Rediscovering The Sound Blaster

Over the weekend I decided to dig out my old Pentium PC from the storeroom, saving it from permanent obsolescence. Ridding the machine of dust and grime was tiresome and time-consuming. A task that I didn’t confidently believe would be fruitful, as I was unsure whether the various components in the system were in working order.

Slowly but surely I took the computer apart, inspecting the motherboard, power supply unit, cables, video and sound cards, modem, various drives and their relevant controllers etc. On the surface everything seemed fine, just slightly dusty. Thankfully, no nasty capacitor leakage was detected, a scourge on many older computers and other electronic equipment. Even the CMOS battery seemed healthy, but later on it became apparent that it was out of juice and required replacement.

SB16, soundblaster, 16, pro, AWE64, FM, synthsis, Yamaha, retrogaming
Sound Blaster AWE64 still sounds great today

Interestingly enough, with everything in bits and pieces was the opportunity for rediscoveries. Such being the case of the sound card. My trusty old workhorse didn’t just possess any pedestrian audio device…oh no! Instead it would be the Sound Blaster AWE64 from Creative Labs, truly a terrific card with impressive specifications for it’s time. However, it’s real draw is it’s FM Synthesis capabilities which just made me eager to fire it up urgently.

Carefully I attended to piecing together the machine before, finally powering it back on in years. Excited and at the same time worried of prospective faults. Fortunately my fears were soon alleviated, the hum from the power supply sounded as I remembered it. However there was a ‘CMOS Checksum error’ on start up, though that was due to battery depletion which was soon rectified. Apart from some wavy video output, which is somewhat attributed to electromagnetic interference from the power supply. I moved the graphics card to the furthest slot away from the PSU and image quality improved noticeably.

In all likelihood, there is probably a fault with the video card as I don’t recall encountering this issue before. Some shielding could help and am already looking into that. The good news is that everything else is in working order. Once I installed the drivers and tested the Sound Blaster, hearing the sounds generated from this card made all the difference. Finally, all my hard work in getting the Pentium up and running was validated. I now have an authentic and dedicated system which will gradually find it’s way in aiding in my game music compositions.

An awful lot can be said about the differences of working in an emulated environment versus actual hardware. Essentially convenience in contrast to veritable accuracy. One cannot discount the enormous cost factor and usefulness VSTi’s (virtual synthesizer plugins) bring to the table. For some, this may be the only feasible option available to them. And in many ways, music produced with the use of VSTi’s can sound just as good compared to hardware. Not forgetting to mention that, VSTi’s and even trackers have advanced tremendously in offering astoundingly accurate renditions.

Nonetheless, moments spent listening to the Sound Blaster in action is undeniable proof that hardware can trump software. There is an evident richness in the sound that doesn’t quite come through in emulation such as DOSBox or any other applications. Yamaha’s OPL2 & OPL3 FM sound chips were employed in the early range of Sound Blaster cards. Noble attempts at recreating the sounds emanating from these two chips have come close – but still nothing like the real thing.

NEC, PC88, 8801, retro, gaming, computers, japan, maestro, FM, synthesis, Yamaha
The choice PC of the first true FM maestros

It’s been awhile since I’ve last added a Bass Cadet post, and it’s about high time that I did. There’s a particular game soundtrack that I have in mind. I will only give away three clues to give you an idea on what is is. Here they are: Game Arts, Sierra On-Line & NEC PC-8801. Any retro game enthusiast should be able to figure this one out. Till next time 🙂

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