Rich Heimlich’s Patch Set Overview

Resurrected from the depths of the Internet, here comes an interesting and useful historical resource.  In 1994 and 1995, Rich Heimlich published several iterations of his “patch set overview” covering mainstream wavetable sound cards, daughterboards, and modules (“mainstream” being defined as under $400, later under $350).

The introduction to the first overview from March 1994 explains the motivation: You must really dissect what phrases like “It’s the best sound card I’ve ever heard”, mean. I find phrases like that are often VERY true. It is the best card that person has heard, but they often forget to mention that they’ve only heard one or two.

As the proprietor of a games QA company, Rich Heimlich was in a unique position because both software and hardware developers had need for his services. Given the cost of the hardware, there were probably very few people who could do such a hands-on comparison; even in the first overview the total cost of the gear covered was probably around $2,500, and it only went up from there with more products covered, ending closer to $6,000 in the final published overview (the later editions helpfully includes street prices).

The patch set overview evolved from a very short and simple list with ranking on a 10-point scale and a very brief description (“Costly, but the industry standard”, or “Inexpensive”) to a much more comprehensive sound card rating which also included digital audio, ease of use, etc.

The overviews were published in comp.sys.ibm.pc.soundcard newsgroup, with much discussion also in the newly created comp.sys.ibm.pc.soundcard.advocacy newsgroup.

Here are the actual published overviews; there were at least seven distinct editions published but it’s unclear if the set is complete. Note that the dates for the 1994 overviews are approximate and might be slightly off.

The overviews are a useful historical resource because they’re both more narrowly focused and have broader coverage than a typical magazine review. The ratings are inevitably somewhat subjective, but it is very unlikely that any are wide off the mark.

The biggest flame wars ensued about the ratings of the Gravis UltraSound, not so much because the GUS was rated relatively poorly but because it was rated worse than Creative’s AWE-32—that was considered an insult. Ironically the AWE-32 was not rated particularly well either, largely because its ROM sounds were so-so and because the onboard synth could not be driven through the MPU-401 interface.

Note that the overviews use “not fully GM” as a somewhat misleading shortcut for cards (like the Gravis UltraSound and AWE-32) which supported General MIDI playback but not through the MPU-401 interface, and therefore needed big and finicky TSRs to work with the vast majority of games where selecting “General MIDI” implied an external or internal synth attached through an MPU-401 compatible interface.

Roland and Turtle Beach devices were consistently highly rated, while Orchid and Sierra Semiconductor Aria cards were always at or near the bottom. Ensoniq did well by offering good quality for relatively little money.

And of course within a few years, most of the companies on the list were gone (Gravis, Turtle Beach, Ensoniq, Media Vision, Orchid, AVM) or left the PC sound card business (Roland, Aztech). Only Creative survived, and Roland to some extent returned with USB audio interfaces.

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33 Responses to Rich Heimlich’s Patch Set Overview

  1. MiaM says:

    This leavse the big question: Why did the games use GM? Did they want that “pc midi” sound, or was it just a way to save precious cpu cycles by not having to use the wave output?

    I looked at the patches august 95 list, and found the comment “there is no business sound card market” strange. Although small, surely there must have been a market for processing digital audio with a PC even at that time?

    Also the list doesen’t distinguish between the two TB Multisounds, with and without the Kurzweil module. Strange.

    I would btw agree with the 10.0 points for digital audio on the TB Multisound 🙂

    P.S. I think there is a typo, “Overview from July 1995” and “Overview from August 1995” links to files named 94-07 and 94-08. Is it 94 or 95 for theese?

  2. Jistuce says:

    @MiaM
    “This leaves the big question: Why did the games use GM? Did they want that “pc midi” sound, or was it just a way to save precious cpu cycles by not having to use the wave output?”

    CPU cycles? Perish the thought. Using MIDI of any sort for playback was a way to save SPACE. They didn’t usually have hundreds of megabytes available for streaming raw PCM to the speakers. Sure there was redbook audio(maybe, the CD-ROM was not a guarantee in 1995), but with all the seek times and loop-point pauses that entails it was HARDLY optimal for most games.

    Though the “PC MIDI” sound was typically FM synth rigged up to respond to MIDI commands rather than the synthesizer the game developers were actually composing for. Soundtracks INTENDED for FM synth were a lot less common than soundtracks played back on them.

