Virtual vs. Reality:

hardware and software wavetable midi synthesizers

including a comparison of Yamaha MidPlug Soft Synthesizer with Roland Virtual Sound Canvas [revised 8-25-96 to include release 2.00b1 of Yamaha "MidPlug"]

I. OVERVIEW: music on computers

For personal computer users, wavetable music synthesis has been the high-end alternative to FM synthesis for the past 5 years or so. FM synthesis first appeared in pc's in the second half of the 1980's on the Adlib music card, and in more advanced (and expensive) form on the IBM Music Feature card. Wavetable synthesis addons for computers are slightly more recent and the same hardware companies that have been the major manufacturers of electronic music keyboards for musicians: Roland, Yamaha, Ensoniq and Emu, have been major players (along with new entries such as Turtle Beach). Turtle Beach originally used wavetable technology from Emu, until shortly after the latter was acquired by Creative Labs, a Singapore based PC card manufacturer best known for its SoundBlaster soundcards, as Creative added wavetable capabilities to some of their cards.

These companies have made a variety of pc cards and external modules intended to add high quality wavetable music to personal computers. Roland pioneered with the MPU-401 midi port to link pc's with the world of midi instuments, and supported personal computer midi with a series of high quality midi modules and cards, including the CM series of external midi tone systhesis modules intended to be used with computers. At the end of the 1980's, Roland also made the LAPC-1 synthesizer on a card (very similar to their popular MT32 synthesizer module, or Roland's D series keyboards). This synthesis technique used a hybrid of wavetable and digital oscillator synthesis. And in 1991 they introduced both the original SC-55 Sound Canvas, and by the end of the year, the Sound Canvas on a pc card, the SCC1, a minor revision of which is still sold.

Yamaha, on the other hand, has dominated the FM synthesis chip market, making the FM synthesis chips for IBM, Adlib, Creative Labs, MediaVision, and other soundcard makers. More recently, they have introduced external wavetable modules, wavetable chip sets, and very recently their own wavetable cards and "daughterboards", designed to mount on the side of pc sound cards which have the right connector. These daughtercards then add wavetable midi to a basic soundcard.

1996 however brings an interesting twist. These two major midi hardware makers have finally produced entirely software wavetable midi synthesizers. Yamaha's "Soft Synthesizer" technology has appeared in a Karoake product not sold in the U..S., and most recently in Yamaha's "MidPlug" midi plugin for Netscape Corportation's line of WWW browsers. This synthesizer plugin is in Beta release, and is a free download. Yamaha says MidPlug uses its AWM2 synthesizer technology, as featured in many of its hardware products.

At the same time, Roland has an unreleased product called Virtual Sound Canvas. Unlike Yamaha's Soft Synthesizer technology, the Virtual Sound Canvas is not a plugin or embedded in a karaoke product, it is a freestanding piece of software that does just what the name says: it appears to the computer as a midi device, like the hardware soundcards and midiports that are installed on the system.

Since there is a clear sense in which the hardware synthesizers are virtual musical instruments, in that they emulate acoustic and electromechanical instruments entirely electronically, the software wavetable synthesizers can be seen as virtual virtual musical instruments -- software emulations of digital electronic hardware that in turn emulates non-digital instruments. At each step up, the hardware becomes more generic, until it is the generic WinTel box itself.

This development puts the hardware manufacturers in an interesting situation. They know how to make and sell hardware. Some of them even know how to make money doing this. And they are secure in that digital wavetable synthesis hardware is too expensive for a consumer to copy. But now what happens when their $500 hardware product appears as a software product on a floppy diskette? Or can be downloaded or emailed? How will it be sold, at what price point, and how will piracy be controlled? At this time, the answers are blowing in the wind. Yamaha's approach is to not make the software product as fully functional as a hardware synth; Roland's approach has been to not release the product. It appears both built-in expiration dates for these beta versions.

