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MIDI module buying guide for retro gaming

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The different MIDI modules

If you have built a retro PC, want to use real MIDI hardware with DOSBox, or maybe you are at the bleeding edge of classic gaming and have gotten MiSTer, you may want to buy a MIDI module to get finally hear the music in your favorite games as it was intended.

Focusing on hardware here, no software solutions because I don’t know enough about those for a guide.

This guide is a bit simplified – it’d be way too long otherwise. I’ve tried to stick to information as it relates to gaming only, and focuses on DOS gaming, even though you can certainly use these synths with other retro computers. Keeping it to desktop modules, no pro gear that takes multiple rack units.

There are five different types of MIDI modules that you can use with PC games, in order of appearance:

FM – Frequency Modulation. Only a very few games support FM modules.

LA – Linear Arithmetic. Many famous late 80’s and early 90’s games use LA synthesis.

GM – General MIDI. The standard for PC game music before CD audio took over.

GS – Roland’s extension of General MIDI often labeled as Sound Canvas in games

XG – Yamaha’s extension of General MIDI used by Final Fantasy VII and VIII on PC

Since this turned out a bit longer than I expected, here's a table of contents:

- Roland GM/GS modules (Sound Canvas series)

- Yamaha GM/XG modules (TG and MU series)

- Other notable GM modules:

  • Korg
  • Kawai
  • Akai
  • Casio
  • Midiplus
  • Even more GM modules

- LA modules (Roland MT-32 and variants)

- FM modules (really just Yamaha SFG-05 and FB-01)

- Recommendations

- Chronological list of modules

General MIDI and extensions

By the time General MIDI rolled around computers were powerful enough not to require any processing by a separate MIDI interface card such as Roland MPU-401 and compatibles, and Sound Blaster 16 would include a port that could be used for both joystick and MIDI output. All you needed was a suitable cable, and that's what you need today. GM devices also work with DOSBox or MiSTer via a USB interface (I recommend Roland UM-ONE mk2 if you’re looking to buy one).

Roland

As most of the games were composed using Roland Sound Canvas devices, I recommend getting one of those for accurate reproduction of what the composer intended. With over 20 units released over a decade, looks like there’s a lot to choose from, but really there are only 3 major ones as far as gaming use goes:

1. Roland Sound Canvas SC-55 and variants

The original 1991 SC-55 is a classic MIDI module and can be found in numerous variants, released between 1991 and 1993, including:

SC-55 (1991) – first, GS only model without a GM logo

SC-55 (1991) – updated model with full GM support, may have GM logo on the front

“Computer Music” white boxes:

CM-300 (1991) – same as first SC-55 version but without a screen, GS only

CM-300 (1991) – updated model with full GM support, may GM logo on the front

CM-500 (1991) – has both CM-300 and CM-32LN hardware (more in the LA section)

Updates and cost-reduced models:

SC-55 mkII (1993) – slightly improved audio quality and more tones

SC-55ST (1993) – same as mkII but without a screen and one less MIDI input. Also sold undere the Edirol brand in white

SC-50 (1994) – same as mkII but without the MT-32 voices

Tabletop versions:

SC-155 (1992) – a tabletop version of SC-55

SC-33 (1992) – a tabletop version of SC-55 without the MT-32 voices

Boss Dr. Synth DS-330 (1992) – Boss branded version of SC-33

SC-35 (1993) – SC-33 with an integrated sequencer

Any of these will work for games and sound great. If you have an MT-32 or a variant (again more in part 2) and want to use the MIDI through to chain the modules, you’ll want to get an SC-55 or mkII since they have a convenient button for MT-32 mode. The mode itself does not really work for MT-32 games since it’ll just sound bad due to the differences between Sound Canvas units and LA synthesizers like MT-32. If you don’t care for screens, CM-300 and SC-55ST units can be usually had on the cheap.

Early GS only units (such as SC-55 and CM-300 that do not have a “General MIDI” logo) are actually highly compatible with GM, with a small exception of missing the tone “Breath Noise” and it’s replaced with “Key Click”. Stumbling on this in games is rare. Early units also had something called “capital tone feedback” where the synth plays a capital tone when it can’t find the right variation. This was removed with later units. In some games this causes some notes to go missing – also something you won’t come across very often. To add to the confusion, there are units with GM support but no GM logo on the front. Still, I would not worry about it.

