Getting around that soundcard mess

Discussion about old sound cards, MIDI devices and sound related accessories.

Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby gordon-creAtive.com » 2017-10-09 @ 11:50

I'm newly in the retro PC business and decided to build a 486 pure DOS gaming machine. However my lengthy research on which sound card to choose caused frustration. There are so many threads on this topic (not only on this forum) and I feel that at the end every available soundcard has been recommended to the op. What I noticed is that the choice largely depends on the games one wishes to play. So instead of starting another one of these threads I wonder if we could instead compile a list of the best soundcard available for each (popular/requested) game. What do you guys think?
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby firage » 2017-10-09 @ 12:15

Well, there's a bit more nuance to the choice than that. Within a given selection of games, one card could be the top choice for half of them and practically unsupported by most of the rest. Other times ranking cards for a game is going to be entirely subjective.

They'd be enlightening arguments, though, sure.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby gordon-creAtive.com » 2017-10-09 @ 13:51

Yes, you're right. But I suspect it would narrow down the selection. I don't think it's possible to find The One soundcard anyway but maybe a best-of-three that covers the majority of games you want to play.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby derSammler » 2017-10-09 @ 14:24

Creative Sound Blaster 16 with real OPL3. You can't do much wrong with that. I personally like the CT2890. It's using the Vibra 16 chip which has a very low noise floor.

Giving advise game by game probably doesn't make sense.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby shiva2004 » 2017-10-09 @ 22:07

I second the CT2890 recomendation, I have one since more than 20 years and it's really good for classic games. I never understood why people talk so much about the noisy output of the SB16 till I discovered that the cheap vibra16 has, in fact, far better sound output than the full SB16.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby badmojo » 2017-10-09 @ 22:07

gordon-creAtive.com wrote:I wonder if we could instead compile a list of the best soundcard available for each (popular/requested) game


I hear this so often at work - why don't "we" do X? And by "we" they mean "someone else"!

Anyway, my 2 cents is that if all you want to do is dive in a play games, then just grab yourself a SoundBlaster of some description and have at it. They're super easy to work with and sound fine.

If you want the best retro audio experience for era X or game Y then the only option is to do the reading, buy a handful of cards, and see what works for you in your specific system. That's what I did and enjoyed every minute (read countless hours) of it. No-one here will ever agree on what's best, so you need to work it out yourself.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby firage » 2017-10-09 @ 22:27

The CT2890 (probably any CT2504 based) has clipping issues: viewtopic.php?f=46&t=49896&p=526800#p526561

Otherwise, it's got a nice full size OPL3, and good sound quality. As a Vibra card, its variation of the single cycle DMA bug is faint ringing instead of the clicks associated with all other SB16's/AWE32's.


Some rules are a little easier to draw than others.
Roland LA: Roland CM32-L for the best quality and extra samples, MT-32 (original model without headphone jack) for old games that exploited its unique bugs.
General MIDI: Roland SC-55 - mark I for capital tone fallback, mark II for improved quality otherwise.
FM: OPL3 in either the full size YMF262 package or as part of CT1747. OPL2 for more authentic AdLib/SB 1.0-2.0 material, dual-OPL2 where applicable.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby gdjacobs » 2017-10-10 @ 00:10

badmojo wrote:Anyway, my 2 cents is that if all you want to do is dive in a play games, then just grab yourself a SoundBlaster of some description and have at it. They're super easy to work with and sound fine.


I agree with the sentiment, although I would suggest an ESS186x card, as they're dead simple to use and seem to work with everything. The only downside is non-genuine (but decent sounding) OPL3 and no support for the handful of games that benefit from the SB16/AWE cards.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby badmojo » 2017-10-10 @ 01:50

gdjacobs wrote:I agree with the sentiment, although I would suggest an ESS186x card, as they're dead simple to use and seem to work with everything. The only downside is non-genuine (but decent sounding) OPL3 and no support for the handful of games that benefit from the SB16/AWE cards.


Yes those are great too and I'm a fan, but unless the specific card you find comes with a driver disk - not common - then you're left with the generic drivers on VogonDrivers (for example) - those work great but it's a little more work to set them up than simply running the installer that's provided with Creative drivers. And not all ESS clones are made equal - some pop during startup, etc.

So again I think you have the "grab a sound blaster, everything will work" option (a big reason for their success) or you have the "find a clone, deal with the potential inconveniences" option.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby appiah4 » 2017-10-10 @ 07:09

derSammler wrote:Creative Sound Blaster 16 with real OPL3. You can't do much wrong with that. I personally like the CT2890. It's using the Vibra 16 chip which has a very low noise floor.

