Now posting to just csip.soundcard.advocacy and games, and
csip.games.misc. It will also be carried at the soundcard ftp site: […]
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Now posting to just csip.soundcard.advocacy and games, and
csip.games.misc. It will also be carried at the soundcard ftp site:
ftp.netcom.com in /pub/jonin/midi/soundcards/opinions/buyers-guide-for-
Since initial response has been favorable, I'll probably continue to post
updates to the above. Some seem to prefer a more FAQ-like format. For
now, I'm more comfortable with this less formal style. I've intentionally
avoided a spec-type approach as I want to convey a more bottom-line
approach. I recognize that it makes it more difficult to see what is new
in a given version, but please bear with me. Thanks for all the input,
whether on content, criticism, or just kudos!
This version adds the Monte Carlo, MV Premium Deluxe, RAP-10, Wavepower DB,
and includes small corrections or modifications to most others.
PC Gaming Sound Cards - A Buyer's Guide v0.34 (11/4/94)
This guide is directed at gamers in the market for a new PC soundcard. Let
me state up front that I am not a soundcard hardware expert, musician, or
soundcard "hobbyist," which may become obvious by whatever gaffs I make.
This means not only one might be advised to take my observations on sound
quality with the requisite NaCl, but also that again one best consider my
observations to be applicable to the parochial interest of gaming.
I have owned the Soundblaster (SB), SB Pro (SBP), Roland LAPC-1 (LAPC),
Reveal Sound FX 32 (Ensoniq chipset), Logitech Soundman Wave, and Gravis
Ultrasound (GUS). I've also heard the Turtle Beach Maui, and some Roland
products. And wasted far too much time reading the net, magazine reviews
and product literature. My apologies for any offense I may cause, and for
errors and omissions, but I do mean this to be my own subjective review.
As always, I'll gladly entertain any (relatively civil) feedback.
First, what do game players need/want?
My priorities are, in order:
1) Games compatibility (DAC, FM, hardware mpu401/G-MIDI, all in DOS).
2) Sound quality.
For compatibility, one currently needs an SB compatible DAC, very
preferably SBP, and better yet, 16-bit on top of that. But the last is of
secondary importance as very few games support 16-bit. Don't be mislead by
"SB-16" on the game box or configuration menu. They nearly always use 8-
bit sound. This may change in the future, so you may weigh the need for 16-
bit more heavily. Next is SB FM compatibility, which was called the (OPL2)
Adlib standard. Now that this encompasses the stereo OPL3 based SBP v2, it
may be called the SBP standard. Most games support SB and SBP FM.
Mediocre as it sounds, I still want it for old games, new games that still
don't support G-MIDI (or GM) music, and for those that do so badly (Fleet
Defender comes to mind, not giving engine sounds). Next, there is the
emergent G-MIDI standard for music, mostly used with "wavetable" (a
misnomer I won't get into) synth cards. I demand hardware mpu-401 based
support as the majority of games look for this. You may be able to get
software based drivers to work in most games. In my experience, not in
all, or near all. Remember my bias: DOS (not OS/2, not even Windows)
compatibility first. Last, from my experience with the GUS, I've grown to
appreciate RAM capability. While not as yet a gaming advantage, it is fun!
According to Rich Heimlich, who tests soundcards for a living, gaming and
soundcard companies are looking at standardizing RAM support. With this in
mind, here we go...
Creative Labs Sound Blaster (v 2.0)
For about $40, you enter the glorious world of non-PC speaker sound. 8-bit
mono digital playback, 22kHz sampling (=11kHz audible), FM mono synth.
Plus it has a joystick game port. No input for CD audio. Works with
everything. Digitized sounds and music can be quite lifelike, if a little
noisy. But upon first hearing the FM, I likened it to a glorified kazoo.
Sound Blaster Pro (v 2)
For about $60 (OEM) to $80, get the above plus stereo digital and FM
sounds, a CD-rom interface for Creative (Panasonic) drives, an internal
connector for Red Book (audio) CD's, a line-in, and more IRQ and DMA
choices for fewer conflicts. Well worth the extra $$. If you buy used,
make sure it is SBP2, not SBP1. The initial ones had two OPL2 chips
instead of the more capable stereo OPL3 synth. Aside from stereo, don't
expect it to sound different from an SB in games.
Sound Blaster SB-16 (many versions)
The following are available: SB-16 Value Edition ($95), SB-16 Basic ($95),
and versions with either SCSI-2 or multi-CD interface (the previous two
have the Creative/Panasonic, the MCD adds Mitsumi and Sony), and
with/without the Advanced Signal Processor (ASP) chip. Prices range from
about $130 to $200. The choice depends on your CD needs. Many report that
these cards are fairly noisy. As to the ASP, it is used for Q-sound
(surround), real-time digital sound compression, and text-to-voice. I'd
call the ASP of little utility for gamers right now. All have the OPL3,
same as the SBP. All claim to be SBP compatible, but net consensus is that
it often is NOT (at least for DAC). So often you may have to use it as an
SB, not SBP. All EXCEPT the Value Edition have the ASP socket and
"Waveblaster" (WB) connector. The WB connector has become the standard for
G-MIDI daughter boards. This is one of its most important gaming features.
If it wasn't for that, I'd just say get the SBPro for better gaming
compatibility. Through the connector, it gives access to some fine, and
inexpensive G-MIDI cards. Plus 16-bit may see future support. So it's a
tough call between it and the SBP. Just don't get the Value Edition!
Mediavision (MV) 3D Premium
About $145, but occasionally sighted at lower. Comes with either the multi-
CD or SCSI-2 interfaces. A bit cheaper, and more feature laden than the
equivalent SB-16's. Has 16-bit record/playback, OPL3 FM, "SBP
compatibility," SRS surround sound, WB connector, and VESA compatible. To
date, the VESA spec hasn't caught on, so it may, or may not be an
advantage. This card is generally getting higher marks for quietness
compared to the SB-16's. While the card is relatively new, reports have
been generally positive, most claiming near complete SBP compatibility.
One negative it shares with the SB-16's is the lack of a non-amplified line-
out. Also some have reported two joystick problems: no port disable (some
say it auto-disables if another joystick port is detected), and conflicts
with joystick2 and the midi output (has been noted that other cards can
have this problem and the workaround is an easy rewiring of the joystick-
port connection). Note: this card is NOT PAS-16 compatible, so even MV is
abandoning their old line. MV is also in financial straits. I don't see
this as a major issue if the SBP and G-MIDI (through the WB connector)
compatibility is there. It may impact future driver support. So questions
exist, but this board may be a player.
MV Premium Deluxe
Brand new. At $99, essentially the above card without the SRS, some of the
software, and a few other nonessentials. You can always get the SRS later
with the Nureality Vivid 3D box ($59). It adds a joystick disable jumper.
Perhaps only a multi-CD version? A cheaper alternative to the SB16 MCD,
and other MV/SB WB-compatible cards.
MV Pro Audio Spectrum 16 (PAS-16)
While cheap, and having a cleaner 16-bit digital stage than SB's, I can't
recommend it as: (1) it only has SB compatibility, and (2) MV doesn't even
support it in the new cards. Expect game support to wane. But if you were
going to stop at the absolute minimum, an SB, consider a $50 PAS-16 Basic
(no CD interface) instead.
There are plenty of SB/SBP/16-bit compatible clones out there like the
Aztech line. Aztech has some with WB connectors too. There was one older
Aztech (Sound Galaxy NX Pro 16) that had the WB connector, but it wasn't
functional in DOS. Avoid that one. I know even less about these others, so
I won't comment any more on them. The Turtle Beach Tahiti, while by all
reports a fine digitizing card plus WB connector, is not SB compatible. It
is a Windows product and has no use in almost any game. I mention it for
Most new games support G-MIDI for potentially far superior music. It is
usually used in tandem with digitized effects. G-MIDI sound is best when
played through a wavetable (WT) synth. These games virtually all list
support for one of: "waveblaster" (WB), "sound canvas" (SC), "GS" (same as
SC), General Midi (GM, G-MIDI), and sometimes more than one of these.
This is a point of some confusion, as they often mean the same thing. The
WB is a GM card. The Roland SC has the GS set which is a superset of GM,
GS having many more instruments and drum kits. Some now say that games
that say SC or GS actually use more than the GM set, and only the Roland SC
products take advantage. This may very well be true and a reason to opt
for those Rolands. I don't know one way or the other. In practice, I
think you will be more than happy with the GM compatible cards. There are
other cards whose games compatibility is derived through drivers, most
notably the SB AWE32 and the GUS. For a gamer, I'd strongly recommend
sticking with the better support of hardware GM cards. Note that some
games attempt to use the GM synth for some effects. This may result in
widely varying, and sometimes poor, results.
