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The Sound Blaster Story

We take time out to talk to Creative Technology founder and CEO, Sim Wong Hoo, about the development of the iconic Sound Blaster brand.

Three different SB cards with SB Logo superimposed

Now celebrating its 30th birthday, the Sound Blaster made a massive impact when it was launched back in 1989. It seems bizarre now, but at that time, gaming was still considered to be a frivolous novelty for the PC, which was primarily a business machine. While the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga had half-decent sound capabilities, most PCs came equipped with only a mono PC speaker, which simply blurted our chirps and beeps like an excitable 1970s telephone. PC audio was terrible.

If you wanted proper music in your games then you needed a synthesizer card. Rather than playing back a music recording like current games, early game music was a bit like a Word document. In a Word document, the fonts are stored somewhere else, and the Word file just stores the formatting, meaning you can store a huge number of words and pages in a very small file size. In the same way, with early games, the sounds are generated by a synthesiser card, and a game’s music file just tells it which sounds to generate when.

This started with basic FM synthesisers such as Yamaha’s OPL2, which modulated frequencies to simulate instruments, and then later went up to ‘wavetables’ of sampled instruments to create much more realistic sounding music.

In the days before we had very powerful CPUs and masses of storage space, this meant complicated musical scores could be performed in games using tiny files, without needing masses of processing power, or a massive hard drive to store a recording. AdLib was one of the first companies to market a synthesizer expansion card for the PC, making a massive difference to games, but the Sound Blaster went one step further by combining a synthesizer with basic sampling capabilities.

The result was an audio system that could give you decent music in games, as well as sampled speech and sound effects. It changed the PC’s sound forever and sold by the bucketload. It was the final part of the equation needed to transform the PC into a proper gaming machine. Thirty years after the original Sound Blaster card was launched, we caught up with founder and CEO of Creative Technology, Sim Wong Hoo, to talk about the history of the iconic Sound Blaster brand.

CPC: Let’s start right at the beginning. What made you think there was a definite market for a discrete sound card in the 1980s?

Sim Wong Hoo: Let me go a little bit further back. I started playing with microcomputers in 1979, when there was only a handful of them around. They were either dumb or only managed some beeps. At that time, I was designing some computerised seismic data logging equipment, which my former French boss claimed to be the most advanced in the world. When the equipment was brought to operate in oil rigs, nobody believed that it was possible that a Singaporean had designed this equipment in Singapore, which had no high-tech industry at all.

With a strong background in digital and analogue technologies, plus acoustic knowledge, coupled with a deep interest in the science of music, I had a burning desire to bring sound into the computer world. In fact, my first secret microcomputer project in the my French boss’ company was writing an electronic organ program in machine language that could be played on the computer keyboard, much to the chagrin of my boss. I left his company and started Creative in 1981 with a mission – to bring sound into the computer world.

It took Creative another five years, until 1986, before we developed a PC – the Cubic CT – that had sound and music capabilities. This was five years before the term ‘multimedia’ for PC was even coined. But we were too early, as there wasn’t any third-party content to support it, especially voice-capable software. Creative faced a Herculean task in marketing the Cubic CT, especially in a tiny market such as Singapore.

In 1987, after some soul-searching, we decided that the Cubic CT was too complex an animal for a tiny startup in Singapore to handle. We decided to focus our energies on just the music portion of the Cubic CT, for which we had developed some cool software, such as the Intelligent Organ in 1986, which enabled you to play orchestra-like music with just one finger tapping on the keyboard. This became our Creative Music System music card, which featured a stereo 12-voice music synthesiser. This product became quite a hit in Asia. It was our first highly lucrative product, and back then, that meant a lot for a small company such as Creative.

In 1988, I felt the time was right for me to go to the USA, which was the world’s largest PC market at the time, and my mission was to create a PC sound standard for the whole world. A lot of people felt this was an impossible mission, considering our small size and limited resources at the time. While I was in the USA, I learned that the market for music cards had started to gain traction in the gaming industry.

