Interactive Music: Merging Quality with Effectiveness

PC Computer Music History 101, From AdLib to GM
Interactive Music
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In the early days of GM when multitimbre sound modules took center stage of high quality computer game music and the beloved but buried Adlib was being ousted by Sound Blaster, Roland, believe it or not, had such a system of downloadable samples already in place. Their MT-32 external and later LAPC-1 internal sound modules could download a full bank of General MIDI custom made instruments for any game. Sierra took full advantage of this for nearly all their games including Thexder and Sorcerian. However $400, the average retail price of the MT-32 at the time, was not in the average gamer's budget, and certainly not for sound. So the idea floundered to be replaced with General MIDI soundtracks on inexpensive cards, which to this day have not been very successful at sounding the same on every card. Thus the "Team Fat" mission began (composers behind the greatest of GM tracks, among them Origin's Wing Commander and Sierra's 7th Guest) to help composers and manufacturers find the same sound and correct the problem of incompatible sound banks by adhering to the same "bare bones" standards for GM instrumentation. Regrettably even the "Fat General Solution", their brave crusade to make soundcards and composers meet under one banner, has not been very successful despite their outstanding soundtracks and worldwide fame.

Since the great leap from PC Speaker to Adlib sound card in 1987, IBM PC game music has sounded "good", but not "great", and certainly not as polished or unique as 16 bit console or arcade music. Not even as advanced as other PCs such as the Commodore "Amiga" with its 4 channel digital audio (the grandfather of present day MOD technology) and the Macintosh with its 1 channel digital, which provided quick snippets of digital sound that satisfied gamers and game developers alike. Now that CD quality commercial music is possible people are looking for ways to expand it and use it interactively. But hardware limitations, such as increased need of system resources for 3d processing, are creating the need for a standard that, as we have mentioned before, allows composers to create and / or download instruments and their own banks (within a certain size) and write music that sounds as close to the real deal as possible.

New Trends in Hardware

What efforts are being made to further the idea of Downloadable Samples (DLS)? Well, you've all been waiting for a standard to be proposed, and at last, it has. The Interactive Audio Special Interest Group (IA-SIG), a spawn of the MIDI Manufacturers Association, has proposed a set of very bare boned standards for Downloadable Samples called DLS-1, and hardware manufacturers are starting the grind.

Currently the latest steps being taken by Yamaha are in their "SW100" and "SW200" Waveforce soundcards, which enable the developer to create or import their own samples and build their own banks of instruments. Unfortunately the DLS capabilities of the card will only be in use for Windows 98, which will be another few months coming. The SW series comes with 2 megs of RAM and 8 megs of ROM for XG instruments (all 480 of them, quite a leap from GM). There are 36 effects in 3 groups (chorus, reverb, and echo) which packs quite a punch, but still pales in comparison to the 120 odd effects found in a Korg Trinity Pro synthesizer. So far these are the most promising cards I have seen yet that appeal to both the music and sound developer as well as the sound card buyer. As far as interactive music systems are concerned DLS will most likely be a very valid candidate for the superceding of GM on soundcard synths.

Creative Labs; still the reigning master of PC soundcard sales, is still finalizing their "SoundFont" technology, which is a form of DLS but very scaled down due to the limitations of the small 512k RAM found on their "AWE64 Value Edition." The "AWE64 Gold" has 4 megs and with an AWE64 Gold card the sound of "SoundFonts" on such games as Dungeon Keeper by Bullfrog are very impressive. The system itself is being developed with Creative Labs' partner, the synth giant EMU Systems, however the capacity for effects and small instrument size make "Sound Fonts" a system more likely to be used by smaller multimedia applications producers such as Java applets. The conclusion can be drawn here that Creative Labs is an excellent manufacturer but has not yet found the pulse of the development end of multimedia music production while still maintaining appeal with the consumer.
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