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.

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