Roland

Roland's first venture into the PC audio market was with the MT-32 (Multi-Timbre 32) in 1987, with a retail price of $695. This was an external music synthesizer, and so required an interface card to connect to inside the PC. Later Roland released the "MT-32 on a card" in the form of the LAPC-I. It got 32 channels, and 128 built-in instruments and 30 drums. Owners could load their own instruments (patches) as well. Other external modules were released, including the CM-32L, CM-64, MT-100 and CM-500. Apart from the LAPC-I, all these needed to be connected to an interface card or sound card in the PC that had an "MPU-401" interface connector. None of these models were "MIDI"-compatible as they predate the General MIDI standard. See my separate article on getting sample sound onto your PC.

MT-32 (1987)

Roland's first external music synthesizer box, which required an MPU-401 interface on your PC's sound card (or a separate interface card entirely). The MT-32 wasn't developed for the home computer market - it was supposed to be a synthesizer expansion unit for professional musicians.

With capability to output up to 32 voices simultaneously, it supported Roland's "LA" format - Linear Algorithmic. The MT-32's high signal-to-noise ratio made it unsuitable for professional use, but it found favour among PC gamers of the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s. Supported by many games of the era.

Two variants of the MT-32 exist which are often classified as MT-32 "Old" and MT-32 "New". These can be distinguished by the presence (or lack of) the headphone jack on the rear panel. The "Old" did not have this whereas the "New" did. The sound output differs slightly between these two variants due to the fact that on the "New" variant, Roland moved the locations of some of its built-in instrument samples to be closer to what would become the General MIDI standard. This meant that some PC games only sound 'right' on the MT-32 variant that was around at the time the game music was composed. The "New" has a slightly less noisy output.

Roland later released a MIDI file that contained SysEx (System Exclusive) messages that will reconfigure these synthesizers to make them somewhat compatible with GM. The file MTGM.MID needs to be sent to the synthesizer using a MIDI player capable of sending SysEx messages.

I cover this unit in quite a bit of detail on my main PC MIDI page.

 

MT-100 (1988)

An external music synthesizer box which is a combined MT-32 and 2-track sequencer (Roland PR-100) with 2.8" "Quick-Disk" drive for storage.

The MT-100's MT-32 circuitry is essentially identical to an MT-32 "New", and cannot be distinguished from an MT-32 "New" in any way.

 

 

CM-32L (1989)

Roland launched their "CM" (Computer Music) range after seeing a good amount of success in the PC gaming industry with their MT (Multi Timbre) range. They realised the MT-32 was too expensive for most consumer PC gamers, and the CM range was introduced to remedy that. The "L" means the CM-32L uses "Linear Algorithmic", aka "LA" synthesis, just as with the MT-32.

An external synthesizer box compatible with MT-32. Unlike the MT-32, the CM32-L only has a volume control, a MIDI message area, and power-on indicator.

The CM32L has a maximum polyphony of 32 voices spread over nine parts. Eight of these parts are "instrument" parts, with the ninth dedicated as a "rhythm" section.

The CM-32L went one better than the MT-32, however, in that it added a further 33 samples in its wave "sound banks", although most of these were sound effects, not sampled instruments. Examples of these sfx are a dog barking, thunder, footsteps, laughing, punch, and scream. Signal-to-noise was again reduced over the MT-32.

The CM-32L has 128 presets and a built-in reverb (which is supposedly very good, even by modern standards).

A CM-32P was also released which was designed more for musicians. The "P" meant that instead of using "LA" synthesis, it used PCM wave table synthesis. On the front of the CM-32P was a PCM wave card slot to allow the user to expand the sample set with Roland PCM wave cards which are designed for use with the Roland U110 sample player.

At launch, the CM-32L retailed for £369 in the UK. The CM-32P went for £445.

 

LAPC-I (1989)

A self-contained PC sound card with the MT-32 innards on-board. "LA" stands for Roland's "Linear Algorithmic". Basically, it's a CM-32L on an ISA card.

