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The History of Sound Cards and Computer Game Music

The History of Sound Cards and Computer Game Music

Jul 13, 2012

All modern computers have the ability to play high-quality digital sound, thanks to the presence of a dedicated sound card or an audio chip on the motherboard. Today’s computers produce lifelike, realistic audio, enabling us to listen to digital music collections, watch online videos and play action-packed games. However, the audio capabilities of today’s computers are the culmination of decades of development, and it took a significant contribution from the computer game industry to get us here. Without that contribution, anyone who isn’t a professional musician might still be listening to little more than beeps on his or her computer today.

Table of Contents

  1. 1981: PC Speaker
  2. 1984: IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000
  3. 1987: AdLib Music Synthesizer
  4. 1987: Roland MT-32
  5. 1988: Creative Music Systems Game Blaster
  6. 1989: Creative Labs Sound Blaster
  7. 1991: Roland Sound Canvas SC-55
  8. 1992: Gravis UltraSound
  9. 1992: Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16
  10. 1994: Creative Labs Sound Blaster AWE32
  11. 1997-Present: Modern Sound Cards
  12. Sound in Non-IBM Computers, Notes and Special Thanks

1981: PC Speaker

Internal IBM PC Speaker

If you had an IBM PC computer or a 100-percent compatible clone between 1981-1988, you were most likely listening to — or cutting the wires of — your computer’s internal speaker. The PC speaker was solely a rudimentary tone generator. It played one note at a time, didn’t have different instruments for composers to choose from and even lacked volume control. As a result, music played on the PC speaker tended to sound tinny and grating. Composers could get around these problems by varying the pitch of a note slightly to create vibrato and playing fast arpeggios to simulate the sound of multiple notes being played simultaneously. By playing short “blips” between notes — short low-pitched sounds in the middle of a longer, high-pitched sound, for example — it was possible to simulate percussion. However, most PC speaker music didn’t have this much effort put into it; game music from this era often sounded rather monotonous. Through a clever hack, some computer games from the late ’80s actually played 6-bit digital sound through the PC speaker. However, this technology was used in few games because it was difficult to play digital sound through the speaker without sacrificing speed. When sound cards began to drop in price, the digital sound hack became irrelevant.

Listen to the PC Speaker

Silpheed Game ScreenshotSilpheed (1988)

Composed by Nobuyuki Aoshima, Mecano Associates, Hibiki Godai, Fumihito Kasatani and Hiromi Ohba. Developed by Game Arts and published by Sierra On-Line.

This piece from the Silpheed soundtrack illustrates the technique most composers used when writing music for the PC speaker; the speaker plays the main melody only, and no tricks are used to simulate rhythm or accompaniment.


Lord of the Rings Interplay Game ScreenshotJ. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Vol. I (1990)

Composed by Charles Deenen and Kurt Heiden. Developed by Interplay and published by Electronic Arts.

By toggling rapidly between different notes, the theme from Interplay’s The Lord of the Rings creates the impression of up to four voices playing simultaneously from the PC speaker.


Space Racer Game ScreenshotSpace Racer (1988)

Composed by Michel Winogradoff. Developed and published by Loricels.

Hearing digital samples from an IBM-compatible computer before the release of the Sound Blaster was quite a novelty. Because of space limitations — Space Racer shipped on just one 5.25-inch floppy diskette — each sample is stored on the disk only once. The song is played by triggering the samples in a specific order.


Music Construction Set Game ScreenshotWill Harvey’s Music Construction Set (1984)

Unknown composer. Developed and published by Electronic Arts.

Music Construction Set accomplished the seemingly impossible by playing four simultaneous voices with no audible toggling. Although the voices have a bit of a “fuzzy” quality, you can clearly hear the details of the composition.


Rendezvous With Rama Game ScreenshotRendezvous With Rama (1984)

Unknown composer. Developed by Byron Preiss Video Productions and published by Telarium.

While PCjr and Tandy 1000 owners were treated to a wonderful three-voice opening theme when playing Rendezvous With Rama, the PC speaker version of the theme switches confusingly from one “instrument” to another in an attempt to create the same effect.


1984: IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000

IBM PCjrThe PCjr was released by IBM in 1984 as an attempt to provide better competition for Apple in the home computer market. The PCjr included features designed to appeal to home users, such as an infrared wireless keyboard, cartridge slots and expansion hardware that could be installed without opening the computer. More importantly, the PCjr featured enhanced graphics and a sound chip that could play three voices simultaneously rather than the one voice of the original IBM PC. IBM contacted the game company Sierra On-Line, asking them to design a game that would show off the enhanced graphics and sound of the PCjr. The result was King’s Quest. The game became an enormous hit, saving Sierra from a failed investment in cartridge-based games just before the video game crash of 1983 and spawning a series that lasted 14 years.

