A Reproduction Vintage Sound Card

Before the AdLib sound card, sound on PCs was in a terrible shape. Since the dawn of IBM, all PCs included a speaker, but this PC speaker was only capable of sounding one note at a time. Chords on the PC speaker produced a weird ‘bubbling’ effect. Just a few years later, 8-bit sound could be created with the Covox Speech Thing, effectively a resistor ladder, with the parallel port on one side, and an 1/8″ plug on the other. These solutions for PC sound sucked.

It wasn’t until the first AdLib cards that superior sound showed up on the PC. Recently, [eric] had been fixing up an old IBM XT and quickly realized the original AdLib sound cards were collector’s items and far too expensive for what they were. He decided to build a reproduction Ad Lib. completely compatible and nearly identical to the original 1990 version of the best sound card on the market.

The first Ad Lib sound card is a relatively simple circuit based on the Yamaha YM3012 (OPL2) and YM3014B chips. These chips are frequently available on eBay, and [Sergey] already has a complete circuit for turning these chips into an ISA sound card. While this modern card is compatible with the AdLib Music Synthesizer Card, it doesn’t look like one. [eric] wanted a card that looked like the real thing, and sounded like one, too.

PCB design has come a long way in a generation, and where the AdLib card was once a wonder of modern technology, anyone with enough patience can now design an identical board, send the file off to China, and receive a reproduction of the first successful sound card. All the files are up on Github should you want to build your own. Now all we need is someone making modern 486 motherboards.


46 thoughts on “A Reproduction Vintage Sound Card

    1. I have some 3812’s around here somewhere. I should add a small AVR for USB but then there’s a problem or two. 1) It would look anywhere near as nice as this one and 2) How would I drive it from the PC???

    2. Yah. I’m hoping that one day our kudos will go to the person who designs one of these USB to ISA adapters in the sub $50 price range. Extra points for VESA! PCI would be nice too. After ISA and PCI are done maybe MCA and AGP? I want to mount all of these adapters inside my big o’l tower case and have a computer that is compatible with any and every piece of old hardware I happen to dig up and feel like tinkering with for a while.

      What I really want is to install a SoundBlaster AWE64 and a recent soundcard in the same computer and compare them. Which one will actually sound better? I’m sure the digital sides of the newer cards are much better but I think along the way the soundcard manufacturers might have forgot how to make a good analog audio amplifier.

  1. Wishing I still had my old Aztech card with hardware wavetable daughterboard. That thing had very good sounding MIDI.

    I’d love to find a MediaVision ProZonic. Dunno if the company ever actually released it, but it was announced as being compatible with Soundblaster 16, Pro Audio Spectrum 16, Adlib, Covox Sound Master II/Speech Thing and I forget what all else. One card, compatible with nearly every PC audio system currently or recently on the market. I wanted one but IIRC the announced price was way more than I wanted to pay.

    It would be quite a trick to design and build an all in one card like that, especially incorporating dual PAS16. Quite nifty feature, the ability to have the memory address changed so two PAS16 cards could be in the same PC.

    I had one called “Reel Magic”, a card that had PAS16, VGA and the Trantor SCSI controller – only without the parts for the VGA and SCSI populated. Apparently the stripped version was intended to be a secondary PAS16 to go with the full Reel Magic board. I got it working side by side with a Soundblaster 16 in such a way that DOS games with SB 8 or 16 bit but not PAS16 support would use the SB16 and games with PAS16 support would use it because it was a better card.

    The SCSI controller on a genuine PAS16 was slow, max speed just enough for a 4X CD-ROM but it could be used with up to 7 devices such as scanners and non-booting hard drives.

    1. Another good option is Turtle Beach Monte Carlo. SB 2.0 / SB Pro compatible (at a time when most cards struggled with SB only), plus Windows Sound System support. In WSS mode it could playback at 64khz sample rate… tracked music was so clean when played back at 64khz. I don’t recall if it had a wave table connector, but I never owned a wave table for any of my sound cards, sadly… it might have also had all the proprietary CD-ROM controller connections too (i.e. not IDE or SCSI).

  2. Old sound card, you say?

    In 1977, Processor Technology sold a board and software for producing sound on S-100 computers. The board was nothing more than a simple single-pole RC filter, and what it was filtering was the S-100 bus interrupt enable signal. Why that signal? Because on the 8080, doing OUT instructions took ten cycles, but doing EI or DI took four cycles, giving the program much finer control of timing.

    How the program worked was fascinating. There was a simple line editor for entering a score, which could have up to four voices. Then the score was compiled into a program consisting of a bunch of EI and DI instructions with just the right number of padding instructions between them to generate the frequency desired. By toggling quickly enough, the lowpass filter converted the interrupt enable duty cycle to an analog voltage.

