You know, Caby used to have a MIDI page up on her site, a long time ago. That being gone, it's up to me to carry on the tradition. This page is one half instructions on how to get the most out of your MIDI listening experience on modern computers and one half highlights from my hoard (you can find the rest of them here).
Yes, it's unfortunate. Most media players don't take MIDI in the first place, and even if they do, you're probably stuck with a really cheap soundfont from the word go. This is why most people wind up thinking MIDIs just sound crappy, but they don't have to! All it takes is some free software and a bit of setup.
Why are MIDIs so hard to play?
A MIDI is not like a traditional audio file. There's no audio stored in a MIDI; it's just a set of tracks, notes, and instructions for how the computer should play those notes. Anything from how forcefully the note was played to which instrument the notes should be played by are stored in a MIDI, and the computer generates all the music on-the-fly as it's processing it. Different soundfonts can be applied to the MIDI to change the sound of each instrument; soundfonts can either sound really close to real instruments or more artificial and digital, depending on what you desire in your MIDIs.
While MIDIs are hardly outdated for musicians (since it's good for storing performances for later editing and syncing up different pieces of gear), for consumer listening, MIDIs have been forsaken. Even worse is that Windows' default soundfont, the Microsoft GS Wavetable Synth, is notoriously very cheap sounding. Though it's based on the classic Roland SC-55, it's dry and thin and the instrument samples are very low quality. Compare this MIDI being played through the GS Wavetable Synth to the same one being played through the FluidR3 GM. It's night and day.
Problem being, because some assembly is required, whatever MIDIs sound like by default, people just assume that's what they sound like. Maybe you like the sound of it, but MIDIs don't need to sound like that. We can do better.
Making MIDIs sound better on modern Windows
I direct you to two programs, VirtualMIDISynth and MIDIMapper. VirtualMIDISynth is a middleman between the MIDI out in a media player and your speakers. You set the MIDI out to VirtualMIDISynth, and then you set a soundfont in VirtualMIDISynth itself. If you're using a program that doesn't have a configurable MIDI out, like Windows Media Player, MIDIMapper will force itself to be the default MIDI device for your computer, and through it, you can set VirtualMIDISynth as your MIDI out like normal.
Once you've installed VirtualMIDISynth, it'll pop up a configuration window. (To get back to this at any time, right-click the tray icon and select "Configuration...") You only need to worry about the first two tabs, "Soundfonts" and "MIDI Mapper". To take care of the latter first, set both dropdowns to VirtualMIDISynth, of course. You'll also want to set MIDIMapper to use VirtualMIDISynth. If you can't find the configurator, check in the "CoolSoft MIDIMapper" folder in your Start Menu.
You have a ton of options for soundfonts. If you happen to like the overall sound of the GS Wavetable Synth, there's recreations of the proper SC-55 in soundfont form (though any SC-55 enthusiasts would probably laugh at such a thing, but this page isn't aimed at them). I used to recommend FluidR3, but in listening through a lot of MIDIs to pick out a bunch for this page, I found mixing errors (as in, instruments far too loud or quiet) far more often with it than I do the SC-55 recreations, so I don't recommend it as highly anymore.
Either way, you can Google around for plenty more. Some are ripped from games, others are for professional-level work. VirtualMIDISynth needs the soundfont in .sf2 format, so if your soundfont comes compressed in a format like SFArk or SFPack, you can use these converters (or my linked mirrors) to get them into the right format. Use the Soundfonts tab to add as many as you'd like.
For a player, Windows Media Player will do fine, as will VLC if you set a soundfont in its settings. foobar2000 also has an optional MIDI player component you can get. Media Player Classic Home Cinema will take MIDIs no problem. If you're looking to tinker with your MIDIs as you listen, or you want to test your setup out, SynthFont is a must-have, though a bit glitchy for me (I regularly get strings appearing in the wrong buttons and boxes, it's like memory corruption or something).
Some highlights from the stockpile
Again, this is only the stuff I thought was exceptionally good; a good way to start with MIDI, if you will. You can find the rest of my collection here.
|Alice in Chains||Dam That River||Metal||36kb|
|Alice in Chains||Over Now||Alternative||61kb|
|Dr. Dre||Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang||G-funk||28kb|
|Failure||Another Space Song||Space rock||40kb|
|The Folk Implosion||Natural One||Indietronica||42kb|
|Gin Blossoms||Allison Road||Pop rock||40kb|
|Green Day||Time of Your Life (Good Riddance)||Acoustic||21kb|
|Harvey Danger||Flagpole Sitta||Indie pop||57kb|
|Metallica||Master of Puppets||Thrash metal||88kb|
|The Prodigy||Smack My Bitch Up||Big beat||71kb|
|Radiohead||Street Spirit (Fade Out)||Alternative||37kb|
|Rage Against the Machine||Bombtrack||Rap metal||31kb|
|Semisonic||Closing Time||Pop rock||68kb|
|Smash Mouth||Walkin' on the Sun||Pop rock||32kb|
|The Smashing Pumpkins||Eye||Synthpop||39kb|
|Squirrel Nut Zippers||Hell||Swing||50kb|
|Stone Temple Pilots||Creep||Acoustic||47kb|
|They Might Be Giants||Ana Ng||Indie pop||41kb|
|White Town||Your Woman||Indietronica||79kb|
Links to more MIDIs
And just because I wanna share the love, here's some places to get more MIDIs! Likely, if I know about the page, I've already tried to grab everything in its collection and subsume it into my own, but having an extra mirror is always good.
- Reaper's MIDI Page—Let's start off with a classic Geocities page! I appreciate this one because it's more rap and metal focused. Rap MIDIs especially, I do not see often, so it's worth celebrating wherever they crop up.
- Mark Headrick's—A monster collection right here! This was the page that tipped me off to the existence of VirtualMIDISynth, which is basically necessary for modern MIDI enjoyment.
- space_beaver's MIDI page—I really like this one. It's very 90s alt rock heavy, songs I never would've imagined MIDI renditions of are here. Unfortunately, huge chunks of the collection were linked offsite to AOL and Xoom sites that no longer exist, so I'll have to rebuild those parts of the collection. Even what is here is fantastic though, and this makes up the bulk of my collection.
- Led Zeppelin MIDI Homepage—This might very well be every single Led Zeppelin song in MIDI form, all separated out into their individual albums.