Tandy 1000Some of IBM’s design decisions for the PCjr were poor ones, and the computer ultimately failed. However, Radio Shack’s Tandy 1000 — an IBM-compatible computer with the same video and sound capabilities as the PCjr — was a big seller. IBM still set the computing standard at that point, and since the PCjr wasn’t a success, not all games took advantage of the Tandy 1000’s advanced sound capabilities. Those that did provided a significantly better audio experience on the Tandy 1000 than they did on the IBM PC.

Listen to the Tandy 1000

Silpheed Game ScreenshotSilpheed (1988)

Although the sound chip of the Tandy 1000 lacked an effects channel for percussion, the three-voice polyphony made it possible to construct a full piece of music with melody, harmony and bass. The Tandy 1000 version of the Silpheed soundtrack was a significant improvement over the PC speaker version.



Rendezvous With Rama Game ScreenshotRendezvous With Rama (1984)

The Tandy 1000 version of the introduction piece for Rendezvous With Rama conveys the full effect of what the composer intended, while the PC speaker version could only “fake” it by switching from voice to voice. Because the quality of PC game music was generally rather low in the early ’80s, hearing such a complex piece at the beginning of a game was a real treat.



Music Construction Set Game ScreenshotMusic Construction Set (1984)

The PC speaker version of Music Construction Set was done so well that the difference between it and the Tandy 1000 version isn’t quite “night and day” as it is with some other games. However, because the Tandy 1000 could play multiple voices without tricks, the tones do sound less “fuzzy.”



Thexder Game ScreenshotThexder (1987)

Composed by Hibiki Godai. Developed by Game Arts and published by Sierra On-Line.

Thexder, the pinnacle of PC action gaming in 1987. features an appropriately energetic soundtrack that makes use of arpeggios to suggest chord changes. If the music sounds familiar to you, it may have something to do with the fact that Hibiki Godai also contributed to the Silpheed soundtrack.


1987: AdLib Music Synthesizer

AdLib Music Synthesizer CardA few different sound cards were available to purchase in 1987, but few people other than professional musicians were aware of them. Sierra On-Line became a driving force in the evolution of computer sound again, approaching AdLib and Roland about putting together bundles of their products — the AdLib Music Synthesizer card and Roland MT-32 sound module — for Sierra to market. Sierra then hired professional musicians such as William Goldstein (Fame) and Bob Siebenberg (Supertramp) to compose soundtracks supporting these devices for their upcoming games. Sierra also mailed letters and demonstration cassettes to its customers to promote the AdLib and Roland MT-32, and the consumer sound card market was born.

Although the Roland MT-32 was a far better synthesizer, it was the AdLib Music Synthesizer card that would set the standard in PC audio for the next few years — mostly due to its lower price tag. The AdLib cost $200, making it far more affordable than the $550 MT-32 ($1,053 in 2012 dollars). The AdLib generated music with a Yamaha YM3812 chip, which produced sound through FM synthesis. The YM3812 was also known as the FM Operator Type-L 2 or OPL2 chip; it could play up to nine voices simultaneously and produced tones by manipulating waveforms such as sine and half-sine waves. The sound quality was not unlike that of the inexpensive Japanese keyboards that many families had stashed under their couches in the late ’80s. The AdLib lacked the ability to produce true stereo audio or play digital sound samples of any kind. Nevertheless, it could produce rich, full sounds in the hands of skilled composers, as demonstrated by some of the samples below. Its primary shortcoming stemmed from the fact that many game music composers focused most of their efforts on high-end MIDI hardware such as the Roland MT-32 and Sound Canvas SC-55. In converting these soundtracks for the AdLib, little time was spent tweaking the music to highlight the AdLib’s strengths. Some of the best AdLib music was composed by demoscene members and shareware game companies, perhaps because their smaller budgets made purchasing the expensive Roland hardware impossible.

Listen to the AdLib

Silpheed Game ScreenshotSilpheed (1988)

Although music produced by the AdLib may sound primitive by today’s standards, the AdLib version of the Silpheed soundtrack is a dramatic upgrade over the PC speaker version. This piece features percussion, synthesized brass, bass and bells.



The Alibi (1992)

The Alibi was originally composed for the Commodore 64 by Thomas E. Petersen (“Laxity”) and converted to the AdLib by Jens-Christian Huus (“LCH”). Both were members of the computer music group Vibrants. The Alibi features rich bass and makes full use of the AdLib’s capabilities. using techniques such as vibrato and ADSR envelopes for a more expressive sound.


Traffic Department 2192 Game ScreenshotTraffic Department 2192 (1994)

Composed by Robert A. Allen and Owen Pallett. Developed by P Squared and published by Safari Software.

Traffic Department 2192 supported only PC speaker and AdLib/Sound Blaster sound, possibly because the composer didn’t have access to high-end MIDI hardware. As a result, the soundtrack is engaging and comes off sounding like it was composed for the device rather than converted from the original MT-32 version.


