MIDI and soundfonts for the rest of us

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MIDI and soundfonts for the rest of us

Postby MajorGrubert » 2003-5-23 @ 17:41

Back in the good old days of DOS, I had a SB 16 ISA card and could only hear AdLib-style music in the games (OPL-3 FM). Now, with VMDSound and DosBox there is a bunch of games that can play music through MPU-401, but I'm stuck with any defaults for MIDI playback that are provided by Windows 2000/XP. In the meanwhile, I keep reading about soundfonts, instruments and so on in several threads, but I could not find a decent tutorial about MIDI playback.

So, in a nutshell, how can I improve MIDI playback in Windows 2000/XP? What can I do with "Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth"? Should I get a SoundBlaster Audigy to have decent music in games or is there a decent software-based solution?

By the way, I have tried Google and found a lot of pages about loading soundfonts into music cards, but they only address the process itself and not the basics behind it. I have some knowledge about MIDI and digital instruments (keyboards, synthesizers), but don't know how to get the best music for games inside Windows.

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Postby HunterZ » 2003-5-23 @ 19:57

First of all, what specific sound card do you have? You need to know this so that you can find out what your options are. Many sound cards on the market these days support loading of SF2 (soundfont) and/or DLS files which contain banks of wavetable instruments, and if yours is one of them then you have a lot of options. If not then you might be able to get a software wavetable synthesizer that has good built-in sounds or can load DLS files.

Another option might be to find the DLS file used by the Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth and try renaming it to something else, and then rename another DLS file to the name the M$ one was using. That might let you use Windows' software synthesizer as a DLS synth. Even though they're widely supported, however, I don't think there are as many good, free DLS files out there as there are soundfonts.

Lastly, soundfonts are supported by the AWE32, AWE64, Live, Audigy, Audigy 2, and probably a few other cards, so you even have a lot of options in buying a new card if your current one doesn't suit your needs and you don't want to use a software synth.

Oh, btw the M$ synth is a software wavetable synthesizer that uses a ~3.5MB DLS file (called gm.dls) based on the Roland Sound Canvas or somesuch. Most good General MIDI DLS and soundfont files I've seen are in the 32MB and up range, so 4MB isn't all that great (although it's much better than Adlib of course)
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Postby Kyl3 » 2003-5-23 @ 20:36

Well.. I'm guessing you're not content with the "default" mpu-401 device (soft or hardware). Soundfonts are nothing more then samples which u can load into the system (or soundcard) to replace the "default" samples.

So if the standard samples samples sound like crap, you can update them. (Game wise, I think it's invented for musicians to use custom samples without investing in expensive midi equipment).

Though using soundfonts for old games is kinda tricky, but results can be very good with certain games (vary's per soundfont & game). I've yet to find the "perfect" soundfont.

I wouldn't recommend you to buy an expensive audigy, there are better software synths around.
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Postby HunterZ » 2003-5-23 @ 22:17

I would recommend the AnotherGS and GeneralUser soundfonts for general usage.
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Postby MajorGrubert » 2003-5-24 @ 02:23

HunterZ wrote:First of all, what specific sound card do you have? You need to know this so that you can find out what your options are. Many sound cards on the market these days support loading of SF2 (soundfont) and/or DLS files which contain banks of wavetable instruments, and if yours is one of them then you have a lot of options. If not then you might be able to get a software wavetable synthesizer that has good built-in sounds or can load DLS files.

Right now I use only the all-mighty C-media 8738 chip that came built-in with my mobo. But I am looking after a new card, maybe a SB Live or Audigy. AFAIK, the 8738 has no MIDI capabilities by itself and just relies on MS software synthesizer.
[B]
Another option might be to find the DLS file used by the Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth and try renaming it to something else, and then rename another DLS file to the name the M$ one was using. That might let you use Windows' software synthesizer as a DLS synth. Even though they're widely supported, however, I don't think there are as many good, free DLS files out there as there are soundfonts.

From here I understand that there are some software-based synthesizers that use .DLS files.
[B]
Lastly, soundfonts are supported by the AWE32, AWE64, Live, Audigy, Audigy 2, and probably a few other cards, so you even have a lot of options in buying a new card if your current one doesn't suit your needs and you don't want to use a software synth.

