Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How to Make Those MIDI Files Sound Better

MIDI files (the ones with the .mid extensions on your computer) are most of the time associated with crappy, artificial sounding, karaoke-ish music. This is due to the fact that most basic computer sound setups use either artificially synthesized instruments (FM synthesis) or low quality wavetables (actual recordings of instrument sounds) to play these .MID file. Back in those days when Internet broadband connections were rare, MIDI files are a common way to transfer music across the Web because they are generally small. But today, with broadband Internet becoming more common, and with the development of high quality audio compression such as MP3, MIDI files are becoming less useful to ordinary computer users. Their uses are now limited to game and karaoke music, or used as cell phone ring tones.

One mistake is to blame the low quality of music to the MIDI files. A MIDI file (sometimes called Standard MIDI File or SMF) contains nothing but signals or instructions that tells a MIDI compliant device how to reproduce the music. Think of as a virtual sheet music. For example, if you try playing a piano piece on a Steinway grand piano, it would definitely sound much better than if you play the same piece on an upright home piano.

If you happen to have a General MIDI (GM) compliant musical instrument (which most modern portable keyboards are) lying around, try connecting it to your computer and let it play your MIDI files. Check the back of your keyboard if it has the MIDI IN and MIDI OUT ports. If it has, then it is GM compliant. You don't have to buy additional expensive hardware for your computer. Just buy a low cost MIDI to USB cable available in most music stores (or online). Just follow the manual that goes with the device. You should be able to hear a better sounding music immediately. Note however that some portable keyboards sound better that others.

But what if you don't have a MIDI gear? Are there any other ways to make your MIDI files sound better without having to buy an expensive piece of equipment? Yes there are other ways. I'll explore two in this article. One is the use of software wavetables and the other is using sound fonts.

Software Wavetables

I will not delve into the technical aspect or definition of a wavetable. (If you're interested, look here) Just think of it as table or collection of actual recordings of instruments or waves. When it receives a signal from a MIDI file or device, you will hear the actual sound of the instruments. This results in a more realistic reproduction of the music. Wavetables are sometimes imbedded in the soundcard itself. But what I'll discuss here is the use of software wavetables which is not dependent on any hardware. You can just use your existing soundcard.

What I'll discuss in particular is the Yamaha S-YXG50 SoftSynth which I am using at present. This darn thing just blows me away! The sounds are amazingly realistic (even better than my Casio keyboard). Plus, you could add some effects like reverb and chorus. Unfortunately, I've just found out that Yamaha long abandoned this project and stopped selling it. I just got my copy from a file sharing site. (Download it here) Since this software is considered abandonware, I think you can use it without any guilt or whatsoever. Just download it, and extract it using WinRAR. You may need to carefully examine the instructions on how to install it in the included README file. I'm also assuming that you are using Windows XP. Once successfully installed just go to the Control Panel and double click Sounds and Audio Devices. Select the Audio tab and under MIDI music playback select YAMAHA XG SoftSynthesizer. Now, when you try playing MIDI with Media Player, it will use the YAMAHA XG softsynth as playback device. But a better option is to use the XG player that comes with the bundle instead of using Windows Media Player. One of the advantages of using the XG player is that you can assign instrument sounds (including Yamaha's XG sounds) to each MIDI channel. You also have the option to mute a certain channel if for example you want to sing or play along. You can transpose your music instantly or change its tempo. You can also assign any of the built-in effects like reverb or chorus and adjust the levels for each of these effects. The pianos in this software synth are multi sampled and are amazingly realistic. Don't take my word for it. Try it for yourselves and you too will be blown away!


A full definition of SoundFont is found here. As you can see from the definition, SoundFonts are somewhat similar to wavetables in that they both use wave samples of real instruments. The advantage of using SoundFonts however is the ability to expand your sound collections either by downloading SoundFont files (.sf extension) from the Internet or by creating or sampling your own sounds (i.e. if you have a SoundFont compatible sound card such as Sound Blaster).