2. Roland SC-88 and variants

Usually the cheapest Sound Canvas, SC-88 has an improved output quality over SC-55 and a built-in equalizer, but it was released in 1994 when CD audio was already starting to take over and games generally don’t take advantage of its features. Still SC-88 does great job with MIDI soundtracks of the early 90’s as it has the option to choose an SC-55 map with a button press, making sure that you’re hearing what you are supposed to – it doesn’t sound exactly the same though, and while technically “better” you may appreciate the period accurate lower quality sound of an SC-55.

There are three variants of SC-88 in addition to the base model:

SC-88 (1994) – the base model

M-GS64 (1995) – a rack mount version

SC-88VL (1996) – a smaller version, also available in white

SC-88ST (1996) – no screen, a button is to switch between SC-55 and SC-88 modes. Also sold under the Edirol brand in white

SC-88ST is usually very inexpensive and has everything you need for retro gaming purposes.

3. SC-88 Pro and variants

Released in 1996, many gamers have unknowingly heard the SC-88 Pro as it was used for many PlayStation games. It seems to me that most of the Final Fantasy 7 soundtrack is actually based on SC-88 Pro samples, which is interesting as the PC version is a rare example of a game that uses Yamaha XG. Much like SC-88, SC-88 Pro has a button to change the map to match the previous models, and the SC-88 map sounds exactly like it does on SC-88. SC-55 again, sounds a bit different. MIDI files made with SC-88 Pro in mind will sound great, but games don’t really benefit over SC-88. The variants of SC-88 Pro get a bit confusing:

SC-88 Pro (1996) – the base model

SC-88ST Pro (1997) – no screen and the only button switches between modes

SC-880 (1998) – a rack mount unit

SC-8850 (1999) – USB connection and General MIDI 2 support

SC-8820 (1999) – a small device with no screen, USB power. Button to change modes

SC-D70 (2001) – works as a USB audio interface, digital outputs

Despite the name change, all the above are based on SC-88 Pro. I advise against buying the SC-8850 because the backwards compatible maps seem to be off. I would also avoid the SC-D70 since it does not have a button to change the maps. SC-8820, however, is my favorite Roland Sound Canvas device. It’s small, relatively inexpensive considering it sounds as good as any other 88 Pro variants, has a button to change between SC-55, SC-88 and SC-88Pro modes and can be powered with a USB. SC-88 Pro tends to be expensive, and with a built-in power supply it is very bulky compared to the SC-8820.

From 2001 on Roland started selling Studio Canvas branded synth modules under both Edirol and Roland brands. These synths do support both GM (via GM2 backwards compatibility) and GS, but don’t have maps for Sound Canvas compatibility. These synths are:

SD-90 (2001) – A big device with many of Sound Canvas sounds and host of connections

SD-80 (2002) – A cost and size reduced version of SD-90

SD-20 (2002) – A low-cost device in an SC-8820 chassis

SD-50 (2009) – midi interface, midi module, audio interface and mp3 player combo

Trivia: SC-88 Pro and variants have an XG “Lite” map which means you can play XG MIDI files from 1995 and prior accurately, if with Roland samples instead of Yamaha ones. No games with XG MIDI were released in the west that you could make use of this with unfortunately.

There is one more device that carries the Sound Canvas brand, which is the Roland SC-7 from 1992. SC-7 lacks GS capability and is a tiny grey box. It does do the job for games that support General MIDI, but I would only grab one for a collection or if it was very cheap.

Many Roland synthesizers support GM and GS, but they tend to be big rack mount devices aimed at professional music production. There is an exception which is Roland JV-1010. Same compact half-rack size of SC-55, it is a professional synth released in 1999. Unfortunately, it only supports GM. The sound quality great and the music sounds as realistic as it gets with 90’s hardware. Usually lower cost than SC-88 Pro units, it may be worth a look if your favorite games only support GM and you’ve always hoped they sounded like the music was played with real instruments

Yamaha

Yamaha has both pure GM synths, those extended with XG, and even those that support Roland's GS extensions. MU series was competitive with Roland's Sound Canvas series and many actually prefer Yamaha's GS compatible units to those from Roland. I'm dividing them into categories here by their similarity - buying two units from the same category doesn't offer much variety for games:

1. TG series

The first GM synth from Yamaha was branded as part of their TG ("tone generator") series of synthesizers as TG100. It used low quality samples and was lower cost than the competing Roland SC-55, but did not do as well in the market.  Yamaha also released it in a white box without a screen as a computer model called CBX-T3. It was aimed at hobbyists who wanted to dabble in computer music, and the game music composers stuck with Roland.

