There was a time when the Sound Blaster, and its manufacturer, Creative Labs, were household names. Today the product is a bit marginalized, even though it’s historically very significant. What does a Sound Blaster do, and should you care?
A Sound Blaster provides audio capability for a PC, usually slightly better than what comes built into modern PCs. Before sound came standard, Sound Blaster was the most popular and best supported type of sound card.
Why Windows makes the Sound Blaster standard less important
Before Windows was popular, software generally had to manipulate the computer’s hardware directly, so it needed to know a lot about the hardware. Windows abstracts that away. The software can just hand a sound over to Windows and ask Windows to play it. As long as Windows has a driver for the card, the underlying hardware doesn’t matter a lot. It’ll work. Costlier hardware might give higher fidelity, but the sound will be audible and recognizable regardless.
In the past, the software had to know how to control the hardware directly, down to the nuances of the specific chip it used and where the chip resided in the computer’s memory space. Knockoff hardware might not sound right. For that matter, when a company decided to add capabilities to an existing chip, it might break older software. In the mid 90s, when Creative added some capabilities to its Sound Blaster 16 cards, it broke the sound in some games, including the megahit Civilization. Microprose had to release a patch to fix the sound for those newer cards. Today, you just update the driver for your sound card. In the 90s, you might have to apply a patch to every title you owned. And if the software publisher didn’t issue a patch to support the card you had, you were just out of luck.
In the 90s, I knew a lot of people who bought PCs that had cheaper knockoff cards in them. Eventually they swapped the card for a Sound Blaster because they got tired of trying to get games to work with their cards when our friends with Sound Blasters could just load a game and play it.
I went the other direction. At any point in time, there was usually at least one card on the market that could legitimately claim to be better than a Sound Blaster. But those could be problematic too. I bought a Pro Audio Spectrum card from Media Vision, and it was great when it worked. But sometimes the only way I could make it work was by telling the software I had a much less capable card.
Early PC sound cards
Computer audio didn’t progress at the same rate as graphics and CPU capability in the 1980s. By 1986, only Tandy bothered with anything better than a simple beeper, and the sound chip Tandy used dated to the early 1980s.
As much as PC owners talked about serious computing, they wanted to play games with sound like other computers could do, like the Commodore 64. A Canadian company called Ad Lib, founded by a music professor, developed a plug-in card containing a Yamaha OPL chip in 1987. This finally gave PCs sound that could rival or beat other computers.
Creative’s original Sound Blaster was compatible with the Ad Lib and extended its capability, and Creative soon overtook Ad Lib in the marketplace. Some anti competitive behavior on Creative’s part drove Ad Lib out of business by the mid 90s. Early Sound Blasters don’t come cheap, but Ad Lib cards are highly collectible, with a price to match.
Do you need a Sound Blaster today?
On a modern PC, the majority of people probably can’t tell the difference between a Sound Blaster and whatever audio your PC comes with. If you have a friend who has one and you notice a difference, then you might benefit from having one. For example, when I was messing with voice recognition a decade ago, I got better results with a Sound Blaster than with low-tier sound.
But on modern PCs, it’s a matter of quality much more than compatibility. Windows takes care of the compatibility issues for you.
On retro PCs, the answer is different.
What does a Sound Blaster do for retro PCs?
DOS-based software is more likely to work with a Sound Blaster than any other card. Sound Blasters are highly compatible with the Ad Lib, a late 1980s card supported by many late 80s/early 90s titles like Railroad Tycoon and Civilization. Later titles almost always support the Sound Blaster directly.
If you want something else, you probably know exactly why. But for a general purpose, 90s retro gaming PC, a genuine 90s Sound Blaster is going to provide more versatility than any other type of card. And you’ll probably have an easier time finding one, because they were so common.
In the 386/486 era, Sound Blasters often provided a bit of additional functionality. Cards of that era frequently provided a connector for a CD-ROM drive as well. The interface varied over time. Before 1995, they most frequently provided a 40-pin connector that was proprietary to Panasonic drives. It looked like IDE but wasn’t. Some cards also provided connectors specific to Sony or Mitsumi drives.
By the time ATAPI drives became common around 1995, Sound Blasters started providing an IDE/ATAPI connector for those drives. Most brand-name 486 computers only had a single IDE connector onboard, so providing a second connector on the sound card made it much easier to connect a CD-ROM drive. And since Creative often sold bundles containing a sound card, CD-ROM drive, and some software, it made sense to provide the connector.
As the Pentium displaced the 486, sound cards, including Sound Blasters, started omitting the connector since Pentium systems usually had two IDE connectors on the motherboard.
Today, the 16-bit variants offer a good combination of value, functionality, and period correctness for 486- and Pentium-era PCs.
Period correctness and Sound Blasters
I can tell you that in the early 90s, power users dreamed of NEC CD-ROM drives connected via SCSI. Realistically though, those drives cost as much as a Creative multimedia kit that included a drive and a Sound Blaster and some software. And then you also had to buy a SCSI card, which itself cost about as much as a Sound Blaster.
So most people settled for buying a multimedia kit, if their PC didn’t come with a sound card and CD-ROM drive from the factory. The cheapest kits sold in most consumer electronics stores came from a company called Reveal, who bundled a knockoff sound card and an unlabeled drive manufactured by Panasonic.
People who knew what they were doing bought a Creative kit, which bundled a Sound Blaster with a Creative-labeled Panasonic drive. If you want to replicate an early 90s 486, this was a very common and very respectable setup. Some higher-end name-brand PCs even came with Creative sound cards and drives from the factory.
After 1995, multimedia kits were less common because all but the very cheapest PCs came with a sound card and CD-ROM drive from the factory. But I installed plenty of Creative upgrade kits in earlier 486s well into 1997 and even 1998. So a Sound Blaster 16 with an ATAPI interface and an IDE/ATAPI CD-ROM in an earlier 486 is still believable, and much easier to source.