why do rock MIDIs sound so bad?

I love MIDI files as I use them to practice my guitar and piano skills. But rock MIDIs always sound as if they are being played by a blind beggar with a cheap Yamaha organ on my local street corner. Oddly, jazz piano MIDIs (at least to my uneducated ear) sound OK

Now I can guess some possible reasons - guitar sounds not accurately represented, poor transcription by the author. But is there any fundamental reason why a MIDI couldn’t sound better?

It depends on your sound card and software. Most sound cards don’t have good MIDI patches for drums, they sound tinny. That’s why rock music becomes sucky.

MIDI’s usually imitate a musical instrument by “building” the sound from single sine waves. This works fine for things like organs and, obviously, jazz pianos.

However, in real musical instruments there’s a whole lot more going on. The initial few milliseconds of a note (the “transient”) is very difficult to replicate even though it holds vital aural information. Real “rock” guitars use non-linear distortion which is also difficult to model using simple additive sine-waves.

Direct samples or some new methods of imitating instruments using physics equations can create more realistic tones, but involve their own problems such as memory/processor hogging.

      • MIDI can’t do guitar technique, and drums need to be played through big + powerful speakers to sound right.
  • As for any other problems, get yourself a Creative soundcard and download yourself some big soundfonts. A soundfont is something like a MIDI bank, but it is free of some of the technical restrictions and requirements they have. The Soundblaster Live 5.1 OEM costs all of $32 online now, we’re not talking a major purchase here. There is a soft synth that can play soundfonts but it suffers lag when playing in real-time, unlike the Creative cards. The SBL installs a 2, 4 and 8-meg general-MIDI soundfonts and defaults to the 4-meg, but you can get GM soundfont banks online over 150 megs, piano soundfonts over 75 megs just for a single instrument. These use real instrument samples for the entire tonal range, not synthesis of any kind. I typically run a 35-meg GM soundfont and one of a few favorite percussion soundfonts that vary between 10 and 25 megs, and then load other soundfonts as I need. Most every instrument imaginable has already been put into a soundfont, but if you can’t find what you need already made, you can download free software from Creative to edit existing soundfonts or create new ones from scratch–you can attach any sound to any MIDI note you wish, and vary the velocity/repeat/decay/let-off, as well as do multikey interactions individually for each sound/MIDI note. ~~~ The SBL isn’t the perfect sound card, but for $35 and all the free soundfonts you can download, it’s a great deal.
  • http://www.thesoundsite.net/ has the largest collection of free soundfonts, 2300+.

good advice Doug C and will try it. Does this mean that guitars actually sound like guitars witha sound font? I think Sentientmeat was right when they said it is difficult to reproduce the decay characteristics and distortion of a real guitar. I also guess that the timing is critical. Some playing is not exactly not quite on beat which sounds interesting (more than just syncopation, but I don’t know the right words), whereas most midi sounds too perfect

It all depends on the skill/perseverance of the guy who programmed the midi file, and the quality of sound generation at the other end. I’ve got a midi file of Wacko Jacko’s ‘Beat it’ which sounds completely crap on the $20 soundcard on my work machine, but is tremendous when played on a Roland JV2080 in GM mode through some studio monitors.

The three considerations are, in order of increasing importance;

  • The quality of your sound card, obviously.

  • A lot of the guitar sound, especially in rock, relies on effects such as distortion and reverb. Many sound cards don’t do these too well, if at all, or the midi author hasn’t used them effectively.

  • Most midi files, especially non-professional ones are created on keyboards. It’s not easy to get a genuine guitar ‘feel’ out of a keyboard, particularly if you are not a guitarist yourself. The best guitar midis are produced by guitarists with midi adapters.

In my experience it is the last that is the most significant, at least these days. Most sound cards produced now can mimic at least an acceptable, if not brilliant, guitar sound. But the problems of getting a pianist to sound like a guitarist will always exist.

This is why your jazz piano midis sound best.

Any brass fan will tell you that it’s also impossible to find a system that will reproduce the sound of a trumpet (or trombone or French horn) faithfully. Even if the transcription is perfect, every note ends up sounding exactly the same, which is very different from a real brass instrument, due to the fact that the brass player is constantly changing the shape of his mouth and the location of his tongue while he plays.

Indefatible, I did manage once to get a pretty faithful sound for a tenor horn (an instrument I used to play), but defintely not on MIDI. I constructed the waveform completely from scratch. I did also manage to construct a pretty good (maxium distortion)electric guitar sound on Fruity Loops.

Anything other than soft strings or piano, the only way to get a good sound is to either mess around with the waveform, cut-off, resonance, etc. or construct one completely from scratch. Also MIDI is generally rubbish, you need a powerful sampler that can import MIDI files.

MC: well, yeah. A waveform from scratch, or a sampled sound, would be the best that could be done. I still suspect that with any wind instrument, even if you have a single note that sounds good, making a whole melody with it would be weird because you miss the articulation.

When you say a tenor horn… is that one of those instruments that has a lot of different names? Is it that thing that looks something like a small tuba? (I think my highschool music teacher called it a euphonium.)

I think a tenor horn is sometimes called an ‘english horn’, it is even smaller than a euphonium (it has a natural key of Eflat compared to the trumpet/cornet’s key of Bflat), but is pretty much just a miniturised version of the Euphonium/Tuba.