The Best Sound for MS-DOS Games – Roland MT-32
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The Best Sound for MS-DOS Games – Roland MT-32

August 22, 2019

Back in the 1980s and early 90s, whenever
I went to setup a game on my PC I always had to pick what sort of video card I was going
to be using, but then also what kind of sound card. Now I was very familiar with the Adlib and
Sound Blaster cards. Everybody knew about them, even if they didn’t
have one. And, of course, everyone had the option of
the internal PC speaker. But most games also had an option for the
Roland MT-32. So to me, this was always some mysterious
expensive sound card that only really rich could afford. Well, it turns out, that while it was a bit
on the expensive side, it wasn’t a card at all. At least, not entirely. You see, the MT-32 was an external MIDI module. So let me explain what the original purpose
of it was. So the way these were designed to work is
that you would have your MIDI compatible keyboard, then connect it to the MIDI module. Now the module will listen to the keys you
press and actually synthesize the sounds and send them out to your amplified speakers. Now the reason you might do this is because
some MIDI keyboards are reall nothing more than controllers, they actually don’t produce
any sounds at all, they just send the information to some other device telling it what keys
you’ve pushed on the keyboard. Of course, some people simply had cheap keyboards
that either very few sounds, or the sounds they had weren’t very good. And they wanted to take advantage of an external
modules so that they could have more sounds or more realistic sounds, or both. Also, it was possible to connect up a MIDI
sequencer in between which would allow you to record the notes that you were playing
in digital form. However, it was also possible to connect these
modules up to a PC and play the music from there. Or, the PC could even be a MIDI sequencer
allowing creation of music right there. Well, the Roland MT-32 found success outside
of the music market by simply being used by consumers as a way to listen to the music
in their games. Here’s a list of games on the IBM PC that
supported the MT-32. It’s actually quite a long list. Quite a very long list, indeed. Also the MT-32 could be connected to other
computers, such as the Atari ST which already has MIDI connectors built in from the factory. Unfortunately, far less software was available
on this platform with only about a dozen games supporting it. So, you might ask how this module would have
connected to a PC, considering that back then and even today most PCs do not have MIDI ports
on them. Well, this was usually accomplished by installing
a Roland MPU-401 compatible MIDI card into one of the expansion sockets in the PC, like
this one. The MT-32 uses something called LA synthesis. And no, that doesn’t stand for Los Angeles. It actually stands for Linear Arithmatic. It has 128 built in sounds, 32 voice polyphony,
and it responds to 9 MIDI channels.So let’s talk about LA synthesis for a moment. It’s really a hybrid between PCM samples and
subtractive synthesis. So if you look at a waveform produced by the
MT-32, the attack portion of the sound is actually a digitized PCM sample, but then
the sustain and release part of the sound is handled by more old-school synthesis. So most of the sounds on the MT-32 are pretty
realistic. In order to demonstrate the vast difference
between the MT-32 and other sound cards, I’m going to show you one of my favorite games
from 1989, which is Sierra’s Space Quest III. I’m going to let you hear the difference between
how the game sounded on the PC speaker, basically people who didn’t have any sound card at all. Then I’ll show the Tandy 3-Voice sound chip,
followed by the Adlib / Sound Blaster version, and finally the MT-32 for comparison. Notice that the MT-32 shows a little joke
on the screen when game starts. Ok, that was the intro, what about the in-game
music. The PC speaker version has no music, so we’ll
go straight to the Tandy sound. Of course, we have to take it apart because,
well, that’s just what we do here. You can see this thing is packed with the
best technology of the 1980s. Most interesting is that it contains an Intel
8095 CPU. To the best of my knowledge, these 4 chips
are ROM chips which probably contain sample data and program code, etc. This appears to be 64K of dynamic RAM. However, oddly enough it appears to have another
32K of static RAM. And with all of this stuff, it’s no surprise
it was an expensive piece of hardware back then. So, how can you connect this thing to a modern
computer? Well, you know that’s kind of one interesting
things about the MT-32. All of the vintage sound devices used by DOS
games, this is the only one that can still be used on a modern computer, without being
