Retro Review: Ensoniq SoundscapeVIVO - Part 3

10th June 2022

 

In Part 2, we installed the driver software for the Ensoniq Soundscape VIVO but had some problems getting it to produce any decent sound. I moved the sound card from my Gigabyte GA-5AX motherboard to my PC Chips M919, but that too had its own issues with DMA channels not working with the card.

I've now moved everything onto my IPC Family Magic motherboard, which is an SiS 85C471-based Socket 3 ISA/VESA Local Bus board running a 486DX-33 with 8 MB of RAM:

 

That's much better, and notice how the MIDI test played the same 4-note bar consistently? Compare that to the earlier run of DMTEST on my main retro PC (which is running a Pentium 200 MHz on a Gigabyte GA-5AX motherboard), where it played that same MIDI test correctly the first time, but after that it only played 3 notes - dah dah daaaahh. I have high hopes finally of this card actually working properly on the IPC Family Magic....

Let's re-do the Descent test (music set to use the internal wavetable in General MIDI mode):


Descent
SETUP utility and in-game... digital audio sounds ok in the test, music also sounds ok, if a little bit "squashy". In-game though, yep that's sounding just right!

Ad Lib / Sound Blaster Support

OK, let's test the built-in FM emulation mode for Ad Lib/Sound Blaster support:

     
Indianapolis 500, Links: The Challenge of Golf, Wing Commander, and Laura Bow: The Colonel's Bequest

Indy 500 running in Ad Lib mode sounds fine. Links suffered from very low volume for some reason (the video above has some gain added), and clipping is evident throughout - this existed before the gain filter was added. Wing Commander, a game that is notoriously picky with sound cards just didn't sound right when configured for Sound Blaster. It is very speed-sensitive as a game, and this is running on a 486DX-33, but with goslow running that cannot be the cause. The Colonel's Bequest was a mixed success in Ad Lib mode - the initial will signing scene seems to just have odd noises but then the intro theme sounds fine. 4D Sports Boxing in Ad Lib or Sound Blaster mode wasn't even worth recording - just awful blips and bloops.

 

General MIDI (Internal)

Now moving to the onboard wavetable synth in General MIDI mode:

 
Star Wars: TIE Fighter, Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

These both sound very good. I've added the audio to each game's dedicated page here at DOS Days so you can play back the samples in 'Sync mode' to compare the VIVO to other cards directly. To do so, click here: Star Wars: TIE Fighter or here: Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers.

Here's how the spectrogram and frequency ranges looked for these two titles:

 
 
From left: Star Wars: TIE Fighter and Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers

 

Roland MT-32 (Internal)

And now to test the onboard wavetable running in Roland MT-32 mode. This was done by configuring these games to be in Roland MT-32 mode, and running MT32.com to set the Ensoniq's patchset to be MT-32 patches:

    
Space Quest IV, 4D Sports Boxing, Jones in the Fast Lane and Indiana Jones & The Fate of Atlantis

Space Quest IV sounds ok, but is missing atmosphere (guessing Sierra applied some custom samples or effects to give it more depth), 4D Sports Boxing sounds ok but does not reflect an MT-32 - it's like someone hit the overdrive pedal. Jones sounds really messed up. All these differences are due to the fact that lots of games replaced the default MT-32 patches with their own ones (the MT-32 had memory for this), so if any game does this it won't sound right when using the standard fixed Roland MT-32 patch set which is basically all the Soundscape VIVO can do. Here's the spectrogram and frequency response charts:-

   
   
From left: Space Quest IV, 4D Sports Boxing, Jones in the Fast Lane and Indiana Jones & The Fate of Atlantis

 

External MIDI / MPU-401

Finally, how does the external MIDI port handle things? For this set of tests I'm just using a Game port/MIDI cable to connect the Soundscape VIVO to the back of my Roland MT-100 (basically an MT-32 "new"), MT-32 "old", and for other games that support General MIDI, a Roland SC-55.


