VOGONS


First post, by Joseph_Joestar

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To be specific, I'm reviewing the card pictured above. The model number is CT4810 but the markings on the main chip show CT5880-DCQ. I'm pointing that out because this card belongs to the Ensoniq Audio PCI family, of which there are many variants floating around, and some of them have different feature sets. The drivers I'm using are from the accompanying CD and they support Windows 95/98/NT4.0/2000/Millennium. For the record, this card came with a Socket A system that I got way back in early 2001. I was using it on a daily basis for about 4 years, so I'm familiar with all of its quirks and shortcomings. Anyway, let's start off with what this card can do.

Supported features

  • DirectSound3D, EAX 1.0 and A3D 1.0
  • Sound Blaster emulation for DOS games (SB16 and SBPro compatible)
  • FM synth emulation for DOS games (terrible implementation)
  • General MIDI softsynth with 128-voice polyphony (usable in both in Windows and DOS)
  • MT-32 emulation for DOS games (no custom instruments)
  • Spatial 3D audio control for all audio sources
  • Reverb and Chorus control for MIDI playback
  • Analog or digital (SPDIF) output

Windows game compatibility

Under Win9x, the Sound Blaster PCI 128 provides DirectSound3D support, as well as software emulated EAX 1.0 and A3D 1.0. As you can imagine, the last two don't sound so great, and using them will put an extra load on your CPU because of the emulation. The positional audio of this particular A3D implementation is kind of lackluster, while EAX can sound "scratchy" in some games. DirectSound3D works well enough, and I didn't notice any issues there. From the volume mixer, you can enable a "Spatial" 3D effect for all audio sources. Personally, I'm not a fan of this, as it just distorts the sound in arbitrary ways. Also, you can enable Reverb and Chorus effects for MIDI playback, if you like that sort of thing.

Speaking of which, General MIDI works by using ECW sets for the softsynth, which is Ensoniq's proprietary format. The driver CD contains three sets in total: 2MB, 4MB and 8MB with the last one arguably providing the best quality. You can switch between these sets from the driver panel at any time. Apparently, the 8MB ECW set also supports GS sounds + 10 drum kits. This card doesn't support soundfont loading (.SBK and .SF2 files) only the aforementioned ECW sets. The driver panel also allows you to use an external MIDI device instead of the softsynth, but unfortunately, this only works for native Windows applications (e.g. Windows Media Player). DOS games will always use the softsynth, regardless of what you select in the driver options.

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The analog output of this card is reasonably clean, but there are some occasional clicks and pops when starting a game for the first time. Thankfully, the card can also output digital audio, if you select that option from the driver panel. To clarify, you still use the green audio jack for this, but it will be switched to SPDIF mode. To utilize this, you need a mono 3.5mm to RCA adapter which you plug into the card's green jack, and then connect the other end to a regular coaxial SPDIF cable. Using the card in this mode gets rid of the clicks and pops entirely. Note that if you set the card to digital output within Windows, this will carry over to pure DOS as well. Meaning, you can restart your computer in MS-DOS mode and still have fully working SPDIF output. Interestingly, even analog sources like CD audio can be mixed in and output via SPDIF, as long as you select the relevant option in the driver panel.

DOS game compatibility

This card features SB16 and SBPro emulation for DOS games. The compatibility is pretty decent with later DOS titles (1994 and up), though you may encounter some issues with older games. Be advised that the card's DOS drivers require EMM386.EXE to be loaded, which some games like Turrican II don't like. During my tests, I haven't noticed any DMA clicking or distortions with digital audio. Interestingly, this card seems to properly support SBPro stereo, so if you select "Sound Blaster Pro" in a game's setup, you will get actual stereo sound. Of course, SB16 compatibility works fine as well. One thing that didn't seem to work was ADPCM i.e. there were no digital sound effects in Duke Nukem 2.

General MIDI works fine in pure DOS, and uses the same ECW sets that I mentioned earlier. To me, the instruments from those sets sound a bit bland (even with the 8MB ECW file) but they do the job well enough I suppose. The drivers feature a very basic mixer for pure DOS, which allows you to adjust the volume for digital audio, MIDI and CD audio. There is no setting for Line In or Microphone. However, the mixer does allow you to turn on MT-32 emulation. This can be useful for MT-32 games which don't use custom instruments such as Monkey Island.

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And now we come to the worst feature of this sound card: the horrible FM synth emulation. It's truly awful, and every track from every game sounds incredibly broken when FM synth is selected. In short, if you plan on playing older DOS games which only support FM synth music, don't use this card. You can find some recordings below which showcase just how bad this sounds.

