First post, by appiah4
I am currently working on a retrogaming website and YouTube channel, and I wanted to get feedback on the content I am planning to put up on it. Below is a sample review I wrote for the Dreamblaster S2. Please let me know what you think about it, what you like, what you dislike, and what you think is wrong. Oh, and let's also discuss the Dreamblaster S2 while we're at it, I don't want to steal its show..
Dreamblaster S2 (hereforth referred to as S2) by Serdaco is a Waveblaster compatible General MIDI Daughterboard. If you are into retrocomputing and retrogaming, this brief description would probably make you think it is a relic of yore, long out of production and probably rather scarce and expensive in second hand markets. Well, it's not. It's neither old , nor expensive, nor scarce. It's a modern wavetable daughterboard, currently in production, and sold at very affordable rates.
The S2 can be had from Serdaco's own web store for around €40 (although at the time of writing this, it is 25% discounted at €30). Considering there are no other Waveblaster daughterboards in production, a comparative review of the S2 is complicated. A brief look at eBay reveals some Diamond Monster Sound wavetable modules for sale at around the same price, but I do not have access to one. Barring these, prices on MIDI daughterboards quickly skyrocket to astronomical values. So I went ahead and picked something both as accessible and affordable as the S2 for comparison: The Sound Blaster AWE64 Value.
The AWE64 to me is an interesting card because it does so much better than its contemporaries but manages to be inferior to its predecessors in astonishing ways. This is a card that ships with a fairly decent 1MB wavetable sound set in its ROM and can do very good MIDI processing, yet it's also a card that lacks a wavetable header and has its MIDI on E6xx instead of E3xx so it's fairly suboptimal for MIDI compatibility in DOS. It's a card with expandable memory and support for .SF2 soundfonts, but the expandable memory can only be installed on proprietary modules which are pretty much impossible to find today. It's a card that comes with MT32 emulation yet this feature never seems to work. It also lacks a true Yamaha OPL chip and relies on CQM, which for me is inferior to OPL3, ESFM (which I consider to be on par with OPL3 barring some distortion issues) and Crystal FM (which to my ears is better than OPL3). Still, after all is said and done, the AWE64 is a fairly hassle free ISA card with no dealbreakers, very high SNR, and most importabtly very good MIDI in Windows. It can also be had for around the same price as the S2, hence, we have chosen our yardstick.
Now, let's get a little technical. The S2 has at its heart the Dream SAM2695 chip, produced mainly for low power consumption battery operated devices. This makes it a fairly ideal match for this use case as it has to make do with the the 12V it can draw from the wavetable header. This is a very small chip, and a fairly affordable one - as a result the sound set that comes on it is not as large as you would find on things like a Yamaha XG daughterboard (which if I am not wrong is around 4MB). What we have here is the CleanWave 4MBit sample set, a total of 512K of samples to work with. However, the SAM2695 is basically 'The Little Train That Could' because it's also capable of FM synthesis, which allows it to do a lot more with this sound set than other MIDI daughterboards can. Now let's take a look at how that works out.
For the purposes of this review, I have chosen 12 MIDI tunes from retrogaming soundtracks, and recorded them with the Dreamblaster S2 and SB AWE64 Value as MIDI devices in Falcosoft MIDI Player. I have chosen the tunes to highlight the cards' performance in different styles of gaming music to cover the gamut as widely as possible. The recordings are not made by routing the Line Out to a Line In, so they do not reflect the noise and distortion of the cards in general. Comparing them in this regard is beyond the scope of what I am trying to judge here - but I will give my impression of the S2 in terms of audio quality outright: It is silent enough to not add any extra noise to the Diamond MX300 it was mounted on and I found distortion to be a non-issue.
I will now highlight a couple of songs and give my judgment on how each device renders the piece, and link to them, prior to giving my final opinion and linking to the full 12 track albums for each device for your own listening pleasure and scrutiny.
