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LGR – Roland MT-32: Retro PC MIDI Music Revisited

September 16, 2019


[typing] Roland MT-32. The name alone has a seductive mysterious quality to it that still reels me into this day. As a kid, configuring all sorts of DOS games, every time I saw that name come up in a setup menu, I would fantasize about it. My Packard Bell PC only had a PC speaker for sound, so, really, anything more would have been cool by me. But all I knew was that Roland made expensive digital pianos and my mom was always impressed by them. She was, and is, an accomplished pianist. So, we were always going to various music stores for various music things. Inevitably, we would try out a Roland synthesizer in each trip, and just as inevitably, we would leave the store impressed, but empty-handed. My mind would race with excitement, thinking that if their piano sounded that awesome, just imagine what a sound card from them would do for my games. Fast forward about 24 years, and it’s finally happened. I have in my possession a Roland MT-32. Specifically, this is the old model MT-32 without the separate stereo headphone jack on the back, so, it’s not quite as valuable as the newer model, but I am absolutely thrilled to have it, nonetheless. This is all thanks to a donation by Anders Enger Jensen. Who’s like a patron saint of Roland computer hardware or something. Just super generous with helping YouTubers with this stuff lately and is a fountain of knowledge forever and ever, amen. But yeah, the MT-32, huh? Just look at this thing. Contrary to what I thought as a kid, it is not a sound card. But a multi timbre sound module. An external synthesizer box that plugs into all sorts of MIDI capable devices. It was released in 1987 as something geared towards amateur musicians. Retailing at $695 or approximately $1500 today. So, yeah, not exactly a cheap device. But it was a heck of a lot cheaper than a Roland D series synthesizer. The D series being what the MT-32’s capabilities were based on. With it, you could use the MIDI-capable device of your choice, and get that Roland linear arithmetic synthesis sound without dropping two grand on a D-50 or something. But there was more to the MT-32. A certain something that led to its inclusion in hundreds of DOS PC games over the years. And that something was Sierra On-Line, who reached an agreement with Roland to distribute the MT-32 in the USA with “King’s Quest IV” being the first game of theirs to have its music specifically composed for the device. And it sounded incredible. Compared to what most people had at the time, the PC speaker. [square-wave PC speaker symphony] [Roland MT-32’s MIDI orchestra] The MT-32 stood apart in a big way, even compared to the AdLib music synthesizer card, which used Yamahas YM3812 FM synthesis chip. [AdLib FM synthesis melody] However awesome the Roland sounded, though, the AdLib was way, way cheaper, at just $195, and was ready to go out of the box. While the MT-32 cost much more on its own, and also needed an additional interface to work with PC games. Say hello to the MIF-IPC. One of several Roland interface cards that allowed DOS games to utilize the MT-32. It didn’t stop here, either, you also need the MPU-401. Another external module that acted as the interface between the IPC and the MT-32 itself. This is a MIDI device after all, and most home computers in the US did not have MIDI capability built-in. Now, you might be wondering about the integrated MIDI capability of Sound Blaster cards and yes, that is an option. Their Sound Blaster MIDI kit provided a breakout cable for the joystick port to allow access to the card’s MIDI I/O. But, keep in mind, this does not provide MPU-401 support. So, if your sound card doesn’t have that built-in, your mileage may vary. Another option is emulation through soft MPU. It’s not 100% compatible with all games, but it does provide intelligent mode MPU-401 capability on sound cards without it. At least installing the Roland stuff is pretty easy, if a bit cumbersome. You just plop the IPC card into a free ISA slot, connect the card to the 401 box with a DB25 cable, connect the box to the MT-32 with a standard MIDI cable and then use a standard audio cable between the MT-32 and your sound card’s line in port. Or just hook it up to a pair of speakers or headphones. The end result isn’t pretty, but hey, it works. And there’s no need to set up any drivers or software on top of it. Games with MT-32 support just need to be told to look for the MT-32 or MPU-401 through their setup program and there you go. This seems like a good time to talk about the difference between General MIDI, plain old MIDI, MT-32 and MPU-401 capabilities. Because there’s a chance you’ll see one or all of these in the setup menus of various DOS games. Typically, though, if you see MT-32 