You can enjoy the beauty of SoundFonts even if you don't currently have a SoundFont compatible sound card. There are software that do the job. Right now, I'm using SynthFont which is a nice tool for playing MIDI files using SoundFonts. It's main features are the ability to assign a different SoundFont for each MIDI channel and the ability to render your MIDI files into other formats such as .WAV or .MP3. You can render MIDI files into a single .WAV file or into multiple .WAV files by MIDI track. You can then use these multiple tracks on your audio mastering software such as n-Track or Cubase. You can also add VST effects but I have yet to explore this feature. And it can also act as a MIDI sequencer. Cool, eh!

You can download SynthFont here. This site also contains the instructions on how to properly install the software. Just read them carefully and you can never go wrong. Once installed, its just a matter of loading the MIDI files you want to listen to and press the PLAY button. The basic installations provides you with a default SoundFont that you can immediately use. However, this SoundFont is a low quality one and you may be disappointed by its sound. The real exciting part is when you start hunting for high quality SoundFonts over the Web. Just google your way across the Internet and it's not hard to stumble upon some free high quality ones. You have to note that most SoundFonts specialize in a certain instrument sounds. There are SoundFonts that contain only piano sounds, others string sounds, and others guitar sounds, etc. Using SynthFont, you can then assign these specialized SoundFonts to their corresponding track in your MIDI sequence, producing a more professional sounding music.

Ok. I'll give you one link to a free SoundFont download site just to help you get started.

Here it is:

So go ahead. Try these methods that I've just discussed and make those boring MIDI music come to life.

My 5 Favorite MIDI Movie Themes

This is a follow up of my past article about My 10 Best MIDI TV Themes.

Just like most TV shows, movies are most often identified with their main theme - that usually catchy tune that are either played at its opening or end credits or sometimes accompanies its most thrilling scenes. When I say movie theme, I don't mean the theme song that usually comes with the movie - although some movie main themes are sometimes based on the song. For example, Ghost's main theme is a moving orchestral arrangement of its theme song Unchained Melody, and you can hear a hint of Can You Read My Mind in the Superman theme. Ever since I was a child, I was captivated by movie themes and most often they are retained in my mind. Most people never really care about the music - they don't usually distinguish if a certain music was from Dances With Wolves or from Lord of the Rings. They just think of them as just ordinary musical background for the movie. But for me, the main theme give a movie a unique "personality". Try watching the Oscars and you will notice that if a certain movie is given an award, the movie's score is played by the orchestra while the recipient goes to the stage.

So what is my criteria for choosing the movie themes listed below? Honestly, I am not quite sure. I just find them catchy, melodious, and sometimes epic in scale just like the movie they represent. It doesn't necessarily mean that I chose them because these are my favorite movies. Believe me, I love Lord of the Rings so much but I can't seem to retain its main theme. Maybe because I find it too dark and abstract, unlike the magnific main theme of Indiana Jones. I narrowed my choices to just 5. If I am to discuss all my favorite themes, this blog space may not be enough. Also, I used an unordered list because I did not arranged them in any particular order. So here they are.

  • Back To The Future (Listen) Alan Silvestri employed a fast paced style of music in this movie's main theme - apt for its fast paces non-stop action and equally exhilarating subject of time travel. Listening to this music, I could almost see the DaLorean (this was the time machine used in the movie) accelerating to 88 miles per hour and zooming across the time barrier to its destination at an unknown point in time. Of all the time travel movies that I watched, this I think is the best one - even better than the adaptation of H.G. Wells' Time Machine. The reason - aside from its irreverent comedy - is its ability to incorporate complex theories of time travel without confusing the audience. I lost track of how many time I watched the trilogy and until now I still could not find any flaw in the movie's intertwining events. But then, this article's topic is about the music and not the movie itself. So just enjoy listening to the MIDI file I provided.

  • Schindler's List (Listen) In 2007, the American Film Institute ranked this film #9 on the list of Best 100 American movies of all time. Needless to say, I think this is the most moving and powerful movie you and I have ever watched. And a moving and powerful movie deserves an equally emotionally stirring score to go with it. John Williams really did a great job at that. Proof? He went on to win an Academy Award in Best Score for his work in this movie. A story goes that Williams hesitated at first saying that the immensity of this movie deserves a better composer. Steven Spielberg replied : "I know. But they are all dead." There is a piano version of this music played by Williams himself. But Itzhak Perlman's "wailing" violin solo version sounds more intense and uncannily captures the movie's subject about one of the darkest periods of history.