A-Train - Title
If you do a search for piano MIDI sound sets you will find that there are more of them out there than General MIDI sound sets combined. That's because the piano (along with other classical instruments) is very hard to synthesize organically, especially if you are limited on sample bitrate and size. To be honest, the AWE64 piano was never the most convincing to me, treading the fine line of being a good and bad sound patch, but the S2 definitely sells me on the AWE64 piano. The size constraints on the S2's CleanWave 4MBit set are obviously the issue here - while the piano starts out sounding pretty good on the lower octaves, the high octaves and sustain sound badly synthetic. And that is probably because it is, the Dream chip is probably using FM Synthesis to render the high octaves and add the sustain, and unfortunately that does not really go well with this kind of music. To the S2's credit, however, it has a stronger bass and better percussion sounds than the AWE64, which is a sign of better things to come.
Daggerfall - Theme
This is a strange one, it made me go back and double check to see if I had the recordings mixed up. It is a symphonic piece with brass and string instruments, and some percussion. It opens with ensemble strings that sound inarguably more organic and realistic on the AWE64, but then the trumpets kick in and the AWE64 renders what is an incredibly synthetic sounding instrument that sticks out like a sore thumb in an interpretation that obviously aims to be realistic. Obviously, when you try to go with realistic sounds for 128 instruments in a 1MB set, you have to cut corners, and it seems the instrument used (Brass Section instead of Trumpet) was one such corner on the AWE64. The result is an immediate jump off what you could call the auditory version of the uncanny valley. Turning to the S2, while the song as a whole has a definite synthesized feel in all instruments (strings and brass alike) and will not fool anybody, it is overall homogeneous and well balanced, and evokes a warm retro vibe.
Descent Menu Music
Descent's menu music sounds very different on the two cards, much more so than any other songs in this test, and a good deal of this distinction doesn't appear to be intentional. The whole intro of the song is carried by a bass synth and a polysynth pad. For whatever reason, the S2 fails to render the polysynth completely, and substitutes an acoustic grand piano in its place. Needless to say, what the S2 ends up outputting for the first minute of the song is completely different from how it sounds on its soundtrack (which, I believe is rendered on an SC-55) while the AWE64 manages to match the expensive device's sound fairly well. (EDIT: It has come to my attention that the Acoustic Grand Piano is an error caused by the General MIDI file I used in testing, an updated version of the file plays fine, and I will update the sound recording at earliest opportunity.) However, once past the 01:30 mark, the tables are turned and the S2 basically stomps the AWE64 to the ground with brighter Synth FX instruments, a deeper synth drumset and an incredible overdriven guitar that really gets one's groove on. The AWE64 also suffers further from some dynamic range issues which cause clipping, and the artificial loudness yields a rather duller sounding song once both tracks are normalized to -3dB. This DR and clipping issue is not exclusive to Descent and observable in Betrayal at Krondor and Duke Nukem 3D, but it's at its worst in System Shock.
DOOM - E1M1 At Doom's Gate
The AWE64 flat out has terrible distortion and overdriven guitar patches; so bad in fact that I would actually consider the OPL3 soundtrack to be preferrable as it at least scratches a certain nostalgia itch. It's really difficult to understand how Creative could ship the AWE64 with this sample when even their 2MB SF2 soundfont comes with instruments that are magnitudally better. Here, the S2 simply shreds with terrific bright distortion guitar samples and a satisfying drum kit. Rock and metal songs like the Doom and Duke 3D soundtracks are just a joy to hear on the S2.
Lands of Lore - 54
This song is almost exclusively a Celesta solo, and common sense would expect the AWE64 to toast the S2 here. Well, that doesn't happen. Part of it has to do with AWE 64's rendition of the mezzopiano Celesta which is indeed fairly spot on, but the S2 Celesta is terrific for the allegro pace of this song (which is undoubtedly and shamelessly inspired by the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy) and just sounds right. Moreover, once AWE64's terrible synth strings we know from Daggerfall make their entrance, it stops being a contest altogether. There is something absolutely magical about the punchy bright way the S2 renders this song, and I just love listening to it over and over.
