Aztech sound cards: Underrated OPL3

Sometimes when you go through a pile of old parts, you find a diamond in the rough. An Aztech sound card is a great example. They sound like they ought to be standard fare ’90s junk, with poor compatibility and poor sound quality. But it turns out they have a genuine Yamaha OPL3 chip in them. They may be the cheapest way to get a real OPL3 left.

Why Aztech sound cards shouldn’t be any good

Aztech sound card
Aztech sound cards were sold under the Reveal brand name in stores like Best Buy throughout the early/mid 90s. They didn’t look like anything special but note the OPL3 chip in the lower center. All ISA Aztech cards have an OPL3.

What did I have against Aztech? Packard Bell used them, for one. And in the early to mid-90s, Best Buy sold multimedia kits under the reveal brand name. Everyone knew it was exactly the same hardware that Packard Bell used. Well, at least everyone who worked in the computer department there did. I don’t know what the relationship was between the two companies, but the reveal hardware made no effort to look any different from Packard Bell. The difference between the two looked like the difference between a Chevy and an Oldsmobile.

For that matter, within a couple of years, Hewlett-Packard followed Packard Bell’s lead and started using Aztech sound cards. While Hewlett Packard pavilion computers weren’t as bad as Packard Bell, they weren’t exactly revered.

Reconsidering

All that said, when I was in college, I was the go-to guy for computer advice. I probably had a social circle of a couple hundred people because I was pretty good at fixing computers. I had worked at Best buy, and by the time I was a junior, I had a job fixing computers for the university.

So anytime a tricky computer problem came up, I was the guy people turned to when no one else could figure it out.

I fixed a fair few Packard bells. In some cases, I had to gut the system and build a new one with whatever usable parts were inside the Packard Bell case. The motherboard was never something I could salvage. But it dawned on me that I never had to fix or replace a Packard Bell sound card. I knew people who had problems with most of the off-brand sound cards you could get at clone shops cheaply, but no one ever complained to me about the sound card in a Packard Bell.

The conventional wisdom was to get a Sound Blaster. That’s still the conventional wisdom. But that’s getting expensive. If you can find something else with an OPL3 it might be just as good, or, even a bit better. And probably better than an ESS-based card, another underrated retro sound card.

Caveats with Aztech sound cards

Drivers can be difficult to track down. Fortunately there is a modern driver that works pretty well with Aztech cards. And the cards sell for around $20 on Ebay.

The driver even works with an XT or 286. That said, the later plug and play cards can be tricky in those earlier systems. You probably want to avoid the very latest as tech cards with those systems. Save those for a 486 or Pentium build.

Those newest cards are shaped like a wedge or have an integrated modem. You will probably avoid those cards by instinct anyway. That said, nothing says you have to use the modem for anything. If you use the third party driver, it will ignore the modem anyway.

Earlier as tech cards look much like any other early 90s pre-plug and play sound card, and they have jumpers to set the address and the IRQ. The earliest ones even have CD-ROM interfaces on them, but be careful. Just because it looks like IDE doesn’t necessarily mean it’s IDE. Panasonic had a 40-pin interface that looked like IDE but was completely incompatible. IDE drives tend to be more reliable than those early double speed drives that had bespoke interfaces. They are less period correct, but they are also less hassle. Here is some advice on finding newer drives that look the part.

Using an Aztech card

Just set the jumpers, set the blaster environment variables, load the driver, and you are golden. The card will work like a Soundblaster 2.0 or Ad Lib. Not the greatest card ever, necessarily, but very good for an early 90s build, and for a fraction of the price of a Soundblaster 2.0 or even a reproduction Ad Lib.

If nothing else, you can grab one of these cards for around $20 and it can be a stand in until you’re able to find the card you really want. Then it can go into another build, or you will have no difficulty selling it for about what you paid, especially if you point out that it has an OPL3 chip on it and is Ad Lib and Soundblaster 2.0 compatible.

They have all the glitz of a Plymouth Reliant, but once the system is up and running, any software that expects an Ad Lib or pre Sound Blaster 16 Soundblaster works great with it. Aztech cards are extremely underrated. There aren’t a lot of bargains left in retro computing, but these are one of them.

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