TG100 (1992) – the original GM synth

CBX-T3 (1993) – cost reduced version version with no display or controls

TG300 (1993) – upgraded version of TG100, much better audio quality

TG300 is not actually a bad GM synth at all and units in good condition can be found on the cheap.

2. MU80 and updates:

Yamaha really caught up with Roland in 1994 with MU80, a unit superior to TG300 in every way. I can recommend an MU module for retro games but picking one out of the 18 models in the lineup can be daunting. Much like the Roland Sound Canvas line, there are many models that sound very similar.

MU80 was the first unit that supported XG, and the basic design carried all the way to MU100 with the same chassis with more voices and updates to the engine that don’t seem to affect games noticeably.

MU80 (1994) – the original XG synth

MU50 (1995) – cost reduced version, lower quality samples

MU90 (1996) – upgraded version of MU80, no apparent difference in games

MU90R (1996) – rackmount version of MU90

MU90B (1997) – no display version of MU90, only power button and volume control

MU100 (1997) – upgraded engine, support for expansion cards

MU100R (1997) – rackmount version of MU90, extra expansion slot

MU100B (1997) – no display version of MU100, only power button and volume control

MU80 is the classic Yamaha module, and I recommend it mostly because of that. If you prefer a lo-fi sound for your games MU50 will sound more pleasing to you, while the versions without displays can usually be found on the cheap.

Trivia: Supposedly MU90 and MU100 were both used in some 90’s arcade rhythm games. If you have any information on this let me know via Twitter or something.

3. MU128 and the best desktop midi modules never released in the west

In 1998 Yamaha noticed its expansion cards were selling well in Japan and decided to update the chassis to accommodate 3 expansion cards. These devices will sound noticeably different to the earlier MU devices even in games. MU128 was technically the last Yamaha desktop midi module that they released in the west, focusing their efforts on workstations and rack modules. In Japan, they released:

MU2000 (1999) – USB, optical digital out, smartmedia card slot, sampler and sequencer

MU1000 (1999) – cost reduced MU2000, no sampler, sequencer or smartmedia card slot

MU2000EX (2000) – firmware upgrade to MU2000 adding Roland GS support

MU1000EX (2000) – firmware upgrade to MU1000 adding Roland GS support

MU500 (2000) – smaller unit with MU100 sound engine and MU2000 sounds

You can buy an MU1000/2000 and attempt a firmware upgrade to an EX-version but I don’t recommend it unless you can read Japanese. And if you can read Japanese, there are way better guides for midi modules than this for you.

MU1000/EX and MU2000/EX are identical for gaming purposes. If you don’t care about the original composer’s vision or period accuracy, the EX-versions are the best modules you can get. GM, XG and GS music all sounds excellent. I recommend an EX-unit to anyone who can afford one, as the prices are increasingly high for units in good condition.

Trivia: If you have an expansion card for your MU unit, you may be able to use it in games. Drums always use the same MIDI channel, and you can substitute the default drumkit with one from an expansion card.

4. The portable series

Yamaha released three portable MU units, and all sound surprisingly good for their small size and can be used with batteries. These units are:

MU5 (1994) – Only MU series unit with no XG, buttons double as a small keyboard

MU10 (1996) – Beige box with no display, XG support

MU15 (1998) – An update of MU5 with XG support

I have seen MU10’s for very low prices, and the sound is very close to an MU50. If you like your retro computing hardware to be beige, this is a good start. Certainly, much better than the CBX-T3.

5. Drum modules (the DTX series)

Earlier I said that MU128 was technically the last desktop module they released, and this is kind of true – the modules they released after year 2000 were not made for desktops but were used for electronic drums. Yamaha’s DTXtreme units are mostly GM compatible but they are bulky units that will not be at home on a desk, however, early DTXpress series modules actually are General MIDI modules reminiscent of the MU series units and can be used for retro games:

DTXpress (2000) – similar looking unit to older MU series

DTXpress II (2002) – updated drum samples

DTXpress III (2003) – updated drum samples

DTXpress units are very cheap, but don't sound amazing. They do work, and you can actually change the drumset used by the game on the fly which can be fun.

