole tutorial in smaller installments).

Since the cold lonely season of gratuitous money spending is approaching, I decided to use Silent Night for this tutorial. I will use score found in Wikifonia as the basis for the MIDI file. I’ll also use the friendly key of C version so we don’t have to worry about key signatures. For the instruments (not specified in the score),  I chose a flute for the melody and strings for the harmony. For those new to Sekaiju, please check my overview about its user interface. And for those who do not have it yet, download the latest version from the Sekaiju website.

Silent Night

Silent Night by Franz Gruber, from Wikifonia. [Published by benoit on December 14, 2006 © reserved by Musicopy]

Part I: Setting up basic song properties

Before creating notes, there are some basic things you have to define in a song. Hence, in this first part you will learn how to:

  • Give descriptive names to the tracks
  • Choose instruments for the tracks
  • Set the tempo
  • Set the time signature
  • Set the key signature (if you want to)

If you’re the type who doesn’t like reading, you can zoom on the pictures below. I’ve made them as informative as possible. Now, here we go.

1. Creating a new track. Sekaiju starts with a MIDI file with 17 tracks without by default (16 used for storing notes). You can also create a new track from the File menu or pressing “Ctrl N“or clicking the “New File” button in the toolbar.

2. Name the tracks (optional). On the “Track list” window, enter names under the “Name” column. I just wrote the title of the song in the first track. I then named the second and third tracks “Flute” and “Strings” respectively (they can be any other valid name). Naming tracks is not strictly required, but it is a good practice and it will make your work easier in the long run.

3. Choose instruments. Either click the little arrow buttons Under the “Program Number” column or enter the instrument number directly. The flute and strings are 73 and 48 respectively.  The first track can not contain notes and can not be assigned to an instrument since it has a special purpose for containing general properties like tempo, time signature and key signature and other author specific information.

Sekaiju Tack List

Track names and instruments are modified through the track list window. (For steps 2 and 3)

4. Now may be a good time to save your file. Saving is standard, just like in most Windows programs. If you wish you can use Sekaiju’s skj file format instead of mid. It has some extra features on top the standard midi file format like keeping the colors of your tracks if you decided to change them (double click the boxes in Color column). You’ll eventually need to save as MID though for interoperability with most audio/music programs.

The next steps are done through the Event list window. To open this window, go to the menu and choose “View -> Show new Event list window” or click the button on the toolbar that looks like a table/spreadsheet.

5. Tempo. This is modified through the Event list. The tempo in this example sheet is not specified meaning that it is the default 120 BPM [Citation needed?]. By default, Sekaiju also uses 120 BPM, but lets use a different tempo for the sake of learning. A bit slower, like 100 BPM. Within the first few rows, you will find an “Event kind” called “Tempo“. In the Value (1 2 3) column on the same row, change the 120 to 100. Note that the Microsec / Quarter note part automatically changes from 500000 to 600000, so you don’t have to worry about this.

6. Time signature. For this you have to look for the Event Kind called (you’ve guessed it already) “Time Signature”. Silent night is in 3/4 or Waltz as the score also indicates. Most songs (that I know of) are in 4/4 and Sakaiju also uses this by default. As with the tempo, you only need change the 4/4 part to 3/4 and the other numbers are taken care of.

7. Key signature (optional). This is specified by the number of sharps (#) in the “Key Signature” Event Kind. The default has zero sharps being the key of C Major (as with anyone beginning to read sheet music). You have to replace the word “major” with “minor” if you want the relative A minor. I decided that key signature is optional as it will not affect the actual pitches of the notes in the song. However, this will affect how the song will look (with accidentals) in the Musical Score window or if you eventually import the midi file into score editors.

Event List window

Global song properties like tempo, time signature and key signature are modified in the Event list window. Note that these parameters are stored in the first track.

These general properties, tempo, time signature and key signature are stored in the first track. They are also seen in the first few MIDI events as this information are necessary before the notes can be interpreted. People who have a fair amount of MIDI know how would notice that Sekaiju is tightly developed around the MIDI file format.

The next part of this tutorial series will discuss the creation of notes through the piano roll.

My apologies if you’re reading this and later parts are not yet available online. Nevertheless, I hope that the information available here and the previous tutorial is enough to help you learn the rest on your own. (These apologetic sentences will be deleted soon, hopefully).

Categories: Music making Tags: , ,