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Retro midi machine! - Mattias Westlund - 11-07-2016

Inspired by Samulis' amazing Historical Audio Workstation thread, I decided to try something similar myself. Now, I don't have any fancy outboard synths and samplers, but  what I do have is a lot of old PC hardware including various sound cards that I've used over the years. Many of which have some decent midi synths on them.

So, I went rummaging about in my computer closet and found no less than 10 old sound cards.

[Image: DSCN2514.jpg]

Top left is an E-MU APS complete with 5.25" bay. Below that, a Yamaha Waveforce 192 XG and a Turtle Beach Santa Cruz. Below those, a SoundBlaster AWE64. I don't remember ever using that one. The behemoth card at the bottom is an Ensoniq Soundscape Elite, I cut my midi sequencing teeth on this one. A monster of a sound card in its day!

On the right side we have five different more modern SoundBlasters. Top to bottom: Two Audigy 2's (same model number but they look slightly different so I'm guessing different revisions), an Audigy, an SB Live! and finally an SB Live! 5.1. The only ones I remember actually using were the SB Live! and the Audigy, the latter just before I moved on to using proper audio interfaces.

Anyway, it didn't take me long to realize that there's only four of these cards that still interest me, namely the APS, the Waveforce 192 XG, the Turtle Beach and the Soundscape. The APS is basically a SoundBlaster with enhanced capabilties anyway, so all the SB's are redundant. Synth chips from E-MU, Yamaha and Ensoniq (with a bit of Turtle Beach thrown in just for the heck of it) in a single PC -- not too shabby I'd say.

I also dug up a case that looked just the part. Feast your eyes on this marvel of exquisite design!

[Image: DSCN2518.jpg]

OK, it's fugly. But it isn't as cramped as a lot of computer cases from the 90's (you know, those days before airflow was discovered) which makes putting everything together a lot easier.

As I needed at least one ISA slot for the Soundscape card, using anything more modern than a PII/PIII motherboard was out of the question. My choice fell on an Abit BE6 mobo, which was the most advanced of the few boards I have left from this era. It supports up to 768MB 133MHz SDRAM and has an ATA66 controller, unlike the other couple of mobos which were limited to only 512MB 100MHz RAM and ATA33. It also has five PCI slots, which is perfect for this project.

I only found two different PIII processors though, one 500MHz and one 600MHz. I opted for the 500MHz one as it is passively cooled, whereas the tiny fan on the 600 makes a headache-inducing whine. 500MHz is still plenty for my needs here -- again, the Soundscape limits me to Windows 9x as there are no drivers for anything more recent than that.

I mounted everything into the case and put 512MB RAM in there (again... plenty for Win 9x) together with a GeForce FX5200.

[Image: DSCN2516.jpg]

Here's a shot from the back:

[Image: DSCN2523.jpg]

At first I considered simply daisy-chaining the cards (i.e. output from card 1 to line in on card 2 and so on) but quickly realized this would become a nightmare of flipping between the respective software mixers in Windows to match levels. So I decided to use a small mixer instead.

After that I plugged in a 40GB hard drive and went ahead and installed Windows 98 SE. Which was, unsurprisingly, a complete nightmare. This process took probably four times as long as putting the hardware together. I was quickly reminded what a piss-poor range of OS's 9x were, with all the little bugs and quirks and extreme stability issues. To think that I actually used this for making music back in the day! Wow. This experience certainly makes me appreciate modern systems A LOT more.

And here it is!

[Image: DSCN2527.jpg]

The rack unit is a Digitech 256XL hooked up to the mixer's fx loop. It ain't no Lexicon, but using an outboard reverb will probably help make everything sound more like a whole.

Another shot from the back. Yay, spaghetti!

[Image: DSCN2530.jpg]

And... the glorious user experience that is the Windows 98 desktop. Don't you miss it?

[Image: DSCN2534.jpg]

So, you ask, does it work? Yeah, it does. Surprisingly well, even. What it actually sounds like will have to be a post for another day though.


RE: Retro midi machine! - Samulis - 11-07-2016

Wow! Mattias, that is a really great project there. I love the shot of all the sound card I/O ports after you installed them, reminds me of this picture- XD
[Image: geoffkaisermultimic.jpg]

I am definitely looking forward to hearing how they sound! Maybe find a good MIDI orchestral demo and run it through each card or something.

Interestingly Yamaha (I think) made a range of children's keyboards that essentially were early soundblasters with keyboards attached. I've wanted to get one for a while (especially since they're like $30-100), but none of them have MIDI input, so they wouldn't do so well with my subpar piano skills.

