Retro computing for $99

So I was cruising around New Capital Computer Plaza, looking for some cisco console cables, and I saw a bunch of old Xeon desktop computers for sale.  Prices were in the 250-500 USD range, which seemed pricey to me.  And keeping in mind that my desktop is already a Xeon E3-1230, it did seem kind of pointless.  But then I saw this Dell Precision 490 for about $99 USD.

Dell Precision 490

Dell Precision 490

Great, so what are the general specs?

Well the ‘nice’ thing about Dell is that they keep all their old stuff online, so looking at the specsheet we can see It’s not a bad machine for something circa 2006.  Even archive.org has the old pricing online too!

Mine came with a Xeon 5160, 8GB of ram, 250 GB disk, and an ATI HD 4850

By my calculations this machine was about $4,863 USD, and that isn’t including the after market video card, which would be about $180 USD when it was new in 2008, bringing the total MSRP on this thing to $5,043 USD!

Of course it is now 2016, and this machine is 10 years old, with an 8 year old video card.  Also of interest is that it came licensed for Windows XP x64, which was the first publicly available AMD64 OS from Microsoft.  Unlike traditional Windows XP, this 64bit version is actually built around Windows server 2003.

The computer came with a pirated copy of Windows 7, which I wanted to promptly remove.  I have an old MSDN copy of Windows XP x64 that I wanted to install, however the optical drive is broken, and I needed to install from USB.  Thankfully even though this machine is old, it can boot from USB devices.  The first step was to download WinSetupFromUSB 1.2 to get XP onto a USB stick.  Naturally once I had booted from USB, the disk controller wasn’t supported.  The BIOS screen revealed that it was a:

Serial ATA AHCI BIOS, Version iSrc 1.02.25 07222007. Copyright (c) 2003-2006 Intel Corporation. Copyright (c) 2003-2006 Dell, Inc. Controller …

This translated into the Intel iaStor product, and I was able to slipstream in the last version from 2009, 8.9.0.123 into the USB by using nlite.

I have to say that once I had removed the gratuitous pirated Chinese Windows 7, and installed XP that this machine was pretty damned snappy!  As always I updated to service pack 2.

The onboard NIC is a Broadcom NetXtreme 57xx gigabit NIC, which unlike the ‘gigabit’ nic on my newer desktop, this one actually works at 1Gb.

With Windows XP installed, I went to the AMD/ATI site, and found the download for the HD 4xxx series, and went ahead and installed Steam.

I have to say that Half-Life 2 runs GREAT.  According to it’s onboard FPS counter I was getting anywhere around 60-180 FPS.  Pretty awesome.  Fallout 3 runs pretty snappy too.  I tried Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and much to my surprise this vintage 2011 game runs on my 2006 Windows XP x64 setup.

What about the overall internet experience?  Well this being Windows XP, You are pretty limited by the traditional browsers.  Internet Explorer 6 is the default browser which to say it’s dated is an understatement.  I prefer Internet Explorer 7 over 6, but they are both so old it doesn’t matter. Internet Explorer 8 is also an option.  The last version of Google Chrome to support Windows XP was 49.0.2623.75.  Chrome 49 plays youtube just fine, Scripted Amiga is a little pokey, but does run.

And how does this thing compare to my normal desktop?  Running Geekbench 2, I get a score of 3396 vs 10864.  Now keep in mind this $99 machine only has a dual core processor, while my newer machine has a quad core + hyper threading CPU.  An interesting comparison is with the Xeon E5320 CPU, with the Dell eking out a victory.

Installing additional software was possible via Virtual Clone Drive, while I did have ISO images of stuff I’ve had physical media of in the past, a broken drive wasn’t going to help me read anything.

I didn’t activate it, but Windows 10 will run on this machine as well.  I’ll probably upgrade by getting a second JD210 heat sink (I already found another 5160 processor for $10)

It’s a great machine for sub $100.  I’d hate to have spent over $5,000 on this thing, but it’s kind of cool to see that a 10 year old machine like this can still be sort of usable.  Of course updating the software will certainly go a long way in making it really usable.

More fun with the System16, kinda, sorta?

