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An updated list of free orchestral sample libraries

July 6, 2016 Leave a comment

that can be played freely.

Updated: 2017 January 21

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 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

Included:

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.

Excluded:

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).

Exceptions

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.

Collections

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. Versilan Studio’s VSCO (VSTi) and VSCO2 (SFZ). Chamber orchestra instruments.
  3. Signal Experiment’s free instruments (SFZ). Strings, brass and woodwinds ensembles.
  4. Bandshed’s No budget orchestra (SFZ). Individual instruments making up the orchestra.
  5. Paul Battersby’s Virtual Playing Orchestra (SFZ). A brilliant mix of Sonatina, No budget, Versilian CE and other freely re-distributable orchestral samples.
  6. Nando Florestran’s orchestral soundfonts (SF2)
  7. Ethan Winer’s collection (SF2). Cello, basson and orchestral percussion.
  8. Space Harmony’s collections (SF2). Orchestral, world music and other acoustic instruments.
  9. Merlin orchestral/GM soundfonts (SF2).
  10. S. Christian Collins collection (SFZ). Articulated orchestral strings, taiko drums and more.
  11. Linux Sampler instruments (GIG). Piano, Tuba & Violin
  12. Freepats collection (SF2). Piano, violin & other instruments
  13. Patcharena‘s collection (SFZ). Double bass, cello, ensemble strings, marimba, xylophone & other instruments
  14. Karoryfer’s samples (SFZ): Cello, doublebass & other unique instruments
  15. DSK Music’s VSTis (VSTi). Includes windows VSTs for orchestral collections (Overture), strings, brass, choirs, and many other instruments.
  16. Anthony Deaton’s New Horizon Orchestra (SFZ). Orchestral precussion and grand pianos.
  17. Soni Musicae: Harpiscord (SF2), House Organ (SF2) and Concert Gand (GIG)
  18. Keppy Studios Pianos (SFZ & SF2). Steinway Piano, an SFZ export of TASCAM’s CV Piano and more pianos!
  19. Bigcat Instrument’s piano collection (SFZ & VSTi)
  20. Don Allen’s Timbres from Heaven GM (SF2)
  21. 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)
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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 musescore.com, 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.

Software

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

Samples

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.

Results

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:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Pietro_Mascagni_-_Cavalleria_Rusticana_-_Intermezzo_Sinfonico.ogg

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.

Conclusions

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!

An unofficial introduction to soundfonts

January 10, 2013 Leave a comment

Preface

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

Soundfonts

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

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

Usage of the term soundfont

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

Beyond synthesizers

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

What are all those Creative Soundblaster stuff?

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

Using soundfonts

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

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

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

How are soundfonts created

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

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

Is bigger better?

1. Timbre is independent of size

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

2. More samples are needed for more realism

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

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

3. Multiple instruments in one file

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

Other sample library formats

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

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

Where to get soundfonts

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

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

Legal issues

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

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

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

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

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!