Other notable manufacturers

Korg

Korg modules don’t sound very consistent with games but can be very nice depending on the music and which instruments are used. All the Korg modules are based on the same engine and sound samey with the GM map. They are:

05R/W (1994) – First Korg GM module, based on their X5 keyboard

AG-10 (1994) – “Audio Gallery” a white box with only a power button and a volume slider

X5DR (1995) – same as 05R/W with improvements for music production

NS5R (1997) – GS compatible, could be upgraded with a daughterboard to add XG

NX5R (1999) – upgraded NS5R with XG daughterboard built in

The NX5R basically covers every sound that its predecessors have and is the best buy if you’re looking to add that Korg sound to your MIDI stack. Unfortunately, these units are on the expensive side and even the NS5R is around the price of a Yamaha MU2000EX. AG-10 will only get you GM but you may find one on the cheap as they are not very useful for musicians today.

Kawai

Kawai managed to put out three GM modules in 1993, which all sound fine, and exactly the same in games:

GMega (1993) – the only model with a screen and controls

GMega LX (1993) – a white box with only a power button and volume control

GMega L (1993) – a cost reduced version of GMega LX, with less MIDI channels

GMegas are not very common but they’re not exactly sought after either so you may find one on the cheap, and it does have a unique sound.

Casio

Casio targeted hobbyists and music learners with its modules, and as a result they are tiny and have very little in terms of features. Still work for games that use GM though.

GZ-50M (1995) – Very basic, small GM module

GZ-30M (1995) – cost reduced version of GZ-50M with a simpler case and controls, without the separate RCA output and headphone jacks. No effects, even reverb

GZ-70SP (1995) – A GZ-30M stuck inside a speaker

GZ-50M actually sounds fun, in a 90’s cheap synth kind of way. It is very small and well worth getting on the cheap if you like the sound of cheap Casio learner synths of the 90’s.

Akai

SG01k (1995) is Akai’s only GM module. Not to be confused with SG01v (collection of sounds from vintage analogue synthesizers) or SG01p (piano sounds). The sounds emulate those of famous manufacturers from Roland to Moog. The SG01k is fairly consistent in that not much seems out of place, making it a decent choice for GM music.

MIDIPLUS

MIDIPLUS is mostly known for their cables, patchbays and other music production related accessories, but they also are one of the few manufacturers that still have GM modules on the market. They use a modern chip from Dream, which sounds very similar to Roland Sound Canvases of the 90’s.

miniEngine Pro (2017) – A tiny GM device that also works as a battery pack

miniEngine (2017) – cost-cut version of the Pro, screen replaced by a three-digit display

These small devices sound very good and can be bought from online retailers like Amazon.

Other GM modules out there

Here are some more interesting modules that I don’t have, either because I can’t find them or can’t afford them:

E-Mu Sound Engine (1993) – basically a module version of Creative Waveblaster, from before E-Mu was acquired by Creative

Eniac Sound Saurus BH-1000 (1994) – An odd GM unit which seems to have unofficial GS compatibility, never seen one for sale anywhere

Ketron SD 2 (2006) – A small, portable module with realistic sound, still available new but expensive

Alesis Nanosynth (2007) – Amazing sounding tiny module. No idea how games would sound with this because it’s too expensive for me to justify.

Ketron SD 4 (2008) – Very realistic sounding GM compatible desktop module. Expensive and rare

There are many more GM modules, but this guide will never end with this going so better move on.

LA Modules

Roland LA modules were popularized for PC gaming (and even sold) by Sierra, and many games of late 80’s and early 90’s use LA synthesis instead of General MIDI which did not show up before 1991.

Back in the day when CPU power was not abundant, Roland made a MIDI interface that would take over some of the heavy lifting involved in this MIDI business and put out the MPU-401 interface card that could provide things like as sequencer, MIDI clock, sync and a metronome when needed. This is called “intelligent mode” and is required by many older games.