    Though at least the GM->FM synth handoff usually went better than some of the OTHER MIDI options available that got piped out of those FM synthesizers.
    Games usually offered a wide variety of MIDI soundtracks, because it let them tailor the experience to the instrument people actually had, but that didn’t stop anyone from choosing completely wrong options. Or believing the lying marketing guy that told them their AWE32 was MT32-compatible.

  3. Jack says:

    If you were going to play pre-recorded music through the wave output, that would take up tons of space and would probably be impractical except for a CD game. If you were going to play a module or something, you’d have to write a module player and give up a chunk of your CPU time for output that wouldn’t necessarily sound better than a sound card’s MIDI implementation.

  4. Michal Necasek says:

    Why not wave output music? Two reasons, CPU power and storage. Old PCs simply did not have the CPU cycles to do the kind of music that Amiga did, for instance (with dedicated hardware). And it was not feasible to distribute music in wave form, it was just too big. And again once mp3 compression showed up, CPUs didn’t have the oomph to decode it in real time, or at least not all of them. A decent synth like the Roland SCC-1 or SC-55 had 24+ voice polyphony, reverb and chorus, and several megabytes of samples in ROM. It was on a completely different level from what a 386 or 486 could do as a background task.

    I fixed the dates, thanks. The comment about “no business sound card market” should not be taken literally, it just meant that compared to the gaming cards the market was vanishingly small. Yes, there were non-gaming PC cards (TB Multisound for example! the first ones showed up around 1991) but they sold in tiny numbers.

    The overview could not cover the TB Multisound with a Kurzweil synth, that didn’t exist yet in 1995! The original Multisound used E-mu Proteus (more or less), the newer used the Rio daughterboard (ICS WaveFront). And yes, the Kurzweil synth on the Pinnacle is very good indeed.

  5. MiaM says:

    Oh, I see.

    But I assume that GM doesen’t have standardized sounds for “accellerating car”, “machine gun” e.t.c… So how were the sound effects made?

    (Btw Amiga only had hardware for playing four waveforms at any desired sampling frequency, so most music tended to not use more than four simultaneous sounds at any time; if it would play in a game it would probaby have used even fewer channels as atleast one must have been reserved for sound effects).

  6. Michal Necasek says:

    GM was not used for sound effects (there are a few effects in GM, but not a lot, and they were almost never used in PC games). Games typically had two separate sound engines/drivers, one for digital audio and one for music. Digital audio was used for custom effects which were typically short samples with low quality, just slightly better than random noise (but for gunshots etc. you don’t need much). Music could use General MIDI, FM synthesis, MT-32/LAPC-I, Gravis UltraSound… if anything, there was far too much choice.

  7. bhtooefr says:

    Most games treated “sound” and “music” separately in that era, for precisely that reason. So, you’d aim your sound effects (your car engine sounds, your gun sounds, and the like) at something that could play PCM samples, and your music at something that could play General MIDI (or could be used to play General MIDI music, anyway).

    Consider the case of the original Sound Blasters (before the AWE32, and excluding Sound Blaster 16s that emulate FM somehow) – it had FM synthesis that was usually used for music, and PCM output for sound effects.

  8. random lurker says:

    Well, there is one famous example from 1992 of a PC game that uses sampled music (tracker music). Star Control II. The tracks didn’t take that much space and the CPU performance necessary was there – it was just a matter of tracked music being a novelty and more of a demoscene thing rather than something that musicians in general were accustomed to. When all that your musicians know is composing in MIDI, then that’s what you’re going to get. Even though rationally speaking it was probably going to be played through the FM synth in 99% of the cases, resulting in something quite different from what the musicians composed…

  9. Michal Necasek says:

    There were always exceptions to confirm the rule. I recall Star Control II being mentioned in GUS discussions as a game where the GUS made a difference (by relieving the CPU of the mixing tasks).

  10. Michal Necasek says:

    SB 16s always had FM. Maybe you’re thinking of the later models which used CQM, essentially Creative’s own re-implementation of FM that did not require buying hardware/licensing IP from Yamaha?

    But yes, the digital audio/music split was extremely common in games. It was driven by the Sound Blaster with separate music (FM) and digital audio chips, and also the fact that there were always various alternative music devices (MT-32/LAPC-I, SCC-1/SC-55, and later a plethora of wavetable cards and daughterboards).

