ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

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ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby badmojo » 2013-11-24 @ 23:37

One of my PIII's (viewtopic.php?t=34322) important duties is to run late DOS era SVGA games at a decent framerate. To allow this I use a dual boot (DOS 7 / Win98 SE) setup and have been using a Sound Blaster 16 (CT2290) + DB50XG in the single available ISA slot for sound duties in DOS. It's been a great setup, but Build engine games (and some others) stutter when used with a Creative card for FX and MIDI OUT simultaneously, and this bothered me. I wants my Duke3D.

I dug through my box of sound cards looking for a replacement and tried an:

- Audio Excel 3D (CMI8330 chipset) (discussed here viewtopic.php?f=46&t=22046). I do like this card; the SB16 compatibility is nice and the DOS software is pretty good, but you can’t turn off the WSS support and the sound quality is not great. You can turn the amp off so noise is not an issue, but FX sound “tinnie”. There is also an issue with the game port on this card, detailed in the linked thread above.

- Aztech Sound Galaxy Pro 16. The version I have seems to be a little different to the other SG Pro 16 cards I’ve seen on the interwebs, in that it doesn’t have a real OPL3 and uses an Analog Devices chipset instead of the apparently more common Crystal chipset. Setup was easy enough and the Sound Blaster Pro compatibility seemed to be good, but it sounded like my speakers had been immersed in water. Also the wavetable header could not be configured to a useable port number (this is done via jumpers), the lowest available was port 530! Total fail.

I was about to give up and put the SB16 back in when I noticed this humble looking card, pulled from a junked Socket 7 machine at some time in the past and kept because it had a wavetable header:

Image

This card does several things right. The DOS software – which can be found on Vogon Drivers – is bare bones but is easy to use and powerful. ESSCFG.EXE allows you to initialise the card and then exit (not a TSR), and the default values make sense. I was able to turn the game port and CD-ROM connector off easily and configure the wavetable header to port 330. ESSVOL.EXE is likewise easy to use, and allowed me to set the MIDI and CD volumes (both muted by default), and the volume levels were perfect first time which is a rare thing in my experience. No messing around trying to get FM and MIDI outputs right.

This card is SB Pro compatible and sounds fantastic, very clean and crisp. The on board amp can be turned off easily via jumpers. I’m not interested in FM for this machine - it’s GM or red-book all the way - but out of interest I tried FM in DOOM (the FM music of which I’m very familiar with) and it too sounded great. The ES1868 datasheet (http://alsa.cybermirror.org/manuals/ess/pb1868c.pdf) claims that the included “ESFM” synthesiser is “register compatible to OPL3”. I don’t know what that means, but it sounds impressive.

It’s a small card so I had to use an extension cable to connect the DB50XG, but that’s no big deal. It’s also PnP which I frown upon in an ISA card, but it was easy enough to tell Windows 98 to ignore it (I use a Live! when booting to Windows). And as others have noted here there is a nasty pop when starting the PC, but these are minor complaints in my opinion.

It doesn’t look like much but I’m very impressed with the AudioDrive. There’s no such thing as the holy grail of ISA sound cards, but this card ticks more boxes than most, and given these things are ubiquitous and cost a few bucks, I think it’s worth considering.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby Kahenraz » 2013-11-25 @ 02:18

An ISA Crystal CS4232-KQ is also a good alternative, from what I've read. I haven't had a chance to try any of the ISA AudioDrives but I'm looking forward to giving this baby a spin once it arrives. It's an international shipment so I'm still waiting:

Also see here:
viewtopic.php?t=20526&highlight=perfect+soundcard

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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby CwF » 2013-11-25 @ 02:29

That is the primary chip on this machine now typing, an ISA Guillemot Maxi Sound HS64. P3TDLE dual 1.4 XP sp3.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby jwt27 » 2013-11-25 @ 02:42

ESS cards are very good SBPro2 clones, requires no TSRs and generally sounds pretty clean. I do believe it's not as compatible as the YMF719, though. Before I discovered the YMF I used an ESS card, but at some point I ditched it, either because the YMF sounded better or some game was incompatible with it.
ESFM is pretty neat too, it sounds quite different from the OPL3 in some cases. I believe it has more channels than the real thing, which the Windows MIDI driver can use for full 4-op sound.

