Grand MS-DOS gaming General MIDI showdown
Table of contents
The Roland SC-55 sound module is the undisputed king of mid-late 90s General MIDI music in MS-DOS retro gaming circles. Well, I’m going to dispute that a bit in the present article, and I’m going to do more than just talk: as a happy new owner of a real SC-55 and one of its later competitors, the glorious Yamaha MU80, I’m going to put these two bad boys from the 90s to the test, along with their software recreation attempts.
You can read all sorts of opinions and claims on this subject over the great (mis)information source of our time, the Internet, such as:
- The Roland Sound Canvas VA (SCVA) emulates the SC-55 well
- The SC-55 mode of the SCVA is inaccurate
- The SC-88, SC-88Pro and SC-8820 are superior to the SC-55
- Music composed on the SC-55 sounds wrong on anything else
- The Yamaha modules are much better than anything ever put out by Roland
- The Yamaha S-YXG50 is a 100% identical recreation of the Yamaha DB50XG
And the list goes on… But instead of relying on second-hand information, anecdotes, and vague personal opinions, I’ll present you with high-quality lossless recordings of no less than 46 classic DOS game soundtracks, each recorded on 7 different MIDI modules! That’s 322 recordings in total, yikes!
Of course, then I’ll share my own anecdotal and vague personal opinions on the matter—whether you ask for it or not—but that’s just how it goes. But now at least you’ll have the option to disregard what I’m saying and draw your own conclusions based solely on the recordings. Moreover, I’ll share all the MIDI files and the REAPER project files as well, so you can create your own recordings, should you wish to do so.
Meet the contestants
Roland Sound Canvas SC-55
The Sound Canvas SC-55 external MIDI module was released in 1991 by Roland as the successor of their Roland MT-32 family of modules. This was the world’s first synthesiser with General MIDI support, and it quickly established itself as the de facto standard for high-quality General MIDI audio in DOS gaming—a status that remained largely unchanged until the end of the DOS era.
Apart from supporting the General MIDI standard (GM, in short), the SC-55 also supports Roland’s own General Standard (GS), which extends the General MIDI instrument list with additional instrument variations and drum kit sounds, and provides a standardised mechanism for adjusting chorus and reverb effect parameters, among a few other things.
Most DOS games that have a “General MIDI” sound option use in fact not just GM, but also GS features. Variation instruments are generally avoided—presumably for better compatibility with GM-only modules—, but per-instrument chorus and reverb settings are frequently employed. As a result of this, some compositions may sound overly dry on GM-only modules that feature no such effects, lacking space and ambience. On other GM-only modules that do feature these effects but don’t allow fine-tuning their per-instrument levels via GS messages, the music may sometimes sound as if it was recorded in a cave!
In short, if you want to experience MIDI music in DOS games at their best form, as their composers intended, you’ll need a GS-compatible device.
I have recently bought an original Roland SC-55 from eBay Japan in near-mint condition—probably retired from a prestigious karaoke bar after decades of faithful service, entertaining drunk CEOs on the weekends… My unit was manufactured in 1991; it’s one of the early revisions without a General MIDI logo on the front plate (probably because the General MIDI standard released in 1991 wasn’t fully finalised at the time of manufacture yet). It has the v1.21 ROM, which is considered to be the overall best version for DOS gaming.
Roland Sound Canvas VA
Roland’s Sound Canvas VA software synthesiser VSTi plugin was first released in 2015. It provides a software recreation of one of the last members of the Sound Canvas family, the Roland SC-8820 module from 1999 (a cut-down version of the SC-8850). It does not emulate the SC-55 directly, but it can be switched into SC-55, SC-88, and SC-88 Pro compatibility modes, just like the real SC-8820.
Although not perfect, this is the closest recreation of the original SC-55 in software form as of 2023.
Because the SCVA can emulate later Sound Canvas modules, and people have made various claims about them over the years, naturally I’ll put all available models to the test. Knowing the year of introduction of a particular model might give you some hints about whether it’s suitable for a given game. The general logic behind this is that in say 1995 most people—including the composers—likely owned the upgraded SC-88 instead of the original SC-55, so the music must have been optimised for the module most people had access to. That’s sound reasoning, but I’ve found little empirical evidence to back up that claim based on my listening tests, but more on that later. Anyway, here are the original release dates of the different models:
|Roland Sound Canvas model||Year of release|
The Yamaha MU-series of MIDI modules were Yamaha’s answer to Roland’s Sound Canvas line. The Yamaha MU80 was introduced in 1994 as a competitor to the Roland SC-88, the successor of the SC-55.