    The MT-32 is an interesting case because it predates the Sound Blaster and although it is a synth, it is flexible enough that it can produce sound effects (using downloadable instrument patches). At the same time it was uncommon enough that as soon as the Sound Blaster showed up, games started supporting it (and Covox and other exotics).

  11. random lurker says:

    Oh, and we must not forget Pinball Fantasies which also had tracked music and worked fine even on a 286/12 as long as it had a VGA adapter. 🙂

  12. Michal Necasek says:

    I wonder to what extent the lack of “tracker” composers was a factor. MIDI is very suitable for “traditionally” trained musicians, trackers need a bit of a different skill set. I could be wrong but my impression from back in the day was that trackers were used primarily by people who did not have formal musical training.

  13. In somewhat of an order:

    -Why did the games use GM? It wasn’t about technical purposing. It was about looking for any marketing checkbox that could be checked to put product A in better light against product B. General MIDI, at that time, was one of the buzzwords going around and it had a very good cachet that resonated with sound card owners. If you have a Sierra quest game and a nice GM score, people knew that would be something special. The other thing about GM was that it was an open standard and that was a big deal then. Remember, this was mainly before Windows and developers were inundated with new products that often had their own APIs, etc. Anything standardized and open was a huge step in the right direction. People today forget (or didn’t know) how essential John Miles was to the sound card industry with his unifying API called the Miles Sound System. It became nearly ubiquitous at one point, and for obvious reasons. One API to rule them all.

    -The key word in my comment, “there is no business sound card market” is “market”. At that time many pundits would continually try to view sound cards from the business perspective. It was a common problem across the entire games industry. In this case, of course there were business uses here and there, but none of them added up to enough to spawn a true market for that segment. It was more that, as usual, games drove the tech and the other segments made due shoehorning a gaming product for their specific non-gaming needs.

    I’m still friends with Roy Smith, the co-founder of Turtle Beach (Trivia moment – after he and Bob Hoke sold TB the new owner offered me the job to be TB’s general manager. A nice ego boost, but no thanks.) The Multisound was designed, as a music product and it was viewed by nearly everyone at the time as the Rolls Royce of the industry. Everyone wanted one and no one could afford one. They went for $900 for quite a long time.

    -On sound effects, huge effort went into coming up with alternatives to effects via the various synthesizers as digital just wasn’t an option for many years. Even when it was initially an option, publishers feared initial support for it as they didn’t believe people understood it and/or that it wasn’t around in enough supply to provide the desired ROI. It’s amazing how many times that thinking dominated the industry. So developers came up with gunshots that were actually just a version of a cymbal hit, etc. Remember, we started with the Ad-Lib and no digital option. One thing the games industry didn’t lack for was creativity.

    -Star Control II is from one of my favorite clients of all time. Fred Ford and Paul Reiche. It was bleeding edge stuff then and did cause the industry to do a re-think. However, it’s right at that time that PCM on the SB started to take off and that just ended up being the path of least resistance.

    -Nearly every DOS game included an INSTALL.EXE that was there mainly to set up your audio. In it you set up an option for music and and option for sound effects along with setting all the various technical parameters like IRQ channel, DMA, etc. Newbies HATED having to do that, but it was just the way it was then.

    -Roland was always a problem in the industry. Everyone IN the industry loved their products because they were professionals. Of course they liked quality products, but Roland despised the games industry. They saw it as beneath them and never wanted to be associated with it in any way. Understand, at that time I was pretty well known around audio circles and could get anyone in it on the phone. Roland would barely speak to me, never did events and generally ignored all things gaming.

    Roland could have owned the market at several points. Everyone knew it. They just didn’t want it. Dolby had a similar problem. They too saw games as a waste of their time and would only stick a toe in if every consumer was willing to pay a $10-$15 PER TITLE premium for a game that had a Dolby label on it. That was insane so it never happened. This was in an era when a huge game title sold 250,000 units so Dolby was simply saying that it wasn’t worth it for them unless you were talking millions of dollars. They could never see the volume argument. It drove us nuts. By the time they did give a hoot Creative had already locked them out.

