What is Wavetable Synthesis?

Wavetable synthesis dates back almost 50 years. There is some confusion as to whether in the PC world it is true "wavetable synthesis", so to avoid confusion I will use the term wavetable here to mean "sample-based synthesis", which is what it truly is. The term "wavetable" became mainstream for PC users when Creative Labs introduced the Sound Blaster 16 in June 1992, which was the first sound card to come with what they called the Wave BlasterTM header - a connector onto which you could install a daughterboard called the Wave Blaster (CT1900). This added hundreds of real instrument and drum kit samples that could be used to bring more authentic music and sound effects to your PC. It used a wavetable patchset called E-MU Sound Engine Rev. A from a specialist audio company called E-Mu. But what came before it?

The storing of instrument samples was nothing new in 1992. From a PC audio perspective the idea of using sample-based synthesis came about with the introduction of the Roland MT-32 Music Synthesizer Box, and its MPU-401 interface that became ubiquitous. In 1991, Advanced Gravis launched the first audio card that used software-based samples that could be loaded into onboard RAM instead of having them stored on a ROM chip. This meant you could change the samples to suit what your were doing, or the game your were playing. Because of the flexibility of using different patchsets (a collection of samples held in a single file), the UltraSound could be considered one of the first cards that met the General MIDI standard, announced the same year.

So in the world of PCs, wavetable synthesis came in 3 flavours:

  1. An external sound module, such as the Roland MT-32, Roland SC-55, or Yamaha MU80
  2. A sound card with no internal wavetable support but had a wavetable daughterboard plugged into its wavetable header, like a Sound Blaster 16 with a Wave Blaster.
  3. A sound card with internal wavetable, e.g. Sound Blaster AWE32, MediaTriX AudioTriX Pro, or Advanced Gravis UltraSound

All of the above achieve the same thing, though the audio quality can differ massively depending on what you get. For the majority of PC gamers, if you had any of the above you had effectively upgraded the music portion of your PC audio. While wavetable synthesis did include some sound effects such as birds chirping or a bell ringing, the majority of games tended to continue to use the 'digital audio' part of the sound card rather than a sampled effect for sound effects.

So where previously when playing your favourite game you simply chose 'Ad Lib' or 'Sound Blaster' in the setup utility, you now had two settings to change: one for music and a second for sound effects. For Sound Effects this was usually the same as before - something like 'Sound Blaster'. But for music you would instead pick "MT-32" or "General MIDI".

Let's dig a little deeper into the 3 wavetable flavours mentioned earlier...

1. External Sound Modules

External sound modules have been covered in other topics here on DOS Days - see my General MIDI page for more - so I won't cover any more of that here, apart from to say that the cost to own one of these back in 1987 when Roland first introduced the MT-32 external music synthesizer was far too high for most folks - $697!

 

2. Sound Cards with a Wavetable Header

The earliest sound card that supported wavetable synthesis was the Sound Blaster 16 which came with a new 26-pin header called the Wave Blaster connector. By purchasing the Creative Labs Wave Blaster (CT1910) daughterboard and plugging it into this connector, your SB16 could now output sample-based audio that was compatible with the General MIDI standard. Without the daughterboard attached it could only output the poorer-quality FM synthesis.

Wavetable daughterboards such as the Wave Blaster came with a ROM chip onto which were stored hundreds of sounds of real instruments (called "samples" or "patches"). A collection of sound samples put together are often referred to as a "patch set" or "soundbank".

While the original Wave Blaster greatly improved upon the acoustic quality of the Sound Blaster 16's built-in FM-synthesis, the acoustic quality of its instrument-set (patch set) was regarded poorly by the general public. Despite this, the Wave Blaster sold well, and soon Creative Labs launched the Wave Blaster II which came with a new synthesis engine, EMU8000, from specialist audio company, E-Mu. This would later also be used on their AWE32 sound card.

Furthermore, other manufacturers recognized that this technology was where PC audio was heading, and they too added a Wave Blaster-compatible header to their new sound cards. These manufacturers also created their own Wave Blaster-equivalent daughterboards so owners could extend their sound card's audio support to include General MIDI.

3. Sound Cards with an Internal Wavetable

The first sound card that came with built-in wavetable synthesis, i.e. no need for a daughterboard, was the Advanced Gravis Ultrasound, launched in 1991. Its audio quality was considered excellent, but the card suffered by not having Ad Lib or Sound Blaster compatibility.

During the early to mid 1990s, other manufacturers including Ensoniq, Terratec, Roland, MediaTriX, Orchid, Turtle Beach, Miro and Yamaha released higher-end cards that had a built-in synth chip and a wavetable patchset in ROM, coupled with an FM synthesizer for backward compatibility with older games plus digital audio for sound effects. These all-in-one sound cards gave the owner the option to choose from a broad array of game audio setup choices.

