Getting started with playing midi files?

I just got started learning to record audio in linux and man is it ever confusing.

It’s easy enough to plug in my audio interface, select it and start recording. I can add vocal and acoustic instruments this way, and also plug in the bass or electric guitar. Ardour works great for all that without any hassle.

I can even easily add midi drums by using one of the included drum synth things like black pearl or red zepplin. Awesome.

But, if I try to add any other midi files, like bass or keyboards, or play midi files with many instruments through the other included synth stuff, (I think I added a-fluid synth too at some point), they don’t work. From what I can tell they need a soundfont to work?

Could someone please point me towards a “getting started” guide for using these midi plugins? I don’t even understand how they work or what’s trying to happen here.

Using: Kubuntu 20 lts, Ubuntustudio version of Ardour 5

If you create a new MIDI track, the general MIDI synth should give you sound. Depending on the channel you select on the track, it will play back different sounds as listed in the synth window (that you can change to your liking). As you point out, the a-fluid synth requires you to select an SF2 file (google free SF2 soundfonts!).

For complex arrangements, you’ll want to set up a MIDI bus with synth and create as many regular MIDI tracks as you have instruments (with no synths!). Then you connect the output of each MIDI track to the bus (being sure to send the correct channel). For SFZ soundfonts I’ve had good luck with sfizz, liquidsfz and Sforzando via Wine/LinVST.

Others can probably amplify this. I have only used single channel SF2 and SFZ in my own workflow but what I propose with MIDI bus being fed by multiple MIDI tracks should give you what you are seeking.

Thanks, the default “reasonable” synth at least puts out some sound. I did search on the free soundfonts and didn’t find anything. I’ll keep looking. I’m guessing that’s probably what I need to make these midi files sound closer to the real thing.

As for the rest of that, unfortunately I didn’t understand it. I really need a newbie guide on all this talk of busses and how the tracks should be connected. It doesn’t seem like I should need to learn enough to be a studio engineer to make some recordings.

I’ll start searching on all those words you said. Thanks. :wink:

With the correct version of Ardour, the default synth is a General MIDI synth based on fluidsynth (a soundfont (SF2) player). This offers a “full range” of sounds as defined by the General MIDI standard, which is say adequate but never great. What version of Ardour are you using and where did you get it from?

I have a collection on my computer of about 1000 free soundfonts. They vary from awful to fairly good, but even the best ones rarely get close to the sound of whatever instrument they claim to be. They can be quite interesting for sound design purposes, where you use the soundfont as a starting point but transform it significantly with effects and so forth. If you actually want things that really sound like physical instruments, you will likely not find them among the set of free soundfonts.

It doesn’t seem like I should need to learn enough to be a studio engineer to make some recordings.

If that is actually your perspective, then Ardour is probably not the right program for you.

Until not that long ago, almost any audio recording would have involved an audio engineer whose job was completely distinct from that of the musicians. The explosion of different DAWs over the last 20 years (and notably, the ability of off-the-shelf computers to deal with realtime audio) has changed a lot of people’s expectations to be more like your own - “I shouldn’t have to learn much to do this”. Sadly, that approach completely underestimates the role of an audio engineer, a role that still exists today for many recordings even if lots of people are cutting tracks and even whole albums at home. Ardour is written from a perspective of audio engineering, not “I just want to do some recording and it should be easy and simple”. There are alternatives that lean more to toward the latter. However, be aware that in many cases, a month or three after using them, many musicians start looking for an alternative more like Ardour because they’ve begun to realize the true complexities and possibilties of the process.

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All MIDI-files need something that generates the actual sound.
When you import a MIDI file Ardour will set up the channel with the a-Reasonable Synth plugin and use that to make sounds as the notes are playing.
It’s uses a General MIDI soundfont so if your file uses a different instrument standard you may hear a violin where there should have been a snare drum, or something like that.

One buglet I found was that if you create a new MIDI track yourself it’s not connected to the Master bus by default. So even though you see the channel strip meters go up and down as you press the virtual keyboard you don’t actually hear anything.

I have a collection on my computer of about 1000 free soundfonts. They vary from awful to fairly good, but even the best ones rarely get close to the sound of whatever instrument they claim to be. They can be quite interesting for sound design purposes, where you use the soundfont as a starting point but transform it significantly with effects and so forth. If you actually want things that really sound like physical instruments, you will likely not find them among the set of free soundfonts.

General question from a newbie to the recording world: the amazing sounds you hear in the countless DAW tutorials and demos (not just Ardour) you can find online come from

nonfree soundfonts or
real (and possibly non-free as well) instrument samples?

In other words, is the synthesis technology to blame or the free soundfonts it uses?
(or perhaps is fluidsynth to blame and other synthesis approaches are much better?)

If you want really, really good sounding versions of traditional instruments, you will need some combination of:

  1. excellently recorded sample libraries. Excellent here means fantastic microphones, fantastic mic positioning, fantastic acoustic environment, sampling at many different sound levels, and more.
  2. a sample playback engine capable of using the sample library in a way that can map the subtleties of performance in a way that is close to what happens with the actual instrument
  3. physical modelling synthesis. This totally circumvents the need for samples at all, since instead the synth has a “real” mathematical model of how sound is generated and transmitted when the instrument is hit/plucked/bowed/blown.

The first two are not really the domain of free soundfonts (though there are a few exceptions for some specific instruments). Typically you need to use proprietary sample libraries and often a proprietary sample playback engine. Tools like Kontakt are famous for this sort of thing.

The third is not common. Pianoteq is the obvious “category standout” here - it models acoustic and electric pianos, along with a variety of other percussive instruments including the hung drum. Pianoteq generally receives extremely positive reviews from people with a lot of experience of actual pianos.

fluidsynth doesn’t play much of a role here - its limitations are more the limitation of the SF2 specification (hence proprietary library formats, and even SFZ which is a strange sort of midway point between proprietary and open). It is also absolutely the “prisoner” of the quality of the samples in the soundfont itself.

