The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

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

The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby McMick » 2018-10-18 @ 06:44

I'll try to make it short. Once upon a time a de facto standard arose with the Creative Labs cards becoming dominant, and everyone made their software compatible with the SBPro/SB16. For a long time, people attempted to make clones, but they mostly sucked, and they were never fully SB16 compatible. Then one day a design company in California, Avance Logic, came up with a good SB16 clone chip. It was PnP but it had DOS drivers, and although whoever made it (in China presumably) used cheap components which meant that the cards would die somewhat frequently, it was (as far as I'm aware) the first SB16 clone to be 100 percent (more or less) compatible. I used a few of these cards and they worked with everything I ever threw at them, and sounded just like a real SB16, even on games with midi music. They worked with old games and new games and with Windows games too.

Then a giant semiconductor manufacturer with logo that looks like a digital crab bought Avance Logic. This is why all your Realtek sound chips start with the code ALC! This is also why onboard sound became good enough for the common user. This is why nobody but "serious" audiophiles or studio professionals buy sound cards anymore!

DISCLAIMER: This may be full of inaccuracies but I think I have the gist of it down.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby MMaximus » 2018-10-18 @ 06:58

Interesting post - I didn't know that Realtek bought Advance Logic.

I guess it's mostly due to integration - in the XT or early AT era you had expansion cards for everything: ports, video, floppy drives and hard disks controllers... and of course sound for those who had a use for it. Then ports like COM and LPT started being integrated to the motherboard, IDE and floppy controllers as well... even VGA as early as 1987 with the IBM PS/2. Sooner or later sound capabilities had to become integrated as well.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby dr_st » 2018-10-18 @ 08:53

TL;DR: onboard audio used to suck; now it doesn't. :D
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby Scali » 2018-10-18 @ 09:07

I think you are certainly right about onboard audio being 'good enough' for most users these days.
I think part of the reason may be that digital interfaces such as SPDIF and HDMI have become standard. This solved the noise problems that older, cheap audio solutions suffered from.
I also think that the advent of Windows 95 and DirectSound made Sound Blaster compatibility completely irrelevant. Windows uses a software MIDI synthesizer, based on the Roland Sound Canvas, so a 'native' synthesizer was no longer required. As long as you have a simple digital output, all sound cards sound the same in practice.
Most games stopped bothering with computer-generated music altogether, and just included their soundtracks as CD-ROM tracks or mp3.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby chinny22 » 2018-10-18 @ 13:19

Vista killed off a lot of the demand as well. Creative lost their major selling point (EAX) with even alchemy more aimed at getting older games working rather them creative trying to push a licenced technology.
Just so happened this is when on board stopped sucking
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby Jo22 » 2018-10-18 @ 13:37

That's true. XP was the last one to support hardware-assisted mixing and such (full featured kernal-mixer, much better than 98SE's).
On the contrary, I'm glad that Creative lost its power. It became such a nasty company and focused on sueing others
instead of beeing "creative". In contrast, companies like, say, Asus with its Xonar series did a good job in keeping the sound card market alive.
That being said, supporting OpenAL was a good idea, though, eventhough it was barely adopted by competitors.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby dionb » 2018-10-18 @ 13:41

McMick wrote:DISCLAIMER: This may be full of inaccuracies but I think I have the gist of it down.

Unfortunately I have to disagree.

You don't distinguish between onboard and integrated sound, and you don't mention software. Both are far more relevant for the situation today than one (out of many) takeovers of a smaller silicon company by a larger one. Also your story is DOS-based, but around the time discrete cards started disappearing (1999-2000) DOS support was completely irrelevant in the mainstream.

So what did kill the soundcard? Two things:
1) Microsoft's DirectSound API. Starting with Windows95, developers didn't have to program for specific cards anymore but could simply work with DirectSound and let the OS handle the card. This meant that card features became far less relevant and essentially all cards degrading to a DAC-like role. A3D and EAX were attempts to add value at a hardware level again, but eventually they migrated to software too. This development is why you see a dramatic simplification of soundcards designed for Windows. Where the last DOS-based ISA cards could be big, baroque beasts like the Soundblaster AWE32/64, Gravis Ultrasound, Ensoniq Soundscape Elite, Terratec AWS64 etc, Windows PCI cards tended to be much, much simpler, usually with a single controller chip and all the fancy stuff being done in software.
2) Intel's AC'97 standard, more specifically the integration of the DC97 audio controller into the southbridge of the chipset, starting with the i810 chipset in 1999. That audio controller was the equivalent of the main chip on a discrete sound card. All that a motherboard vendor needed to add sound was a tiny, cheap codec chip, and the interface for the codec was standardised. That was wholly different to earlier onboard audio, in which all the regular components of a sound card were stuck onto a motherboard - which added far more complexity and cost than an integrated solution.