I have a triangular ES1868 card here with the daughterboard header turned around 90°, see if you can find one of those, the XR385 (and probably any other DB) fits on without an extension cable. The DB header is also quite unusual, one of the 5V pins and the midi-out pin is used as digital audio input, which can be used only by certain ESS DBs.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby leileilol » 2013-11-25 @ 03:27

Kahenraz wrote:An ISA Crystal CS4232-KQ is also a good alternative, from what I've read.


All WSS cards sound "good on paper"... their drivers are another story.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby badmojo » 2013-11-25 @ 03:58

jwt27 wrote:ESS cards are very good SBPro2 clones, requires no TSRs and generally sounds pretty clean. I do believe it's not as compatible as the YMF719, though. Before I discovered the YMF I used an ESS card, but at some point I ditched it, either because the YMF sounded better or some game was incompatible with it.
ESFM is pretty neat too, it sounds quite different from the OPL3 in some cases. I believe it has more channels than the real thing, which the Windows MIDI driver can use for full 4-op sound.

I have a triangular ES1868 card here with the daughterboard header turned around 90°, see if you can find one of those, the XR385 (and probably any other DB) fits on without an extension cable. The DB header is also quite unusual, one of the 5V pins and the midi-out pin is used as digital audio input, which can be used only by certain ESS DBs.


Yes the YMF card would be another option in this machine, and I have a YMF701 which isn't PnP so that would be a small bonus. The DOS mixer software turned me off those cards however, and some minor incompatibilities with older games.

I've only tried a handful of games on the AudioDrive so far so can't comment on the compatibility of it yet, time will tell, although I'll only be playing games released from ~'96 onward so I won't be throwing anything particularly challenging at it. I won't be swapping out my Sound Blaster Pro from my 486 with one of these, that's for sure.

And yes a quick search on eBay shows that cards with this chipset come in all shapes and sizes, there's a couple of full height cards being listed which would probably take the DB50XG OK too. I'm OK with the extension cable, there's plenty of room to mount the DB50XG in the case I'm using.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby d1stortion » 2013-11-25 @ 04:19

Tyrian is a challenging one for clones. It seems to give popping noises on anything other than a Sound Blaster. Then again Wolf3D does this even on a SB :)
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby jwt27 » 2013-11-25 @ 04:48

d1stortion wrote:Tyrian is a challenging one for clones. It seems to give popping noises on anything other than a Sound Blaster. Then again Wolf3D does this even on a SB :)


What popping noises are you referring to? I don't think I ever noticed that, on any clone card.

badmojo wrote:Yes the YMF card would be another option in this machine, and I have a YMF701 which isn't PnP so that would be a small bonus. The DOS mixer software turned me off those cards however, and some minor incompatibilities with older games.


If it's non-PnP... Does it work in an 8-bit slot? The 71x can supposedly do that, however the setup program doesn't know how. It insists on enabling WSS which is obviously not gonna work on 8-bit.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby d1stortion » 2013-11-25 @ 04:57

Just random popping noises when navigating through the menu. It was most apparent on CS4236 IIRC. Also the game had some minor SFX issues on that particular codec.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby DonutKing » 2013-11-25 @ 05:42

There was a certain ESS card I tried and didn't like because it could only play a couple of sounds at a time, or would play the first half of a sound and cut off the rest. I forget which one it was. But try playing a shooter and shooting a few things, causing explosions etc and see if this card has that issue.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby badmojo » 2013-11-25 @ 09:23

jwt27 wrote:If it's non-PnP... Does it work in an 8-bit slot? The 71x can supposedly do that, however the setup program doesn't know how. It insists on enabling WSS which is obviously not gonna work on 8-bit.


