Was MIDI Music Better?

MIDI music. You know, that stuff you heard in games way back nearly a decade ago. It sounded a little bit different on almost every sound card. If you played games like Ultima Online or EverQuest “back in the day,” then you’ve heard MIDI music in games. The question I’ve asked myself a number of times and still don’t have an answer to is, “was MIDI music better than MP3 music for games?”

The correct answer is probably just “no.” You could put anything possible in MIDI music in the MP3 format, and a heck of a lot more. The real question is, “was MIDI music better at capturing the core of a song than MP3 music for games?” To that, I generally answer with a shrug and a blown gasket in my brain somewhere.

Note: I’m going to use MP3 as the comparison here for the sake of consistency, even if there are tons of other formats like Ogg, Red Book (CD), etc.

The thing is, I think MIDI composers had to become masters of capturing the real core or heart of what made a song feel right. What made it unique, what gave it the right flavor, etc. They HAD to take a minimalist approach to the song because they had a limited number of channels and potential sounds to work with. And, it is my belief that some of the best creative works come out when an artist has to work within constraints.

MP3 music doesn’t have the constraints of MIDI. There are basically no limits whatsoever to what sounds can be produced in the MP3 format, and it all pretty much comes out of one channel (neglecting for Stereo, Surround, etc.) and sounds the same no matter what sound card you have. An artist has a clean slate to make music however he or she wants these days, and I think that may leave more room for crap than MIDI left.

Think back on some of your favorite video game scores. Were they in a modern format like MP3, where the artist could go wild? Or, were they in MIDI format or something even earlier? Are songs as instantly recognizable now as they used to be in MIDI format?

When I think about my favorite game music of all time, I start with Morrowind. That was in MP3 format, or something similar, and was one of the most amazing works I’ve ever heard for a game’s theme song. But, beyond that, most of the ones I think about are in MIDI format or came from old cartridge game systems or arcade units. EQ music, UO music, Tetris, Pac-Man, Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Mario.

One of the ultimate questions is, “do I feel like the old school music styles had more impact on me because I have gamer blinders on, or was it actually better?” Meaning, do I just have extremely fond memories associated with these games, and that’s why I find them so memorable and emotional? There could be other reasons for me remembering them so well, too.

Primarily, time. In older games, you would hear the same music for much longer and far more frequently. How many zones in modern MMOs do you spend hundreds of hours in, listening to the music at least once per visit? Do I remember the Tetris theme so well because I’ve heard it thousands of times, or was the ultra restrictive format and minimalist approach better and getting it stuck in my noggin?

I’m sure there’s a ton of research out there, and I guarantee you many people who read this blog know more about the subject than me. So, I’d like to hear your opinions and theories on the subject, and feel free to rail me for liking that crappy old school music so much.

18 Responses to "Was MIDI Music Better?"

  1. There’s a handful of old-school music I still enjoy. Mainly stuff from the Amiga such as the Shadow of the Beast soundtrack. Some of the demo guys made interesting music, albeit more of the techno or whatever genre, so not something I’d listen to on my own time.

    Otherwise, it’s nearly 2008 and this is a multi-billion dollar industry. If I’m going to sink the amount of time into these games (MMO’s in particular) that we tend to do, I want a full-blown orchestral soundtrack to immerse me in the setting. I’m not interested in a garage band synth player hacking away to create amateur BGM for a professional game.

  2. I’ve been making music for over 15 years now. Like with anything else, limitations can be great inspiration. It’s almost always good to give any sort of artist some guidelines and challenges to start with. The hard part is to coaxing someone out of their comfort zone without demanding they completely abandon their personal style.

    Personally, I’m a fan of Romanticism, which is about keeping things simple and emotionally powerful. The original Zelda theme is one I really love, though the Halo theme is probably a better example of a minimalist approach. Of course, Mario Bros. is the most memorable theme in gaming history.

    Anyway, starting with a single instrument is a method many beloved classical composers employed. That’s similar to MIDI constraints, in a way. I think it works well to focus on finishing the main line of themes before trying to flesh anything out with other instruments. But no one method works for everybody, and it helps to mix it up.

  3. Short answer: MIDI music was not better, the composers were.

    Longer answer: Low-tech solutions forced composers to have their basic track structure and melodies in order. With MP3s one can hide their incompetence under layers and layers of effects. You don’t require expertise in music theory to be a composer, but it sure helps. A good theme will sound good, no matter whether it’s being played by one guy on an acoustic guitar or a full symphony orchestra. It just takes less effort to make a theme that sounds good only on the latter.

  4. I’m a fan of C64-era chip tunes, myself.

  5. Don’t get me wrong, some chiptunes are better than some of the orchestral pieces I’ve heard. While chiptune composers do make those old synth chips output amazing sounds, the old formats did have their limits. MP3 just allows more artistic freedom for the composer. Whether the composer can make good use of it all is up to the composer himself.

  6. Tim

    Well it’s like asking if 8 bit games were better. Yea sometimes, because there was more concentration on gameplay and imagination – and the same probably goes for MIDI-type music.

  7. gattsuru

    The greats of the MIDI era were amazing, and in many cases, no one is able to do the same thing with MP3 today. Not because of MP3′s abilities — which are undeniably wider — but because MP3 tracks allow things that typically get in the way of the actual music. Moreover, everything that could be done well with MIDI relied on one person’s ability to use the format. With MP3, doing well requires a great original source, and that many video game designers really can’t afford to place.

    The really memorable MIDI stuff was excellent because of this. Secret of Mana, Earthbound, Legend of Zelda songs, the Actraiser tunes… there are handful upon handfuls of SNES games with really well-done music, the sort of stuff you can hum to.

    There are modern-day exceptions, the first coming to mind being the excellent Jets and Guns soundtrack by Machinae Supremacy, or the generated sounds from some Lumines levels, or some of the Metroid Prime tunes, but for every example of them there are dozens of games where the ‘music’ tends toward elevator muzak that thankfully leaves the head quickly or boring instrumentals with latin chanting, more like something from yet another movie than anything intended for a video game. Great tunes that stick in your head three days after playing were common back then; today it’s quite the rare game to have some equivalent to the Sound Stone music. I know people who remember the tune to lower Norfair better than they do the game itself.

    Or maybe I’ve just been exposed to the Oblivion’s exploration creshendo or FFVII’s leitmotif abuse so much that the older stuff just looks better by comparison.

  8. Actually.. MIDI synth is not the same thing as SNES or C-64 synth. MIDI was originally just an interface to plug in instruments to each other and to a computer. Raw MIDI data is just the type of the instrument (piano, violin, guitar etc) plus the notes played with the correct timing. The computer equivalent of sheet music. If you played a few notes on a MIDI-enabled saxophone, the corresponding notes would pop up on your computer’s screen. That’s it. What’s currently known as MIDI is just the opposite: A computer synthesizer playing back those notes. The beauty of MIDI was that skilled musicians could use a familiar interface (MIDI-enabled instruments that handled exactly the same as the real ones) and thus use their full expertise without being forced to learn programming.

    Even the maligned Final Fantasy VII used MIDI music. If you had a crappy sound card with a bad MIDI synthesizer you’d get muted bleeping that’s as far from Uematsu’s more recent productions as the theme tune of Commando was from Halo. However.. if you had a more modern sound card, you’d get those leitmotifs because the sound card used properly modeled samples for each of the MIDI instruments. In other words, old MIDI-using games do actually sound better now than before.

    Synth chips in consoles and home computers were a completely different matter. These ones didn’t even try to emulate real instruments. You just had a bunch of programmable oscillators that produced a base sound wave that you could modify. People who made music with those were programmers first and musicians second. A lot of the music made with these chips was awful, and mercifully has been long forgotten. But those few that had expertise in both programming and music-writing were rightfully revered.

  9. Shalkis wrote:
    What’s currently known as MIDI is just the opposite: A computer synthesizer playing back those notes.

    It’s known as MIDI because the files that produce the music contain MIDI information about playback. Similarly, MP3 isn’t music, but a specification on how to compress music in a lossy manner without degrading the experience for most people. (My tin ears are happy listening to 128k bitrate.) Saying “MP3 music” is just as valid as saying “MIDI music”.

    In other words, old MIDI-using games do actually sound better now than before.

    Unfortunately, not for most people. With the decline in MIDI playback, most computers don’t have high-quality MIDI playback tables, particularly on systems with on-board sound devices. When I upgraded my computer a few years ago and went from a sound card to on-board sound, the MIDI music in Meridian 59 was significantly worse sounding.

    But, if you’re willing to have good (and pay for) MIDI playback, it can sound really awesome. Some of the original M59 MIDI files were run through a very high-quality playback and recorded as redbook audio on the original M59 CD. It sounds really awesome, nearly orchestral. But, most people these days don’t care because of MP3s.

  10. It’s known as MIDI because the files that produce the music contain MIDI information about playback.

    I know. All I was saying people who talk about MIDI usually miss that first part. Old MIDI music doesn’t sound better than some MP3s because it was somehow a more advanced format. It sounded better because professional musicians could use it.

    Similarly, MP3 isn’t music, but a specification on how to compress music in a lossy manner without degrading the experience for most people. (My tin ears are happy listening to 128k bitrate.) Saying “MP3 music” is just as valid as saying “MIDI music”.

    Comparing MIDI and MP3 as purely encoding formats is a bit misleading, because MP3s always decode back into the same waveform, while MIDI decoding quality is intimately tied into the quality of the MIDI synth used.

