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History

The original SoundFont 1.0 version of the file format was developed in the early 1990s by E-mu Systems and Creative Labs. A specification for this version was never released to the public. The first and only major device to utilize this version was Creative's Sound Blaster AWE32 in 1994. Files in this format conventionally have the file extension of .SBK.
The SoundFont 2.0 version of the file format was developed in 1996. The 2.0 format generalized the data representation using perceptually additive real world units, redefined some of the instrument layering features within the format, added true stereo sample support and removed some obscure features of the 1.0 version whose behavior was difficult to specify. This version was fully disclosed as a public specification, with the goal of making the SoundFont format become an industry standard. All SoundFont 1.0 compatible devices were updated to support the SoundFont 2.0 format shortly after the format was released to the public, and consequently the 1.0 version became obsolete. Files in this format (and all other 2.x formats, see below) conventionally have the file extension of SF2.
The SoundFont 2.1 version of the file format was introduced in 1998 with an E-mu sound card product called the Audio Production Studio. The 2.1 version added features allowing sound designers to configure the way MIDI controllers influence synthesizer parameters. The 2.1 format is bidirectionally compatible with the 2.0 format, which means that synthesizers capable of rendering 2.1 format will also by definition render 2.0 format, and synthesizers that are only capable of rendering 2.0 format will also read and render 2.1 format, but just not apply the new features.
The SoundFont 2.4 version of the file format was introduced in 2005 with the Sound Blaster X-Fi product. (There never was a 2.2 or a 2.3 version.) The 2.4 format added support for 24-bit samples. The 2.4 format is bidirectionally compatible with the 2.1 format, which makes it so synthesizers that are only capable of rendering 2.0 or 2.1 format would automatically render instruments using 24-bit samples at 16-bit precision.

Why using soundfonts?

Unless you are an avid computer musician, the most common response by people when they hear the phrase MIDI music is usually: Who still listens to MIDIs nowadays with audio CDs, MP3s and a host of other new formats for digitised music available?
Well, sometimes you just don't know what you're missing until you experience something better. Case in point: MIDIs are still used in some computer games and there are many MIDI musicians still creating interesting compositions and sound effects.
If you are one of the millions who own a Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live! Soundcard or one of its variations (SBLive! X-Gamer, SBLive! Platinum, SBLive! Value, Xi Fi...), the Merlin GM Soundfonts can be used to replace the standard 2-, 4-, 8MB Creative Soundfont that come with these cards. The Merlin Soundfonts include the standard 128 GM (General MIDI) instruments and several percussion kits.
The creators of Merlin Soundfonts tried to make the patchset to sound most real as possible, i.e., sound true-to-life, with great care to follow the balance of the Roland SoundCanvas and to ensure correct MIDI playback with nearly all types of music along with previously unheard warm/ambient sound from a GM Soundfont.

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General information about soundfonts and related utilities

What's the difference between a General MIDI (GM) soundfont and an non-GM soundfont? "General MIDI" means that the soundfont has all the sounds of the generally accepted MIDI standard group of instruments, which includes 127 different instruments. A non-GM soundfont is one that is perhaps a collection of specific instruments (eg, a collection of brass instruments, or various acoustic guitars) or of a specialized sound (such as a "pad" or mixture of instruments), and so does not include the entire set of GM instrument sounds.

What is sfArk? It's a lossless audio compression format optimized for SoundFont files. sfArk is free for non-commercial use. Programs to decompress sfArk files currently exist for Windows, MacOS X and Linux platforms. See Melody Machine for downloading, and more information. sfArk almost invariably outperforms typical compression programs such as WinZip and WinRAR - See their comparison.

What is SFPack? It's another compression format that is still used by some sites, but is no longer fully supported. You can still download the software from some websites so that you can unpack the soundfonts.

What is Vienna Soundfont Studio? It is a program that allows you to preview as well as "tweak" existing soundfonts, and also create your own soundfonts from audio file clips. Available for free download directly from Creative. You must have a soundfont-capable sound card to use Vienna Soundfont Studio.

What is Soundfont Librarian? It is a program that allows you to arrange the instruments of a soundfont into the order or "patch numbers" that you want. It will also allow you to create a "custom" soundfont, by copying instruments from other soundfonts into your "custom" font. By using the program this way, you can take various instrument sounds that you like from various fonts, and put them all together into one single "custom master" font that you might use most often. This can save you time when you set up your files, as well as memory when you load these fonts into your sound card or soundfont application. Available for download directly from Creative.

What do SF2, SBK, and SFZ mean? These are types of soundfont formats. SF2 and SBK are the most common, and are recognized by Vienna Soundfont Studio and Soundfont Librarian for manipulating soundfonts. SFZ format files require the SFZ player to use them.