Microsoft pushes hi-fi sound for gamers

Today's hot computer games have eye-popping graphics and decent sound effects, but the music behind the action is usually pretty wimpy.

Hardware and software limitations force game developers to "loop" the same MIDI music over and over. And the quality of the music is largely determined by your PC's sound card. A high-end card with advanced MIDI capability can sound impressive; a cheap sound card with minimal MIDI sounds like your kid's school band on a bad day.

But Microsoft says it has an answer. At a developers conference this week, the company rolled out DirectX 6.1 multimedia software and an associated developer's kit that contains advanced graphics and sound capabilities. Programmers are expected to use the technology widely for the next generation of computer games.

Central to DirectX is DirectMusic, which integrates full-spectrum MIDI music generation in software instead of relying on the vagaries of different sound cards. The move promises to allow hi-fi sound from every PC.

The big news

But beyond overall sound quality, Microsoft claims the big news in DirectMusic is that it will allow game developers to connect the music to on-screen action for the first time, instantly changing musical content and volume depending on what happens on the screen. For example, the music might increase in tempo if the player is winning, or slow down if they're losing. Or a specific theme might play every time a certain character appears on the screen. Capabilities like these haven't previously been available to game developers.

Built into DirectMusic is a full-fledged, software-based music synthesiser and the SoundCanvas general MIDI sound set licenced from Roland. It also supports Downloadable Sounds, which allows game developers to include extended MIDI capabilities in games and use the capabilities of contemporary advanced sound cards.

The bottom line, according to Microsoft, is that the game player will hear the exact sounds programmed by the developer, no matter what the hardware in their PC.

Will all this software-based technology slow down your PC? Not usually, according to a Microsoft spokesperson. Interestingly, the core technology for DirectMusic was originally developed years ago for the Commodore Amiga by Blue Ribbon SoundWorks, a company that Microsoft purchased several years ago.

Microsoft claims that DirectMusic only creates a slight performance hit with PCs equipped with low-end sound cards, where DirectMusic's built-in software synthesiser kicks in, or when extended Downloadable Sounds are incorporated into a game.

PCs equipped with more capable sound cards will automatically use the card's synthesiser chip with DirectMusic, and Downloadable Sounds are automatically loaded into the card's built-in memory instead of system RAM.

Pentium III, too

DirectX 6.1 also incorporates support for the Direct3D capabilities of the Intel Pentium III processor, which has built-in instructions for generating complex 3D graphics at high speeds. The end result is supposed to be even better realism for cutting-edge games.

As usual in this type of Microsoft announcement, the company rolled out a gaggle of representatives from software companies who waxed enthusiastic about DirectX 6.1 and (especially) DirectMusic.

Companies that say they'll take advantage of the new capabilities in their next generation games include Epic MegaGames (Unreal Tournament), Ion Storm (Anachronox), Monolith Productions (Blood 2), Surreal Software (Drakan), and VR-1 (Crossroads).

Game developers aren't the only ones on the bandwagon. Cakewalk Music Software (Cakewalk) and Sonic Foundry (Sound Forge), developers of composing and editing software, also say they'll incorporate DirectX 6.1 support into their products.

There is, however, one problem that DirectMusic won't solve. Even the hottest music technology will still sound lousy if your PC is equipped with a cheap pair of speakers.

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Stan Miastkowski

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