Thursday, October 16, 2008

More on Soundfonts

So here's what I did. First, I loaded up and installed SynthFont, a tool for listening to and editing Midi files, and applying Soundfonts to them. It came with a handful of very small Soundfonts, most of which tried to provide coverage for all possible Midi inputs (not just piano) in a very small footprint. This is the sort of thing that gives Midi a bad name, since the sounds produced from these Soundfonts are really puny and fake-sounding. Nevertheless, these gave me my first glimpse into how the process works. I then did a search on PianoWorld for people's favorite Soundfonts*, and downloaded those that seemed to be mentioned most often. This gave me a rather lengthy list of free piano Soundfonts to try out. Perhaps over time, I'll find more. What's more, of course, there are geeky sound engineer / computer nerds cranking out new ones all the time.

* - I’m always interested in having others do this sort of heavy lifting for me. That’s part of the point of this blog, come to think of it. You’ve been very helpful, I must say.

Then what? Well, I wanted to get some practice converting Midi files, so I found some of my favorite piano pieces in Midi format. I learned that as long as you're keeping the search field to older music, things in the public domain, you can probably find a Midi file for it. I kept it simple, choosing things I knew pretty well: Liszt’s La Campanella (Paganini Etude #3, if you’re scoring at home) and Joplin’s The Entertainer.

Finally, I converted selected pieces using the various Soundfonts, and listened to the resulting MP3 WAV files*. I was surprised at how distinct the differences were. Of course, all pianos are not created equal, and all samples (even samples of the same piano) are not created equal. I also learned, pretty quickly, that the size of a Soundfont file is not useless information. For the most part, unless someone was really sloppy, a 5 MB Soundfont is simply not going to have as many layers of depth and interest as a 50 MB Soundfont.

* - Another tidbit I learned along the way... something I mentioned in the previous post. WAV files have all that CD (and better!) quality you expect from digital music, not Mp3's. Mp3's are fine for storing lots of music in a confined space, like an iPod, but if you are looking for the best sound, you aren't going to get it from an Mp3. There is some compression that happens during the creation of an Mp3, and this results in the loss of... something or other having to do with high-quality sound. If you want to make a CD, use the WAV files, if you can.

Let me give you an example. First, Soundfont (WST25FStein_00Sep22.SF2) is from an 1893 Steinway D. When it renders a Midi of La Campanella (Midi copyrighted by a Bernd Kr├╝ger, just so you know), sounds like this.

La Campanella - Liszt

The EXACT SAME MUSIC (this point cannot be emphasized enough, you won’t believe it when you hear it) sounds like this on an upright Bechstein. Remember, these are the same notes (pitch, volume, sustain, all that) as the first.

La Campanella - Liszt

Which do you like better? Me, I have a strong preference for the first, and not just because it’s a Steinway. (I came across a couple of Steinway Soundfonts that sounded muted, hollow, or simply too mellow for my tastes.) I will probably use this Steinway Soundfont on my own recordings, along with some others. I’m keeping the Bechstein, though, partly because the file is so small (which probably accounts for the lack of depth) and partly because I think it would sound great playing Ragtime. There could be times when a beat up piano is called for, you know?

After awhile, it became clear that there were four or five that I liked best. But the closer I listened to them, and the more I compared them, the less I could tell them apart. I think my ear / mind got tired of this exercise. So I am going to put this to rest for awhile*, and use them to render my own recordings. I'd bet after awhile, one will stand out over the others, and I will prefer it. Or maybe I’ll use them all, depending on my mood. We’ll see.

* - No train commutes in the immediate future, after all. And once the new piano arrives, I'll have enough to do. Not to mention, you know, life and work and sleep and all that.


sawtooth said...

Where is the midi file you used? I'd love to run it through my piano to compare. :)

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

Ah, good question.

sawtooth said...

OK, I tossed up the version out of my Roland FP-7 up onto

I had to record it more than once since the extra loud bit at the end was too loud for the input volume and led to some of the audio clipping due to peaks. That was a bummer, but I got to listen to the whole thing again the next time through. :)

Remember kids, red lines are bad! Feel free to copy and paste that image link to see what I mean...

Always Wanted to Play Piano said...

Sawtooth, to my ears, that's every bit as good as any of the Soundfonts I've tried these last few days. I did hear the crackling at the end, but that is part of why I chose this piece to test out the Soundfonts. I know that any crackling at that point shows the upper recording level limit, and I'll need to stay under that for any pieces with FF passages.

But back to your recording. Most of the Soundfonts I played with did well in the upper registers, many (but not quite as many) had life in the bass. But what separated the very good ones from the merely acceptable ones was life in the midrange. Yours has lots of life in the middle.