Giving advise game by game probably doesn't make sense.


Eh, just no. The hanging note MIDI but makes sure the SB16 with or without the OPL3 is NOT the best choice. Not to mention that they are usually really loud unless they are Vibras, and only a handful of Vibra cards have real OPL3 (I know CT2890 is one of them, I have one; I also know it has MIDI issues.)

Ideally, the best sound card would be ISA, have SB Pro 2.0 compatibility, intelligent MPU, a waveblaster header, surround sound, A3D support, EAS xupport, software synth with SF2 support, low SNR, DOS drivers with no TSRs, Win9x-10 drivers.

You just can't have all of them in one card, it does not exist.

For me, the Yamaha YMF71x cards are the best for DOS/Win9x. Of the above requirements they only lack surround (and related technologies) and surround technologies. The ES18xx cards are a close second, lacking real OPL3 in addition to the above but they have a very good OPL3 implementation of their own in ESFM.

Refer to this thread about them: https://www.vogons.org/viewtopic.php?f=46&t=49648

If you really want to go for a Creative, the CT2290 is my favorite among what I own because it seems to have the least MIDI hiccups but it still stutters and crackles albeit rarely. I own none of the CT1xxx models (though I hear they are even louder which is a deal breaker in itself).
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby firage » 2017-10-10 @ 07:41

Yamaha doesn't have an intelligent MPU interface either, so it requires SoftMPU. The ultimate sound card would also have SB16 compatibility, ADPCM decoding, EMU8000, 100% original OPL3, which Yamaha lacks compared to the SB16/AWE line.

I think the single best SB compatible is the AWE64 for any game that doesn't use FM, the FM is less than perfection. Reliability suffers compared to simpler cards, though.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby derSammler » 2017-10-10 @ 07:51

Eh, just no. The hanging note MIDI but makes sure the SB16 with or without the OPL3 is NOT the best choice.

No one said "best choice" - there is no such thing. It's a perfect all-rounder for DOS gaming. Also, why is it always assumed that everyone wants to connect an MT-32, SC-55, or the like? If you don't, the MIDI bug of most Soundblasters is completely irrelevant. And if you want a perfect setup, you need to get an intelligent MPU interface as a second card and then the MIDI bug of most Soundblasters is irrelevant too, since you are not running into it.

If the MIDI bug is really such a big thing: Get an ALS100 based card with a real OPL3 (or unlicensed copy, sounds the same anyway) or an ALS100 Plus. This will give you everything you need: bug-free MIDI, full SB Pro 2.0 and SB16 compatibility etc. Sound is not noise-free, however. But as said before, there is no perfect sound card. The more you want, the more compromises you have to make.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby badmojo » 2017-10-10 @ 08:04

derSammler wrote:No one said "best choice" - there is no such thing.


Agreed - the OP didn't say much of anything about their requirements really but we've still managed to steer his thread towards the "best ISA sound card" abyss!

If you take the whole MIDI issue out of the debate then it's easy - a Sound Blaster Pro 2 or SB16 will do a fine job.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby appiah4 » 2017-10-10 @ 08:51

derSammler wrote:
Eh, just no. The hanging note MIDI but makes sure the SB16 with or without the OPL3 is NOT the best choice.

No one said "best choice" - there is no such thing. It's a perfect all-rounder for DOS gaming. Also, why is it always assumed that everyone wants to connect an MT-32, SC-55, or the like? If you don't, the MIDI bug of most Soundblasters is completely irrelevant. And if you want a perfect setup, you need to get an intelligent MPU interface as a second card and then the MIDI bug of most Soundblasters is irrelevant too, since you are not running into it.

If the MIDI bug is really such a big thing: Get an ALS100 based card with a real OPL3 (or unlicensed copy, sounds the same anyway) or an ALS100 Plus. This will give you everything you need: bug-free MIDI, full SB Pro 2.0 and SB16 compatibility etc. Sound is not noise-free, however. But as said before, there is no perfect sound card. The more you want, the more compromises you have to make.


Well, yeah. You didn't say it's the best, and I seem to have gotten a bit ahead of myself, apologies.

