Sound Blaster

Sound Blaster

The Sound Blaster family of sound cards was for many years the de facto standard for audio on the IBM PC compatible system platform, before PC audio became commoditized, and backward-compatibility became less of a feature.

The creator of Sound Blaster is the Singapore-based firm Creative Technology, also known by the name of its United States subsidiary, Creative Labs.

The pre-Sound Blaster years

Creative Music System

The history of Creative sound boards started with the release of the Creative Music System ("C/MS") board in August 1987. It contained two Philips SAA 1099 circuits, which, together, provided 12 voices of square-wave bee-in-a-box stereo sound plus some noise channels.

These circuits were featured earlier in various popular electronics magazines around the world. For many years Creative tended to use off-the-shelf components and manufacturers' reference designs for their early products. The various integrated circuits had white or black paper sheets fully covering their top thus hiding their identity... On the C/MS board in particular, the Philips chips had white pieces of paper with a fantasy CMS-301 inscription on them; real Creative parts usually had consistent CT number references.

Surprisingly, the board also contained a large 40-pin PGA (Creative Technology Programmable Logic) integrated circuit, bearing a CT 1302A CTPL 8708 serigraphed inscription and looking exactly like the DSP of the later Sound Blaster. Presumably, it could be used to automate some of the sound operations, like envelope control.

Game Blaster

A year later, in 1988, Creative marketed the C/MS via Radio Shack under the name Game Blaster. This card was identical in every way to the precursor C/MS hardware. Creative did not even bother to change any of the labeling or program names on the disks that came with the Game Blaster.

First Sound Blasters: the right bundle

Sound Blaster 1.0

The first board bearing the Sound Blaster name appeared in 1989. In addition to Game Blaster features, it had an 11-voice FM synthesizer using the Yamaha YM3812 chip, also known as OPL2. It provided perfect compatibility with the then market leader AdLib sound card, which had gained support in PC games in the preceding years. Creative used the "DSP" acronym to designate the digital audio part of the Sound Blaster. This actually stood for Digital SOUND Processor, rather than for the more common digital signal processor meaning, and was really a simple microcontroller from the Intel MCS-51 family (supplied by Intel and Matra MHS, among others). It could play back monaural sampled sound at up to 23 kHz sampling frequency (approx FM radio quality) and record at up to 12 kHz (approx AM radio quality). The sole DSP-like feature of the circuit was ADPCM decompression.

The original card lacked an anti-aliasing filter, resulting in a characteristic "metal junk" sound. (This was rectified with the addition of two user-selectable filters in the later Sound Blaster Pro card.) It also featured a joystick port and a proprietary MIDI interface.

In spite of these limitations, in less than a year, the Sound Blaster became the top-selling expansion card for the PC. It achieved this by providing a fully AdLib-compatible product, with additional features, for the same, and often less, money. The inclusion of the game port, and its importance to its early success, is often forgotten or overlooked. PCs of this era did not include a game port, and buying one cost a consumer roughly $50. This card also took up one of the few slots most PCs of the time had. Given the choice between an AdLib card or a fully-compatible Sound Blaster card that also came with a game port, saved you a slot, and included the 'DSP' for not much more money, many consumers opted for the Sound Blaster. In-game support for the digital portion of the card did not happen until after the Sound Blaster had gained dominance.

Sound Blaster 1.5

Sound Blaster 1.5, released in 1990, dropped the "C/MS chips". They could be purchased separately from Creative and inserted into two sockets on the board.

Sound Blaster 2.0

Sound Blaster 2.0 added support for auto-init DMA, which assisted in producing a continuous loop of double-buffered sound output and increased the maximum playback rate to 44 kHz (the same maximum as the Sound Blaster Pro, released around the same time). The earlier Sound Blaster 1.0 or 1.5 could be upgraded to support auto-init DMA by replacing the socketed V1.00 DSP with a V2.00 DSP, which was available from Creative Labs.

Sound Blaster MCV

Sound Blaster MCV was a version created for IBM PS/2 model 50 and higher, which had a MicroChannel bus instead of the more traditional ISA one. It did not contain sockets for the C/MS chips and was unreliable in the faster PS/2 systems.

