Retro Recreations Hack Chat With Tube Time

Join us on Wednesday, March 17 at noon Pacific for the Retro Recreations Hack Chat with Tube Time!

join-hack-chatNostalgia seems to be an inevitable consequence of progress. Advance any field far enough into the future, and eventually someone will look back with misty eyes and fond memories of the good old days and start the process of turning what would qualify as junk under normal conditions into highly desirable collectibles.

In some ways, those who have been bitten by the computer nostalgia bug are lucky, since the sheer number of artifacts produced during their period of interest is likely to be pretty high, making getting gear to lovingly restore relatively easy. But even products produced in their millions can eventually get difficult to find, especially once they get snapped up by eager collectors, leaving the rest to make do or do without.

Of course, if you’re as resourceful as Tube Time is, there’s another alternative: build your own retro recreations. He has embarked on some pretty intense builds to recapture a little of what early computer enthusiasts went through trying to build useful machines. He has built replicas of early PC sound cards, like an ISA-bus AdLib card, its MCA equivalent, and the “Snark Barker”— or is it the “Snood Bloober”? — which bears an uncanny resemblance to the classic Sound Blaster card from the 1980s.

Tube Time will join us for the Hack Chat this week to answer questions about all his retro recreations, including his newest work on a retro video card. Be sure to bring your questions on retro rebuilds, reverse engineering, and general computer nostalgia to the chat.

Our Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, March 17 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.
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Retrocomputing With Modern Hardware, No Emulation Required

The x86 processor family is for the time being, the most ubiquitous type of processor in the PC world, and has been since the 1980s when the IBM PC came on the scene. Emulating these older devices is easy enough if you want to play an old LucasArts game or experience Windows 3.1 again, but the true experience is found on original hardware. And, thanks to industrial equipment compatibility needs, you can build a brand new 486 machine with new hardware that will run this retro software as though it was new itself.

[The Rasteri] masterminded this build which is reminiscent of the NES classic and other nostalgic console re-releases. It’s based on the PC/104 standard which was introduced in the early 90s, mostly for industrial controls applications. The platform is remarkably small, and the board chosen for this build hosts a 486 processor running at 300 MHz. It has on-board VGA-compatible graphics but no Sound Blaster card, so he designed and built his own ISA-compatible sound card that fits in the PC/104’s available expansion port.

After adding some more tiny peripherals to the build and installing it in a custom case, [The Rasteri] has a working DOS machine on new, bare-metal 486 hardware which can play DOOM as it was originally intended. It can also run early versions of  Windows to play games from the Microsoft Entertainment Pack if you feel like being eaten by a snow monster while skiing. [The Rasteri] is no stranger to intense retro computing like this either, as he was the one who got DOOM to run on original NES hardware.

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Giving Micro Channel Bus Computers A Sound Blaster Bark

Not many people today probably remember what ‘Micro Channel Architecture’ was about, though its acronym ‘MCA’ might ring a bell. Created by IBM to replace ISA (Industry Standard Architecture) and presumably claw back some of that sweet, sweet licensing money, it didn’t quite pan out as IBM hoped. As history shows us, PCI ended up replacing MCA in all of IBM’s systems. The IBM PS/2 systems that used MCA didn’t miss out on classic 1990s cards, such as the original Sound Blaster, but today MCA versions of the Sound Blaster are admittedly rather… rare, not to mention expensive.

But, no longer: decades after the last PS/2 users have moved on, [Tube Time] proudly presents the Snark Barker MCA. It’s a fully Sound Blaster compatible sound card. It supports AdLib synthesis, digital sound playback and recording, as well as a joystick input and MIDI. Based around a Xilinx XC9572XL CPLD and featuring what looks like a full-length MCA card, it would have made an original Sound Blaster card proud.

The GitHub repository not only contains the schematics, BOM and Verilog-based HDL for the CPLD, but also extensive documentation on the assembly and programming. As a bonus, there’s a troubleshooting section which covers some of the joys that came with the sloppy implementations of MCA across systems. Definitely worth a read.

If anyone decides to build this project and use it in their IBM PS/2 system, we would love to hear about it.

Of course, if all you need is a garden variety PCI Sound Blaster clone, the original Snark Barker is the way to go.

(Thanks, Darry)

Reverse Engineering The Sound Blaster

The first sound card to output PCM audio — the kind you need for audio samples — wasn’t the Sound Blaster. The AdLib Music Synthesizer Card could output PCM audio over software. The AdLib card also cost $200 at the time of its release. This was too much for some, and in time the Creative Labs Sound Blaster was released for the rock-bottom price of $125. This was a more capable card, and in the years since prices on the used market have gone through the roof. In 1990, you could buy a Sound Blaster for a Benjamin and a half, in 2019, prices on eBay are reaching and exceeding $400.

With the prices of used cards so high, we start to get into the territory where it starts to make sense to reverse engineer and re-manufacture the entire card. This hasn’t been done before, but that’s no matter for [Eric Schlaepfer], or [@TubeTimeUS]; he’s done crazier projects before, and this one is no different.