Apart from basic GM support, the MU80 also has an excellent GS compatibility mode that sounds eerily close to the original Sound Canvas on most source materials. Additionally, the MU series also supports Yamaha’s vastly superior XG standard (EXtended General MIDI) which was sadly criminally underutilised in games. Because of this, we’ll only investigate the GS compatibility mode in this article.
While the SC-55 was squarely aimed at the computer hobbyist market, the MU80 is at least a semi-pro sound module that found its way into many studios over the world. Objectively, it’s a much better device; the build quality is much more solid, and the range and quality of available instruments and effects are simply a league above the SC-55. But all this is for naught for us DOS gamers if its GS compatibility mode doesn’t sound great! 1
Is the MU80 a superior piece of studio equipment unsuitable for gaming purposes? Or can it perhaps outdo Roland at its own thing? Fear not! As I happen to be the happy owner of a Yamaha MU80 from 1994—again purchased from eBay Japan—we will find out the answers to these pressing questions!
In 2003, Yamaha released the Yamaha S-YXG50 software synthesiser VSTi plugin as part of their SOL2 package. The S-YXG50 is a software recreation of their earlier DB50XG wavetable add-on card, which is a scaled-down version of their MU50 external MIDI module, which is in turn a scaled-down version of the MU80, the very first module supporting the XG standard. From a purely DOS gaming perspective, these differences don’t really matter; they’re all pretty much interchangeable when all you care about is games.
In 2016, a Belarusian programmer created an ultimate portable VSTi version of this softsynth with the copy-protection removed, mixing and matching parts from various official Yamaha software releases. The plugin uses the original 4MB wavetable ROM of the MU lineup, and it sounds extremely close to the MU80 on most materials. As Yamaha discontinued all their software products in 2003, the S-YXG50 can be considered abandonware for practical purposes.
Unless approached methodically, the likelihood of self-delusion or honest error in an endeavour like this is rather high. In order to turn this exercise into a repeatable process, and to be able to batch-render the softsynth versions in offline mode (faster than real-time), first I needed to record the MIDI output of the games. This also ensured that all different MIDI modules are sent exactly the same MIDI data during the audio recording process.
As I’m intending to record lots of game music in the coming years, I think it’s best to document my recording process here once and for all.
Capturing MIDI data
Record MIDI data from the game running in DOSBox Staging via loopMIDI into REAPER. The REAPER project was set to 120 BPM and 960 PPQ MIDI event resolution, resulting in a MIDI event quantisation of 60 × 1000 / 120 / 960 = ~0.52 ms.
Split the continuous MIDI stream into individual songs (when needed), perform minimal cleanup if necessary, and insert a “GS Reset” SysEx message at the start of each song.
Notes and exceptions
The Elders Scrolls: Arena — I did not record these in-game but I used the PX Player DOS utility that can play back XMI MIDI files using the original Miles Sound System drivers. Word of warning: this usually results in identical results, but in rare cases, the tempo might be off (e.g., for Discworld). Therefore, the results must always be checked against the actual in-game music or known-good recordings when taking this shortcut!
System Shock — Similarly, I used PX to play the intro tune to make the transition to the menu screen at the end sound smoother.
Star Wars: TIE Fighter — The sound driver lowers the music volume during voice-overs even when digital sound is disabled. I edited these volume fades out manually while taking care to leave “legitimate” fades intact (e.g., during song transitions).
Quest for Glory III — Removed the fade-in at the start of the Apothecary’s Hut song.
Warcraft II — Imported the official MIDI tracks released by the composer straight into REAPER.
Leisure Suit Larry 6 — Edited out the sound effects from the intro music because I found them too distracting.
Realms of Arkania — I used PX to capture the intro music because the game insists on automatically exiting the intro well before the end of the tune.
Some games send copious amounts of MIDI CC (Continuous Controller), PC (Program Change), or SysEx (System Exclusive) data right before the first notes of the compositions. This sudden surge of MIDI messages can take some time to process, causing the first note to be partially cut off. Perhaps this wasn’t a problem on all MIDI modules, especially later ones such as the SC-55 mkII, but they’re definitely causing issues on my first revision SC-55 and MU80 hardware modules. Softsynths are completely unaffected by this.
Recording the audio
Sequence the songs on a timeline, and record all of them in one go.
