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Making old DOS games sound good

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  • User profile image
    Sven Groot

    As some of you may know, I got a Roland MT-32 a while back. This is absolutely great for Sierra games (and some others) up to around 1992, which have music specifically written for the MT-32.

    However, after that time, General MIDI became more and more common. Even Sierra wrote many of their soundtracks for General MIDI in their later games (including Space Quest 5 and 6, Police Quest 4, King's Quest 6 and 7, Gabriel Knight, and Leisure Suit Larry 6). The MT-32 is not General MIDI compatible, and although these games still support the MT-32, they just put it in a pseudo-GM mode (they send some sysex commands that reassign patch numbers to sort of match GM). They don't use any of the special sounds or synthesizer capabilities that the MT-32 offers. Although this sounds decent, there are definitely a lot better GM devices out there.

    Although good results may be obtained using just about any GM compatible module, the one that many game composers in the mid-90s had in mind when they wrote their music was the Roland Sound Canvas SC-55.

    So, in order to further improve my old DOS game sounds I went and got a second-hand SC-88. Why not an SC-55? Simple: I found a cheap SC-88, and it's basically a better version of the SC-55 with some improved waveforms, and more sounds (the latter is not useful for games but who knows if I ever want to use it for anything else). Big Smile It gives me great quality and authenticity for mid-90s games.

    Roland SC-88 and MT-32

    Yes, I'm sure if I'd gotten a more recent MIDI module it would've sounded even better, but that would've been more expensive and not as authentic for the purposes I wanted it for.

    I made a video comparing the Sound Blaster to the SC-88 with the King's Quest 6 intro:

    The SC-88 version starts at 7:29.

    The SB version is actually not that bad, to be honest. Certainly it's not as drab as some of older MT-32 Sierra games. That's because they did a better job on the conversion, and because it's actually using the OPL3 (so you get stereo, for instance) rather than the OPL2 that older games used. Still, the SC-88 is obviously a lot better.

    For fairness sake, I should point out that the SB version was emulated by ScummVM, as I don't have an actual Sound Blaster with an actual OPL3 chip. The difference is not that big, however.

    As an interesting side note, you might notice that the SC-88 sounds somewhat similar to the Microsoft GS Wavetable SW Synth (which is used by Windows if your sound card doesn't have MIDI support). That's because the SW synth is actually a version of Roland Virtual Sound Canvas, and it uses the same set of sounds as the older SC-55, although at much lower quality.

  • User profile image
    magicalclick

    Sound so much better.

    Leaving WM on 5/2018 if no apps, no dedicated billboards where I drive, no Store name.
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  • User profile image
    Minh

    Holy crap! Look at how big those things are! I thought my Gravis Ultra Sound was big

  • User profile image
    Sven Groot

    @Minh:

    Well, they were meant as equipment for professional musicians, not as PC game sound solutions. The SC-88 also comes in rack-mount versions which is convenient for performers who might have a lot of different sound modules.

    Back in the mid-90s I actually sometimes used my Roland E-96 for General MIDI compatible games. It sounds a lot like the SC-88, not surprising since they are based on the same synthesizer and were released only two years apart. But, since the E-96 is a full-size 61-key arranger keyboard, as you would imagine using it to get sound from games was less than convenient. Not to mention that I had to connect it using a gameport-MIDI cable. Using a USB MIDI adapter as I do now is a lot easier, and DOSBox emulates the MPU-401 that those old games require and just sends the MIDI straight to whatever device you want. Smiley

    I still have the E-96, but it's in the Netherlands (and I'm in Japan). And the SC-88 actually fits on top of my computer. Smiley

    EDIT: I'm also very impressed with the build quality of these things. Sure, they've got a few scratches, but for second-hand hardware from 1987 (the MT-32) and 1994 (the SC-88), they are in excellent condition.

  • User profile image
    Minh

    Now that you mentioned it... the music from 7:30 on really did remind me of some 80's music video... Because the very equipment was probably used in them. The effect of which shocks you out of the King's Quest universe... The SB had the advantage in that it is more abstract... though clearly more chip-tune-based.

  • User profile image
    Sven Groot

    The very first Sound Canvas (the SC-55) is from 1991, so I doubt you've heard it in an 80s music video. Tongue Out

    I can't say I have that association at all, the only thing it reminds me of is my E-96, as I said. But this does not have the effect of "throwing me out". It just has the effect of making me realize the OPL3 isn't a very good chip. FM synthesis is nice in theory, but for emulating real instruments it's just not very good. And even for electronic stuff it's not really top-range; my music teacher had a very good FM synthesizer that blew the OPL3 out of the water. Of course it's not really fair to compare them, as a Sound Blaster cost about $100, and that synth he had more like $10,000. Smiley

    Ultimately, for me it's about experiencing the games the way they were meant to sound. The music for those newer Sierra games (like KQ6) was written for the Sound Canvas, so by using it I'm getting the music the way the composer intended it. The same is true for the MT-32 and the pre-92 Sierra games.

