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Old 07-03-2017, 03:19 PM   #1
Super Freak

Join Date: Apr 2008
Location: Lerida, Spain
Posts: 158
Default AdLib, Covox, Sound Blaster and other old sound gizmos explained

OK, so you have a brand new PC and you're used to CD quality audio without having to do more than install the drivers that came with your computer. This is perfectly normal, and it usually means that your motherboard includes its own audio hardware, usually compatible with newer standards such as AC97 or Intel High Definition Audio.

But there was a time when hearing anything from your computer that wasn't a beep meant breaking your piggy bank, plugging new gizmos to your computer and pray for some game support. What follows is a list of those gizmos, more or less in chronological order, plus a short explanation of their capabilities and wether or not are worth emulating / obtaining these days.

Here we go:

1) Internal PC speaker (1981)

OK, this is crap. It can beep and pretty much that's all. Even 8 bit computers could do more than this.

However, since every PC comes with one, many old games offer sound support using the PC speaker. Some even managed to reproduce low-quality voices, like "Mach 3" or "Best of the Best: Championship karate".

DOSBox and PCem will emulate this using your sound hardware, but chances are you won't bother and choose superior sound devices if available.

2) The Covox Speech Thing (1986) / Disney Sound Source (1990):

This simple DAC device could be built from scratch using off the shelf electronic components (there are several diagrams available online) and was plugged to the computer using the printer port. It could reproduce FX and voices for a few games (such as "SimCity" or "Wolfenstein 3D") and little else. It also could cause CPU slowdowns.

However, it costed only around $80, so Disney tried to resurrect it in 1990 as the Disney Sound Source, together with a speaker, and also developed some games that supported it.

Disney improved the hardware to make it less dependant on the PC CPU. However, they also limited its output frequency to 8 Khz, making it suitable for FX but much less for playing music.

A third variation of the CSS is the Intersound MDO, sold by Coktel Vision.

DOSBox can emulate the Disney Sound Source, but not the original Covox Speech Thing nor the Intersound.

PCem can emulate both the Covox and the Disney Sound Source.

3) AdLib (1988):

The first real standard for PC gaming. It's based on the Yamaha YM3812 (or OPL2) sound chip, and plays music with a distinctive "tin" reverb. Unfortunately, it can't play voices.

However, the vast majority of DOS games offer support for it.

The AdLib Gold, released in 1992, is a different card that offers limited Sound Blaster (see next entry) compatibility, but ultimately failed.

DOSBox can emulate the original AdLib, while PCem also offers AdLib Gold emulation, but it needs its original drivers to be installed.

4) Creative Sound Blaster series (1989):

The definitive standard for DOS games. From its first generation it offered full AdLib compatibility, voice generation and a MIDI port that could also be used as a joystick port.

Future models offered stereo sound (SB Pro), CD quality audio (SB16), General MIDI support (SB AWE32) and even 5.1 support (Sound Blaster Live! 5.1).

Many third party sound cards of the time are also SB compatible, such as the Ensoniq Soundscape, the Pro Audio Spectrum or the MediaVision ThunderBoard. Some PC users bought these instead because they were cheaper.

The Sound Blasters are the most widely supported sound devices in DOS gaming. DOSBox emulates all the classic models up to the SB16. PCem can also emulate the AWE32, but it needs installing the original drivers.

5) the Gravis UltraSound series (1992):

If there was ever a device that could have dethroned the Sound Blaster series, it was this one. It was built by Gravis and its MIDI samples were recorded from real instruments, which resulted in above standard music reproduction.

It was enthusiastically embraced by the demo and the shareware scenes, but ultimately failed because of its higher price, its limited game support and spotty Sound Blaster compatibility.

DOSBox and PCem can emulate the Gravis UltraSound, but both need the official drivers installed, which can be too much for newbies.

VOGONS offers a downloadable installation of those here.

6) Roland MT-32 (1987) / Roland LAPC-l (1989)

This device is not exactly a sound card, but a professional (if low end) music synthetizer. However, around 1988 Sierra On-Line was looking to expand the sound capabilities of its games and started announcing it as the best-next-thing in computer music. Other developers picked the glove, such as Lucasarts and Origin, and for a while the MT-32 became the gold standard for PC music.

Ultimately, however, its high selling prize (around $600) and the coming of new, cheaper standards such as General MIDI and Audio CD put an end to the MT-32 craze.

The Roland LAPC-l is an internal version of the MT-32 music synth, blended with a MPU-401 interface. Again, its high cost ($425) prevented it from achieving mass success.