That case is definitely classic. I remember when everything was in that sandy-colored plastic. It was the "plastic of the 90's" I feel, haha.

I wanted to find an earlier copy of Windows for my project, but as I said, I ended up using XP because it's the last one I remembered that WASN'T a crashy pain in the bum to use, despite what my fondly-remembered childhood self would say otherwise. I remember how big 40 GB would have been back then! I grew up right at the tailing edge of the 3.5" floppy disc era and the dawn of the CD. I had a CD-RW I would store all my files on as a kid and I always thought I would NEVER fill up that (then) 600 MB of space.

(really the only reason I made this post was so I could subscribe to the thread)


RE: Retro midi machine! - Mattias Westlund - 11-07-2016

(11-07-2016, 11:34 PM)Samulis Wrote: Wow! Mattias, that is a really great project there. I love the shot of all the sound card I/O ports after you installed them, reminds me of this picture- XD
[Image: geoffkaisermultimic.jpg]

Haha! I think I've seen that one before. Makes me wonder if that's a shot from a Metallica recording session. "Wow, Lars' playing is really inconsistent, but if we put ALL the mic's we have on there, we should at least have a chance of capturing something that sounds decent."

(11-07-2016, 11:34 PM)Samulis Wrote: I am definitely looking forward to hearing how they sound! Maybe find a good MIDI orchestral demo and run it through each card or something.

Great idea! I remember Warcraft II having some really tasty midi stuff going on and it sounded awesome on the Soundscape. Maybe I can track down some actual mid files from the game.

(11-07-2016, 11:34 PM)Samulis Wrote: Interestingly Yamaha (I think) made a range of children's keyboards that essentially were early soundblasters with keyboards attached. I've wanted to get one for a while (especially since they're like $30-100), but none of them have MIDI input, so they wouldn't do so well with my subpar piano skills.

I know the ones you're talking about. There's a fella on Youtube who calls himself The 8-bit Guy who has reviewed these keyboards (and tons of other retro stuff). Great channel, lots of uber-nerdy stuff there!

(11-07-2016, 11:34 PM)Samulis Wrote: That case is definitely classic. I remember when everything was in that sandy-colored plastic. It was the "plastic of the 90's" I feel, haha.

Actually... most computers and other hi tech stuff from the 80's and 90's were actually a light gray when they were new. The plastic has just been yellowed by time into that disgusting institutional beige color. You can actually reverse the process by dunking the plastic parts in peroxide and put them in the sun (or under an UV lamp) for a few hours. If you think it's worth the trouble, that is.

(11-07-2016, 11:34 PM)Samulis Wrote: I wanted to find an earlier copy of Windows for my project, but as I said, I ended up using XP because it's the last one I remembered that WASN'T a crashy pain in the bum to use, despite what my fondly-remembered childhood self would say otherwise. I remember how big 40 GB would have been back then! I grew up right at the tailing edge of the 3.5" floppy disc era and the dawn of the CD. I had a CD-RW I would store all my files on as a kid and I always thought I would NEVER fill up that (then) 600 MB of space.

Haha, I remember my first CD burner. I was like OMG I WILL NEVER RUN OUT OF SPACE NOW! Big Grin And now less than 20 years later the majority of all those CD's are unreadable...


RE: Retro midi machine! - Otto Halmén - 11-08-2016

Seriously impressive! I am quite jealous of your setup. Big Grin

Are you able to run the cards simultaneously from a single session? Or would you have to do intermediate bouncing for projects using synths from different cards?

Also, does any of the cards have an FM synthesizer chip? Or would that technology have already been obsolete back then? Just curious. Smile


RE: Retro midi machine! - Mattias Westlund - 11-08-2016

(11-08-2016, 12:18 AM)Otto Halmén Wrote: Are you able to run the cards simultaneously from a single session?

I can, actually! I don't know why this never occured to me back in the day (might be that once I got e.g. the Yamaha card the Ensoniq felt completely outdated so I never bothered with using them both at once), but every sound card has 16 midi channels all of their own. Meaning, I can have one card playing something on midi channel 1 with a second and third and fourth playing different patches also on midi channel 1. All in all 64 different patches. Or maybe 80 even; the APS has two separate synths but I'm not sure how this works. I don't know if you can load another 16 patches into it.

