This is old news for some, but for anyone whose recently bought into classic gaming through sites like GOG.com and then been disappointed with the quality of the MIDI music via Microsoft’s default driver, there is an alternative that may just become one of the nicest additions you can make to your retro gaming set up. It certainly makes TIE Fighter sound a lot better.
VirtualMIDISynth is a software MIDI synthesiser that plugs in as a Windows multimedia driver allowing for MIDI based output to be processed and played through something other than Microsoft’s VERY basic driver. The great thing about VirtualMIDISynth is that you can assign “SoundFont” files (at least one is needed) to fill the role of the hardware instrument. Some of these files can be quite large but you can also find good ones that give you decent quality without chewing though your hard disk and RAM. The developer recommends the FluidR3 GM Bank that can be downloaded from this site.
Setting up is straightforward – simply run the driver’s .exe installer and follow the prompts. After the installation completes, it is time to open the configuration panel open and assign SoundFont files to the driver. After downloading the files you may need to also extract them to an appropriate directory using a tool such as sfArk before they will be recognised. After it is done, go back in the configuration panel and add the newly extracted SoundFont files and you are ready to go.
I’m doing this in Windows 10 and it appears that you won’t need to change any settings though I decided to switch off the preload SoundFont option to keep memory free until I actually need it.
With any games that are to use the new driver you are likely to still need to configure them to support it correctly. In this case, I’m using the DOS CD-ROM version of TIE Fighter from GOG.com which runs through the DOSBox emulator. The DOS versions of the game made use of LucasArt’s iMUSE (Interactive MUsic Streaming Engine) technology that allowed games to intelligently transition music to themes appropriate to the on screen events. Redbook audio replaced it quickly in the CD-ROM era but in doing so us gamers lost immersion in favour of fidelity.
The great thing about the DOSBox configuration provided with the game is that it is already set to support MP-401 MIDI devices which in the early soundcard years were the ones to look for if you wanted the best in MIDI output. The steps to set up the game itself to use it aren’t too complex: there is a “Launch Settings” shortcut in the game’s root folder that will bring up the game’s original installer – choose “Install”, “Set up sound card” which takes you to the iMUSE tool, then “Custom Setup” and only make changes Music option. My recommendation is to choose “General MIDI” as the device as in this case it appears to produce the best quality output.
Once you save the settings, jump into the game and you should find the music quality has improved significantly. This video is a good demo of VirtualMIDISynth in action in TIE Fighter… and was actually what convinced me to check it out in the first place: