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.