There are two ways you can get this intelligent mode in DOS. One way is to use a software called SoftMPU which I know nothing about and hence can’t give you a guide for. The other is PCMIDI – a reproduction MPU-401 clone that you can actually buy and not pay hundreds of dollars as you would for a rare original Roland version. It works perfectly with any MIDI module.

With that out of the way, here are all the Roland LA synthesizer modules:

MT-32 (1987) – The original MT-32

MT-32 (1988) – Headphone jack added, internal changes

MT-100 (1988) – A combination of the newer MT-32 and a PR-100 sequencer.

CM-32L (1989) – “computer music” white box with power button and volume control only, added sound effects

CM-64 (1989) – a CM-32L and CM-32P (a PCM synth not used in DOS games) combo

CM-32LN (1992) –CM-32L with a new DAC and a connector for NEC PC-98 computers

CM-500 (1991) – combination of CM-32LN and CM-300 (GS synth)

The most well-known LA synth is the Roland MT-32. It comes in two varieties, the old one (recognized easily by lacking a headphone jack) and the new one. There are some minor differences between the two. The older MT-32 can suffer some "buffer overflow" issues in certain games, while the newer fixes the issue. On the other hand some older Sierra games only work 100% as intended on the old version. MT-32 and MT-100 are nice looking black boxes with buttons and screens. The others are “computer music” CM variants, white (and by now ranging from beige to yellow) boxes with no controls.

CM-32L has added sound effects that some games make use of. You generally won’t know they’re supposed to be there unless you have a CM-32L unit – you may miss the sound of a door opening in Beneath a Steel Sky, for example. CM-64 is a combination of the hardware found in two units, the CM-32L and CM-32P, of which the latter is not used by any DOS games released in the west. Some Japanese games for X68000 do actually use the extra sounds in CM-64 and some even sounds from expansion cards that you can use with it, but for western games in DOS, CM-32L and CM-64 are equal.

CM-32LN is a module that was made specifically for the Japanese NEC PC-98 computers and features a special connector for one but does work as a regular midi module via 5-pin DIN connector. It has a faster vibrato than the older models, often mistakenly referred to as a bug. It does sound different, and it’s not what the songs were composed with, so depending on how accurate you want your LA music, may want to get an older unit instead.

CM-500 combines a CM-32LN with a CM-300 by literally having the hardware of both. It has a switch in the back to choose the mode. If you only want one device, this would be it – as long as you aren’t too bothered about the faster vibrato.

To summarize, CM-32L and CM-64 are the best LA modules. CM-32LN and CM-500 have a faster vibrato than the earlier modules, which means the sound is not exactly as originally intended. MT-32 units have a display and buttons on front. Some games show messages on the MT-32 display, which is a fun novelty.

Trivia: You can actually mod a Roland RA-50 Auto Arranger to work as an MT-32 very easily. Here is a guide from SmokeMonster

FM Modules

In 2015 Nerdly Pleasures wrote this fantastic article about the IBM Music Feature Card and mentioned the 1986 FM module, Yamaha FB-01 which shares the same YM-2164 FM synthesis chip. It is pretty unlikely that you’ll ever find an IBM Music Feature in the wild, and if you do it’ll most likely be very expensive. FB-01’s on the other hand are fairly cheap.

If you have an MPU-401 card such as PCMIDI you can connect the FB-01 to and hear the (admittedly inferior to LA) FM versions of the music in these games:

Codename: Iceman

Conquests of Camelot

Hero's Quest/Quest for Glory

Hoyle's Official Book of Games

King's Quest I SCI

King's Quest IV

Leisure Suit Larry 2

Leisure Suit Larry 3

Mixed Up Mother Goose

Police Quest II

Silpheed

Sorcerian

Space Quest III

The Colonel's Bequest

Thexer 2

Another fun thing you can do is play VGM (video game music) files with something very close to original arcade hardware. A lot of arcade games of the 80’s used the same chip. You can actually do this with a Yamaha MSX computer as well – Yamaha SFG-05 FM unit that works with Yamaha’s series of “music computers” has the same chip and can be used instead of an FB-01 with the DOS games above as well.

Recommendations

If you want to experience the late 80’s and early 90’s Sierra and Lucas Arts adventure games in all their glory, get an MT-32, CM-32L or CM-64. The first version of MT-32 if you live for 80's Sierra games (in which case also get an FB-01).