       
Budokan (MT-100), Leisure Suit Larry 3 (MT-100), 4D Sports Boxing (MT-100), Wing Commander (MT-32 "old")
and Star Wars: TIE Fighter (GM on SC-55)

 

Fantastic! Budokan, Leisure Suit Larry 3 and Wing Commander require an Intelligent Mode MPU-401 interface (which I don't have), so this proves the VIVO fakes this mode by sending an ACK like only a few other rare cards do. Ensoniq cards were known to have this feature, but it was thought the VIVO didn't support it - well now we know it does! This is significant because 83% of games that supported the Roland MT-32 required Intelligent mode to work.

 

Soundscape VIVO Wrap-Up

So there we have it, the Ensoniq Soundscape VIVO. If I chalk up the motherboard incompatibilities to the fact we're running nearly 30-year old hardware that can be temperamental, I would still say I'd have had mixed feelings having this card in 1995. The Ad Lib/Sound Blaster emulation is pretty spotty with some games playing just fine while others sound awful, and this backward-compatibility (or lack of) is where VIVO really falls down. I would recommend running this card alongside something with a genuine OPL3 chip and disable the VIVO's SB mode (set the SBEnable= line to false in your SNDSCAPE.INI file).

 
 

The card does have a few limitations.

  • It can only emulate the Sound Blaster at port 220h
  • The Sound Blaster emulation does not support games that use ADPCM compression.
  • SSINIT, the DOS driver, requires an Expanded Memory Manager to be running (though my DOS directory came with a SSNOEMM.COM file which might be Ensoniq's realisation a lot of folks wanted to use their card without a EMM386 or similar. Sadly my tests did not work with this SSNOEMM utility - SSMIXER and MT32 look for a running TSR called SSINIT.COM, but when fooled into seeing this by me renaming SSINIT.COM to something else and renaming SSNOEMM.COM to SSINIT.COM, both utilities hung. When I ran DMTEST with the NOEMM one running, the 'Ensoniq Soundscape' voice you usually hear played back did so in slow-motion(!), and the MIDI test failed with an ACK message timeout. To summarise, SSNOEMM did not work for me - no games played audio with this loaded. You can of course run EMM386 with the 'NOEMS' argument to retain all your higher memory as XMS not EMS.
  • It is Plug & Play, so great for Windows but can be messy to configure for DOS. In reality with the VIVO this was easy - you just edit SNDSCAPE.INI and when SSINIT runs, it configures the card accordingly.
  • SSMIXER is very clunky, requiring a mouse to be able to set the volume levels in UI mode. Setting these using command-line arguments does not actually change the value when you next go into the mixer in UI mode. By typing SSMIXER /? it does display all its options, but then pressing a key to return to the command-line clears the screen so you have to remember what options were there! Once you have changed some settings using command-line arguments, those are not reflected in UI mode.
  • There appear to be quite a few incompatibilities - my Gigabyte GA-5AX (ALI Aladdin V chipset) didn't like the card, nor did my PC Chips M919 (UMC 8881 chipset), but the IPC Famiy Magic (SiS 85C471 chipset) ran it like a charm.

Now for the good news... the onboard 1 MB wavetable sounds excellent in General MIDI mode, and in games that kept the Roland MT-32's default patchset, running this in MT-32 mode is also excellent. You can be the judge of the sample quality but I think it's up there with the premium wavetables.

Likewise, the fact the Soundscape VIVO mimics an Intelligent mode MPU-401 interface opens up the list of older MT-32 games it supports (though again, default patchset only!). The card requires a TSR to work in DOS (SSINIT.COM) and it cannot be loaded high, but it's hardly a memory hog, taking up just 720 bytes.

So to give Ensoniq Soundscape VIVO a score, I would say:

Ad Lib and Sound Blaster support: 2/10
Onboard Wavetable: 7/10*
External MIDI: 10/10

*Watch out when running in MT-32 mode with games that overwrite the default Roland patches - they'll sound bad


Thanks for following along with me for this retro review - see you next time!