rOpenSci | Read and Play Digital Music (MIDI) in R using the *fluidsynth* package

Read and Play Digital Music (MIDI) in R using the fluidsynth package

A few weeks ago, prof Matt Crump wrote a blog post in which he explores tools to handle MIDI data in R, in preparation for a cognition experiment that involves creating musical stimuli. In the article he ends up using a mix of external command line tools ffmpeg and fluidsynth and a python module.

This solution of course hurts my R soul: Invoking shell commands from R is unreliable and users are often unable (or unwilling) to install all kinds of extra software on their machine. Some tools may not even be available for all platforms, or create conflicts, or the user might not have permission to install software in the first place. So let’s see what we can do to improve the situation.

🔗 The ‘fluidsynth’ R package

FluidSynth is a widely used software synthesizer, and includes a neat C interface libfluidsynth. We created a new package with R bindings that allows for parsing, playing and converting midi in R without the need for external programs. You can install the fluidsynth package directly from r-universe:

install.packages('fluidsynth', repos = '')

On Windows and MacOS libfluidsynth is statically linked, which basically means it is already included with the binary R package. On Linux you may need to install libfluidsynth from your distribution; the package will automatically show you when to do so.

🔗 Example: parse MIDI data

Let’s start with reading a midi file to see what it contains. The midi_read function takes a path to a midi file as argument and returns a data frame with so called midi events:

my_midi <- demo_midi()
midi_df <- midi_read(my_midi)
    tick channel event          param1 param2
   <int>   <int> <fct>           <int>  <int>
 1     0       0 MIDI_SYSEX          9      1
 2     0       0 NA             555556      0
 3    80       0 CONTROL_CHANGE    121      0
 4    81       1 CONTROL_CHANGE    121      0
 5    82       2 CONTROL_CHANGE    121      0
 6    83       3 CONTROL_CHANGE    121      0
 7    84       4 CONTROL_CHANGE    121      0
 8    85       5 CONTROL_CHANGE    121      0
 9    86       6 CONTROL_CHANGE    121      0
10    87       7 CONTROL_CHANGE    121      0
# ℹ 23,001 more rows

Each row in the data frame represents an event, such as an instrument being configured or a note being played. The midi_df data frame has 5 columns:

  • tick - a relative timestamp
  • channel - on which channel (e.g for which instrument) does the event occur
  • event - the type of event: usually a musical note being played or controller change
  • param1 and param2: each midi event can take 2 numeric parameters. The meaning of these parameters depends on the type of event. For the common “note on” event, these represent the note and velocity.

Actually midi_read() is similar to tuneR::readMidi except for that it does not include midi metadata in the output (and is much faster). But now on to the fun stuff.

🔗 Synthesizing and soundfonts

Let’s play the midi! The midi_play() function tries to detect your local audio hardware and you should hear music playing:

  soundfont = soundfont_path()

Now midi_play has a few arguments that are important to understand. The most important one is the soundfont. What is a soundfont?

🔗 What is a soundfont

Besides the midi file, a soundfont provides the other essential ingredient for synthesizing digital music.

As explained above, a midi file is mostly a table of timestamps and note values. It does not contain any audio. This is where soundfonts come in: a soundfont contains a soundbank of audio fragments of all the notes being played by different instruments; analogous to the glyphs in a typeface font. The software synthesizer uses these audio fragments as the basis for generating music from the midi data.

The sound and quality of the output is very much determined by which soundfont you are using. On Linux distributions a soundfont is often included with libfluidsynth; on Windows and MacOS the R package defaults to a nice free soundfont called GeneralUser GS by Pianist and composer S. Christian Collins. You can easily try other soundfonts as well, just download the .sf2 file and set the path in midi_play().

🔗 Rendering audio to a file

Whereas midi_play() synthesizes the music in real-time to your soundcard, it can also save the output into an audio file. This is what midi_convert() does:

  midi = demo_midi(),
  output = 'output.mp3'

Internally this performs two steps: first the midi is synthesized by fluidsynth into a raw/wav file. This file can be very large and may not work in all players. Therefore it is automatically converted it into a proper compressed audio format such as mp3, using the av package av::av_audio_convert(). The output format is determined by the file extension, see av::av_muxers() for supported formats on your system.

Note that similar to fluidsynth, the av package replaces the need for the ffmpeg command line utility, by binding directly to the ffmpeg C interface. So we can safely depend on it, as users on e.g. Windows and MacOS will not need to install any 3rd party software.

🔗 Additional settings

Besides the choice of soundfont, fluidsynth provides many more options to influence the synthesizing process which you can set in the settings argument in midi_play or midi_convert:

  output = "low-quality.mp3",
  settings = list('synth.sample-rate' = 22050)

Use fluidsynth_setting_list() and fluidsynth_setting_options() to see all supported options and their types and options. To get the default for a given option use fluidsynth_setting_default():

# List all available settings

# List possible values for a given options

# Get the default for a given option: