Welcome to part 4 of my Building a Retro Gaming Rig series. Today I’ll be looking at some sound cards for the build.
Back in the early nineties when I first started taking an interest in PC gaming, most entry-level systems didn’t come with a proper sound card. I still remember playing the original Wolfenstein 3D using the integrated PC speaker on my friend’s 386 system. All of the beeps, boops and tones that speaker could produce still feel somewhat nostalgic to me. We had a lot of fun with games of that era so didn’t really think much about it. It wasn’t until 1994 that I got my first 486 system and a proper Sound Blaster 16. It was then that I really realized what I was missing out on. Despite having really crappy non-amplified speakers, the FM synthesized MIDI music and sound effects were just so awesome. And who can forget messing around with ‘Sound Recorder’ or playing CD audio in Windows 3.11!
With all that in mind, it was clear that I needed a proper sound card for my retro build. But that really isn’t just a ‘checkbox’ to tick – on machines of this era there really was quite a difference between cards and to get the proper vintage experience I’d have to choose correctly.
Since my retro rig’s primary purpose is to play nineties era DOS games, it was pretty clear that I’d need a sound card with the following qualities:
- Good DOS compatibility
- Good quality MIDI synthesis
- Functional in Windows 98
- Decent sound quality
- Not too expensive
The above all sounds pretty reasonable for a sound card of that era, but since my build has a target date of around 1998, this was a pretty pivotal time for sound. This was really time of transition from ISA to PCI, from DOS to Windows, from legacy to AC97 based sound cards.
Since I really wanted something with solid DOS compatibility and that was able to run in Windows 98 and a true DOS 6.22 environment, a slightly older ISA based card was likely the best choice.
Option 1: Integrated Creative Ensoniq PCI Audio
Before getting into standalone cards, I decided to look into the onboard Creative Ensoniq PCI audio on my MSI MS-6160 motherboard. I covered the MSI MS-6160 in detail in Part 3 of this series. Since I’d be using this board for the build, I figured I may as well give it a try.
Creative bought Ensoniq years back for their low-cost PCI audio solutions. The ES1373 Ensoniq AudioPCI chip was found on many onboard audio solutions as well as low-cost PCI audio cards. Because this was produced back in 1998, there is some backward compatibility with DOS games within Windows.
Creative still has the drivers for this chipset on their website. What I found most odd though was that you had to download 2MB, 4MB or 8MB MIDI sample files for chip to do any MIDI synthesis. Once installed, the file gets loaded into RAM, and is used to produce the various instrument sounds for MIDI music. After looking more closely at the motherboard, I could understand why – there was no FM synthesis chip to accompany the ES1373.
I gave the solution a quick whirl in Windows 98 SE. The driver installed without a hitch and had appropriate IRQ and resource settings for DOS games. As soon as I tried to load a game that used MIDI music, I’d get a pop-up telling me to load a sample file. After doing some googling, I figured out how to install the samples, and got it going.
To my dismay, the MIDI music sounded horrible. There were some differences between the 2MB, 4MB and 8MB sample files, but none of them produced MIDI music that sounded at all familiar to me. The title music in Doom for example sounded very artificial and nothing like what I remember. This was a total deal breaker for me. The sound effects were fine, but if the music doesn’t sound right, it simply won’t do. To add to this, I also had some doubts about this working at all in a DOS 6.22 environment.
Option 2: Sound Blaster Vibra 16 CT2800
I bought this card on eBay for only $16. I suspect it was an OEM part used by one of the major PC manufacturers of the time as it’s not found as a retail model. The card was actually brand new and never used without a spec of dust on it.
Dated 1994, this card used Creative’s integrated Vibra 16 chipset and is ISA based. Unlike previous Sound Blaster cards with multiple chips on the card, the Vibra 16 was more integrated and lower-cost.
Like many older sound cards, Creative Labs includes a CD-ROM IDE controller on the card with jumpers to enable or disable it. Many older on-board IDE controllers didn’t support CD-ROM drives, so people would rely on their sound card’s controller. This was especially true with some of the oldest CD-ROM drives that had proprietary interfaces before IDE became the standard. Some old sound cards can be found with multiple different CD-ROM interface pin-outs for IDE, Panasonic, Mitsumi and other brands.
Some argue that the integration the Vibra 16 offered improved sound quality, but I can’t confirm or deny this. In my totally subjective opinion, the output is nice and clean with no noticeable noise when using the non-amplified line-out.
What’s most exciting about this card is that it has a real Yamaha OPL3 FM synthesis MIDI chip. Many Creative cards had an OPL3 clone, but this one has the real deal. This is really the defacto-standard for MIDI synthesis and should produce music the way I remember it from back in the day.
Creative still has the DOS drivers for this old card on their website. Windows 98 SE even supports this card out of the box without any additional drivers needed. A bit of tweaking was needed to set the correct IRQ and DMA resources in Windows, but aside from that it worked perfectly. From a sound perspective, I couldn’t be happier – MIDI music sounds just like I remember it and the sound quality is quite good.
Despite being a bit older than the 1998 target date for the rig, this card really ticks all the right boxes. It’s compatible, and sounds great.
Option 3: Sound Blaster Live PCI
The next option I had was collecting dust in my parts bin. This card is about a generation or two newer than what I was looking for, but I wanted to give it a try none the less.
The chip on the card is dated 1997, but I’m pretty sure I bought this card much later than that.
Despite being a PCI card, Creative still had DOS compatibility in mind when creating this. The card’s Windows 98 SE drivers actually add a device called ‘SB16 Compatibility’ in Device Manager with the resources a DOS game would expect (IRQ5, DMA 1 etc). The card also has some kind of an OPL3 clone on it for MIDI synthesis.
I fired up Doom and Wolfenstein 3D while in Windows 98 and it sounded great. I’m not sure how well this card would work in a true DOS environment though – if at all. I was really not interested in any of the advanced next-gen features this card offered, like environmental audio effects etc. If I didn’t have an ISA slot available, this could be a good choice.
It was fun trying out these cards, but I think the old Creative Sound Blaster CT2800 ISA card is the winner. It’s just the right choice in every way. It sounds great, the MIDI music is perfect and its compatibility can’t be beat. It’s also got that extra nostalgic factor being a Creative ISA card that you won’t find with PCI and onboard solutions.
Up next, I’ll be covering the most frustrating part of the build – finding a suitable storage solution!