For the hardware recordings, the MIDI data was fed to the MIDI modules via a Midisport 2x2 USB box, and the audio was recorded at 24-bit / 48kHz through the internal DAC of a Yamaha MG10XU analog mixer (it can also act as a USB audio interface). This is a “prosumer” level, neutral-sounding mixer with a flat frequency response and very little self-noise (well below -96dBFS).
The output knob of the Roland SC-55 was set to 12’o clock; this was the best balance between having a good signal level and not driving the module into distortion even on high peaks. The Yamaha MU80 could be set a fair bit higher; 3’o clock was deemed to be the best position for the Yamaha’s output knob.
- For the softsynth VSTs, the audio was rendered at faster-than-realtime speed using REAPER’s offline render functionality.
Only volume adjustments were performed in post-processing to normalise the perceived loudness of the individual songs, plus some fade-outs were added. The volume adjustments were added non-destructively in the REAPER project, so the source waveforms got scaled only once before the final render.
Noise-shaped dither was enabled for the final render due to the 24 to 16-bit reduction.
All recordings are available at the Internet Archive.
You can listen to the recordings there online via the web-based audio player, or you can download the whole pack (almost 6GB), or just the 16-bit / 48kHz FLAC originals (4.3 GB) or the MP3 conversions (1.1 GB).
The MIDI files and the REAPER project file I used for the recording process are also available, plus another REAPER project with all the FLAC versions imported onto separate tracks (one track per MIDI module).
I recommend using that project for A/B listening comparisons
general-midi-comparison-flac.rpp). To use it, download the FLAC files and
put them into the
Renders subdirectory inside the REAPER project directory.
REAPER will take its time when loading the project for the first time to
generate the waveform “peaks” files for the FLACs, so please be patient. All
recordings are time-aligned and volume-matched, so you can easily switch
between them during playback to perform A/B comparisons using REAPER’s
exclusive solo functionality (Ctrl+Alt+Left Click on
the Solo (
Now some quick notes about my preferences as I’m listening to the recordings while switching between the Yamaha MU80 and various Roland Sound Canvas versions.
Of course, if you wake up in the morning with “fresh ears”, pick one of the modules at random, then go play some games, none of these relatively small differences would really jump out—your ears would just get used to the general tonal signature of that model, and that’s it. I guess this is one of the drawbacks of A/B comparisons, and I kinda get why some people are against them—it’s unavoidable that you become hyper-focused on the differences. You’re effectively training yourself to become hyper-focused, and you’ll notice things you normally wouldn’t when just enjoying the music. So read the below notes with that in mind. But anyway, this is as “objective” and “scientific” as I can make it, and I find making these comparisons a lot of fun, so here we go!
Discworld (1995) Yamaha MU80
I prefer the MU80 by far; it sounds a lot fuller than the Sound Canvas, and the higher-quality reverb of the Yamaha really brings the relatively sparse arrangements to life. The SC-55 sounds tinny in comparison; its over–prominent midrange gets annoying after a while in the woodwind-heavy music. This is improved in the SC-88 version, but I just find the hardware MU80 a lot more pleasant to listen to. The loss of sparkle is very noticeable on the harpsichord parts on the S-YXG50, and with the more pronounced midrange, we’re one step closer to the nasal SC-55 territory…
Descent (1995) Yamaha MU80
The Yamaha absolutely shines on electronic music, and these tracks are no exception. The drums and bass are massive compared to the rather wimpy SC-55 rendition. Surprisingly, the SC-88 version sounds almost as good as the Yamaha (but not the SC-88Pro version which has far too many different sounding instruments).
Azrael’s Tear (1996) Roland SC-55
Although the MU80 sounds more expansive and spacious on this one, the smaller-sounding SC-55 rendition has a more intimate feel that fits the game’s atmosphere better (the music was composed for the SC-55). This is one of the tracks where you can spot some instruments sounding different on the S-YXG50 compared to the hardware. Specifically, the flute on the softsynth is rather annoying, whereas on the MU80 it’s quite beautiful-sounding.