    That program later became better known in the TRS-80 world as Orchestra 80 (in 1980, obviously). Jon Bokelman was the author of both programs.

    Here is an example of what it could do, especially the second half of this short clip:
    [audio src="http://sol20.org/media/d-minor.mp3" /]

    Higher notes tended to be somewhat pitchy because there wasn’t a good integer ratio between the 2 MHz CPU clock and the target frequency.

    Go to this page and scroll down to “Music” to get the instruction manual and view some scores.

  3. don’t dis the PC internal speaker! some clever assembly and you can get 6-bit PCM at a good 16kHz. I had a pinball game that had really good mod file music playing all 4 channels, at 16kHz, all on a 486. it said the minimum spec was a 386, but i never tried it. I even had a bit of demoscene code, IN BASIC, that had pc speaker pcm music in the background. (granted, calling it basic is a stretch, since most of the good stuff was asm excecuted within the basic code)

  4. AdLib was good for music, but didn’t have the digitised speech capability of the Creative Labs Soundblaster, which kind of ate its breakfast. I loved my AdLib card though.

  5. A bit off topic but i recently dug out the db50xg daughter board and made it run stand alone as a midi device. The sound quality is still very good and such low noise outputs! It completely trounced the noisy outputs of many host cards. Having it stand alone the ouputs are not compromized by pc or bad soundcard design any longer.

    I never really developped a taste for pc adlib music, I’ve stuck with msx fm-pac music which is OPL1. Somehow all instruments and music from the adlib sounds the same to me and the music compositions seemed like an after thought. There are some exceptions like tyrian 2000 of course.

    The atari and amiga seemed miles ahead of the pc at the time :) Good sounding stereo 4 channel 8 bit audio, and some programs squeezed out even more channels or bits.

    I think I still have some EISA gravis, soundblaster and crystal soundcards in the attic but no pc with this slot type to use them. Would be interesting to control these cards with a microcontroller or raspberry pi with pc emulator :)

    1. I never liked how the Amiga sounded like compared to the FM synthesis chips. Sure, it had higher fidelity, but since the sounds were sample based and the machined didn’t quite have enough power and memory to pull off good samples in games, it ended up sounding “fake”.

      In every sense, the Amiga was a real tryhard that wasn’t quite able to do it seriously, and was quickly left in the dust when the PC got better sound cards and faster CPUs, and video cards with real color modes instead of the HAM bullshittery.

        1. And then compare it to the SID chip version

          Sounds more like actual music. In the Amiga version you got samples of varying fidelity and quality strung together within the memory and processing limits of the machine, which really comes through as just trying to run before you can walk.

          It’s said that the Amiga created a thriving computer music and graphic scene, but in retrospect it was mostly just bad techno and awful pixel art that was rarely actually useful for anything real.

  6. Another vintage sound device was the For-TI card for the TI-99/4A which had four Texas Instruments SN76489 Digital Complex Sound Generator chips on it. There was software for it for composing and playing MIDI music. I don’t know if it could also use the SN76489 chip in the console.


    Some examples of what just one of the chips can do

    There’s a very good demo of Axel-F (Beverly Hills Cop theme song) but looks like nobody has put that one on YouTube.

  7. I always get surprised when people build things like this – why don’t they just go to the cupboard and get one out! :-) But then again, I still have the first one I built (“2650 baby”, electronics australia, 1977) in the cupboard, and would have at least 20 ISA sound cards in there as well. It’s like wine, you don’t throw old computer stuff out if it is still working.. :-)

    1. If you were collecting these in the 1970’s then perhaps it’s time ‘taste the wine’ and sell them on to collectors and spend some time on things that are more important.

      You can’t take them with you. As far as I know they don’t use the XT / AT bus cards in heaven any more either.

  8. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble, but the Covox blew the Adlib clean out of the water any time. If all you want to do is synthesize and modulate stuff out of the existing sample set I guess the Adlib is fine – but even at 8-bits the Covox could use arbitrary samples to do the same (which is why mods beat mids any time you’re not listening to Tchaikovski) and let’s not even begin to recount how utterly crappy the sound effects of any game with Adlib support only were. Sure, the SoundBlaster’s higher resolution and sample rate were nicer, but you didn’t hear the difference in practice unless you were looking for it – on the other hand, you sure as hell heard the difference immediately with “synth only” sound.

    1. That’s fine and dandy, but until Sound Blaster came along, AdLib was the “only” (read: massively popular and supported by most software) game in town. Once Sound Blaster came along, it brought AdLib compatability and basically killed AdLib (why buy an AdLib when you can have a SB with actual PCM audio and still play AdLib software?)

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