I do not presume everyone will connect an MT-32 etc. but in a day and age where Dreamblaster wavetable daughterboards and external midi modules are readily available, in production, and fairly affordable, there is no reason to not own at least a cheap midi module - at least for me, functional midi is a fairly important feature.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby CkRtech » 2017-10-10 @ 22:41

gordon-creAtive.com wrote: So instead of starting another one of these threads I wonder if we could instead compile a list of the best soundcard available for each (popular/requested) game. What do you guys think?

Do you have a list of games you want to play?

I feel that the single soundcard question is one that is subjective, personal, and philosophical - you have seen that in the other threads on vogons as well as the responses in this one. My answer is always, "it depends on what games you want to play."

In my opinion, the volume of responses from people in addition to the sheer number of games in the list wouldn't seem to lend itself well to neither a forum thread nor a compiled spreadsheet from that thread.

So it seems to me that for you - or anyone else that starts his or her own thread on soundcard selection - it would be a good idea to list the games you are looking to play. People can give their thoughts, and your personal tastes and your budget can take you from there.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby firage » 2017-10-11 @ 00:25

This article here is a pretty amazing bit of research into all kinds of special unique features supported by DOS games: http://nerdlypleasures.blogspot.fi/2012 ... pport.html
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby gdjacobs » 2017-10-11 @ 03:36

badmojo wrote:Yes those are great too and I'm a fan, but unless the specific card you find comes with a driver disk - not common - then you're left with the generic drivers on VogonDrivers (for example) - those work great but it's a little more work to set them up than simply running the installer that's provided with Creative drivers. And not all ESS clones are made equal - some pop during startup, etc.

So again I think you have the "grab a sound blaster, everything will work" option (a big reason for their success) or you have the "find a clone, deal with the potential inconveniences" option.


Even looking for a universal, simple choice, there's advantages to different approaches. How typical.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby jade_angel » 2017-10-11 @ 20:03

Yeah, like with so many things, if there were one clear "always best" option, there would have been consensus long ago. For me, it's a tossup between ESS1868/1869 and AWE32/AWE64 - basically, ESS for anything that wants to do FM music (yes, I know, ESFM is not OPL, but IMHO it sounds as good or better) or if I want to use a wavetable daughterboard. AWE32/64 for anything that can use the 16-bit sound modes and the AWE synth, but not really for FM, because CQM is goombas. A few things can use the 16-bit modes on the ESS, too (and all can under Windows, yay consistent APIs). With an MT-32 or an SC-55, it's a tossup, you can use either one - IIRC the AWE series don't have the hanging note bug, and none of the ESS cards do AFAIK.

The Audician32 and other YMF718 cards aren't half bad either. As good as ESS, in my opinion, though their Win3.1 drivers have an annoying but fixable bug, and, for what little it's worth, OS/2 doesn't ship with drivers for them, but does come with drivers for the Audiodrive. (Not that OS/2 support matters, or that installing drivers from elsewhere is a real problem, but if I *had* to find some kind of fault, that's it.) They have a real OPL3, too, for better or worse.

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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby cyclone3d » 2017-10-11 @ 20:44

Well, if you want a huge range of support from a single card, then get a 1st gen Aztech card.

Real OPL3, and has support for:
Adlib, Sound Blaster Pro II, Windows Sound System, Disney Sound Source & Covox Speech Thing.

See here for a pretty complete list of the Aztech cards.
https://www.vogons.org/viewtopic.php?f=46&t=48887

And then get another card, such as an AWE32 or AWE64 to go along with it.

And maybe even a few more cards.

If you really want to cover almost everything, you need these at a minimum:
1. 1st Gen Aztech Sound Galaxy card. (speed sensitive, but good up to at least 133Mhz CPU speed.)
2. Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum 16 http://www.vogons.org/viewtopic.php?t=27943
3. Gravis Ultrasound
4. Creative AWE32/AWE64
5. Yamaha XG card or daughterboard

With a 7 slot 486 board, that will fill up all slots when you include the VGA and I/O controller cards.
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Re: Getting around that soundcard mess

Postby BitWrangler » 2017-10-11 @ 22:48

In the actual 90s, I only got the cheap cards, Aztech, Crystal, ESS etc, and had very few problems, one game had some weird probe routine where it pushed the PnP settings around, one game insisted on irq 5 for SBPro emulation... so as the years go by creative labs stuff turns up dirt cheap, SB16s, AWE 32s etc, and I'm severely underimpressed when I find they have quirks just the same, and I can't even hear the difference.

One complaint about the ALS100 cards though, every other one I've come across is dead. Seems they die easily, though I was using one for a while and didn't kill it personally.
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