Dune Game ScreenshotDune (1992)

Composed by Stéphane Picq. Developed by Cryo Interactive and published by Virgin Games.

Although Dune supported the Roland MT-32 and LAPC-1, it is the AdLib version of the soundtrack that everyone remembers — perhaps because few people owned the expensive Roland hardware, but also, I think, because of the skillfulness with which the soundtrack was composed. An enhanced version of the soundtrack was released as the CD Dune: Spice Opera. Unfortunately, the CD is out of print and very difficult to find.


Sorcerian Game ScreenshotSorcerian (1990)

Composed by Mieko Ishikawa, Yūzō Koshiro, Hideaki Nagata, and Reiko Takebayashi. Developed by Nihon Falcom and published by Sierra On-Line.

Sorcerian was a lengthy game for its time, and it has a long, varied soundtrack to match. Unfortunately, the AdLib conversion of the soundtrack suffers a bit from a lack of bass and comes off sounding a little tinny.


1987: Roland MT-32

Roland MT-32 Sound ModuleThe Roland MT-32 was a sound module that could be connected externally to a computer via a MIDI interface card. It produced sound using a combination of digital samples and subtractive waveform manipulation, resulting in synthesized music that continues to sound quite professional today. Roland later condensed the capabilities of the MT-32 into a computer expansion card called the LAPC-1. The LAPC-1 cost slightly less than the MT-32 at $425, but it measured around 14 inches in length and required a large computer chassis. The fact that the MT-32 could not play digital sound samples would become a limitation by the early 1990s, but those who owned MT-32 experienced the best music that computer games had to offer until pre-recorded digital sound became the norm. The MT-32 could produce sound in true stereo, playing up to 32 voices simultaneously depending on the instruments selected. The string, synthesizer and percussion sounds were particularly good for that era, and the MT-32 even found its way into some mainstream music released during the ’80s such as Pete Townshend’s song Man Machines. The MT-32 also had a reverb effect, adding realism and depth to the music. All sounds produced by the AdLib card were completely dry, lacking environmental effects of any kind.

Listen to the Roland MT-32

Silpheed Game ScreenshotSilpheed (1988)

The Silpheed theme was one of the pieces that Sierra used to hype the Roland MT-32, and it was an appropriate choice; the beginning highlights the MT-32’s excellent built-in digital reverb, and the main section of the piece features excellent synth and wind sounds as well as a driving percussion track. While this is a catchy piece on any sound card, it was obviously meant to be heard on the MT-32.


Zeliard Game ScreenshotZeliard (1990)

Composed by Nobuyuki Aoshima and Fumihito Kasatani. Developed by Game Arts and published by Sierra On-Line.

The Roland MT-32 has a display screen that shows when instruments and other parameters change. Developers sometimes made it display fun messages, such as “Thank you for playing.” You could watch it to gain insight into how game music composers worked. This theme from Zeliard frequently changes lead instruments to add interest and variety.


Quest for Glory II ScreenshotQuest for Glory II (1990)

Composed by Chris Braymen. Developed and published by Sierra On-Line.

This lovely piece from Quest for Glory II again highlights the lifelike reverb of the MT-32, while adding a “human” element in the subtle tempo and volume changes of the plucked harp.



Ultima VI ScreenshotUltima VI: The False Prophet (1990)

Composed by Kenneth W. Arnold. Developed and published by Origin.

Many of the pieces from Ultima VI are deceptively simple, featuring only a handful of different instruments. Nevertheless, this soundtrack has wiggled its way into the brain of many an Ultima fan and once it grabs hold, look out.



Sorcerian Game ScreenshotSorcerian (1990)

The synth-rock pieces in the Sorcerian soundtrack are some of the best that early ’90s computer games had to offer. On the MT-32, you can hear exactly what the soundtrack’s composers were going for: hard-driving drums, big synthesizer sounds and more than a little Duran Duran influence. In all, the Sorcerian soundtrack featured 59 distinct songs.



1988: Creative Music Systems Game Blaster

Creative Music Systems Game BlasterIn 1987, Creative Music Systems released a sound card called the Creative Music System or C/MS card, later re-releasing it through Radio Shack in 1988 as the Game Blaster. The Game Blaster could play up to 12 channels of sound simultaneously in true stereo, with each channel playing a square wave for melody or a noise for sound effects and percussion. Because the square wave was the only non-percussion “instrument” available. the Game Blaster was seen as vastly inferior to the AdLib. It was similar in tonal quality to four Tandy 1000s playing simultaneously, except for the fact that the Game Blaster had the ability to adjust the volume of individual sound channels. The primary companies that supported the Game Blaster were Sierra, Electronic Arts and Accolade. Most other companies stayed away, and most consumers with around $200 to spend on a sound card chose the AdLib. However, AdLib’s superiority wouldn’t last much longer; in 1989, Creative Music Systems rechristened itself Creative Labs and released the Sound Blaster.

