My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

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

My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby Burrito78 » 2018-5-16 @ 12:28

Prelude: Yes, it has to be a Sound Blaster 16 or "better" ISA card for me.

First try: Sound Blaster AWE32 (CT3980)
They said it had practically no HNB. It has the HNB, but it does happen rarely. Its still a no-go, sorry.
The card has very light filtering, its tuned for a flat frequency response (because its a workhorse for a digital audio workstation / tools for musicians and music creation).
Therefore its not suited for DOS gaming. Too bright sounding, too many artifacts from the FM synthesis and clicks & pops are pronounced. Old DOS games were made for old soundcards, therefore have little bass. On this card they have none.
The card measures flat in Windows 95 so it had no problems with ageing components, btw.
Also FM synthesis (the OPL3) is too quiet in relation to PCM sounds. The wavetable has no bass too on this board.
All in all - no fun is to be had with this card. I have to assume all AWE32 are like that.

Second card "DMA clicking b-gone?": Sound Blaster 16 Vibra (CT2940 version with OPL3 chip)
This card sound awesome! Deep bass, clear highs. No noise at all. Like a breath of fresh air. It sounds too good. DMA clicking is absent or very, very low but accentuated by the analytical nature of this card. You will hear every little OPL3 artifact with this one. Its sounds basically like Dosbox. Therefore its not a real retro soundcard.
Also it produces distortion which can’t be fixed by the Mixer software. This is an absolute no-go. If i design a sound card, i have to make sure that it can never be distorted by normally working programs. Try Epic Pinball, turn the volume up in the game A LITTLE BIT over 50% and it starts to crackle like a little bitch.
If its OK for you to check every games volume setting all the time and you can live with the occassional clipping/distortion, then this card is fine for you. Otherwise, stay away.
Very fun card, until it isn’t.

3rd card, getting closer: Sound Blaster 16 (CT2910)
This card is very, very nice. Good bass, good filterling (authentic, slightly muffled sound), DMA clicking is present but since the card isn’t very analytical its bearable. The CT1703-TBS DAC on my card is practically noise free. There is no high volume distortion at all. HNB should be very bad on these cards without CT1747 so use an ISA midi card like Roland MPU-401/AT or a Music Quest clone - if you need GM, that is.
OPL3 is handled by YMF289 and therefore not 100% authentic at all times. Since i wanted reference OPL3 playback, the card had to go too. :(

4th and final?: Sound Blaster 16 (CT2230)
Same as CT2910 but OPL3 FM synthesis is handled by the CT1747 and therefore 100% reference quality. DAC is CT1703-A on my card and noise free. Everything good said about the CT2910 above is also true for this card.

The CT2230/CT2290 or similar cards are now my go to Sound Blaster 16 and i can only recommend them to anyone still looking for good cards without many problems!
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby firage » 2018-5-16 @ 13:06

Interesting commentary, thanks for the writeup. You should add your mixer settings, as that's how you're expected to adjust for clipping and FM volume. And please name titles where you distorted and it wasn't just that the game's volume was set too loud in options.

The CT2760 and CT3900 AWE32 chip configurations look a bit closer to the CT2230 than the CT3980's. Might not be all the same.

You don't have any comments for the AWE64, which is another very clean SB16 that should be clear of DMA bugs. The FM synth of course isn't an OPL, just a mostly bearable approximation. I personally like one build with clean SB16 SFX and a second one with an SB Pro for those OPL and lower quality SFX titles.
Last edited by firage on 2018-5-16 @ 13:12, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby jesolo » 2018-5-16 @ 13:12

On the CT3980, configure your card to only use your low DMA channel - that should make most of the clicks and pops disappear.
Not sure I understand your comments about too bright sounds and too little bass - have you tried adjusting the bass & treble settings in the mixer utility to see if this perhaps negated your concerns?

Also refer here for more info and review on the various AWE32 & AWE64 models: http://nerdlypleasures.blogspot.co.za/2 ... s.html?m=1
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby firage » 2018-5-16 @ 13:18

Regarding the hanging note bug, it's just a lost cause with Creative, at least with my favorite games. Sure, the severity varies, but I'd just forget about it and put in another card for the MIDI interface where it matters.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby gerwin » 2018-5-16 @ 16:01

Isn't your 1st CT3980 card actually comparable to the 4th CT2230, with the only difference that the CT3980 has an EMU8000 synth added to it?
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby keropi » 2018-5-16 @ 16:29

The CT2230 was also my SB16 of choice for many years - now I "downgraded" to SB PRO2 in my builds up to pentium1 and this works very good for me , no clicking but authentic retro-style noisy output LOL
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby firage » 2018-5-16 @ 17:12

gerwin wrote:Isn't your 1st CT3980 card actually comparable to the 4th CT2230, with the only difference that the CT3980 has an EMU8000 synth added to it?

