by Eric Keller

December 1, 2017, updated May. 11, 2018

(This article also appears on the support page of www.synthfont.com/TutorialX.html/TutorialX.html.)

I am an apprentice composer and I use SynthFont2 together with the EastWest music database in order to get my initial compositions into public view. I want people to listen to my compositions, even download the audio files, the midi files and the music sheets. All this is done on a single computer at a reasonable cost.

If you have the time, please have a look around this website and see what I consider essential for promoting my initial steps in music composition. All that you can see on this site was created on just a single, fairly powerful computer. While I do have a MIDI piano, in theory you could even do your sound inputting entirely on-screen.

Some composers do not need a studio – at least when they start up. They compose their music in a music composition program (like the freeware MuseScore2 program), and then they build a credible music output with a high-quality music synthesis program. All this can now be done at a very low cost – once you have your initial, fast computer. This is a high-efficiency approach to creating a set of initial music pieces that are needed to break into the tough music world.

Doing it alone

Can you or should you do it all alone? Before delving in, let's just check out this question.

The first issue is the level of quality required for your project. Recordings that should go on a label for commercial distribution require exceptional sound mastering. That level of quality is simply out of consideration here. In this article we concentrate on excellent quality recordings that you might put on your personal website, submit to your teacher, or send to a potential employer.

The second consideration is the computing equipment at your disposal. Speaking for Windows here, we will require for the solution proposed below, an internal acoustic line built into the computer called "Digital Video Recorder" or "Line In"  / "Line out" -- or another means of recording internal sound from the computer. It so happens that the "Line in" solution has become elusive on Windows 10. I've seen smaller and lighter Intel computers that do not have this capability. So unless you organize some other means of recording the internal sound from Windows 10, the solution proposed below will simply not work. (Please check your computer before reading much further.)

Here is an article that deals specifically with this issue: http://www.betterhostreview.com/record-internal-sound-windows-10.html. Solutions at a reasonable cost are offered by the Aiseesoft Screen Recorder or the Replay audio programs from the Applian Technologies group.

And finally comes your level of technical wizardry. The solution below requires a bit of technical application. Recording and distributing your work has traditionally been done by studios, agencies and record companies. In order to make money in a diminishing record market, these places are now concentrating on musicians that can give them “big sales world wide”. Individual musicians or composers that do not fit into their mould currently find it very hard to break into a commercially interesting scene.

But there are some of us creating music in low-budget modes, and we also want to be heard.

The alternative to the “studios” is to do it all by yourself. This can be done, but it is not always easy. If you find writing music is hard, getting it “published” online in a concrete, visible manner may well prove to be yet harder. In my experience, only persons equipped to withstand long hours of banging their head against the wall are likely to succeed in going the path entirely alone. All along, technical incompatibilities can cause frustrating and often longish delays.

I have done it that way, and this is why I am writing this introductory tutorial. If you've looked around this website you understand why. My music is not at all in the popular mode, I am not overly rich, and hardly anyone knows my work. I simply had no choice.

Equipment

Here is what you need:

  1. MuseScore2 for writing my compositions (free). It has everything that a beginner composer needs. I am very happy with it. https://musescore.org
  2. SynthFont2. Not entirely free but one of the best long-term investments ever. A very powerful and sophisticated program from Kenneth Rundt. http://www.synthfont.com.
  3. loopMIDI. Microsoft has taken internal midi processing out of the last few generations of Windows platforms. Thank goodness, there has been Tobias Erichsen who has dedicated years of free programming for providing one of the best possible solutions to this huge disgrace by Microsoft. Get this free program from https://www.tobias-erichsen.de/software/loopmidi.html.
  4. The way I understand it, you also need to install virtualMIDI to make the loopMidi program work. This free program is maintained by Claudio Nicola, another dedicated programmer that we are very grateful to. Find it here: http://coolsoft.altervista.org/en/virtualmidisynth.
  5. Then you need a music synthesizer which goes way beyond a soundfont in terms of quality and variety of instruments. Here you have a certain choice. A few years ago, I chose the Garritan database as the best bang-for-the-buck program. It was a good choice at the time, but the database itself as well as the control program had their limitations. In 2016, a large portion of the EastWest database has suddenly become available to the world with their $25-per month subscription program, which makes it $300 a year. (Ok, in Europe they will charge you 25 Euros per month). EastWest is the big player on the block. At 300 somethings per year, you've got access to the most sophisticated music synthesis program under the sun. After having worked for a few years with lesser offerings, there is no question in my mind that this was a deal that I could not avoid. You can get signed up here: http://www.soundsonline.com. Look for “composercloud”.
  6. Finally, you need good and trusty Audacity, your free audio processing program from https://sourceforge.net/projects/audacity/files/.

