[Take Control of your OS/2 System]
Mod Players for OS/2- by Chris Wenham

A .MOD file is a digital music file that contains a score plus digitized samples of instruments, unlike MIDI files which only contain the score and rely on your soundcard's FM chip or your synthesizer's sound bank to supply the instruments. It's also different from a .WAV file, which is just a single digitized sound or instrument. A MOD player uses a simple form of Wavetable synthesis, adjusting the pitch of each digitized sample to produce the different notes as they are called by the score. All of this digital mixing takes place on your computer's CPU and not on the sound card itself (except for the Gravis UltraSound (GUS), which has a special chip to take the load of the main CPU) meaning that your computer will feel slower during playback of a song -- after all it's trying to pump upwards of 44k per second of data to the sound card.

Also different from .WAV files is the size of .MOD files. A 30 minute song could easily be under 300K since most of the file's bulk is used to store the digitized instruments.

Also unlike MIDI files, MODule files don't always sound the same on different players. Given the wide range of file formats, each one with different features and effects, you may find that while one player can render a song perfectly another may stumble over an effect or technique it wasn't programmed to handle properly.

To complicate matters further, some players are much more bullish on CPU usage than others. The introduction of DART -- Direct Audio Real Time -- in Warp 4.0 (the .dll libraries necessary are also available for Warp 3) means that players can send data to the sound card directly, rather than going through OS/2's MMPM, resulting in much smoother, uninterrupted playback with lower CPU load.

As a test I found a MODule song called "Astronaut's Requiem" by U4ia which has a tendency to loop forever around the 18-19th track position on most players. Probably resulting from the musician using a technique that worked fine on his Tracker (the program that composes the files) but not so well on players.

A little history...

MODs came from the Commodore Amiga, that amazing computer from the mid 80's that practically invented Multimedia and showed the world what tight code and clean engineering could do. The Amiga's still around with a cult following that keeps it alive (sound like anyone you know, you OS/2-ers out there?) not to mention a cozy niche in TV production and broadcasting. (Watch Babylon 5 and catch a load of those computer generated space scenes, that's Amigas at work there.)

The MODs themselves are generated with programs such as SoundTracker, NoiseTracker, ProTracker, ScreamTracker and others. There are actually many formats too, including the original 4-channel SoundTracker .MODs, ScreamTracker's 16-channel .S3M, and FastTracker's .XM format with its 32 channels and other unique features such as envelopes and an instrument/sample model.

This ability for people to cheaply and easily compose music, then distribute it for free over the Internet has created a whole new culture some would say. Looking through the messages hidden in the instrument lists you start to pick up the names of prolific composers, working under aliases like "Deathjester", "Feekzoid" and the almost godly "U4ia" (pronounced, of course, "euphoria"). Some advertise their skills for writing video game scores, some are members of "Demo" groups, while others work alone cranking out tune after tune after tune.

OS/2 Players

For this review I've given each player a 1-10 score (1 worst, 10 best) on three criteria: Play Quality -- how well it reproduces songs and handles their 'quirks'; User Interface -- how easy it is to use and control; and CPU Load -- how efficiently it makes use of your computer's processor (and thus how friendly it is in a multitasking environment).

UltiMOD v1.5

UltiMOD comes in two versions, the character-mode and the PM version (GIF, 4k). Both have the same mixing engine behind them (and hence the same sound quality) but the character-mode version has more features and a richer display. UltiMOD uses MMPM or DART for sound output, but there is a separate Gravis UltraSound version available too.

UltiMOD's character mode interface is probably the most interesting to watch with a real-time display of the instruments as they are used, what note they were just played at and what effect they were played with. It's not as entertaining as the graphic LED displays of some of the popular DOS players but it sure as heck beats the static displays of the others in this review.

UltiMOD failed the "Astronaut's Requiem" test, sticking on the trouble spot, although we were able to 'bump the needle' by fast forwarding a track.

Supported file formats: MOD, MTM, FT1, S3M, XM

Ratings:
Play Quality: 8
User Interface: 7
CPU Load: PM Front-end: 9 Text mode: 8

DMP (Dual Module Player)

Julien Pierre's port of Otto Chrons' Dual Module Player 4.0 (a DOS program) is probably the best of the bunch in sound-quality and CPU usage. If it wasn't for its annoying lack of support for FastTracker II's .XM format this would be my favorite. It too has both a character-mode and PM front end (GIF, 8k) similar to UltiMOD's, but the character-mode version offers no instrument feedback at all. It makes up for this with what I consider to be a fantastically cool range of 'filters'; mathematical transforms that affect the sound output. There are simple noise reduction filters to begin with, but you can easily flip on the "Hall reverb", "Air duct reverb", "Distant echo" or "Bass boost" to get something totally different. Many tunes take on a whole new meaning with these filters, making DMP definitely worth trying out just for this trick alone.

