Friday, May 24, 2013

The Price of PC Sound (and some other stuff)

How much do we pay for sound hardware in our PCs today, not including speakers?  The answer is usually nothing, all PC motherboards come with onboard sound chips that are satisfactory for 95% of users.  Before 1987, the answer would have been the same, since there was no sound hardware available for PCs.  You were stuck with the PC speaker or the three-voice sound chip if you owned a Tandy 1000 or IBM PCjr.

In 1987, sound hardware products were being marketed and released for the IBM PC platform for the first time.  The first device that was not tied to a particular application (like Bank Street Music Writer) was the IBM Music Feature Card.  This $600 card provided a MIDI interface and a four operator OPP frequency modulation synthesis chip with eight channels and stereo sound.  The card came with 240 preset patches and allowed up to 96 user-created patches.  It was intended for professional musicians.

The second device may have been the Roland MT-32.  While Roland had marketed a MIDI Interface called the MPU-401 prior to 1987, it was an external box that could be used with many systems when combined with the right interface card.  There were interface cards for the Apple II, Commodore 64, all the major Japanese computers of the mid-80s and two cards for the IBM PC.  The MPU-401 was also marketed toward professional MIDI musicians, but with the MT-32, Roland had a product with a price point that could be enjoyed by professional and non-professional musicians alike.  (Consider that the Yamaha DX-7, the first and very famous all-digitized synthesizer, cost $1,955 in 1983).  The MT-32 was derived from Roland's D-50 Synthesizer and used a technology called Linear Arithmetic to combine digital samples with waveform synthesis.  It supported eight channels and one percussion channel.  It supported 32 voices, with each channel requiring 1-4 voices depending on the sound selected.  It has 128 preset patches, 30 percussion patches and allowed for up to 64 custom patches.  It supported reverb and stereo playback.

The third device may have been a cheaper card manufactured by Ad Lib, Inc. called the Ad Lib Music Synthesizer Card.  This card simply interfaced an OPL2 chip to the PC's expansion bus and was intended for the home musician or teaching children about music.  The OPL2 is capable of nine channels of two-operator frequency modulated synthesis or six channels plus five percussion sounds.  Its only supports mono output.

Seeking a competitive edge in the burgeoning market for PC games, Sierra sought to make its products technologically advanced.  Almost all the non-PC systems had better audio capabilities, but their sound hardware was built-in.  Thanks to Nintendo, the days of buying an all-in-one computer that could run applications and games were gone.  However, people still prized their leisure time and still wanted to play games on their PC, especially the more complex games that were not generally found on consoles.  So Sierra On-Line began to search for hardware products that could bring its PC games to the next level.  Roland suggested the MT-32 and history was made.  Then the Adlib came for the many more budget-minded PC game players.

In 1988, Sierra began to sell computer add-on hardware directly to its customers.  It is the only company of the time I know of which did this.  Thus if your local computer store did not carry the cards, you had an easy outlet to obtain them.  Sierra would include flyers in its new games, beginning with King's Quest IV, explaining and hyping the benefits of these new sound cards.  It would send you a demo cassette tape almost for free to show off these cards' capabilities.  Here are the prices if you wanted to take the plunge.

Adlib - $245.00/$195.00 (with/without Visual Composer)
MT-32 + MPU-IPC - $550.00

Sierra never offered IBM's card for sale, and its support for it in games was underwhelming.  Eventually Sierra stopped shipping drivers and patches for it, and at least two games, King's Quest I SCI and Sorcerian will freeze with the driver.  You paid MT-32 prices for the IBM Music Feature but ended up with Adlib sound quality with Sierra's games.

The idea of spending $550 just to hear PC game audio was not something many people were prepared to spend money on in 1988.  According to the U.S.'s Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation Calculator, $550 has the same buying power today as $1,081.08.  Who today is going to spend over one thousand dollars today on PC sound equipment?  Someone who wanted to make music, whether as a professional or as a serious amateur.  That games could use the module seems to be to have been like chocolate icing on the cake.  Today you could not convince someone to spend a thousand dollars on a sound card for gaming regardless of how many channels and bit rates it supports, the human ear can only process so much.

Adlib - $195.00/$175.00 (card only price decrease)
MT-32 + MPU-IPC - $550.00
Game Blaster - $129.95
MT-32 + MPU-IMC - $650.00

The Game Blaster was supported, presumably in an attempt to provide something better than the PC Speaker at a cheaper price point.  The Game Blaster came packaged with Sierra's Silpheed.  While the Game Blaster can provide twelve channels of stereo frequency and amplitude controlled square waves with a noise channel and an envelope channel, it frequently sounded like the Tandy 3-voice sound chip, only in stereo.  The MPU-IMC was the Microchannel version of the MPU-401 interface for IBM PS/2 computers.

