Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 152 / MAY 1993 / PAGE 86

Music for the masses. (General Musical Instrument Digital Interface; introduction of synthesizers) (Column)
by David English

Even if you're not a musician, you'll soon hear a lot about Geheral MIDI. Not only is General MIDI making it easier for nonmusicians to control electronic keyboards and keyboardless MIDI modules, it may also dramatically improve the sound quality of the games we play on our PCs.

First, a little background. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a communications standard that allows electronic musical instruments to talk to computers and to each other. Mostly, it communicates which note is being played, how long the note is being played, and which instrument sound is playing it. When you record a musical performance with MIDI, you're not recording the music itself. You're recording the least amount of information that will enable a synthesizer or MIDI module to re-create the original performance.

Unfortunately a MIDI recording made on one synthesizer usually doesn't sound very good on another synthesizer. The note on/off and duration data usually matches, but the order of the instrument sounds is different. Because a Korg 01/W might have a steel guitar in the same position that a Roland D-50 has a church organ, that Bach fugue you recorded on your D-50 might come out sounding like a Willie Nelson tune on your 01/W. General MIDI is the industry's attempt to set the order of the first 128 sounds so that you can count on a grand piano being in position 1, a choir pad being in position 92, and MIDI note 54 always calling up a tambourine.

The first General MIDI device was the Roland SC-55 Sound Canvas. Because of its excellent sound and great price ($795), many professionals use it to supplement their professional MIDI equipment. The Sound Canvas has also proved to be popular with multimedia developers who can simply plug it into a MIDI-compatible sound card and drive it with any MIDI-based music program. Other General MIDI devices that have entered the market over the last 18 months include Roland's SCC-1 (a PC-card version of the Sound Canvas), Turtle Beach's Multisound (a sound card that includes the chipsettothe popular E-mu Proteus/1 synthesizer), and Creative Labs' Sound Blaster 16 ASP (a sound card that offers an optional General MIDI daughter board).

One by one, the major keyboard manufacturers are taking their high-end synthesizer technology and creating low-end General MIDI boxes. These keyboardless MIDI boxes contain the kinds of sounds that would've cost thousands of dollars just four or five years ago. A good case in point is Yamaha's new TG100 (Yamaha, P.O. Box 6600, Buena Park, California 90622-6600; 714-522-9011; $449). It weighs about two pounds, has 192 instrument sounds and ten drum kits, lets you play as many as 15 instrument sounds and one drum kit simultaneously, and contains its own digital reverb and delay effects. It also includes a special port--in addition to the standard MIDI connectors--that connects it to the serial port of a PC or Mac. This lets you use the unit with a laptop or other computer that lacks a MIDI interface. Best of all, the TG100 sounds great. It has a rich, full sound with especially strong strings and pianos. It uses the same AWM (Advanced wave memory)technology that's used in Yamaha's professional-quality SY99 and SY85 synthesizers.

Speaking of Yamaha's professional-quality synthesizers, I was also able to try out the new SY85 ($1,995). If you want to go beyond General MIDI and design your own complex sounds, this is one killer machine. It includes 6MB of ROM-based sounds that sound as good as anything you'll hear on a record or movie soundtrack. In addition to the usual array of buttons and knobs for editing and storing your sounds, the SY85 includes eight slider controls that let you quickly alter your sounds in realtime. The SY85 also includes a 61-key, 30-note polyphonic keyboard; 512K RAM (expandable to 3.5MB); its own disk drive; great-sounding programmable effects; and an on-board sequencer. (For even more terrific sounds for the SY85, TG 100, Sound Canvas, and other MIDI synthesizers, contact Sound Source at 800-877-4778 and Pro-Rec at 212-675-5606.)

As for the game connection I mentioned earlier, there's a movement to establish General MIDI as a replacement for the tinny FM technology on the sound cards. Imagine hearing a real trumpet or organ when your hero enters the villain's castle for the first time.