We quickly approached key game developers to support our music cards. As an unknown company from Asia, it was very challenging initially. However, we soon gained the respect of several key developers, because of our prowess in technology and commitment to supporting these developers. To target this gaming market, we changed the name of our music card to Game Blaster and dropped the price by half.

In the process of talking to these developers, they strongly requested a sound card that could support voice. I told them that we had already done it in 1986, but removed the feature due to lack of support for it. I told them that if they were willing to support it, we could do a joint development. The first company with which we worked closely was Broderbund, with its Carmen Sandiego series of educational games. The project name of this sound card was ‘Killer Card’.

Broderbund developed its new voice-capable games with a crude prototype version of our ‘Killer Card’. This card actually consists of two prototype boards, interlinked together with a whole bunch of wires.

The ‘Killer Card’ became the Sound Blaster, and it was launched in November 1989 at Comdex in Las Vegas. And with the voice-capable games from Broderbund ready to ship, Sound Blaster was ready for prime time. Michael Jackson passed by and was attracted to the only booth that generated computer audio throughout the entire Comdex show – the Creative booth. I showed him the demo and presented our technology, and he stayed for 30 minutes, even though his minders wanted to usher him away after five minutes. Obviously he was awed.

At Comdex, people lined up in 20-person queues in front of three cashiers in our tiny 300 square foot booth – we sold one Sound Blaster every four minutes. This was a phenomenal success and Sound Blaster took off like a rocket after that. To date, over 400 million units of Sound Blaster have been sold. In fact, all PCs today still retain the original Sound Blaster compatibility in the OS.

CPC: What were the limitations of these old cards in comparison with later Sound Blasters?

Sim Wong Hoo: The Sound Blaster was an 8-bit sound card with a low sampling rate. The audio quality was coarse and very bad by today’s standards. But going from no sound to ‘got sound’ was a giant step for the PC at that time. Users were thrilled by this new capability, and its highly affordable mass-market price.

The OPL2 synthesiser was a two-operator FM synthesis chip and could only generate nine-voice mono music. ‘Two-operator’ means it uses only two sine waves to modulate each other and generate different kinds of musical instrumental sounds. While it sounded slightly better than our own 12-voice stereo synthesiser, it was still rudimentary in the realm of electronic music instruments.

CPC: The first Sound Blaster used a Yamaha OPL2 FM synthesiser, making it AdLib compatible. If AdLib hadn’t done this first, do you think the first Sound Blaster cards have had different music synthesis system?

Sim Wong Hoo: The first Sound Blaster did have a different music synthesis system – that was already in our Cubic CT PC in 1986. In fact, the first generation of Sound Blaster supported both the Yamaha OPL2 FM synthesiser and our own 12-voice synthesiser, so by default, it automatically supported a wider range of software from the two standards, giving users the best of both worlds.

CPC: The first Sound Blaster made a killer product by combining PCM audio with FM synthesis, but its sampling rate was limited to 23KHz. Why was the sample rate so low?

Sim Wong Hoo: The sampling rate was low simply due to component cost, and the performance of PCs at the time. A mass-market 8-bit analogue-to-digital converter wasn’t available at that time, so analogue-to-digital sampling was performed in software using the digital-to-analogue converter. Because it was software, it was limited by the speed of the PCs at that time. Anyway, a 23KHz sampling rate is good enough for 8-bit, as the benefit of increasing the sampling rate is drowned out by the coarse 8-bit output anyway.

CPC: PC games had very limited audio features at this time – how did you go about getting game developers to implement Sound Blaster support?

Sim Wong Hoo: After the initial success of Sound Blaster, we started to engage the entire gaming industry, and supported developers to put audio into their games. We provided them with a free Sound Blaster Developer Kit, which was the first of its kind in the industry, as well as free consultancy. We even helped game developers certify their games as ‘fully Sound Blaster compatible’ at no cost.

CPC: What was the thinking behind adding gameports to the backplates of Sound Blaster cards?

Sim Wong Hoo: It was very simple to do, and we had the space on the backplate to include a gameport. This also saved a precious slot for users who wanted to play games with joysticks.

