Oldskooler Ramblings

the unlikely child born of the home computer wars

The esoteric side of DOS-era soundcards

Posted by Trixter on August 30, 2012


A user on a vintage computing forum recently asked if anyone had an Adlib Gold for sale.  Actually, pleading would be more accurate, because the Adlib Gold is an exceedingly rare card due to being completely crushed in the marketplace by Creative.  (Which is a shame, because the Gold had much better digital and FM sound quality, but as many industries illustrate, being first (or best, or even first+best) in the marketplace does not guarantee success.  Microsoft and Apple have many interesting multicolored stains on the soles of their boots.)

I’m one of the people this user probably hates, as I own not one but two Adlib Golds, one loose and another open-but-hopefully-complete-in-box. (I also have three IBM Music Feature cards, as well as an MSound Stereo, giving him four more reasons to hate me.) And until I get my “Sound Card Museum” project up and running, and have the card fully documented, I’m unwilling to let either of mine go.

But it got me thinking:  If you want to have fun exploring a high-quality, quirky, or just historically interesting sound card for your vintage rig, there are plenty of other options that grace ebay on a semi-monthly basis.  For example, the Pro Audio Spectrum series is interesting in that one of the models (maybe more?) can be put into an 8-bit ISA slot and give even a lowly 808x machine 16-bit 44.1Khz stereo sound. Later PAS cards had 3D in the name (Pro 3D Spectrum IIRC) and had a “surround” bit you could flip for some fake surround. Some clone cards could do all sorts of wacky emulation; I have an Aztech Sound Galaxy NX Pro 16 that can emulate the Covox Speech Thing and Disney Sound Source. Some cards somehow manage to tap port ox60 so they can route PC speaker sound through the card (and some Sound Blasters and other cards have a cable jack that plug into the motherboard for that). The Sound Blaster 16 ASP has a programmable DSP that can be used for realtime compression/decompression of ADPCM audio as well as QSound, although only one game supports the ASP that I know of, name escapes me at the moment. You can almost always find an MT-32 or an LAPC-1 on ebay now and then, and those will obviously add dimension to most games published from 1989 to 1993. For truly amazing General MIDI sound, you can still sometimes find the original Roland SCC-1 which not only practically defined the GMIDI standard but still remains one of the best-sounding cards for GMIDI (some of the MIDI files that actually use the GS extensions sound pretty damn amazing). While high-end and not very compatible with games, the Turtle Beach Multisound has really great MIDI wavetable that should be heard at least once.

King of the “interesting” sound cards is the Gravis Ultrasound. Very wacky, very capable, very limited, very unlimited. It can produce simultaneously the very worst and the very VERY best sound you’ve ever heard, depending on how well the application programmers understood the card. Some games get small speed-ups with a Gravis card because it is capable of playing up to 32 digital channels out of its onboard wavetable RAM, giving the CPU some more time to render frames. You can put the Gravis into any 286 or higher that has a true NMI. If you put it in a 386 or higher, find yourself some demos that support the GUS and prepare to be amazed at what your old slow computer can do. (Bonus non-sound-related hint: You can get Doom (not Doom II) running at nearly the full framerate on a 386-40 by hitting F5 as soon as the game starts to throw it into low-res mode.)

Sometimes a very uninteresting/dull/plain card can be put to very interesting uses; for example, DOS-era MPC-era gaming, where the audio consists entirely of redbook audio tracks (even the interactive speaking parts). This is something that emulation still has some trouble getting right (namely, the sync is delayed/off/slips), but on real hardware it usually works. I have a Tandy 2500 sx-25 that has a CDROM interface card with stereo RCA jacks — it’s perfectly capable of playing Jones in the Fast Lane or Loom or Monkey Island (MPC edition) or INCA or any other redbook audio-based game with no sync issues whatsoever without needing a secondary sound card (although having a real sound card adds more dimension to those games).

And finally, if you want to give even a truly shitty card the opportunity to sound awesome, grab yourself some decent Amiga MODs (or .S3Ms, or .ITs, or .XMs) and fire up a decent modplayer (or better, the tracker that originally created them). A 386-25 can calculate 8 or more digital channels mixed together in decent quality realtime and then feed that to your crap SB clone. If you have a Tandy TL/SL/RL machine with the built-in DAC, “TANTRAKR” is an excellent modplayer that uses the DAC and even on an 8086 can play 4-channel MODs decently.

You can even have some fun with the Covox Speech Thing (and other LPT DACs like the Disney Sound Source). The Covox by itself isn’t very interesting and also draws quite a bit of CPU when playing audio, but if you have the [B]software[/B] that came with the Speech Thing, it gets more interesting. The software contains some interesting utilities including an 8:1 speech compression method that actually works (modified CVSD) as well as a 2:1 compression scheme that works very well with music. Don’t have a Speech Thing? Build your own using a handful of resistors and some wire!

