Saturday, June 5, 2021

TECHNICAL: Soundfonts. Explanation, History, and Resources.


The Soundfont Page.

Soundfont explanation, history, and resources.
The purpose of this page is to provide the latest news and information on soundfonts including developer tools and up to date information on which instruments are capable of loading and playing soundfont files.

I'll also provide links to soundfont developer pages and resources. You'll find these towards the bottom of the page in the resources section.   

What Is A Soundfont.

Soundfonts are interchangeable sample based instrument files that can be loaded into a number of sample player software instruments. These can be third party VST instruments or 'standard' instruments supplied with a number of popular software music packages and platforms. 

As such, soundfonts are a great idea. They allow soundware developers to produce sample based instruments that can be read and played by a number of software products without having to develop different files for a range of different products and instruments. 

In order for a multi-sampled instrument to be accurate, playable and usable we need certain things. Sure, we need a collection of audio files (or samples), but we also need some more information. We need to know how this collection of samples is 'mapped' across the keyboard, in other words which key 'triggers' which sample or group of samples. We may need information about velocity layers, in other words does a different sample trigger if we play a key harder. Do different samples play at different volume levels? Do the individual samples that make up our instrument need individual panning assignments. What's the pitch bend amount for each sample? 

There are more parameters, but what is important to know is that all this information is dealt with and assigned by the information embedded within the standard soundfont file. 

It's also important to know that the raw samples are not included within the soundfont (sf.sf2.sfz) file. You need the raw samples within the same folder. 

The information and parameters that make up a soundfont file can be created and edited within a simple code editor such as Windows Notepad but dedicated editors are also available. These allow editing in a more WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) style and offer other functionality such as file conversion. 
We'll take a look at some of these programs in the 'resources' section. 

History of the Soundfont.

The Soundfont standard was developed in the early 1990s shortly after EMU Systems was incorporated into the Creative Labs (Soundblaster PC card developer) company. The Wikipedia page for Soundfonts seems to contain quite a lot of inaccuracies liking the soundfont standard to the General Midi standard for Midi file playback. I guess the two standards are linked but there's no reason you can't create Soundfont files outside of the GM standard. 
Anyway since then there have been updates incorporating more parameters and therefore file types (see below).
As far as I'm aware the standard is no longer being developed (2.04 being the final incarnation) but we have all the features and parameters to create great sounding sample based sounds. 

Soundfont File Types.

Soundfont Resources.

Software Instruments Capable of Loading and Playing Soundfonts.

Zampler. Probably the most useful and up to date Soundfont player.....and it's free! Zampler is a sample player with synth parameters developed by Synapse Audio and available free via Germany's magazine. It's a VST instrument that can be used by most major music software production platforms. It reads .sfz files which might be a problem as many Soundfonts are .sf2 files but Polyphone (see below) can quickly and reliably convert .sf2 files into .sfz files. 
Once you've loaded and perhaps carried out some edits to the soundfont you can then save it as a dedicated Zampler patch. 
You can get your free copy via the link below.

BitWig 'Sampler'. For BitWig users, I've discovered that Sampler (part of BitWig's standard suite of instruments) can read and playback .sf2 Soundfont files. Just drag the file from the browser on the right hand side into an open instance of 'Sampler'. Although this ability does not seem to be mentioned in BitWig's documentation, it does seem to work reliably and it loaded all the soundfont files I tried. 

Presonus' Presence. Part of Presonus' very popular Studio One music and audio production platform, this instrument will load some Soundfont files but the process does seem a little unreliable. It loads some but not others, I've tried in vain to figure out why or if there are any edits you can carry out to make the non-working ones work. If anyone has a solution I'd be really pleased to hear it. 

Reason NN-XT Sampler. Reason's resident NN-XT sampler can also load .sf2 soundfonts. Rather like BitWig's Sampler, you can edit the files and then save it as a dedicated NN-XT patch which is a real bonus. NN-XT shows the mapping for the soundfont file as if it was an NN-XT file so you can edit it, select different outputs, etc. It would be great if it could save soundfonts as NN-XT is a really quick, graphic multi-sample editor, but this does not seem possible.

Steinberg HALion. It seems that full versions of HALion will load .sf2 soundfont files, but HALion Sonic SE3 (HSSE3, the free version won't). So if you have a full version of HALion, you can load a .sf2 soundfont file and then export it as a HALion Sonic SE3 VST preset if you want to distribute it for HSSE3 users. This seems to work quite well.  


Soundfont Creating and Editing Software.

Polyphone. As far as I'm aware, the most up to date Soundfont creator/editor. It has it's quirks and I seem to remember it took me a little while to get it to talk to my audio interface, but I think it works pretty well. It will also instantly convert different Soundfont files reliably. It's also free and has a library page with a fairly comprehensive collection of free soundfonts. 

Viena. Originally developed by EMU/Creative, this software is now quite old but I do know some creators still use and enjoy it. I'm due to take a look at it shortly......stay tuned. 
Viena does not have a dedicated website or page as far as I can tell but you can download the 32 and 64 bit versions here.

Soundfont Libraries.

Free Soundfont Libraries. Soundfont Directory.

As well as being an editor and convertor, Polyphone is also a great source for Soundfont instruments and files.

Large selection of categorised acoustic instrument soundfonts. 

Collection of soundfonts which includes some excellent pipe and tonewheel organ instrument files. 

Large soundfont collection including strings choirs and organs. 

So there we have it. Soundfonts explained alongside some essential resources relating to all things soundfont. 
As I mentioned, I'll continue to update this page as more information and resources become available. 
Feel free to email me any information or additional resources you may know of that you think might be of interest to readers. 


The information contained within this blog post is offered on an informal basis and is correct to the best of my knowledge. I accept no responsibility for outcomes arising from the mis/interpretation or use of this information and/or associated download files. Always download files via security/scanning software. 

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