Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

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

Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby dr_st » 2018-7-16 @ 09:28

A few years ago, before joining VOGONS, I was under the misconception that PCI sound cards are never good for pure DOS gaming, because they require emulation, which almost never works due to motherboard compatibility issues (had some bad experience with SBLive! DOS drivers), and when it works gets you only basic digital sound and crappy FM, if at all.

Now I know that this is not the case, as there appear to be PCI cards with very reliable drivers for ISA emulation in pure DOS (Digital + FM), and some of them have Wavetable connectors that can be used for connecting General MIDI daughterboards, essentially giving the same compatibility level as a good ISA DOS card.

Cards based on Aureal Vortex chipset are frequently recommended.

  • Are there meaningful difference between Vortex and Vortex2?
  • Any particular cards known to be more reliable than others?
  • Any differences when it comes to Win9x/XP compatibility? (to get the best of both worlds) I understand that some (all?) of them support A3D.

To summarize, what I am looking for is:
  • PCI Audio Card with reliable DOS drivers for SoundBlaster compatibility, including digital effects and FM (don't care if SBPro or SB16-level)
  • Working Wavetable connector for General MIDI daughterboards which must also be fully supported in DOS
  • Preferably a card available on eBay etc without breaking the bank.
  • Don't care about genuine OPL3 FM, as long as the FM is working and sounds OK (not worse than Creative CQM)
Additional clarification: I am looking for general tips, not for a specific build. Thus, cards that are compatible with a wide variety of systems are preferred.
Last edited by dr_st on 2018-7-16 @ 18:47, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby Kamerat » 2018-7-16 @ 15:11

Which motherboard are you using?
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby dr_st » 2018-7-16 @ 17:15

I guess I should have clarified. :) I am looking for a general solution (as general as possible). Right now the most likely system is a 865PE/875P with ASUS P4P/P4C mobo (because that's what I already have), but theoretically it may be something else.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby Kamerat » 2018-7-16 @ 18:12

I would suggest trying to get a VIA based motherboard instead and pair it with a Terratec ESS Solo-1 sound card.

If you still want to use a 865PE/875P board you most likely need a card that requires a TSR running in the background (Aureal Vortex 1/2, Yamaha YMF7xx PCI, Sound Blaster PCI/Live!/Audigy). One exception are the Forté Media FM801-AU but it got some issues not using the correct sampling rate in some games and also instability when using the MPU401 interface in Duke Nukem 3D (and othe build games?).
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby dr_st » 2018-7-16 @ 18:50

1) What's wrong with a TSR in the background? Does it take too much memory?
2) How does the Solo-1 work without a TSR? Doesn't it require something resident, or does it have special magic? (that only works on VIA boards)?
3) Of the cards you mentioned - which have Wavetable headers?
4) Which are reasonably obtainable?
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby gdjacobs » 2018-7-16 @ 19:33

1) Compatibility via TSR is not as reliable as a pure hardware solution.
2) The Solo-1 supports PC/PCI and DDMA which are two hardware approaches for emulating ISA sound. Intel uses PC/PCI (when equipped), others use DDMA. Usually this support only requires initialization with no or little resident load.
3) The Solo-1 usually does as do Vortex 2 cards. Sometimes the Solo-1 needs populating (either PC/PCI or WB headers).
4) Yamaha YMF-PCI cards, Solo-1 cards, ALS4000 based cards, and FM801 based cards are all inexpensive if not common.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby dr_st » 2018-7-16 @ 19:42

gdjacobs wrote:1) Compatibility via TSR is not as reliable as a pure hardware solution.
Do you have any specific examples? My understanding is that it is at least chipset-independent, which is not true of PC/PCI and DDMA.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby gdjacobs » 2018-7-16 @ 19:47

Sorry, I meant software compatibility, not hardware.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby dr_st » 2018-7-16 @ 21:02

dr_st wrote:Do you have any specific examples?
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby gdjacobs » 2018-7-16 @ 22:21

For starters, most TSRs require EMM386, so in most cases titles requiring real mode are out.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby LSS10999 » 2018-7-16 @ 23:59

gdjacobs wrote:For starters, most TSRs require EMM386, so in most cases titles requiring real mode are out.