  • User profile image
    Minh

    The harpsichord at the beginning was very good I must say.... And set the mood verywell

  • User profile image
    contextfree

    I heard that Nobuo Uematsu (the usual composer for the Final Fantasy games) still wrote everything on an SC-88 until very recently.

  • User profile image
    spivonious

    Wow, that's a much bigger difference than I thought it would be. Guitar and piano sounds very realistic.

  • User profile image
    Sven Groot

    Roland always had the best piano sound of any electronic instrument I've heard. Smiley

  • User profile image
    exoteric

    Very impressive. And nice to see a fellow game music enthusiast. Have you heard the now discontinued but superb Yamaha XG Software synthesizers? I always thought Microsoft should have licensed the G-MIDI technology from Yamaha. So Windows would have superb MIDI audio synthesis. Alas, the mainstream is not that interested in MIDI.

  • User profile image
    Sven Groot

    Yeah, I've heard them, they are good, I agree, but I've always preferred the Roland sounds, especially for piano. Smiley

    It would be nice if Windows had a better software synth, because even though it uses the Virtual Sound Canvas sound set, it's really not comparable with the real thing. But I think it that were ever to happen, it would've done so already. Nowadays there's just no incentive anymore for MS to improve it, since like you say, no one cares about MIDI anymore.

  • User profile image
    Sven Groot

    Just for fun, I've recorded a quick comparison between the MS software synth and the SC-88, using two random MIDI files (you might recognize canyon.mid as the sample MIDI files that was included with Windows for a very long time).

    Canyon.mid: MIDI, Microsoft GS Wavetable SW Synth, Roland SC-88
    Skyline.mid: MIDI, Microsoft GS Wavetable SW Synth, Roland SC-88

  • User profile image
    androidi

    I went through every place and I can't find my hardware XG card anymore. If anyone gets or has the hardware XG (not emulation) I'd like a recording from all Doom and Descent 1&2 songs. I think in those games it was clearly superior to any real Roland I've heard samples from so far. Though in other games than those two I'd suspect Roland are better as it was more widely used.

     

  • User profile image
    Sven Groot

    There's a second-hand CBX-K1XG on amazon.co.jp. I've no idea if it's a good price, and I don't think marketplace sellers ship outside Japan anyway.

    I've been looking for a cheap MIDI controller keyboard because it'd be fun to mess around with the SC-88, but there's no way I'd go for anything with less than 72 keys, and those tend to be expensive.

    As for Doom with an XG: how about this?

  • User profile image
    androidi

    Veering OT but I've been claiming here that emulations sound nothing like the real thing.

    So thank you for bringing that video made with hardware XG from Doom E1M1 up. I also found a video that uses S-YXG50 Yamaha's own emulation of the same XG hardware!

    Software: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuD5zqLH5Es

    Hardware: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLdO9mZ-RpY (lower volume to match, then pay attention to the point when the song/bass really starts. If the emulation is just missing some bass, well should be easy to fix? I'll have to try but I doubt it will fix it)

    As you should be able to tell, the *patches* sound identical. And that's where emulations tend to end since sound synth-pipeline isn't just made of the sound source(oscillator)/patches, there's various other stages that audio hardware has. And those are *needed* to make the end result sound pleasing. Now that's really subjective so i'll just leave it at: The hardware version above, even recorded from noisy output of a 1996 PC to my ears is more pleasing.

    Now you could say that maybe this Yamaha software emulation of Yamaha hardware isn't done properly. Since the software is old and PCs were slower then, they've must've left something out. Well that's exactly what I'm saying. Emulations tend to always leave stuff out. It doesn't matter if the bits are perfect if the output to my headphones doesn't sound good. And by good I don't mean "realistic" I mean, synthesized sounds can sound ear pleasing or not. Mostly they don't sound ear pleasing. My research into this shows that only very few synthesizers sound pleasing by default and even less in the software synth front. Critical ear and experimentation seem to be the requirement to get a pleasing sound - alternative secret ingredient that often works is to run the audio through analog tape recorder, even few times as dumb as it sounds, it helps to shape the harsness out and boost the pleasing frequencies in a way that's hard to replicate with just EQ/compressors. That's why even today it's still done for some records that go to CD/MP3 only.

     

     

     

     

     

  • User profile image
    spivonious

    How do these compare with something like the old AWE32? I had one and games sounded a lot better with that than with the standard Soundblaster. Watching that Doom video brought back some memories. It's hard to believe that the game came out 17 years ago.

  • User profile image
    androidi

    Sven could you edit out that price information from your post, this is close to the top in Google for some common queries and on the higher end of used price scale for this item.

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