Gravis Ultras

While researching 1990s sound cards with wavetable synths, I came across an interesting resource called Rich Heimlich’s Patch Set Overview, namely issue #5 from July 1995.

When I tried to unearth older issues of same, I stumbled upon a curious PDF file. It looks like an Ensoniq Soundscape manual, but it’s in fact mostly filled with hundreds of posts from comp.sys.ibm.pc.soundcard.advocacy, capturing a major flame war in response to the innocently named Patch Set Overview. The flame war was basically Rich Heimlich vs. the united forces of Gravis Ultrasound fandom.

Gravis UltraSound (late 1992)

With the distance of 20+ years, it’s fascinating to read. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Mr. Heimlich was right and the GUS fans were wrong, and often extremely rude about it (although Mr. Heimlich certainly did not hold back).

Rich Heimlich ran a games QA company called Top Star. That put him into a fairly unique position of someone who was familiar with the then-current crop of mass-market sound cards, how they sounded, and what flaws they had, especially when used with games (the #1 use for sound cards by far, at least at the time).

He had the idea of publishing a rating of popular wavetable sound cards since most people only ever heard one or two and had no basis for comparison. That sounds sensible, but on comp.sys.ibm.pc.soundcard.advocacy  the overview was immediately attacked by GUS fans. The responses ranged everywhere from “I don’t care what you say”, “you’re wrong”, “you’re lying”, “you don’t know anything”, to “you’re a paid shill of Creative Labs”.

Gravis UltraSound MAX (late 1994)

The discussion is fascinating. One valid criticism brought agains the overview was that there is “pure” and weighted scoring, but no explanation of the weighting. That was taken into account for the 5th issue and the weighting was better explained.

But the biggest thrust of the most incensed posts was that the whole thing is an attack on the GUS and that the GUS is unfairly rated worse than terrible, horrible, no-good Creative Labs products. No one seemed to mind that the GUS was rated lower than Roland or Ensoniq products, but rating below the AWE32 was clearly a capital offense. Mr. Heimlich did not calm the situation by claiming that the GUS was a failing product selling poorly and with a high rate of returns.

That the GUS ultimately failed is clear enough. Knowing the sales numbers would be rather interesting. Based on how rare GUS cards are nowadays (especially compared to Sound Blaster 16 and AWE32), it is obvious that GUS sold much, much worse than the Sound Blasters.

Reading the raging discussion it is apparent that Mr. Heimlich had a much better understanding of the sound card market than the ardent GUS supporters. He also knew about problems that specifically game developers had with the GUS (no MIDI interpreter, no ROM, resulting high memory requirements).

GUS and I

Back in the 1990s, I only kept hearing about the Graves Ultrasound and how great it was. I only got my hands on one around 2003 when it was long obsolete. And it was… well, underwhelming.

The mostly-software Sound Blaster emulation was a real dog, even with the latest & greatest software. The sound quality was a bit meh, not because the synth as such was bad (although the output sample frequency dropped like a rock with lots of channels) but because 1 MB just isn’t that much. And 1 MB was the maximum the GUS could be upgraded to (prior to GUS PnP); the base model came with just 256 KB RAM.

Gravis UltraSound PnP (early 1996)

In hindsight it’s obvious that the GUS came at the wrong time. It was a sound card with good potential, but the Sound Blaster and AdLib standards were already firmly established, and register compatibility with those standards was a market requirement.

Basically the GUS needed to come either earlier, heading off the Sound Blaster, or it needed to wait until a platform like Windows 95 arrived where hardware compatibility wasn’t a big problem (but at that time, it would have had to be much, much better).

It would appear that Gravis was so certain they had a winner on their hands that they dismissed the reality of Sound Blaster compatibility requirements. While there is no doubt that the GUS was an excellent tool for music composition (it was basically a sampler), that market was tiny compared to the market for a games-compatible card.

It is instructive to compare the GUS with Ensoniq boards (especially with the Ensoniq Vivo 90). Neither had Sound Blaster compatible hardware, but Ensoniq had samples in ROM (no RAM) and considerably better software providing Sound Blaster and AdLib emulation. The Vivo 90 was a fairly cheap card (like the GUS) and likely outsold the GUS by one to three orders of magnitude, in no small part thanks to numerous OEM design wins—because it much better satisfied market demand. Such is life.

This entry was posted in Creative Labs, Internet, PC history, Sound, UltraSound. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Gravis Ultras

  1. MiaM says:

    At the time Creative had to sponsor events such as The Gathering (or was it The Assembly) to force the organizers to require Sound Blaster compability for the demo competitions. Up to that, the whole demo scene were oriented around GUS.

    My impression is that up to that time the only usage of wavetable synthesis were whatever the games used and what booooooring men in suits and ties used to try to impress other boooooring men in suits that never had seen “multimedia” before.

    As I recall the GUS had hifi quality on the analogue parts and sounded good when connected to a serious hifi stereo setup or a large PA system. At the same time both Creatives own Sound Blasters and especially the SB clones had all kinds of disturbing background noise. On your pictures it’s clear that all versions hade voltage stabilisers and separate IC’s handling the analogue inputs and outputs.

    Also it seems like the GUS were the king of playing back “tracker modules” with good sound quality which was what the demo scene were interested in.

    Listen to some music (not related to the computer scene) from the time and you will hear that synthesis simulating accoustic instrumets were not a thing at that time. Who cared if the Sound Blasters could sound like a piano if you actually wanted your sound card to sound like a synthesizer?

    P.S. I’m not trying to defend the GUS, I’m more trying to express how crappy the sound blasters and clones actually sounded at the time. At the time I still were an Amiga user and I’m into high quality hifi stereo systems since long before that time. I just recall how different sound cards sounded at different friends.

