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Old 2003-12-01, 21:58
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Meffy Meffy is offline
Join Date: Nov 2002
Posts: 571
Jeux pipe organ soundfont -- preliminary opinion

Dedication: My thanks to benwalker for bringing the Jeux pipe organ soundfont to my attention. *bow* I owe you a favor, sir, that I will probably be unable to repay. I hope my gratitude may be sufficient.

Righty, then! Here goes.

I've downloaded Jeux and installed it. My impression is mixed but for the most part favorable. Here are a few thoughts, with a disclaimer that I've barely played around with it so far.

Also, these comments address the out-of-the-box soundfont, without application of any of the alterations which the NN-XT provides. Please remember, I'm neither a pipe organ authority nor an expert at Reason. There are likely to be some blunders in here that will be obvious to those who know more about these subjects than I. Be kind -- correct me and I'll be grateful!

First, I love the price. How can you beat free and legal? My thanks go out to John W. McCoy for constructing this soundfont and releasing it to the musical public without charge. A splendid thing, that.

Second, a minor quibble. I can't say I was thrilled to have to download and install WinRAR to unpack the single file contained in the distrubution package. The description said the file as a self-extracting .exe file, which that wouldn't require an external decompresser to extract. Not so... at least, the downloads I saw were all for a .rar file, not a .exe file. I've no idea whether Mac users can decompress RAR archives; anyone here know? As there's a 40-day free trial period for WinRAR, this was (for a Windows user at least) no more than a minor annoyance, not a significant flaw.

Now, on to matters of greater import. How to use the soundfont? Easy. I hadn't used a soundfont before, but Reason's Fine Manual -- help file, actually -- told me the NN-XT is able to load an entire soundfont at once. (NN-19 can load just single samples, apparently. I didn't bother to try the 19, as XT does it better.)

Once the soundfont was loaded into an NN-XT, I was able easily to select from a long list of available registrations. (Not the kind that people argue over here on the forum. Registration is the pipe organist's term for a choice of which stop or stops -- which is to say, which rank or ranks of pipes -- to use for a given part in an arrangement. Sort of equivalent to a preset or patch on a synth.) The selection of registrations is good, providing a broad palette of sonic textures with which to work.

When I say "long list" I mean exactly that. There are 204 registrations in this font! With all those to choose from, it's hard to imagine a situation for which a casual to intermediate organist couldn't find a suitable timbre, or at the very least a good basis for building a custom-layered patch.

Sound quality next. Even before playing a note, one thing became clear just from glancing at the NN-XT remote's display. First, pitch manipulation is used extensively to map single samples across a wide span of pitch space. This is to be expected given that it is, after all, a free soundfont! It certainly saves bandwidth, disk space, and RAM too. A perfectly reasonable compromise; engineering of every kind is necessarily an exercise in tradeoffs.

In some registrations, the change in sound from one note to the next can be a little jarring as one sample is switched to another. This is probably more noticeable when noodling around on the keyboard testing things that it would be in performing an actual composition, but players ought to be aware of it.

It must be remembered that Jeux's sound won't -- can't -- be as authentic as a real pipe organ (of course!) or true "one sample per note per stop" emulators whose target audience is professional and serious amateur organists. It requires vast amounts of RAM to enable the fullest magnificence of such instruments, but just about any user of Reason (or owner of a Sound Blaster AWE, etc.) can enjoy the Jeux soundfont. As I said, this is a compromise that easily can be respected and lived with.

Having noted this, I began playing simple chord progressions and a melodic lines using a few randomly selected registrations. Didn't sound a bit like a pipe organ. And why would it? The samples in this soundfont contain just the generated sound itself, raw and unadorned. To sound right, something must be added -- a church!

Fortunately for us, every copy of Reason 2.5 comes with a selection of rack-mountable chapels, temples, churches, concert halls, cathedrals, and whatnot. The obvious and easy solution is to insert an RV-7000 between the NN-XT and the mixer. Voila! Instant and acceptably realistic church sound.

