Yamaha MU50 Tone Generator – XG MIDI Lives On

So, as you may remember from an earlier post – I invested in a new keyboard and Logic Pro X for the Mac to experience the many wonders of creating music using virtual software instruments. As amazing as this has been, I missed the legacy of MIDI music – and although Logic Pro X technically opens standard MIDI files, the interpretation of how it assigns its own instruments to the MIDI tracks often leaves a lot to be desired.

Imagine my excitement when browsing ebay to find a secondhand Yamaha MU50 Tone Generator that fully supports XG, available and for a good price… Of course, I put in a bid and now happy to report I am the proud owner of one – to which I will talk a little about it now.

This isn’t my first foray into Yamaha XG, in fact back when I had a 486 powered computer (yes this is some years ago now!), I purchased an ISA-compatible Yamaha SW60XG MIDI card – that simply slotted into the PC and supported General MIDI (GM) and of course Yamaha’s own extended effects and instruments ‘XG’. For playing games that supported MIDI playback, the Yamaha SW60XG moved you away from a very basic FM synthesis, which always sounded quite basic and computerised – to the full power of real recordings of individual instruments. Many of my favourite games of the time – Doom, Rise of the Triads, Simon the Sorcerer 2, Heretic, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle, Discworld and many many others all supported the standard General Midi format, and the Yamaha SW60XG handled them beautifully.

Yamaha SW60XG [Courtesy of Wikipedia]

Unfortunately, as time progressed and I upgraded machines – the ISA slot format became obsolete, so I upgraded to the next level – the Yamaha SW1000XG. After this, I also had in my possession the flagship keyboards from Yamaha including Tyros (1), 2, 3 and 4 – which themselves supported XG MIDI. I could go on and on about these cards and keyboards, however this is just to give you an idea of my XG history.

Moving back to present day, I have already explained that Logic Pro X – although supporting the importing of MIDI files, really fails to provide an accurate representation due to the way it handles the mapping of instruments. Some work just fine and sound very impressive and others just fall flat on their backside. So, I was left craving the classic MIDI experience provided by a true hardware tone generator. This is why I turned my attention to the Yamaha MU50.

The Yamaha MU50 Tone Generator originally released way back in 1995, with 737 instrument sounds (128 usually the standard) and 22 types of drum kits. This factored in with the advanced effects, ensured the MIDI playback and XG standard lives on – well, just about.

I recorded this video of the main demonstration that is built into the device to give you an idea…

Thankfully, the U-PHORIA UMC404HD mixer I own supports MIDI connections as originally the MU50 would connect to a computer via the serial port… yes one of those legacy ports that is no longer around and certainly not on my MacBook Pro with Retina display. With this mixer connected to my MacBook via USB, this was the first issue solved.

Now at this point, all I wanted to do was to play a MIDI file. This became far harder than it needed to be! QuickTime player was having none of it and even the mighty VLC, which is usually my go to player for virtually any media file format – failed to play a MIDI file. Logic Pro X I couldn’t find a way for it to handle MIDI so that it would solely use my external hardware (comment if you have a solution!), so I turned my attention to a super simple, yet elegant piece of software called MIDIPlayer X.

MIDIPlayerX

On MIDIPlayer X, I could simply select how I wanted to route the MIDI, in my case to the mixer so my Yamaha MU50 could pick up the data, and the brilliance of GM and XG MIDI could yet again be heard. It just works, which is probably one of the nicest accolades you can give to a piece of software. Drag and drop the MIDI file, or even files – and away you go. A shuffle feature would be nice, but who knows what the future will bring.

The dream now is to incorporate the Yamaha MU50 into my own music along with the virtual software instruments – which Logic Pro X will provide so watch this space! MIDI certainly isn’t dead, although support for it is starting to fade within the computer realm.

Would love to hear your experiences with Yamaha tone generators and MIDI as a format in fact, so please leave a comment below.

James Woodcock

Freelance Journalist, Author, Blogger & Podcaster specialising in gaming and technology. Ever since he experienced the first controllable pixel movement on the television screen, he has been entranced by the possibilities and rewarding entertainment value generated from these metal and plastic boxes of delight. Writing hundreds of articles including commentary and reviews on various gaming platforms, while also interviewing well known industry figures for popular online publications.