MIDI in a Nutshell

How to Make MIDI Sound Better

MIDI may be the most misunderstood term on the Net. MP3 gets all the attention, but much of the music you encounter on the Net is MIDI.

Technically, MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a protocol and not a file type, but you don't have to know that in order to listen to MIDI. A more complete explanation is available for the technically-minded.

You should understand that MIDI is not digital audio, but just a series of instructions your sound card uses to play a file. Therefore, MIDI files sound only as good as the sound card used to reproduce them. If you think MIDI sounds tiny and cheap, like an old video game, then you have an old (or cheap) sound card.

Older sound cards use "FM synthesis" to simulate the sounds of real instruments, and the result is indeed synthetic. Better cards use "wavetable synthesis." Short of buying a new sound card, how can you make MIDI sound as good as an MP3 or CD track? 

The best way is with a software synthesizer. This utility replaces the tiny sounds on your card with samples of real instruments. Windows 2000 and some versions of Windows 98 already come equipped with the Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth, which uses the excellent Roland instrument sounds.

How can you tell if your computer is using software synthesis and not FM synthesis? In Windows 95 or 98, select "Start..Control Panel..Multimedia." Then, click on the "MIDI" tab and check "Playback." if the "MIDI Output, Single Instrument" box has selected a device that contains the terms OPL2 or OPL3, then you are using the crummy FM synthesis.

In Windows 2000, select "Start..Settings..Control Panel..Sounds and Multimedia." Then click the "Audio" tab and see what is written in the "MIDI Music Playback" box. You should see "Microsoft GS Wavetable SW Synth."

You may find several options for MIDI playback on your computer. Try changing the settings and see if the sound improves. You won't hurt anything, and can always change the settings back.

So, what do you do if your card uses FM synthesis and your computer doesn't have a software synthesizer? If you use Windows 95 or 98, you have several choices. Yamaha MidPlug is a free plugin for your Web browser and will improve the quality of MIDI files played on the Web. However, to play files saved on your hard drive you need to purchase Yamaha's SoftSynthesizer.

Both Mac and PC users can utilize the latest version of QuickTime, a free multimedia player which includes a software synthesizer. For $54, you can purchase the excellent Roland VSC-88H3 synthesizer (Windows or Mac), but you can buy a new sound card for just a little more.

Finally, your PC will sound much better if you connect it to your home stereo. Tiny speakers will never produce big sound!  (next)

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