Improved quality: stereo and 16 bits

Sound Blaster Pro

The Sound Blaster Pro (May 1991) was the first significant redesign of the card's core features: It could record and play back digitized sound at faster sampling rates (recording up to 44.1 kHz 8bits per sample in mono or up to 22.050 kHz 8bits per sample in stereo. Playback was similarly up to 44.1 kHz 8bits per sample mono or up to 22.050 kHz 8bits per sample in stereo), and added a "mixer" which allowed independent volume control of the various subsystems on the card as well as enable a crude highpass or lowpass filter. The first version of the Pro also used two YM3812 chips (one for left audio channel and the other one for the right one; both chips had to be programmed identically to get mono sound if not using the AdLib compatible interface). Version 2.0 switched to the improved Yamaha YMF262 chip, also known as OPL3. MIDI support became full-duplex and offered time stamping features, but was not yet industry-standard MPU-401 compatible.

The Sound Blaster Pro was the first Creative sound card to have a built-in CD-ROM interface. Most had a proprietary interface for a Panasonic (Matsushita MKE) drive, prior to the popularity of IDE CD-ROM drives. After the release of the Sound Blaster Pro, Creative also began to sell Multimedia Upgrade Kits, typically including a sound card, Matsushita CD-ROM drive (model 531 for single-speed, or 562/3 for the later double-speed (2x) drives), and a large selection of multimedia software titles on the revolutionary CD-ROM media. One such kit, named "OmniCD", included the 2x Matsushita drive along with an ISA controller card and software, including Software Toolworks Encyclopedia and Aldus PhotoStyler SE. It was compliant with the MPC Level 2 standard.

Sound Blaster cards were also sold to PC manufacturers and third-parties. Many of these so-called OEM cards have different types of CD-ROM interfaces or other unusual features.

Sound Blaster Pro 16 ASP

The next model, Sound Blaster 16 (June 1992) introduced 16-bit digital audio sampling to the Sound Blaster line. Like the older Sound Blasters, they also natively supported FM synthesis through a Yamaha OPL-3 chip. The Sound Blaster 16 had a socket for an optional digital signal processor dubbed the Advanced Signal Processor (ASP or later CSP). The cards also featured a connector for add-on daughterboards with "wavetable synthesis" (actually, sample-based synthesis) capabilities complying to the General MIDI standard.

Creative offered such daughterboards in their Wave Blaster line. Finally, the MIDI support now included MPU-401 emulation (in dumb UART mode only, but this was sufficient for most MIDI applications). The Wave Blaster was simply a MIDI peripheral internally connected to the MIDI port, so any PC sequencer software could use it.

Eventually this design proved so popular that Creative made a PCI version of the card. This required a work-around to maintain backward compatibility with DOS programs. Moving the card off the ISA bus, which was already long in the tooth, negated the need for a DMA (Direct Memory Access) Line, which is still needed for DOS sound support.

Sound Blasters with onboard wavetable synthesis

Sound Blaster AWE32

The Sound Blaster AWE32 (Advanced Wave Effects), introduced in March 1994, was a full-length ISA card, measuring 14 inches (356 mm) in length. The AWE32 included two distinct audio sections; one being the Creative digital audio section with their audio codec and optional CSP/ASP chip socket, and the second being the E-mu MIDI synthesizer section. The synthesizer section consisted of the EMU8000 sampler and effects processor, an EMU8011 1 MiB sample ROM, and 512 kiB of sample RAM (expandable to 28 MiB).

Sound Blaster 32

The Sound Blaster 32 (SB32) was a value-oriented offering from Creative, announced on June 6, 1995, designed to fit below the AWE32 Value in the lineup. The SB32 lacked onboard RAM, the Wave Blaster header, and CSP port. The boards also used the Vibra digital audio chip which lacked adjustments for bass, treble, and gain. The SB32 was fully equipped with the same MIDI capabilities (the same EMU8000/EMU8011 combination) as the AWE32, and had the same 30-pin SIMM RAM expansion capability. The board was also fully compatible with the AWE32 option in software and used the same Windows drivers. Once the SB32 was outfitted with 30-pin SIMMs, the SB32's sampler section performed identically to the AWE32's.