So yes, it is unfortunate that the Adlib Gold is somewhat of a holy grail when it comes to PC DOS-era soundcards, but that doesn’t mean you can’t explore some other dark corners of DOS audio.

34 Responses to “The esoteric side of DOS-era soundcards”

  1. zsazsafrazs said

    I played 32-channel MODs, S3Ms, and XMs on my 286, thanks to the GUS I had in it. It took some pleading on comp.sys.ibm.pc.demos, but someone came forward with a 286-supporting MOD and S3m player that was reasonably accurate. I even got MikMak to make a special 286 compile of MikMod for me so I could play XMs. There was also Galaxy Player (GLX) that would run on as low as an 8086 but its playback accuracy on anything but MODs wasn’t very good.

    • Trixter said

      Galaxy Player had another trick up its sleeve though — fastest mixing code for 808x I’ve ever seen. I had to ask a friend for clarification on how it worked because it was so esoteric I didn’t quite understand it the first time I saw the disassembly.

  2. Ben said

    The first Aztec card was an 8-bit Sound Galaxy NX from 1992 and the stereo 8-bit Sound Galaxy NX Pro. Like Creative Labs the company was based out of Singapore. The cards offered Sound Blaster, Ad-Lib, Covox and Disney compatibility. I think their first 16-bit card was the Sound Galaxy NX Pro 16 before they decided to later simplify model names with the move to PCI. I am not sure if there was ever a Sound Galaxy Gold?

    • Trixter said

      I dragged it out of storage and it turns out it is indeed a Sound Galaxy NX Pro 16. So much for my memory; I’ve amended the article. On the plus side, it is still NIB shrinkwrapped :-)

  3. Asterisk said

    The mention of the Covox Speech Thing reminds me of a different Covox product I had as a kid in my 8088 system: a 8-bit ISA voice recognition card that let you map keyboard macros to specific voice commands, and came bundled with a headset. It was a huge full-length ISA card and had its own audio output, but, IIRC, wasn’t compatible with their normal sound cards and couldn’t be used for game audio. I think Covox was more known for their products for other platforms, and I can’t find much info online about their ISA card..

  4. Chris said

    All I really want is an OPL4 powered soundcard. Wanted one for years. Those Mediatrix Audiotrix Pro cards are nice, but are also rare. Sadly its pretty much the only “decent” OPL4 card.

  5. Anthony said

    I had a Compaq Presario 486 with a rather oddball sound card. It was a SoundBlaster 16 with an Adapted SCSI controller onboard, which was used to interface with the CD-ROM drive in the system. It was a fill length card, not surprisingly. This was in the pre-ATAPI days, so apparently SCSI was worth the cost to make a reliable CD drive in that system.

  6. Tom Walker said

    Minor comment – Doom (v1.9 at least) and Duke3D (v1.3D) should see no speedup with a GUS, as they’re still mixing voices on the CPU then DMA-ing the resulting buffers to the card SB-style. Hence why the setup for both games asks how many voices to mix.

    • Trixter said

      I have amended the post, thanks. (What a disappointment — did later versions actually use the GUS properly? I wonder if Descent is a better benchmark.)

      • Tom Walker said

        Well, with Doom you can’t get much later than v1.9! I suppose one legitimate reason for Doom & Duke doing all sample mixing on CPU would be memory issues – given that both games have the potential for user modified (and potentially very large!) sound effects, and need General MIDI samples in memory as well, I could imagine that you’d have to start cutting out music/sounds due to lack of memory. Especially on 256kb cards.

        Incidentally, I had a 386DX/40, and while low-res mode made Doom very playable, it definitely wasn’t anywhere near full frame rate. I would be surprised if it ever broke 15 fps, actually. Doom II was even worse – even with low-res mode, it would frequently get slow enough for gaps in sound output to appear (why did iD do sample mixing in the foreground?). Then Heretic and later needlessly removed low-res and were completely unplayable.

        • Trixter said

          IIRC Doom II didn’t have low-res mode, only Doom. But it was very fast on my 386dx-40 because I had a decent graphics card (cirrus logic) and I also was lucky enough to have some L2 cache on my motherboard. There was a lot of variance for 386-40s in 1993.

  7. Speaking of LPT DACs, Jeffrey Hayes’ “SETDAC.COM” utility (for the PSSJ-bearing Tandy systems) takes a novel approach to things by using the existing hardware. By setting the PSSJ DAC to direct mode, and updating the parallel port I/O list with the DAC address, you’re essentially provided with an “internal” Covox Speech Thing, compatibile with most supporting software. Really neat stuff. But hey, don’t take my word for it – If you happen to have a VGA card installed, fire up Pinball Fantasies with a decent playback rate setting, and prepare to be amazed.