listed, that is what you want. Since that means it’s tailored specifically to the device’s capabilities. You might also see things like LAPC-1, or CM-32L and such, but these work fine too, since they’re iterations of the same basic hardware. Selecting MPU-401 works as well, but that just tells the game to look for the interface itself. And since any MIDI device can be plugged into it, the sound isn’t always distinctly taking advantage of the MT-32. Same goes for MIDI mode, which is just telling the game to send music to the MIDI interface again, this time to a specific address, like 330h. And it could be referencing an internal sound card, for instance. And lastly, there’s General MIDI. And while this does technically, sort of, kind of work, the MT-32 was made before the General MIDI standard existed. And in case you’re not aware, MIDI is a sound standard, a method of playing music, not the sound of the music itself. General MIDI, in particular, standardized the way instruments are laid out in a MIDI track. So, they be consistent across multiple devices. But the MT-32 uses its own MIDI track layout. That means that not all of the instruments the game tells the MT-32 to play will be correct in General MIDI mode. And while there are ways to improve on this drawback, you still just won’t have 100% General MIDI compatibility with the MT-32. That being said, the MT-32 is just a blast to play with. I love the front panel display on this thing, with its green LED that blinks in time with the music, and the LCD that updates you on the instruments, the volume, and even shows cute little messages when you play certain games. The front panel also lets you control each individual instrument, from a library of 128 synth and 30 drum samples, across eight melodic channels and one rhythm channel. You can also control individual volume levels and adjust the amount of reverb. It’s all just awesome to mess with. Forcing a soundtrack to be nothing but timpani drums, is truly a magnificent thing. [drum-heavy DOOM soundtrack] Frankly, when MT-32 implementation is on point, it’s all pretty magnificent in a childhood fantasy kind of way. Just listen to some of these! [melodious MT-32 tune] [flute-filled arrangement] [bouncy intro melody] [boing!] [serious bass-focused theme] Even with its lack of General MIDI, its cumbersome mess of wires, and the occasional problems with compatibility and digital overflow, the MT-32 has still become one of my favorite pieces of retro computing technology. It’s a boyhood dream come true, to be able to do things like play SimCity 2000 with it, right alongside sound effects from a Sound Blaster 16 or Gravis Ultrasound. At the same time, I still prefer FM synthesis for certain games, soundtracks in DOS, not just because it’s nostalgic, but because sometimes the soundtrack was clearly made for it in mind. Like Tyrian, for example. [flat, fast-paced MT-32 music] [energy-filled FM synthesis tune] But it makes sense, seeing as these Roland devices were never really mainstream. They were just too costly for most folks, and those that did buy one, sometimes found that their games ignored it. Once General MIDI happened in 1991, support for the MT-32 was frequently an afterthought. But it was also supported on computers like the Atari ST, MSX, PC-9801 and X68000, not to mention support for MIDI keyboards, so it’s no one-trick pony. And I can’t help but freakin’ love the MT-32 and what it does for the games, they put it to good use. While its status as the best option for DOS game music is arguably a bit overblown, it remains popular to this day for a reason, and it has a price to match. Even more so with the interface card and 401 box. Thankfully, there are other options, like using a USB MIDI adapter on a modern computer and booting up something like DOSBox or ScummVM. Both of which can be configured to use with a real MT-32 just fine. No extra interfaces needed. There’s also some nifty emulation options these days, such as Munt, which has improved quite a bit in recent years. It requires some copyrighted ROM files, but after that it’s a solid little emulation of the device. Regardless of how you can, though, I would totally recommend giving the MT-32 a shot sometime. The experience is nostalgic, while simultaneously still feeling fresh to me. And it’s a captivating method of breathing melodic life into certain MS-DOS gaming classics that you just don’t quite get anywhere else. And if you enjoyed this video, why not check out some of my others? And also, there’s a video here I’m liking to by 8-Bit Keys. David’s a friend of mine and he did a great video here on the MT-32 as well, which is from the same guy who donated mine’s, check it out, it’s a little more technical, so it’s pretty interesting. And as always, thank you very much for watching!

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