AC'97 was quickly taken up by all major chipset vendors, as not to do so would be a significant competitive disadvantage (higher costs of onboard or discrete audio vs integrated), which meant that by 2000 the low-end sound card market was basically stone dead. In the high-end, positional audio and better SNR were still reasons to buy sound cards, but as positional audio also moved to software and the quality of integrated sound solutions improved, this market eroded too. Lower CPU usage was also mentioned, but as CPUs got more and more powerful, the impact of doing a little audio processing became less and less relevant. So in the end, by 10 years ago, the market was left entirely to the audiophiles.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby Jo22 » 2018-10-18 @ 14:08

Wasn't WSS (Windows Sound System) similarily a standard before ?
Afaik, for a time it was supported by the competition (comparable, but less limited than SB Pro).
Also, both supported 48KHz, 16-Bit sampling rate.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby dionb » 2018-10-18 @ 14:18

Jo22 wrote:Wasn't WSS (Windows Sound System) similarily a standard before ?
Afaik, for a time it was supported by the competition (comparable, but less limited than SB Pro).
Also, both supported 48KHz, 16-Bit sampling rate.

WSS was similar in concept to AC'97, but ahead of its time. When it was introduced, DOS was still the norm for gaming, with Soundblaster(Pro2) compatibility being the de facto minimal standard. No SBPro support meant no chance. Also it required as much hardware as 'regular' sound cards, so didn't offer any advantages in terms of price. In the end, a lot of SBPro2 clones started also supporting WSS, but seeing as Windows also supported SBPro it never had a chance to supplant it.

Good example of the (limited) influence it has was the changes Gravis made between the GUS Classic and the GUS Max. They were solely designed to comply with WSS spec, so that the GUS Max would behave nicely under Windows 3.1.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby cyclone3d » 2018-10-18 @ 14:38

chinny22 wrote:Vista killed off a lot of the demand as well. Creative lost their major selling point (EAX) with even alchemy more aimed at getting older games working rather them creative trying to push a licenced technology.
Just so happened this is when on board stopped sucking


I have to disagree that onboard sound stopped sucking at the same time Vista came out. It really just didn't suck quite as much as it had been sucking.

When MS screwed up with Vista, that also meant the killing off of hardware accelerated audio which did actually hurt game performance as the processors back then were still not quite fast enough to take on the added load. It made me sad that EAX and similar went away. Really glad that Creative released Alchemy though.

Nowadays it doesn't matter all that much, but I still like having a dedicated sound card over onboard.

My current card is a Creative Sound Blaster ZxR.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby dionb » 2018-10-18 @ 14:42

I gave up discrete sound in the PC after I decided that it was much simpler to take any old integrated HDA toslink output and then attach that to a decent noise-free DAC than to try to get the output from any sound card, even the best, in a noisy PC to not pick up crap from elsewhere in the machine.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby Errius » 2018-10-18 @ 15:20

I remember noise was a big problem with the early integrated audio adaptors. There would be constant low level crackle/hiss/buzzing, which would get worse the busier the computer got. Sometimes just pressing a key would produce an audible click from the speakers.

And connecting the CD audio cable from the CD-ROM drive to the motherboard made the problem much much worse.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby j^aws » 2018-10-18 @ 16:04

On-board sound was always there from the beginning with the on-board beeper. It was a matter of time before another cheap noise generator replaced it. Red Book audio was the beginning of the end for synthesisers playing back music.We now have cheap solutions that playback music and sound effects at an acceptable quality.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby AlaricD » 2018-10-18 @ 16:10

If this were the "Story of the Hare Who Lost His Spectacles", it'd be a story about a dog who took a nap.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby chinny22 » 2018-10-18 @ 16:36

cyclone3d wrote:I have to disagree that onboard sound stopped sucking at the same time Vista came out. It really just didn't suck quite as much as it had been sucking.

When MS screwed up with Vista, that also meant the killing off of hardware accelerated audio which did actually hurt game performance as the processors back then were still not quite fast enough to take on the added load. It made me sad that EAX and similar went away. Really glad that Creative released Alchemy though.


Oh I agree, I miss hardware acceleration, performance, audio quality did take a step back, but unless you were prepared to mess around with Alchemy then the benefits you lost pretty much any benefit and gaming motherboards came with something a bit better then basic AC97 support, enough for vista.

I guess by not sucking I mean you didn't miss out on that much anymore

Errius wrote:I remember noise was a big problem with the early integrated audio adaptors. There would be constant low level crackle/hiss/buzzing, which would get worse the busier the computer got. Sometimes just pressing a key would produce an audible click from the speakers.