Conclusion

The Sound Blaster PCI 128 is a very basic Win9x sound card, with average DOS compatibility. It can be useful if you want to play late DOS titles and early Win9x games, but not for much else. A Sound Blaster Live! or Audigy card would be superior in every way, since those cards can do everything that the SB128 can, only better. The only redeeming quality of the SB128 is the SPDIF output, which works flawlessly in pure DOS, and doesn't need third-party tools to initialize that functionality. All in all, if you can get something better, skip this card.

Last edited by Joseph_Joestar on 2024-02-18, 14:43. Edited 10 times in total.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi

Reply 1 of 45, by GL1zdA

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Haha, FM emulation was terrible on these. I think this emulator was later reused and improved for the Live! series of cards, though I don't think it ever sounded pleasant.

getquake.gif | InfoWorld/PC Magazine Indices

Reply 3 of 45, by Joseph_Joestar

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rain wrote on 2024-02-15, 11:03:

i have same is this support xp?

Yes, there are WinXP drivers on Creative's website for it.

The relevant file name is: SBPCI128Setupus_w2k.exe

Last edited by Joseph_Joestar on 2024-02-15, 11:45. Edited 1 time in total.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi

Reply 4 of 45, by Deano

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Does it use a TSR for its real DOS emulation mode? I think the answer is yes but best to ask.

I remember Creative gave me one of these at one of the Conferences back in 96/97 (just after they brought Ensoniq iirc), can't remember be very impressed back then.

Game dev since last century

Reply 5 of 45, by Joseph_Joestar

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GL1zdA wrote on 2024-02-15, 11:00:

Haha, FM emulation was terrible on these. I think this emulator was later reused and improved for the Live! series of cards, though I don't think it ever sounded pleasant.

Yup, the FM synth emulation on SBLive and Audigy cards sounds slightly better than this. I have some recordings of that here.

BTW, I noticed that there's a driver CD image for the SB128 on archive.org. I checked it against my own CD, and it looks like mine is slightly newer, and my image is a bit larger. The DISK.ID of my CD is as follows:

Sound Blaster AudioPCI 128
S128-CDS1D-W1-E6
(MID : 9x-32767 WDM-32454 NT4-32769)

Not sure if that makes any difference, but I can upload my image somewhere if anyone wants it.

Last edited by Joseph_Joestar on 2024-02-15, 11:55. Edited 1 time in total.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi

Reply 6 of 45, by Joseph_Joestar

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Deano wrote on 2024-02-15, 11:07:

Does it use a TSR for its real DOS emulation mode? I think the answer is yes but best to ask.

Yes, it uses SBINIT.COM to initialize the card and that stays resident in memory. According to MEM /A /C /P it takes up 2KB.

I think the card also needs EMM386.EXE to be loaded. This means that some games like Turrican II won't work with it.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi

Reply 7 of 45, by darry

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@Joseph_Joestar

Thank you for that review. It will definitely give people unfamiliar with this card a good idea of what to expect.

I would be curious as to whether it works with SBEMU and how well it does so versus the stock DOS software.
SBEMU: Sound Blaster emulation on AC97

Reply 8 of 45, by Joseph_Joestar

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darry wrote on 2024-02-15, 12:17:

Thank you for that review. It will definitely give people unfamiliar with this card a good idea of what to expect.

Cheers! That was indeed my intention, to showcase the Sound Blaster 128 fully so that people new to the retro PC scene don't accidentally grab it based on just the name. 😀 Surprisingly, I didn't see many YouTube reviews of this card, so I figured I might as well post something here.

I would be curious as to whether it works with SBEMU and how well it does so versus the stock DOS software.
SBEMU: Sound Blaster emulation on AC97

The later revisions of Ensoniq Audio PCI cards are AC'97 compatible, so it might work. I haven't tried that personally, but maybe someone else who has can chime in.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi

Reply 9 of 45, by Pino

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I use this 8MB .ECW set with my Audigy 2 in pure DOS and I think it's quite decent.

Of course using a better .SF2 through a Windows command prompt like Joseph describes on his Audigy 2 guide sounds much better, but for a true pure DOS solution it's not bad.

Reply 10 of 45, by Riikcakirds

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GL1zdA wrote on 2024-02-15, 11:00:

Haha, FM emulation was terrible on these. I think this emulator was later reused and improved for the Live! series of cards, though I don't think it ever sounded pleasant.