Adlib - $175.00
Game Blaster - $129.95
Sound Blaster - $239.95
LAPC-I - $425.00
MT-32 + MPU-IPC-T - $550.00
MT-32 + MPU-IMC - $650.00

The LAPC-I arrives to deliver on the promise of having a synthesizer fully on the card.  While it is better priced than the MT-32 and includes 33 additional sound effects, Sierra's games frequently sounded better on the MT-32 because it abused bugs in the device to make custom sounds.  Note how the prices have not really moved from the previous years.  However, by this time, Sierra would be offering deals if you bought a card from them, like two free Sierra games of your choice if you bought the MT-32.  (At their prices, that was over $100 in savings).

With the LAPC-I, for the first time gamers can enjoy a discount from Sierra.  The MT-32 requires a separate MPU-401 interface, which seems to increase the price by $100-200.  The LAPC-I has the interface built-in except for the external ports and was slightly cheaper to manufacture.  However, by this time the MT-32/LAPC-I only had two years before it would be supplanted in the market by the Roland SCC-1 and other devices.

Since the Adlib was an extremely simple card, clones began popping up once other vendors discovered which chips it was using and games from Sierra and other publishers were being released with support for it.  The people at Ad Lib, Inc. thought they were being clever by scratching off the chip part instead of obtaining an exclusivity agreement with Yamaha for the chips being used.  However, in 1987 the board was not yet a great success.  By this year you would see a $20 rebate coupon for the Ad Lib in game boxes.  If you bought a clone board, you could easily save yourself $50-60.

Sierra replaced the MPU-IPC with the MPU-IPC-T, and while these two devices are virtually identical, the -T version leaves off the SYNC connector on the expansion box.  It does allow for easy changing of the I/O ports, but Sierra only supported the MPU-401 on I/O 330-331.

The Sound Blaster is also sold, and at this price it contained the Game Blaster chips.  It provided an Adlib-compatible OPL2 chip, a joystick/MIDI interface for the first time and provided a widely-accepted standard for digitized sound output.

MT-32 + MPU-IPC-T - $399.99
MT-32 + MPU-IMC - $499.99
CM-32L + MPU-IPC-T - $545.00/$449.95
CM-32L + MPU-IMC - $549.95/$499.95
CM-32L Macintosh - $545.00
LAPC-I -$445.00/$399.95/$349.99
MCB-1 - $90.00/$84.95 (combo w/LAPC-I is $449.95)
Game Blaster - $99.99
Adlib - $109.99
Sound Blaster - $170.00/$159.95/$149.99/$129.95
Sound Blaster MCV - $249.95
Sound Blaster MIDI Box - $129.95/$89.95
Thunderboard - $99.95
Pro Audio Spectrum - $249.95
CD-ROM Kit - $795.00
Supra 2400 Baud Modem (internal) - $88.88
Supra 2400 Baud Modem (external) - $128.88
Gravis Analog Joystick - $59.95
Gravis Eliminator Game Card - $44.95
Gravis Eliminator Microchannel Game Card - $79.99

All throughout 1990 and beyond, Sierra began talking about the benefits of CD-ROM technology, their adoption of it and its eventual replacement of floppy disks.  CD-ROMs were a huge expense in the early days and while Sierra may have released some of the first PC CD-ROM games, the real killer apps for the technology were probably The 7th Guest and Myst.  Interestingly, Sierra seemed to have better support for the Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrums, including stereo FM synthesis support and later 16-bit digitized audio than the Sound Blaster cards.  Presumably by this time there were no difficulties in trying to purchase multimedia hardware from a computer store.

The CD-ROM kit include the Pro Audio Spectrum, a Sony SCSI CD-ROM drive, the CD-version of Jones in the Fast Lane and Compton's Multimedia Encyclopedia.  CD-ROMs were generally connected via SCSI or proprietary interfaces until IDE CD-ROMs became cheap enough to become the only standard most consumers would ever deal with.  Sound cards would be the main way to connect a CD-ROM until the Pentium era.

The Pro Audio Spectrum allowed for stereo OPL2 music, 8-bit stereo digital output at 22K, a MIDI/joystick interface and a non-bootable SCSI interface.  The Thunderboard was a Sound Blaster 2.0 clone without MIDI or Game Blaster support.

The CM-32L finally replaces the MT-32 for the external synthesizer version, and its capabilities are identical to the LAPC-I.  The LAPC-I gets the MCB-1 external MIDI box to reach full parity with the CM-32L and MPU-IPC-T.  The Sound Blaster MCV is the Microchannel version of the Sound Blaster for IBM PS/2 machines.  The Sound Blaster MIDI box is an overpriced device, the functionality of which can be replicated with a standard joystick/MIDI interface cable.