I'll separate the products into those that require a slot (thus stand alone
or with any other card), and those that require a WB connector host card
Gravis Ultrasound and Ultrasound Max
Taking on this board invariably invites the wrath of its faithful. So I'll
explain. $100 and $180 respectively. The first features 16-bit playback,
only 8-bit record (not a gaming issue), a 256K (1MB maximum) RAM sample
based wavetable synth, and speed compensating game port. You'll want to
upgrade to the full 1MB (add $20). Has 32-voice polyphony, but only at
19KHz sampling. Full 44KHz is limited to 14 voices (best is a compromise
between). The Max is the above plus 16-bit record, a multi-CD interface,
and 512K RAM (but costs as much to fill to 1MB). The SB DAC support is
usually good through a software driver. The FM emulation by the synth is
poor, especially in effects. So, at best, I'd say use it in tandem with an
SB compatible card. And its GM support is through software. Some will say
no problem. My experience is otherwise, and not through lack of trying. I
found it worked acceptably in about 2/3 of my GM compatible games. And in
those, sometimes not as well as I would hope (partly due to the 1MB limit).
It won't work in protected mode games that don't use standard drivers or
have direct GUS support (ex: most Origin games). Positives for the card
include the price, fine included software, incredible user free/shareware
and support, hardware mixing capabilities that make it *the* Mod soundcard,
good digitized sound, good midi sound due to its 5+MB of samples hard disk
loaded into the RAM, and RAM sampling allowing user-created sounds. But if
you value compatibility, look elsewhere.
Turtle Beach Maui
It's only a GM synth, so you'll need the SB/SBP for digitized sound and FM.
Has 2MB of ROM samples (compressed from Rio's 4MB set), 256K of RAM
standard (8MB max). At $128, it is an affordable entry into WT sound. I'd
rate the midi quality on par with the GUS. For me, easily good enough for
games. And like that card, you can upload, and have access, to new sounds
into RAM if you so choose. Like the GUS, access to the RAM is quick, about
a MB in a few seconds. Connect to an SBP via either card's out/in. For
SBP owners, it's the easiest, cheapest entry into WT GM gaming. One
negative is the rather long driver loading of about 25 seconds every cold
Ensoniq Soundscape, Reveal Soundwave 32 FX
Available from Ensoniq and various OEMs. About $180 (I saw the Reveal for
$155 at Computer City). Like the GUS, attempts to be an all-in-one, and
fails. Has 16-bit record/playback, a 2MB ROM based synth, multi-CD
connector, SB (not Pro) "compatible." The FM emulation through the synth
is awful, and SB DAC compatibility is not perfect. So I also would insist
on having an SBP/16 in tandem. I had no problem getting it to work in all
my games this way with my SBPro. I found it to be a quiet card, with good
record/playback. I rate the GM synth as somewhat better than those of the
GUS and Maui, with "crisper" sounds. Most professional reviews have been
favorable too. Tradeoff vs Maui (remember, I think the Ensoniq needs a
defacto SBP): better sound, 16-bit for Windows and maybe future games, but
Logitech Soundman Wave
About $180. Also an "all-in-one". 16-bit record/playback, a 2MB ROM based
OPL4 synth, which includes WT and an OPL3, SB compatible, mostly SBP
compatible, and SCSI interface. An effects DB is planned. I found that it
worked perfectly for SB DAC and FM, but not for SBP stereo DAC games. The
latter gave sound out of the left channel only. The card was very noisy
having a high pitch squeal in 44kHz and stereo modes, and background noise.
Many reviews have noted this, others have noted very good S/N! Perhaps now
fixed, or computer dependent? The WT sound isn't as good as the other
cards mentioned above, with strings and winds especially weak. While some
magazines have panned it, others inexplicably praised the sound. It is
still far superior to FM, and I'd call it good enough for all but the more
discriminating gamers. But with the emerging crop of cards, I consign it
to also-ran status.
Mediatrix Audiotrix Pro
An OPL4 card like the Logitech. I recall it uses the same sample set
(though one respondee claims otherwise), it so should have the same
middling midi quality. If it doesn't have the noise problems, it may be
worth considering. It offers both effects and RAM daughter boards. Was
introductory priced at $200. Hopefully its price is continuing downward as
competition has strengthened. As they may perhaps be only available
direct, I include their phone number: (800)-820-8749.
Turtle Beach Monte Carlo
Only $99, but there's a reason. The card has 16-bit record/playback and an
OPL3. Claims "101%" games compatibility, but the only user report I've seen
mentioned problems with the SBPro sound. As important, the WT is software
based and, according to the box, only works in Windows. It also requires a
fast processor. So not a gaming wavetable solution.
