For a long time we only heard beeps. The sounds that came out of our 8-bit computers and those first PCs left almost everything to the imagination, but little by little the industry realized that audio was really important. And then Sound Blaster came along and changed everything.
This family of sound cards became the de facto standard for the PC industry, and for years they dominated a market that ended up leaving them almost completely aside.
From the beeps to the magic of ‘Paula’
PC makers didn’t care much about sound. Not at least during a good time when the beeps dominated our lives. Even limited 8-bit microcomputers like the Spectrum or the C64 (the best of all of them, which is why the one who signed this was for) they began to demonstrate the game that could give a good melody.
The IBM PCjr wanted to bring computing to a less business audience, and it did so with a somewhat more ambitious bet in the field of sound. By the way: it also has one of the most curious keyboards in the history of IBM that also connected by infrared! to the team. The team was a dismal failure.
In fact, even with such limited sound chips, those computers gave rise to the legendary chiptunes, those electronic melodies synthesized for 8-bit machines that, beware, are still very fashionable today.
IBM began to realize where the shots could go and made a little effort before it stopped saying goodbye to its PC. The 1984 PCjr launch surprised due to the presence of the Texas Instruments SN76489 chip, which ended up being also used in the Sega Master System and the Genesis and which gave these teams a surprising capacity in this area. A capacity that yes, was condemned by its limited compatibility with software for the PC or its reduced power, which made that many games of the time could not work well on the PCjr.
That failure left the personal computers that conquered the world for years burdened in the field of audio. Here the first clear revolution was shown by two machines. First the Atari ST, with its ‘Pokey’ chip that made this machine a fantastic alternative for music producers who could enjoy its MIDI port for songwriting.
Second, the even more fantastic Amiga 500 (Guess who had one of these?), Which was a prodigy for many things but also for its use of dedicated chips, one of which, called ‘Paula’ was in charge of offering four-channel audio support and converted the A friend in the visible face of that “multimedia” revolution experienced by computing in the late 80s and early 90s.
And then 1989 came, and out of nowhere it seemed to emerge a Singapore company called Creative Technology. And everything changed for audio on PCs.
The Sound Blaster brand is born
As indicated in the fantastic historical review of these cards in Tedium, Creative Technology was not the first in trying to achieve to offer PC users a much more remarkable quality in terms of sound.
In fact in 1987 a Canadian company called AdLib began offering products based on ISA expansion slots. Its sound card had a Yamaha YM3812 FM chip that allowed to create good quality synthesized music, but it had an important limitation: it did not have support for PCM modulation that is used for example for the reproduction of audio CDs.
Precisely the proposal of Creative Technology was based on improving that same AdLib product, whose chip Yamaha did not have much less exclusive. What they did in the Singaporean company was precisely to launch a card on the market that differed from that of its competitor in that it did have full PCM support.
In those days device drivers used to give Windows users more of a headache.
That joined other deciding factors. Manufacturing costs were much lower for Creative Technology in Singapore than for AdLib in Canada, but in addition Creative reached agreements with several video game developers to guarantee that they would support the Sound Blaster.
Their engineers provided device drivers to all those companies and developers, but they also added a game port for joysticks, something that gave players another powerful reason to choose these cards. The Sound Blaster family destroyed the competition, and ended up dominating the market for more than a decade.
The democratization of sound ended Sound Blaster
Creative Technology would actually end up being much better known by Creative Labs, its brand in the United States and other countries. That empire of sound for PCs remained relevant for many years in which the new versions of your sound cards they happened without stopping.
However, that would put an end to the support problems caused by Microsoft Windows 95, the operating system that changed the hardware support model and eliminated the importance that Windows users had for Windows users. Sound Blaster compatibility.
That joined the deciding factor: motherboard manufacturers released all kinds of products with integrated audio chips, something that made it unnecessary to acquire independent cards for a section that already met well enough in most PCs.
That turned Creative Labs into a company with products aimed at a smaller market: that of gamers and fans of the world of sound who were looking for special features in these sound cards. Products like Sound Blaster Live !, the Audigy or the X-Fi They ended up being oriented to a niche that was still faithful to those products and that had become unmarked from the end user, who was satisfied with the integrated chips.
Creative Labs (or Creative Technology) keep operating with products related to sound with its Sound Blaster brand, of which we have long analyzed a DAC.
In 2017 they launched their Sound BlasterX AE-5, for example, and they have also bet on the segment of “television audiophiles” with a sound bar like the X-Fi Sonic Carrier that appeared with an exorbitant price of almost 6,000 dollars. The aforementioned AE-X5 has just been renewed with the Plus Pure Edition, a sound card for modding lovers, and products very geared towards gaming such as the Sound Blaster G3 or the Sound Blaster GC7 show that there is still a market for these solutions.
Much has certainly changed with the Sound Blaster, but these cards have already become part of the history of technology. If you want to go deeper into this topic, you may want to enjoy the documentary ‘Beep: A Documentary History of Game Sound’ or buy the book ‘Sound Blaster: The Official Book’ in which the history of this family is narrated in great detail of sound cards.
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