    -Trackers and the entire demo scene was seen as hobby level. The latest rebellious distraction from kids, but nothing “professionals” would bother with. When people would tout a products credentials in the demo scene it was similar to saying, “The number one product in Europe” which, at the time, was a small fraction of the US market.

    -Lastly, I’m not 100% sure, but I believe you may have found all the overview sets. I’m blown away by that. I have the very last one around here, but assumed the others were lost to time. So everyone gets it, the only reason those things exist at all (and I may even say this in them) is to help dent the never-ending onslaught of e-mails, posts and calls I got from consumers asking the same exact questions about sound cards. It really helped. Prior to that my business partner would point out that there were days where I did nothing but answer sound card questions.

  14. MiaM says:

    Well, Pinball Fantasies was a port from Amiga, so that explains why it used tracker/mod music.

    AFAIK tracker/mod were used for almost all music on Amiga games,, except if any games used their own sound engine.

    Somehow almost everyone in the pc clone business always saw the Amiga and everything related as “hobby level. The latest rebellious distraction from kids, but nothing “professionals” would bother with”. At the same time almost everyone in the Amiga gang saw PC people as uptight people dressed in suits believing that their computers were “professional”.

    Re Roland: I can understand their stasndpoint. They are still in the music business and their name is not tainted by some cheap computer products you find in the electroniccs waste bin at the recycling station. You never throw away a Roland product (unless it’s really beyond all repair – and then it would anyway be kept as spares).

    Other companies who were in pro and high end consumer market, like JBL, Bose, Altec Lansing and similar, have had their name tainted by being in the PC industry in the 90’s and putting their name on products that wouldn’t even been considered to be hifi in the 60’s.

    I think Dolby were kind of thinking the same way as Roland. OTOH, what would Dolby do on a PC game or PC sound card? And which kind of Dolby? Noice reduction wouldn’t hade made any sense. Maybe Surround / Pro Logic, but at that time the home cinema industry were a new thing that they probably woudn’t had wanted to risk being tainted by inferior PC products. (After all, it would had been the Turtle Beach Multisound that could live up to the sound quality even of a 90’s home cinema).

    Later Dolby realized that they needed to be in any marked they could be in. I don’t even know what it’s good for but iirc there is some kind of Dolby label on Asus Eee PC 901 (2009).

    BTW There were actually car stereos with Dolby Pro Logic. (Volvo used them in the C70/S70/V70 cars in the second half of the 90’s (and first half of 00’s for C70), with center speaker but no video capability at all). I don’t know what the idea for it was. I’ve almost never seen any music released in Pro Logic format and I assume most people wouldn’t listen to the audio track of their favourite action movie while being on the road. Maybe it were useful for drive in cinemas…

  15. random lurker says:

    Great stuff Rich!

    Basically anything on the Amiga had to be tracker-like because all you had for sound output were 4 digital playback channels. In fact, I’m not aware of a single game that did “FM” synthesis emulation for its music although it might have been possible technically.

    Many games had MOD files that you could simply rip out and play at your leisure, although a few used their own tracker formats like the famous TFMX (for which player software has also of course been written) with their own little improvements over the basic MOD format.

  16. Thanks Random. It’s been a real pleasure to take this stroll down memory lane. Oh, to have the energy I had in those days. At one point I was posting literally 400+ posts a DAY to all the different groups. I would post to:

    Usenet
    CompuServe
    Prodigy
    AOL
    Interlink
    RIME
    FidoNet

    There are possibly others that have been forgotten. I know I posted to a few closed, but very popular BBS communities. To my mind, if I hadn’t done that the companies would have run over consumers with reckless abandon. It reminded me of the old west at times.

    So many times some upstart company rep would show up on these networks, post a bunch of nonsense and believe that would be the end of it. PR delivered. I’ll never forget this one guy Steve from a company long gone. They had a new sound card that was just okay, but they were making it out like it was the Multisound for $100. He was determined to destroy my reputation. Spent months building these cases against me (and parts of it dogged me for a long time after he planted those BS seeds). This was in the era when we accessed all these forums through a home BBS. You called a local number via something like Qmoden, got online and then used and OLX or SLMR (two of the more popular mail readers) to dump your replies and then pull the newest messages and then disconnect and repeat.