  • Star Wars (Listen)
  • George Lucas contends that much of these trilogies' success relies not much on advanced visual effects, but on the simple, direct emotional appeal of its plot, characters and, importantly, music. And who else can accomplish such a feat other than John Williams?
    In the films, Williams revived a technique called "Leitmotif", which is used in modern film scoring to mentally anchor certain parts (or characters) of the film to the soundtrack.
    The main anthem of the saga, easily its most recognizable melody, is considered one of the greatest movie themes of all time. The main theme is variously associated with Luke, heroism and adventure. It is heard in full Korngoldian splendor over the opening crawl at the beginning of all the films, and forms the basis of the end-title as well. Another imposing part of the score is the Imperial March or Darth Vader's theme easily distinguished by its ferocious martial rhythm and dark, non-diatonic harmonic support.(The MIDI file attached here contain's an excerpt of the march.) William's clever use of "leitmotif" was evident in one of the scenes in Episode 1 where Anakin was presented by Obi Wan to the Jedi council (headed by non-other than Yoda) on which the score began to show subtle hints of the Darth Vader's theme, a premonition of the dark person this "young-ling" (did I spell it right?) would eventually turn into. Listen to the Stars Wars medley included in this article which features various part of the score and be impressed by the genius of Williams.
  • Harry Potter (Listen) Some critics argue that the Harry Potter music is one of John William's inferior movie scores, comparing it to the successes of his other works like Star Wars. But who cares what these critics think? When Sorcerer's Stone was released it cracked the top 10 albums in sales! I myself am a Harry Potter fan, both of the books and the films - although in my case, I had watched the first Harry Potter movie before I was drawn to the books. (I was not even aware that the Sorcerer's Stone was based on a book before I've seen the movie!) Since then, I always anticipated the next installment of the movie, and almost always amazed at how the film makers bring to life the scenes in the book. I am equally thrilled at how Williams brought those scenes to life, and how closely he captured the magical nature of the film by means of his distinctive movie scoring style. Just by listening to the movie's prologue music (also called Hedwig's theme, included in this article), one would be drawn to it's mysterious quintessence (augmented by its extensive use of the celesta, bells, and wordless female choir). True, some part of the film's score, are somehow reminiscent of William's score for Hook. This is understandable since both films both explore a magical world. But for me the Harry Potter theme has its own unique personality, which seem to linger in my mind long after I left the movie theater.

  • Superman Theme (Listen) The majestic horn ensemble heard at the intro of the Superman theme exemplifies heroism, bravery, and invincibility. This intro is also ofter heard within the movie when Superman appears in a quick-cut on-screen - or when he arrives just in time to save the day. (I could almost hear - echoing in the background - the phrase: "Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird! No it's a plane! No, know who...) This phrase or "fanfare" also appears many times in the main theme. After this intro comes a series of musical phrases, subdued at first, then gradually crescendos into a relentless and thrilling full orchestral ensemble leading into the main theme. No doubt, its a fitting introduction for one of the best loved if not everyone's favorite superhero. And who else could magnificently carve this chef-d'oeuvre other than the master himself, John Williams. (Him again?)

    John Williams composed the "Superman March" as well as the score for the 1978 Superman. Although he did not wrote the score for the succeeding 4 films, the main theme that he wrote continued to be adopted on these sequels, with John Williams cited in the credits.

    I think the Superman theme is the most iconic of all the superhero movie themes and had the most impact. Well, I could recognize or distinguished the themes from Spiderman or Batman or any other hero movies once I hear them, but I couldn't quit retain their main melody. One reason maybe is that Superman is my favorite of all the super heroes. I couldn't explain it any better than the comment of David Carradine's character in Kill Bill 2 about Superman. He said that of all the super heroes Superman was the most unique of them all. He added that unlike other super heroes like Batman or Spiderman (who woke up in the morning as themselves and later assume superhero identities), "Superman didn't become Superman. Superman was born Superman. When Superman wakes up in the morning, he's Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red "S", that's the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears - the glasses, the business suit - that's the costume..."