Couldn't you fix that by always selecting Adlib or OPL2 in games' setup options instead of SB16 or OPL3. I think I remember doing that with the SBLive and Audigy Dos drivers and it sounded better than when selecting OPL3.

Reply 11 of 45, by Riikcakirds

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Joseph_Joestar wrote on 2024-02-15, 10:33:

Speaking of which, General MIDI works by using ECW sets for the softsynth, which is Ensoniq's proprietary format. The driver CD contains three sets in total: 2MB, 4MB and 8MB with the last one arguably providing the best quality. You can switch between these sets from the driver panel at any time. This card doesn't support soundfont loading (.SBK and .SF2 files) only the aforementioned ECW sets. The driver panel also allows you to use an external MIDI device instead of the softsynth, but unfortunately, this only works for Windows applications (e.g. Windows Media Player). DOS games will always use the softsynth, regardless of what you select in the driver options.

Great review, I have two questions:
Does the GM midi and MT32 options on this (using the ECW sets) under real dos sound better or inferior to the AWE series using Aweutil /EM option.

Also do you know if the GM Midi and MT32 emulation is the same in real dos as using a SBLive or Audigy (or did they improve that part compared on the SB128).

Reply 12 of 45, by Joseph_Joestar

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Riikcakirds wrote on 2024-02-15, 16:51:

Great review, I have two questions:
Does the GM midi and MT32 options on this (using the ECW sets) under real dos sound better or inferior to the AWE series using Aweutil /EM option.

It's a matter of taste I suppose. Check the General MIDI recordings that I've linked to in my first post and judge for yourself.

What I can tell you is that General MIDI works very reliably on the SB128 in pure DOS. Meaning, every game recognizes that a General MIDI device is present and functional without any special adjustments. You simply select port 330 in setup and it works.

Also do you know if the GM Midi and MT32 emulation is the same in real dos as using a SBLive or Audigy (or did they improve that part compared on the SB128).

I can't be entirely sure, but it sounds very similar to my ears. I have recordings of both here so you can check for yourself.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi

Reply 13 of 45, by Joseph_Joestar

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On a different note, I'd like to emphasize once again how simple it is to get SPDIF output working on this card in pure DOS. First, you just need these lines in your AUTOEXEC.BAT to initialize the card:

SET BLASTER=A220 I5 D1 H5 P330 T6
SET SBPCI=C:\PROGRA~1\CREATIVE\AUDIO\DOSDRV
C:\PROGRA~1\CREATIVE\AUDIO\DOSDRV\SBINIT.COM

This assumes that your sound card is already correctly configured under Windows, as it will use all the settings from there. Naturally, HIMEM.SYS and EMM386.EXE must be loaded in your CONFIG.SYS as well. By default, the card makes High DMA use 7 but I manually change it to 5 under Device Manager > Resources, because that more closely matches Creative's older cards. Next, as long as SPDIF is enabled in the Windows driver panel, it will also work in pure DOS. This is regardless of whether you actually select the "Restart in MS-DOS mode" option or create a custom PIF file. I think it's because of the following settings which get saved in the SBPCI.INI file:

; Digital Settings
SPDIFMode=1
SPDIFRec=true

; Waveset - path and file name of current waveset
SynthFile=C:\WINDOWS\SYSTEM\Eapci8m.Ecw

And that's all it takes for the card to use SPDIF output in pure DOS. I find this remarkable because every other PCI sound card that I've tried either disables SPDIF completely in pure DOS, or needs some hacky workaround to make it usable. Oh, and if you're wondering about SPDIFRec=true, that just allows your analog sources like CD audio (using a standard analog cable) to be mixed in, so they can be output via SPDIF. Yet another nice feature of this card.

Last edited by Joseph_Joestar on 2024-02-15, 19:02. Edited 2 times in total.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi

Reply 15 of 45, by Demolition-Man

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Thank you for your effort, especially for the sound files that I am familiar with. One of my boards has this sound card, or at least a variant of it, onboard. FM not bearable. Gap in knowledge: Why was there no final DOS (FM) compatible PCI sound card? Why not simply install or integrate the cheapest FM chip? An OPL3 chip would not have been necessary, CQM would have been sufficient in comparison. The hard break with DOS and ISA was understandable back then, but from today's retro perspective, this break was a bit too extreme. Or am I missing something?

Reply 16 of 45, by Joseph_Joestar

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konc wrote on 2024-02-15, 17:51:

Now that's how reviews should be, all the important points nicely put together! Excellent work @Joseph_Joestar, thank you.