Turtle Beach Tropez
As of this update, the Tropez still has just been released, and reports are
barely trickling in. So still take care with the assumptions. At $200,
this may be a most viable all-in-one solution. 16-bit record/playback
(based on the Monte Carlo), 2MB ROM based synth, RAM capability (max 12MB),
enhanced IDE interface. From the specs, I guess TB quality digitized sound
(excellent, but not "Hurricane" based), the same synth as the Maui (again
hardware compatible), and the Maui's fast access to RAM. Rich Heimlich,
who tested a pre-production model, says the card *is* SBP compatible. IF
all the above holds true, maybe the cheapest, and certainly a good entry
into full games capability.
$265. An SB-16 MCD plus built in 1MB ROM E-Mu based synth, 0.5MB RAM (32MB
expandable!), and chorus/reverb on FM and WT. The synth is only software
mpu401/GM compatible, like the GUS. So it won't work in non-standard
driver protected mode games, unless they include native AWE support
(patches are out for many games). And the drivers take up a lot of
precious low memory (at least 44K). So consider adding QEMM if you want
this card. It has the WB connector so you can add a hardware compatible GM
card to circumvent these problems. Reports on sound quality run the gamut.
I most trust those with a musical bent, including Keyboard Mag, which
haven't been complimentary. Its chorus, reverb, Q-sound and RAM sample
upload capability make it versatile and better sounding. Further, the RAM
and E-MU's "Sound Font" technology have potential gaming advantages, if
they are ever supported (see opening notes). This seems nothing less than
an attempt by CL to set and control another standard. Judging by the early
strong support (Doom, Tie Fighter, many new titles), they may very well
succeed. But because of the lack of the current standard support, I'd
recommend either getting one of the other hardware compatible GM synths,
spending a small fortune on the AWE32 plus a daughter board, or waiting it
SB AWE32 Value Edition
This is a bare bones version aimed at the gamer. It is the same as above
but deletes the ASP, WB connector, and SIMM slots for optional RAM (still
has the default 512K). Without the ASP, you lose Q-sound on WAV and FM.
If the AWE32 takes over as the standard, it offers a marginally ($40??)
cheaper way to get most of the gaming functionality. But for now, it
offers less as it doesn't have the option of adding a hardware compatible
MediaVision 3D Pro.
$260, with some Computer City's (800-843-2489) offering it for as low as
$200 (probably gone before you read this). Not a single card, but a
combination of the MV 3D Premium and the Korg DB, at a potentially great
price. See those two for features, questions, and caveats. If it meets
its claims, a top choice. Compared to the Tropez, it adds reverb/chorus,
SRS, a bigger, and probably better ROM synth set, SCSI-2 (vs enhanced IDE),
but no RAM capability. For gaming, I'd call that a win for the MV, though
I like RAM. At the normal price, perhaps a slight nod over the SB-16+DB
$275. The original GM/GS card, it has the same instrument set as the SC-55
module. 4MB ROM sample set, reverb/chorus. Like the Maui, it requires a
tandem SB type card for gaming support. With this one, you get exactly
what the game music designers intended as this is the card they virtually
all use. Roland sound quality carries a big reputation too. Reverb/chorus
reportedly makes the already top notch sample set even better. I found
their effects to be subtle, though most GM aficionados insist on them.
Quite possible I used a simpler rendering than these cards provide. SBPro
+ this gives perfect games compatibility, only lacking 16-bit. Look for
the SCC-1B , which includes more bundled software, and adds the extra
sounds of the SC-55mkII.
$250. This is a combination of the SC-7 module (GM not GS, 4MB ROM,
reverb/chorus) and a 16-bit digitized stage on a card. The DAC is not SB-
compatible, so again, an SB type card is needed. The midi gets the usual
glowing Roland reviews, the ADC/DAC is reviewed less favorably. Part of
this is explained by its passing through the effects engine of the card.
The advantage over an SCC-1 is having the 16-bit support in Windows. The
disadvantage is not having the full GS set.
Aria & Analog Devices DSP
There are many wavetable cards based on the Analog Devices DSP (ex: Orchid
Soundwave/Gamewave), and Sierra Aria (Prometheus Aria 16se). Their
wavetable sound have been universally panned, with some Orchid reviewers
claiming they thought they were listening to FM. Some of these cards offer
16-bit record/playback and other features for around $100. Maybe not a bad
deal if you want something with SB compatibility, 16-bit, and somewhat
better than FM sound (when supported). The SB FM sound is usually
considered to be good. While the Aria's are not hardware GM compatible, I
understand a TSR is available to make any Aria soundcard GM compatible in
many games. But don't expect sound comparable to any of the other WT cards
in this guide. I never considered them serious wavetable contenders and
thus never learned much about them.
