Tech Flashback: The Golden Age of Sound Cards and Creative Labs

As computers have evolved over time, many peripherals have been integrated into the base system. Nowadays, it’s commonplace to find onboard Ethernet, sound and even video capabilities on many motherboards. This wasn’t always the case though – in the early days, all of these capabilities were “optional extras” which would be added through the use of expansion cards. Through dismantling and servicing of many computers over time, I’ve amassed a fair collection of expansion cards – this post focuses particularly on Sound Cards.

Of all the companies, no other is more synonymous with sound cards than Creative Labs, or now known as Creative Technologies. In the early days of PC gaming and multimedia, their Soundblaster series of sound cards was the reference standards. Clones were assessed on how well they were “Soundblaster Compatible”.

Although they were not the first way of making noises from a computer (PC Speakers, parallel port adapters, Ad-lib Sound Cards and Gravis Ultrasound cards), they were one of the most popular and affordable devices. Initially, quality was lacking, but over the first few generations, the cards improved and the Soundblaster 16 was a big hit.

The golden age of sound cards happened when all the cards were still on the ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) bus, pre-dating PCI. The standard I/O base address of 220h, with IRQ 5 or 7 was a Soundblaster standard which DOS games were accustomed to using. The Plug and Play Soundblasters needed a driver on the SB Basic Disk to be used. The move to PCI broke the hardware Soundblaster compatibility, breaking the stronghold that Creative had on the market. Since then, increasing levels of integrated sound on motherboards have resulted in Sound Cards being purchased only by the most discerning audio users – those who need the best quality, driving headphones, Hi-Fi recording, or gaming positional audio effects. As such, sales of Creative sound cards have fallen.

While there were many many Creative cards produced, I only have a handful of them. They were all well-identified with the use of a 4-digit model number. The differences in compatible sound cards were often quite significant – ranging from different MIDI synthesis (the main reason why these cards were prided for authenticity – audio samples for your enjoyment) to noisy output stages.

So lets take a look at my collection of Creative cards, all still working.

CT2260 (1994) Soundblaser Vibra 16 MCD

This is an early Soundblaster Vibra 16 card. It is actually one of the first “lower cost” cards by integrating many chips into a single SOC of some sort. Notably, this card still has the Yamaha OPL2 synthesis chips – the YMF262-M, meaning authentic good old FM MIDI. This one probably was bundled with early drives – as it has two interfaces for proprietary CD-ROMs at the time (pre-ATAPI) – Creative/Panasonic and Mitsumi drives.

CT2950 (1995) SoundBlaster 16 Pro PnP with CT1900 Wave Blaster Module

First up is this gem of a SoundBlaster. The card was available with and without the Waveblaster module, which adds hardware wave-table synthesis to the card. This uses recorded samples of instruments for synthesis, rather than using pure FM synthesis. I don’t see a Yamaha chip on this one, so there’s probably some cost-reduction going on here. You can see the two ROM chips on the bottom left corner of the CT1900 image which contain the wavetable data. Interestingly to see that E-mu was already around back then.

This is a later card, intended for people to upgrade their systems for MPC compliancy. The IDE connector allowed for people to add an IDE CD-ROM to their computers, as most only featured a single IDE connector at the time, used by hard disks and ZIP drives.

This board has a lot of chips, which implies that it wasn’t a cheap model, unlike some of the following ones.

CT2960 (1995) Soundblaster 16 Prelude, based on Vibra 16C chipset

This is a very cost-reduced version of the improved Vibra chipset. Note the lack of IDE interfaces, or the Yamaha OPL chip. In fact, with this model, they introduced their own competing FM Synthesis system called CQM synthesis which was criticised for a less-than-faithful emulation of the OPL which it replaced.

CT4180 (1997) Creative Vibra 16

The cost reductions continue, look at how much barer this card is compared to the one above? Expansion headers for add-on modules have all but been removed. They probably figured nobody would buy it for such a cheap card anyway.

CT4520 (1997) Soundblaster AWE64

One of my favourite cards, I actually have a gold-edition card, but it’s installed in a box somewhere. There was actually an AWE32 version as well. This particular card marks the return of the E-mu wavetable synthesis. This board has some RAM with expandability to add more RAM for Soundfonts support. This allows you to upload custom wavetables for synthesis – the whole concept is somewhat reminiscent of the later X-Fi technology, just that this one applies to MIDI. This card also features FM synthesis, but it probably is CQM, with a decent audio stage.