Well that's it folks, my 5 favorite MIDI movie themes. Too bad I had space for just 5 in this article. Hundreds of movie themes in MIDI format are available throughout the web. Just google for your favorite and you'll sure to find one.


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Acoustic vs. Digital Piano

Which would be a better buy? An acoustic or a digital piano?

Before anything else, let me give you my definition of what a digital piano really is. Although some electronic musical instruments can also reproduce the sound of a piano (examples are music workstations, sound modules, sample-based synthesizers, software and hardware samplers), this article refers to a digital piano as an instrument that integrates a keyboard controller with a sample playback device that specializes in piano sounds. Digital pianos vary in shapes and sizes. Some (like the ones designed for home use) may resemble the look of an upright acoustic piano. But others may resemble the look of modern synthesizers or music workstations. These are called stages pianos. They are generally lighter since they don't usually include internal loudspeakers and amplification.

If you were to ask me the above question 20 years ago (when our home piano was still brand new and digital pianos sounded crappy), I may had answered acoustic piano. But today, with the advent of modern and state-of-the-art sampling technologies I may have changed my mind. Especially now that our home piano started to show some signs of wear, such as broken strings, worn out keys, and detuning (my brother somehow got tired of constantly doing tuning jobs). Furthermore, the modern digital piano has become more and more similar to its acoustic counterpart both in sound and feel. Most of them utilize multi-sampled piano sounds. This means that samples are recorded from a real piano at different levels of loudness, so that if you lightly press a key in a digital piano, the soft recording is sounded. If you pound on the keys, the loud sample is used instead. This is necessary because in a real piano, the timbre and not just the loudness changes with the pressure applied to the keys. Some newer models even have different set of samples for each key in the piano. And still others produce even the most intricate sounds of the piano's internal machinery such as a hint of a hammer striking the string, the delicate sound produce by the keys as you release them, and even the discrete sound of the pedal being depressed. All these combine to produce an amazingly realistic piano sound. Most models may also likely to incorporate graded hammer action. This simply means that the keys progressively become heavier as you go down the lower pitched keys - much like in the real acoustic piano - for more expressive playing.

Some experts may argue that acoustic pianos sound better than their digital counterpart. But for the untrained ear (and admit it, most of us are) the difference is not at all noticeable, especially in recorded music. Some newer and more expensive models of digital piano such as Roland's KR series even went to the extent of sampling string harmonics, and even include an actual soundboard to faithfully capture the vibrance of a real concert grand. With these recent developments, a question arises: What set these two types of pianos apart? This article tries to point out the advantages and downsides of using each type of model which may guide newbie piano buyers what model to choose.


Let me point out that the extreme digital piano features explained above may only be present in newer and more expensive models. If you are an amateur digital piano buyer and looking for an entry level model (or a used one), chances are, these may fall short of the genuine article. Nevertheless, most digital pianos have certain advantages over the real one. These include the following:

  • Digital pianos are generally less expensive. So if your on a budget, a digital piano may be the right one for you.

  • They are generally lighter and more compact. If room space is your concern, then you may choose to have a digital piano. Also, if you are a gigging musician, it is easier to transport a digital piano. It fits nicely at the backseat or even the trunk of most cars.

  • They do not require tuning. As with most string instruments, an acoustic piano lacks the ability to stay in tune. Tuning the piano yourself is a painstaking process and hiring somebody to do it means additional expense for you. On this aspect, a digital piano is a better choice.

  • They may include many more instrument sounds. You are not limited with only one piano sound. This may include different types of piano sounds such as modern pianos, electric pianos, as well as organ, guitar, and string sounds. It may also be possible to layer two or more sounds together to produce some interesting effects. Some newer models even include hundreds more sounds and act as music workstations.

  • They may incorporate a MIDI implementation. MIDI stands for Musical Instrument Digital Interface, a technology that was created in the 1980's that provides various digital musical instruments and computers a standard way to communicate with each other. What this does is that it allows you to expand the capabilities of your digital piano by connecting it to external sound modules, sequencers, and computers. It also lets you playback standard MIDI files available from various locations to your piano making it act as a pianolla without the bulky and ungainly roll of punched paper.

