Vintage ISA DOS Gaming Sound Card Rankings System

Discussion about old PC hardware.

Vintage ISA DOS Gaming Sound Card Rankings System

Postby Great Hierophant » 2014-4-18 @ 16:05

Before I post this on my blog, I would like some feedback.

I have tried to make an objective rating system to judge the gaming suitability of a particular vintage sound card. I have avoided including more subjective qualities like measurement of audio output quality. My basic standard for rating each element of a sound card is as follows :

0 - Not present or not widely supported
1 - Useful but often troublesome or problematic
2 - Mainline support
3 - Superior Features
4 - The Best of the Best

1. Gameport
0.00 - None
0.50 - Crippled (2axis/2buttons only) or Non-standard : Covox Sound Master
1.00 - Standard : Sound Blaster 1.0-Pro 2.0
1.50 - Speed Sensitive : Sound Blaster 16-AWE64
2.00 - Speed Adjustable : Gravis Ultrasound

2. MIDI Hardware Interface
0.00 - None
0.50 - Not Widely Supported : IBM Music Feature, Pro Audio Spectrum, Gravis Ultrasound, Adlib Gold
1.00 - Sound Blaster MIDI
1.50 - Widespread UART MPU-401 Hanging Note Bug : Sound Blaster DSP 4.11-4.13
1.75 - Minimal UART MPU-401 Hanging Note Bug : Sound Blaster DSP 4.11-4.13 & CT-1747
2.00 - UART MPU-401, Sound Blaster DSP <= 4.05 or DSP = 4.16
2.50 - MPU-401 Hardware Emulation
3.00 - Roland MPU-401 or 100% Fully Compatible

3. Music Synthesizer
0.00 - None (Digital Only)4+4
0.50 - Not Widely Supported : Innovation SSI-2001, Covox Sound Master, IBM Music Feature, IBM PS/1 Audio/Game Card
1.00 - Game Blaster
1.50 - Gravis Ultrasound, Creative CQM : Later Sound Blaster 16 & AWE32s, most 32s, all AWE64s
2.00 - OPL2 : Adlib, Sound Blaster 1.0-2.0, Thunderboard, Covox Sound Master II
2.25 - Dual OPL2 : Sound Blaster Pro 1.0, Pro Audio Spectrum; OPL3 : Sound Blaster Pro 2.0, 16, AWE32, 32; Pro Audio Spectrum Plus/16, Adlib Gold
2.50 - AWE32/64 EMU-8000, Waveblaster 1/2, OPL4
3.00 - Ensoniq Soundscape, Yamaha DB50XG, SW60XG, Roland SCB-7
4.00 - Roland LAPC-I, SCC-1 or SCB-55

4. Digital Audio Output
0.00 - None (Music Only)
0.50 - Not Widely Supported : IBM PS/2 Speech Adapter or Compatible, Covox Sound Master/Plus, Covox Voice Master
1.00 - Covox Speech Thing or Disney Sound Source, Roland RAP-10, Covox Sound Master II
1.50 - Adlib Gold, Pro Audio Spectrum
2.00 - Sound Blaster DSP 1.xx, Microsoft Windows Sound System, Gravis Ultrasound
2.25 - Sound Blaster DSP 2.00
2.50 - Sound Blaster DSP >= 2.01, Thunderboard
2.75 - Pro Audio Spectrum Plus/16
3.50 - Sound Blaster Pro, Sound Blaster 16 <= DSP 4.05
3.75 - Sound Blaster 16 >= DSP 4.05, Sound Blaster AWE32
4.00 - Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold (SPDIF)

Thus if you add up the total scores, you can get a good idea of the overall suitability of an ISA sound card for DOS gaming. A Roland LAPC-I or SCC-1 would rank a 7, a Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold a 10. A Sound Blaster AWE32 with SCC-1 would probably rate the highest at 11. Note that only the highest score for each individual category is counted. A basic AWE32 gets a 2.5 in the synthesizer category, not a 4.5.
http://nerdlypleasures.blogspot.com/ - Nerdly Pleasures - My Retro Gaming, Computing & Tech Blog
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Re: Vintage ISA DOS Gaming Sound Card Rankings System