Listen to the Game Blaster

Silpheed Game ScreenshotSilpheed (1988)

The Game Blaster version of the Silpheed soundtrack is a slight improvement over the Tandy 1000 version but pales in comparison to the AdLib and MT-32 versions. The lack of percussion hampers the Game Blaster, as does the fact that many soundtracks utilized the high end of its tonal range, which tended to sound tinny.



Times of Lore ScreenshotTimes of Lore (1988)

Composed by Herman Miller and Martin Galway. Developed and Published by Origin.

When composers utilized the low end of the Game Blaster’s range, they could create rich, full music that was every bit as compelling as AdLib music in its own way. Unfortunately, few composers did. Times of Lore is perhaps the most prominent exception.


Ultima VI ScreenshotUltima VI (1990)

While the Game Blaster version of the Ultima VI soundtrack stays within the Game Blaster’s lower register, it doesn’t play to the card’s strengths quite as well as the Times of Lore soundtrack did and pales in comparison to the MT-32 version. Because few people purchased Game Blaster cards, creating soundtracks that lived up to the card’s potential was rarely a priority.



Sorcerian Game ScreenshotSorcerian (1990)

The Game Blaster adaptation of the Sorcerian soundtrack fails to convey the synth-rock excitement of the original MT-32 version. By staying within the card’s high register, the music sounds thin and overly computerized.



1989: Creative Labs Sound Blaster

Creative Labs Sound BlasterIn the history of the computer industry, many companies have designed products using off-the-shelf components to save on development costs and get something to the market as quickly as possible, only to be outplayed later by clone manufacturers. The IBM PC is the most prominent example, and the AdLib Music Synthesizer card is another. The AdLib used the Yamaha YM3812 chip — which anyone could buy — to produce sound. Because of the low price and the fact that it was one of the first sound cards supported by computer games, the AdLib became the first de facto standard for audio in IBM-compatible computers. Creative Music Systems may have failed to set a new standard with the Game Blaster, but the rechristened Creative Labs wouldn’t make the same mistake. The Sound Blaster included the AdLib’s YM3812 chip, making it fully compatible with the industry standard. However, it also had two highly desirable features that the AdLib lacked: a game port and the ability to record and play digital sounds. Although few games exploited the Sound Blaster’s ability to play digital samples when it was first released, the game port was a strong selling point because it allowed a computer to support a joystick. Because game cards cost around $50 at the time, a consumer could spend less — and get more — by buying the Sound Blaster rather than the AdLib and a separate game card. Sound Blaster became the new standard for computer audio, and although AdLib’s follow-up — the AdLib Gold — was superior, AdLib lacked Creative Labs’ marketing skills and was forced to file for bankruptcy in 1992.

The first Sound Blaster included a chip that made it backwards-compatible with the Game Blaster. It could play 8-bit, 23 kHz audio and record 8-bit, 12 kHz audio, both in single-channel mono. Although this was significantly lower than CD quality, it worked well for sound effects in games. Prior to the release of the Sound Blaster, many games with AdLib support used the AdLib for music while playing sound effects through the PC speaker. The Sound Blaster provided a much better experience when its ability to play digital sounds was utilized. Unfortunately, the Sound Blaster could also be a bit buggy. It required manual IRQ configuration and frequently conflicted with other hardware in the computer. Digital sounds were preceded by loud pops and sometimes caused computers to lock up.

Listen to the Sound Blaster

Crusader No Remorse ScreenshotCrusader: No Remorse (1995)

Composed by Daniel Gardopee, Andrew G. Sega and Straylight Productions. Developed by Origin and published by Electronic Arts.

This piece from the Crusader installation program illustrates the Sound Blaster’s ability to play music based on digital samples. Although the Sound Blaster is limited to 8-bit mono sounds, the Crusader soundtrack sounds far better than most games that utilized the YM3812 chip. The AdLib could not have reproduced this soundtrack at all.


Descent ScreenshotDescent (1995)

Composed by Ken Allen, Brian Luzietti, Larry Peacock, Leslie Spitzer, Jim Torres and Tim Wiles. Developed by Parallax Software and published by Interplay.

Descent was one of the few games with separate soundtracks for the Sound Blaster and Sound Blaster 16. This OPL2 version of the soundtrack utilizes the YM3812 chip, which means that it would sound exactly the same on the AdLib.


Descent 2 ScreenshotDescent II (1996)

Composed by Johann Langlie, Brian Luzietti, Mark Morgan, Larry Peacock, Peter Rotter and Leslie Spitzer. Developed by Parallax Software and published by Interplay.

Although this piece from Descent II is more mature and complex than the selection from the first game, it seems to overpower the YM3812 at one point. Near the end of the piece, instruments begin to cut out, perhaps because the maximum polyphony of the Sound Blaster has been reached.