Most of these high-end cards also got a Wave Blaster-compatible header if you wanted to replace the onboard patchset with a different one, though daughterboards didn't come cheap.

One thing to bear in mind is that some of these cards' wavetables were not General MIDI-compatible, so could sound odd if you chose the GM (General MIDI) option in games. The hardware manufacturers' expectation I guess was that game designers would write specifically for their card. Some cards also required you to load in a TSR or driver for it to work with the "General MIDI" option in games. As I understand it, this is because these cards lacked a true MPU-401 interface which had become the de facto standard for communication to a GM device. The TSR was required in order to capture incoming MIDI messages and redirect them to the wavetable synth chip. Such cards include the Turtle Beach MultiSound Classic, Prometheus ARIA 16, and Creative Labs Sound Blaster 32, AWE32 and AWE64.

Patchsets

Most of the sound card / daughterboard manufacturers did not create their own patchsets; instead they bought the rights to use someone else's. Originally these cards came only with one or two ROM chips that held the patchset. Later cards replaced these with RAM slots instead, whereby the patchset had to be loaded into RAM each time the wavetable was to be used. These were usually referred to as a "SoundFont". Some cards came with a patchset held in ROM but also got some onboard RAM to load your own patchset into (which would usually disable the onboard ROM's patchset), thereby giving you the best of both worlds.

Was a particular patchset General MIDI (GM) or not? Good question. Most synths were officially GM-compatible. All this really meant was that as a minimum they would have the predefined set of 128 GM instruments in their instrument table (Piano is Instrument #1, Harpsichord is instrument #7, etc). Special effects were deliberately not made a part of the GM standard, leaving that up to each manufacturer to choose how to manipulate a musical instrument's actual sound. This results in a fantastic variation of sounds even for a single instrument, with reverb, chorus, etc.

The list below contains some of the more common synthesizer chips and their patchsets you will find on wavetable daughterboards and sound cards that have an internal wavetable. Because each patchset was recorded using different actual instruments, or has been processed after recording, they will have subtle [and sometimes not so subtle] audible differences. In addition to that, many synthesizer chips also have an embedded effects processor that can be programmed to further adapt the acoustics of a sample.

Note that the size of the sample ROM does not always indicate the quality of the samples, though it is safe to assume that a wavetable card or daughterboard with a smaller ROM capacity either means it has fewer samples or its samples have been heavily compressed, thus reducing their quality.

It's very subjective, I know, but in terms of sample quality I would rate the patchsets something like this [in alphabetical order]:

The Best Middling Worst

Dream SAM2655
Dream SAM2695
Dream SAM9708
Dream SAM9733
E-Mu Proteus 1/XR
Korg AI-2 MBCS35104
Kurzweil MA-1
Rockwell WaveArtist 030
Roland MBCS30109
Roland R15239148
Roland TC24SC201AF
Roland TC6116AF
Yamaha XQ036A0
Yamaha XU947C0

AMD Interwave AM78C201KC
Creative Labs EMU10K1
Crystal/Dream 9233
E-Mu 8000
Ensoniq MARK5
Ensoniq OPUS
Ensoniq OTTO R2
ICS WaveFront (2 MB)
S3 Sonic Vibes
Yamaha YMF278B OPL4

AdMOS QDSP QS700
AdMOS QDSP QS1000
AMD Interwave AM78C200
Analog Devices ADSP2115
Aztech AZT3310
E-Mu IC404
ESS ES690F
ESS ES692S
SEC Omniwave KS0164
Yamaha YMF-704C

 

AdMOS QDSP QS700

Released: 1995
ROM Size: 1 MB
Patchset: (own)
Polyphony: 32 voices

The QS700 (and rebranded OPTi 82C941) could handle 32 voices at 44.1 kHz, which is CD quality. It supported a maximum of 16x8M sampling memory.

Found on the following:

  • Silicom Multimedia Systems' WaveMaster 32FGP
  • AST Advantage DB II-A Wavetable card

AdMOS QDSP QS1000

Released: 1996
ROM Size: 512 KB
Patchset: (own)
Polyphony: 32 voices

Found on the following cards:

  • Diamond Monster Sound wavetable daughterboard (AdWave 32S)
  • Silicom Multimedia Systems' WaveMaster 64FGP

AMD Interwave AM78C200

Released: 1996
ROM Size: 512 KB
Patchset: (own)
Polyphony: 32 voices

The Interwave "LC" (Low Cost) was a cost-reduced version of the earlier AM78C201. Found on the following:

  • ExpertColor MED3201

AMD Interwave AM78C201KC / AKC

Released: 1995
ROM Size: 1 MB or 2 MB, but also supported up to 16 MB RAM for software patchsets
Patchset: (own)
Polyphony: 32 voices

The Interwave was named AMaDeus at its launch in 1995, and was a licensed version of Advanced Gravis' GFA1 synth chip found on their UltraSound audio card. When AMD licensed it, they enhanced the chip to support up to 16 MB of onboard RAM (via two 30-pin SIMM memory slots). It was compatible with the Crystal CS4231 codec installed in the UltraSound MAX and the 16-bit recording daughterboard for the UltraSound Classic.