  2. Michal Necasek says:

    It wasn’t called a Creative Noise Blaster for noting. Of course the sad truth is that Creative understood the market and knew that selling noisy cards didn’t matter when most users had crappy desktop speakers that wouldn’t know HiFi if it bit them in the ass. The cheap clone manufacturers knew that too, and sold even worse junk. Those who did care about quality bought something else (maybe a Turtle Beach board or later an AudioTrix).

    BTW many cards were definitely susceptible to noise inside the PC. When the PC was extra noisy (I mean EMI rather than mechanical noise), even a good card could only do so much.

    Yes, for tracker music, GUS was very good. It was much less good for MIDI because while most every MOD easily fit into the GUS’s RAM, a halfway decent General MIDI instrument bank did not. That was a problem because gamers wanted General MIDI, and gamers were the biggest market for sound cards by far.

  3. Yuhong Bao says:

    It is also unfortunate that it came just before PCI was introduced, given that it wasn’t Sound Blaster compatible anyway.

  4. Michal Necasek says:

    The Gravis Ultrasound? It showed up in 1991/1992, long before PCI was available and years before anyone (Ensoniq, 1996) dared to build a PCI sound card.

    But yes, the GUS might have benefited from PCI, and it would have been a smart design. But alas, the GUS came out at the wrong time.

  5. Yuhong Bao says:

    October 1992 was months before the Pentium was released.

  6. Thomas says:

    Hello People!
    A few thoughts regarding “got my hands on one around 2003 when it was long obsolete. And it was… well, underwhelming”. It is important to view it in it’s time context.
    The top capability of GUS was the playback of music using sampled sounds, doing this without speed penalty on the CPU … this greatness was gone just a few years later, you could have music with sampled sounds downmixed and played back through any cheap SB clone without any wavetable capabilities and most important without great speed penalties on the CPU.
    What made GUS great could be done on any sound card and that killed the GUS (I think).

    About GUS competition, indeed there were other (more or less expensive) cards with General Midi …
    For in-game music, if you want Mozart, GM is unbeatable but if you want that era’s techno/rock style music, standard GM instruments set is pathetic. Starting in 80’es throughout 90’es it was the time of the samplers, you cannot play that music with a symphonic orchestra instruments set.

    Back in 90’es I was ecstatic about my SB clone with OPL synth until I’ve seen (and heard) an Amiga 500 … from that moment on, for me game music on PC (being Adlib or GM) sounded from mediocre to horrible. And Amiga was not even half the GUS.
    In the PC world GUS was the only thing that brought the magic of Amiga … unfortunately a little bit late. Had Gravis done it when the 386 came to market, it would have been a blast.

  7. Michal Necasek says:

    I’m pretty sure there were PC MOD players with software mixing in the early 1990s. Not the same as the GUS, but not nothing. The huge problem that GUS had was lack of content. For SoundBlaster-oriented games the GUS was overkill with sub-par compatibility, for General MIDI it was not that great due to limited RAM and steep frequency drop-off with more channels. For trackers the GUS was terrific, but that was never a mainstream thing. Yes, the GUS was an okay sampler, but a sampler isn’t something every PC user would want.

    I disagree about General MIDI and techno/rock music. One just needs to listen to the soundtracks of games like DOOM or System Shock.

    In a way the UltraSound was like dedicated MPEG decoder cards, great when they came out but soon completely obsoleted by commodity CPUs and graphics chips.

    You have a good point that things are relative. Compared to AdLib, the Sound Blaster was brilliant, and compared to the old Sound Blaster, GUS was brilliant too. I also think that had GUS showed up about 2 years earlier, things could have gone very differently.

  8. Renee Senger says:

    Reading about these vintage ISA sound cards I remenber Crystalizer Tidalwave 128, a Crystal C59236 chip based board. At that time it was considered as a good option for OS/2 too. I never found one to test. Anyone here tested this card?

  9. Michal Necasek says:

    No, would love to have a Crystallizer myself. But finding a card with a CS9236 synth should be a lot easier than finding a Crystallizer card. I have an IBM OEM ISA card, S-16WP1/L, which has CS4237B and CS9236 chips on it (and very little else — these were really highly integrated chips).

  10. Pingback: Trackers vs MIDI | Scali's OpenBlog™

  11. Pingback: How Many Gravis UltraSounds? | OS/2 Museum

  12. Nathan Anderson says:

    I wonder what kinds of games y’all were playing back then? I never had the pleasure (?) / misfortune (??) of owning a GUS, but I *definitely* remember that a whole slew of games from shareware publishers such as Apogee and Epic *heavily* advertised the GUS capabilities in their games, and I remember thinking back then (as an impressionable young thing) that it must be the audio card to have…

    Also, not a judgment call either way on the merits or faults of the GUS, but reading that linked Usenet thread took me back to some comp.os.os2.advocacy flamewars from way back in the day. The, uh, “zealotry” on display here by GUS fanatics definitely calls to mind the same kind of unhinged and emotionally-based defenses that I remember from the OS/2 (and even Apple) camps back in the day which just caused me to, as the kids these days say, “SMH”. (And I was an OS/2 fan!)

  13. Michal Necasek says:

    GUS was not that great for games (OK, I’m not a GUS zealot). It was a capable card and it was great for demos and trackers and for the games that took advantage of it (mixing lots of channels with very low CPU overhead), but as a general gaming card it was not very good, which is what killed it. The #1 problem GUS had was Sound Blaster.

    GUS, Amiga, OS/2, there’s definitely some commonality there.

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