So, Ive been playing around with emulators, and for some reason I think it’d be awesome to have a real one.  So I check ebay, and yeah there is a few, Altered Beast, Shinobi, and even an Outrun, and a couple of Hang Ons!  Wow this is so cool, then I check the prices, and shipping and yeah it’s REAL expensive, REAL quick.  And even back when I did own an Altered Beast board, I never got it hooked up as it was ‘too hard’.

So, I’m about to give up on the whole thing, then I spot this Altered Beast board, for sale for a mere €50!  And the shipping isn’t too insane either!  But looking at the PCB board in the picture, and I can tell something is not quite right:

€50 board!

€50 board!

Now for those who don’t know, this clearly is not a System16 board.  However it certainly does have a 68000, and z80 processor!  Could this be some 2nd tier manufacturing job? Or perhaps it’s one of these infamous bootleg boards?

For comparison, here is a real SEGA System16 board

A real System16 board

A real System16 board

As you can see, they really look nothing alike.  Also the other give away is that the far cheaper €50 board is JAMMA compatible.  All the old SEGA boards are not.

What the heck is JAMMA anyways?  You see that edge connector?  That is where you would plug in the power, coin catchers, the player buttons, and the speakers to.  Even in the old days, recycling cabinets was a thing, and having modular boards was a ‘good thing’.  But SEGA didn’t want you to swap out their boards with anyone elses, so they used their own system.  But it’s just a wiring thing, there is nothing digitial locked down, no encryption either (look at HDMI!).  So you can use an adapter, to interface from SEGA to JAMMA.

Anyways, I went ahead and placed the order.

Now doing some more research, and the monitors used in 1980’s arcades were RGB+Sync driven.  Which are ancient, and of course, HEAVY. But a little bit of searching led me to the to the GBS 8200 v4.0.

GBS 8200 v40

GBS 8200 v4.0

AKA known as the “GBS8200 CGA/EGA/YUV/RGB To VGA Arcade Game Video Converter”.  Well this certainly looks perfect!  I mean from the description alone, it’ll do what I want.  Even better they make them a few KM from here, and I could get one for ~ $20 USD.  Perfect.

Next up is the power, I decided to get a “JAMMA” power supply.  A bunch of searching, and this one was the cheapest one I could find, and again shipping wasn’t too bad, but not great either.  The supply was again around $20 USD, but shipping was $15. OUCH.

MD-9916A JAMMA switching power supply

MD-9916A JAMMA switching power supply

I figured having the ability to screw in would be a ‘good thing’.

Naturally, I need the cables to wire this mess together, so I ordered a “JAMMA Cabinet Wire Wiring Harness Loom” for about $15 USD.  Naturally mine is all in Chinese since I went cheap.  But it’s OK, I have a multi meter so I can test continuity.

Finally I saw a QANBA N1 arcade style joystick in a local mall for $230 HKD.  That is less than HALF the price of the ones I see online in the USA, Europe, or Canada.  So at least that is nice.  Now with all the parts, I just have to wait for the board to arrive.  And wait, and wait.  Nothing updated on ebay, then suddenly I check a few days later, as it’s been two weeks by this point, and it turns out that it’s been sitting in the post office in Hong Kong for a week!  If only they let me know…  SF Express, and FedEx have come without issues.  Oh well, now I have the board!

I can now finally flip it over to reveal:

Graphics board

Graphics board

It’s all 74L TTL logic chips, EEPROMS, and some PALs as well.  There are NO custom SEGA chips at all.  If anything this is what is inside of the SEGA ASIC’s on the System16 board.  Whoa.

Ok, so this is certainly a bootleg board.  A quick search of MAME shows that they have a Datsu ROMset, so maybe this is one?  Nothing on the boards say Datsu, however it does say ALTER/S, and it shows being QA’d on 11/11/88.

Now it’s time to cable this thing up!

But first JAMMA boards are typically key’d so you cant put the adapter in backwards.  There is no key on this board, so I need to check the voltages to make sure I don’t flip it backwards.

