|By Tom Hays
November 6, 1998
Vol. 2: Issue 44
Published in Game Developer Magazine, September 1998
Way Back When Down South...
Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there lived in Atlanta, Ga., a team of imaginative, talented music programmers called the Blue Ribbon Soundworks. They made a MIDI sequencer for the Amiga called Bars & Pipes which was so innovative that some people still keep an Amiga around just to run it.
By 1994, Blue Ribbon's main focus was a technology called AudioActive, part of which saw the light of day in music-generating programs such as SuperJam and Audiotracks Pro. AudioActive was an API and toolset that generated MIDI music performances on the fly by using data types called styles and personalities. At AudioActive's heart was a toolset for breaking compositions into their component parts and an engine for putting them back together.
To design this system, Blue Ribbon examined the way that real performers in various musical genres make the decisions that affect the progress of a piece. The system bore some conceptual similarity to musical Markov chains, in which each note has a weighted probability of going to each other note. But AudioActive was quite a bit more complex, subtle, and, in true musician form, more subjective. In some cases, it was able to create very convincing performances.
From Atlanta to Redmond
This pedigree was the first thing that I, and many other developers, heard about Microsoft's new music system. It made us skeptical from the outset. Microsoft's developer-hype literature still emphasizes DirectMusic's real-time music generation aspects to such a degree that it looks like AudioActive: The Sequel. Despite automatic music's enormous gee-whiz factor for us computer music types, I couldn't help but feel that its real-world use would simply be one more way for a skinflint producer to avoid paying for professional composition.
But over the past three years, plenty has happened. The trademark "AudioActive" is now used for an MPEG-2 audio player from Germany. Blue Ribbon Soundworks was purchased by Microsoft in late 1995, and its principals moved from Atlanta to Redmond. Its development lead, Todor Fay, continues to spend many days in trade group meetings small and large, listening to what people who make and support music for interactive products want and discussing his team's ideas.
Fay apparently doesn't like to say no. DirectMusic incorporates a truly frightening number of features, including some of the features that developers have been asking for in a music API. It includes an evolved, 100-percent rewritten version of what used to be AudioActive. It also includes hooks for replacing, adding, or modifying any component in the entire system with whatever music generator or filter you or a third party might come up with on your own. It gives applications access to MIDI and other control data in real time.
The fact remains that this open architecture was written with a certain approach to adaptive music at its core. It's an odd thing to find in a Microsoft API: a highly involved music recombiner and regenerator - neat thing, but not the right solution for everybody. Sometimes, in poking through the SDK with a different need in mind, a developer will be mystified and frustrated at some of the approaches and some of the omissions. However, DirectMusic does try to offer solutions for those who don't wish to use the System Formerly Known as AudioActive. Thus far, Microsoft's publicists have done themselves and developers a disservice by giving the impression that the interactive music engine is the core reason to look at DirectMusic. This is definitely not true.
In its alpha stage, DirectMusic is such a big package that many people's first impression is that it's just too complex to use on a typical project. One of the things I set out to do in researching this article was to see if there were reasonably simple paths to solutions for common problems buried in the over 300 pages of API documentation. Microsoft needs to do this if they want to sell DirectMusic to the game development community; as DirectMusic approaches beta (early July), the company is rewriting the documentation with this approach in mind.