you know, emulated. Because, it does have standard MIDI ports
so you can just plug it into any MIDI device. I just bought a Roland USB to MIDI adapter,
plugged that into my Mac Mini, then plugged the two MIDI cables into the Roland MT-32,
and then used my 80s boombox for sound output. Now, I can play music directly from modern
MIDI applications, but what is more interesting, at least to me, was that I could actually
use it with DOS games running inside of DOSBOX. All I had to do was edit the DOSBOX config
file, and change the output from CORE Audio to CORE MIDI and the games will send the MIDI
information right out to the MT-32. So what about using it as MIDI synthesizer
for a keyboard? Well, any MIDI keyboard will work, even modern
ones. I’ll take my little Casio here and connect
up the MIDI cable to it. Unfortunately, at first it did not work. You see, the MT-32 has 5 parts, which are
individual channels of music, each corresponding to the 5 buttons on the front, which allow
you to modify each of the channels. It also shows these little 5 parts on the
screen and blinks them when music is playing so you know which parts are being used. It also has another 3 parts that you can’t
really edit or see on the screen, but it will still play them. And then there is one more part, which is
the Rhythm or drums channel. Now, standard MIDI is designed to work with
up to 16 channels. But for some reason, by default the MT-32
assigns its parts to MIDI channels 2 through 10. My Casio keyboard can only transmit on channel
1, so essentially nothing will ever happen. However, if you hold down MASTER VOLUME and
press 5, it will ask you if you want to remap the channels to 1 through 8. So, press 1 to accept the change. Now the mapping will look like this. And now it is possible to play with my Casio. So I mentioned it has 128 sounds, but they
are arranged a little strange in sound groups. So you can press the sound group button, and
it will scroll through a list of groups. Then you can press the sound button and scroll
through a list of sounds. So let me show you a more graphical representation
of what you are doing since the little 1-line screen can be confusing. So when you are scrolling though groups, it
looks like this, and then when you are selecting a sound it is a sound within that group. So when you look at the screen you’ll always
see the group on the left, and the actual sound on the right. So, I’m going to give you a sampling of some
of the sounds. I’m not going to play all 128 of them, because
that would take forever. But I will show you the piano and let me tell
you, the Piano, ironically enough, is one of the least convincing instruments on the
MT-32. In fact, the piano was always one of the most
difficult instruments to recreate on vintage sound hardware before everything moved to
PCM samples entirely. So, just about everything else on the MT-32
actually sounds pretty darned good, even by today’s standards. In fact, I bet you didn’t notice, but my intro
song at the very beginning of the video was actually done on the MT-32. If you didn’t notice, go back and watch it
again. And also, all of the incidental, or background
music I’ve been using in this video up to this point has also been made on the MT-32
as well. I need to give out big thanks to Anders Jensen
who sent this to me and donated it, uh, he sent this all of the way from Norway. And he’s also the one that’s done a lot of
the music in many of my more recent episodes, including this one. If you want to know where I got that cool
Roland T-shirt. It was from a Synth meetup in Grand Prairie,
Texas that I attended last weekend. This took place in a furniture store and there
was lots of neat gear. Now, if you want to stick around, I’m going
to show you just a few more screenshots from some old DOS games using the MT-32, which
I think you’ll find impressive! Allright guys, I hope you enjoyed learning about the Roland
MT-32, I think this is a fantastic piece of both computer history and music history. Now the MT-32 was eventually replaced by some
other products for example the Roland MT-100, which is kind of an MT-32 mixed with a sequencer
all in the same unit. It was also eventually replaced by units like
the CM series. Now, this poor guy here is in some serious
need of some retrobright. And that’s actually something I plan on doing
in an upcoming episode. So this should look at lot better. speaking of retrobright, I traded a Nintendo
entertainment system for this Atari ST here, believe it or not. It actually works, and I want to show off
more of its MIDI capabilities in an upcomming episode, but it needs some retrobrite pretty
bad and I’m going to be doing that, but that will probably be on my 8-Bit Guy channel. But most of you guys subscribe to that to,
and if you don’t, you need to!