Sound Blaster AWE64

The AWE32's successor, the Sound Blaster AWE64 (November 1996), was significantly smaller, being a "half-length ISA card" (that term is misleading - see the pictures for size comparison ) . It offered similar features to the AWE32, but also had a few notable improvements, including support for greater polyphony, although this was a product of 32 extra software emulated channels. The 30-pin SIMM slots from AWE32/SB32 were replaced with a proprietary memory format which could be (expensively) purchased from Creative.

The main improvements were better compatibility with older SB models, and an improved signal-to-noise ratio. The AWE64 came in 3 versions: A Value version (with 512KB of RAM), a Standard version (with 1 MB of RAM), and a Gold version (with 4 MB of RAM and a separate SPDIF output).

Multi-channel sound and F/X

Ensoniq AudioPCI-based cards

In 1998, Creative acquired Ensoniq Corporation, manufacturer of the AudioPCI, a card popular with OEMs at the time. AudioPCI offered a full-featured solution, being a PCI sound card with wavetable MIDI, and offering 4-speaker DirectSound3D surround sound, A3D emulation, and full DOS legacy support. Creative's acquisition filled a market segment where Live! was too expensive, and it gave them excellent DOS support, a feature that was proving difficult for companies to get working with PCI cards (typically early PCI audio cards are limited to DOS boxes within Windows 9x.)

Creative released many cards using the original AudioPCI chip, Ensoniq ES1370, and several boards using revised versions of this chip (ES1371 and ES1373), and some with relabeled AudioPCI chips (they say Creative on them.) Boards using AudioPCI tech are usually easily identifiable by the board design and the chip size because they all look quite similar. Such boards include Sound Blaster PCI64 (April 1998), PCI128 (July 1998), Creative Ensoniq AudioPCI, Vibra PCI and Sound Blaster 16 PCI.

These cards were full-featured, but the features were limited in capability. MIDI, for example, was rather poor in quality and there was no ability to customize the sample sets beyond the 3 pre-made sets (2, 4, and 8 MB) included with the cards. The chips do not support hardware acceleration of any kind as they are entirely software-driven.

These cards do not support SoundFonts.

Sound Blaster PCI512

The Sound Blaster PCI512 is an EMU10K1-based sound card designed to fill a lower cost segment than the Live! Value. It is capable of most of the Live! Value's features aside from being limited to 512 MIDI voice polyphony (a software-based limitation), lacking digital I/O, removal of expansion headers, and only stereo or quadraphonic output support. The card's circuit layout is somewhat simpler than that of the Live! series.

Sound Blaster Live! (Original)

Sound Blaster Live! (August 1998) saw the introduction of the EMU10K1 processor, a 2.44 million transistor DSP capable of 1000 MIPS for audio processing. The use of a programmable digital signal processor in a broad consumer audio card was largely unprecedented at the time (professional Turtlebeach cards used them). The EMU10K1 and FX8010 chips provided the ability to offload functions previously reliant on custom creative chipsets. The EMU10K1 provided a high-speed DMA interface, which only required a single extra chip to interface with the PCI bus, allowing the realisation of a rom-free virtualised wavetable in dynamic system memory which could be added to and remapped whilst in use.

Because of this, the EMU10K1 represented a paradigm shift in PC audio and proved to be a highly marketable product that was significantly cheaper to manufacture and update with new features/bug fixes and co-bundled musician-targeted applications and further income-generation through third party licensing. The main features prominent to most non-musicians were EAX 1.0 (and later 2.0) (environmental audio extensions, which competed with A3D before the demise of the latter), a high-quality 64-voice sample-based synthesizer (a.k.a. wavetable), with self-produced or third-party customized patches or "Soundfonts", and the ability to resample the audio output as input and apply a range of real-time DSP effects to any set of audio subchannels present in the device. All the original series of SB Live! came standard with 4-channel analog audio outputs and standard AC'97 chip features, and the ubiquitous 15-pin MIDI/Joystick multiport.