1991: Roland Sound Canvas SC-55

Roland Sound Canvas SC-55MIDI — the Musical Instrument Digital Interface — was invented around 1982 as a means of communicating with electronic musical instruments. MIDI allowed a musician with one keyboard to expand his available instrument sounds by connecting sound modules such as the Roland MT-32. The keyboard sent commands containing parameters such as the instrument number and the pitch, volume and duration of the note, and the sound module played the requested sound. MIDI also enabled computers to interface with electronic instruments, making it possible for the MT-32 to play game soundtracks. Before 1991, however, MIDI had a serious problem: there was no standard for instrument numbers. Instrument 001 might be an acoustic grand piano on one synthesizer and an electric guitar on another, so to get the correct sound, you needed to play a piece of music using the synthesizer on which it was composed. General MIDI changed that by creating a standard list of 128 instrument numbers. Synthesizers could contain additional instruments and features if the manufacturer implemented them, but had to contain the basic list of 128 to be GM-compatible.

The Sound Canvas SC-55 was Roland’s first GM-compatible sound module. It became the preferred sound device for games with General MIDI soundtracks, both because of its exceptional sound quality and because many composers used it to create game soundtracks. Although the GM standard defined the basic list of 128 instruments, manufacturers used their own samples and synthesizer chips to create them. This resulted in slight variances in instrument balance and tonal quality between different devices, even when playing the same MIDI composition. Therefore, the only way to hear many game soundtracks exactly they were composed was to play them on the SC-55.

Although the Sound Canvas SC-55 was one of the best MIDI synthesizers on the market in 1991, it saw limited success among non-musicians because gamers had begun to demand digital sound playback and Sound Blaster compatibility. A computer owner could experience the best that modern games had to offer by using a Sound Canvas SC-55 for MIDI music and a Sound Blaster for sound effects, but few people had upwards of $1,000 to spend on hardware for game music. The Sound Canvas line became a successful one for Roland; descendants of the SC-55 remain available today.

Listen to the Roland Sound Canvas SC-55

Gabriel Knight Sins of the Fathers ScreenshotGabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (1993)

Composed by Robert Holmes. Developed and published by Sierra On-Line.

The SC-55 soundtrack for Sierra’s first entry in the Gabriel Knight series, with classical, jazz and rock influences, shows the full range of the sound module’s capabilities. Pay particular attention to the swell of the piano, organ and chorus about two thirds into the first piece.


Quest for Glory IV ScreenshotQuest for Glory IV: Shadows of Darkness (1993)

Composed by Aubrey Hodges. Developed and published by Sierra On-Line.

In addition to a much better acoustic grand piano, the SC-55 featured guitar sounds that were vastly superior to those on the MT-32. The Quest for Glory IV soundtrack features heavy use of the electric guitar sound and utilizes real playing techniques such as bends, tremolo picking and hammer-ons.


1992: Gravis UltraSound

Gravis UltrasoundThere are many who believe that Gravis is the company that should have won the sound card wars in the early ’90s. During this time, Creative Labs dragged their heels a bit, improving the Sound Blaster slowly because no other company posed any real competition. During this time, Creative’s flagship product was the Sound Blaster Pro, which featured two Yamaha YM3812 chips for stereo music and had the ability to record stereo sounds up to 22.05 kHz and mono sounds up to 44.1 kHz. However, the sample size was still limited to 8 bits. The Gravis Ultrasound represented a major step forward; out of the box, it could play 16-bit sounds and record 8-bit sounds with a maximum sample rate of 44.1 kHz. It was also possible to upgrade the Ultrasound with an add-on board that allowed it to record 16-bit sounds in full CD quality.

The music synthesizer component of the Ultrasound was also miles ahead of the Sound Blaster Pro. The Ultrasound came with 256 KB of built-in sample memory and supported a maximum of 1 MB. Using this sample memory, composers and game programmers could create “tracker music” — constructed by manipulating digital samples rather than sending commands to a hardware synthesizer — using samples stored entirely in the sound card’s memory. In addition, the Ultrasound featured a hardware mixer that could independently adjust the volume of each voice before sending it to the computer’s speakers. The Sound Blaster Pro also supported tracked music, but it had no built-in memory and relied on the computer’s processor to mix multiple voices. During a time when a typical computer had a 386 or 486 processor and 4-8 MB of RAM, allocating 256 KB of system memory to audio samples and using the processor to mix voices resulted in a significant drain on system resources. Games utilizing the Ultrasound had better sound quality and smoother animation.

However, the Gravis Ultrasound had trouble gaining acceptance among consumers who weren’t hardcore gamers, musicians or demoscene members because it lacked the Yamaha YM3812 chip and therefore wasn’t completely Sound Blaster-compatible. By this time, Creative Labs had been successful in creating an industry standard that consumers looked for when buying sound cards. My research suggests that Gravis announced the Ultrasound in 1991, but didn’t release it until October 1992. This gave Creative plenty of time to prepare a counter-attack, resulting in the release of the Sound Blaster 16 in June 1992.