The card can connect to an optional Roland MCB1 MIDI interface (£79 at launch), which adds a MIDI In, two MIDI Out, and a Sync socket. The MCB1 also provides a Metronome, and Tape In and Tape Out sockets.

Since the CM-32L is fully MT-32 compatible, this card is highly prized by retro PC gamers, as it not only supports both MT-32 and CM-32L-compatible games, but more crucially it eliminates the need for any MPU-401 interface or sound card MIDI port, making it fully compatible with *all* MT-32 and CM32-L titles out of the box (many MT-32 owners use their sound card's rather limited UART-only MIDI port which don't work on the older MT-32-compatible titles).

At launch, the LAPC-I retailed for £379 in the UK.

 

CM-64 (1989)

Same as CM-32L, but has additional CM-32P (PCM synthesis) circuitry. No DOS games are known to support the CM-32P features. It is fully MT-32 compatible (more specifically, likely MT-32 "New" compatible). It has the same PCM wave card slot on the front as the CM-32P.

It provides a total of 14-part multitimbral capacity plus a "rhythm" part. The eight "LA" sounds are played on MIDI channels 2 through 9 with the rhythm section on 10, while the PCM sampled sounds are on channels 11 through 16.

It retailed at over $1,000 at launch in the US, or £789 in the UK.

 

CM-500 (1991)

A combined CM-32L and CM-300 (a barebones SC-55 - see below). A switch on the back of the CM-500 allows you to select whether the device will work in (1) CM-32L mode, (2) CM-64 mode, (3) CM-300 only (great for games that suppot General MIDI) or (4) CM-300 + CM32L.

 

 

SC-55 (1991)

Roland's first General MIDI external music processor, the SoundCanvas 55 was the standard on which many games from 1991 onwards were written. It supports both General MIDI and Roland's superset of it, GS.

 

 

SCC-1 (1992)

Price when New: $300

Designed to be for professional musicians. An SC-55 integrated onto an 8-bit PC card. Roland's first card to support their extension of the General MIDI standard, "General Synthesizer" (GS). 24 channels, 4 MB sample ROM containing 317 sounds (version 1) and 354 (version 2), mixed in 44 kHz (CD quality). MPU-401-compatible interface onboard. It could also run in MT-32 compatibility mode, but no samples could be uploaded (which a lot of games did), so not particularly suitable for PC gaming. Added chorus capability which was lacking on the LAPC-I.

Rich Heimlich said: "Costly, but the industry standard for GM.  If you want to know how a game was intended to musically sound, this is usually the only way to be sure. The lack of digital capability is one of its very few drawbacks.", scoring it 10 out of 10 for music quality.

Sound quality from this board is second to none.

 

SC-55 Mk II (1993)

Enhanced version of the original SC-55, with support for 28 voices (up from 24), more patches (now up to 354 instruments), and improved audio circuitry (18-bit as opposed to 16-bit). It also adds a serial port as an alterative means of interfacing with the MPU-401.

An SC-55ST version was released 2 years later that got rid of the LCD screen (no front panel editing functionality) and MIDI OUT and THRU ports.

 

SC-50 (1993)

Basically a cut-down SC-55 Mk II without the second MIDI input on the front.

 

 

RAP-10 (1993)

First 'consumer' card from Roland. MIDI capability was 128 instruments (based on SC-7 module). Intended to be supported only in Windows games.

 

 

SC-88 (1994)

Similar to SC-55 Mk II, but has 654 instrument patches, and adds EQ functions. Fully GM and GS compatible, the SC-88 can be put into SC-55 map mode for backward compatibility.

The SC-88 was in direct competition with the Yamaha MU80, also launched in 1994.

 

 

 

SC-88 Pro (1995)

Similar to SC-88 but adds unofficial Yamaha XG compatibility. The Pro came with 910 instrument patches built-in.

An SC-88VL model was released the same year which reduced the SC-88 Pro back into a single '1U' height by removing the user-editable program memory functions (and buttons).

An SC-88ST was released the year after the SC-88 Pro - it removed the LCD display completely.