    Sound Blaster cards also have a direct-write mode, by-the-by. Adapting SETDAC for their use might be a worthwhile effort, especially given the availability of the source code…

    • Trixter said

      That is a great idea, and I can certainly do it, but I have one condition: Name at least three programs/games/demos that support an LPT DAC but NOT the Sound Blaster (because if every game that supported the DAC also supported the Sound Blaster, there would be no reason for this program). I’ll give you a free one: The Spacepigs Megademo. Do you know of two others?

      • Cloudschatze said

        Off the top of my head, Electronic Arts’ 688 Attack Sub and Maxis’ SimAnt, the latter of which supports Sound Blaster, but has completely different music if an LPT DAC is selected for playback.

        You might also consider Pinball Fantasies again as well, given that playback rates of up to 50kHz (mono) are specified for the LPT DAC selection, compared with 22kHz (mono) playback for the earliest Sound Blaster cards.

        • Trixter said

          While playback rates of 50Khz are given, the Sound Blaster port access is so slow that you would be lucky to get past 15KHz. But your examples are good — I will poke (heh) around this weekend and see what’s possible.

          • Trixter said

            It turns out this isn’t possible. I’d never programmed direct mode before, and according to Creative’s “Sound Blaster Series Hardware Programming Guide”, using direct mode means you have to send a 10h, then the sample. Since the stream of bytes being sent to the port is 10h, sample, 10h, sample, etc. there’s no way the SB can be used as a generic DAC. Poop!

            • Cloudschatze said

              Hrm, yeah, as opposed to the Tandy, where you only set the direct mode a single time. Ah, well. I appreciate you looking into this, in any event.

  8. I actually have two questions:

    1) What was the first Sound Blaster card that was as or more powerful than the Adlib Gold?

    Side note: I remember reading somewhere that the fact that Creative had so much success over Adlib in those days, was because Creative cards (from Sound Blaster Pro 2.0 onwards) had an interface for the CD drive, something Adlib never had, or didn’t have for some time.

    2) Is the Roland SC-55 really better than the MT-32? In which games, or starting from which year/generation is that noticeable?

    Thanks!

    • Chris said

      1) The Soundblaster 16 matched the Adlib Gold in features in 1992.

      The Soundblaster combined digital audio, OPL2 FM (Adlib support), and a game port (later a CD interface) with a decent software package. It didn’t cost much more then an Adlib, which made it attractive, plus it gave OEMs an all-in-one multimedia solution. Creative was also aggressive in getting it supported by software.

      2) It depends on the game. Later games tended to be composed for GM/GS synths in mind as opposed to the MT-32, say around 1993 or so. One later game where the CM-32L/LAPC-I (doesn’t work with the MT-32) shines over the SC-55 is TFX. I find the SC a bit flat in that game, not synthy enough for that soundtrack like the old L/A boxes. Barry Leitch did a great job with the music in that game, even the OPL FM soundtrack was great!

    • Trixter said

      As Chris wrote, the SB16 was the first that matched it in terms of features. The SB16 ASP was the first Creative card that exceeded it (the ASP was a reprogrammable DSP that could do things like compression/decompression in hardware and spatial sound; it had very little third-party support). The first card to exceed the Adlib Gold that was NOT Creative was probably the Turtle Beach Multisound, although the Multisound is not a general-purpose gaming card but rather a very clean 16-bit 44.1Khz DAC/ADC with a 32-voice Proteus MIDI synth.

      As for why Creative stomped Adlib, it was primarily the joystick port that rocketed the Sound Blaster upward. Instead of two cards to play games, you now only needed one. Sneaky marketing didn’t hurt either; the Adlib Gold was publicly lambasted by Creative as only having 12-bit DACs, whereas the SB16 “could play 16-bit audio”. The actual truth is that the SB16 used 12-bit DACs internally and was also a much noisier card. Adlib never recovered, which is a shame because the Adlib Gold output is really, really clean.

      Chris is correct in that the turning point for MIDI support shifted towards General MIDI around 1993, and he also correctly references TFX as a notable exception. There were games into 1997 that supported the MT-32/LAPC-1 but it was down to a handful at that point, and the MT-32 support was really derived from the GMIDI support. You can view most games that supported MT-32 here: http://www.mobygames.com/browse/games/dos/tic,1/ti,35/

      • Had it met the original, July 1991 release date, the Ad Lib Gold would have been contemporaries with MediaVision’s Pro AudioSpectrum, and a month later, Creative’s Sound Blaster Pro, both of which it trounced, specification wise.

