Into the New Millennium With…?

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MIDI is still viewed as an efficient and highly flexible way of handling music for games, Web sites and similar applications.

Much of the credit for the improvements can be taken by the MIDI industry’s adoption—through its administrative body, the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA,—of Downloadable Samples Level 1 (DLS-1). The significance of DLS-1, which is now almost four years old, is that instead of being stuck with the sounds a manufacturer puts into a synthesizer chip’s ROM, or the 128 sounds in the original General MIDI specification, a composer or sound designer can create custom sounds in the form of samples. These can be downloaded as a block into dedicated RAM on the chip and then called up quickly and polyphonically from a MIDI file. In many ways, this makes for the best of both worlds: A 2MB sound set and a few hundred kilobytes of MIDI data can provide literally hours of high-quality, completely interactive music. (Another technology that follows the same general idea is Beatnik, Thomas Dolby Robertson’s contribution to music on the Web.)

But DLS-1 didn’t solve everybody’s problems. Even before it was developed, Creative Technology, the parent company of E-mu and Ensoniq, was working on its own version of this concept, calling it “Sound Fonts,” which was similar to DLS-1 but with more advanced performance features.

DLS-1 and Sound Fonts threatened to cancel each other out, until Creative and the rest of the MIDI industry (as well as the MIT Media Lab and some other interested parties) came up with a higher functioning standard that was acceptable to everyone, and not proprietary to anyone (as Sound Fonts was). This is now known, not surprisingly, as DLS Level 2. The major improvements in DLS-2 are dynamic filters and matrix-based modulation, two features that are essential to any professional-level sampler or synthesizer. DLS-2 was formally adopted by the MMA in the summer of 1999 and has reached beyond the MIDI community to become part of the MPEG-4 standard, where it is called “Structured Audio Sample Bank Format.”

The first DLS-2 chips are about to hit the market, and one manufacturer claims that by the end of 2001, 40 to 60% of all computers being made will have DLS-2 sounds built right into the motherboard. On the game side, Microsoft is supporting the new standard in its upcoming X-Box platform.

Running parallel to DLS and DLS-2 has been the adoption of General MIDI Level 2. Before the ink was even dry on the original General MIDI Specification, which was supposed to ensure a high degree of file compatibility across many synthesis platforms (again, mainly in the consumer realm), Roland and Yamaha announced “extensions” to GM that were, of course, incompatible with each other. These extensions gave their devices more polyphony, effects like reverb and chorus, and an expanded sound palette. Other manufacturers of domestic keyboards and low-cost sound modules wanted to be able to improve the capabilities of their products, as well, but didn’t want to have to license technology from Roland or Yamaha, or invent their own. So, they clamored for a nonproprietary expansion to GM.

GM Level 2 (formally adopted in November 1999) increases the minimum polyphony of an instrument from 16 to 32 voices, defines more controllers and more precisely than the original spec. For example, the new spec includes a formula for mapping MIDI volume controller values to amplitude in dB. (This is largely in response to a survey I designed in the early ’90s on behalf of the MMA, in which it was found that controllers were being used very differently by different manufacturers.)

GM Level 2 also mandates and defines effects and significantly increases the number of available sounds, both instrumental and “rhythm,” or percussive, using Bank Change commands to augment the 128 program changes. The advantage of a GM-2 instrument over a DLS-1 is simply that there is no sound set at all to download. So in applications where there isn’t time or RAM for a downloadable sound set, music can play instantly; even at dial-up connection speeds, a MIDI file playing over the Internet is indistinguishable from one playing over a MIDI cable.


Reprinted with permission from Magazine, January, 2001
© 2001, Intertec Publishing, A Primedia Company All Rights Reserved

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