Listen to the Gravis Ultrasound

Descent ScreenshotDescent (1995)

It could sometimes be difficult to find games with proper support for the Gravis UltraSound, but Descent fans who owned the UltraSound experienced significantly better music than they would have with the Sound Blaster 16. The synthesizer samples and high-quality drums give the Gravis version of the Descent soundtrack an exciting techno vibe, although the stereo separation is slightly poorer than with the Sound Blaster 16.


Descent 2 ScreenshotDescent II (1996)

As good as the Sound Blaster 16 version of the Descent II soundtrack is, when you listen to this version you can’t help but feel as though it was composed specifically for the Gravis UltraSound. The electric guitar sounds are significantly better, and none of the instruments cut out because the piece doesn’t exceed the UltraSound’s maximum polyphony.



1992: Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16

Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16The Sound Blaster 16 was a landmark product for Creative Labs. It began as the company’s flagship product and eventually made its way to the value segment as Creative continued to release more advanced sound cards. At the end of the decade, many computers still had Sound Blaster 16 cards installed — or one of the many clones that had begun to pop up by that point — because its ability to record and play 16-bit sound was all that most consumers needed. It also had an upgraded synthesizer chip called the Yamaha YMF262 — also known as the OPL3 chip — which could play up to 18 voices simultaneously in true stereo. Sadly, few game soundtracks ever utilized the YMF262 to its full potential. In creating soundtracks for sound cards with FM synthesizers, most composers targeted the lowest common denominator and wrote music for the YM3812 chip in the AdLib and original Sound Blaster, as most computers with sound cards had one or the other. When the Sound Blaster 16 became more common, games generally utilized pre-recorded digital soundtracks.

The Sound Blaster 16 was compatible with two add-ons, both available from Creative. The first was a synthesizer card called the Wave Blaster, which was a General MIDI-compliant synthesizer with built-in digital sound samples. The Wave Blaster was generally regarded as inferior to Roland’s Sound Canvas SC-55. The second was a chip called the Advanced Signal Processor which allowed higher-fidelity and lower-latency recording for studio use. Both add-ons — particularly the ASP — are difficult to find today.

Listen to the Sound Blaster 16

Second Reality ScreenshotSecond Reality (1993)

Composed by Peter Hajba (“Skaven”) and Jonne Valtonen (“Purple Motion”). Developed and published by Future Crew.

Demos such as Second Reality were generally created by young programmers, composers and graphic artists who wanted to break into the game industry, many of whom succeeded. This selection highlights the Sound Blaster 16’s ability to reproduce digital samples in stereo; it does not utilize the OPL3 synthesizer. You can see a recording of the Second Reality demo on the DVD MindCandy.


Crusader No Remorse ScreenshotCrusader: No Remorse (1995)

In this version of the Crusader soundtrack, we hear the benefit of the jump from 8-bit to 16-bit digital audio; the music sounds clearer and more spacious. More importantly, it’s in stereo. The second piece is an example of what the Crusader soundtrack is better known for: hard driving techno.



Descent ScreenshotDescent (1995)

This version of the Descent soundtrack highlights the advanced OPL3 synthesis of the Sound Blaster 16. The ability to produce synthesized music in stereo gives the music a great deal more depth. In addition, I find that the percussion has quite a bit more “punch.” Descent and its sequel are two of the few known games that allow you to toggle between OPL2 and OPL3 synthesis to hear the difference.


Descent 2 ScreenshotDescent II (1996)

In this piece from Descent II, the OPL3 FM synthesis of the Sound Blaster 16 really comes into its own. While the YMF262 chip isn’t exactly capable of producing booming bass and pounding drums, the improved percussion and stereo sound makes this version of the soundtrack far superior to the OPL2 Sound Blaster version.



1994: Creative Labs Sound Blaster AWE32

Creative Labs Sound Blaster AWE32Creative Labs are nothing if not brilliant marketers. In 1992, Creative released the Sound Blaster 16, which had the ability to record and play 16-bit CD-quality digital audio. When creative released the Sound Blaster AWE32 in 1994, many people assumed that it supported 32-bit audio and bought it without looking closely at the specifications. In fact, the AWE32 had the same 16-bit sample size limit. The “32” referred to a new synthesizer chip — the EMU8000 — which supported up to 32 simultaneous voices.

Creative Labs Sound Blaster AWE64 GoldCreative played with semantics again with the release of the Sound Blaster AWE64 in 1996; although the AWE64 technically supported up to 64 simultaneous voices, half of the polyphony was accomplished through the use of a software synthesizer that relied on the computer’s processor to generate sound, causing a severe performance penalty. In addition, voices played through the software synthesizer sounded completely different from the hardware voices, making the two virtually impossible to mix together in a single piece of music. Nevertheless, the AWE32 and AWE64 were excellent products at the time for musicians who used MIDI, as both cards had onboard memory that could be used to load sample sets called “SoundFonts.” With SoundFonts, a composer could write music without being limited to the MIDI instruments included with the sound card. In 1998, the Sound Blaster Live! further improved SoundFont support by utilizing system memory for SoundFont storage rather than expensive memory chips mounted on the sound card.