    I finally got fed up and tracked down his home BBS and signed up under another name. I logged in and there in a local message base was Steve telling friends of his, publicly, how he was systematically working to destroy me and admitting to the lies and how his product wasn’t very good, but that PR would make it the best, etc. He didn’t even realize all this was essentially public. So I copied it all down. Took screenshots and then posted it all to the groups with instructions on how to see it for yourself. Steve never posted again and the product disappeared within months.

    Items like this happened every year or more and ended much the same way until Gravis. They were smarter than the average bear. Brad Craig, their PR guy, had been around. They would post these fantasies and just dismiss any criticism. Their fans ate it up. Years later we became friendly. There was even a bit of a famous picture floating around of Brad and I shaking hands at a convention after the big war. He knew, as I did, that it wasn’t personal. It was all business.

    The part most people couldn’t fathom was what I had to gain from it. It never dawned on most people that it wasn’t about personal gain for me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as drawn to personal gain as anyone, but in this case I just kept seeing how the consumer was getting hosed and it became principles over personal gain. In fact, it cost me money. So many times I was offered serious money to put my name on a product and I just wouldn’t do it. The only product I ever let that happen with was the Ensoniq Soundscape. I didn’t take money for that and did it because it was such a solid, perfectly priced product.

    Frankly, I often wonder if there’s enough material in all this for a movie.

  17. Michal Necasek says:

    I was well aware of the game industry’s relationship with Roland, but not of Roland’s relationship with the game industry. Fascinating. I wonder if they occasionally kick themselves for actively ignoring what’s now a multi-billion market. And I also have to wonder how many MT-32s and SC-55s were sold to gamers. Probably not a few.

    The same thing that happened with sound cards also happened with 3D graphics cards a few years later. All the professional 3D graphics went the way of the dodo and was replaced by slightly beefed up gaming cards as soon as the gaming hardware had enough oomph.

    Re patch overviews, I totally get it — there were so many sound cards on the market and a normal person a) had no chance to test and compare all the options, and b) thought twice before shelling out $100 to $300+ sight unseen (sound unheard?). You were in a unique position.

    My first wavetable sound card was an OPL4-based OAK Mozart in summer 1994 and if I’d known what I was buying, I probably wouldn’t have — the synth was good but no General MIDI support in DOS whatsoever (not even a clunky TSR). It was soon replaced by a Sound Blaster 32 which compensated for lack of hardware by being a Creative product and got good industry support over time.

    These days I can open a drawer and pull out a Turtle Beach Tropez or an Ensoniq Soundscape or an Audiotrix Pro… but have no time to play games. It’s not fair.

  18. Cloudschatze says:

    Roland US actively marketed the LAPC-I, SCC-1, and SC-based daughterboards to “gamers,” both through product briefs, as well as full-page advertisements in trade and gaming magazines. Purportedly, it was a conversation between Sierra’s Ken Williams and Roland’s Tom White that resulted in the development of the LAPC-I at Roland’s R&D center in Chicago, IL besides.

    Perhaps Roland didn’t develop or market as aggressively as might have seemed appropriate for their position, but while they may not shown much interest in expanding their role, it doesn’t exactly feel like they “despised” the gaming industry either.

  19. Michal Necasek says:

    Speaking of CompuServe and AOL and all that… do any archives exist? Especially CompuServe had tons of technical discussions that would be a treasure trove of historical information nowadays. Later more of it shifted to Usenet but in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I think a lot of the PC-oriented chatter was on CompuServe (while Usenet is definitely the place to go for Unix history). Companies like Microsoft had their own discussion forums on CompuServe with talk about bugs and beta products etc.

    Now I wonder which company that Steve worked for. About the most bombastic sound card product packaging I’ve seen is the Crystalizer PnP, a totally standard WSS-compatible card with “purest sound on Earth” and “audiophile stereo sampling” and “15 microns of gold on edge connectors”. Sounds impressive… but it’s the same stuff everyone else had.

    There’s definitely enough in there for a long book and probably for a movie, too.

  20. Every serious gamer I knew back then had a Roland device of one sort or another. If they put a DAC on the Sound Canvas the world would have beaten a path to their door.

    The LAPC was a product Roland never supported seriously. Ken definitely got them to go down that path and it didn’t get the numbers they wanted, but it was also priced about twice what the market would accept and all it was at that time was a more expensive Ad-Lib with much better sound. All I can tell you is that every interaction I had with Roland was negative. I don’t know a single serious industry person that didn’t beg them to add PCM to the Sound Canvas or LAPC. All they saw was the music end and distraction.

