Creative Labs' SoundBlaster line of cards are the defacto standard in consumer PC audio today, to the point where other audio card companies label their products ' 100% SoundBlaster Compatible'. Creative Labs still maintains this monopoly over the sound card market today - any decent computer will have a SoundBlaster in it. Games are designed around Sound Blaster cards.

The SoundBlaster line of products began with the 8-bit Sound Blaster ISA line of cards. MIDI support was rather pathetic on these cards, offering only FM synthesis. There were only two ports - LINE IN and MIDI OUT. The three original 8-bit models were:

  • CT1320 Sound Blaster 1.0/1.5
  • CT1350 Sound Blaster 2
  • CT5320 Sound Blaster MCV

In 1992, Creative introduced the Sound Blaster Pro. It was a step up from the original cards by offering 22050 KHz 8-bit stereo recording and playback, as well as improved FM synthesis playback. It also offered a CD-ROM interface.

The SB16 line of cards soon followed. The SB16 was a major upgrade from what was previously offered; today it is the minimum standard by which most games are programmed. The Sound Blaster 16 ISA featured 16-bit audio and 44100KHz playback, as well as the standard LINE IN, LINE OUT, MIC IN, MIDI ports that we take for granted today. An optional WaveBlaster daughterboard enabled wavetable synthesis.

Creative's Sound Blaster AWE series of cards were a complete departure from anything Creative had offered before. AWE stood for Advanced Wave Effects; this referred to the EMU8000 wavetable synthesizer. The card offered superb MIDI playback, and MIDIs were enhanced even further with the introduction of SoundFonts. To accomodate SoundFonts, Creative added 30-pin SIMM slots on the card itself; the AWE32 initially came with 512K of memory but could be expanded up to 28MB. It also had DirectSound acceleration as well as 3D audio (to get a 3D effect out of two speakers) and full-duplex operation which allowed recording and playback at the same time.

The SoundBlaster AWE came in a variety of models:

  • The Sound Blaster 32 was a SB AWE32 without any onboard memory. It is also missing a Wave Blaster header.
  • The SoundBlaster AWE32 was the first in the AWE series to be introduced.
  • The SoundBlaster AWE32 Value! was the same as the regular AWE32 but it did not have a Wave Blaster header.
  • The SoundBlaster AWE64 added an additional 32 polyphony voices. This card is also much smaller than the AWE32 (what a relief). The AWE64 Gold! was a SB AWE64 with 4MB of memory.

The AWE series were the last 'true' Sound Blasters; the SB Live! must accomplish its Sound Blaster 16 compatibility by emulation. To date these cards remain the best choice for DOS compatibility.

Creative finally abandoned the aging ISA bus with its introduction of the SoundBlaster Live! family. EAX also made its debut, which was Creative's answer to Aureal's A3D. It's all covered at the Sound Blaster Live! node.

When Creative bought out Ensoniq, they also acquired Ensoniq's technology and hardware. Creative released this hardware as the SB PCI 128, SB PCI 256, SB PCI 512. These are largely the same as the Sound Blaster Live.

Finally, the latest offering from Creative is the SoundBlaster Audigy. The SB Audigy banishes the MIDI-IN port to a seperate adapter; in its place is a IEEE1394 (Firewire) port. Gold-plated connectors distinguish this card from the rest of the Sound Blasters. Creative claims this card can do 24-bit 96KHz sound, but according to Tom's review of the Extigy (which is an external Audigy), Creative's own engineers have confirmed that the card cannot do 24-bit 96Khz sound, opting instead to downsample it into 16-bit 48Khz sound. Why Creative would do that is truly bizarre.

All in all, the Sound Blaster series are a good choice for games and music. These days, they might as well be the only choice..

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.


Footnotes

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.

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