MIDI Banjo Gets No Respect, Either

Not that it should matter, really, because I actually play banjo and don’t NEED MIDI to get banjo tracks.

But I do use MIDI sequencers to work up demos, backing tracks for church “specials,” and when working up arrangements. I also use MIDI sequencers when creating tabs and sample half-speed mp3s for lessons.

If you’re not familiar with MIDI, it started as a way for one electronic device (say a keyboard) to trigger musical sounds in another device (say a modular synthesizer). It quickly expanded into a way for computers to control those synths. But MIDI doesn’t produce sounds itself – it sends digital signals to devices that produce sounds. Once the synth has received those signals, it can play them using a piano sound or a flute sound, or whatever you want. Those different sounds are called “patches,” because the first tone generators used real patch cords to change sounds. As tone generation technologies developed, units (eventually including computer programs) went from being able to choose from among a few dozen not-so-impressive sounds to choosing from thousands of compelling sounds.

The “General Midi” spec, invented in the 1980s, was a sort of standard instrument map to make it easier for folks who arranged music on one platform to make it sound right on another platform. So if I used the GM map when I created an arrangement on my workstation and sent the MIDI file to you, the music should sound similar when your workstation played it. That said, the piano patch on my system could be world-class, and the piano patch on your system could sound like early Nintendo, but at least it wouldn’t trigger a gong sound or something. The number of patches on the GM “map” was 128, and they were numbered from 00 to 127 on some systems, or from 01 to 128 on other systems. Here’s a sample:

A great deal of arguing went into choosing which patches should be included. But at the end, a generic Banjo sound was included at either 105 or 106 (depending on which numbering scheme was chosen).

Since then, virtually every professional platform has added the capability of addressing far more sounds. Many of those new sounds are of no interest to me, because I don’t do hip-hop or whatever. Of more interest are the hundreds of convincing new “world instrument” sounds for DAWs and MIDI setups that have been released. In fact, I’ve picked up some great hammered dulcimer and bodhrán sounds to use on a forthcoming (I hope) Christmas EP. (Can I play those instruments? After a fashion. Can I play them well enough to put on a recording? Not really. Can I play them well enough to program believable parts into my sequencer? I’ll let you decide if I ever get the tracks finished.)

But after buying “world instrument” libraries from several sources, the only banjo patch I have found that sounds even remotely like a banjo is the one on Cakewalk/Sonar’s baseline/built-in sound set. There was a semi-believable banjo on my old Roland Sound Canvas, too, but both sources are 16-bit PCM, and they don’t play well when I want to record at a higher resolution.

Even stranger, I’ve looked into buying some high-resolution GM sound libraries just to get a better banjo patch, only to discover that the patch number that should have a banjo sound (again, #105 or 106, depending on the numbering scheme) contains something else altogether. So even a “better” GM library won’t help me at all.

I contacted one patch vendor who had one banjo sound as part of a package that included something 3,000 patches that would be useless to me and which would cost real money asking him if the banjo patch was available in any other platform. He thought I was nuts to ask about a specific patch when he had SO MANY great sounds to offer me. And if I was programming industrial or acid or hip-hop or metal, I’m sure those patches would have come in handy.

Why am I complaining about it just now, considering that it’s a twenty-plus-year-old problem? Because the nice folks at MakeMusic (owners of Finale) just reminded me.

As a Finale/Garritan owner, I was glad to see today’s announcement that Finale was adding many new “world” instruments to their basic Garritan library, including: Bandoneon, Basic Chinese Percussion, Basic Indian Percussion, Basic Middle East Percussion, Bodhran, Bottle Blow, Clarke Pennywhistle, Concert Accordion, Didgeridoo, Djembe, Dulcimer, Fiddle, Highland Bagpipes, Irish Flute, Kalimba, Melodica, Ocarina, Peruvian Panpipes, Pipa, Rainstick, Shamisen, Shenai, Soprano Recorder, Tenor Recorder, Uilleann Bagpipes, Ukulele, Washboard, and Washtub Bass. This was in addition to some 14 other “world” sounds that were already in the library and 180 or so other sounds, mostly orchestral.

Unfortunately, there was no banjo anywhere, even under the “General Midi” section of the patch scheme, where you might expect to find it.

So I replied to the message with the following:


    4-string Jazz banjo
    4-string Irish banjo
    5-string backless banjo
    5-string resonator banjo
    5-string resonator tone-ring banjo
    6-string resonator banjo

    Hint, hint, hint. . . .

And I got back a generic message telling me that I had to contact someone else if I had a problem with the Finale or Garritan software. The software is FINE. WHERE’S THE BANJO?

Did all the synth and DAW users contact these companies and tell them they wouldn’t buy their libraries if banjos were included or something?

Okay, it’s a first-world problem. And again, I play banjo so I don’t NEED banjo patches to live. But it would be nice to have some just the same.

Back to working on problems I can do something about . . . .

Best of luck, all, keep enjoying your music and making good midi patch choices.



About Paul

Paul Race has been writing and playing all kinds of music since the 1960s, though he tends to favor acoustic and traditional songs. He has created resources like CreekDontRise.com, ClassicTrainSongs.com, and SchoolOfTheRock.com to help other musicians get a good start on their own journeys.

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