The emulation of the MT-32 has been for years one of the holy grials of DOS emulation. Thanks to the task of the MUNT project, a series of alternatives are now available:

- Regular DOSBox + MUNT.

- Unofficial DOSBox builds, such as DOSBox ECE or Yhkwong's build.

- ScummVM.

All of them, AFAIK, require the MT-32 BIOS, which is not openly available on the Internet.

If you want the real thing, vintage Roland MT-32s are still available from eBay and similar websites, but plugging one to your PC will also require a Roland MPU-401 interface. If you only plan to use it with DOSBox, a regular MIDI-to-USB cable should suffice.

Here is a list of games that support the MT-32 / LAPC-l.

7) Roland Sound Canvas (1991):

The MT-32 is not the only Roland device which saw use in computer games. In 1991 Roland released the SCC-55, the first in their Sound Canvas series. This synthetizer served both as a successor to the MT-32 and as a herald of the new General MIDI standard (128 instruments, 24 simultaneous notes).

Even more, since the SCC-55 was the first device to support General MIDI, many game soundtracks were written using this device and *may* sound better on it than on other General MIDI cards.

Roland MT-32 compatibility was also intended with the product, although it does come with some limitations. It doesn't include programmable memory nor actual sound synthesis, and games that used these features, such as Space Quest III, won't play sound right.

As with the MT-32, ISA soundcard versions of the synth were also released, such as the Roland SCC-1 and the Roland RAP-10. Also available were daughterboards meant for any soundcard with a Waveblaster expansion port, such as the Roland SCB-7 and Roland SCB-55.

The Sound Canvas is not emulated directly by neither DOSBox nor PCem. However, Roland itself sells a software version of the synthetizer called the Roland Canvas VA Software Synthetizer. At 115E it's a buy you will want to consider carefully, but they also offer a limited demo to try the product.

Said synthetizer can then be configured to play MIDI music under DOSBox and ScummVM, although the task may be too complex for newbies. Here's a Youtube video describing the entire process:

And here there's a list of games with Sound Canvas support.

8) The IBM Music Feature Card (1987):

Before Sierra On-Line settled for the Roland MT-32, they briefly considered supporting this other device instead. It's another pricey professional music synth (worth around $600 at the time), but game support is scarce and reportedly not very good.

Here's a list of games that support it.

9) The Innovation SSI 2001 (1989):

This is very rare card... some sources even doubted of its existence, because it was sold directly from the manufacturer. It's main interest is that rather than aiming at AdLib or Sound Blaster compatibility it's instead based on the sound chips from the Commodore 64, a very popular computer in the USA and some European countries.

Around a dozen games offer support for this card:

Both PCem and DOSBox-X support this card.

10) The Creative Music System / Game Blaster:

This is an early AdLib competitor by Creative, the future makers of the Sound Blaster cards. It's a rather primitive device that uses the same approach as the PCjr. / Tandy computers, with internal speaker-like sound quality, but using 12 sound channels and stereo instead of 3 sound channels and mono.

The game support is not bad either, with almost 100 titles:

Both DOSBox and PCem offer support for this card.

11) IBM PS/1 Sound (1990):

Not exactly a sound card... the IBM PS/1 were a series of computers with 286 and 386 CPUs released around 1990. Some models didn't have ISA expansion slots and IBM released this sound add-on for them. In the picture you can also see a special edition of the game "Silpheed" that supports it.

The board contains a Texas Instruments SN 76496 CPU capable of 3 simultaneous voices. It's very similar to the sound systems in the IBM PCjr. / Tandy 1000 computers, but not compatible with them.

All in all, around 60 games offer support for this device:

Both PCem and Yhkwong's build of DOSBox can emulate this card.

Last edited by Neville; 09-09-2020 at 02:10 PM.
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Old 07-03-2017, 03:31 PM   #2
Super Freak

Join Date: Apr 2008
Location: Lerida, Spain
Posts: 158

OK, I get it, pictures may not be the best way to explain sound devices. That's why I'm adding this YouTube video (not mine) that shows the music from "Secret of Monkey Island" playing in several different devices:

Last edited by Neville; 07-03-2017 at 03:51 PM.
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Old 07-03-2018, 11:20 PM   #3
Super Freak

Join Date: Apr 2008
Location: Lerida, Spain
Posts: 158

Added section for the Roland Sound Canvas. It includes emulation tips, although I haven't tried them personally.
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