Only registered users can comment.

  1. WOW!!! The Difference! Back in the days, it must've sounded like a real band, playing at your house! I've always wanted one. I think it's time. I've been thinking about putting a DOS PC together.

  2. how many of us actually had an mt32 back then? it never made sense to me why so many devs supported the mt32 when even my 10 y/o self knew it was way too expensive for the vast majority of pc gamers to have, and it wasn't even pc hardware to begin with!

  3. would love to get my hands on a real MT-32 and use it with my PC to play classic games. I mean I have SCUMMVM so I've got a very close sound to the real deal

  4. Wohoooo.. thank you for this blast of the past… that was so great… and the songs you‘ve played are stunning 😁

  5. I lusted after the MT-32 back in the day, it was considered the Rolls Royce of sound devices for the PC. I ended up getting a CM series module and and Roland D-50 keyboard when I got seriously into music and I still have both machines. They're both great.

  6. I could tell just from the command prompt that you were poaying Space Quest 3. Sierra's golden age. I miss the days of the dos based menu system. E for Games. A for Space Quest, D for Space Quest IV. My fond memories.

  7. 8bitkeys guy, could you lend me some of your equippemnt and id upload music made from it? collage style and earnestly experimental in nature

  8. Actually, the message displayed on the MT-32's display is made using special MIDI System Exclusive message. Certain games, which supports this device may also display text messages upon startup.

  9. still have one of these bitches, bought in late 90s or early 2000s on a flea market, gave it a spin, moved it to the attic, and i fucking lost it forever.

    at the time i'd rather had a electribe or something lol, but yeah… software these days lol

  10. It may have the best sound quality, but I like the adlib / sound blaster better, perhaps because of nostalgia, since that's just how games generally sounded back then.

  11. such a roland sound. Very iconic. So many albums used these same pcm/synth combos. D-50 library patches in particular.

  12. This Sounds pretty nice! I would like to get it,
    Could anybody say is there common module with midi-input for external keyboards, but with Yamaha FM YM3812 sound synthesis? Or midi module with loadable Custom Soundfonts?
    My dream is to connect my Yamaha EG-AG electronic guitar with "DOS game styles" Yamaha OPL FM sounds.
    I guess it hard to find module with Yamaha FM YM3812 Chip, so as the alternative way for me is to find midi sound module with loadable custom Wavetable SoundBanks (Like SoundFont format).
    This will let me to load FM OPL recorded sounds, just AS wave Banks.
    I know It's weird to record FM Sounds as waves, but it's look real to find midi module with custom loadable Instruments Wavetable, than midi module with YM3812…
    Could anybody help with finding solution for this question? Or Links where to find….
    Much thanks!

  13. Space Quest was the game everyone was playing in high school during lunch period. You found my jam! I had no idea that such great sound was even available. I would feel like the poor kid if I wasn't using pirated software on borrowed school computers…

  14. Sound Quality Rating:
    1/5 PC Speaker
    2/5 Tandy 3
    3/5 AdLib / SB or SB Pro
    4/5 Roland MT 32
    5/5 Direct connection to Floppotron

    edit: I couldn't resist again:

    you're welcome

  15. Like you, i always wanted one of these growing up.
    Hearing it now, for the first time, it makes me sad to know how much better the sound in my games could have been.
    The sound from the roland is amazing.

  16. The sounds of the MT-32 was one of the first projects I worked on after Eric Persing and myself created the initial factory sounds for the Roland D-50. I remember it being quite difficult due to the restricted architecture but a creative challenge none the less. In the end all the sounds were created by myself and a remarkable Japanese engineer.

  17. i love what you play with the squarewave sound.. is this a song I could listen to somewhere or something you improvised?

  18. Back then, I hooked up my PC to a Korg i3 via MIDI Blaster. It changed my life. Especially with LucasArts games.

  19. I remember being in Rose Morris in London's Denmark Street in 1986 when the Roland guy came in a demoed this to the shop. I was underwhelmed then and had a strong feeling it'd be decades before synths could do what I wanted :o(
    Incidentally, LA Synthesis was rolled out on the Roland D-50, which is most of Jean Michel Jarre's 'Rendevous' album. I have a D-50 and love it, ironically!

  20. I use to program an MT32 using Sysex and NRPN data. At the time, it sounded wonderful. I got my hands on one a couple of years ago, and it sounded dire compared to the systems and software we have for music creation today.

  21. Had one of those as a kid and I never knew that for most people the games they played sounded like crap. My dad had it all set up with some nice speakers and I just assumed that's what everyone's computer sounded like.

  22. I always used to stare at the MT-32 in each month's issue of Sierra's Interaction magazine. Unlike most kids that just wanted it for games I wanted one so I could also plug it into my MIDI keyboard. I finally got one about 4 years ago and, at least for me, it still hasn't lost its mystique.

  23. How did Youtube know I wanted to watch this when I didn't even know I wanted to watch this?!
    Dude, I'm right with you. I was partial to the King's Quests and Leisure Suit Larry games of those days, as far as Sierra games were concerned. Memories! Thanks for the video!