Overview All-In-One ComposingLet's put it together

My basic chain is this:

Stage 1: Composing with MuseScore2

Stage 2: MIDI Control with SynthFont2

For the SynthFont2 → EW Play link, you need to install loopMIDI and virtualMIDI. Restart your computer after the installation. You may wish to reserve 3-4 MIDI channels at computer start-up, but don't worry, you can always change it later with the loopMIDI task tool. From now on, your computer will maintain these MIDI channels.

You may wonder whether you need to change the MuseScore2 instruments for outputting at this stage. The answer is basically no. Obviously you need to respect the tone limits of your intended instruments as you compose, but the final instrument choice will only be made at the EW Play stage. For example, you can do all of your composing with the MuseScore2 pianos (which sound a lot better than the violins), and end up using violins at the EastWest Play stage.

Load your midi file into SynthFont2. You can play it in the usual way using a soundfont. To channel the output to the EastWest Play program, select your midi channels with the “MIDI Out” button on the task bar. You will see that the loopMIDI ports are available.

Once you've made your assignments, save your setting as an “Arrangement” in the File menu. The SynthFont2 program will remember the place where your midi file resides as well as your settings.

SynthFont2 display

Stage 3: Virtual Instruments with EastWest Play

EW_PlayDisplay.jpg

Stage 4: Record and Use Effects with Audacity

The EW VST

When you install the EW Play, it also deposits a 64-bit VST in this location: C:\Program Files\vstplugins. It's called play_VST_x64.dll. Wouldn't it be a great idea to load this into SynthFont2 or into some other Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) program like Ableton Live? This would avoid all the internal re-cabling, and it would let us work with a single, powerful DAW program. The EW VST has all the features of the EW Play program, minus some input-output capacity.

Sounds good, but reality has taught me otherwise. First SynthFont2 can currently only work with 32-bit VSTs, so the SynthFont2 idea is excluded as a VST host for the moment.

Then, my own experiences with plugging the EW VST into Ableton Live 9 (which supports 64-bit VSTs) have been consistently disappointing. With the help of support at EastWest, I was able to get their VST working within Ableton Live, but Ableton's input-output support of the VST is very limited: you have to set up the EW VST before loading in the midi file and then you can no longer change the setup parameters while the audio is playing.

Also, Ableton Live is not only relatively costly, but also rather complex. It took quite a bit of time to learn to set up everything correctly, with sound going in and coming out in the expected fashion.

Furthermore, the MIDI file handling in Ableton Live is, shall we say, "circumscribed" -- no trace of the explicitness of SynthFont2.

Altogether, using EW inside Ableton Live has been very time-consuming and has not been a very flexible and agreeable experience for me.

The setup I describe here using the standalone Play is not only much cheaper but also much better, because you can change the instrument parameters in EW Play easily without changing the basic setup -- even while the audio is being played. This makes for fast adjustments. There is a mixer and there are loads of parameter adjustments in EW Play, so you can experiment for hours with with different instrumentation for the same composition, till you get the best possible sound. For us picky and cheap all-in-one composers, this is just the perfect setup.

Finally, I asked EW if they were planning to add a MIDI input and an audio output to EW Play, and the answer was negative. They said “Play is just a software built to load up the instruments. We are continually working to improve it, but the focus is more on the functionality of it as a software instrument to be integrated with a DAW for recording/mixing/mastering, rather than trying to do everything. DAWs just have so much more development/staff/time/money invested in that side of things.” (answer received in November 2017).

Absolutely, but then the VST – DAW interface must also be able to support strong interactive work, and so far, I haven't seen that.

Processing Effects Caution

With all the wonderful processing effects that are now available, one is tempted to “perfect” one's creations with compression, high/low filtering and reverberation. However, the expert consensus opinion suggests great caution, particularly when dealing with high tones in flutes, piccolos and voices.

For example, the very high soprano singing found in my “Goodnight Hymn” did not permit any effect processing because of the digital sound resampling performed in the subsequent m4v conversion needed for the video version. Sometimes I've found it useful to “fatten” lower tones of pianos a bit, but I leave high tones unaffected. The EastWest engineers have done a good job of providing high-quality sound directly from their database, even for the hard-to-handle high tones.

For the Lazy all-in-one Composer

And here is a script to launch all the three processing programs in one fell swoop. Save it as a batch program, e.g. as “LaunchSF_EW_AUD.bat”:

@echo off
cd "C:\Program Files (x86)\SynthFont2\"
start SynthFont2.exe"
cd "C:\ProgramData\East West\"
start play_x64.exe
cd "C:\Program Files (x86)\Audacity\"
start audacity.exe

Summing up

I am very pleased with the current situation of all-in-one composing. After years of feeling excluded from the best possible music production possibilities, just because I could not afford certain top-notch programs, the current situation has suddenly changed. As a simple composer, equipped with a few key programs, I can now build truly credible, possibly even impressive pieces of music with the very best virtual orchestras in actual existence. It's a great moment to do some serious composing.