The Golden Age

These cards represent the golden age of sound cards in my opinion. These cards sold widely, in large numbers, and cemented Creative’s dominant position in the marketplace. They all featured Soundblaster compatibility – so old DOS games and programs could all “talk” to the cards without too many driver hassles at all. The FM synthesis was a characteristic sound of the times, and the CD-Quality audio abilities represented the leading edge, technically speaking, at the time. The provision of the Game-Port connector allows the connection of external MIDI devices via MPU-401 UART interface.

But now, the ISA interface was beginning to die off with the uptake of Pentium machines, featuring PCI interfaces. PCI bought the loss of compatibility with old DOS games and direct hardware accesses, and Creative was on the back-foot. They had no PCI capable chipset, and other manufacturers were already working on it.

CT4810 (1999) Creative Soundblaster PCI

This is their first PCI product, if I remember correctly. But it wasn’t. In fact, it was an Ensoniq – Creative just bought them out. There wasn’t really much bells or whistles, and it was just “adequate”. Here’s the Ensoniq version, from 1998:

CT4780 (2000) Creative Soundblaster Live!

So this is one of their “own” cards. They’ve tried to spiffy it up using a black PCB, and this one offers a nice incentive – it’s a 5.1 capable card. The processor itself features the first EAX support and is E-Mu branded again. There are several connectors on this, which can be used to attach an optional (rarely purchased) front panel bay connector which allowed easier access to inputs and outputs via a 5.25″ half-height bay.

SB0220 (2002) Creative Soundblaster Live! 5.1 Digital

Interestingly, the product naming convention changed – from CT (Creative Technologies) to SB (SoundBlaster). No idea why. Another card, and it’s not easy to see what the difference is, Creative seemed to have a habit of re-releasing the same things under different names.

SB0410 (2003) Creative Soundblaster Live! 24-bit

One thing to note is the loss of the game-port, now considered irrelevant, as analog joysticks and MIDI interfaces are rarely used by home consumers, and USB joypads and MIDI adapters are gaining popularity. The card itself advertises 24-bit capability. Many of these cards were distributed by OEMs building systems, in an effort to try and maintain their market-leading position.

SB0460 (2003) Soundblaster X-Fi Xtrememusic PCI

This is an earlier medium-low end mainstream X-Fi card. Creative bought in the new concept of having local RAM on the sound-card similar to how graphic cards work, to store sounds. A more powerful hardware engine was also provided for mixing and effects, but all at a “more expensive price”. As with proprietary technologies, there were issues with support, drivers and so-forth, and I don’t think anyone really benefited too much from it given the high amount of processing power available in modern CPUs – audio mixing is no longer as onerous as it was. The nice gold plated headers and connectors were a nice touch, and provision for front panel connections remained. There was a port, but it wasn’t a game-port. Instead, it was a proprietary Creative break-out port for an external connection box, another accessory rarely purchased.

SB0680 (2005) Soundblaster 5.1 OEM

Another cost cutting measure – these cards went for next to nothing as a “good excuse” to buy a card anyway even though you did have onboard sound (which admittedly, was rubbish, and this somewhat better). Creative really did a good job of confusing customers around this time – many products had similar names, and the differences were miniscule, but the drivers were not interchangeable. The 4-digit model number was almost a prerequisite for getting things right. Also of note was the use of many of the same processors, with different software-based driver lockdowns which limited performance, which some hackers got around to Creative’s dismay. My collection is missing many many cards from about this time, because I never “intended” to have a collection at all. It just illustrates how the popularity of sound cards was falling.

SB0730 (2006) Soundblaster X-Fi XtremeGamer

This was a cost-reduced X-Fi card which was also OEMed. Not much to say about this one.

The Future

Well, ISA is all but irrelevant, and PCI is heading the same way. A new generation of PCI-E based soundcards is now taking over where PCI left off, however, Creative’s position in the market is no longer assured and the overall size of the market is shrinking. Chipsets from C-Media have achieved high acclaim in Auzentech and Asus Xonar cards, and the integrated Realtek and Analog Devices Inc chipsets have all but pulled the rug from underneath Creative by being on many motherboards, in a strictly “adequate” way. That being said, Creative didn’t have the market all to itself either.