I haven't tried it, but from memory turning the WSS off completely also muted the MPU401 - I had to set a base IO for the WSS at a minimum to get MIDI.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby badmojo » 2013-11-25 @ 09:38

DonutKing wrote:There was a certain ESS card I tried and didn't like because it could only play a couple of sounds at a time, or would play the first half of a sound and cut off the rest. I forget which one it was. But try playing a shooter and shooting a few things, causing explosions etc and see if this card has that issue.


Yes that would be a deal breaker for me too. I shot up the joint in DOOM, Duke3D, and Duke II, and haven't noticed any sounds being cut off. I did notice the FM quality again in Duke II though, it really does sound nice IMHO.

I'm sure I'll find something that bugs me about it eventually - I always do - but it's a nice change of pace to find an ISA card that's easy to setup, does what it claims to do, and sounds nice.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby bjt » 2013-11-25 @ 10:32

Any chance you could give it a go with SoftMPU? Don't have any ISA ESS cards on the compatibility list yet :-)
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby badmojo » 2013-11-25 @ 11:10

bjt wrote:Any chance you could give it a go with SoftMPU? Don't have any ISA ESS cards on the compatibility list yet :-)


No probs, I'll give it a go in the next couple of days. Nice work on that by the way!
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby bjt » 2013-11-25 @ 12:39

Thanks and look forward to your results!
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby sliderider » 2013-11-26 @ 18:18

The really nice thing about ESS1868 based cards is that OEMs bought them in large quantities so they are easy to find and good prices can still be had on them.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby badmojo » 2013-12-04 @ 09:44

I'm still messing around with this thing and still loving it. I'm on the lookout for cards with the other ESS ISA chipsets to try out too.

One thing I'm wondering about is the Windows Sound System support that is claimed in the data sheet for the ES1868. The DOS software makes no mention of WSS resources, and indeed no game recognises the card as such. Does anyone have any thoughts on how I might go about enabling WSS support in DOS?

Perhaps this is Windows only option via the generic WSS 2.0 driver (which lists the AudioDrive as a compatible card).

Thanks for any help, I have almost zero experience with WSS, with the exception being the WSS support provided by the OPL3SAx cards. I tried 3 of these things, a YMF701, 718, and 719. Each behaved slightly differently with regard to WSS resources and I only managed to get the YMF719 to behave consistently, but not without a struggle, and even then the mixer settings were so far out of whack that - as always - I yanked the card out and swore to never touch one again.
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby vetz » 2013-12-04 @ 10:06

I have an integrated ES1888 soundcard in my Compaq. Maybe after reading this thread I should consider activating it again :)

Do you know the differences between ES1888 and ES1868?
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby badmojo » 2013-12-04 @ 11:24

vetz wrote:I have an integrated ES1888 soundcard in my Compaq. Maybe after reading this thread I should consider activating it again :)

Do you know the differences between ES1888 and ES1868?


Give it a go!

Looking at the product briefs (below), it looks like the 1888 does whatever the 1868 can do + more. More inputs, NT support, more mixer channels, etc. I haven't managed to find a card with that chipset yet but am looking forward to trying it out. Your thoughts would be appreciated.

http://alsa.cybermirror.org/manuals/ess/pb1868c.pdf

http://www.optix.org/~dxy/pws/sound/pb1888b.pdf
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Re: ESS AudioDrive (ES1868) - a surprisingly good ISA sound card

Postby Skyscraper » 2013-12-04 @ 17:19

I own this card.
I bought it new for a Pentium 133 if I remember correctly. It must have been late 1996.
It looks somewhat simular to yours :)

ESS 1868F
Image

I also have this Compaq card but I have no idea where I got it.

ESS 1868F
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