Not all TSRs require EMM386. The ones known so far that requires EMM386 are SB Live!/Audigy (EMS required) and YMF7x4's DSDMA (EMS optional). Others (FM801, Vortex, ESS) can work with real mode (usable alongside UMBPCI).
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby dr_st » 2018-7-17 @ 06:01

gdjacobs wrote:For starters, most TSRs require EMM386, so in most cases titles requiring real mode are out.
Oh God, please don't start this again...
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby Falcosoft » 2018-7-17 @ 09:03

Bigger problem is that the majority of PCI cards cannot fulfill all your requirements:
1. 'In pure DOS (Digital + FM) ... (not worse than Creative CQM).' - Aureal Vortex cards (and also SB Live!/Audigy/Ensoniq AudioPCI) are out of contest... They have only emulated FM that is much worse than CQM:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FJCnswIJiw
The main advantages of Vortex cards are good SB Pro compatibility and Waveblaster compatible port that works without problems (hanging notes etc.) also under DOS. AND they do not require EMM386 for SB emulation! (just for you :) )
2. 'Working Wavetable connector for General MIDI daughterboards' - YMF7x4's have no such connector but they have genuine FM.
3. 'Essentially giving the same compatibility level as a good ISA DOS card.' - And here all of them are out of contest... I think this expectation is not realistic.
Last edited by Falcosoft on 2018-7-17 @ 09:18, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby dr_st » 2018-7-17 @ 09:18

So the choice is basically between SFX + Good FM (Yamaha) or SFX + Bad FM + General MIDI (Vortex with Wavetable). I'm going to have to listen to that emulated FM in a less noisy environment to find out how bad it is. :)

Do all Vortex cards use the same DOS drivers and provide the same level of compatibility? (Vortex/Vortex2, specific vendors)?

Where does the compatibility of PCI cards break? Assuming your motherboard supports everything that's needed and you can get the driver/TSR of the card to load - does it become "transparent" for DOS games (will look like a standard SBPro/SB16) or not quite? Some games won't work? Please leave EMM386 out of the discussion (we can have it in the other thread). ;)
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby gdjacobs » 2018-7-17 @ 18:23

LSS10999 wrote:
gdjacobs wrote:For starters, most TSRs require EMM386, so in most cases titles requiring real mode are out.


Not all TSRs require EMM386. The ones known so far that requires EMM386 are SB Live!/Audigy (EMS required) and YMF7x4's DSDMA (EMS optional). Others (FM801, Vortex, ESS) can work with real mode (usable alongside UMBPCI).


Fair enough.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby LSS10999 » 2018-7-18 @ 02:52

dr_st wrote:So the choice is basically between SFX + Good FM (Yamaha) or SFX + Bad FM + General MIDI (Vortex with Wavetable). I'm going to have to listen to that emulated FM in a less noisy environment to find out how bad it is. :)

Do all Vortex cards use the same DOS drivers and provide the same level of compatibility? (Vortex/Vortex2, specific vendors)?

Where does the compatibility of PCI cards break? Assuming your motherboard supports everything that's needed and you can get the driver/TSR of the card to load - does it become "transparent" for DOS games (will look like a standard SBPro/SB16) or not quite? Some games won't work? Please leave EMM386 out of the discussion (we can have it in the other thread). ;)


Once the TSR succeeded in initializing the audio card, the games will see it just like any other Sound Blaster audio cards, transparent.

As for where does the compatibility of PCI cards break, it does seem that this document is where everything started regarding compatibility with modern (notably post-ICH5) motherboards.

The document only mentioned about what's broken for PCI-ISA bridges and LPC-ISA bridges on post-ICH5 motherboards, but the fact is, what were broken indirectly affected PCI audio cards' in-house DMA implementations, either due to undocumented changes or as a side effect.