The sound "patch set" was reworked from a collection of individual instrument .PAT files to a unified .FFF/.DAT sound bank format, resembling SoundFont, which could be either ROM or RAM based. There were 4 versions of the sound bank: a full 16-bit ADPCM 4 MB with 8-bit downsampled 2 MB version, and 16-bit ADPCM 2 MB (different sample looping) with 8-bit downsampled 1 MB version. 

Interwave was licensed to a number of OEMs including ExpertColor, STB Systems, Reveal, Compaq, Philips and Core Dynamics. Some high-end OEM variants contained a full-blown 4 MB patch set in ROM and proprietary hardware DSPs to enable features like additional sound effect algorithms and a graphic equalizer.

Click here for the Am78C201/202 datasheet.

The AM78C201AKC was a later revision of the standard AMD InterWave chip which included a TEA6330T fader. It was used on a Compaq OEM version of STB Systems' Ultra-Sound 32.

The AMD InterWave synth chip can be found on:

Analog Devices ADSP2115

Released: 1993
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: unknown
GM-compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 24 voices

Found on Orchid SoundWave 32 (512 KB or 1 MB ROM versions exist, both of which have compressed samples). No TSR is needed for the card to access the wavetable.
Click here for the ADSP2115 datasheet.

Aztech AZT3310 / AZT3320

Released: ?
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: Samsung, software-based
Polyphony: unknown

The AZT3310 is a rebranded Samsung 0164. Found on some variants of the Aztech WaveRider Pro 32-3D. It does not require a TSR to be loaded to make use of the wavetable synthesis.

Creative Labs EMU8000/EMU8K

Released: 1994
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: own EMU8011
GM-compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 32 voices

The EMU8000 chip incorporates an effects processor which can generate chorus and reverb effects, and environments on its MIDI output, similar to the later EAX standard that Creative Labs released on its Live! brand of cards. Unlike nearly all other synth chips listed here, the Sound Blaster AWE32 did not use the card's MPU-401 interface to access the EMU8000 - instead its registers in the synth chip are exposed via three sets of non-standard ports, and interpret MIDI commands in software on the host CPU. This means software such as games have to directly support the AWE32 to work, rather than simply permitting the "General MIDI" option to work. The AWEUTIL program is what attempts to redirect General MIDI/MT-32/GS to the native AWE32 hardware.

It requires a TSR to be loaded to make use of the wavetable.

Click here for the EMU8000 Programmer's Guide.

Found on the following:

Creative Labs EMU10K1

Released: 1998
RAM Size: 8 MB RAM
Patchset: Ensoniq, software-based
Polyphony: 64 voices

Creative released the EMU10K1 alongside its new Sound Blaster Live! range of cards in 1998. The EMU10K featured 64-voice polyphony, support for DirectSound as well as EAX 1.0 and 2.0, plus an embedded DSP chip for effects processing.

Unlike its predecessor, the EMU8000, which used a ROM chip to store its patchset, the EMU10K1 used only system memory to read a software patchset over the much faster PCI bus.

No ISA cards got the EMU10K1 chip due to its design. Found on the following PCI cards:

  • Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! (CT4760)
  • Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! Value (CT4670)
  • Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! Value (CT4830)

Crystal CS9203 / DREAM SAM9203

Released: 1993
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM (Crystal), 4 MB ROM (Dream)
Patchset: Dream CS4112-CS (possibly of Roland origin)
Polyphony: 32 voices

The Dream SAM9203 has a 4 MB ROM instead of the 1 MB Crystal-branded variant (Crystal Semiconductor were a customer of Dream, authorised to have their chips branded).

Found on the following:

Crystal CS9233 / DREAM SAM9233

Released: 1994
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: Dream CS4112 (possibly of Roland origin)
GM-Compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 32 voices

The patchset is either Dream's CleanWave 32, or the one they got into trouble over with Roland. It does require a TSR to be loaded to make use of the wavetable synthesis.

Found on many cards including:

  • Aztech CS9233 wavetable card
  • Terratec Maestro 16/96 and 32/96
  • Terratec WaveSystem Professional SOWT-24
  • Terratec MiniWave System SOWT-12 and SOWT-11
  • Oksori WS32
  • Ad Lib ASB 64 Wave Pro 4D IDE
  • AOpen AW32 Pro
  • Formosa AudioStar Wave (daughterboard)
  • IBM Aptiva S-W1/C Wavetable card

Click here for the CS9233 Datasheet.