Although to be fair to onboard audio, ISA especially and some PCI were also guilty for this.

I'd say end of dos probably was the beginning of the end, as dionb kind of said, plenty of people were happy enough using basic direct sound, however sound cards still had a role to play.
After Vista was released, any benefit for a dedicated card was gone, excluding things like interference or legacy. but for the most part soundcards were no longer main stream purchases.

I do miss the excitement attached to soundcards, back when they were relevant, somewhat like seeing AMD, vs Intel or Nvidia on technology. but with that said I do 100% of my gaming on XP or earlier anyway. My WIn7 machines only use a soundcard to play stuff off the internet.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby McMick » 2018-10-19 @ 03:49

If you look at what most motherboards have on them today, it's Realtek, and you can probably thank Avance Logic for that. Aside from Analog Devices, I can't even recall another brand of mainstream onboard audio. And AD sucks, as anyone who works on PCs for a living would probably tell you. My point is that I think a lot more people, particularly gamers, would still be buying add-in sound cards if all they could get for onboard audio was some crappy AD chip. Speaking of which, anyone remember that longstanding AD bug where all the sounds would play like a half-tone too low in pitch? Just thought I'd mention it for old time's sake.

Anyhow, that's why I give credit to Avance (not Advance) Logic, since they broke the SB16 compatibility barrier and made it possible to have a compatible, reliable, cheap sound chip for onboard use. As a builder of custom PCs I was cursed for a long time with being forced to install shitty sound cards from the likes of Cirrus Logic, Crystal Sound, et al. and they always had one problem or another. I remember the ALS-100 based cards as a real godsend, because they were super-cheap and were detected as SB16 by everything. Their only Achilles' heal was that the onboard amplifiers tended to die young, but that was a manufacturing problem, not a chip problem. Anyhow when Realtek bought AL, lo and behold onboard sound started being pretty good too.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby dionb » 2018-10-20 @ 22:11

You're still comparing apples and oranges by treating the codecs for integrated audio as sonehow equivalent to the standalone solutions on dedicated sound cards. They're not, not even close. And nobody has given a rat's arse about SB16 compatibility since well before discrete sound cards died.

Also, there are far more codec vendors than just Realtek and AD, think of Conexant, IDT, Via and Wolfson, just to name a few. Realtek really isn't anything special today, they're just cheap yet good enough - no more than that.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby Neco » 2018-10-20 @ 23:22

I don't even bother with onboard anymore.

I use an external USB audio interface which give me bonus options like MIDI and TRS jacks. Even using TOSLink output with onboards it always felt different than, say, my dicsrete Auzentech X-Fi Forte 7.1 over TOSLink/SPDIF.

For my older retro gaming stuff I will just rely on good quality SB cards I can find, and gameport output for my soundcanvas and other toys
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby Scali » 2018-10-21 @ 10:57

Jo22 wrote:Wasn't WSS (Windows Sound System) similarily a standard before ?


I think it was more of a theoretical standard really.
Most games just supported Sound Blaster cards directly, that was the de-facto standard. Any clone had to be Sound Blaster compatible. Only a handful of games supported the WSS standard directly (the WSS standard was very late to the scene, so most games were released with AdLib and/or SB support long before WSS existed).
That is DOS of course.
As for Windows, it didn't really matter there, because the hardware was abstracted by a driver layer anyway. As long as your card had drivers for Windows, it didn't matter if it was compatible with any other hardware or not.

I think one reason why the original WSS hardware never really caught on was because it wasn't directly Sound Blaster-compatible, and required a TSR to handle compatibility under DOS.
You were better off with a real Sound Blaster, or a decent hardware-compatible clone like an ESS AudioDrive, Sound Galaxy, Pro Audio Spectrum or such.
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Re: The Story of Why Everyone Uses Onboard Sound Today

Postby jxalex » 2018-10-21 @ 11:04

"The Story of Why *Everyone* Uses Onboard Sound Today"

... in places where sound is not important at all.

When there is a more specific need than just background playing under linux then onboard sound is useless (atleast to me). those onboard things are limited, drivers are atleast win9x, under the DOS the
MPXPLAY is the only program which recognizes the onboard (some AC97 chips) things, no MIDI port with those onboard sound things, and at last - it is not recognized by DOS trackers. Neither they have its native ASIO, if just to give a chance.

Well, once upon a time I noticed one motherboard which had onboard soundchip with TOSLINK input-output connectors (Abit AS8), still, that was not even fullduplex.
Last edited by jxalex on 2018-10-21 @ 11:18, edited 1 time in total.
Current project: DOS ISA soundcard with 24bit/96Khz digital I/O, SB16 compatible switchable.
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