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, 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  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.

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5 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.

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