Crystal CS9236

Released: -
ROM SIze: unknown
Patchset: unknown
GM-Compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 32 voices

Found on the following cards:

Dream SAM2195

Released: 2014
ROM SIze: 512 KB ROM
Patchset: unknown
GM-compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 64 voices

Found on Serdaco Dreamblaster S1 wavetable daughterboard.

Dream SAM2655

Released: 2015
ROM SIze: 8 MB ROM
Patchset: unknown
GM-compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 64 voices

Click here for the SAM2655 datasheet.

Found on Serdaco Dreamblaster X1 wavetable daughterboard.

Dream SAM2695

Released: 2016?
ROM SIze: 8 MB ROM
Patchset: unknown
GM-compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 64 voices

Found on Serdaco Dreamblaster S2 wavetable daughterboard.

 

Dream SAM9407

Released: -
RAM SIze: 4 MB RAM, software-based
Patchset: unknown
GM-Compatible: Yes
Polyphony: unknown

The Dream SAM9407 uses soundfonts in the .94B file format. The Hoontech Soundtrack 97 uses files with a .DMF extension but the format is still .94B - just rename the file extension. Terratec files sometimes use a .TTS file extension - these files simply add a header to a .94B file

Found on the following cards:

Click here for the SAM9407 Datasheet.

Dream SAM9503

Released: 1997
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: own
Polyphony: 32 voices

Found on Terratec MiniWaveSystem WT64.

SAM9503 Datasheet

Dream SAM9708

Released: 2005
ROM Size: 16 MB ROM
Patchset: CleanWave (GMS970800, GMBK9708.94B)
Polyphony: 128 voices

Found on Terratec Producer Wave XTable (TT9708WT).

Dream SAM9733

Released: March 1998
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: "CleanWave 32" (GMS973200, GMBK9732.94B)
Polyphony: 48 voices

Dream released 4 new sound synthesis/processing ICs in March 1998. They were the SAM9707, SAM9703, SAM9713 and SAM9733. The SAM9707 was a marketed as a direct replacement for the SAM9407 on high-end PC sound cards and the SAM9703 was to replace the SAM9503 on high-end karoake systems. The SAM9713 was marketed for use in karaoke systems, and the SAM9733 for low-cost keyboards.

The CleanWave 32(TM) is possibly a Roland patchset used without permission. Roland took Dream to court over the use of their samples/patches and won. On 2nd October 1997, Dream and Crystal acknowledged Roland's copyright in its digital sound recordings. Roland then authorised Dream (and its parent company, Atmel) to resell ICs with Roland GS recordings on. CleanWave 32 came with 128 GM instruments plus 195 variations, 9 drumsets and 1 sound effects set.

Dream also produced a CleanWave 8 (1 MB ROM), CleanWave 16 (2 MB ROM), and CleanWave 64 (8 MB ROM).

Used on the following:

  • Miditemp DS-48 CleanWave32 daughterboard
  • Serdaco Yucatan FX (remake of the Turtle Beach Cancun FX)

SAM9733 Datasheet

E-Mu Sound Engine IC404

Released: 1993
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: own
GM-Compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 32 voices

E-Mu used OKI for chip fabrication of the IC404.

Found on the original Creative Labs Wave Blaster (CT1900).

E-Mu Proteus 1/XR

Released: 1994
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: own
Polyphony: 32 voices

Proteus SoundEngine MIDI Specifications

Ensoniq ES-5530 "Opus"

Released: -
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: own
Polyphony: 32 voices

Found on Ensoniq SoundScape Opus, which is a cut-down version of the S-2000 and Elite. You do not need to load a TSR to make use of the onboard wavetable synthesis. Also found on the NEC Harmony.

Ensoniq MARK5

Released: 1996
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: own
Polyphony: 32 voices

A middling-quality patchset. Requires a TSR to be loaded in DOS for the wavetable to work.

Found on the following:

Ensoniq OTTO R2

Released: 1992
ROM Size: 2 MB ROM
Patchset: own
GM-Compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 32 voices

Found on the following cards:

ESS ES690F

Released: -
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: own ES981P
GM-Compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 32 voices

The ES690 synth chip is typically coupled with a 1 MB ES981P wavetable ROM chip that holds the samples.

Click here for the ES690F datasheet.

ESS ES692S

Released: 1997
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: own
Polyphony: 32 voices

The ES692S differs from the ES690F in that it contains its own 1 MB ROM for wavetable samples held internally.

Found on the following:

ICS WaveFront ICS2115V

Released: 1993
ROM Size: 2 MB ROM
Patchset: VoiceCrystal Lite (4 MB cut down to 2 MB)
Polyphony: 32 voices

On the Turtle Beach Tropez, the GM sound quality is average - better than E-Mu 8000 and AdMOS. It does require you to run a utility if you wish to use the wavetable synthesis, which is effectively firmware that tells the card's processor to use a certain patch map (from ROM). There is no effects processor.

