The Quest for Better DOSBox Music

 

Also available, the bonus video running the same comparison with some Descent music:  YOUTUBE

Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s meant being raised on some of the best PC games to ever grace the Earth. Thanks to services like Good Old Games and awesome software like DOSBox we can relive the PC glory days with minimal effort.

As good as DOSBox is, it does still have some flaws. To me the most noticeable to me has always been the weak MIDI support when it comes to replicating music (mainly due to the meh Windows Software Synth it usually runs through.) This bothered me so much that I ended up scouring thrift shops and surplus stores to build a slotted Pentium 2 machine with a genuine ISA Soundblaster AWE32 to get the most of the experience. As much fun as dual booting DOS 6.22/Windows 98SE and messing with ancient hardware conflicts was I got sick of kicking it around the workshop and ended up back with DOSBox for most of my retro PC gaming.

What to do for audio then? I remembered long ago there used to be a MIDI driver called BASS MIDI that allowed you to load up custom sound fonts and play them through a standard mapper and even managed to find the files required. Unfortunately it didn’t seem to support Windows 8.1 properly thanks to Microsoft stripping out some of the old MIDI mapper functions.

I did some more furious research (the VOGONS forums is awesome if you’re into playing the classics) and stumbled across CoolSoft’s VirtualMIDISynth. Low and behold it claimed to support Windows 8 in all flavors and was actually based on the old BASS MIDI code! I loaded it up right away, threw it the official 1Mb AWE32 General MIDI sound font and was pleased with what started pouring from the speakers.

Riding high on my success I decided to chase the unicorn and kick in some MT-32 emulation. The Roland MT-32 was the gold standard back in the days when Sierra and LucasArts were pumping out one awesome game after another. Due to its unique sound and flexibility it was the go-to music device for many of the great adventure game soundtrack composers, you really haven’t played most of those games until you’ve heard them running through the real deal.

Unfortunately purchasing a MT-32 isn’t always cheap, then you have to content with getting to interface with a newer computer and you’ll probably still have some noticeable line noise (these things were built in 1987 and weren’t known for a low noise floor.) This is where Munt comes to the rescue as it provides excellent emulation with minimal configuration and since it’s software instead of 80’s audio tech it comes through without noise or distortion.

If you have a large GOG library and/or a ton of classic PC games lying around I highly recommend giving both solutions a go, it makes a world of difference. The video at the top of the post should give you some idea on how both solutions effect the music and how they compare for both an older DOS game (Monkey Island 2, 1991) and one that came out a bit later (Descent, 1995) when General MIDI became the choice for music replication.

Thus concludes The Quest for Better DOSBox Music!

Required Files for Awesome DOSBox Music

  • CoolSoft VirtualMIDISynth: WEBSITE
  • Adam’s Pack of Favorite Sound Fonts: LINK
  • Weeds GM3 sound font: WEBSITE
  • Munt MT-32 Emulator: SOURCEFORGE (older, but recommended for your first experience) | GITHUB

References

  • VOGONS forums: WEBSITE
  • Anapan’s page containing tons of sound fonts and information: WEBSITE
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