Doom (1993) Roland SC-88Pro
This is the single track of all that sounds best on the SC-88Pro! The other Sound Canvas modules are OK too, but they lack bass and impact compared to the SC-88Pro. The Yamaha has over-prominent drums which gets a bit annoying. One notable shortcoming of the SCVA is that it doesn’t seem to support proper cymbal chokes. You can hear that in the intro; the cymbal hits at the start of the bars don’t ring out but stop abruptly on the SC-55 rendition. Yes, that’s absolutely how it’s supposed to sound. (Some dudes in some forum theorised that was a bug in the original SC-55, and the SCVA “fixed it”. Because cymbals “don’t do that in real life”… You guys are killing me! 🤣)
Quest for Glory III (1992) Roland SC-55
The more lo-fi presentation of the SC-55 gives this soundtrack a certain charm, plus it sounds more balanced on the Roland. The SC-88 rendition is also very good, and so is the MU80, but the Yahama just makes it sound a bit too polished and modern for my taste.
Sam & Max: Hit the Road (1993) Roland SC-55
Better overall balance on the SC-55 and the drums sound like a rock/metal drummer’s idea of jazz drumming on the Yamaha (for the less musically inclined: that’s not something you want). Not a big fan of the sax samples on the Yamaha either, too nasal. Later Sound Canvas models introduce various balance issues (e.g., the double-bass sounds too forward).
Shadow Warrior (1997) Yamaha MU80
The Yamaha sounds a lot better on this modern prog-metal-styled material. The SC-55 is quite tinny in comparison and you can barely hear the drums. Strange because it was composed for the SC-55. It sounds even worse on the SC-88. The superiority of the hardware MU80 versus the S-YXG50 is quite evident on a full-frequency range material like this (the hardware has more sparkle, more low-end grunt, better stereo image, and a better sense of space).
Space Quest V: The Next Mutation (1993) Yamaha MU80
Even though originally composed on the SC-55, the music sounds more balanced and more “hi-fi” on the Yamaha which tames the sometimes over-prominent midrange of the SC-55. I prefer the deeper bass of the MU80 too.
System Shock (1994) Yamaha MU80
Yamaha all the way! 😎🤘 It’s not even a contest! The hardware MU80 oozes character and makes a big difference over the S-YXG50 once again—the softsynth version sounds pretty flat and too polite in comparison.
Star Wars: TIE Fighter - Collector’s CD-ROM (1995) Yamaha MU80
The Roland and Yamaha renditions are very close to each other. The Yamaha has more bass, sounds more epic, and therefore is my preference.
The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994) Roland SC-55
The combat track sounds better and more monumental on the Yahama, and the much higher-quality reverb of the Yamaha can be clearly heard in the sparse arrangement. But some of the synth patches sound way too different in the dungeon music compared to the Roland, which markedly alters the atmosphere—I’d say for the worse. The pieces featuring a full orchestra also sound better balanced on the SC-55. This soundtrack was composed on the SC-55, and it sounds best on that module.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (1993) Yamaha MU80
Originally composed for the SC-55, but it sounds a lot better on the Yamaha. The weak bass and overall tinny character of the Roland are painfully obvious here. Switching from the MU80 version to the SC-55 makes you think you’re now listening to the music on an old portable radio! This is especially apparent in the menu music.
Death Gate (1994) Yamaha MU80
I find the MU80 version more pleasant to listen to because of the more recessed midrange. Some of the flute sounds get ear-piercing on the SC-55.
Betrayal at Krondor (1993) Roland SC-55
The tonal balance is best on the SC-55. The marching snare drums are too loud on the Yamaha, and some instruments sound pretty weird on later Sound Canvas models.
WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness (1995) Yamaha MU80
Originally composed for the SC-88, but it sounds far cleaner and a lot more impactful on the MU80. The better quality reverb of the Yamaha really brings orchestral compositions such as this one to life.
Duke Nukem 3D (1996) Roland SC-55
Best on the real SC-55. The drums are way too loud on the MU80 and everything else is off balance too in a rather bad way. The drum samples sound different on the SC-55—for the worse—and the renditions of all later Sound Canvas modules sound hilariously bad.
Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out! (1993) Yamaha MU80
The deeper tonal character of the Yamaha fits the music very nicely. The flute is a little bit on the loud side in the lobby music, but I can live with that. That’s on real hardware; the flute sample on the Y-SXG50 sounds so annoying that I prefer the SCVA SC-55 version. I don’t like the renditions of later Sound Canvas models at all.
Transport Tycoon Deluxe (1995) Roland SC-55
The balance is pretty much perfect on the SC-55, while the heavier-hitting drums of the MU80 are just too much. All later Sound Canvas models make this music sound bad in different ways.
Under a Killing Moon (1994) Roland SC-55
The soundtrack is so perfectly balanced for the SC-55 that it just sounds wrong on anything else. The Yamaha in particular manages to make the Tex’s Office track sound out of tune, which is impressive in itself!
Stonekeep (1995) Yamaha MU80
I prefer the deeper and darker sound of the MU80 version, but it’s not a night and day difference. This is one of the soundtracks that sounds good on any module.
Realms of Arkania: Star Trail (1994) Yamaha MU80
This was clearly composed for the SC-55, but I like the darker, more realistic, and more modern-sounding rendition of the MU80. The SC-55 version sounds a bit too much like computer music compared to the MU80.
So what does that give us? 12 votes for the Yamaha and 9 for the Roland. That’s more than a slight bias toward the Yamaha. Hmmm, interesting!
Okay, ready for the grand finale? I’m certain you can hardly wait for the final conclusions: which one sounds “best”? which one should I get?
Well, if you can get hold of just one of these MIDI modules, either software or hardware, you’ll get lots of enjoyment out of it. Yes, some fare better with certain games than others, there’s no denying that. But the thing is, if you use the same single module for all your DOS gaming, you just won’t know any better, and you won’t notice anything particularly wrong with the majority of game soundtracks. Also remember that these were expensive devices back in the day, usually costing upwards of 500 USD. You could consider yourself lucky for the privilege of owning one; hoarding all the General MIDI modules under the sun is a relatively new phenomenon in retro-gaming circles.
While I can certainly detect some differences between the modules when seamlessly A/B comparing them without pausing the audio, I’d be hard-pressed to correctly identify them in a blind listening test. Even more so when I’m just enjoying a game and my focus is split between the music, the graphics, and the actual gameplay.
Anyway, here are my observations—I just wanted to include the above disclaimer because now we’re getting into serious audiophile cork sniffer territory!
Roland SC-55 vs Roland Sound Canvas VA
Contrary to what Internet hearsay would make you believe, the Roland Sound Canvas VA is an excellent substitute for the real SC-55. Technically, it does not directly emulate the SC-55 but the much later SC-8820 module, which has an SC-55 emulation mode. This doesn’t matter much though because it just sounds stellar and true to the real SC-55 for the most part. But it should be also noted that while good enough for everyday gaming purposes, the Sound Canvas VA should not be the final word when it comes to 100% authenticity (e.g. if you want to write an authentic SC-55 emulator, the SCVA simply isn’t a perfect and flawless reference implementation).
The real hardware sounds a bit nicer and has a beefier low-end, but this becomes all very theoretical if you can’t get hold of one, don’t have the space for it, or want to play DOS games on a laptop while commuting—the SCVA will do the job just fine in these scenarios, and you won’t be missing out on much as a gamer.
Some specific observations:
The SCVA in SC-55 mode uses the same samples as the hardware module—for the most part. Some of the drums sound different; you can notice this by A/B comparing the rock/metal-oriented Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, and Shadow Warrior soundtracks. It’s not that significant, though, and by no means sounds worse, only different. There are other differences too; for example, the string samples are not quite the same either (I find them subjectively inferior compared to the real deal), which is apparent when they are playing in isolation (e.g., the start of the Daggerfall combat music).
The analog output stage of the hardware unit gives it a certain character that the SCVA doesn’t replicate as it does not seem to perform any analog emulation (essentially, it’s just a fully digital sample player). This is most noticeable in full-range music that fills the whole frequency spectrum from the deep bass region to the very high end (typically, the more synth-oriented and rock/metal tracks). Try A/B comparing the System Shock intro music on a good pair of headphones, the difference is quite obvious. I’m pretty sure what we’re hearing is the effects of some subtle saturation distortion the relatively low-cost analog output stages impart to the sound. Subjectively, this results in a tighter bottom end, wider stereo image, and a more spacious, more “3D” sound.2
Rarely, some effects are not applied correctly, e.g., the synth bass in the System Shock intro track sounds completely mono on the SCVA, whereas it has a nice stereo width due to the chorus effect of the SC-55. However, this is a very rare occurrence; on most tracks, the effects are very similar on all instruments.
I used the word “similar” on purpose as there are some noticeable subtle differences between the SCVA and the SC-55 reverb. On the hardware, the reverb has a little bit better sense of space. This is probably due to the floating-point versus fixed-point algorithm implementation, or something like that (the “magic” of certain digital Lexicon reverb units from the 90s lies partly in the various noises and rounding errors introduced by their fixed-point algorithms; this might well be the case here too).
