Though no longer as popular a sample format as it was just three years ago, the lowly SoundFont still has a strong legion of users worldwide sharing their home- made (or heavily borrowed) creations across the Internet. And why not? The format is lightweight, its files are relatively easy to create and edit, and it supports a broad range of extended MIDI control/FX parameters. At one time, SF support was a big consideration in the world of entry-level DAW users, principally due to Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! audio hardware (through Creative's acquisition of E- MU). Sequencing software like Cubase and Cakewalk featured embedded support of SF samples. However, with the advent of lower-priced, higher-quality audio interfaces from "pro" audio manufacturers, Creative products today occupy the realm of audio for "general- purpose computing." Standalone VST (as well as DirectX) instruments and samplers have now pushed the SF format into the margins of DAW production. Former SB Live and E-MU users may have moved on to newer systems from the likes of M-Audio, RME, Echo, and Aardvark, but many of these users still have a substantial library of SoundFonts. For example, I have a fantastic set of SF banks with tons of really "quaint," late-70s/early-80's patches taken from old Casio, Kawai, Korg, and Yamaha keyboards that are indispensable, as well as some very usable drum kits. What options are available today to those of us who wish to still use our old SF banks from time to time? Well-known VST Samplers like HALion and KONTAKT allow you to import SF banks, but these are sophisticated, feature-laden products priced in the $300 range and may be a bit of overkill on a limited budget. To address the gap between higher-priced, extended functionality and simple SF playback via VST hosts, some small developers have released standalone SoundFont players. These have typically been priced in the under-$50 range. I have tried a few and found the results highly variable. Some have difficulty playing back certain banks, some have relatively poor fidelity, and some suffer from inordinately high CPU usage or instability. Finding just a simple SF player in the form of a VST instrument that is inexpensive, lightweight, stable, and provides excellent sound quality has been extremely difficult. How about one that meets all those criteria and is FREE?
Meet sfz from RGC Audio. This little gem is the essence of elegant simplicity in functionality and form. It does one thing extremely well: plays SF2 samples with great fidelity and with absolute minimum fuss and overhead. It offers nothing in the way of bank-editing or other advanced features. sfz is a single, stereo- output VST instrument with no frills... save one... You can set the SF loading and playback to three different modes to suit your PC's capabilities: load the entire bank into memory, load just the current instrument into memory, or stream from disk.
I've used sfz quite often in Cubase SX, and it does the job perfectly. CPU load is quite low, and one can easily support multiple instances within a project without a big performance penalty. I found sound quality to be outstanding with the fewest amount of playback irregularities or artifacts I've ever encountered among simplified SF-compatible VST instruments. But what if you need more playback or editing options? After you use sfz, you may want to take a look sfz+, a $60 upgrade with expanded capabilities: multiple outputs, filters, modulation, envelope generators, effects, and the ability to save to standard FXP banks. I haven't tried sfz+ yet, but given how well sfz handles the bare-minimum requirements for simple playback and ease of use, it's definitely worth checking out the demo version.