Soundfonts and virtual instruments

• Apr 21, 2021 - 12:11

Soundfonts are just one way of obtaining virtual instrument (VI) sounds in DAWs and notation systems.

Essentially VIs are made either completely artificially - for example using a synthesiser - hardware or sofware, or by sampling recorded sounds from "real" instruments. It would, of course, be possible to combine these two methods.

The degree of "realism" or quaity of a VI depends on the methods used, and if sample recordings are used, then microphones and recorded ambience also affect the perceived quality. Besides the quality of the samples, other factors are how easy it is to control the sound of the VI., and volume level and vibrato come into play - and also timbral changes. Players of instruments such as violins, flutes, horns etc. have many ways they can affect the sounds they produce, and a good VI should be able to mimic some of those.

What I'd like to know is whether VIs made in Soundfont formats are inherently less good than others - such as VSTs - or indeed if there are any formats which are thought to be better than VSTs? How far should one go?
For keyboard instruments some VIs also include the sound of players hitting or moving the keys, and indeed even for wind instruments the sound of keys being pressed and released could be recorded. Indeed some composers have written specifically for such sounds.

It is possible to convert between some VI formats, though quality and/or ease of use may be lost. This would depend on whether audio samples are compressed and hence reduced in quality, and also on whether any control parameters become unavailable, or are restricted in range.

Many VIs are compatible with Kontakt formats - from Native Instruments - but is that the best current format for a VI?
I just don't know. Will future versions of MS take this kind of issue into account, and if so, how?

I wonder sometimes if different VI formats are deliberately made for commercial reasons, to prevent end users from doing a mix and match of what's available, rather than for technical or artistic reasons - though some formats may genuinely provde better sound quality or better ease of use.


I just installed some soundfonts for unusual instruments, but I don't think the sounds are very good. Instruments like udu, sitar and erhu are available, if you look - but getting a good sound seems difficult. I don't think it's because it's impossible, but more likely because not so many people seem interested in soundfonts - which may - or may not be - for good reasons.

In reply to by dave2020X

There's good reason why commercial notation software and their libraries cost so much. They feature professional players, recorded by professionals with professional equipment. Consider the string section. Each instrument has available the standard pizz, arco, and tremolo sounds. Also there is chamber music or full orchestra sized sections. Vibrato or no vibrato. In the mixer the controls for each instrument include: Reverb, chorus, volume, pan, EQ, attack, release. For guitar there is a control for how much fret noise you want. Drum sets have controls for overhead and room mics. There are presets for reverb based on room size. Small, large, auditorium, or cathedral. And much, much more.
Often it is possible to add another library after you pay for it and the 3rd party addon to make it work.

The UI is much different. But that's another topic.

OTOH, MuseScore has come a long way. Even in the few years I've been trying to use it.

And I think that just as important in all this are the users themselves. They have to know how to mesh the other two components together. You just can't slap some notes in some software and hit "play". We can have the best sounds but if the software and/or the user don't know what to do, results suffer. The flip side can be that a user who is really sharp can dredge up good results.

I know what you mean by "doesn't sound good". But that can be different for different people and situations.

Are soundfont formats inherently less good - the short answer is yes - there are more limitations to what can be produced because it is is more simplified than other VI formats. Soundfonts cannot cater for key-release volumes or differentiate between pedal up and pedal down piano samples nor does it allow for cross-fading between velocity layers. The benefits of the soundfont format is its wide compatability with all sorts of software and players and the fact that is has become "open" in terms of copying, editing etc. Almost all the other formats (with perhaps the exception of sfz) tend to be locked up so tight that they will only run on their platform alone.
Having said this there are many soundfonts that still shine against the more complicated VI big brothers. The reality is that for most instruments you can barely hear the more complicated sympathetic resonances and key releases etc anyway as 99% of the sound is just key on and sustain on/off.
Soundfonts support multiple velocity layers and there is a clunky way to add key-off sounds (by using a silent pre-loop) so you can kind of get close to some of the nuances of the modern VI's.

(I've gathered some of the best on my site and you are welcome to try them. For instance, I've added fret noises to the Steel Guitar and overblown flute noises to the SSO Flute in the Essential Keys sets on my site. All free of course.

In reply to by Jonky Ponky

is there any kind of established ranking order for virtual instrument technology/ies? Such as VST better than Soundfont etc. If so, what makes one system better than another?

I believe that there are more than just two ways of creating and using virtual instruments, but here VST and Soundfonts seem to be the ones which people are familiar with.

In reply to by dave2020X

There are several formats. Some of the major companies like Steinburg and Avid have their own proprietary systems. But the main two are VST ( plus the newer VST3 ) and AU. VST being PC based and AU developed by Apple. So, it's the usual thing. Mac can't play VST and PC can't play AU. There are converters for them. Professionally, fonts aren't generally considered. For one thing, fonts are limited by being midi based. I haven't kept up with the MS 4 thread. I assume there will be a way for the software to get VSTs to work on a Mac.

In reply to by bobjp

I think there are other formats. I'm not sure that Soundfonts are limited because of Midi - though I'm not sure of that. Certainly it does seem that VST and AU formats are common, though I think some pro libraries are based on Native Instruments formats - which may not be compatible with VST or AU - though converters for some libraries may be available.

If we are considering MS, then there may be ways of getting VSTs to work with Macs, though many good VIs are available in VST and AU fomat so if MS could work with AUs then that might work. However, I have heard that Apple is often awkward to deal with from developers' points of view - both technically and commercially.

I don't know if that is going to be a barrier to progress. The original query was really trying to tease out technical quality issues, but there may be other reasons why different formats for VIs might not succeed with different applications.

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