If you want to buy just one module that was used to compose most of the 90’s game MIDI, get a Roland SC-55 or a variant.

If you want the highest fidelity Roland sound with great compatibility, buy a Roland SC-8820. Also buy an SC-8820 if you have very limited space.

If you want to have only one module, but want to play all games whether LA, GM or GS, get a Roland CM-500.

If you want to want your old games to sound like new games, get the Yamaha MU1000EX.

If you want to add just one XG synth to your collection and can’t afford a Yamaha MU1000EX, get the MU80.

Shopping tips

1. There are a lot of these modules out there in the wild. You can have amazingly good deals if you have patience. Ebay is one way to buy them, but I recommend using a proxy site that allows you to bid on Yahoo Japan Auctions, such as ZenMarket.

2. Many sellers have no means of testing these devices, so they are often sold as “untested”. Most of the time they will work. Don’t worry about power supplies not being included, as generic ones are easily available. Just make sure the voltage matches (and the polarity – Roland specifically uses center negative power supplies so if you buy the much more common center positive one, you’ll need a dongle that converts it which are very cheap).

3. Nobody ever bids on modules that are listed as having cigarette smell. You should, since it’ll be cheap. Then you start by dousing the device in isopropyl alcohol, Use a melamine sponge like a magic eraser to scrub off the surfaces, let it dry, and then seal it in a box on a bed of baking soda for a week. Yamaha MU128, MU1000 and MU2000 paint may come off with this process but most other modules are fine.

Chronological list of modules

Here are all the modules I've mentioned by year, for those of you who are looking to build period accurate PC builds or something:

1984:

Yamaha SFG-05

1986:

Yamaha FB-01

1987:

Roland MT-32 (old version)

1988:

Roland MT-32 (new version)

Roland MT-100

1989:

Roland CM-32L

Roland CM-64

1991:

Roland CM-300 (GS only version)

Roland CM-300 (GS & GM version)

Roland CM-500

Roland Sound Canvas SC-55 (GS only version)

Roland Sound Canvas SC-55 (GS & GM version)

1992:

Boss Dr. Synth DS-330

Roland CM-32LN

Roland Sound Canvas SC-155

Roland Sound Canvas SC-33

Yamaha TG100

 

1993:

Kawai GMega

Kawai GMega L

Kawai GMega LX

E-Mu Sound Engine

Edirol Sound Canvas SC-55ST

Roland Sound Canvas SC-55ST

Yamaha TG300

Yamaha CBX-T3

1994:

Eniac Sound Saurus BH-1000

Korg 05R/W

Korg AG-10 Audio Gallery

Roland Sound Canvas SC-50

Roland Sound Canvas SC-88

Yamaha MU80

Yamaha MU5

1995:

Akai SG01k

Casio GZ-50M

Casio GZ-30M

Casio GZ-70SP

Roland Sound Canvas M-GS64

Yamaha MU50

1996:

Edirol Sound Canvas SC-88ST

Roland Sound Canvas SC-88VL

Roland Sound Canvas SC-88 Pro

Roland Sound Canvas SC-88ST

Yamaha MU10

Yamaha MU90

Yamaha MU90R

1997:

Roland Sound Canvas SC-88ST Pro

Korg NS5R

Yamaha 90B

Yamaha MU100

Yamaha MU100B

Yamaha MU100R

1998:

Roland Sound Canvas SC-880

Yamaha MU15

1999:

Roland JV-1010

Roland Sound Canvas SC-8820

Roland Sound Canvas SC-8850

Korg NX5R

Yamaha MU1000

Yamaha MU2000

2000:

Yamaha DTXpress

Yamaha MU1000EX

Yamaha MU2000EX

Yamaha MU500

2001:

Edirol Studio Canvas SD-90

Roland Sound Canvas SC-D70

2002:

Edirol Studio Canvas SD-20

Edirol Studio Canvas SD-80

Yamaha DTXpress II

2003:

Yamaha DTXpress III

2006:

Ketron SD 2

2007:

Alesis Nanosynth

2008:

Ketron SD 4

2009:

Roland Mobile Studio Canvas SD-50

2017:

MIDIPLUS miniEngine Pro

MIDIPLUS miniEngine

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