Of course, if you don’t care about sounding like traditional instruments, then there’s a whole world of sound available to you, and even the worst soundfonts can become the starting point for remarkable sounds and compositions.

ps, “real samples” and “soundfonts” are not distinct from each other. Any sample-based “synthesis” requires “real samples”. A soundfont (or a proprietary sample library format like the one preferred by Kontakt) is a way of organizing an (often large) set of samples for use as an “instrument” rather than just being a single shot sample.

pps. for some types of instruments, it has even reached the point where the best sample-based engines are type specific. The best string sample-based instruments are dedicated plugins/standalone programs with their own internal sample libraries and algorithms and sets of parameters. That’s not to say that you can’t get an acceptable version from a tool like Kontakt or even fluidsynth if you have a good soundfont/library, but lots of the little details that are specific to (say) a stringed instrument will he missing.

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I have not noticed this when testing Ardour.

Thanks for the great reply, Paul.

I was under the misguided assumption that soundfonts were not samples but synthesizes patches (if that’s the correct term. I’m referring to the kind of sounds you can produce with software like SuperCollider, which I’m more familiar with than Ardour).

For the sake of the argument, are there Ardour- (and linux-) compatible solutions if someone wanted to get as close as possible to real instruments? Are the Kontakt tools and samples available as (non-free, obviously) plugins?

Actual synthesizers … you don’t need to think about samples or soundfonts or fluidsynth or Kontakt. There are a reasonably large number of open source synthesis plugins available for Linux - others will need to comment on their favorites. You can also run SuperCollider and connect it to Ardour using JACK, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that for a beginner.

For “real” instruments, Pianoteq is available natively for Linux (as an LV2 plugin and JACK standalone application). There are no tools that can handle contemporary proprietary sample libraries such as those used by Kontakt, East-West and others (LinuxSampler was an attempt to do this with an much older proprietary sample library format). There are starting to be some not bad Linux-compatible players of SFZ (not SF2) soundfonts (sfizz comes to mind, but is under notable current development). Some of the SFZ libraries are very good. The very good ones, however, are not free, and there’s still more of a focus among people making high quality sample libraries to focus either on proprietary tools like Kontakt or to create their own playback engine.

Others might have different opinions.

Oh, whoops, big apology for not giving my versions, thought I had. I’m running Kubuntu 20 lts with the ubuntustudio-installer packages, minus the branding. So I seem to have the hilariously named:

Ardour 5.12.0
“Working Backwards”
(rev 1:5.12.0-3ubuntu4)

I should probably install the new version. Anyone know a good way to keep track of programs installed from source? I try to avoid it because they’re near impossible to uninstall.

Since you’re so familiar with the free ones, would you please recommend some of the better ones for a beginner?

I understand the role of recording professionals and I fully appreciate their talent. Maybe Ardour isn’t the tool for me, if it is intended solely for them. Is this true? But, I’m not seeing any other options in linux and I can’t bear the thought of ever going back to, ugh, windows.

Years ago we recorded on reel to reel tape machines and had to actually splice the tape when making edits. Home recording has come a long way. Last time I messed with it was around the turn of the millennium and I think I was using something called sonar.

It wasn’t simple or easy, ever, but it also wasn’t this opaque. Most of the guides for Ardour are from about four years ago. I am hopeful that this is changing with the exciting new release.

Okay, maybe I’m not a total noob to recording in general. But, I guess Ardour (this ubuntustudio version anyway) makes me feel like I am. ha

It wouldn’t take you long to get up to speed on Ardour and good engineering practices. There are good beginner books out there as well as YouTube tutorials on all sorts of topics. I’ve mentioned them elsewhere on this forum but the Sound-on-sound books by Mike Senior are excellent. Studying the Ardour manual and asking further questions as needed here would be a great start.

Thanks! That’s probably the source of my issues right there. I didn’t understand midi or how it worked and at all and I’ve never messed with midi files before. I’ve used drum loops in the past and that was easy.

I just heard about these realistic drums for midi and I got excited. Like, I can program realistic sounding drums? Incredible! That’s just amazing. I also hear there’s some other way by using the zynsubfx thing. Sounds even more advanced though.

But, the midi drums that come with Ardour are amazing. I don’t even need to figure out this drumgizmo now.

I thought, if the drums are this amazing and this easy… they must have done the other instruments too. I was wrong. Oh well. Maybe someday.

I think this happened to me when I was playing with it. I had to delete the file and start over to get back to normal. I wish there was a guide to how these connections work.

Thank you for the crash course. I learned a few things and it’s like the fog is slowly lifting. I had no idea midis were so complicated.

Thank you! Making a note. :smiley:

Yes! Absolutely. I learned how to code so, I can do anything. :wink:
Thanks for the author recommendation. Making a note of that too. :smiley:

Btw, You guys ever watch Glenn F-You Fricker? Stupid musician texts is so funny.

Yes, of course I will RTFM ASAP. :wink: :smiley: I have been checking it when I need something specific. I understand that just curling up with a good manual for several hours is the best medicine for these kinds of things. But, in my defense I have a ton of work lately and get less sleep than I should already with demanding hobbies like music. Arg, I’ll get to it. Thanks.

If you want a good introduction to Ardour, you might want to have a look at this Mixbus 5 tutorial from Groove3. Keep in mind that the Mixbus mixer section is different than Ardour’s, but the basics of recording (midi included) are the same. Also, check out Unfa’s Ardour channel on YouTube: https://youtu.be/UBQBOLuB8uQ

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