Listen to the Sound Blaster AWE32

Diablo ScreenshotDiablo (1996)

Composed by Matt Uelmen. Developed and published by Blizzard.

By the mid ’90s, most commercial games were shipping on CD-ROM and many computers had sound cards equal or superior to the Sound Blaster 16. The improved hardware and increased storage space meant that a game could include a soundtrack pre-recorded using the composer’s own equipment. Although most of the Diablo soundtrack is rather sparse, this beautiful piece more than makes up for the lack of tunes throughout the rest of the game.


Flowerguy’s Pool Party (2001)

Composed by Jake Kaufman.

This jazzy piece in the Impulse Tracker format is a perfect example of the way in which tracked music evolved in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Flowerguy’s Pool Party utilizes up to 21 simultaneous voices to create a rich, layered sound. The lead melody extensively utilizes envelopes and volume changes to avoid sounding robotic.


Curse of Monkey Island ScreenshotThe Curse of Monkey Island (1997)

Composed by Michael Land. Developed and published by LucasArts.

Although the CD-ROM format made pre-recorded digital game soundtracks possible, storage space remained a concern for larger games. Recorded to CD, the Curse of Monkey Island soundtrack would have filled two discs. To make room for the game’s graphics and spoken dialogue, LucasArts reduced the sample rate of the soundtrack to 22 kHz. Music such as this Holst-inspired wind ensemble piece would have to wait for the DVD-ROM era to be heard in full CD quality.


1997-Present: Modern Sound Cards

Realtek AC97 AudioIn 1997, Intel introduced the AC’97 audio codec, making it possible for hardware manufacturers to put all of the capabilities of the Sound Blaster 16 into a single chip soldered to the computer’s motherboard. The AC’97 codec relied on the computer’s processor to perform much of the work needed to produce sound, which could result in a substantial performance hit in games. However, the writing was on the wall; within a few years, processors became fast enough that the performance hit was unnoticeable, and Creative Labs became a bit player in the industry for which it once set the standard. Virtually all computer motherboards had integrated audio by 2000. The AC’97 codec cut costs for computer manufacturers and offered audio quality that was sufficient for most users. By 2008, sales of sound cards had dropped by more than 80 percent from their 2000 totals.

Although many integrated audio chips include rudimentary General MIDI synthesizers, music synthesis is for the most part an afterthought and barely on par even with vintage Sound Blaster cards. All modern games use pre-recorded digital soundtracks, and musicians who require synthesizers buy standalone sound modules or use software synthesizers. Thus, the synthesizer component of an integrated audio chip is rarely used.

M-Audio Avid Audiophile 192On the other end of the spectrum, Creative now competes with companies such as Avid/M-Audio and Asus in the recording and hardcore gaming segments that comprise an ever smaller slice of the computer sound market. A modern sound card may entice users with features such as Dolby surround sound for gaming and movies, post-processing for sound effects to simulate environments such as caves and hallways and 24-bit, 192 kHz audio fidelity for studio recording.

Listen to Modern Sound Cards

The Elder Scrolls IV OblivionThe Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006)

Composed by Jeremy Soule. Developed by Bethesda and published by 2K Games.

High-quality compression algorithms and the DVD-ROM format have freed modern game music composers from the need to optimize their work for disk space. Today, role-playing game soundtracks frequently mix live instrumental performances with high-end synthesizers to create wide-ranging orchestral scores. Online distribution has also given composers new avenues through which to distribute their work; the full Oblivion soundtrack is available through composer Jeremy Soule’s website, DirectSong.


Quest for Glory V ScreenshotQuest for Glory V: Dragon Fire (1998)

Composed by Chance Thomas. Developed by Yosemite Entertainment and published by Sierra On-Line.

In the late ’90s, Chance Thomas campaigned for the inclusion of a new category for game music in the Grammy Awards. The Quest for Glory V soundtrack was a key component in the campaign, proving that game music was finally approaching film music in ambition and sound quality. In a way, Thomas got his wish in 2011; the track “Baba Yetu” from Civilization IV  won a Grammy in the “Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists” category. The Quest for Glory V soundtrack has recently been re-released and is available through iTunes.


VVVVVV Game ScreenshotVVVVVV (2010)

Composed by Magnus Pålsson. Developed and published independently.

Many of today’s musicians have been listening to game music their entire lives and enjoy turning to the beeps and blips of classic games for inspiration. Modern bands such as Freezepop and Anamanaguchi have found success by mixing organic instruments and vocals with synthesized sounds created by vintage consoles such as the Nintendo Entertainment System and Game Boy. The soundtrack for the independent game VVVVVV often sounds like something out of the ’80s, but composer Magnus Pålsson (“Souleye”) throws in some unexpected chord changes and other tricks to remind you that you’re listening to something entirely original. The full soundtrack is available at Pålsson’s website.


