… that can be played freely.
Updated: 2017 March 13
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).
- Mattias Westlund’s Sonatina Symphoni Orchestra (SFZ). A complete orchestra package.
- 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.
- Versilan Studio’s VSCO (VSTi) and VSCO2 (SFZ). Chamber orchestra instruments.
- Signal Experiment’s free instruments (SFZ). Strings, brass and woodwinds ensembles.
- Bandshed’s No budget orchestra (SFZ). Individual instruments making up the orchestra.
- Paul Battersby’s Virtual Playing Orchestra (SFZ). A brilliant mix of Sonatina, No budget, Versilian CE and other freely re-distributable orchestral samples.
- Nando Florestran’s orchestral soundfonts (SF2)
- Ethan Winer’s collection (SF2). Cello, basson and orchestral percussion.
- Space Harmony’s collections (SF2). Orchestral, world music and other acoustic instruments.
- Merlin orchestral/GM soundfonts (SF2).
- S. Christian Collins collection (SFZ). Articulated orchestral strings, taiko drums and more.
- Linux Sampler instruments (GIG). Piano, Tuba & Violin
- Freepats collection (SF2). Piano, violin & other instruments
- Patcharena‘s collection (SFZ). Double bass, cello, ensemble strings, marimba, xylophone & other instruments
- Karoryfer’s samples (SFZ): Cello, doublebass & other unique instruments
- DSK Music’s VSTis (VSTi). Includes windows VSTs for orchestral collections (Overture), strings, brass, choirs, and many other instruments.
- Anthony Deaton’s New Horizon Orchestra (SFZ). Orchestral precussion and grand pianos.
- Soni Musicae: Harpiscord (SF2), House Organ (SF2) and Concert Gand (GIG)
- Keppy Studios Pianos (SFZ & SF2). Steinway Piano, an SFZ export of TASCAM’s CV Piano and more pianos!
- Bigcat Instrument’s piano collection (SFZ & VSTi)
- Don Allen’s Timbres from Heaven GM (SF2)
- The MuseScore Orchestra Soundfont (SF2)
Individual instruments not covered above
To be categorized when similar instruments get critical mass.
- Soundkey’s Cellofan Cello (VSTi).
- Sound Magic’s Neo Piano (Piano One) (VSTi, AUi)
- 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.
- Mihai Sorohan’s muted trumpet (SF2)
- Noise Crux’s Brass Ensemble (SFZ).
- Xavier Hosxe’s flute (SF2)
- Production Voice’s Estate Grand LE Piano (SFZ)
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.
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.
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.
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.) :)
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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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).
- 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.
- It is possible to replace GM.DLS and get better default MIDI sounds.
Happy holidays/music making!
Before noticing it, you may end up with hundreds of soundfont files, especially if you have a broadband internet connection and a very picky ear. Indirectly, the quality of your project can depend on how you organize your samples, as you may miss a good sample you actually have if the files are scattered (speaking from experience).
Organize by instrument. Look at how the 128 GM instruments are listed to get an idea. Make a folder for each instrument group. Libraries that contain a set of files may have their own folders (e.g. DSK, Sonatina Symphonic Orchestra). GM/GS files (single file with all the 128 instruments packed together) should also go together in their designated folder. The sparse independent random samples are best organized by instrument group. Some files are not very intuitively named (e.g. named after the model number of the instrument, specially for drum kits and electric guitars).
It may not be a good idea to rename them as you might end up downloading them again (this really happens if the filename does not give you a clue of what instrument it is, tending to be unused and forgotten), and you may find forums and reviews talking about a specifically named soundfont.
Of course, the same applies for VSTi’s and VSTs when possible (some VSTs come in a setup program, while most others are just the bare DLLs).
One downside I realized is that some DAW software do not offer you the option to browse for soundfonts or VSTs, but instead scan a predefined directory (this directory may probably be changed in the Windows Registry). Audacity is an example. I think this is bad design. Some samples can be gigabytes in size and I would not like having them in my system partition (drive C:).
Where to look for soundfonts? Hammersound seems to be quite known and is nicely organized (websites are another source of organizing ideas). For files that can not be found in Hammersound, or if the link is broken, sf2midi might be the next best place, despite its many ads and the free registration required.