    My guess is all the discussions on the various closed networks are gone. I can tell you that the InterLink was the primary discussion forum for sound cards prior to Usenet. Today no one even remembers it.

    If memory serves, Steve’s card was built with Sierra Semiconductor parts, but not by them.

  21. Michal Necasek says:

    And ironically, Roland did put a DAC on the Sound Canvas… but too little, too late. Or maybe too much! Sitting next to me is a Sound Canvas SC-D70, a sound module plus USB audio interface. Very nice gear, hardly Earth-shattering in 2000. I think it’s one of the last devices marketed under the Sound Canvas brand.

    Much earlier, in 1993, there was the RAP-10 (Roland Audio Producer), not SB compatible, MSRP $599. A contemporary review of the RAP-10 summed it up in the opening sentence: “Game players need not apply”. And they didn’t.

  22. Ethan Platten says:

    If he was such a “shill” for Creative, I wonder they reacted when Rich failed to give the AWE32 top marks in his patch set overviews.

  23. Yep. My recollection was that Roland’s view amounted pretty much to, “If they want to buy what we already have on the market, that’s fine.” They weren’t going to do anything to actually meet the demands of gamers.

  24. Michal Necasek says:

    They reacted with umbrage, because the AWE-32 scored slightly better than the GUS. That was sufficient proof of Rich being a Creative shill (it really didn’t take much).

    The overall score for the AWE-32 actually improved from 3.0 to 5.0 in subsequent editions of the overview, but that’s quite understandable because the price dropped significantly (from $300 down to $180) and software support picked up.

  25. Ethan Platten says:

    I don’t doubt that Gravis took umbrage, but I also wonder how Creative themselves reacted to their fancy new card getting such a middling assessment from the man who literally wrote the book.

  26. Michal Necasek says:

    I don’t know that Gravis itself took it very seriously; GUS fans certainly did. Creative was probably big enough that they didn’t care.

  27. Ethan Platten says:

    The more zealous GUS fans were a particularly delusional bunch. I can’t help but remember the silliness of them crowing about its popularity among the demo subculture, as though that were a market share that could actually sustain the card’s long-term viability.

    And Creative didn’t have to care so much. They were already solidly in control of the market by then and a few missteps weren’t going to change that. They were also pragmatic enough to recognize the value of Ensoniq and acquired them shortly after the introduction of the AudioPCI.

  28. MiaM says:

    (As I stated previously).

    But Creative did nevertheless buy the demo scene by giving sponsor money to copy parties and in renturn got requirements for SB compatibility of the demos that entered the competitions.

    IIRC Intel did some similar things.

    It might not have had a huge impact on the market in general, but it were surely one of the things that killed of the GUS. That meant that there were no more any real numbers of people saying SB wasn’t the best choice for a general user, probably causing that general user to not investigate the market as much as before when GUS and their fans were around.

  29. techfury90 says:

    The Japanese gaming scene on the PC-98 also used MIDI extensively. You guessed it, using either the C-Bus LAPC-N, or one of the many C-Bus MPU401 implementations. The C-Bus SB16 also works, but that card wasn’t very popular because most games supported the NEC PC-9801-26/77/86 cards and clones instead.

  30. Michal Necasek says:

    Besides the LAPC-N/MT-32, which MIDI modules were commonly supported?

  31. techfury90 says:

    I usually see options for MT32 or SC55 in games.

  32. techfury90 says:

    MIDI support is kind of comparatively rare, though. The music in most games is FM, mostly because the official NEC cards tended to have a YM2203 (PC-9801-26, 1986), or YM2608 plus stereo 44.1/16 PCM (-73 and -86 of 1991 and 1992 respectively). Most later stage games (1992+) tended to use a FM+PCM tracker type driver. Seems that the most common two were FMP and PMD, both of which shipped as a DOS TSR that provided playback. You can use your player UI of choice with either one, fairly nice setup. There wasn’t really a demo scene there, but a huge scene for tracker music.

  33. Michal Necasek says:

    That makes sense. The SC-55 and its successors (SC-88, SC-88VL, SC-88 Pro) were hugely popular in Japan.

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