My early revision SC-55 unit has polyphony limits that the SCVA doesn’t emulate. This manifests in missing or cut notes on some soundtracks; e.g., there’s a rapid string run section in the TIE Fighter intro track where only the initial notes can be heard on the hardware. Presumably, the music was composed on the later SC-55 mkII, which has higher polyphony limits.
There’s some weird quantisation noise as notes fade into silence on the SC-55. This is usually not noticeable when the music is constantly playing (as it rarely fades into complete silence), so it’s not a big deal when just playing games (however, it would be when using the module for music production). Thankfully, the SCVA does not replicate this quirk.
The SC-55 is a little bit noisy. It’s okay for a consumer unit and it never becomes annoying during gaming on headphones, but this would quickly become a real problem during studio usage. (Yes, I’ve eliminated all sources of noise, I’m using a high-quality noiseless AC adapter meant for musical applications, good-quality cables, and my mixer is effectively noiseless—it’s definitely the self-noise of the unit).
Roland SC-55 vs later Sound Canvas models
Some people claim that later DOS games sound better on the SC-88 because that was supposedly more widespread in the second half of the 90s. That’s a nice theory but there’s not much to back up that claim. First of all, many later DOS-era games released after 1995 have been confirmed to be composed for the SC-55 (e.g., Azrael’s Tear (1996), Duke Nukem 3D (1996) and Stonekeep (1995)). Secondly, these were expensive devices; people who already owned an SC-55 were unlikely to upgrade to the SC-88 for marginal benefits, and game developers had to cater to the least common denominator, which was the original SC-55.
But whatever the reasons, I rarely found any use for the SC-88 and later modes on the SCVA. So while the ability to emulate all these different modules seems good on paper, in reality, you’ll be using the SC-55 compatibility mode almost exclusively with DOS games.
Roland SC-55 vs Yamaha MU80
Now things get interesting! The Yamaha MU80 is just a better device—both objectively and subjectively. The MU80 has a lower noise floor, doesn’t suffer from polyphony issues, has generally higher quality samples, and the chorus and reverb effects sound noticeably better. The hardware MU80 also has a certain top-end sparkle and low-end weight and grunt the SC-55 is lacking. It sounds a little bit like a built-in equaliser curve, but I have to say it sounds really good on most materials. The resulting sound signature is deeper, more “hi-fi”, and less strident than the mid-heavy, bass-shy SC-55. While the Roland often sounds very much like computer music (which no doubt has its charms, I must admit), the MU80 is a big step closer to “CD quality” soundtracks. However, I realise some might find the “computer music” quality of the SC-55 preferable, either due to nostalgic or aesthetic reasons. Also, the drums are much more prominent on the Yamaha, making electronic and rock/metal-oriented tracks sound a lot more exciting.
The only problem with the improved samples is that some music specifically composed for the SC-55 may sound a little bit off-balance on the MU80. In my experience, this happens far less often than various online sources would make you believe. Even though many game soundtracks sound different on the Yahama, I think that’s for the better—it’s as if the same source material was given to a different mixing engineer, who then created a final rendition that is just more impactful, vibrant, and exciting than the SC-55 original.
In rare cases, these changes can make some pieces composed on the SC-55 fall apart a little bit, but the results are never “unlistenably bad”. Jazzy tracks featuring soft drumming are the most problematic; the Yamaha can make jazz drumming sound a bit too heavy-handed at times, and I’m not overly fond of the sax samples of the MU80 either. These differences are not ideal, but again, not disastrous either.
In my view, the improvements the MU80 brings to the table on many soundtracks are hard to ignore and outweigh these relatively minor and rare issues. Overall, if I had to pick a single MIDI module for all my DOS gaming, it would be the hardware Yamaha MU80, hands down.
Yamaha MU80 vs Yamaha S-YXG50
Similarly to the Roland, the real hardware Yamaha MU80 sounds more vibrant, deep, exciting, spacious, and “3D” than its softsynth counterpart. The differences are more noticeable than in the case of the Roland modules. The hardware MU80 has a certain very attractive high-frequency “shimmer” or “presence” to the sound that the S-YXG50 lacks. The mids are also quite a bit more recessed, making the sound subjectively more “hi-fi”. I find it unlikely that all these effects can be solely attributed to the analog output stages like in the case of the SC-55 (although they’re certainly partially responsible for the differences). I would bet on it that Yamaha employed some “sweetening stage” at the output of the MU80, either digital or analog, that hasn’t been emulated in the softsynth. As noted before, the reverb algorithm also sounds subtly richer, more spacious, and more “3D”.