(11-08-2016, 12:18 AM)Otto Halmén Wrote: Also, does any of the cards have an FM synthesizer chip? Or would that technology have already been obsolete back then? Just curious. Smile

Completely obsolete. These are all sample/wavetable-based chips. The AWE64 might have an FM chip, but I'm not sure.


RE: Retro midi machine! - Mattias Westlund - 11-08-2016

I forgot to mention that I lost my catastrophic hardware failure virginity to this fella (the power supply that was originally in the 90's computer case):

[Image: DSCN2536.jpg]


I've been building, modding and generally mucking around with computers for 20 years but this was the first time for me that something actually went POP! Sparks flew and all the magic smoke escaped. Amazingly it didn't hurt the mobo or anything on it.


RE: Retro midi machine! - Mattias Westlund - 11-11-2016

OK, so I have rendered one of my my favorite tunes from the era -- Alliance 3 from Warcraft II -- using all four sound cards.

1. Ensoniq Soundscape Elite
2. E-MU APS
3. Yamaha Waveforce 192XG
4. Turtle Beach Santa Cruz

Now, I'm obviously biased towards the Soundscape card, as that was what I originally heard this music on back in the day. Having said that, both the Waveforce and the Santa Cruz do a pretty good job of it. The APS on the other hand sounds pretty pathetic, even though it's using the 8MB GM soundfont shipped with it -- the highest quality official bank available at its release in 1998, i.e. only two years after Warcraft II -- and moreover, the APS is basically an enhanced SoundBlaster designed for creating music. This makes me think it would be interesting to also add a traditional SB card to the setup, just for the sake of comparison.

Anyway, what's interesting with all this is that the digital sound quality of these synth chips does not seem to be a big factor in their overall sound. The Soundscape is 22kHz (!) and the Waveforce is 32kHz, but the Santa Cruz (I think?)and APS are both 44kHz. And there's not a HUGE difference in terms of perceived sound quality. In fact, the Soundscape has by far the warmest and lushest sound of the four despite its low sample rate. They all have their apparent strong and weak points as well when it comes to samples. Listening to the individual cards they sounds like shit by today's standards, but I absolutely think it would be possible to cherry pick the best bits of all four and create something that isn't half bad. I mean, if one were inclined to use this hardware to actually make some music. Which no one in their right mind would be in this day and age.

...right?

Hrrm.

Anyway, my two biggest surprises in this experiment were a) the APS sounding as bad as it did, and B) the Santa Cruz sounding as good as it did. I'm kind of indifferent to the Waveforce overall, and I have a nostalgic connection to the Soundscape.


RE: Retro midi machine! - Samulis - 11-11-2016

If you send the clip my way, I can run it through the hardware samplers I have hooked up. Big Grin

It would be interesting to see how a same-year E-MU sampler compared to the soundcard, as well as see if any samples were retained from the Mirage-era into Soundscape. Interestingly enough, I find some of the Mirage samples are oddly familiar, and I wonder if they ended up in later libraries.

I definitely think the Soundscape has a very distinctive reverb that adds a lot to the sound- the bassoon and percussion is impressively large sounding for the era. The APS ends up so bland. The Yamaha I think has a cleaner mix than the Soundscape, but the reverb isn't as nice and the balance is a little off to me.


RE: Retro midi machine! - Mattias Westlund - 11-11-2016

(11-11-2016, 09:03 PM)Samulis Wrote: If you send the clip my way, I can run it through the hardware samplers I have hooked up. Big Grin

It's the midi file called "allianc3" available from here. That would índeed be very intersting to hear!

(11-11-2016, 09:03 PM)Samulis Wrote: I definitely think the Soundscape has a very distinctive reverb that adds a lot to the sound- the bassoon and percussion is impressively large sounding for the era.

TBH I wouldn't be surprised if the WCII music was actually composed on a Soundscape or some compatible Ensoniq synth or module.

(11-11-2016, 09:03 PM)Samulis Wrote: The APS ends up so bland. The Yamaha I think has a cleaner mix than the Soundscape, but the reverb isn't as nice and the balance is a little off to me.

I think both the Yamaha and the APS fall into the same category of advanced hobbyist/semi-pro musician type of cards. Meaning, they could sound pretty decent if you played to their strengths but they weren't REALLY intended for playing back midi game music.


RE: Retro midi machine! - Mattias Westlund - 11-11-2016

Um... it seems like these tracks are kind of left-heavy, are they not? At first I thought it was just the way they were mixed on a midi level, but looking at the L/R waveforms I'm starting to think that there might be something off with either the mixer itself or the cables I used for hooking it up to my main machine for rendering.