The history of PC sound cards: from beeper to digital orchestra

The early days of the pc were a quiet time. There wasn’t much to sound either. A pitifully beeping mini loudspeaker, clamped somewhere in the housing, was sufficient for error messages. Music and sound effects were only needed for games, and they were reserved for home computers until the mid-1980s. That was to change in 1987 with the appearance of the first PC sound card.

The ISA plug-in card sold by the Canadian manufacturer Adlib under the same name is based on a sound generator from Yamaha: The YM8912, also called OPL2, is a direct descendant of the audio chips used in many 8-bit home computers. Using FM synthesis, up to 9-part pieces of music can be output in the characteristic 80s sound. This was not only known from home computers and arcade machines, but also from pop music by artists such as Depeche Mode or Spliff. They often used the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer, which is based on very similar technology.

In FM synthesis, oscillators connected in pairs using phase coupling generate pure or modified sinusoidal signals and thus generate the characteristic sound. Envelope generators manipulate their volume curve, for example to simulate the swing of a string. With skillful programming, musical instruments can be reproduced, albeit with very different recognizability. Noise effects such as explosions or shots are possible thanks to the noise generator and envelopes, but they sound very thin. Nevertheless, the slowly blossoming DOS game industry rushed to the Adlib card, which also set the sound standard for PCs due to the lack of competition.

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