Demolition-Man wrote on 2024-02-15, 19:15:

Thank you for your effort, especially for the sound files that I am familiar with. One of my boards has this sound card, or at least a variant of it, onboard. FM not bearable.

Cheers! Glad you guys enjoyed the review.

Demolition-Man wrote on 2024-02-15, 19:15:

Gap in knowledge: Why was there no final DOS (FM) compatible PCI sound card? Why not simply install or integrate the cheapest FM chip? An OPL3 chip would not have been necessary, CQM would have been sufficient in comparison. The hard break with DOS and ISA was understandable back then, but from today's retro perspective, this break was a bit too extreme. Or am I missing something?

There was a PCI version of the AWE64 at one point. It's discussed in this thread. And yeah, Creative kinda stopped caring about FM synth accuracy by the time PCI became the norm for sound. But other companies like Yamaha and ESS did have some PCI sound cards with proper FM synth.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi

Reply 17 of 45, by Demolition-Man

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Thanks, I didn't know anything about the AWE64 PCI. The other PCI sound cards are once again quickly in the SB-Link area. I have never even seen a board with an SB Link connection. The Sound Blaster 128 PCI doesn't have such a port? Nevertheless, “all” DOS games work. I have an ESS Solo sound card that I would like to test under DOS. According to Phil(s Computerlab) it's one of the best PCI DOS sound cards, it sounds good and is compatible. Would this be a good alternative to the PCI 128 card?

Reply 18 of 45, by Joseph_Joestar

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Demolition-Man wrote on 2024-02-15, 20:56:

Thanks, I didn't know anything about the AWE64 PCI. The other PCI sound cards are once again quickly in the SB-Link area. I have never even seen a board with an SB Link connection.

Yeah, motherboards which have a SB-Link connector are somewhat rare. There's a list of them in this thread.

The Sound Blaster 128 PCI doesn't have such a port?

Unfortunately, no.

I have an ESS Solo sound card that I would like to test under DOS. According to Phil(s Computerlab) it's one of the best PCI DOS sound cards, it sounds good and is compatible. Would this be a good alternative to the PCI 128 card?

The Solo-1 is one of the best PCI sound cards for DOS gaming, with excellent compatibility and a great sounding FM synth implementation (ESFM) which is nearly indistinguishable from genuine OPL3. However, compared to the SB128, the Solo-1 doesn't have built-in General MIDI support, though you can attach a wavetable daughterboard to remedy that. It also doesn't support EAX or A3D under Windows, if that is something you are looking for.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi

Reply 19 of 45, by Joseph_Joestar

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Small update: I was looking over the SBPCI.INI file to see if there are any other relevant settings for DOS gaming, when I noticed this block:

; Switches - Self-Config, Sound Blaster emulation enable,
; Joystick enable, CD-DA enable, MM KeyBd enable
SelfConfig=true
SBEnable=true
JSEnable=true
KBEnable=false

Nothing out of the ordinary right? Well, notice how the developer's comment mentions CD-DA yet there is no such option listed below. This made me curious, so I opened SBCFG.EXE using Norton Commander's viewer and found a reference to CDDAEnable right next to the other settings listed above. Then, I added that line to SBPCI.INI so that the relevant block now looks like this:

; Switches - Self-Config, Sound Blaster emulation enable,
; Joystick enable, CD-DA enable, MM KeyBd enable
SelfConfig=true
SBEnable=true
JSEnable=true
CDDAEnable=true
KBEnable=false

And sure enough, this made the card pull digital CD audio over the ATA interface in pure DOS! To make certain of this, I powered down the computer and physically disconnected the analog CD audio cable. Then, I powered the PC back on, started Tomb Raider and got CD music playing properly. Pretty cool, eh? If anyone's curious, here's how the card's initialization feedback looks when this setting is enabled:

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Unfortunately, this isn't perfect, as there is some distortion on the CD audio during heavy disk access. Also, a CD which contains audio tracks needs to be in the drive for the card to initialize correctly while this setting is enabled. Both of these issues make me think the developers chose to hide this option for a reason. Still, it's interesting that there's a sound card which can pull digital CD audio from the ATA interface in pure DOS.

PC#1: Pentium MMX 166 / Soyo SY-5BT / S3 Trio64V+ / Voodoo1 / YMF719 / AWE64 Gold / SC-155
PC#2: AthlonXP 2100+ / ECS K7VTA3 / Voodoo3 / Audigy2 / Vortex2
PC#3: Athlon64 3400+ / Asus K8V-MX / 5900XT / Audigy2
PC#4: i5-3570K / MSI Z77A-G43 / GTX 970 / X-Fi