All these require a WB compatible connector. They are all hardware mpu401
compatible GM synths. So they should work fine in games. They generally
offer a cheaper upgrade route. Most have reverb and chorus effects which
give more full and natural sounds. The only one with RAM is the Rio (but
see caveat). With some, you are getting chipsets and many of the samples
found in the companies' multi-K$ synths.
Turtle Beach Rio
$130. 4MB ROM set. Expect it to sound somewhat better than the Maui's as
it isn't compressed. Has reverb presets, but no chorus. A negative is
that the additional 4MB RAM capability is crippled by slow access times
through the WB connector (10+ minutes per MB). Again, the latter isn't a
real gaming issue. So a good, cheap, gaming choice.
$145. 4MB ROM set, reverb/chorus. Most reports, including from
professionals, say excellent, one mentioned plusses and minuses compared to
the GUS, and one said crappy. I'd expect it to be a fine performer based
on Korg's reputation and sample size.
$170. 4MB ROM set, older E-Mu synth (no reverb/chorus). Again opinions
vary, generally reviewed below most other daughterboards, but probably fine
for games. The first WB daughterboard, it surprisingly hasn't dropped in
price. It gets little attention from CL, and may be discontinued. I'd opt
for one of the other newer cards.
$160. Roland SC-7 on a daughterboard. Similar to a RAP-10 without the
digital channels. GM set (4MB?), reverb/chorus, not the full GS set. A
fine choice. See comments on the RAP-10.
$210. Roland SC-55mkII (Sound Canvas) on a daughterboard. Similar to the
SCC-1B (perhaps more voices), except not requiring a slot. Similar to the
SCD-10, plus the full GS (354 instruments, 9 drum sets). Now you know you
are getting exactly what it was meant to sound like. So for the best, this
is it. Again, the only downside (and presently not a gaming issue) is the
lack of RAM.
Wearnes/AVM Summit (Kurzweil-based)
Wearnes makes a daughterboard, AVM Summit is an external box. Kurzweil is
another big name in synths and this one comes loaded with 6MB of samples.
Reviewers have been impressed with the sound. One owner said some of the
samples are Kurzweil's best, but some GM samples are "faked." The price of
around $350 is higher than any of the above.
Uses the Ensoniq synth and 2MB samples, but reportedly only 8-bit. I
believe it sells for around $120. Reviews have been negative, so I
recommend looking at other cards.
Ensoniq may have other versions available as daughterboards. If they use
the full 16-bit samples, they should sound like the Reveal card I tried.
This may make it a contender against the cheaper cards. Also, they plan
to release a RAM capable card in '95.
Some comments about a dying standard: Roland MT-32/LAPC-1. I still have an
LAPC-1. Using an older synth technology, it doesn't sound nearly as
realistic as the good WT cards. But it is far better than FM. This line
is discontinued, so game support is slowly waning. Yet I still find the
occasional new title that supports it, and not GM. Where it shines is in
non-digitized effects that are far superior to FM or GM. So even in some
GM games, I'd opt to use it. Many GM cards claim MT-32 compatibility. But
in practice, this is for the music, not the effects. The latter are
handled by "system exclusive" (sysex) messages these other cards (including
Roland's own SC series) can't process. End result, poor or no effects, and
possible hangs. Bottom line is, if you want true MT-32 compatibility, you
need an MT-32, CM-32L, CM-64 (all external modules needing an mpu-401
interface card) or an LAPC-1.
I hope I've touched on the main players and gaming issues. Other things
you may want to consider are included OS drivers, optional IRQ's and
addresses, jumperless installation, included software, support, and more.
In summary, we finally may have acceptable all-in-one WT gaming cards
appearing, though combos still give the best functionality and sound And
the prices have been dropping. For those starting out, or willing to sell
their current hardware, I suggest paying attention to reports on the new
Tropez and MV 3D Pro. Or consider the MV 3D Premium (or deluxe)+ other
daughterboard. If you already have an SBPro, I recommend the Maui for
economy, the SCC-1 for the best. Or split the difference with the Ensoniq,
which sounds better than the first, has 16-bit, but no RAM. If you have an
SB-16, save money with one of the daughter boards. The prices of the Rio,
Korg, and SCD-10 are close enough such that you should pick the one which
sounds best to you, with perhaps the nod to the Roland for games fidelity.
You might want to spend the extra $50 and get the full GS compatible SCD-15
to know you have everything the game designers intended.
The prices listed here are mail order estimates as of mid October '94.
Many are from Computability (800-554-9978). Also check out CDW, which
allows returns (800-537-6752). Two game-oriented mail order companies that
carry soundcards are Chips&Bits (800-699-GAME) and Computer Express (800-