The CT3980 adds the CT1705 bus interface or whatever - shouldn't do much. I can believe the frequency response has variation between models, though.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby Burrito78 » 2018-5-16 @ 21:22

Thanks to everyone for their replies and feedback!

The issues i had regarding PCM/FM levels, bass/treble & clipping were depending on the individual games but not fixable by mixer settings.

CT3980 and CT2230 are indeed similar regarding their specs but their sound isn't the same at all in games. The CT3980 doesn't want to output much bass, no matter the mixer settings.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby firage » 2018-5-16 @ 21:54

I'm going to assume that Epic Pinball, as well as the other ones you're leaving out, takes over the mixer setting for wave and/or master volume, and the range of the game's volume control extends higher than usual, past the clipping point of the card or at least the equipment you're driving out of it. I don't know of a more reliable fixed volume yardstick than Skyroads, which is known to clip with some cards - and the CT2940 passes that test. (The recording for that is posted in another thread.)

A hot output is just good signal quality, right up to the point you start to distort.

Are you getting the same thing from both the amplified speaker out and the line out jack?
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby GL1zdA » 2018-5-17 @ 07:54

The CT2230 should have the same type of HNB as the CT3980 (should happen rarely, but you've written it's still a "no-go").
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby Burrito78 » 2018-5-17 @ 08:15

firage wrote:Are you getting the same thing from both the amplified speaker out and the line out jack?

The clipping i had with the CT2940 happens 100% before the mixer so any output is affected and at all sound blaster mixer settings.

GL1zdA wrote:The CT2230 should have the same type of HNB as the CT3980 (should happen rarely, but you've written it's still a "no-go").

I've switched to a dedicated MIDI card by now so it doesn't affect me personally anymore. But both cards show the same behaviour regarding HNB, yes.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby gerwin » 2018-5-17 @ 12:50

Burrito78 wrote:CT3980 and CT2230 are indeed similar regarding their specs but their sound isn't the same at all in games. The CT3980 doesn't want to output much bass, no matter the mixer settings.

Strange. It messes up my habit of purely looking at chipset configurations of these soundcards. So either creative tuned something on the AWE variant that makes it different, or it is just a random variation in component production or aging, or....
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby tayyare » 2018-5-17 @ 13:02

Burrito78 wrote:4th and final?: Sound Blaster 16 (CT2230)
Same as CT2910 but OPL3 FM synthesis is handled by the CT1747 and therefore 100% reference quality. DAC is CT1703-A on my card and noise free. Everything good said about the CT2910 above is also true for this card.

The CT2230/CT2290 or similar cards are now my go to Sound Blaster 16 and i can only recommend them to anyone still looking for good cards without many problems!


You basicly say, the first and only SB16 that I bought from ebay randomly years ago is the best one? :lol: I'm happy!

PS: I actually have another one, CT 1740 or something, but I bought it because it was the oldest SB16 that I could find at that time, so it was not a random but focused choice.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby Burrito78 » 2018-5-17 @ 15:04

gerwin wrote:
Burrito78 wrote:CT3980 and CT2230 are indeed similar regarding their specs but their sound isn't the same at all in games. The CT3980 doesn't want to output much bass, no matter the mixer settings.

Strange. It messes up my habit of purely looking at chipset configurations of these soundcards. So either creative tuned something on the AWE variant that makes it different, or it is just a random variation in component production or aging, or....

Maybe it was mostly the OPL3 chip that sounds wimpy on that card...as i said it's also a little bit quiet in relation to the PCM playback.

Back in the day it would have made sense for Creative Labs to move from a "fun" sounding card (bass heavy) to a more flat frequency response for doing serious things. The bass response is just speculation and "by ear" and not verified by measurements yet.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby Ozzuneoj » 2018-5-18 @ 04:06

Interesting comparison. I think I have all of the cards mention, except for the AWE32.

