I wanted to play 1990-era games on my 286 that don’t run right on my 486, but that meant I needed a sound card. Early PC sound cards are very expensive, so I wanted a cheaper alternative. Here’s how I got a Sound Blaster 16 to work on a 286.
Creative’s DOS drivers for the Sound Blaster 16 require a 386. But the hardware functions properly on earlier PCs, so you can use them on a 286 or even an XT-class PC with a third-party driver.
Dealing with Plug and Play on a 286
Most 286-era hardware had jumpers to set the memory address and interrupts. This made adding new hardware an ordeal sometimes, but it worked. One of the reasons sound cards caught on was because they didn’t have any jumpers. If you had a typical PC, you could just plug the card in and it would work.
The problem was atypical PCs. Creative solved this problem by providing software that would figure out what memory addresses and interrupts were available, then write that configuration to the card every time you started your computer. This gave the versatility of jumpers, with similar ease of use that earlier cards enjoyed. The problem is you needed a 386 or 486 to use it.
In the 90s, no one cared about that. If you had a 286, you just bought an older sound card model that would work on a 286, and it was probably cheaper anyway.
Sometime in the late 90s, some hobbyists reverse-engineered Creative’s drivers so they could write drivers that were more efficient. Fortunately for us, they also compiled their software to run on any x86 CPU, which eliminated the 386 requirement.
Running a Sound Blaster 16 in a 286 or XT
The cool thing about early sound cards like the Ad Lib is you don’t have to load a driver or anything. Just plug them in and games find it and work if you tell them you have one. The Sound Blaster 16 isn’t like that. The drivers take up little or no memory, but the card needs the driver to set the hardware settings before it will function.
The 286- and XT-compatible drivers aren’t easy to find, but they’re out there. I got mine off the Vogons forum, in this thread. It’s about halfway through. You need the files SBPNPXT.ZIP and MM5_11.ZIP. I extracted both files to a directory called C:\DRIVERS\SB16. Then I made added the following lines to my autoexec.bat.
SET BLASTER=A220 I5 D1 H5 P330 T6
SET MIDI=SYNTH:1 MAP:E
Adding those lines to autoexec.bat made my Sound Blaster 16 work. The program called on the last line, Magic Mixer 5, claims to be enough on its own to configure and wake up a Sound Blaster 16, but I found I needed both lines.
If those lines don’t work, you have a hardware conflict. You can use Magic Mixer to find free addresses and interrupts. Just run C:\DRIVERS\SB16\MIXER without any parameters, then write down the settings it recommends, and edit the SET BLASTER line to match.
I don’t have an XT-class system to test in, but these settings should work in an 8-bit slot on an XT too.
An imperfect Ad Lib clone, but cheaper
Most Sound Blaster 16s don’t sound exactly like a Yamaha OPL2 or OPL3 chip used in earlier cards, since Creative didn’t use real Yamaha chips in its later cards. In effect, later Sound Blaster 16s are just another imperfect Sound Blaster clone.
But it’s difficult to find an early 8-bit Sound Blaster or Ad Lib card for under $100, and modern clones of the Ad Lib cost over $80. You can get a Sound Blaster 16 for under $25. It’s more affordable than most 286-era gear, and a big improvement over the standard PC speaker.
If I’d owned an Ad Lib card in 1989, I’d probably want one today, so I understand that. But since I didn’t have one then, I can’t say I’ve noticed a difference. If you didn’t have an Ad Lib card in 1989 either, you might be perfectly happy with a Sound Blaster 16 in your low-end vintage PC. If you’re not, you can always put the SB16 in a newer computer after you manage to procure an OPL2- or OPL-3 card.
I’m happy with mine. It’s a reasonable compromise, and even coexists nicely with my NE2000 clone network card. If you want a souped-up 286 without spending a fortune, a Sound Blaster and a network card are two very affordable upgrades that greatly improve its usability.