These can't be long term solutions. The technological imperative is irresistable. As these beta products show, today's processors have the power to do wavetable synthesis while simultaneously running apps such as midi sequencers, browsers, or (simple) games. Windows 95 handles the multitasking and the gory details of dealing with the digital-to-analog converter on almost any soundcard. So software synthesis is do-able now. And predictably altervatives to the hardware synth makers are appearing on the scene, including a virtual synth from Intel, and a version of the V-synth included with Turtle Beach's inexpensive Monte Carlo soundcard. And even shareware and freeware products are starting to appear, including Timidity, Midinight Express, and others. It appears that Yamaha and Roland have decided to enter this market, no matter what the effect on hardware sales, in order to gain from their years of experience and development.

But how well does this technology work?

II. COMPARATIVE REVIEW

I compared the Yamaha MidPlug synthesizer with Roland's Virtual Sound Canvas, both running on a Pentium P100 system with 16 meg ram under Windows 95. And I compared these two software synthesizers to two hardware wavetable synthesizers: the Ensoniq Soundscape soundcard (teh version with 2meg wavetable ROM), and an external Roland Sound Canvas (the CM500, a dual synthesizer that has a Sound Canvas section that is equivalent to the Roland SC55 Sound Canvas module, or the SCC1 Sound Canvas on a card). The CM500 was connected to the Soundscape's midi out. All 4 were monitored using a home audio system (receiver and 3 way speakers, 12inch woofers, as well as with headphones).

YAMAHA MIDPLUG SOFT SYNTHESIZER

Yamaha is giving away the MidPlug as a free download from their internet site in Japan (www.yamaha.co.jp/englllish/xg/html/mlug.html). There are versions for Win 3.1, Win95, and the Mac OS. I tested the Win95 version. MidPlug is not a standalone virtual synthesizer; it works only with Netscape version 2.0 and above. The "YGPWAV00.TBL" file, which I take to be the wavetable, is 1338 kbytes. In the new release 2.00b1 that I looked at, Yamaha's installation program installed a Yamaha MIDPLUG line on the Start/Program menu, and this folder contains the license agreement and a readme, as well as an uninstall program new to this release. The new version, with a 30 per cent larger wavetable than the previous release, claims XG compatibility (XG is Yamaha's extension to General Midi, GS is Roland's). This release also got Midplug recognized by Netscape the next time Netscape started (this may depend crucially on getting it installed in the correct Netscape directory). This is good because installing it manually requires going through Netscape's inelegant "options", "preferences" etc. menu hierarchy only to end at a slew of cryptically described MIME file format types and awkward install procedure. Netscape still doesn't report MidPlug as the helper application for midi files, but it works. Yamaha has made Midplug so it quits working a couple of months after release. The last release starting warning me two weeks in advance of the impending doomsday.

Midplug pops up whenever Netscape downloads a page with an embedded midi file. It then begins to play the file. The interface on the new release is even simpler and smaller than previously: three clickable buttons control play, pause and stop (stop followed by play will restart the current piece at the beginning). To the right of this are up and down level or volume buttons. Right clicking anywhere on the interface brings up a menu on which tempo and pitch can be controlled. buttons. The top controls tempo, the lower pitch. The buttons allow the user to bump these playback parameters up, down, or return to the original setting.

It is also possible to start midi playback without having the MidPlug interface appear. On their Web pages Yamaha has provided the first installments of a useful tutorial setting out how to control MidPlug, and how to embed midifiles in Web pages, as well as how to use frames and other devices to offer the viewer a selection of files. They also provide several examples that will show-off Midplug working. There does not seem to be provision for saving a midifile that MidPlug is playing from a web page. Perhaps this is an intentional inability.

MidPlug promises to make midi music a common part of web browsing. The appeal of midi of course is the much smaller amount of data that must be transmitted compared with the data required for digitzed audio. Especially in this new version, the sound is very good. MidPlug's sound is quite pleasing, on a par with the Ensoniq Soundscape -- many people may find it better to listen to. MidPlug has some reverb (not user controllable) that fills in the sound, especially compared with the Soundscape, which has no effects. However, MidPlug is not a match for the hardware Sound Canvas. The main deficiencies are: noise, probably from the way the sampling is done. This noise is most noticeable on loud solo piano. It sounds something like intermodular distortion, and the distortion one gets when a radio station is not properly tuned in. Many musical sources will mask the noise, but it will be tiring on extended solo piano or other tonal percussion or plucked instruments. The other, less important, deficiency was high end response. which was poorer than the hardware synths (esp. noticeable with the cymbals, which are dulled). Yamaha claims MidPlug uses their "AWM2" synthesis at 22.1khz. But it seemed to me likely that 22.1 is the sampling rate, which limits the freq response to 11khz. A third limitation is discussed below.