Click here for the ICS2115V datasheet.

Found on the following cards:

Korg AI-2 (MBCS35104)

Released: 1991
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: Cleanwave
Polyphony: 32 voices

Found on the following cards:

Kurzweil MA-1

Released: 1997?
ROM Size: 2 MB ROM
Patchset: own, 4 MB of samples compressed to fit in a 2 MB ROM
Polyphony: 32 voices

Considered to be possibly the best quality patchset available, the samples were compressed using a proprietary compression algorithm by Kurzweil to ensure minimal loss of quality. The Kaurweil instruments comes across as more harmonised and cinematic. It is ideal for orchestral music.

On the Turtle Beach Pinnacle sound card you could install up to 48 MB of 30-pin FPM RAM to expand the sample set. It supported individual reverb and chorus settings on each MIDI channel.

On the Turtle Beach Malibu Surround 64, the Kurzweil MA-1 synth and 2 MB ROM chip (with 4 MB compressed samples) are present, though the Rockwell effects processor is missing.

Kurzweil samples are found on Rockwell-fabricated ICs.

Found on the following cards:

  • Turtle Beach Pinnacle
  • Turtle Beach Malibu Surround 64(?)

OPTi 82C941

(a rebranded AdMOS QDSP QS700 but with a 1 MB ROM)
Click here for the 82C941 datasheet.

Found on the following cards:

Philips SAA7785 ThunderBird Avenger

Released: 1999
ROM Size: 2 MB ROM
Patchset: own VLSI
GM-Compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 64 voices

The Philips SAA7785 Thunderbird was a PCI sound accelerator chip, which encompassed a wavetable synthesizer, 3D positional audio, DirectSound/EAX/Aureal 3D (A3D) and much more. In 1999 Philips bought VLSI, who had already produced their 4-channel ThunderBird 128 PCI chip. This was used on Philips new range of PCI sound cards including the Philips Rhythmic Edge (PSC702) and Philips Seismic Edge (PSC704).

The Thunderbird Avenger was the follow-up to this chip. Philips updated the Rhythmic Edge and Seismic Edge cards to use this new chip. These cards were very highly regarded for their excellent SnR (Signal-to-Noise) ratio.

Found on the following cards:

  • Philips Rhythmic Edge (PSC703)
  • Philips Seismic Edge (PSC705)
  • Philips Acoustic Edge (PSC706)

Rockwell WaveArtist 030 / RWA030/035

Released: -
ROM Size: 2 MB ROM
Patchset: Kurzweil, 4 MB of samples compressed to fit in a 2 MB ROM
Polyphony: 32 voices

Found on Turtle Beach HOMAC daughterboard.
Click here for the KS0164 datasheet.

Roland R15239148

Released: -
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: own Sound Canvas SC-55
Polyphony: 24 voices

Roland TC24SC201AF (Toshiba-produced)

Released: -
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: own Sound Canvas SC-55
Polyphony: 24 voices

Roland TC6116AF

Released: 1995
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: own Sound Canvas SC-55 Mk II
Polyphony: 28 voices

Roland used Toshiba fabrication plant to manufacture the TC6116AF.

Use on the following:

  • Roland SCB-7 wavetable daughterboard
  • Roland SCD-10 (SCB-7 bundled with the MPU-401/AT)
  • Roland SCC-1 sound card
  • Roland SCB-55 wavetable daughterboard
  • Roland SCD-15

Roland MBCS30109 (Fujitsu-produced)

Released: -
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: own
Polyphony: unknown

Found in the Roland SC-88.

S3 Sonic Vibes

Released: -
ROM Size: 2 MB ROM
Patchset: EuPhonics
Polyphony: 32 voices

A PCI wavetable synthesizer chip.

Found on the following:

SEC [Samsung] OmniWave KS0164

Released: 1995
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: own KS0174-1M01
Polyphony: 32 voices

Click here for the KS0164 datasheet.

Found on the following:

Sierra Semiconductor SC18005CQ

Released: 1992
ROM Size: 512 KB ROM
Patchset: own
GM-Compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 32 voices

Click here for the SC18005CQ datasheet.

Found on Prometheus ARIA 16 sound card. It requires a TSR to be loaded to make use of the wavetable.

Yamaha XQ036A0

Released: 1995
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: own
GM-compatible: Yes, plus GS and XG
Polyphony: 32 voices

Used on the following:

Yamaha XU947C0

Released: 1998
ROM Size: 4 MB ROM
Patchset: own
GM-compatible: Yes, plus GS and XG
Polyphony: 32 voices

This Yamaha chip had 16-bit output instead of 18-bit, and lacks the QS300 instrument set found on the XQ036A0. It can be set to run in GM, TG-300 and XG sound modes.