The SB16 I've had the longest is the old CT2230 though. It seemed like a good card but the last time I used it I remember getting some weird squelching and crackling sounds from it at random when playing sound effects in certain games. Its been a couple years so I don't remember which games. I ended up switching that particular system to a CT2940 (OPL3 model) with a Goldfinch card added on with 32MB of memory for AWE support. I also had a different card installed for a bug-free MPU-401 interface.

I've also been tempted to try out the CT1740 I picked up because it has an early DSP version that doesn't have MPU-401 bugs. I'm curious to hear just how noisy this original Noise Blaster 16 is. :)
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby cyclone3d » 2018-5-18 @ 04:35

In regards to "noise blaster".. I need to do some more testing, but it seems to me like a lot of it has to do with a noisy ISA bus.

I recently fired up a 386sx-25 based system I got that came with a Sound Blaster 2.0 in it.

The motherboard has not a single electrolytic capacitor on it. I am guessing it will probably never die because of this, but the ISA bus noise that comes through the sound card is astounding. It might not be as noticeable with old junky speakers, but with earbuds it is very, very noticeable.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby appiah4 » 2018-5-18 @ 08:30

cyclone3d wrote:In regards to "noise blaster".. I need to do some more testing, but it seems to me like a lot of it has to do with a noisy ISA bus.

I recently fired up a 386sx-25 based system I got that came with a Sound Blaster 2.0 in it.

The motherboard has not a single electrolytic capacitor on it. I am guessing it will probably never die because of this, but the ISA bus noise that comes through the sound card is astounding. It might not be as noticeable with old junky speakers, but with earbuds it is very, very noticeable.


This was my experience with the following barebones 486 board as well:

Image

It seems the bad rep some early SB models get for noise floor is due to terrible motherboard filtering on the ISA bus voltage.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby Eep386 » 2018-5-19 @ 04:13

I rather liked the CT2910. As I grew up with a YMF719 sound card, the YMF289 OPL3 sounds exactly like how I remember DOS games. I had to sell mine because I dropped low on cash.
Now I have a de-CQMed CT3990 with a YMF289, on which I also replaced the op-amps (they were originally those horrible TL074s and MC3403s most SB16s use, so I swapped them with MC33079's) and drastically altered their filtering and gain values. It's still a bit noisy, but it now sounds like it has actual low-pass filtering, and the heavy crackling and crunching that plagued various DOS games is greatly reduced. I had to pull the CSP chip though as it didn't play well with an OPL3.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby TheMobRules » 2018-5-19 @ 04:35

cyclone3d wrote:In regards to "noise blaster".. I need to do some more testing, but it seems to me like a lot of it has to do with a noisy ISA bus.

I recently fired up a 386sx-25 based system I got that came with a Sound Blaster 2.0 in it.

The motherboard has not a single electrolytic capacitor on it. I am guessing it will probably never die because of this, but the ISA bus noise that comes through the sound card is astounding. It might not be as noticeable with old junky speakers, but with earbuds it is very, very noticeable.


appiah4 wrote:It seems the bad rep some early SB models get for noise floor is due to terrible motherboard filtering on the ISA bus voltage.


I've had the same problems with SB2.0 and a couple SBPro 2 cards in 386/486 motherboards, even decent ones like the ASUS VL/I-486SV2G. What kills those cards for me is the fact that it is not possible to disable the amplifier. I used a SBPro 2 from 1994 to 1997 and I don't remember having such noise issues, maybe it was because of crap speakers as you say or just nostalgia. One thing I noticed is that in my case the noise is a problem mostly when the card is idle (i.e. DOS prompt). Once it is initialized by a game or Windows it's nowhere near that bad.

Even a "noisy" card like the CT1740 with amplifier disabled is night and day when compared to its 8 bit predecessors, so I just end up using SB16 most of the time despite my good memories of the Sound Blaster Pro.
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Re: My journey to a bearable Sound Blaster 16 model

Postby gerwin » 2018-5-21 @ 11:33

TheMobRules wrote:Even a "noisy" card like the CT1740 with amplifier disabled is night and day when compared to its 8 bit predecessors, so I just end up using SB16 most of the time despite my good memories of the Sound Blaster Pro.

Like James-F already wrote some time ago, and in my own experience, it is the OPL3 channel that raises the noise floor of the SB Pro. Lower the FM slider and the noise floor disappears. Not much of a solution I know. But interesting to note that the digital sample part of the SB Pro is actually reasonably clean.
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