Roland MT-32 Reborn With Raspberry Pi

Dale Whinham's MT32-Pi project
(Image credit: Dale Whinham)

The Roland MT-32, you’ll no doubt remember, was a MIDI synthesizer first released in 1987 that became an early standard in computer music - being used to create the complete scores for several videogames from the likes of Sierra On-Line and Lucasfilm Games. Retro PC audio hardware is now highly sought after and this translates to high prices. One thing the Raspberry Pi is good at, is breathing life into the retro hardware scene and now, a British engineer has recreated the MT-32, in a much smaller case, using a Raspberry Pi Zero 2W.

Dale Whinham, from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, UK, is a PhD candidate studying computer science and game technology. In what little spare time he has, he restores vintage computers, and makes cool stuff. To coincide with the Raspberry Pi’s tenth birthday, he revealed his MT-32-Pi on Twitter, commenting that it is the “first piece of MT32-Pi hardware”, suggesting we may see more.

The synth is housed in a custom 3D-printed case, with matching stand, but the bottom half of the case can be replaced with a Flirc aluminum Pi Zero case to aid cooling. The screen is a full-size 128 x 64 OLED display, and it features two buttons plus a thumbwheel (with click button) as its controls.

The software is open-source, based on the Munt and FluidSynth synth engines, programmed in C++ and C and available on Github. “It also makes use of the Circle project by Rene Stange,” Whinham tells us. “This is a low-level C++ ‘bare-metal’ programming environment that provides a framework and drivers for accessing the Raspberry Pi's hardware. In many ways, from a programming perspective it's like having a 1GHz+ quad-core Arduino, a very similar style of coding.” MT32-Pi therefore has direct access to the hardware, keeping the audio latency very low, something he hopes audio enthusiasts and musicians will appreciate. 

With MT-32 ROMs being copyrighted material, the user is expected to provide their own, but the MT32-Pi does come with a general MIDI and Roland GS compatible SoundFont by S. Christian Collins. “This means that even without any extra data or ROM files, the user has a GM/GS-compatible synthesizer out of the box,” says Whinham. The synth is also compatible with the MiSTer FPGA hardware, which emulates consoles, classic computers, and arcade boards, via a USB connection.

MT32-Pi is the first piece of hardware Whinham has designed, and it will be open-sourced to match the accompanying software. He will be selling them  - in limited quantities to begin with - via his Ko-Fi shop

Ian Evenden
Freelance News Writer

Ian Evenden is a UK-based news writer for Tom’s Hardware US. He’ll write about anything, but stories about Raspberry Pi and DIY robots seem to find their way to him.