Used on the following:

  • Yamaha DB51XG daughterboard (a cut-down version of the DB50XG)
  • Yamaha DX200 external MIDI module
  • Korg NX5R external MIDI module

Yamaha YMF-278B (OPL4)

Released: 1994
ROM Size: 2 MB ROM
Patchset: OPL4
GM-compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 24 voices at 44.1 kHz

Usually accompanied by a Yamaha YMF801 2 MB ROM chip, which holds 330 samples, mostly 22 kHz 12-bit samples with some drums at 44.1 kHz. It is also sometimes connected to a Yamaha YSS225 effects processor chip. Two later versions of the OPL4 chip exist (YMF704C, called OPL4-ML and YMF721, called OPL4-ML2), both with a built-in 1 MB ROM.

Click here for the YMF278B datasheet, and here for the application manual.

Used on the following:

 

Yamaha YMF-704C

Released: 1996
ROM Size: 1 MB ROM
Patchset: "Fat Labs" OPL4
GM-compatible: Yes
Polyphony: 24 voices

The Yamaha YMF-704C is essentially a YMF-278 that also contains an embedded 1 MB ROM (the YMF-278 required an external ROM chip to store its samples), MPU-401 interface and supports General MIDI. Broadly recognized as very budget-oriented synth chip, with very poor quality samples.

Click here for the YMF-704C datasheet.

Used on the following:

  • Pine Technology PT-2030 Vivaldi

 

Summary

With the arrival of the PCI bus for sound cards in addition to cheaper and larger amounts of RAM on typical PCs, most sound cards and integrated audio devices adopted a "soft wavetable" approach which meant loading 2MB to 8MB of samples into the PC's main memory without the need for a dedicated ROM chip on a daughterboard or sticks of RAM on the sound card.

 

Wavetable Daughterboards

Daughterboard cards plug into an existing sound card that has a compatible wavetable 'header' (connector). The most popular header is Creative's Wave Blaster - a daughterboard that plugs into a Sound Blaster sound card to provide the sound card with sample-based synthesis - though there are other wavetable headers such as Aztech's "Wave Tide" which is not compatible with the Creative header.

These headers use the MPU-401 UART interface on the sound card to send the sample-based sounds to the application or game (just like plugging an external MIDI module in would do). In some cases these were designed to work only from within a Windows MS-DOS window, so initially you would need to tell Windows that you want it to redirect MIDI from the Game/MIDI port to the wavetable daughterboard. You would then typically choose 'General MIDI' in the game's setup for this to work.

In other cases where your sound card has onboard wavetable synthesis, such as the MediaTrix Audiotrix Pro software, a DOS utility called SETMPU allows you to redirect audio-in and audio-out either to the onboard wavetable chip or to the device connected to the MPU-401 interface (the game port), such as a Roland SC-55 external MIDI module.

Many wavetable daughterboards were launched from a variety of manufacturers, including Creative Labs, Yamaha, Diamond, Turtle Beach, NEC and more. The majority are 100% compatible with the Creative Wave Blaster header. Below I list out the most common of these:

 

Aztech Sound Galaxy WavePower

Price when New: $129

From Rich Heimlich back in 1995: "It's a decent Creative Wave Blaster clone but doesn't sound as good as one. Used to be the only other choice.  Thankfully that's long ago now.". He rated the music quality at a poor 3.5 out of 10.

 

 

Aztech Wavetide

The Wavetide uses the ICS WaveFront ICS2115V chipset. It contains a 2MB ROM and supports 32-voice polyphony. It will only connect to an Aztech board's 50-pin expansion connector (in addition to the proprietary "Wave Tide" header) - it won't work on a standard Wave Blaster header.

 

 

Creative Wave Blaster (CT1900)

Price when New: $159
The CT1900 used an OKI-branded E-MU Revision A chip. It has a 4MB ROM and supports 32-voice polyphony.

From Rich Heimlich: "We owe this product for getting us the Wave Blaster connector. But even given that, this is just an average choice for add-on products. Not bad, but you can do better both in price and sound quality.".

 

Creative Wave Blaster II (CT1910)

Price when New: $160
The CT1910 made use of the new EMU8000 chipset, and contained a 2MB ROM, and provides 32-voice polyphony.

Rich Heimlich said this of the WaveBlaster II: "A much better daughterboard than the original Wave Blaster including
a better patch set and effects processor.  You're likely to be very satisfied with one. On the downside, the sounds are a bit harsh, the effects are turned up more than usual to hide some flaws and the more esoteric instruments aren't very good.
". He scored its music quality at a respectable 7 out of 10.

Wave Blaster floppy disks (rev 2, 3, and WB II disk)

 

Diamond Monster Sound Wavetable (AdWave32)

This 512 KB ROM version of this wavetable daughterboard was often found plugged into the Diamond Monster Sound M80 PCI sound card, while the 2 MB ROM version could be found on Diamond's Monster Sound MX300.

