The Let's Play Archive


by ExMortis

Part 18: Justus on Japanese PC audio

ExMortis posted:

I'd always referred to the Japanese computer/Megadrive audio as FM, but apparently MIDI is a form of FM audio as well?! I dunno.

I can at least clear a little of this up. You're mixing up your terms. FM is a type of synthesizer. MIDI is not a type of synthesizer, but rather is a digital communications protocol meant for communicating with synthesizers. It simply provides synthesizers with instructions. If you picture this in terms of real musicians playing real music, then the synthesizer is an analog for a musician playing music, and MIDI is an analog for the sheet music that the musician reads off of. You may have seen some old DOS games that had MIDI setups, where it would let you choose your sound device from a list. This is why if you have a SoundBlaster AWE 32 (which provides a sample-based synthesizer like a Super NES), it sounds way different than if you have a SoundBlaster 16 (which provides an FM-based synthesizer like a Sega Genesis). In fact, some games even had an option you could pick called "MPU-401", which would let you send the MIDI stream out an external port, which you could then connect to expensive external synthesizers such as a Roland Sound Canvas.

The Japanese PC-x8 computers had one of two different FM synthesizers. PC-88s had a more primitive FM synth with less polyphonic capability, while PC-98s had a more robust FM synth with greater polyphonic capability. Many later PC-98 titles even had an option (like many later DOS games) to use an MPU-401 interface to connect to an external synthesizer for the soundtrack, and in fact, quite a surprising number of home users in Japan would spend several hundreds of dollars for a Roland SC-88 or a Yamaha MU-50 just to improve the quality of their video game music. I actually do own a Roland Sound Canvas myself, but I have an excuse since I'm a musician and it actually does help me write music.

Falcom themselves, in fact, even released a number of "MIDI collections" that you could purchase. There was even a Sorcerian MIDI Collection, with a couple tracks even specifically targeting Sound Canvases. When I first purchased my own Sound Canvas back in the 90s, I actually found it very helpful to open these official Falcom MIDIs in my sequencer. It really helped me learn how to get the most out of using that synthesier. Of course, Sound Canvases are hopelessly antiquated synthesizers nowadays (most people who listen to recordings made from one now think it sounds kind of like a "cleaner" Super NES), but I still actually use mine from time to time.

So the main takeaway is that the American DOS version having a "MIDI soundtrack" mostly means that it's more flexible about what kind of synthesizer can play the music, whereas the Japanese version is stuck using the PC-x8's native FM synthesizer. Realistically, the vast majority of American PCs that would have played Sorcerian back in the day would almost CERTAINLY have used an OPL-3 based FM synthesizer of some kind, so it would have sounded different from the Japanese release (if only because the MIDI wasn't programmed for a SPECIFIC synthesizer), but would usually have a sound quality based on analogous technology.

EDIT: Oh, I don't know if Sorcerian was one of them, but many Sierra PC games from that time period had optional "Enhanced" MIDI soundtracks you could select that were designed specifically for a Roland MT-32, which was a sort-of predecessor to the Roland Sound Canvas. It was a unique synthesizer that was neither an FM synth, nor truly sample-based, but rather worked by combining up to four sampled "partials" for each of 8 unique instrument sounds. Later Sound Canvases like mine actually include MT-32 emulation modes, that don't sound QUITE like an actual MT-32 due to treating it as a sample-based synthesizer with each "sample" being comprised of the default combination of partials, whereas a lot of the more creative MT-32 MIDI soundtracks would actually alter partial composition, sometimes in real-time, to create unique effects. Sierra was all about MT-32s. They would advertise them in manuals that came with a bunch of their games, and a lot of their DOS games, like Quest for Glory or Space Quest, had special MT-32 soundtracks that were quite striking. Basically, imagine playing Sorcerian for DOS with a soundtrack that sounds like the CD soundtrack for Warcraft II (which was itself produced using a Roland SC-88).