        Other than perhaps some Usenet fanboy flame-fests, I don’t know that Creative ever thought of Ad Lib as competition beyond the release of the original Sound Blaster. Instead, it’s pretty obvious that MediaVision was Creative’s main threat, and to whom they played catch-up on and off for a number of years. Consider the following:

        Nov 1989 – Creative releases the Sound Blaster 1.0
        Apr 1991 – MediaVision ships the MPC-compliant, stereo, 2xOPL2-based Pro AudioSpectrum
        May 1991 – Creative announces the MPC-compliant, stereo, 2xOPL2-based Sound Blaster Pro
        Aug 1991 – Creative ships the Sound Blaster Pro
        Apr 1992 – MediaVision ships the 16-bit, OPL3-based Pro AudioSpectrum16
        Jun 1992 – Creative announces the 16-bit, OPL3-based Sound Blaster 16
        Nov 1992 – Creative ships the Sound Blaster 16

  9. Jay said

    I still have my GUS PnP Pro, the last, best GUS based on the Interwave chip with 512 kB onboard sample RAM. I’ve expanded mine to 8.5 MB with SIMMs and it actually sits in a 5×86/100-based DOS rig alongside a SB Awe 32 which has (I think) 16 MB added on, which means I have half a MB *more* RAM on the soundcards than I do on the actual motherboard.

    The really neat thing you can do with the Interwave-based Ultrasounds is – and I had *no clue* about this when the card was actually current; sure wish I’d known back then! – you can control MIDI synths (and play samples simultaneously) from Impulse Tracker! For a feature that was only added in the very last patch to the program (2.14 Rev. 4 if I remember right), it works really, really well. The MIDI timing is *rock* solid. It does take a bit of doing to set up though.

    I actually pulled that system out of storage fairly recently and have been fooling around with it. I was going to record some rare-ish GUS game soundtracks to OGG/MP3 and release them into the wild (a lot of games had entirely different songs or remixes on the GUS compared to their more common OPL3 music), but MAN is the output on the Ultrasound noisy! I can’t remember if it was always that way. In this case DOSBox GUS emulation sounds better than the real thing, at least for my card. Oh well!

  10. Jay said

    BTW fun fact: if you’re running DOSBox on a slower system, the GUS emulation is generally much faster than SB emulation. Why would that be if the GUS was a more powerful soundcard? Because DOSBox emulates the GUS’ hardware mixing on the “OS-native” (fast) side of the program, whereas the SB sound was mixed in software and thus is done “in situ” within the emulation! It’s baffling to me why DOSBox installs with GUS support disabled by default.

    • Trixter said

      The GUS emulation (which “cheats”, it doesn’t go down in quality when you use 15+ channels) is probably disabled by default because most people don’t have an ULTRAMID directory and environment variable set up in their DOSBOX environment, and some games that use the GUS require those to run.

  11. neptho said

    When are you going to put my former GUS museum online?! :D

    • Trixter said

      In due time, in due time :-) I kid you not, it (along with the Interwave cards and other fun) are sitting right behind me. I just need to pick a decent CMF that will allow me to build in database-driven navigation so that I can get the mobygames-like mining without recreating mobygames. So far the best candidate is Drupal.

      • neptho said

        I hate Drupal. It’s bloated, the plugins are still mostly unstable with D7, and it’s an enterprise answer to the question of ‘How do I keep my PHP job’ only. Good luck.

        • Trixter said

          I haven’t decided completely on Drupal, but the taxonomy system is very appealing for creating a “museum”-like website (where everything can be a category that you click on). If you have a different CMS to recommend, by all means, please do!

  12. yuhong said

    “(Which is a shame, because the Gold had much better digital and FM sound quality, but as many industries illustrate, being first (or best, or even first+best) in the marketplace does not guarantee success. Microsoft and Apple have many interesting multicolored stains on the soles of their boots.)”
    Personally, my favorite is the MS OS/2 2.0 fiasco which was IMO a lot worse: http://yuhongbao.blogspot.ca/2012/12/about-ms-os2-20-fiasco-px00307-and-dr.html

  13. Scali said

    [quote]The Sound Blaster 16 ASP has a programmable DSP that can be used for realtime compression/decompression of ADPCM audio as well[/quote]

    If I’m not mistaken, realtime decompression of ADPCM is available on even the earliest Sound Blasters.

    • Trixter said

      The earliest Sound Blasters contained their own form of ADPCM tuned for 8-bit data that stored an 8 bit sample in a 4-bit, 2.6-bit, or 2-bit scheme. These schemes were created before “IMA ADPCM” was a spec and were never officially documented, although some reverse engineering is available at http://wiki.multimedia.cx/index.php?title=Creative_8_bits_ADPCM . The DSP was not fast enough to compress/decompress beyond 12KHz so that is the maximum sample rate if using that mode. Also, the 2.6- and 2-bit methods sound like garbage if used with anything other than clear speech.

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