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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
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.
It is interesting to note that 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 Programable 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.
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
The first board bearing the Sound Blaster name appeared in November 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 competing 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 (AM radio quality) and record at up to 12 kHz (slightly better than telephone quality). The sole DSP-like feature of the circuit was ADPCM compression and decompression. The card probably lacked an anti-aliasing filter, as it had a characteristic "metal junk" sound. Finally, it featured a joystick port and a proprietary MIDI interface. This interface lacked simultaneous input and output capabilities, so music software had to use the FM synthesizer in order to play the input received from a MIDI keyboard.
It is difficult to tell what microcontroller was used as "DSP" on the first Sound Blaster models, since not only did Creative stick a black label with a fantasy (C) COPYRIGHT 1989 CREATIVE LABS, INC. DSP-1321 inscription on the top, but also carefully scratched two thirds of the plastic surface underneath. Analysis of the device pinout suggests that it was an Intel 8051 microcontroller with a custom mask ROM. The labels on the FM synthesizer circuit and on the companion Yamaha 3014B digital-to-analog converter said FM1312 and FM1314 respectively, but luckily the manufacturer references remained intact below. Later models do away with the obfuscation, and the manufacturer's identity (and, usually, an Intel mask copyright notice) is retained on the DSP.
In spite of these limitations, in less than a year, the Sound Blaster became the top-selling expansion card for the PC.
The premature usage of the DSP word backfired at Creative when they finally included some real digital signal processing features in later Sound Blaster models and were obliged to coin a new term for them, ASP, for Advanced Signal Processing.
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. This change was probably related to Philips having discontinued the design, and to the lack of enthusiasm among users; the chips could be bought mail-order from Creative until 1993.
Sound Blaster 2.0 added support for auto-init DMA, which assisted in producing a continuous loop of double-buffered sound output. A later revision, 2.01, increased the maximum playback rate to 45 kHz (the same maximum as the Sound Blaster Pro, released around the same time).
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 was little used.
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 22 kHz, playback up to 45 kHz), could do so in stereo (up to 22 kHz), 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 an 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, Panasonic CD-ROM drive (model 531 for single-speed, or 562 for the later 2x drives), and a large selection of multimedia software titles on the revolutionary CD-ROM media.
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 16
The next model, Sound Blaster 16 (June 1992) introduced 16-bit digital audio sampling to the Sound Blaster line. They also, like the older Sound Blasters, natively supported FM synthesis through a Yamaha OPL-3 chip. 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 of the ISA bus, which was already long in tooth, negated the need for a DMA, or Direct Memory Access, Line which is still needed for DOS sound support.) Today, nearly 15 years later, the SoundBlaster 16 can still be found on eBay.
Sound Blasters with onboard wavetable synthesis
Sound Blaster AWE32
The Sound Blaster AWE32, 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 several sound processors, the most notable being the EMU8000 synthesizer chip and the EMU8011 effects processor.
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 no Wave Blaster header, and no 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/EMU8010 combination) as the AWE32, and in fact had the same 30-pin SIMM RAM expansion capability. The board was also fully compatible with the AWE32 option in software and even used the same Windows drivers. Once the SB32 was outfitted with 30-pin SIMMs, it was generally a transparent experience to the more expensive AWE32.
Ironically, although the Vibra chip was designed to be lower cost and less functional, it actually has higher quality output than the chips on many of the older and more expensive AWE cards.
Sound Blaster AWE64
The AWE32's successor, the Sound Blaster AWE64 (November 1996), was significantly smaller, being a half-length ISA card (meaning it was only half the length of the AWE32). It offered similar features to the AWE32, but also has a few notable improvements, including support for greater polyphony. 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 extremely 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, 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 was basically a lower-priced version of the Sound Blaster Live! Series, without the reprogramable ROM. Drivers are the same as the SB LIVE!.
Sound Blaster Live!
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 EMU10K1 featured DirectSound acceleration, EAX 1.0 and 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), and integrated the FX8010 DSP chip for real-time digital audio effects processing.
The Sound Blaster Live! featured higher audio quality than previous Sound Blasters, as it processed the sound digitally at every stage, and because of its greater chip integration that reduced the analog signal losses of older, larger cards. Sound Blaster Live! supported multi-speaker output, initially up to a 4-speaker setup (4 satellites and a subwoofer). 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.
Sound Blaster Audigy
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
The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 (September 2002) featured an updated EMU10K2 processor, sometimes referred to as EMU10K2.5, and had an 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, thereby overcoming the single biggest criticism of its predecessor. However, the DSP again was limited to 16-bit at 48 kHz, so all DSP effects had to be disabled to prevent harmful resampling.
The Audigy 2 supported up to 6.1 speakers and had improved signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) over the Audigy (106 vs. 100 decibels (A)). It also featured built-in Dolby Digital 5.1 EX (which is technically 7.1) decoding for improved DVD play-back.
Sound Blaster Audigy 4
The Sound Blaster Audigy 4 improves on the Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS by improving the SNR to 113 dB. It features much of the same core technology as the Audigy 2 ZS (it actually uses the same Audigy 2 chip), it however uses a new external I/O hub and has superior analog DACs offering higher audio digital-to-analog conversion quality. It also allows for simultaneous recording of up to six audio channels in 96 kHz/24-bit. It still supported a maximum of 7.1 channels up to 96 kHz/24bit, and stereo output at 192 kHz/24bit. 
Sound Blaster Audigy 4 SE
This board is extremely similar if not identical to the Audigy 2 Value. It has no firewire port, nor gold connectors. However, it uses the same audio DSP and is functionally as capable as the Audigy 2 and 4 series (other than Audigy 2 SE). It does feature full hardware acceleration of DirectSound and EAX.
Sound Blaster X-Fi
The X-Fi (for "Extreme Fidelity") was released in August 2005 and comes in XtremeMusic, Platinum, Fatal1ty FPS 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 actually 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. 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 DSP's 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:
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. Still DSP decoding at the drivers level on other cards than Audigy2ZS and 4 are not supported by official drivers, but it is working with soft-modded drivers on the other cards with hardware DSP (like Audigy2 6.1).
- Creative Labs Model Numbers - Resource of all Creative model numbers. Good for board indentification.
- Sound card
- Turtle Beach
- Gravis Ultrasound
- VIA Envy
- "Creative Announces Sound Blaster 32" by Creative Technology on Usenet, June 23, 1995, retrieved January 5, 2006
- Programming the AdLib/Sound Blaster FM Music Chips
- Setting the BLASTER environment variable
- Creative Labs - History and Milestones
- Old Mitsumi proprietary CD-ROM interface pinout
- kX Project (independent WDM driver for EMU10K1 and EMU10K2-based soundcards)
- X-Fi Preview/Review: Creative X-Fi Fatality FPS is a funky piece of kit
- X-Fi Fansite
- Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi 24-bit Crystalizer
- Drivers and software for all EMU10K1, EMU10K2 & EMU10K2.5 card based upon concept unified driver architecture through softmodding
- Technical information on the Creative Mini Din connector
- ALive! - The Sound Blaster Live! Resource