The first model on the market, the retail SB Live! Gold, featured gold tracings on all major analog traces and external sockets, along with an EMI-suppressing printed circuit board substrate and lacquer. It came standard with a daughterboard that implemented a separate 4-channel alternative "mini-Din" digital output to Creative-branded internal-DAC speaker sets, a S/P-DIF digital audio Input and Output with separate software mappings, and a fully decoded MIDI interface with an Input and Output provided on "mini-Din" connectors for which a converter was provided, purportedly for direct plug-and-play for musicians. Like all other audio sources, the MIDI synthesis complete with Soundfonts could be "Rendered" inside a virtual environment (reverb, etc.), and the output recaptured directly in software, whilst performing.

The Sound Blaster Live! was marketed as featuring higher audio quality than previous Sound Blasters, since the majority of sound processing was in the digital domain, with Digital-to-Analog conversion/amplification taking place on separate chip packages to the EMU10K1 chipset and it's digitally-noisy data bus to the FX8010 DSP chip, which were themselves further separated from PC system noise through a board-shielded PCI device controller. Sound Blaster Live! supported multi-speaker output, initially up to a 4-speaker setup (4 satellites and a subwoofer).

Sound Blaster Live! (later 5.1-channel remake)

Later versions of the Live!, usually called Live! 5.1, offered 5.1-channel support which adds a center channel speaker and LFE subwoofer output, most useful for movie watching. The Live! 5.1 could also use one of the 3.5mm jack ports as an SPDIF out, which allowed the connection of an external decoder.

Sound Blaster Audigy series

The Sound Blaster Audigy (August 2001) featured the Audigy processor (EMU10K2), an improved version of the EMU10K1 processor that shipped with the Sound Blaster Live!. The Audigy could process up to 4 EAX environments simultaneously with its upgraded on-chip DSP and native EAX 3.0 ADVANCED HD support, and supported from stereo up to 5.1-channel output.

The Audigy was advertised as a 24-bit sound card. However, with some controversy, the Audigy's audio transport (DMA engine) was fixed to 16-bit sample precision at 48 kHz (like Live!), and all audio had to be resampled to 48 kHz in order to be rendered through its DSP, or recorded from its DSP.

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 (September 2002) featured an updated EMU10K2 processor, sometimes referred to as EMU10K2.5, has a new audio transport (DMA engine) that could support playback at 24-bit precision up to 192 kHz (2-channel only. 6.1 limited to 96 kHz) and recording at 24-bit precision up to 96 kHz. In addition, Audigy 2 supported up to 6.1 (later 7.1) speakers and had improved signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) over the Audigy (106 vs. 100 decibels (A)). It also featured built-in Dolby Digital EX 6.1 and 7.1 decoding for improved DVD play-back.

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS (2004) was released in 2004, it basically is an Audigy 2 with updated DAC and opamps, Audigy 2 ZS uses the Cirrus Logic CS4382 DAC, together with the opamps can produce an output SNR of 108dB. There was a few slight PCB modifications and 7.1 support is added.

Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro is an Audigy 2 ZS with updated DACs and ADCs, the new DAC is the Top of the line Cirrus Logic CS4398, boosting the output SNR to 113dB. Other than a breakout box, it has no distinguishable difference from the Audigy 2 ZS. The DSP is identical to the Audigy 2 ZS's but Creative put an "audigy 4" sticker to cover the chip, making it appear as if it is a new chip. The Audigy 4 Pro is not to be confused with the Audigy 4 (Value) which contains lower quality DACs and does not have golden plated jacks. The Audigy 4 (Value) is more in line with the Audigy 2 Value series. The Audigy 4 enjoyed a relatively short life span because of the imminent debute of the Soundblaster X-Fi.

Sound Blaster X-Fi

The X-Fi (for "Extreme Fidelity") was released in August 2005 and comes in XtremeMusic, Platinum, Fatal1ty FPS, XtremeGamer and Elite Pro configurations. The 130 nm EMU20K1 audio chip operates at 400 MHz and has 51 million transistors. The computational power of this processor, i.e. its performance, is estimated as 10,000 MIPS (million instructions per second), which is about 24 times higher than the estimated performance of its predecessor – the Audigy processor. It is interesting to note that the processor’s computational power is optimized for the work mode selected in the software. With the X-Fi's "Active Modal Architecture" (AMA), the user can choose one of three optimization modes: Gaming, Entertainment, and Creation; each enabling a combination of the features of the chipset. The X-Fi uses EAX 5.0 which supports up to 128 3D-positioned voices with up to four effects applied to each. This release also included the 24 bit crystalizer, which is intended to pronounce percussion elements by placing some emphasis on low and high pitched parts of the sound. The X-Fi, at its release, offered some of the most powerful mixing capabilities available, making it a powerful entry-level card for home musicians. The other big improvement in the X-Fi over the previous Audigy designs was the complete overhaul of the resampling engine on the card. The previous Audigy cards had their DSPs locked at 48/16, meaning any content that didn't match was resampled on the card in hardware; which was done poorly and resulted in a lot of intermodulation distortion. Many hardcore users worked around this by means of resampling their content using high quality software decoders, usually in the form of a plugin in their media player. Creative completely re-wrote the resampling method used on the X-Fi and dedicated more than half of the power of the DSP to the process; resulting in a very clean resample.


Sound Blaster cards since 1999 conform to Microsoft's PC 99 standard for color coding the external connectors as follows:

Color Function
  Pink Analog microphone input.
  Light blue Analog line level input.
  Lime green Analog line level output for the main stereo signal (front speakers or headphones).
  Black Analog line level output for rear speakers.
  Silver Analog line level output for side speakers.
  Orange S/PDIF digital output (sometimes used as an analog line output for a center and/or subwoofer speaker instead)
Up until the AWE line, Creative cards has short text inscriptions on the backplane of the card, indicating which port does what (i.e. Mic, Spk, Aux In, Aux Out). On later cards, the text inscriptions were changed to icons. With the latest cards from Creative, the cards were changed to use numbers as the ports are flexi-jacks and can have different functions assigned to them at run-time (i.e. changed from speaker output to mic in), but a color overlay sticker is included with retail units to help consumers identify the commonly-used functions of the ports in its default mode.

Driver software modification (soft mod)

Some drivers from the Audigy 2 ZS have been soft-modded by enthusiasts. These can be installed on Creative's older cards, including Sound Blaster Live!, Audigy, and Audigy 2. It has been claimed to offer improved sound quality, hardware acceleration of higher EAX versions in games, 64-channel mixing for Audigy 1, and an overall improvement in the card's performance. Several forum posts across the web have reported favourable results with this technique, excepting Live! users where the drivers only add the ability to use the newer software applications (i.e. the newer mixer applet). Comments on forums from developers of the software mod have said that Live!'s hardware is not capable of EAX3 nor 64-channels of hardware sound mixing.

Later, in 2004, Creative released updated drivers top-to-bottom for the Audigy through Audigy 4 line that put these cards basically at feature parity on a software level. As of 2006, the entire Audigy lineup uses the same driver package. DSP decoding at the driver level on other cards than Audigy 2 ZS and 4 is still not supported by official drivers, but it works with soft-modded drivers on the other cards with hardware DSP (like Audigy 2 6.1).

When Vista was released, there was only a single beta driver for the Creative Audigy series that was usable on the operating system with minimal functionality and frequent instability reported by users. A Creative Forum activist named Daniel K modified drivers from the X-Fi and applied it to the Audigy and Live! series, restoring most if not all of the features that came with the original XP setup CD in Vista. X-Fi drivers have noticeably better sound quality under Vista, and more bug fixes because of the newer build(last modified version is 2.15.0004EQ April). He managed to enable the X-fi Crystallizer to work on Audigy series cards in software, however because of the patents involved, he was forced to remove all the modified drivers and DDL patch. The event ended as a PR disaster for Creative, especially on the Creative Forum and technical blog sites. Daniel K has since stopped developing modified support files for the above sound cards, however some of the files (as of July, 2008)may still be hosted on individual tech/blog sites. Creative has since then released a newer official Audigy Vista driver (2.18.0000 as of July 28th, 2008) due to public and consumer pressure.

See also


External links

Search another word or see sound blasteron Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature