So here’s an announcement – I’ve started a new YouTube channel, called ‘The MIDI Tiki Show’, that showcases high quality hardware-played MIDI files in a tiki room setting. Uh… wha? Why? Maybe I’d better explain…
This device is designed for piano/instrument tutoring & karaoke, and plays back MIDI music files on floppy 3.5 inch disks, including files that use Roland’s GS standard. Which actually sounds pretty darn good, if you can find the correct MIDI files. (More on this later!)
So this is the neat part for me – the device literally reads MIDI files & interprets them in hardware. So it’s not a CD player or a tape or a laserdisc playing sound files precisely (or imprecisely!), it’s a tiny computer with built-in ‘instruments’ that you can trigger with a small (generally 50kb in size!) MIDI file.
It’s a bit like a modern pianola roll. And you can only use the instruments that exist in the hardware, so making a song that ‘sounds’ like the original is, frankly, an art.
In order to explore this overlooked niche, I picked up the later Roland MT-90S MIDI playback hardware on eBay with a specially adapted ‘floppy disc to USB’ add-on (see picture above!), which has 1,000 partitions of 1.44MB on it.
Unfortunately, relevant multi-partition USB writing software doesn’t work on anything past Windows XP. So I’m limited to writing to the first 1.44MB partition – but that’s good enough to try out a whole bunch of songs.
What I’ve discovered is that there are whole bunch of MIDI files on the Internet, but by far the best are those done by ‘professional’ MIDI arrangers in the early ’90s.
(There are also amateur-created ’00s and ’10s MIDI versions of songs by recent bands like Gorillaz, but they don’t have much in the way of pitchbend, echo, and correct instrument mapping that the best GS/GM2 files often have. IMHO they sound pretty substandard – here’s a joke worst-case version, but they’re sometimes not a lot better!)
But what does work? MIDI files done well, for example the tracks from the floppy disc retail package (!) pictured above, ‘Rave Hits Of The ’90s’, can be pretty sublime. They’re lovingly created facsimiles where there were VERY limited tools to make things sound alike – essentially the sample-free version of tracker music.
In fact, I wish we could credit the arrangers – but MIDI files seem to have very little metadata. Working out who made the file originally can be very tricky. Feel free to hit me up if you made any of these files or knows someone who did. I’d love to hear more about why they were made and how they were sold!
[SIDE NOTE: there’s a lot of technology overlap here with the Roland MT-32, which was the Cadillac of PC video game sound cards in the late ’80s/early ’90s & uses some similar instrument tech & playback. Check out this YouTube video for more on the MT-32. But there’s plenty of YouTube vids on MT-32 video game OSTs & hardly any on this weird karaoke/play-along niche! So I’ll be concentrating on the weird niche…]
The Results (So Far)
I’m kicking off the channel with two videos that include complete vintage MIDI tracks played back on the original hardware. The first, pretty well known to UK dance music nerds of a certain age, is The Shamen’s ‘Ebeneezer Goode’:
As I note in the video description: “The first-ever MIDI Tiki Show video showcases the Roland MT-90S MIDI jukebox playing The Shamen’s 1992 rave hit Ebeneezer Goode. This track – which hit #1 in the UK charts – is famed for its chirpy rapping & barely suppressed drug reference in the chorus (‘E’s are good’).”
The second video has the Roland MT-90S MIDI jukebox playing Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 balls-to-the-wall rock classic ‘Killing In The Name Of’. As I noted: “This is a complex piece to be interpreted in MIDI, & the programmer did a virtuoso job of emulating the time signature changes & even a complex guitar solo towards the end!”
I’ve also put the lyrics in the description for the YouTube video, in case you want to sing along at home – though I haven’t done sync-ed lyrics, sorry!
Why Tiki? (Also: The Future)
OK, so why are the videos showcasing these songs set in a tiki bar? Well… that’s just what my basement looks like (yep, that’s a Magnum P.I. tiki mug lurking back there somewhere!)
Plus, it was the easiest place to record with my laptop, the Roland MIDI device, and a webcam… and I thought I’d play surf movies in the corner of the video too for some ambience. (Also the words ‘MIDI’ and ‘tiki’ are amusingly similar, I guess?)
What’s next? The plan going forward is that I’ll be posting approximately one video per week on the YouTube channel, which’ll also be announced via the Twitter feed I’ve set up for The MIDI Tiki Show. And we’ll see how far we get! I’ve already got some other rave & pop classics lined up for subsequent weeks…