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486 Upgrade 1: Sound Blaster 16

A Classic ISA sound card, including MIDI daughter board!

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486 retro

The first in hopefully many to come retro 486 PC update posts! As mentioned then, the PC I received did not come with a sound card. For retro gaming, unless you want to be stuck replaying the same levels of Duke Nukum I again and again, a good Creative Sound Blaster card is the best fit - especially since I fondly remember those DOS-era tunes.

So, the hunt for a Sound Blaster ISA card began. A blog post at Nerdly Pleasures made me reconsider my first thought and not buy an AWE32/64 card or a Pro 2.0, but go for a classic 16 variant instead. It seems that one has to pay special attention to the PCB “CT” version. Most later OEM cards (and the “Vibra” ones) come with less hardware components equipped (no wave table header, no CD-ROM interface, no PC Speaker JP support, …), or worse: don’t have a genuine Yamaha OPL3 sound chip.

It might indeed be quite a nerdy pleasure, but the difference is profound. Listen to a Wikipedia SB16 Synthesis sound sample that compares the Yamaha OPL-3 FM chip with Creative’s own CQM version. The card I ended up buying, a CT2290, has the Creative CT1747 chip labeled “OPL”, which integrated the YMF262 OPL-3 FM synthesizer (located on the middle in the photo below).

The Sound Blaster 16 with S2 Wave Blaster daughterboard attached.

€53 excluding shipping and a few days later, it arrived from a German eBay seller cleverly named “Electronics Recycling”. I wish there were more actual stores like that. Installing the DOS drivers is quite easy; SBBASIC.EXE from Phil’s Computer Lab takes care of everything, including modifying AUTOEXEC.BAT. The jumpers were configured to address 240, IRQ 5, DMA 1 and HDMA 5. I left them there.


Edit 2020-09-29: After having trouble with sound FX in Mystic Towers, I closed JP12 and JP13 on the card to change the address to 220 - the most universally accepted BLASTER address. Apparently, parts of the Mystic Towers code hard coded the address. Halloween Harry also refused to work on another address. After the change, Adlib-compatible games stopped playing sound until IRQ was set to 7 using DIAGNOSE.EXE.


Perhaps the most compelling part of the above photograph is the strange petite daughter board on the top right that is attached to the Sound Blaster. It uses the wave table MIDI header port. Since actual retro Creative Wave Blaster boards are very scarce (+€300 on eBay), the internet handed me a Belgian alternative: the Dream Blaster S2 from Serdaco BVBA. New hardware for old hardware because - why not? The S2 is the cheapest option available (€34). Since I never used external synthesis before and Philq’s review on YouTube was laudatory, I got ahead and clicked buy. Belgian money well-spent.

Of course, not every game supports wave tables or even has MIDI music. As a test, I recorded and edited a few samples from Rise of the Triad. Each video contains three parts:

  1. A part with the “PC Speaker” option configured in SNDSETUP.EXE;
  2. A part with the “Sound Blaster” option;
  3. A part with the “Wave Table” option.

The result: (dial up your volume! I recorded with my smartphone on purpose, I don’t have an external VGA capture device and I want you to hear everything, including keystrokes)

The Apogee Intro

The difference is huge, and I couldn’t wipe that grin off my face - even with just the Sound Blaster, I just love that intro. This brings back so many fond memories. Notice the subtle differences in the background with the S2! And yes, my VGA card and CPU can barely handle the game. An issue for a future blog post1.

Let’s continue to the ROTT main menu and loading screen:

The first 30 seconds sure are a bit dull. Who plays ROTT with PC Speakers anyway? The SB’s main menu music is not that profound, but the Wave Blaster indeed “blasts” it out of the park. And as soon as that loading screen music starts, oh my. Trembling knees! There is that grin again!

The music continues on to the gameplay:

Gameplay

You can see that the PC clearly is not up to the task and even shows several dips in music and sound FX playback while firing missiles. I did temporarily resocket the motherboard with the DX40 CPU. All options are set to maximum, I do not care for graphics performance just yet1.

Of course, this is just a sample of a single game. Other DOS MIDI masterpieces include:

This Sound Blaster 16 has made me childishly happy. Now where are all those floppy’s?

Right, here:

A photograph of my 2006 desk with retro DOS manuals


In case anyone wants to jumper the PC Speaker pins on their Sound Blaster, configure them as follows: (src):

Sound Blaster:

Pin 1 = +5V
Pin 2 = Speaker

IBM PC:

Pin 1 = Speaker
Pin 2 = None/Key
Pin 3 = Ground (No need to connect)
Pin 4 = +5V

See all CT2290 jumper configurations.

Note that some static noise will inevitably make it to your boxes if you do decide to connect the motherboard pins to the Sound Blaster. That’s part of the charm!


  1. It turns out that I forgot that the TURBO pins were jumpered on themotherboard, but the button was not pressed. Without TURBO, the performance is comparable to a 386. Ouch, what a stupid mistake to make! Thanks VOGONS community for the hints. ↩︎

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