SET BLASTER=A220 I7 D11
You may recognize this little line from long ago, when you were booting your 286 PC in order to play King's Quest, The Secret of Monkey Island, or Star Control 2. The magic line, added to your AUTOEXEC.BAT file, which told the software where to send those bleeps to: the location of the Sound Blaster.
The Sound Blaster was released by Creative Labs in November of 1989. Besides supporting the multichannel FM synthesis that the industry-standard Roland Adlib card used, it also contained an 8-bit, 22 KHz mono DAC for the input and output of digital audio. Although this wasn't the only sound card that had a DAC built in, it was at that time the first one to be affordable to the average PC owner.
And so it came to pass one day in early 1990 that my ten-year-old self dragged my father into the local CompUSA in order to pick up a sound card for my faithful little Memorex-Telex 16MHz machine. A friend of mine had picked up a Roland Adlib card for his tricked-out 386, sending me and my friends into instant throes of envy at the incredible synthesized instruments coming out of his speakers. Surely, the Apple IIgs could make such incredible noises, but an IBM PC? The machine with a single-noise vocabulary of "beep"? To young techno-geeks like us, this thing was the Holy Grail of computer games.
So I entered there, staunch in my determination to acquire one of these magic green cards for myself... until my father saw the price. $199!? Then our eyes fell on another product, directly to the left. "Look at this thing," my father pointed out. "It says it's 100% compatible with the Adlib, and it's only $99."2
"But what if it's not exactly the same?" I protested, but I could already tell he was going to win the argument. He had the money, after all. So we walked out of there with a CT1320 -- the Sound Blaster v1.0, resplendent in its 8-bit, 22Khz mono glory.
Getting the thing installed was an exercise in anxiety. At the age of ten, with very limited hardware knowledge, a $2000 computer is not exactly an item you want to be poking around inside, but we finally got the thing working, and I set my single sound-card-aware game (Firehawk) to recognize the card.
Silence. We had forgotten to purchase speakers for the thing.
One more trip later, we were back at the house, and in no time I was playing my game with actual background music and sound effects. But the icing on the cake was when my Adlib-owning friend came over, and we realized that the Sound Blaster sounded better! The Adlib could do FM synthesis, alright, but it had no DAC for digital sound! This thing, however, did, and had a great suite of programs with it, such as Parrot, which took samples from a microphone and played them back faster; and the famous Dr. Sbaitso, the Eliza clone which output its advice using speech synthesis.
The inclusion of the DAC gave Creative Labs a huge advantage of Roland's Adlib card. The Sound Blaster soon became the new industry standard, and Roland would never recover; their attempt to recapture the market with the Adlib Gold failed, due to a lack of compatibility with the Sound Blaster. Creative Labs quickly revised the card for v1.5 and v2.0 releases, and followed their success with the Sound Blaster Pro (which had two DACs for stereo sound), and Sound Blaster 16 (which increased the DAC resolution to 44Khz at 16 bits per sample). The Sound Blaster 16 remains the most popular standard for ISA-based audio to this day.3
Today, my Sound Blaster Live! Platinum pumps out 5.1 channels of digital audio as I surf the Internet. But back then, there was nothing more thrilling than hearing an actual explosion come out of this little magic desktop box.
1 We original SB owners remember back when the default IRQ setting was at 7, instead of 5 -- before the printer port took it! It should also be noted that the first card would only operate on DMA channel 1, with the option to share it; no other settings were supported.
2 The prices I quoted may very well be wrong, but I can't find info regarding the original price out there, and I was ten, after all.
3 Look to mfk's excellent WU for more information on the evolution of the Sound Blaster.