MidPlug showed two types of midi error: on a very nice sequence with lots of sound effects ("wackylnd.mid"), it substituted helicopters for cars racing by and a telephone ring for the sound of a needle dragging across a record (the last, and maybe the other, may have been produced by Roland only sysex). On one sequence, MidPlug played only the percussion track -- my guess is the rest of the piece was on tracks above 16 and MidPlug's built in sequencer ignored them.

One can use MidPlug to playback midi files that are not embedded in web pages, indeed any midi file that one has on one's local system. Just use Netscape's "File Open" command to load a local midi file and the music starts. Unfortunately, Netscape assumes that one only wants to open html files, so it requires a trip to a pulldown list and selecting "show all files" to get it to display midi files in the File Open dialogue box -- and you must do this everytime you go to open a midi file. Netscape remembers the directory you last opened a file from, but forgets the file type.

Unfortunately, MidPlug is very senstive to anything else going on in one's system. It hesitates or holds notes if another program running at the same time grabs some cpu time, or even if the user just opens a window -- at least on my P100 system. And of course by its very design, MidPlug can be used only with the Netscape browser, not with games, midi sequencers, or any other application that would benefit from a virtual synth.

Two non-musical problems: Netscape seemed substantially less stable and more prone to crashing Windows with MidPlug installed than it was before the installation. Second, the Midplug interface can not be moved by dragging. It just sits there near the middle of the screen.

Still, as a Netscape plugin, it is really pretty swell, and will have likely have the effect of popularizing midi in web pages. And it sounds very good if you keep your hands off the mouse and don't give the cpu any distractions. I was very impressed with the quality, and pleased that it has improved over the release of just a couple months ago.

ROLAND VIRTUAL SOUND CANVAS

Virtual Sound Canvas is a complete software emulation of a Roland Sound Canvas, down to the front panel LCD display of the SC module versions that show a bargraph of the level of each of the 16 General Midi channels. It also has a minimal built-in sequencer that allows it to load and play a midifile on its own. This built-in sequencer did not always work correctly (perhaps it can't handle sysex?)

In addition to the bargraph output, a button on the frontpanel styled interface switches to a display of cpu usage. The second display also shows current and maximum polyphony (number of notes that have been played simultaneously). Among the several settings that one may make is maxiumum polyphony. Default is a full 128 (!) These settings are stored in a "vsc.ini" file in the Windows directory.

Other options include setting the maximum cpu usage (default is 70%). I never hit 70% during testing, but did reach the upper 60's. Near as I can tell from the non-English docs, Roland specifies a Pentium 60 minimum. One can also set whether the priority is top sound quality or minimal cpu use. In the latter, it appears high freqeuncy response is curtailed, and sound is mono. It is definitely not as pleasant to listen too. Since I had no serious slowdowns, I kept music quality as the default top priority. One can also switch reverb/chorus on and off (probably affects cpu and memory use).

The sound is good. It was not, however, as good as the external SoundCanvas. The main shortcoming was the distortion mentioned above, It seems to be a bit worse on the VSC than on Midplug (and isn't noticeable on either hardware synth). Also the VSC, like the Midplug, had reduced high frequency response, especially noticeable when compared to the hardware synths. The file I take to be the wavetable, "vsc.dat", gets installed in the "windows" directory (in general, a bad idea), and occupies 1.381 kbytes, almost identical to Yahama's corresponding file. But these numbers may not tell much, since it is unknown to me if and how these wavetables are compressed.

The VSC did not sound quite the same as the hardware Sound Canvas. On some files, it sounded different and not as good. For example, some time ago Roland produced a midi file called "DIANA.MID", which is a 60's song with very effective use of "doo-wah" voices, apparently achieved through clever use of sysex. It's great on the SC; doesn't work right on the VSC (in fact, the new MidPlug release did a better job with this sequence than did the VSC). However the VSC did not suffer nearly as much from the sensitivity to cpu use as does MidPlug. Running other programs while VSC played, including simple games using the VSC as the Midi device, or using the VSC with a sequencer, worked well.

The install was exciting. All of the install dialogue was in Japanese, which couldn't display on English Win95. Not that I could have read it had it appeared. The install program puts 4 items under the Virtual Sound Canvas entry on the Win95 Start/Programs menu: VSC itself, the help file (can't be read with English Win95), a readme (also Japanese), and an Uninstaller (not tried). VSC then appears to the system as an installed midi device. To get it to work with games, one needs to go into Midimapper and select it as the midi device (on Start menu, go to Settings, Multimedia, then Midi tab).

Once VSC was installed, it insisted on popping up whenever I loaded a midi file into Netscape -- despite the fact that it had never been selected as a helper. On the other hand, if VSC was running and I attempted to start Netscape, it crashed ("program has performed an illegal operation") -- I am sure this occurs during Netscape's loading of plugins. And sometimes VSC mysteriously disappeared from the Win95 taskbar, while still making music. These compatibility problems will need to be worked out if soft synths are to be generally usable.

Both of these virtual synthesizers show a substantial midi delay (the delay between the time a midi command is received and the midi device completes the execution of the command, for example, turning on a note). This is not a problem where no synchronization is required. But both lag at least a quarter note behind the midi stream, at least on sequences I tried. No problem with Midplug, which is just enhancing a web page. But it could be a problem with a true virtual synth replacement. VSC couldn't keep up with the bouncing ball in Turtle Beach MidiKaraoke. And it was consistently behind the march of notes in Cakewalk's "staff" view. The hardware Sound Canvas and the Ensoniq had no such problem.

CONCLUSION

Virtual wavetable synthesizers are inevitable but nevertheless exciting. They will be great for laptops and for desktop computer users who don't own wavetable midi hardware. They should also benefit all who enjoy midi by increasing the popularity of this format. At this stage of development, the Virtual Sound Canvas is the more generally usable piece of software, since it can replace a hardware wavetable synth under a multitasking operating system.. Unfortunately, its still a gleam in Roland's eye. And also unfortunately it seemed slightly noisier than MidPlug, though this may not bother most users, especially those who are not using headphones to listen closely, as I was. Midi lag makes soft synths problematic for certain applications. However if the soft synths become popular, and the lag persists and is predictable, perhaps it can be taken into account by midi app writers -- as I imagine was done when Yamaha's soft synth was incorporated into karaoke software. Finally, the sound from soft synths is at the mercy of the DAC on the soundcard -- an argument for paying attention to this aspect of the next soundcard you buy.

I believe the writing is on the wall for the hardware wavetable soundcard in consumer personal computers-- maybe for soundcards generally, if motherboard makers integrate DAC's and mixers on the motherboad, as Intel has done with it's Endeavor moterboard. Intel's forthcoming MMX Pentiums, which build digital signal processing features right into the cpu, should make software synths work even better. Unfortunately for synth makers, the very popularity of wavetable synthesis will probably kill the mass market for wavetable pc sound hardware. And many game titles are already switching to another competitor to midi, cd audio. It seems very likely that wavetable midi will increase in availablity, but in the form of software, increasingly generic, and ultimately, I expect, even incorporated into operating systems.

But for now, the technology is new, rapidly evolving, and impressive. These are exciting times for amateur musicians and computer hobbyists, as Virtual Synthesizer software promises to bring down the cost of wavetable midi music for computer owners.

_________________

MidPlug and Soft Synthesizer, Sound Canvas and Virtual SoundCanvas, IBM and IBM Music Feature, Adlib, Windows95 are registered trademarks of Yamaha, Roland, IBM, Adlib and Microsoft corporations respectively.

Yamaha and Roland retain the distribution rights to their copyrighted software. Please contact them and not me with questions about the availability of any product discussed in this review.

Copyright David Cole. Reprint and publication permission inquiries to dcole@d.umn.edu

The views herein are those of the author, not the University of Minnesota.