How to Make Midi Files Sound Better on Windows

Last Updated January 25, 2022 by . First Published in 2012.

MIDI Files are a form of music akin to sheet music. Individual notes are stored rather than the sounds they make.

How to Make Midi Files Sound Better on Windows

MIDI is a technical standard that describes a communications protocol, digital interface, and electrical connectors that connect a wide variety of electronic musical instruments, computers, and related audio devices for playing, editing, and recording music.

MIDI files store the individual notes much like sheet music shows the what notes to play and in what order. MIDI files do not have a say in how the music is played or what it sounds like, unlike WAV and MP3 in which the actual waveform is stored. MIDI files were commonly used as game soundtracks in the 80's and 90's due to their small file size. A tune that is 5 minutes in length could be 2k as stored in MIDI, or 5-6MB as an MP3. When CD audio became common on multimedia PC's, and with later storage capacity increases, MIDI files fell out of popular fashion in favour of CD quality audio.

Since MIDI files store what notes to play, they can be edited in a MIDI editor. This allows musical compositions to be edited, change effects, change key or tempo. You can change the instrument, for example a piano to xylophone. This is all impossible to do with a WAV or MP3.

MIDI files require the use of a synthesizer to convert the musical notes into something you can listen to. Various different platforms and hardware have different synthesizers, which means the same MIDI file played on one device could quite possibly sound different on another device. To solve this there are a set of standard synthesizers that systems use. A synthesizer contains a digital audio recording of all the instruments in the MIDI standard at specific octaves. The synthesizer will use these recordings to convert the MIDI notes to audio.

The Synthesizer built into Windows called "Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth" and is quite basic. You can hear an example in the video file recording of MIDI at the end of the article. Another well known synthesizer is the "YAMAHA XG SoftSynthetizer".

We can change how the MIDI sounds by changing the recordings used to generate the audio. We can do this by loading a SoundFont into the synthesizer so it will use a different set of note recordings. Some SoundFonts contain all the instruments (general SoundFont) or they can provide updates to specific instruments or provide highly specialized instruments, such as replacing organs with more piano types, or special effects, drum kits and so on.

Some advanced Sound Cards (such as my SoundBlaster AWE 64 Gold) have a dedicated hardware MIDI synthesizer into which you can upload a SoundFont. You can also use a SoundFont synthesizer emulation program in Windows. Either way loading a SoundFont will improve the quality of MIDI files played using Windows.

For Windows we can use a tool called VirtualMidiSynth. This tool creates a new synthesizer in Windows into which you can load SoundFonts and use to play MIDI files at much greater quality.

Once you've finished installing VirtualMidiSynth, open the program's configuration. This is a window that will look something like this.

The first thing you must do is to change the "Default MIDI Out device (MIDI Mapper)" from Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth to CoolsoftVirtualMIDISynth.

Once that is done, we need to provide the program a SoundFont. You can find a list of SoundFonts on the CoolSoft website or you can Google them. Personally I prefer the SGM-V2.01 SoundFont. Don't forget to unzip the files. The SoundFont has a .sf2 file extension, not .zip or .7z.

Here is a comparison video showing the difference between Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth and SGM-V2.01 playing the same MIDI file.


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