JAMMA Standard Pinout

** Solder Side Parts Side **




GND A 1 GND
GND B 2 GND
+5v C 3 +5v
+5v D 4 +5v
-5v E 5 -5v
+12v F 6 +12v
Key, No Pin H 7 Key, No Pin
Coin Counter 2 J 8 Coin Counter 1
Coin Lockout K 9 Coin Lockout
Speaker (-) L 10 Speaker (+)
NC M 11 NC
Video Analog Green N 12 Video Analog Red
Video Composite Sync P 13 Video Analog Blue
Service Switch R 14 Video Ground
Tilt/Slam S 15 Test
Coin B T 16 Coin A
Player 2 Start U 17 Player 1 Start
Player 2 X-Dir Player 2 Up V 18 Player 1 Up Player 1 X-Dir
Player 2 Y-Dir Player 2 Down W 19 Player 1 Down Player 1 Y-Dir
Player 2 X-Clk Player 2 Left X 20 Player 1 Left Player 1 X-Clk
Player 2 Y-Clk Player 2 Right Y 21 Player 1 Right Player 1 Y-Clk
Player 2 Button 1 Z 22 Player 1 Button 1
Player 2 Button 2 a 23 Player 1 Button 2
Player 2 Button 3 b 24 Player 1 Button 3
1 Player 2 Button 4 NC c 25 NC Player 1 Button 4 1
1 Player 2 Button 5 NC d 26 NC Player 1 Button 5 1
2 Player 2 Button 6 GND e 27 GND Player 1 Button 6 2
GND f 28 GND

This is the standard pinnout of a JAMMA harness. Importantly you can see it’s Ground than +5v.  So looking at the 68000 processor to check it’s pinnout:

D4 1 64 D5
D3 2 63 D6
D2 3 62 D7
D1 4 61 D8
D0 5 60 D9
AS 6 59 D10
UDS 7 58 D11
LDS 8 57 D12
R/W 9 56 D13
DTACK 10 55 D14
BG 11 54 D15
BGACK 12 53 GND
BR 13 52 A23
VCC 14 51 A22
CLK 15 50 A21
GND 16 49 VCC
HALT 17 48 A20
Reset 18 47 A19
VMA 19 46 A18
E 20 45 A17
VPA 21 44 A16
BERR 22 43 A15
IPL2 23 42 A14
IPL1 24 41 A13
IPL0 25 40 A12
FC2 26 39 A11
FC1 27 38 A10
FC0 28 37 A9
A1 29 36 A8
A2 30 35 A7
A3 31 34 A6
A4 32 33 A5
 You can see it’s power input is on pin 14.  Likewise, the ground is on pin 53.  Also looking at the edge connector, you can see the two pairs of pins, which correspond to the double ground, and double +5v.
Connecting the harness

Connecting the harness

From there, it was a matter of connecting up the power supply, adding in the power to the video board, connecting the RGBS connector, and powering it up.  It was very cool to get a glimpse of Altered Beast!

Something is wrong

Something is wrong

And hello, it is a Datsu board.  I’ve tried to google about these boards, and all that I could find out is that they seemed to be popular in Italy.  They may have been made in Korea.  There was another variation called ‘Mutant Warrior/Super Warrior‘.  There was some posts about it in an Italian game forum mameitalia.net, and arcadeitalia.net . Google translate works fine enough to read, but they were in smaller places that couldn’t afford mainstream games, so enter the bootlegs.  And this makes sense, as the board I got was from rural France.

I maybe had a picture for 20 seconds, it was frozen, then the screen went black.  I power cycled, to nothing.  I tried it again to a green screen.  And again to a green screen.  At this point I think it’s died.  I let it rest for a few minutes, and try again.  Nothing.  I leave it powered up, and feel the processor, and it’s warm.  It’s doing something, so I think.  So I start to play with the video board, and as I change resolutions, I get an image!.. then it disappears.  Power cycling, and changing resolutions occasionally gives me an image.  I look more closely at the CPU board, and notice that it has 4 standoffs placed on each corner.  There is nothing in the middle, and over the past 28 years the board is sagging.

In order to fix the sag, I decouple the two boards, and spread them out.  I try it again, and it doesn’t show me anything. Eventually I play with all the video board settings, and manually set it to the RGBS input, and then the image stays!  The board is running.  I tweek some of the settings, and the pink goes away, and now it looks correct!

20160430_110924

LOGO

And even the intro animation is OK

Looks good

Looks good

OK, now it’s time to turn it off, and wire up the joystick.

The first step is to remove the joystick ball, and on the QANBA N1 you first flip it upside down, and remove the little cover.