CPC: It took a while for Creative to make the MIDI output of Sound Blasters MPU-401-compatible. Why was this?

Sim Wong Hoo: MIDI wasn’t our focus at the time – it was a small, niche and hard-to-service market. The original Sound Blaster did have a MIDI interface hidden in the gameport. It was put there to give a positive answer to curious people who asked about MIDI but didn’t need it. This limited MIDI features didn’t cause any loss Sound Blaster sales. We eventually did make our MIDI interface MPU-401-compatible and, as we had expected, it made no difference to our sales. The fact is that almost all our users didn’t care much about this compatibility.

CPC: The Sound Blaster Pro came on a 16-bit ISA card, but was still only an 8-bit card really. Why did it need a 16-bit ISA interface?

Sim Wong Hoo: The Sound Blaster Pro was a stereo version of the Sound Blaster, which was a requirement of the Microsoft Multimedia PC standard. It supported additional interrupt and DMAs, which were only found on the 16-bit bus.

CPC: The Sound Blaster Pro also came with an IDE interface to control a CD-ROM drive. What was the thinking behind this?

Sim Wong Hoo: The CD-ROM drive that met the performance requirement specifications of the Multimedia PC initiative was originally a very expensive, Japan-made CD-ROM drive with a complicated and expensive SCSI interface, which cost over $2,000 US. This expensive drive would have immediately derailed the multimedia PC initiative.

So Creative solved this nightmarish scenario by co-developing a new and inexpensive CD-ROM drive with MKE (Japan). Creative significantly improved the performance of this low-cost drive by developing a proprietary CD-ROM drive interface on the Sound Blaster, as well as new driver software. This innovative driver went against conventional wisdom of needing an Interrupt and DMA for high-speed data transfer. Instead, it used the CPU to access the CD-ROM drive directly and create a huge buffer of data in advance, thereby increasing performance tremendously.

Putting the CD-ROM interface on the Sound Blaster was an obvious advantage in that you also didn’t require an additional expansion slot for a CD-ROM drive controller. It also simplified the sales of our Multimedia PC Upgrade Kits, which comprised a sound card, CD-ROM drive and some CD-ROM titles.

CPC: The Sound Blaster Pro 2 introduced OPL3 synthesis – what could this do that you couldn’t do on OPL2?

Sim Wong Hoo: OPL2 had two operators and nine voices, while OPL3 had four operators, 18 voices and stereo output. FM synthesis with four operators used four sine waves to synthesise music, which provided a richer timbre and thus created better-sounding musical instruments.

CPC: Several competitors started producing cheaper ‘Sound Blaster Pro-compatible’ cards in the early 1990s – how did these affect your sales, and was there any licensing involved in claiming compatibility with your cards?

Sim Wong Hoo: These so-called compatible sound cards had negligible effects on our sales, despite selling at lower prices. In fact, they helped to create a larger awareness for sound on the PC. Many of these cards suffered high returns as users found them not to be that Sound Blaster-compatible. After the returns, the users would usually then buy original Sound Blasters.

CPC: Take us through the development of the EMU chips for the later 16-bit Sound Blasters – what were you looking to achieve with this level of advanced synthesis?

Sim Wong Hoo: The EMU was the grandfather of wavetable synthesis, earlier than Yamaha and Roland, pioneering wavetable synthesis way back in the early 1970s. EMU joined the Creative family in 1993, and we started using its wavetable chips in Sound Blasters to provide much better music synthesis and FM synthesis. It was a major breakthrough for PC sound cards at that time.

The subsequent EMU chips – for example, EMU10K1 –besides doing wavetable synthesis, were also fully programmable acoustic digital signal processing engines that powered our game-changing Environmental Audio eXtension (EAX) system. This enabled multiple simultaneous voices to be processable in hardware.

CPC: Even though so many decent synthesizer sounds were available, via the AWE 32, AWE 64 and various wavetable cards, OPL2/OPL3 is still considered the ‘sound’ of the era – it’s the default in DOSBox, for example. Why do you think wavetable synthesis didn’t quite catch on in the same way as FM synthesis?