Apart from these sound signature related differences, at the pure sample reproduction level, the S-YXG50 is a lot closer to the MU80 than the SCVA is to the SC-55. I’ve only noticed two instances where the instruments differ: one of the flute instruments is quite annoying, loud, and mid-range heavy on the softsynth (very audible in the Azral’s Tear music), and the synth-bass in the System Shock intro is rather anemic compared to the hardware.
There’s one slightly troubling issue with the S-YXG50: in the System Shock and Shadow Warrior soundtracks, I noticed that sometimes there’s some weird feedback forming on some of the sounds, ultimately culminating in hanging notes. This is pretty random, but I had to render these two tracks several times to get a single good take that doesn’t exhibit the issue. I haven’t encountered the problem on any of the other tracks, so this is still a bit of a mystery, and it would need further investigation.
Overall, the S-YXG50 is a stellar free Yamaha MU80 / DB50XG substitute with very few issues compared to the real hardware. If you’re using a VST host that supports plugin chains, you can slap on an EQ plugin after the S-YXG50 to approximate the pleasant mid-scooped sound of the hardware, and maybe an exciter too to add back a little bit of that nice high-end shimmer.
So, the Yamaha MU80 got the gold medal! Congratulations, Yamaha! This is good
news because you can get the
free“liberated” S-YXG50 VSTi plugin and enjoy
a faithful MU80 emulation for all your DOS gaming needs.
The SCVA surely sounds nice too, and it’s pretty close to the real SC-55, but I imagine Roland’s subscription-based payment model, where you only “rent” the plugin, could be quite offputting to many people. They also seem to offer a “Lifetime Key” option (as in the lifetime of Roland, the company, not you, the customer, if that wouldn’t be entirely clear 😎) where you pay a fixed price upfront and only need to activate the plugin once online… or whenever you buy a new machine… or install a new OS… or… you get the drift. As you can tell, I’m not enthusiastic about DRM. It’s still an excellent softsynth for sure, and I wouldn’t mind paying Roland a one-time fee for the privilege of using a DRM-less version—but this is what we’ve got now, and you gotta do what you gotta do…
About the analog sweetening effects of the hardware boxes, both of them feature analog audio inputs, so I think I’ll experiment with routing some test signals through them in the hope of finding out more about what they’re doing to the sound (based on the assumption that the audio in and the synthesised output share the same signal path).
I hope you found this article and the audio recordings interesting and useful! Stay tuned, as I might put some GS-compatible SoundFonts to the test in a future post using the same MIDI files.
Recordings, links & further reading
Sound On Sound — Roland Sound Canvas SC-55 review (from 1991)
Sound On Sound — Roland Sound Canvas SC-88 review (from 1997)
Sound On Sound — Roland Sound Canvas SC-8850 review (from 1999)
Sound On Sound — Yamaha MU50 & Yamaha CBX-K1 review (from 1995)
Sound On Sound — Demystifying Yamaha’s XG Soundcards (from 1998)
Yamaha — Evolution of the MU Series as the Ultimate PCM Tone Generator
Before anyone reprimanded me that this is an unfair comparison, and I should compare the MU80 to the SC-88 or SC88Pro, I’d like to point out that Yahama subsequently released a number of cut-down versions of the MU80: the consumer-level MU50, and the DB50XG wavetable add-on card aimed at computer enthusiasts. As far as I’m aware, these modules sound very close or maybe even identical to each other in GS compatibility mode, so the comparison to the SC-55 is very much valid. ↩︎
Many synths and samplers, especially from the 90s, feature both analog and digital SPDIF output connections, and quite a few people prefer the sound of their analog output. The digital signal often sounds a lot colder and thinner in comparison without those euphonic non-linearities imparted by the analog output stages. This is something I have personally noticed between the analog and digital outputs of the Sound Blaster AWE32. People in studio circles have been using various analog equipment as subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) distortion boxes for decades because they simply make everything you send through them more exciting in a larger-than-life manner (“a caricature is always more interesting than reality”). “Pegging the meters”, and “driving things into the red” are staple music production techniques in pretty much all popular musical genres going back to the 60s, except for some more “pure” forms of acoustic music perhaps (and classical, but that’s hardly popular). ↩︎
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