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MIDI is short for "Musical Instrument Digital Interface", a serial interface created by the synthesizer industry in the early 1980s in an attempt to modernize how synthesizers, drum machines and computers talked to each other. In gaming and on PCs, however, it refers specifically to General MIDI, a specification championed by synth maker Roland to provide a standard base of sounds and commands for an entry-level synthesizer. The first General MIDI-compliant synthesizer was Roland's own SC-50 Sound Canvas, released in 1991.

General MIDI was quite attractive in the early days of computing, because it was (and is) very portable. It only provided notation for a song, not the sounds themselves; if WAV files were recordings and synthesizers were orchestras and bands, then MIDI files were merely the sheet music, an object that is smaller (often only a few KB) and rather more portable than an orchestra. The problem came with the lack of orchestra. Sheet music needs to be performed, after all, and if the entity performing it (like a Pac-Man cabinet) can't produce very good noises, you're stuck. And most computerized entities of the day could not produce very good noises. To get something that wasn't just beeps and bloops, you needed a General MIDI module using PCM samples, which were very expensive at the time; the cheaper FM synthesizers used on PC sound cards weren't up to the task of simulating an entire orchestra well.[1] Instead, MIDI music on PCs sounded like music on the Sega Genesis, another platform with an FM synthesizer. This started to change when Creative and Gravis introduced sound cards with samplers on-board—the Sound Blaster AWE32 and the Ultrasound, repectively[2]. As PCs got more powerful, sound card makers (and, eventually, the operating systems themselves via QuickTime on Macs and Windows machines, and the Microsoft GS Synthesizer module on newer versions of Windows, both of which use licensed Sound Canvas ROMs) added software-based PCM synthesizers, making General MIDI a much more palatable solution comparable to MOD. General MIDI reached its height around the days of the first Play Station, with its 24-voice ADPCM sampler.

The increase in cheap computing power also had the effect of making General MIDI itself obsolete on consumer devices. As hard disk and memory capacity increased, it became easier to include pre-recorded music and elaborate sound-processing engines directly in games for PCs and stationary consoles, making the size advantages of General MIDI moot. Today, MOD and General MIDI are not used for much besides games that need precise tempo control, music in Nintendo DS games, and ringtones on low-end cellphones. Even smartphones have switched to MP 3 or MP4 ringtones.


  1. Though to be fair, the blame lies at least as much with the driver software, if not more; most drivers for Yamaha FM-based cards didn't implement the MIDI standard very well, and the default patch sets were usually sub-par. Games that provided their own instrument sets tended to be a lot better, and there are some good examples of what these chips can really do in the Demoscene. Still, FM definitely is more suited for some kinds of music than others; orchestral music in particular just doesn't work that well.
  2. The Ultrasound was released in 1992, two years before the AWE32, and was the first sample based soundcard for PCs. However, support for the Ultrasound was rather flaky at best, so most users just stuck a Sound Blaster card in their PCs anyway.
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