Monkey Island Ultimate Talkie - Main Theme
While the original Monkey Island is not a General MIDI game (it supported MT-32 like most early LucasArts games), this game has been MIDI compatible since 2012 through the "Ultimate Talkie Edition" project. Just launch the game with "monkey r" and instead of the MT-32 music you get General MIDI (MT-32 is activated with the r1 switch). Anyway, this gives me the excuse to test the cards with a game with one of the most iconic videogame intro music ever. I'm not entirely sure what genre the Monkey Island theme is, Exotic Swing? Anyway, I digress. From a realism perspective, the AWE64 wins hands down. It uses much higher quality instruments throughout; the church organ is convincing, the ocarina/flute (I can not tell for sure) has pleasant wind and sounds organic, the xylophone is sharp and bright, the bass is well balanced and the percussion is warm. All in all the AWE64 does a wonderful job of bringing this song to life, I would dare say a better job than the MT-32 itself, and the S2 can not hope to compete here. Meanwhile, the S2's output is something a lot closer to that of the MT-32 with a strong bass, and an ocarina that has less wind, albeit with more synthetic sounding instruments and overall too little chorus and reverb. I would say the AWE64 is objectively the better card here, but I won't deny that the S2 produces something that is a lot more nostalgia inducing once the wonder of hearing the song in such quality has passed.
X-Wing - Intro
This song spectacularly highlights three findings we've noted earlier. 1) The AWE64's orchestral instruments are objectively and magnitudally better than the S2, 2) The AWE64's drumset is pretty weak, 3) There is compression arifacts and clipping in AWE64 MIDI audio due to general loudness. The AWE64 rendition is a pretty commendable effort, it has great brass and string instruments which really make it possible for this small card to produce a sound that can successfully make you reminisce the opening crawl from the movies. In comparison, the S2 sounds like a game music proper from the 90s. It sounds like good game music, don't get me wrong, it's well balanced, has good percussions, it's very easily recognizable for what it is, but it is also unmistakably synthetic and digital. The brass lack wind, the strings lack vibrato and the song overall lacks proper chorus and reverb. This is S2 at its weakest, trying to imitate a real recording, and failing at it.
If you are doing DOS retrogaming, the Dreamblaster S2 should be a direct buy at this price point, for the simple fact that it just works with any game with General MIDI support whereas the AWE64 only works with games with AWE32 support and it's GM emulation AWEUTIL parameters flat out don't work right. The choice for Win9x is less straightforward however, as the AWE64 is a fairly good General MIDI device and ultimately the choice will depend on which one you think sounds better. Well, that's a tough question..
The S2 wins some and loses some but at the end of the day it achieves what it sets out to achieve: It is indeed an affordable, well made, well balanced, and certainly worth your money wavetable daughterboard. Its wavetable and synthesis hybrid sound is fairly characteristic, and lends itself better to some genres than others. In techno/electronic songs, the S2 truly shines and delivers a commendable performance. In rock tunes, it stands up to the task with composure thanks to bright electric and bass guitar patches and a deep drum set. In symphonic pieces, it does a good job by virtue of being fairly well balanced. However it fares less favorably in exotic melodies and instruments, while in classical music it downright falls flat on its face.
So the bottom line is that the S2 is not an AWE64, and that is both a good thing and a bad thing. In cases where the AWE64 manages to render a song convincingly, the S2 can end up sounding like an obvious synthesizer - trust me, you certainly do not want to get an S2 to listen to real song MIDIs. However, the age of listening to MIDI music back when the MP3 was not born and the idea of having enough space for waveform audio was a dream is long gone. As such, in cases where the AWE64 manages to make itself sound like an unbalanced mess, the S2 becomes a very welcome retrogaming wavetable with a fitting sound for video games and a well balanced performance across the board. In my current Go-To retrogaming PC, I have both an AWE64 and a YMF719+S2, but if I had to choose between the two, I would easily choose to stick with the S2 for its DOS compatibility and more balanced sound. At €40, it's a very good alternative to the AWE64. At €30, it's a steal.
You can find the full recordings at the below links:
Retrogaming MIDI Test Suite Recordings
Retronautics: A digital gallery of my retro computers, hardware and projects.