    Coincidentally, the Final Fantasy VII discussed above also included a software MIDI synth that generally sounded better than the MIDI synths on old cards (but worse than what a Wavetable-using then-modern sound card could produce).

  11. Wolfe

    Im one of those who used to be a musicion :P

    The real benefits of the “oldskool” MIDI format are, or maybe were, two:

    1 – Speed of iteration is ultra high. The number of knobs to tweak is very low and you can evaluate the value of a piece of work after a short amount of time working on it. To make decent use of the bandwidth in mp3 you need to spend a lot of time refining the details. To use another description: modern composing use less prototyping.

    2 – The average quality was real low. This had the benefit of giving the composer an easy target to shoot at for writing something which will be good enough for the expecations of the audience. When the average quality of the competition increase the composer will be more hesitant to write something with a lot of personality, because personality will most likely be considered as a flaw by those who invest in the project. Modern game composers are therefore likely to be more conservative.

    A good composer can tweak a MIDI rig to where its impossible to hear the MIDIness of it. It takes a while but know that almost all modern pop music is fundamentally based on MIDI arrangements. A modern studio runs a bunch of MIDI tracks through a bunch of techy things, some of those things are recordings of analog things like human voices or whatever. MIDI is just a toolkit, often part of the chain which create the mp3.

    So here I’ll get a bit crazy:

    A smart music engine could basically emulate the modern pop studio, then you would be able to do real adaptive music with a tinywiny footprint. A small enough footprint to be sent in realtime across the internet.

    A good composer would be able to develop music which morph between metal, orchestral, electronic, jazz and so on without needing more data than the soundfonts and effect settings. However doing that today still demands a lot of computational power from the average PC, but its now quite doable with standard software like qbase, fruityloops or similar.

    Im sure you could include qbase from 2000 as music engine in almost any game without noticing much performance loss. Nor would you notice any MIDIness as loss of quality.

  12. Tashtego

    I would have to agree most closely with Shalkis on this one; the quality of select “old-school” MIDI tracks was due primarily to the quality of the composers involved.
    However, I would also stress the point that the minimalist approach required by the technology limitations of the time led to these artists really squeezing out their creative juices, as mentioned in the main post. Trying to express emotion or, more importantly, attempting to evoke significant emotion from another is a difficult task and when one is forced to accomplish the task using the most minimal of tools, a clean and efficient product tends to be the most ideal result. Adhering to the ideals of minimalism in such a process forces the creator to concentrate on the core elements that they are trying to express and ignore all the fluff. The focused product that results tends to have the greatest impact on the audience, primarily I believe, because it leaves a lot to the audience’s imagination which is the most powerful tool of all.

    Top 3 Favorite MIDI tunes: Legend of Zelda, Betrayal at Krondor, The Crescent Hawk’s Revenge

  13. iMuse did indeed morph music on-the-fly and a modern PC could probably do the same with real samples, but the problem is that the resulting music must be really extraordinary to justify the cost in processing power. Modern games are among the most resource-hungry applications in existence for consumer-grade computers, and extra demands might not be welcomed. Unless, of course, the overall performance was bottlenecked somewhere else. A manycore processor could probably spare a few cores for live post-processing without compromising the framerate. At least until raytracing engines make a breakthrough..

  14. i’m not a big gamer these days but i get frustrated every time i play a modern game that the score seems to play, more freq. than not a more atmospheric role. I loved that you could play those old games for hours and then you’d stop but still have some quirkly little clever midi theme stuck in your head. These days it seems I stop playing a game but just leave remembering a lot of reverb, some weird low rumble like sounds and maybe some sort of vague emulated orchestral strings. I’d rather hear pieces of music and those old midi sounds were bursting with personality. I don’t play games too much but.

  15. Hey all. I found this blog while looking for more resources for my page and figured you guys might like what’s on it.
    Some of my favorite songs are MIDI and tracked music. Even tho they were made many years ago they were just so well composed that they still stick in my head.
    BTW, most music on tv and film scores are still MIDI, just the samples are so sophisticated you can’t tell. A lot of them are made with huge sample packs like the East West Colossus Library (38 gigs of sampled instruments) and rendered through Gigasampler or some similar program. That’s what I love about General Midi – the same song can sound completely different but still maintain it’s charm.

  16. […] I have a fondness for older-style game music. I agree with what Ryan Shwayder once wrote when he said, “I think MIDI composers had to become masters of capturing the real core or […]

  17. […] I have a fondness for older-style game music. I agree with what Ryan Shwayder once wrote when he said, “I think MIDI composers had to become masters of capturing the real core or […]

  18. […] I have a fondness for older-style game music. I agree with what Ryan Shwayder once wrote when he said, “I think MIDI composers had to become masters of capturing the real core or […]

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