For physical ISA slots provided by PCI-ISA bridges (which is most common among industrial motherboards that provide them), sound cards plugged into them exhibited similar behavior as most PCI audio cards on those chipsets (no digitized audio, only FM synth). DMA on LPC-ISA bridges are still possible, but additional configurations are needed.

The fact that many claimed-to-be-chipset-independent in-house DMA implementations (such as ESS TDMA) were also broken on post-ICH5 chipsets and were exhibiting similar behaviors as real ISA soundcards on those chipsets implied a possibility that those chipset-specific DMA implementations (such as PC/PCI or DDMA) were somehow related, although it's still uncertain unless the TSRs could be reverse-engineered somehow.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby agent_x007 » 2018-7-18 @ 06:56

How about this :
Aureal Vortex 2 + Waveblaster card + OPL3LPT
?
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby dr_st » 2018-7-18 @ 07:20

Falcosoft wrote:1. 'In pure DOS (Digital + FM) ... (not worse than Creative CQM).' - Aureal Vortex cards (and also SB Live!/Audigy/Ensoniq AudioPCI) are out of contest... They have only emulated FM that is much worse than CQM:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3FJCnswIJiw
It was not as bad as I expected. :) I mean, Lemmings is pretty butchered, but DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D were OK. Unfortunately I don't know the other games in the video (since I rarely played adventure games), so I don't know how it compares. DOOM, in any case would sound better through General MIDI, so I'd rather have the Vortex+Wavetable than Yamaha w/o Wavetable, I think. But this is the never-ending argument. ;)

LSS10999 wrote:Once the TSR succeeded in initializing the audio card, the games will see it just like any other Sound Blaster audio cards, transparent.
In other words - usually it will either work flawlessly or not at all?

LSS10999 wrote:As for where does the compatibility of PCI cards break, it does seem that this document is where everything started regarding compatibility with modern (notably post-ICH5) motherboards.
Good info here. ICH5 and earlier should be rather safe, then?
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby LSS10999 » 2018-7-18 @ 08:32

dr_st wrote:
LSS10999 wrote:Once the TSR succeeded in initializing the audio card, the games will see it just like any other Sound Blaster audio cards, transparent.
In other words - usually it will either work flawlessly or not at all?

LSS10999 wrote:As for where does the compatibility of PCI cards break, it does seem that this document is where everything started regarding compatibility with modern (notably post-ICH5) motherboards.
Good info here. ICH5 and earlier should be rather safe, then?


The TSR only "wires" the PCI audio processor to Sound Blaster I/O, IRQ and DMA so that applications will be able to interact with the PCI audio processor just as if they were interacting with Sound Blaster. You can't say it being "flawless". How compatible and how flawless the audio functionality will be is entirely up to the PCI audio processor, as different audio processor manufacturers implement Sound Blaster compatible functions differently.

And yeah, ICH5 and earlier should be safe. They have necessary components needed for PCI legacy audio as well as physical ISA slots powered by PCI-ISA bridges to function. VIA chipsets (especially those with VT82C686 southbridges) are also known to work (but beware of some caveats). nForce series (regardless of generation), on the other hand, doesn't appear to work at all, with modern nForce chipsets exhibiting similar behavior as those with ICH6 or later.

It does appear that, with a given chipset, as long as it be possible to have fully functional physical ISA slots (working I/O, IRQ and DMA), either directly from chipset or through PCI-ISA bridges, be it officially onboard, through backplanes or through external riser cards, the chipset will be very likely to work with PCI audio cards.
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Re: Which PCI Sound Card for DOS (SB, FM and General MIDI)?

Postby canthearu » 2018-7-19 @ 14:38

Hmmm, ESS Solo-1 with a waveblaster card might be just what you are after?

It has a good hardware FM implementation, good sound blaster Pro 2 emulation and wavetable header for a wavetable card.

Sound output quality from my tests isn't as strong or as good as a Sound blaster live, but it is perfectly adequate with external amplification.

Edit: Just remember that no single sound solution will be completely 100% perfectly compatible with everything. That is just the nature of these things, especially in the early days of DOS sound cards.
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