After tweaking the reverb's parameters a bit I found a setting that I could be happy with and played my test music again. Ahhh, infinitely better; pretty convincing for so simple a setup! It's safe to say that Diderik Buxtehude wouldn't have been terribly impressed. But I'm not Buxtehude. Heck, I'm not even P.D.Q. Bach.

While on the topic of added effects, I should mention that some bell sounds, sound effects, and similar non-pipe things are included along with the organ samples. In my opinion these sound best with far less artificially added reverb effect, or even none at all. Bells reverberate just fine on their own, and a Nachtigal (nightingale, or bird-song) just sounds bizarre with heavy reverb.

The velocity sensitivity of the Jeux "instruments" seems a bit extreme to me. I suppose this is to allow something similar to the swell effect, which allows the organist to open and close a set of shutters on an enclosure, to control the volume and apparent "distance" of the pipes inside. I'd rather use the modulation wheel for that, but this is a matter of personal taste. Using MIDI velocity to communicate this could take some getting used to, but it adds expressive capability that can be used to good effect by a creative player. In addition, a resourceful NN-XT user can do a great deal of tweaking, honing ane personalizing this and other such factors to suit.

Taste and preference come into play for my next comment: a number of the voices were, to my ears, rather harsh or overly breathy. This is not a criticism per se, more of a value judgement. The pipe organ is after all a pneumatic-acoustic instrument. Many real-world instruments are indeed heavy on the chiff and general labial noise.

I did run into what appears to me to be a problem. Don't know whether this amounts to a complaint about the soundfont's construction or just my lack of knowledge of how the NN-XT works; could be either. (I tend to prefer synthesis over sample-playing, and don't use Reason's sample-based playback units nearly as much as the units that generate sound 'from scratch.')

Out of the selection of registrations I've tried so far this occurred in the 8' Krummhorn and 8' Cromorne (two closely related voices, both of which are imitative of the same instrument: a medieval double-reed woodwind instrument with an up-curved, or 'crumpled,' cylindrical tubular body; it's notable for its nasal, penetrating, razzy tone). I've noticed similar effects in one or two other voices the names of which I didn't write down, and still more might have the same trouble; I haven't had time to test all of Jeux's 204 registrations thoughout their entire tonal range, and am unlikely to manage that feat any time soon if at all.

The trouble seems to be that the loop points are misplaced. When certain notes are played, there is a rapid, distinct, and to me annoying "blipblipblipblip" burbling effect, that repeats as long as a note is held. Other notes (using other samples for the same registration) don't display this problem.

Eventually I'll just have to learn more about the NN-XT -- it could well be that a little adjusting can eliminate this. If any of you Reasoners happens to own some other program or device that can play back sound fonts, you might want to try these two Jeux voices to see whether it's a Reason-only issue or whether it affects all programs that use this soundfont.

It's also possible that there are actual real-life Krummhorn stops that exhibit this behavior. Being less than expert in this area, I can't say, but it certainly sounds wrong to my naive ear. That it occurs with some samples but not others leads me to believe it is in fact an error.

[After further testing I can report that the Viola 4' voice shows a very rapid burbling effect that might have the same cause, or might just be an intentional tremulant; I can't tell. Registrations that include the Viola 4', such as the Quintadena 8' Viola 4' and the Viola 4' Principal (positif) 16' + 4', also have this effect. The Cromorne 8' Viola 4', the Viola Celeste 4', and the Basse de Cromorne 8' sound especially broken to me.

Jeu de Cromorne does not seem to suffer from the burbling, apparently being composed of different samples. Likewise, Krummhorn 8' + 1-1/3' sounds fine to me from a quick first inspection.

I'll keep with this in a systematic manner and try to take notes more conscientiously while going along. After examining all available registrations I'll contact the soundfont's author to ask about this.]

Here's an item that strikes me as odd: a number of the voices contain lone mutation stops. These stops -- the Neuvieme 8/9', Larigot 1-1/3', Tierce 1-3/5', Nazard 2-2/3' -- produce tones that are not related by even harmonics to the fundamental pitch, but which play notes offset by some non-octaval interval from the key you play: a third or fifth, for instance. My understanding is that these are ordinarily used in conjunction with the 8' (fundamental), 4', 2', 1', and/or 16' pipes to add a lively, non-harmonic coloration to a registration's timbre; each note achieves something of a chordal quality.