Sound in Non-IBM Computers

Commodore 64Although most users of IBM-compatible computers had to be content with PC speaker sound until the late ’80s, people who preferred other computer platforms were experiencing great sound as early as 1982 with the release of the Commodore 64. The Commodore 64 featured a dedicated sound chip from MOS Technology called the 6581 Sound Interface Device — usually called the “SID” for short. The SID was a music synthesizer that could play up to three voices simultaneously, each using one of four different waveforms. Each voice had independent controls for parameters such as filters, attack and sustain, allowing for a wide variety of sounds. Although the SID is no longer produced and supplies are dwindling, it continues to be prized among musicians and vintage computer lovers and is used in modern products such as the HardSID sound card and SidStation synthesizer. In all, it is estimated that Commodore sold 22 million Commodore 64 computers, making it the best-selling computer in history. The SID chip has inspired such devotion that streaming radio stations such as Kohina have popped up to preserve the music and introduce it to new generations.

Commodore Amiga 1000Commodore shook the world of computer sound again with the release of the Amiga 1000 in 1985. The Amiga 1000 featured a custom sound chip codenamed “Paula.” Paula had the ability to play tracker music using 8-bit samples, with two voices sent to the left audio channel and two to the right to produce stereo sound. Each channel supported independent volume control and composers could use any 8-bit samples they liked, resulting in fairly professional music with a great deal of variety. Paula also controlled the Amiga 1000’s floppy disk drive and serial port.

During the 1980s, the Commodore 64 and Amiga computers provided gamers with video and sound quality that IBM-compatible computers couldn’t match. However, many consumers preferred the safety of the IBM-compatible standard and by the early 1990s, PCs had begun to catch up technologically with the Amiga. Commodore bet the farm on a CD-based game console called the CD32 in 1993, but the CD32 failed to generate enough revenue to keep the company afloat. By 1994, Commodore was bankrupt. The DVD Amiga Forever Video Edition contains a film chronicling these last days as well as some more upbeat videos from Commodore’s heyday.

Listen to the Commodore 64

Commando Game ScreenshotCommando (1985)

Composed by Rob Hubbard. Developed by Capcom and Elite and published by Data East.

Rob Hubbard is credited on more than 100 games and is a legendary composer among Commodore 64 fans. His style is characterized by an offbeat melodic sensibility and frequent use of arpeggios to imply chords — a technique that became common among Commodore 64 composers and worked far better on the C64 than it did on the PC speaker.


Great Giana Sisters ScreenshotThe Great Giana Sisters (1987)

Composed by Chris Hülsbeck. Developed by Time Warp Productions and published by Rainbow Arts.

With its simple melody and unusual chord progression, this theme from The Great Giana Sisters is frequently mentioned on lists of favorite Commodore 64 game tracks.



Listen to the Amiga

Full Contact Game ScreenshotFull Contact (1991)

Composed by Allister Brimble. Developed and published by Team17 Software.

While the Paula sound chip could play just four voices at a time, digital samples allowed composers to break that rule. By sampling and manipulating chords, a composer could create a track that seemed to have greater polyphony than the Amiga was actually capable of producing.



Turrican 2 Game ScreenshotTurrican II: The Final Fight (1991)

Composed by Chris Hülsbeck. Developed by Factor 5 and released by Rainbow Arts.

Rather than using the four channel .MOD format native to the Amiga, composer Chris Hülsbeck devised his own format that extended the Amiga’s capabilities. The TFMX format — used in the Turrican II intro — allowed the Amiga to play up to seven voices simultaneously.



Fountain of Sighs (1995)

Composed by Wojtek Podgorski (“Unreal”).

Because tracker music was typically the format of choice in the demoscene community, it was only natural that many demo competitions would also have categories for tracker music compositions. Fountain of Sighs won the prize for the best four-channel music composition at The Party in 1995.



The recordings featured in this article were created using the original hardware whenever possible. In some cases, it was necessary to use emulators. Emulators were used only when the result would be virtually identical to the original hardware. All of the music featured in this article is protected by copyright and remains the property of the copyright holders. The musical selections featured in this article are presented for their historical and educational value. If you do not want your music featured here, please contact us.

Special Thanks

Thanks to the following websites for providing valuable information for research as well as some of this article’s audio recordings and pictures: Wikipedia, The Oldskool PC, Quest Studios, Crossfire Designs,, Tom’s, Tom’s Ultima MP3 Files, Future Crew, Sierra Music Central, MobyGames, Tom’s Dune MP3s, Mirsoft, The Mod Archive, LucasArts Soundtracks, The Sierra Help Pages, and Steve Oakvalley’s Authentic SID Collection.