In the following article, I would like to introduce hardware and software synthesizers to you which I tested with my midi instruments.
I try not to focus on the development and functionality of synthesizers as there are loads of qualified pages dealing with this topic.
I rather point out aspects like
• playability/compatibility with my wind/breath controller
• sound and
Note: This is a subjective evaluation. So, go ahead and do testings yourself in order to build your own opinion on the topic.
There are tons of software synths, so you will find something for your taste. I’m a fan of natural sounds, so my focus lies on that feature and I’ve tested only the Synths that I had. If your interest lies more in synthetic sounds, may give other software synths like Thor propellerhead, Moog synths, NI or IK synths… a chance and check them out.
What is such a synthesizer for?
A midi instrument does not make sounds, but describes them. If a midi instrument does make an audible sound, a synthesizer is involved which converts the midi tone into a perceivable sound. I simply tell the synthesizer: play note C2 with a volume of x. Which instrument should be used can be set directly in the synthesizer. The instruments available are arranged in „banks“ or „positions“. These storage spaces can be seen as storage racks with corresponding parking spaces. Hence, I tell the synth to play my sound with the instrument which is situated in rack x on parking space y.
In my opinion, software synthesizers will dominate the future. These synthesizers are exclusively software-based and run on various devices (computer, laptop, tablet…) with different operating systems.
Later on I will also picture hardware synths, a turnkey solution that only requires plugging in the instrument and an amplifier (most of the time, this obviously is a computer with preinstalled software).
Now and then you will read about „patchman patches“ in this article (especially when I deal with hardware synths). Matt Traum creates sound patches that are specifically compatible with wind controller instruments. For more information about these patches as well as prices please go to http://www.patchmanmusic.com.
In my testings with different hardware and operating systems I found vast differences.
Some of the tested criteria were:
• Mobility: How light and portable is the device?
• Battery life: Is the device battery-operated and how long is the battery life?
• Power: Is the computing power sufficient when playing fast?
• Latency: How high are the latency periods of hard- and software?
Comparison: Operating systems
• iOS: What I really liked about the apple solution was the smooth and easy-to-handle UX. Turn on tablet – install software – connect flute via midi – play. No sound patching or MidiMapper installation and setting which is common for wind controller software synths on Windows.
• Android: Although I already tested it, I did not yet find a satisfying software for Android tablets. The sound is heavily delayed when using a wind controller, even though the tablet might be a titan with Quadcore CPU, 2 GB main memory…
• Windows: I tested some Win 8.1 tablets, but also here I did not find satisfying results. QSynth/Fluidsynth and sforzando player work on low-performance tablets, but become unstable when playing fast tempos. Most of the players are unusable on Windows Tablets, as most players suffer from old VST interfaces and minimalistic design, resulting in small display sizes without the possibility for enlargement. The handling including reading texts and changing settings becomes disappointing. Even resetting the screen resolution (if at all possible) does not improve the situation.
Using high-performance Windows Laptops with enough main memory, SSD and large screens definitely works better. I will come back to this topic later on. In some cases, the usage of a ASIO4ALL driver is recommended in order to lower latency periods.
• Linux: Very little experience with software synths for now…
Comparison: iPad/iPadAir apps
I would also like to share my experiences with iPad apps, again not testing the functionality of the software (please feel free to look it up), but focussing on the compatibility with wind controllers and my subjective perception of the standard accessory instruments.
All apps support midi, Virtual Midi, partially Midi via WiFi/Bluetooth. Newer versions can be used with a BluetoothBox without significant latency times. What bothers me the most (valid for all apps) is the tedious process of choosing the instruments. A screen for play mode without keyboard, but with a quick selection, favourites list and easy-to-access settings per instrument would be very helpful. Unfortunately, for now it is rather designed for keyboarders.
• MusicStudio: Offers a full-range music production environment including 118 standard instruments and further 60 instruments buyable via in-app purchase. The app is highly compatible with wind controllers, but some instruments sound very artificial.
A speciality I discovered: When using a wind controller followed by the use of a virtual keyboard, there is no sound anymore. There is no malfunctioning, you just have to turn up the volume of the track that is designated to the instrument. This is because the wind controller turns the volume to 0 after playing. MusicStudio recovers this setting, so there is also no sound after restarting the app.
All in all, you get a decent system with average instruments for € 20 (€ 14 for the app/€ 6 for additional instruments).
• ThumbJam: For about € 8, ThumbJam offers a great app with 40 very well sampled instruments. Additional instruments can be downloaded for free, but their quality differs widely. The sampled instruments provided by manufacturers sound perfectly fine, the other instruments sometimes tend to be artificial or faint.