And here I learn that soundfonts are supported by SoundBlaster cards. I still have a SB Live around somewhere, so I may give it a try (anyway I really want a card with 5.1 channels, so my old 4-channel Live is out of question).
[B]
Oh, btw the M$ synth is a software wavetable synthesizer that uses a ~3.5MB DLS file (called gm.dls) based on the Roland Sound Canvas or somesuch. Most good General MIDI DLS and soundfont files I've seen are in the 32MB and up range, so 4MB isn't all that great (although it's much better than Adlib of course)

So, bigger is better, right?

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Postby MajorGrubert » 2003-5-24 @ 02:24

Kyl3 wrote:I wouldn't recommend you to buy an expensive audigy, there are better software synths around.

Would you recommend any software synth in particular?

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Postby HunterZ » 2003-5-24 @ 03:27

MajorGrubert wrote:Right now I use only the all-mighty C-media 8738 chip that came built-in with my mobo. But I am looking after a new card, maybe a SB Live or Audigy. AFAIK, the 8738 has no MIDI capabilities by itself and just relies on MS software synthesizer.
Ack. I don't have much experience with on-board sound because I try to avoid it. I wouldn't be at all surprised if they overlooked adding any kind of real MIDI features to it. You could try hunting around for drivers and seeing if any come with any MIDI utilities.

[b]From here I understand that there are some software-based synthesizers that use .DLS files.
Well I don't personally know of any other than the Microsoft one that everyone has on their computer already, but I'd be surprised if none existed.

[b]And here I learn that soundfonts are supported by SoundBlaster cards. I still have a SB Live around somewhere, so I may give it a try (anyway I really want a card with 5.1 channels, so my old 4-channel Live is out of question).
Your Live has full SoundFont 2.0 support - I use a non-5.1 SB Live! X-Gamer with a (very shoddy) 4.1 analog speaker setup. The newer drivers can load both SF2 (soundfont) and DLS files.

[b]So, bigger is better, right?
Well let's just say that you can only get to a certain level of quality with each size, but you can always make big banks that suck. I've tried out a couple dozen before settling on a couple that I like enough to use most of the time.
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Postby Snu » 2003-5-24 @ 09:38

I think Quicktime comes with a software MIDI synthesizer.
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Postby LSD » 2003-5-24 @ 10:52

MajorGrubert wrote:Would you recommend any software synth in particular?

Thanks,


Yamaha have a software MIDI synthesiser, a copy of it is supplied with the PC version of Final Fantasy VII. I'm not overly familiar with it so I don't know where else you'd be able to get it or even if it can be installed on Windows 2000/XP.

Oh and HunterZ, not all onboard audio is bad, the onboard SoundStorm APU in the nVidia nForce/nForce2 chipset is actually quite good. In terms of audio processing it even give the SB Audigy 2 a run for it's money. Audio quality might be an issue as the chipset uses AC'97 codecs for Analogue/Digital and Digital/Analogue conversion but my EPoX 8RDA+ doesn't sound too bad but I only have cheap speakers. If the quality bothers you, any nForce2 board worth buying has the capacity to output the audio in raw digital form bypassing the codec altogether.
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Postby Kyl3 » 2003-5-24 @ 14:35

This yamaha software synthesizer was also available for download (free) on the Yamaha webpage a long time ago, they've gone commercial later on.

There's also a roland software synth around which sounds alot like the dx 9 synth. I don't know if it's the very same as the one microsoft uses, the product was also updated with newer banks to a higher equilivent synthesizer (I believe from a sc-55 to a sc88). but he roland softsynth ceased to exist some years ago.

The yamaha seems you're best option, if u can find the freeware version that is. The commercial site is here: http://www.yamaha.co.uk/xg/html/midplug/m_mid8.htm

Maybe go round some computer stores and friends and figure out the which choice is the best. I use a soundblaster live and soundfonts, but i'm not really happy with it. I'm currently searchin' ebay if I can find a cheap sc-55 module (or alternative).