The Sound Blaster prices kept dropping throughout the year.  By this time, the Game Blaster chips were  an upgrade and by the end of the year, Sierra would probably have been shipping the smaller 2.0.

Presumably to complement Dynamix's line of simulators, Sierra also began offering joysticks.  The Gravis Analog Joystick sports three buttons and has a large base and hand-grip handle.  It has a tension dial and the buttons are reconfigurable.  Unfortunately it did not come with a trigger button.  The Eliminator game card was a dual port card with an external dial to control the speed of the card.

By this time, Sierra had just started up The Sierra Network, its online entertainment portal.  It was similar to CompuServe, Prodigy and America On-Line.  The modems being offered were not very fast, but were cheap and apparently sufficient for their service's needs.  In the next year, hardware manufacturers would advertise 9,600 and 14,400 baud modems.

CD-ROM Kit - $795.00
CM-32L + MPU-IPC-T - $449.95
CM-32L + MPU-IMC - $549.95
CM-32L Macintosh  - $449.95
LAPC-I - $399.95
MCB-1 - $84.95
LAPC-I + MCB-1 - $449.95
Sound Blaster - $129.95
Sound Blaster MCV - $249.95
Sound Blaster MIDI Box - $89.95
Thunderboard - $99.95
Pro Audio Spectrum - $249.95
Pro Audio Spectrum 16 - $199.95

1992 is the last year that Sierra would attempt to sell products directly for quite a while.  Increasingly, advertisements from various hardware companies would put their ads into Sierra's Interaction magazine.  Few new products to report, the most notable being the Pro Audio Spectrum 16 at a reasonable price.

Thrustmaster Formula T2 - $129.95
Sierra Screamin' 3D - $199.95

The Sierra Screamin' 3D is a 4MB Rendition Verite 1000 card.  It was bundled with good-to-decent games like Indy Car II, A-10 Silent Thunder, CyberGladiators and a demo of the Rendition version of Quake (vQuake).  Sierra tried again to be predictive of the upcoming technology, but it missed the mark.  Unfortunately, the Rendition chipset had an achilles heel, namely that 2D VGA performance was incredibly poor.  While most games could greatly benefit when the VGA mode was translated into a Rendition mode, those games that could not benefit, like the DOS version of DOOM, were unplayable.  In other words, if the game went beyond the standard Mode 12-13h features, the game slowed to a crawl on the Rendition cards, even on a Pentium II.  DOOM was still extremely popular in 1996.  While Quake was one of the Killer Apps for 3D gaming, it was 3dfx's Voodoo card that took off, even though it was not a 2D card.

The Thrustmaster Formula T2 was a gameport interface racing wheel with pedals, two buttons and a gear lever.  It could be purchased with NASCAR Racing 2 or IndyCar Racing II for $149.95.  Judging by youtube video it was quite a good product back in the day.


  1. really interesting lot of information. All i could ever afford back in 1992 was an adlib :)

  2. So much fun back in the days, my first sound card was an SB16 at about 750 French Francs about 100$ or so in '92. From PC Speaker to SB it was just extraordinary!!! People used to have these small speakers and a little after all the resellers had those bigger ones with an integrated transformer, not sure overseas but here they were omnipresent. Years later came the 3dfx and I had one too :D:D:D Recently I picked 2 of them online for 10€ each ! They are almost brand new, these guys probably gonna regret selling them once they realize what was in their hands. Memories memories !!!

  3. I'm looking for an LAPC-1 board, contact me to sell me one? I'll even do a finders fee to someone that gets me to a working one that I buy. Email me at, where firstname is my first name and last name is my last name.

  4. Outstanding Article. Those were great times for me, I got my first PC Clone as a BDay present, a Compaq Deskpro 386-33 in 1987, which 10 years later found out my parents been paying 5 years for that debt which cost them back in 1987 a whooping $6500. Saw the adlib but wasn't impressed, then saw Sound blaster in one compudex and was amazed by the sound, and bought my first sound blaster 16, then a 2 years later saw another PC show showing Wave blaster on Doom game and I was blown by the orchestra quality sound, wave synthesis on PC, got one too. Remember paying $800 for the first Creative Labs CD ROM Kit, was changed everything in PC Industry. then right after Sound Blaswer AWE32 was released, I remember paid $500 for it, then AWE64 was released, got that one too. Those were the best 10 years of my life(1987-1997), buying, building, reselling, working to have the latest available PC. Incidentally, my building PC Gaming obsession did last until 2012.