  • They may provide a way to record and store your performances. Most models of digital pianos have built in sequencers with at least two tracks. So that if you have a sudden surge of inspiration, you can instantly record your music and store it (on disk, smart media, or to your computer) and play it back at a later time.

  • They may include a interactive learning assist feature. This is useful for those beginning to learn how to play piano. Eliminating the need for a piano teacher. (Bad news for them.) If you are a beginner, try asking your piano dealer what models have this feature.

  • They usually include headphone output. If you suddenly feel a surge of inspiration in the middle of the night, you need not worry that you might wake up other members of your household or even your neighbors.

  • They often have a transposition feature. Now this is what I like about digital musical instruments because I always hated having to manually transpose a tune. With this feature, you could play a tune in a convenient key but actually heard in another.

  • They almost always include an audio output. This eliminates the use of microphones when recording your music and the problems associated with them like feedbacks and noises. This greatly simplifies the recording process.

Some of the features may or may not be included in some models. Just ask your music dealer about them.


I can not say much about acoustic pianos. But this does not mean that I am bias about digital pianos. Acoustic pianos also have advantages over the digital piano. Foremost of them is the sound quality. Experts will definitely argue that the acoustic piano sounds infinitely better than its digital counterpart. The reason for this is that there are crucial physical and mathematical aspects of an acoustic piano that are difficult if not impossible to accurately duplicate in digital format.

An example is when the damper pedals are depressed, the keys that are not struck vibrate sympathetically when other keys are struck. This have the effect of having a fuller more resonant sound in acoustic pianos. (Although, as mentioned earlier in this article, progress is being made in digital music to emulate sympathetic vibrations.)

Another aspect where acoustic pianos are better than digital ones is its unlimited polyphony. Polyphony refers to the number of notes that can sound simultaneously. Digital pianos have limited polyphony which tend to become a problem when executing complex and thick passages especially if the damper pedals are depressed. (Digital piano polyphony ranges from 32 to 120 notes. But of course, progress is also being made to extend this limit.)

Furthermore, acoustic pianos doesn't need electric power to function. So you can still enjoy playing your instrument even when there is no available electrical power. In our village in the Philippines where power outages often occur, this aspect proved to be important.

Lastly, acoustic pianos generally last longer. (Although some may argue otherwise) I once came across a hundred-year-old piano and it is still playable. The reason is that even old and worn out pianos can be reconditioned by replacing a number of parts, and may be made to sound as good as new pianos. Although older pianos tend to sound warmer. I don't know if the same can be said about digital pianos. Technology progresses at a fast pace. This sometimes is a disadvantage. To accommodate the manufacture of newer chips, they may stop making the older models. For example, if you bought a synth 20 years ago, chances are it would be difficult for you to find spare part now, or even a technician who knows the technology. You end up buying a newer model.

I hope this article will help you in deciding what instrument you would choose - digital or acoustic piano. Whatever choice you make, I hope you enjoy making music with your preferred instrument.

Free Shipping on orders over $99.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Doogie Howser Theme, My Own Version

When I featured My 10 Best MIDI TV Themes, I mentioned that I was going to publish my own version of the Doogie Howser Theme due to my inability to download a good version from the Internet.

Now here it is at last! The music by the way was written by Mike Post. Play it on Yamaha XG for best result. Enjoy!

Doogie Howser Theme (listen)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Using the Casio CTK-800: Problems in accessing the panel sounds through MIDI Part II

I spoke too soon when I said earlier that there was no way to access the CTK-800's panel sounds (see here). It was there in the manual all the time and I didn't find time reading it. The appendix of lists all the instrument's sounds with their corresponding Program Change and Bank Select MSB values. For example, to select 000-Stereo Grand Piano, you have to send the Bank Select MSB value of 2 and Program Change value of 0 to the keyboard. How? Well, you need a software that could handle the task. The basic Anvil Studio package does not provide a way, although I think, you can buy additional accessories that could provide Anvil with this functionality.

This brings me to the most common (and some consider it the best) sequencing software available. I am talking about Cubase, of course. In this article, I will discuss briefly how to set the Bank Select MSB values and Program Change values using Cubase in relation to the Casio CTK-800 keyboard.

Hello world, again!

This is a continuation of my blog from You may visit that site if you want to see my previous posts.