(The sc-55 is the general midi standard for dos games)

edit: the s-yxg50 trial version works for 30 days, and is downloadable on the yamaha site
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Postby HunterZ » 2003-5-24 @ 16:02

Snu:
I think Quicktime comes with a software MIDI synthesizer.
It does but A) it's not very good and B) it only works for playing MIDI in Quicktime. It doesn't install itself as a Windows MIDI driver, so you can't use it with other applications.

LSD:
[b]not all onboard audio is bad, the onboard SoundStorm APU in the nVidia nForce/nForce2 chipset is actually quite good.
Well I only know what I've read...I've heard that the nVidia stuff is decent too, but I'd still only get it as a fallback option unless it had all the features and stability I wanted.

LSD:
[b]Yamaha have a software MIDI synthesiser, a copy of it is supplied with the PC version of Final Fantasy VII.


Kyl3:
[b]This yamaha software synthesizer was also available for download (free) on the Yamaha webpage a long time ago, they've gone commercial later on.
You guys are talking about the Yamaha XG software synth right? It's decent, but outdated. Worth a try maybe. I remember the free version was crippled somehow, but maybe that was after they went commercial? It supports Yamaha's XG standard, which may be useful in some situations (but no games need and XG synth that I know of because it's not as popular as GM/GS). I don't know how well it supports GM (General MIDI) or GS standards.

Kyl3:
[b]I'm currently searchin' ebay if I can find a cheap sc-55 module (or alternative).

(The sc-55 is the general midi standard for dos games)
Is that the Sound Canvas? Is it an external module or an ISA card? My cousin used to have an ISA card and a Sound Blaster Pro - I remember playing X-Wing on it and being blown away (one of the reasons I bought my first sound card - a Sound Blaster 2.0). I'd love to get an external Sound Canvas and maybe MT-32 someday, just to have around as toys. Some people swear by them even today as being excellent MIDI synthesizers.

[edit] There's also an old software synth called WinGroove that I used to use. It's probably not that good by today's standards but it's an option. Like the Yamaha synth, it only uses built-in instrument sounds, but it has some neat features like you can make a box pop up to let you change the current instrument for each channel on the fly.
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Postby Snover » 2003-5-24 @ 19:40

Whoo, lots of bits of information in this thread to keep you busy for a while.

First, I gotta say, bigger isn't always necessarily better, although many times it is.

Fluid soundfont is probably the ultimate SoundFont, but most cards won't load it without a special dynamic bank loader because it is really big. (I use SB Dyn!, since MegaFont, which seems to be recommended, always error'd out on my computer.) Supposedly the Audigy 2 has built-in dynamic bank loading and stuff, but I tried it with the pseudo-UDA drivers that Creative has released and it didn't work.

For stuff to use the SB Dyn! by default you'll need to set the program to run at startup and also you'll need to set it as the 'preferred' MIDI player.

Note: It IS NOT a MIDI emulator, it's just a wrapper.

Oh, and the Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth is pretty much considered the best as far as software MIDI emulation is concerned, mostly because it emulates a Roland SoundCanvas, which I think has been discussed above.
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Postby Targaff » 2003-5-27 @ 04:47

I'm wondering whether I might have the wrong end of the stick here, but am I right in thinking Timidity++ would be a good recommendation in the software synth department?

Also, is there any software available to edit/create/convert to an Ensoniq Waveset (.ecw)? I was trying to find the file format details and couldn't, but it would appear relatively common all the same.
Last edited by Targaff on 2003-5-27 @ 05:15, edited 1 time in total.
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Postby Dominus » 2003-5-27 @ 12:03

1. timidity might be a good idea, even though last time I looked at it I couldn't really use it for applications. Especially for programs you compile yourself it was too much of a hassle for me to have it support timidity and I'm not even sure it works at all on Windows. Maybe someone alse will look at how it looks today...

2. ecw files. AFAIK these are still used in the DOS-drivers of the Live/Audigy series of Creative. There are 4MB, 8MB and 16 MB sets. I downloaded them somewhere ages ago and you can use them to replace the default.ecw in the dos drivers (probabyl useable in Win9x as well), either through the ini or just be replacing the default.ecw file.
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Postby Targaff » 2003-5-27 @ 14:14

Dominus wrote:2. ecw files. AFAIK these are still used in the DOS-drivers of the Live/Audigy series of Creative. There are 4MB, 8MB and 16 MB sets. I downloaded them somewhere ages ago and you can use them to replace the default.ecw in the dos drivers (probabyl useable in Win9x as well), either through the ini or just be replacing the default.ecw file.