  24. I grew up playing DOS games on just the PC speaker, really blows my mind that the sound could have been this good.. might have to get hold of one of these bad bois

  25. I remember the first time I played a game, I had been playing through a soundblaster, through the MT32.. omg it was such a leap to a sound quality close to modern games really. Still with 8 bit graphics though

  26. Wow Roland really missed the mark back in the day. They could have sold the heck out of these to the pc gaming kids. They really should had advertised this for pc gaming. “Hey kids…..take your games to a whole new level “. If we had only have known about this midi device back then. Pretty cool ! 😎

  27. Been watching your channel for a while now. Using Space Quest 3, and describing it as one of your favorites made me subscribe. Sorry it took so long. I'm just a little choosy about what I sub to.

    I'd played video games for years, but Space Quest 3 was the game that made me fall in love with the hobby, and my uncle had a Roland MT-32 that he let me play it on. That only happened once, but I was hooked.

    My father couldn't afford a fancy set up but he saw how much I loved the game, so a few weeks later we wound up with a PC (I was too young to know which) and an orange monochrome monitor.

    I think my father thought I was ashamed of this, or that he had somehow failed in this purchase decision. I wish I could go back and tell him it meant everything to me.

    Anyway, thanks for this video, and all the others!

  28. i bet that distorted electric guitar souds awful, because even now synths struggle to emulate it

  29. For Producers or people who like it: Get "Munt Vsti" and some Roms of the MT-32 (easy to find) and use it in your DAW. In FL Studio you can change the patches with "midi out"- Plugin and link those two. Works good for me and i get the super nice sounds for my projects

  30. I remember so good this module, it employs Roland Linear Arithmetic Synthesys (LA) developed for professional synths like the famous D-50. It uses very short PCM samples for the attack of a sound (giving the realistic feel), then treated with a digital "analog style" envelope generator. My old E-30 arranger keyboard of 1989 has the same sounds.

  31. I picked up an MT-32 at a computer flea market and used it with an Atari ST and Cakewalk. My son had much more fun and success with it than I did. I still have it (I think – in storage). Never used it with a PC but it look like fun. Maybe I should dig it out.

  32. Saw this on my recommended and had to watch it. Boy this brings back memories! My friend had a Tandy PC in the 80’s, the first time I heard it I couldn’t believe how good it sounded. I had to have better sound on my PC. This is what drove me to buy an MT-32. Made playing games back then so much better! I think I played all of the Sierra games with it. Wish I still had it now. Great video, thanks for bringing back good memories.

  33. Olha realmente não faço ideia do trabalho que deve dar fazer uma análise dessa, e do conhecimento que esse cara tem em eletrônica é incrível

  34. I’m 40 years old now. I remember playing all of the Sierra games as a kid and always seeing Roland on there and until I stumbled upon this video, I now know the awesomeness it outputs as I was stuck with SB back then

  35. Keep in mind that "best sound" in the title refers to the years before the General Midi standard was introduced in 1991 and first adopted by commercial DOS games in 1992. The first Sierra games supporting the MT-32 came out in 1988. So for four years, 1988-1992, the MT-32 was the only way to receive sound quality similar to General MIDI in commercial DOS games. Roland SC-55 wasn't released until 1991. Gravis Ultrasound wasn't introduced until 1992. The Sound Blaster AWE32 was rolled out in 1994. The Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold dropped in 1996.

  36. Damn! I thought the Gravis Ultrasound was the soundcard to get (I played Doom with a pc speaker for a couple of years before finally getting an SB16), but the MT-32 sounds fantastic!

  37. I had one Roland MT-32, then I change it for the Roland D-110 whit the external module controller, I still have it and it work like new….

  38. This sounds amazing! Is there a way to play midis on pc through the Roland MT-32 to an AV or similiar? And wich emulators support outputing "midi mapping to 'device' "? (Would love to hear some gameboy and snes games like this)

  39. The mt 32 is amazing still to this day the difference is colossal,ohh and by the way dude ever-time you show some instruments you always i mean always play the right music for that particular instrument and they are all classic choices well done on that!!!and you really know how to play them as well.

  40. I grew up playing msdos games during my childhood and dunno about all those cga/vga/hercules video settings and also audio sound blaster/rolands/ adlib things lol

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