Playing mutation stops independently of a fundamental sounds to my ear very odd, and of course they play the "wrong" note of the scale. As I am no expert either on pipe organs or NN-XT usage, this could just be my ignorance.

Thinking of the mutation stops as potential building blocks for constructing combinations is probably the best approach. I'd be pleased to hear from more knowledgeable users how these stops could be combined with existing harmonic-series stops in a way similar to that used by real-world pipe organists, if that's feasible. (That is to say, without extracting samples and re-layering them to make new combined registrations, which would be far too laborious for what I have in mind.)

The points I raised above are comparatively small. By and large the Jeux soundfont strikes me as an excellent addition to any musician's virtual studio. For no money at all, you can have a musical instrument that, were it a physical creation, would not only occupy a good part of a building, but also present immense problems in terms of cleaning and maintenance, temperature regulation, and so forth.

That's about it for the review proper. I'll certainly give each registration a little workout before long, though right now my main activity is with a high-end organ emulator in which every note of every stop is sampled individually and plays back with a high degree of authenticity, complete with the natural reverb provided by the church in which the samples were painstakingly recorded. It's a wonderful program; I'm both pleased and honored to be associated (in a very small, non-musical way) with its creator. Interested parties are invited to email me for details.

Next, some ancillary remarks.

To put the pipe organ into a modern context, one must remember that these instruments were, for centuries, perhaps the most complex machines made -- and that the pipe organ WAS the synthesizer of its time. No other instrument permitted so wide a selection of tonal qualities, reconfiguration as quick and easy as pulling out a stop, while providing such superbly expressive effects as tremulant and swell.

Now, some readers may be thinking that the pipe organ has no place in music composed for non-religious, non-classical venues. After all, it's tonewheel and electronic organs, synthesizers and samplers, that are mainstays of jazz, rock, and pop music, right? It would be easy to think that's all there is to it... but think again.

The progressive rock group Yes incorporated the sound of the pipe organ into several pieces. Just off the top of my head, Parallels (on "Going For the One") and Vevey (two sections of which are on the Yesyears collection) come to mind, and I suspect there are others. The pipe organ's powerful sounds helped Keith Emerson to create such sonic tours de force as Tarkus, Pictures at an Exhibition, and The Three Fates. I'm sure there are many other examples; those are just the ones that my somewhat eccentric memory tossed out this time.

True, I am a "vintage" skunk, a lover of progressive rock and related styles (though certainly not to the exclusion of other genres). The examples I provide are necessarily taken from one of my areas of greatest musical enthusiasm. Can pipe organs lend their classic tonalities to more contemporary genres of music? I couldn't say. You, the younger Reason users, who are familiar with these genres, can perhaps answer this question. If your answers were to take the form of musical compositions, few things would please me more.

Then again, we shouldn't write off the baroque and classical repertory. One of my early favorites, Virgil Fox worked wonders bringing many pieces, both the spectacular and the meditative, to younger audiences back in the 1960s and '70s. His showmanship and willingness to indulge in attention-getting gimmickry earned him the opposition of some more serious-minded performers. But without his theatrics, thousands of listeners might never have heard of Bach -- much less of Pachelbel, Clarke, Praetorius, Mascagni, Albinoni, Massenet, or Cadman.

Before closing I ought to mention that Mr. McCoy has written a good deal of commentary on a spectrum of musical and organ-related topics, which you can read on his Jeux web page. You'll find a good deal of food for thought there. My thoughts are for the most part rather closely in tune with his, at least on the subjects he treats in the mini-essays on that page. Good reading even if you don't agree with all his points.

Courtesy of John McCoy and his Jeux soundfont, a world of brand new antique sounds awaits those who would like to try their hands at becoming virtual pipe organists. Who's up to the challenge? Will it be you?

(More will come later, as I find enough time more fully to explore this interesting soundfont.)

Download free 'Jeux' pipe organ soundfont here