Comes in both 512 KB, 2MB (Rev.B) and 4MB ROM (Rev.C) flavours, with the 2MB version supporting 32-voice polyphony and the 4MB version supporting 64-voice polyphony.

The 512 KB and 2MB version uses an AdMos QDSP QA1000 chip.
The 4MB version uses a Dream SAM9733 chip.

 

Ensoniq Soundscape DB

Price when New: $90

A 'wavetable' daughterboard (sample-based synthesis daughterboard) upgrade for PCs with a sound card bearing a Wave Blaster-compatible connector. It was based upon the S-2000 chipset but was without the digital sound effects section or any DAC. The SSDB would use the host sound card for final output. There are 2 flavours of this daughterboard: Revision A has a 2MB ROM chip. Revision B has a 1MB ROM chip.

From Rich Heimlich: "People will ask why they would want a 1MB patch set instead of a 2MB set.  Size isn't everything.  The 1MB set on this DB is the best 1MB set you're going to find.  It ends up rating about the same as the 2MB set but features more Sound Canvas-like patch volumes unlike their original Soundscape 2MB set.". He rated the music quality at 7.0 out of 10.

For the 2MB version, Ensoniq originally shipped this daughterboard with the same 2MB patch set found on their original Soundscape because the 1MB set it claimed to use wasn't done.  Early releases had hanging note problems but these were returnable for a newer, corrected unit.

 

MediaVision Pro Wave

Released: 1994
Synth chip: KORG AI2
Sample size: 4 MB

This daughterboard was initially sold separately for owners of sound cards that supported the Wave Blaster header. It was later bundled with MediaVision's own "Pro 3D" sound card - a Sound Blaster-compatible card - to give a well-rounded overall music solution for PC gamers.

 

 

NEC XR385

A clone of the Yamaha DB50XG. Uses the Yamaha XQ036A0 chipset. Contains a 4MB ROM and supports 32-voice polyphony. It supports the General MIDI standard plus the Yamaha XG extensions.

Arguably the best wavetable card you can buy (the Yamaha may have a little more street cred or cachet, but they are identical in terms of audio output).

 

Orchid Wave Booster 4FX

Synth chip: Crystal CS9203-CL
Memory: 4 MB ROM
Polyphony: 32 voices

User Manual

 

 

Pine PT-2030 Vivaldi Xtra

Released: 1997
Synth chip: Yamaha YMF-704C-S
Memory: 1 MB

 

 

 

Roland Sound Canvas SCB-7

Released: 1995
Synth chip: Roland TC6116AF
Memory: 4 MB

The Roland SCB-7 is the daughterboard version of the SC-7 external MIDI synthesizer. This means the output quality is almost up there with the Roland SC-55 Mk II.

 

 

Roland Sound Canvas SCB-55

Released: 1995
Synth chip: Roland TC6116AF
Memory: 4 MB
Polyphony: 28 voices

This is essentially an SC-55 on a daughterboard, without the bells and whistles. It is fully GM and GS compatible.

 

 

Shark Multimedia Tsunami

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Shuttle HOT-243Y

Released: 1997
Synth chip: Yamaha YMF-704C-S
Memory: 1 MB

"Spacewalker" was used by Shuttle for a number of their mainboards (HOT-613, FV-24, 591P, HOT-661 and more), but it was also used to describe their one and only wavetable daughterboard - the HOT-243Y.

 

Terratec Producer Wave XTable

Released: 2005
Synth chip: Dream SAM9708
Memory: 16 MB

Has a whopping 16MB ROM chip and supports 128-voice polyphony. It is fully General MIDI compliant and also supports the Yamaha XG extensions. It comes with 500 additional instruments, 10 drumkits, and effects.

You would think based on the above that this Terratec is the "killer" wavetable daughterboard to get. It's not - samples aren't in the same league as Roland or Yamaha.

 

 

Turtle Beach CancunFX

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Turtle Beach Kurzweil HOMAC

Synth chip: Rockwell/Kurzweil RWA030/035
Memory: 2 MB ROM (4 MB compressed using Kurzweil's proprietary compression)
Polyphony: 32 voices

General MIDI compliant.

 

 

 

Turtle Beach Rio

Price when New: $140
Uses the ICS Wavefront ICS2115V chipset. Has a 4 MB ROM plus a socket for a SIPP RAM module to extend its capacity. 32-voice polyphony. Fully General MIDI compliant.

Much better sound than Creative's Wave Blaster at a better price. RAM sampling and limited effects are a bonus but the RAM sampling is painfully slow due to the WB (Wave Blaster) interface which is why no other DB's offer this feature.  The Turtle Beach Rio is used on the Monterey so it can be hard to find.

 

X Technology Topwave 32 (XTOP-005)

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Yamaha DB50XG

Uses the Yamaha XQ036A0 chipset.