The Competition

Throughout, there were clone compatible cards, some which proved very popular towards the end of the ISA era too. I have only a few, although cards from Yamaha, Crystal, ESS, Avance Logic Inc, C-Media were quite popular. By the time the PCI era was ushered in, non Creative cards were often sold as the equivalent or better.

ESS ES968F Audiodrive (1996)

ESS was a very low-cost chipset manufacturer and I hated these. The FM synthesis was muddy and buggy, and the output wasn’t much chop either. It was found integrated to many motherboards as well. This one has an IDE interface.

ESS ES1868F Audiodrive (1997)

A more integrated, cheaper version of the above. It was rubbish and still is.

Audio Excel C-Media CMI8330 (1998)

The C-Media of today has come a long way from the C-Media of the old days. This was one of their earlier attempts to make Soundblaster-compatible cards. This one was somewhat noisy, and had its own FM synthesis engine. There was a wavetable add-on that nobody ever bought, and the drivers under DOS required strange TSRs to enable Plug and Play correctly. This card was very particular about bus speeds and refused to operate on many motherboards. It also had a surround-sound gimmick which made things sound somewhat out of phase …

Labway Xwave-6000 Yamaha XG YMF724F (Date Unknown)

It’s not a well known fact that Yamaha had a go at making sound card chipsets. I found these chipsets integrated in some older Toshiba laptops. These chipsets had a specialty – XG synthesis. This is a wavetable synthesis system developed by Yamaha, which was an extension to the Roland General MIDI (GM) system, adding more instruments and making things sound much more lifelike. For a period, they even offered XG SoftSynths which would provide XG Wavetable Synthesis in software. This has since been discontinued though.

Avance Logic Inc ALS4000 (Date Unknown)

This was a cheap card based on the Avance Logic Inc ALS4000. Note the spelling – it’s not Advance or Advanced, it’s Avance. They were a Hong Kong company, and I had owned one of their initial ISA based ALS100 cards which was noisy and required TSR drivers as well. This one, thankfully, was not as noisy as the old cards. Interestingly, I think these guys may be the forefathers of the Realtek integrated sound chipsets of today – Avance is gone, and I think they were acquired by Realtek (no solid evidence) but the naming of today’s Realtek chips beginning with ALC6xx point to some link.

AOpen Cobra AW840 C-Media CMI8738 (2004)

This C-Media chipset represented the beginning of a turn in C-Media. These cards sold fairly well, and were of an oddball 4-channel design. Software Wavetable synthesis was provided to keep prices low. I actually had a few of these, and the sound quality was “decent” compared to the Creatives of the day. The strange PCB shape seems quite obviously to reduce costs in manufacturing, many of these cards selling for sub $15.

So there we are, my sound card collection, and a commentary on them.

About lui_gough

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2 Responses to Tech Flashback: The Golden Age of Sound Cards and Creative Labs

  1. lui_gough says:

    A comment from a reader, passed by e-mail:
    In your article at
    http://goughlui.com/2012/11/29/tech-flashback-the-golden-age-of-sound-cards-and-creative-labs/
    you state that the CT4780 Creative SoundBlaster Live! card is 5.1
    capable.

    I own one of these cards, and, while it does report itself to the
    operating system as capable of *receiving* 5.1 audio input (and I
    imagine that, if an optical output is attached, the 5.1 channels are
    passed through these) it lacks both a Center and LFE jack, and the
    yellow Digital Out jack only outputs 4 channels. It is basically only
    capable of 4.0 audio output.

    Concerning the model after it, SB0220 Live! 5.1 Digital, you say “it’s
    not easy to see what the difference is, Creative seemed to have a
    habit of re-releasing the same things under different names.” — but
    that model had 5.1 appended to its title because it (unlike its
    predecessor) supported 5.1 output.

    Other than that, thank you for writing that article. It’s great to see
    people recording details of old technologies.

    ~James

  2. jharot perez says:

    me parece muy bien gracias por mostrarla excelente aporte amigo ¡¡¡ APRENDÍ MUCHO¡¡¡

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