Do you know the name of the file I need to be looking for for the 16 MB set? I've found the 4 and 8 meg ecw's but nothing bigger.

Incidentally, I checked out the Fury DLS set last night to see how it sounded, as a replacement for GM.DLS it's fine, but it still sounded considerably worse than my soundcard's onboard synth (PCI128 here). I was wondering about the possibility of converting the 64 MB soundfont that the SB Dyn! people have, just to see if it would work...
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Postby HunterZ » 2003-5-27 @ 17:53

Snover said:[b]
I use SB Dyn!, since MegaFont, which seems to be recommended, always error'd out on my computer.
I tried SB Dyn! the other day after reading what you said, and it would only load patches for the drum channel unless I had it scan each MIDI file ahead of time. Perhaps it was because I was naughty and tried it before rebooting...

I remember MegaFont crapping out on me last time I tried to use it too, and the time before that I had it working but it wasn't all that great. I just don't understand why Creative's own bank manager won't load and use the #@$! thing (Fluid R3 I mean).

Targaff said:[b]
Also, is there any software available to edit/create/convert to an Ensoniq Waveset (.ecw)?
Alas, I embarked on the same quest when I had my SB PCI128. It seems that the ECW format was proprietary and it died when Ensoniq died - that is, when Creative bought them out to use their PCI technology *shakes clenched fist bitterly* If you could trade that card for even a Live Value it would be a big step up (for MIDI and EAX at least)

[b]Do you know the name of the file I need to be looking for for the 16 MB set? I've found the 4 and 8 meg ecw's but nothing bigger.
Actually I'm pretty sure it's 2, 4, and 8mb and that there isn't a 16mb one.

[b]I was wondering about the possibility of converting the 64 MB soundfont that the SB Dyn! people have, just to see if it would work...
I didn't know you could convert soundfonts to DLS, but I wouldn't be surprised as it seems to be more widely-supported. For the record, the Fluid soundfont that Snover mentioned is on the order of 150MB, but there are good GM/GS soundfonts in the 32-64MB range (such as GeneralUser, AnotherGS, Unison, etc.)
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Postby Nicht Sehr Gut » 2003-5-28 @ 04:08

Originally posted by Targaff [B]I'm wondering whether I might have the wrong end of the stick here, but am I right in thinking Timidity++ would be a good recommendation in the software synth department?
Be nice if there was a way to make it a Windows driver. I could at least get back my GUS music.
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Postby Targaff » 2003-5-28 @ 18:03

HunterZ wrote:I didn't know you could convert soundfonts to DLS, but I wouldn't be surprised as it seems to be more widely-supported. For the record, the Fluid soundfont that Snover mentioned is on the order of 150MB, but there are good GM/GS soundfonts in the 32-64MB range (such as GeneralUser, AnotherGS, Unison, etc.)
Audio Compositor lets you import a Soundfont and export it to a DLS; interesting program. As Mark's DLS Adventures details, however, the end results of this aren't necessarily worth it. I might try it some time over the coming weekend with one of the above soundfonts and see how it turns out.
HunterZ wrote:Alas, I embarked on the same quest when I had my SB PCI128. It seems that the ECW format was proprietary and it died when Ensoniq died - that is, when Creative bought them out to use their PCI technology *shakes clenched fist bitterly*
Eh, well I dropped a cautious line in the direction of Creative's Developer forum/support to feel out the possibility of their letting the details out, since they don't seem to be using them any more in favour of soundfonts, but I'm not holding my breath.
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Postby Targaff » 2003-6-12 @ 21:02

Meh, well for those who are interested:

Unfortunately, the information you require is confidential. I'm told that the reason for this is that when Ensoniq purchased the format, the rights to create and editor (or allow anyone to do so) were not part of the deal.

I'm sorry for the inconvenience.

Kind regards,

Chen.
(Creative Labs Developer Relations)
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Postby Snover » 2003-6-13 @ 14:15

:rolleyes: Well, at least you got a response; that's more than can usually be said about Creative's technical support and development.
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