02/12/2020

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Life in 8-Bit

What is a Sound Card?

Back in the day, people didn’t use their PCs as super high end gaming machines.  Games were kind of an afterthought, and they were not really sophisticated.  And lets be honest, sound effects in early games were pretty basic – sure we love hearing that nostalgic sound now, its kinda the tech equivalent of a baby’s first words… Awwwwww.

And guess where the sound in those PCs came from… Yes, a tiny little speaker.  Speakers, even tiny ones, have come a long way since those days.  The sound out of these tiny speakers was tinny, harsh and not particularly loud.  

This was just how it was for PC gaming in the 80s… and it luckily it didn’t affect us at all.

Then, a revolution came in the form of:  The Sound Blaster

The Sound Blaster was an expansion card made by Creative Labs and took PC sound to the next level.  And by the next level, I mean it was like going from an instant coffee, to a half double decaffeinated half-caf, with a twist of lemon.

Games then suddenly started coming out with Sound Blaster compatibility and life was amazing. 

But with great power, came great responsibility.  In the early days of sound cards you would literally have to add a line to your AutoExec.bat file – Setting things like the I/O Port, the IRQ, and the DMA Channel.  Nobody new what these settings meant, but you would have to remember and replicate them in the sound card settings of your game.  Many of us still have these numbers burned into our brains…  220, 6, 1

When you were building your new PC, picking the right Sound Blaster card was very important.  Sure, other sound cards had started to enter the market, but there was only one Sound Blaster.

People at LAN parties would be like… what Sound Blaster do you have?  Is it the 2.0?  The Pro?  Is it the 16?  The 32?  The AWE64? The Live?  Mainstream gaming society would judge you on the type of Sound Blaster you had, or could afford.

And then suddenly…. Nothing… motherboards starting having more and more sophisticated on-board sounds, and the sound card vanished into obscurity.  It was exactly like video cards, but in opposite land.

Now if you watch any modern gaming PC build, how much of the decision making, money and effort goes into choosing a sound card?  None at all.

Do you still own a Sound Blaster card?  Let me know in the comments.