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!