Sim Wong Hoo: FM synthesis supported many old games, which is why it’s still found to be the default in DOSBox. As PCs got a lot faster, and supported larger memory, I guess it was easier for developers to stream music directly in games. Some of them used their own software audio engines.

CPC: The AWE32 was expandable via standard 30-pin SIMMs, but the AWE64 wasn’t. What was the reason for this decision?

Sim Wong Hoo: The AWE64 was targeting a much bigger market and, to be cost-effective, we had to remove the memory upgrade functions. The built-in memory was sufficient for most applications. The AWE64 subsequently became a runaway success.

CPC: Some hobbyists have found ways to clone old ISA Sound Blaster cards, ordering a pre-made PCB and soldering in the components (such as the Snark Barker in the video below). Given that Creative hasn’t made these cards for 25-odd years, do they have Creative’s blessing?

Sim Wong Hoo: We have no issues with individual hobbyists who are nostalgic about our very old Sound Blaster cards.

CPC: We recently did a social media survey on how people use their spare PCI-E slots, and 19 per cent of our respondents used a dedicated sound card. What do people get from a dedicated sound card that they can’t get from integrated audio?

Sim Wong Hoo: In the first place, I think motherboard audio is horrible. Many engineers, especially digital engineers, think that PC audio is achieved by simply putting a decent DAC on a motherboard. That couldn’t be further from the truth. A good audio design requires a good analogue section.

There are many contributors of noise on any motherboard, so designing a good analogue section on a noisy motherboard is almost a defeating cause. On a powerful gaming computer, the noise from a powerful CPU is even worse. This problem is magnified by on-board Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and so on. The final nail in the coffin is the multiple GPU cards found on the most powerful computers, which to me makes motherboard audio unredeemable.

Creative has many, many years of experience and expertise in pristine audio design. This expertise spans digital, analogue and acoustic audio domains, all of which are necessary for superior audio performance. Sound Blaster was well established decades before motherboard audio became pervasive. Over the years, as motherboards became more powerful and noisier, our Sound Blaster cards, despite being plugged into the motherboard, were always a few steps ahead in being able to preserve this pristine quality.

If users are willing to spend money on an expensive high-end graphics card, it would make total sense for them to invest in a worthy sound card to complete the entertainment experience. Even our lower-end sound cards provide good audio, and retain a big following to this day.

For example, Sound BlasterX AE-5 offers dedicated high-quality components, and proprietary technologies such Xamp, which drives individual headphone channels, providing much better headphone audio transience. It can also drive two extreme ends of the headphone spectrum, from 600 Ohm studio monitor headphones to 16 Ohm sensitive in-ear monitors.

Then there’s the Sound Blaster audio processing technology, which can be personalised to suit individual entertainment needs such as specific game profiles. It has features such as Creative Multi Speaker Surround 3D technology (CMSS 3D), which is able to provide 3D surround audio on just two front speakers. There’s also the Crystalizer, which helps to restore details that are otherwise lost in compressed audio, and DialogPlus, which enhances speech clarity in movies.

In fact, we have also moved beyond the internal sound card. To serve users who don’t have a slot for internal sound cards, we have a family of external Sound Blasters, which provide the same high-end audio performance and features.

CPC: How much of Creative’s revenue comes from Sound Blaster cards these days, and how does this compare with the past?

Sim Wong Hoo: The sound card revenue of today obviously can’t be compared with the heyday of Sound Blaster in the past, when we used to ship millions of sound cards a month. That said, Sound Blaster is still an important contributor to our revenue. Plus, with the recent launch of our Sound Blaster AE series, we are seeing a renewed interest in sound cards.

CPC: What’s next for Sound Blaster?

Sim Wong Hoo: Super X-Fi is our latest revolution in headphone audio. It provides holographic-like audio experience in headphones that’s as good as the real thing. To the headphone industry, it will be like the transition from black and white TV to colour TV. Super X-Fi will be seen in upcoming Sound Blasters, and this could well reignite the audio revolution for the world.