One interesting and unique variation of DMP is the Netscape for OS/2 plug-in. It's the same mixing engine used in DMP but this time packaged as a plug-in for the Netscape Navigator for OS/2, giving you the ability to embed any supported MODule file in your web pages for background music. Anyone with the plug-in installed will hear the music being automatically played after the page has finished loading. The music keeps playing even if you jump to another page, stopping only when the music is finished or you hit another page with a MODule embedded too.

If you want to hear this in action, download and install the plug-in, then restart Netscape and reload this review page. Of course, if you have already installed the plug-in, you are already hearing the music...

DMP passed the "Astronaut's Requiem" test with flying colors.

Supported file formats: MOD, NST, STM, S3M, FAR, MTM, 669, AMF

Ratings:
Play Quality: 10
User Interface: 5
CPU Load: PM Front-end: 9 Text mode: 10

Pop Play 1.1

Pop Play has, without argument, the best PM interface (GIF, 23k) of the lot. It's written in Visual Rexx, but has DART and wide support for module formats, behaving well with options to change the priority at which the player runs. While I found that Pop Play's sound quality was excellent, and often better than the other players, there were two files that it failed on. "Astronaut's Requiem" got caught in an infinite loop while another song called "Wedding in the Leaves" had an annoying vibration to it.

Pop Play's CPU usage varies with the settings you give it and the module it's playing. .XM files with many channels used can peg the CPU meter when played at high quality (44khz, 16-bit stereo) on Pop Play. However if you turn off screen updates, lower the priority to idle and play the module back at 22khz, 16-bit stereo, the CPU drain becomes modest and comparable to the other players in this review.

Its major strength is, of course, the interface. It has a powerful browser built into it which will display the filename of a song plus the song's title and format. You can add songs to the playlist this way, either to the top or bottom of the queue, or play them immediately. It doesn't offer an instrument listing, but you can adjust the order of the songs in the playlist on the fly and save the list to disk for later. The controls and display have a cool digital CD player feel to them with bright neon lettering on a black background.

REXX programmers may be interested to know that Pop Play also comes with a loadable DLL from which you can access and play MOD files in your own programs.

Supported file formats: MOD, STM, S3M, XM, MTM, ULT

Ratings:
Play Quality: 9
User Interface: 10
CPU Load: 7-8 (depending on features switched on during playback)

Sounder 1.2.1

Sounder is the only player in this review that doesn't use DART for its audio output, streaming it through MMPM instead. This results in a much heavier CPU load. It is also in want of an update, with incomplete features and format support.

Unfortunately, on too many modules I found the sound quality to be unacceptable. This is a shame since the user interface (GIF, 5k) looks promising, showing in real-time how many channels are in use and with a window that promises to have a graphic display (like the LED graphic equalizers on some stereos) in some future version that hasn't been released yet.

Supported file formats: MOD, MTM, and S3M

Ratings:
Play Quality: 5
User Interface: 7
CPU Load: 6

Albatros Media Player 2.0 (beta 3)

Norbert Heller's Albatros Media Player is the sister of the Albatros CD Player (see the review of CD players also in this issue) and as of this writing is still in beta testing. It uses the same PM interface (GIF, 3k) as the CD player except with it you drag-n-drop the MOD files you wish to play onto the black rectangle area of the player's window. The interface is still a little limited for my taste and doesn't allow you to save song lists. Albatros Media Player also failed the "Astronaut's Requiem" test, but considering the program is still in beta there may be many things that change before its final release.

Supported file formats: MOD, XM, STM, S3M, MTM, ULT

Ratings:
Play Quality: 8
User Interface: 9
CPU Load: 8

Summary

If the user interface isn't a big concern to you and you're looking for the best playback quality with the lowest CPU load, try either DMP or UltiMOD. If you want good playback, acceptable CPU load and a detailed and intuitive user interface that'll impress your friends, look no further than Pop Play. Whichever you chose, be sure and grab the DMP plug-in for Netscape Navigator for OS/2 too.
 * UltiMOD v1.5
by Sander van Leeuwen
download from UltiMOD home page
Registration: Freeware (DART/MMPM version); US$30 (GUS version)

 * DMP v1.9
by Julien Pierre
download from Madbrain's Software Library
Registration: Freeware

 * Pop Play
by Seppo Lehikoinen
download from Walnut Creek (ZIP, 631k)
Registration: US$20 (if used commercially)

 * Sounder v1.2.1
by Tom Stokes
download from BMT Micro (ZIP, 68k)
Registration: US$25

 * Albatros Media Player v2.0
by Norbert Heller
download from Walnut Creek (ZIP, 249k)
Registration: US$25

"Astronaut's Requiem" Copyright © U4ia (Jim Young). Available from the U4ia mods home page (USA mirror), along with tons of other cool mods.

Another good place to start looking for MODs is ftp://ftp.cdrom.com/pub/demos/music/songs/.

And don't forget, The Ultimate Sound Page.


Chris Wenham is a Team OS/2er in Binghamton, NY with a catchy-titled company -- Wenham's Web Works. He has written comedy, sci-fi, HTML, Pascal, C++ and now writes software reviews.

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