Postby obobskivich » 2014-4-18 @ 16:15

I'm not sure I'd bring words like "objective" and "subjective" into things (I say this because those are generally fighting words in most audio circles, not to dismiss what you're trying to do); but yes this looks very useful in providing information about the myriad options out there! Audio output quality doesn't have to be subjective either - especially if you have measurement equipment (even RMAA can be very useful). At the bare minimum it might be helpful to including information about if the devices try to be "normal" as line sources or not, if noise is a common problem, any special I/O they provide (e.g. single ended or balanced outputs, proprietary connectors, use of non-standard plugs that require adapters, etc).
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Re: Vintage ISA DOS Gaming Sound Card Rankings System

Postby gerwin » 2014-4-18 @ 23:08

Scores may not really be able to nail down the options of soundcards, Surely I would disagree with some of the scores.

Consider that I have a vast choice of ISA soundcards myself, and know what they can do. For a while now my options of choice remain generally unchanged. They are listed below, in no particular order, with any remaining drawback I can think of.

    Acer Magic S23 (Crystal CS4232+OPL3) + Midi Daughterboard
    Optionally partner with AWE Goldfinch and/or GUS PnP. The latter to have a 16-bit interface in non-WSS games.
    Drawbacks: no intelligent MPU, no windows 2000 MPU driver, some software needs patching for WSS.

    Which is very similar to this next option:

    YMF71x=OPL3SAx + Midi Daughterboard
    Optionally partner with AWE Goldfinch and/or GUS PnP. The latter to have a 16-bit interface in non-WSS games.
    Drawbacks: no intelligent MPU, some software needs patching for WSS, usually needs daughterboard cable. Poor DOS driver.

    Audio Excel CMI8330 + Midi Daughterboard
    Optionally partner with AWE Goldfinch and/or external DAC connected to the S/PDIF
    Drawbacks: no intelligent MPU, Requires S/PDIF adapter+joystick fix, uses many resources, budget analog signal quality.

    Sound Blaster Vibra 16 (CT2502+OPL3L=CT2940) + Roland MPU-401AT + Midi Daughterboard
    Optionally partner with AWE Goldfinch
    Drawbacks: no SBPro, 2 ISA slots, Minor complaint on sound quality (faint ringing noises and background noise).

Now I could also install this more common hardware, but with just one MPU-401AT at hand and the CT2940 option above being more attractive..:

    SB32 (CT2502+CQM=CT3600) + MPU-401AT + Midi Daughterboard
    Drawbacks: no SBPro, 2 ISA slots, CQM FM, Minor complaint on sound quality, long card

    AWE32 + MPU-401AT + Midi Daughterboard
    Drawbacks: no SBPro, 2 ISA slots, budget analog signal quality, very long card

    AWE64 Gold + MPU-401AT + Midi Daughterboard
    Drawbacks: no SBPro, 2 ISA slots, CQM FM

Instead of a midi daughterboard an external midi module can be used, or a fixed standalone midi card such as the SCC-1.

I suppose the General Midi and MT-32 music can be easily added to any setup, as long as you have MPU-401AT like cards. Same for the AWE synth, using a Goldfinch CT1920. Eventually it is just a matter of ISA-slot-amount and money for these cards. With more then two or three cards an external mixer is added to the requirements. Contrary to this, The Sound Blaster interface (which includes FM) is not suitable for multi-card solutions, so one should pick a SB card carefully.

Of course when fondness for things like Gravis Ultrasound, MT32 or anything genuine Sound Blaster/AWE is present, which is usually the case, then preferences will start shifting alot. Like my fondness for TIE fighter, which won't really work with any ISA creative MPU (when used for sound FX simultaneously). Another thing is portability, I switch things around alot, and usually don't even bother putting things in a case. Other hobbyists like to finish a system, regardless of the amount of filled slots, and be done with it.
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