The XG is for "eXtended General MIDI", similar in purpose to Roland's GS standard. These cards have a 4MB ROM chip for sample storage, and offer 32-voice polyphony. Fully GM and XG compliant.

The DB50XG is basically a Yamaha MU10 external synth module on a daughterboard. It also supports TG300, QS300, XG, and Roland GS modes.

Works well with Sound Blaster cards that have a Wave Blaster header, as long as you don't use it together with digital sound effects.

As mentioned, about the best-quality daughterboard you can find.

 

Yamaha DB51XG

Introduced: 2000
Uses the Yamaha XU947Co chip.

The XG is for "eXtended General MIDI", similar in purpose to Roland's GS standard. These cards have a 4MB ROM chip for sample storage, and offer 32-voice polyphony. Fully GM, GS and XG compliant.

The DB51XG differs from the DB50XG in that it does not include the QS300 mode sound samples. The DB51XG was the daughterboard that came inside the Korg NX5R external MIDI synth module.

Serdashop Dreamblaster S1

A modern-day (2019) wavetable synthesizer module for use with any Wave Blaster-compatible sound card, e.g. SoundBlaster 16, Audician 32, ESS AudioDrive, Aureal Vortex 2 and many others. Based on the SAM2195 chip.

If you don't have a wavetable connector on your sound card, you can still use the S1 with the addition of the CHiLL and Phil Adapter which allows you to connect the S1 to your sound card's MPU401-compatible Game/MIDI port.

Succeeded by the Dreamblaster S2.

  • 64-voice polyphony (without effects)
  • 38-voice polyphony + effects
  • High quality, compact size
  • CleanWave soundset
  • General MIDI compatible effects
  • 4-band stereo equalizer
  • Low power consumption, only 5V supply required (no +/- 12V)
  • Low noise audio output
  • Can be used on Waveblaster Compatible soundcards
  • Can be used for electronics projects, such as arduino, raspberry pi, midibox,...
  • Small size, ideal for building into projects : 36mm x 35mm

 

Serdashop Dreamblaster S2

A modern-day Waveblaster-compatible synth module based on the SAM2695 chip (datasheet here). Available to buy new in 2019!
Excellent for gaming, music production, sound experiments,..
Combines wavetable and FM synth sound for a high end retro sound.

If you don't have a wavetable connector on your sound card, you can still use the S2 with the addition of the CHiLL and Phil Adapter which allows you to connect the S2 to your sound card's MPU401-compatible Game/MIDI port.

  • 64-voice polyphony (without effects)
  • 38-voice polyphony + effects
  • High quality, compact size
  • CleanWave soundset
  • General MIDI compatible effects
  • 4-band stereo equalizer
  • Low power consumption, only 5V supply required (no +/- 12V)
  • Low noise audio output
  • Can be used on Waveblaster compatible soundcards
  • Can be used for electronics projects, such as arduino, raspberry pi, midibox,...
  • Very small size, ideal for building into projects : 24mm x 34mm

As per Serge's website:

This board is intended for testing, education, development, and usage in custom projects and prototypes.
Cheap but brilliant replacement for the more and more becoming less available GM-daughterboards like famous Roland SCB-7 or Yamaha DB50XG.

Compatible with any soundcard that has a Waveblaster connector : SoundBlaster 16, Audician 32, ESS AudioDrive, Aureal Vortex 2 and many others.
Please note: There are some older soundcards with a Waveblaster compatible header but don‘t have an MPU401 interface. Instead there is only the SoundBlaster MIDI standard supported so the games that run with the S2 module are limited. You can use SoftMPU to emulate the MPU401 interface in this case. Visit http://bjt42.github.io/softmpu/ for further information and a list of compatible games.

 

Serdashop Dreamblaster X2

The X2 takes the modern-day Dreamblaster S2 to another level. Available to buy new in 2019!

Small form factor midi PCB : 65mm x 38mm size
- Black color PCB
- Dream 5000 series synth chip with 81 voices polyphony, high quality effects engine
- Waveblaster-compatible connector for use on soundcards (such as Soundblaster 16, Audician 32, ESS AudioDrive, Aureal Vortex 2 and many others...) and DIY projects.
- It will also work on instruments that accept waveblaster cards, such as Oberheim MC2000, Korg NS5R and Terratex Axon AX 100
- Super low latency <1ms
- 64mbyte flash for soundbank data
- USB MIDI in (Class compliant midi device, works on windows XP and higher, without drivers)
- stereo line out using a high quality 24 bit DAC    
- Preloaded with a high quality 16 megabyte Dream General MIDI soundbank 
- Advanced MIDI commands spec available.
- DreamBlaster preset editor / USB uploader tool for advanced customization/tweaking.

If you don't have a wavetable connector on your sound card, you can still use the X2 with the addition of the CHiLL and Phil Adapter which allows you to connect the X2 to your sound card's MPU-401-compatible Game/MIDI port.