Play fun is guaranteed: Great-to-handle app with loop feature. Own sampled instruments can be generated.
• My personal favourite – bs-16i: For € 7 you might „only“ get a multi membrane playback sampler, but a brilliant one. The app uses very little performance capacity of the iPad and loads of well sampled instruments are supplied which are highly compatible with wind controller data. Midi support and response behaviour is excellent. As special feature, you can load additional instruments into the app, with the sound format .sf2 and .smf.
Use the application GoodReader to unpack sound fonts and transfer them to one of four libraries in bs-16i. The app can be remotely controlled via Virtual Midi if I am not mistaken (testings tbd: switch of instrument via midi command…).
All in all a very sound system with a lot of play fun!
• SampleTank: I tested SampleTrack on an iPadAir. The usability on this device is excellent and most of the instruments sound appealing. The software can handle 8 multitimbral instruments (channels) concurrently at a polyphony of 140 notes. There is a test version with a reduced range of instruments. Later on I am going to test SampleTank on older iPad versions and will post the result here.
• Korg iM1: Description see at Korg M1 Edition for Windows. Your Instrument must have After Touch possibilitys cause Patchman Patches will not work without After Touch.
Comparison: Windows apps
• Kontakt-Player: This player comes from the software forge Native Insturments. There is a free version with a range of free instruments. However, only the full version is seriously interesting, becoming partially so expensive that it makes more sense to get the whole package. For more money you get significantly more value. For this player, there are excellent patches for wind controllers by Patchmanmusic.
In order to properly use the included instruments in Kontakt 5 with a wind controller, it is necessary to teach the instrument the cc2 command. Open the instrument, click on „cc2“ in the tab „Auto“ on the left side of the screen and drag and drop it on the volume control of the instrument.
In the free version you cannot save this setting, in the full version of Kontakt 5 you can. By pressing the left button next to the instrument description you open the settings menu of the instrument. Click on the floppy disc symbol to save, cc2 will be permanently assigned to the instrument (clicking again will get you back to standard view). In order to remove cc2 from the instrument, push the right mouse button while being on the volume control.
The „learn function“ definitely learns much, compared to the cc2 command, as some times it switches to cc5. If you follow the instructions above, you can set cc2 properly and the instruments are easily playable with a wind controller.
• SampleTank: The competitor of NI’s Kontakt Player, developed by IK Multimedia, is available in a free version with sample instruments. Also in this case, purchasing the full version is sensible, as single instruments are expensive in comparison. At the moment, the old version 2.5 is available for a reasonable price of € 75 and therefore is perfect for starters.
• Aria Player: This player is used by Garritan instruments. Personally, I think their sound is very artificial and the price is very high. At the beginning, the player had heavy latency problems, the newest version shows definite improvements.
• SForzando Player: Is the little brother of Aria Player and can be downloaded from the same website. There are sample instruments for testing and .sf2 sound fonts can be integrated. The player is relatively delayed on various hardware and does not save resources. However, this changes from release to release and has to be observed continuously. I recommend the ASIO4ALL driver.
• QSynth/Fluidsynth: Fluidsynth with its control interface QSynth is a free software synthesizer which can read .sf2 sound fonts. It is downloadable via Internet and contains quite useful instruments. If the playing tempo is not too high, this synth works quite well on low-performance Windows tablets.
• Korg M1 Softsynth legacy Edition: For $ 49 this is really a smash! This is the right thing for fans of the charm of 90ies‘ synths (incl. UX, which you get used to quite fast). After all, Softsynth is equiped with all instruments ever developed for M1 by Korg. Adding Patchman Patches for $ 99 which cover all 4 user cards of the Softsynth, you get a decent choice of 900-1000 instruments (I did not count them, approx. 3100 pre-sets). I guess everyone makes a find here. However, on the search for natural sounds, you will not get satisfied. I for myself found some decent sounds though. We played Softsynth with 4 wind controllers (with 4 midi-in) and it performed well. In the group, the instruments sounded ok. As far as I know, you can download a trial version of Korg. With the Korg M1 my old midi wind controllers, like Casio DH 100 and the Digital Trumpet, are working well. For newer equipment which cannot be switched to after touch, a MidiMapper has to be joined up in circuit. If you still don’t have enough, there are instrument banks to be loaded into Korg M1. This synthesizer is now available for iPad as Korg iM1 Edition for round about 29 Euro plus if needed 10 Euro additional instruments.
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Die Liste erhebt keinen Anspruch auf Vollständigkeit. Irrtum und Druckfehler vorbehalten.
The list is not exhaustive. Subject to errors and misprints.