Retro computing and vintage MIDI

I’ve always had an interest in vintage computers, and has someone who wasn’t born until the year 2000 I didn’t get to experience a lot of this technology while it was current.

However now that I am furloughed from my part time job I have a lot more time on my hands, and I have put together a nice retro-PC setup consisting of two PC’s, a CRT monitor, a PS2 mouse and keyboard, a KVM switch and a Roland Sound Canvas MIDI device.

The main setup

In the image above, the bottom PC consists of:

  • A 333Mhz Pentium 2 (I upgraded this from the original 233Mhz one)
  • A 3DFX Voodoo 3D accelerator
  • 128MB RAM
  • 8GB HDD
  • Windows 98SE

While the top PC contains:

  • A 486DX2-80 CPU
  • A 128MB HDD
  • 8MB of RAM (I upgraded this from the origianl 4MB)
  • MS DOS 6
  • A SoundBlaster AWE64 sound card
  • A 3COM Etherlink III network card

I’ve owned the bottom PC for over a year, while the top one is a more recent purchase.

As mentioned before, the MIDI module is a Roland Sound Canvas SC-55 Mk1. For those who don’t know, in the old days of computing it was much less computationally intensive to play back MIDI files (Which are simply sequences that tell the MIDI device to play back different samples from it’s pre-recorded sample bank. This is why MIDI devices can sound very different), than it was to play pre-recorded mpeg files.

This means that many games relied on MIDI to get the optimal experience, and with the Sound Canvas being a popular choice at the time, many soundtracks, such as the one for the original DOOM were composed for the Soundcanvas, making it the best choice if you want to hear EM1M1 in it’s full glory.

With all MIDI devices sounding different, and with some sounding better than others in different situations its easy to end up buying loads of them and creating a MIDI Mountain, and perhaps one day I will do that…

When I was setting up the 486 PC, as I have some experience with MS-DOS I was able to configure the Config.sys and Autoexec.bat to load in the required drivers for the sound card and network card, although I had to create a reduced configuration to preserve memory otherwise games such as Doom would not open due to lack of RAM, although since upgrading to 8MB this is no longer a problem.

With the Pentium II machine having a 3DFX card, it can play games such as Quake and Tomb Raider with superior graphics to the traditional software rendering that was common prior to 3DFX ‘s (short-lived) dominance. I’ve always found the Glide API interesting and would like to try some retro-coding and see if I can render something with it, as from what I’ve seen it’s similar to legacy OpenGL which I have a bit of experience with.

I find it very fun to mess around with this old hardware and see what it’s capable of. With computers of this era seeming to be getting more and more expensive now seems like as good a time as any to start collecting some of it, and I’m sure I will only end up adding more items to my collection.