In reverse-engineering the Sound Blaster, there are a few necessary components. The Sound Blaster had an OPL2 chip for sound synthesis, which you can get through various vendors. The trick, though, is the microcontroller. This is really just an 8051 with a custom mask ROM.

The goal of this project is actually just to dump the ROM on the Intel 8051-alike microcontroller. This is something that’s relatively commonly done in high-tech labs, and luckily the Bay Area has [John McMaster], the guy who will take you into his lab and strip a die from its epoxy. Looking at the chip under the microscope, it was discovered the mask ROM on this chip was an implant ROM, with the ones and zeros represented by invisible ions in the substrate itself. There was no hope of reverse-engineering this chip from a purely visual inspection, but there was a sense amplifier on one of the data lines. By probing this sense amplifier while running through the address space, [Eric] was able to dump all the bytes of the ROM one bit at a time.

However, and there’s always a however, there are clone Sound Blasters out there, usually from China, and you can dump these chips if you’re lucky enough to get your hands on one. [Eric] reached out to the community and found these clone microcontrollers didn’t have the code protect bit set; dumping these was easy. This ROM was compared to the work [Eric] did with the sense amplifier, and after figuring out the order of the bits, it was found the code matched. The code was successfully cloned, and now new Sound Blasters can be made. Don’t tell eBay that, because someone is trying to sell one of [Eric]’s clone cards for $180.

All the code, files, materials, and everything needed to clone a Sound Blaster can be found in [Eric]’s GitHub, although there are a few open questions as to what’s going on in the Sound Blaster’s microcontroller. There’s a ‘secret’ 512-byte ROM on the die, and no one outside of an Intel NDA knows what it does. This could be used for a manufacturing test, but who knows. Other than that, there are a few features in the code that weren’t used, like previously unknown DSP commands, an ADPCM lookup table, and a routine that plays from SRAM without using DMA. It’s a deep dive into the inner workings of the most popular sound card of all time, and it’s quite simply amazing.

The Smallest Wave Blaster Card

In the early 90s, the Creative Sound Blaster was the soundcard. It wasn’t the absolute best sounding card on the market, but it quickly became the defacto standard and delivered good sound at the right price. It relied primarily on the Yamaha OPL-3 FM synthesis chip, but if you were feeling spendy, you could pimp it out with a Wave Blaster add-on card, which essentially bolted a sample synthesis engine onto the card. This gave the card a broad palette of sampled instruments with which to play MIDI tunes all the sweeter, so you could impress your grade school chums who came over to play DOOM.

It’s now 2017, if you hadn’t checked the calendar, and Sound Blasters from yesteryear are only going to go further upward in price. It goes without saying that add-on daughterboards and accessories are even rarer and are going to be priced accordingly. So, if you’re building a vintage gaming rig and are desperate for that sample-synth goodness, [Serdashop] are here to help with their latest offering, the Dreamblaster S2.

It’s reportedly the smallest Wave Blaster add-on board available, which is awesome. If you’re sticking it on top of your Sound Blaster 16, yes, it’s pointless – you’re not exactly short on room. But if you want to integrate this with a compact microcontroller project? Size matters. Yes, you can feed this thing MIDI signals and it’ll sing for you. A hot tip for the uninitiated: MIDI speaks serial, just like everything and everyone else. Your grandma learned to speak it in the war, you know.

Your options for hooking this up are either slotting it into a Wave Blaster compatible card, or buying the carrier board that allows you to use it with a Game Port, in addition to custom-wiring it to your own hardware. We’d love to see this as a HAT for the Raspberry Pi Zero. Do it, send it in and we’ll write it up.

We’ve seen [Serdashop]’s hardware here before – namely, the earlier Dreamblaster X2. Video below the break.

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DreamBlaster X2: A Modern MIDI Synth For Your Sound Blaster Card

Back in the 90s, gamers loaded out their PCs with Creative’s Sound Blaster family of sound cards. Those who were really serious about audio could connect a daughterboard called the Creative Wave Blaster. This card used wavetable synthesis to provide more realistic instrument sounds than the Sound Blaster’s on board Yamaha FM synthesis chip.

The DreamBlaster X2 is a modern daughterboard for Sound Blaster sound cards. Using the connector on the sound card, it has stereo audio input and MIDI input and output. If you’re not using a Sound Blaster, a 3.5 mm jack and USB MIDI are provided. Since the MIDI uses TTL voltages, it can be directly connected to an Arduino or Raspberry Pi.

This card uses a Dream SAM5000 series DSP chip, which can perform wavetable synthesis with up to 81 polyphonic voices. It also performs reverb, chorus, and equalizer effects. This chip sends audio data to a 24 bit DAC, which outputs audio into the sound card or out the 3.5 mm jack.

The DreamBlaster X2 also comes with software to load wavetables, and wavetables to try out. We believe it will be the best upgrade for your 486 released in 2017. If you’re interested, you can order an assembled DreamBlaster. After the break, a review with audio demos.

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