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What, exactly, are SoundFonts? Well, they're simply .wav file samples that have been transformed by a SoundFont editor, such as Vienna, into MIDI-controllable instruments which can be loaded onto your soundcard and triggered by your sequencer. They're also referred to as .sf2 files, patches or programs, and they're generally put together in groups known as SoundFont Banks, which can contain definitions of up to 128 instruments and one drum set.

Basically, the SoundFont-compatible soundcard is a low-cost sampler within your PC. A Sound Blaster Live! may not be as sexy as a rack-mounted Akai, but technology has significantly narrowed the gap between the two in terms of sampling functionality and quality. In fact, the sound quality of a well constructed .sf2 file can be just as good as any 16-bit sampler, and you don't have to squint at a tiny LCD display to get it working.

To get started in the world of SoundFonts, you will need a SoundFont-compatible soundcard. There are many cards that are able to use .sf2 files, but the way they handle them varies from card to card. The AWE-32 Value Edition, for example, has 512Kb RAM in which to store SoundFonts. This can't be expanded and isn't really enough to be suitable for the desktop musician. The AWE-32 also comes with 512Kb RAM as standard, but this can be expanded to 32Mb RAM using two 16Mb 30-pin SIMM RAM blocks. The basic 512Kb on the AWE-64 can also be expanded with a special Creative Labs memory card, bringing the capacity up to 24Mb.

The Sound Blaster Live! handles SoundFonts in a different manner altogether. It doesn't use RAM on the card itself, but instead utilises up to 32Mb of the host computer's RAM. However, there are those who feel, albeit slightly unfairly, that the Live! series is primarily designed for gamers, so if you have a more flexible budget, you might consider the E-mu APS. This is a more professional card, with a range of DSP effects and up to 64Mb of SoundFonts using the host computer's RAM.

Another must for getting the most out of your SoundFonts in terms of expression, is a velocity-sensitive MIDI controller keyboard. Prices range from £50 to £2,000. As with everything, it's a question of what you actually feel you need.

When you're making a SoundFont, the quality of your original .wav file is very important. A poor quality .wav will make a poor quality SoundFont. Record it as cleanly as possible and ensure that it is normalised. Be careful to avoid clipping as obviously this will transfer to the SoundFont, so keep an eye on those levels. If, when editing the SoundFont, you find it contains popping or distortion, then it will more than likely be a problem with the original .wav. At this early stage it's worth going back and starting again. It's also essential to make sure that your .wav is correctly tuned. There's no way a sample recorded in G# can be placed at C and be expected to sound right. Always have a sample that you know is in the relevant key, or if you have a keyboard, use it to check everything's hunky-dory.

Most important of all is the SoundFont editor. By far the most functional is Vienna 2.3. Vienna may seem daunting at first, but once you understand the principles behind it, it's a doddle. Then there's Wien (which can be downloaded from www.mzone.dk which is more of a 'drag and drop' application and, therefore, more instantly appealing. It doesn't, however, support the Sound Blaster Live! cards.

SoundFonts are simply .wav file samples that have been transformed by a SoundFont editor, such as Vienna, into MIDI-controllable instruments which can be loaded onto your soundcard and triggered by your sequencer. They're also referred to as .sf2 files , patches or programs.

Using your new instruments
When your SoundFont is loaded into your soundcard (or RAM), it's ready to be accessed from your sequencer just as if it were the General MIDI soundset. However, the various different sequencers handle this process differently. Cubase, for example, has an internal SoundFont manager, but most still rely on the Bank Select and Program Change method. This approach selects a sound from your sequencer by sending two MIDI controller messages to your soundcard: Bank Select and Program Change. The first command defines which Bank the SoundFont you require resides in, and the second chooses the SoundFont itself from that bank.

From your sequencer, the first step is to determine the MIDI channel the SoundFont is to play on. It's no good sending the MIDI commands on channel 1 and expecting them to appear on channel 8 - computers are funny like that. Next, you need to access the List Edit (or your sequencer's equivalent) which will allow you to input your MIDI commands. The first command is MIDI controller 0 (Bank Select) which determines the bank you wish to access. With some sequencers, however, it isn't as straightforward as just entering the bank number; yours may require you to multiply the number of the bank you want by 128. So, for Bank 001 you would have to use Bank Select 128, for Bank 002 you would use Bank Select 256, for Bank 003 it would be Bank Select 384, and so on. However, before you all rush for your calculators, most sequencers will do the maths behind this 'under the hood', so you shouldn't have to worry about it.

It's also important to remember that on most soundcards, the GM soundset occupies Bank 0. On the Sound Blaster Live! this is referred to as 'Synth'. Next, you need to select which program within the Bank you want to use. If, for instance, you wanted to access 'Acid Bass', which is the sixth patch in your bank, you would send the MIDI command Program Change 6. There, that was easy, wasn't it?

Now that you've accessed the instrument you want from your sequencer, it can be played and edited in the same way that a General MIDI voice can. It will respond to Controller Changes such as Modulation, Velocity, Pitch Bend, Filter Cutoff and Filter Resonance. Besides editing and applying filters to the instrument in your sequencer, it's also possible to tweak your instrument's parameters within a SoundFont editor. The whole process of this, and constructing a .sf2 is covered in the walkthroughs over the next few pages.

Building a good quality SoundFont takes time and patience. Initially it may seem like a long and complicated process, but once the basic technique has been mastered, the only thing limiting the sounds you create is your own imagination. After a while you'll begin to wonder why you spent so much time searching the net looking for that sample, when all along you were able to create something much better yourself.

The future of SoundFonts
If nothing else, they'll soon be bigger!

If there's one thing certain about computer music technology, it's that it's moving forward at a frightening rate. To anyone who recalls the Fairlight CMI from the 80s (a hulking machine costing a whopping £60, 000, offering one and a half seconds of sampling time), the fact that a £50 computer sound card now offers much more and with far less programming effort seems like an incredible leap forward. So can the SoundFont go any further? One thing that we know for certain is being looked into is the amount of SoundFonts that can actually be held in the host PC's RAM. This is probably because EMU's drivers for the APS soundcard are soon to be made compatible with the Live!, and as the APS can hold 64Mb, this will probably also become the case with the Live!. Expect that sometime in the Spring. There are also rumblings on the web that there's soon to be a utility designed to transmit SoundFonts to samplers with all the edited information intact.

Could this soon be a thing of the past

So where can I find SoundFonts?
Aside from the various commercial offerings out there, such as WaveIt, the net is brimming with SoundFonts. Just type 'SoundFonts' into your search engine and see how many headers it returns. The Lysator Academic Computer Society of Linköping University, Sweden (ftp.lysator.liu.se/pub/awe32) offers a massive selection, and all of them are free for download! Almost all of the commercial sites selling SoundFonts offer free demos. Sonic Implants (www.hruskaudio.com/ freesoundfonts.htm) regularly change their demo files and their compilation CDs are reasonably priced. Then there are all the privately owned sites offering free .sf2s. Remember to always read the accompanying text files, as these contain all the relevant copyright information and let you know exactly how they can be used. After visiting all these sites you might well find that your hard drive is cluttered with SoundFonts. Check out sfArk (www.melodymachine.com/ sfark.htm) - a SoundFont compression utility which, unlike the lossy compression used in formats such as MP3 or Real Audio, preserves the quality of the SoundFont. They also offer a good selection of SoundFonts.

Constructing a Soundfont with Vienna: 1-18
Loading SoundFonts into your SoundBlaster Live!
Getting to your Soundfonts in Cubase

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