Remove the cover

Remove the cover

to reveal the screwdriver slot to let you hold the stick in place as you unscrew the ball.

slot

slot

Now it pops off, and it’s really easy to remove the USB interface cables, and drag in the JAMMA cables.  Again use a tester to tone out what goes where. DO NOT FOLLOW MY COLORING GUIDE.  I’m pretty sure there is no colour standard, so just because mine is like this, yours will 99.9999% not be.  The only common thing is that each of these buttons needs a ground.

Joystick wired up

Joystick wired up

My harness has a common ground for P1 and P2, so I just tapped up the end and tucked it in the joystick body.  Now with wired up, I can put the joystick back together, and play!

And that is when I could finally see that something was wrong.  I was doing pretty well, then in the 2nd level I saw this weird thing:

An actual wall of text

An actual wall of text

The sprites are working fine, and the gameplay continues.  But eventually the wall of text effect went from the background to the foreground obscuring game play.

foreground tile corruption

foreground tile corruption

So no doubt something is bad on the board.  I need to get it looked at, and see about first dumping and checking the EEPROMS.  Next the RAM on the graphics board, may be suspect as well.  I think the CPU is fine since it runs OK, I’m just unable to really see pass the wall.

For the heck of it, I went and got some powered speakers, and hooked them up:

And it sounds so different from the SEGA version.  An inspection of the board shows that there is no YM2151, but rather a pair of YM2203’s and an OKI M5205 for the speech synths.

In retrospect, I probably should have gone with something like the arcade supergun.  I didn’t know it was a thing unfortunately.  My solution is more “traditional” , but it works.

Retro Freak, first thoughts

So I apparently have more time to spare, so lets get this one out of the way, the Retro Freak!

The Retro Freak in the wild!

The Retro Freak in the wild!

I saw these originally for demo during an Electronic and game show in Hong Kong.  A vendor in Taiwan who claimed to be the manufacturer was willing to sell the units to me (in bulk mind you!) these units for $160 USD in qty 15-100.  So it was a LOT more than I was willing to spend as this is no doubt an expensive retro console to device.  And much to my surprise I’ve seen them out in retail world for sale with prices ranging from ¥18,000 to ¥24,480.  And that was a major surprise.

So I bought one retail for the price I had been quoted back in the autumn.

The exciting box!

The exciting box!

As you can see this is the box.  And yes that is the bed in the house I’m currently renting.  Such a festive background.

And for those who love this kind of thing, here is the back of the box:

Back

Back

Once I purchased it, and they counted the cash it was opened up, and they put their store chop on it.  Unfortuantly they used crap ink, and I have to dig out the receipt.  But it was the cheapest price, which put it at $150 USD (before the 8% tax).

Opening the box

Opening the box

Opening the box, and we get that made in China feel.  The box is cheap, but hell I didn’t pay for a box, I paid for…

the dull console

the dull console

The most utterly dull and uninspiring console ever.  The plastic feels VERY cheap too.  Holding something like a Mega Drive (Genesis), or a Super Famicom feels so solid.  And the SONY gear is top notch.  This is just featureless dull soft gray plastic.  And not even a logo, or any real surface features save a power LED.  It just feels cheap.

Now one interesting thing, is that the majority of the body is actually the cartridge reader.  You have the ability to flip it over, and slide out the actual console, which is much smaller, and cast in the same dull and cheap plastic.

The actual console

The actual console

The console has 2 USB ports for 2 controllers.  I haven’t seen any USB SEGA controllers (what the hell are they doing?  Is there that much money in Gundam VR, and Pinchino?)  But there is lots of knock off Nintendo USB controllers.  I have some to test later that I scored for 700 YEN.

Console underside

Console underside

Flipping it over, reveals that it is made in China, and it is made by Cyber Gadget, out of Japan.

Turning the unit on, doesn’t reveal any fancy startup screen or logo, just a language selection.  There is online help, but of course its in Japanese.

HELP!

HELP!

I am still not sure if you can just plug and play cartridges at will.  It also doesn’t like it if you just power it off abruptly.

Because it was getting late, I slapped in the only Mega Drive game I bought so far on this trip, Air Diver

Air Diver

Air Diver

It detected just fine, and I was able to play without issues.

Playing the game was much like the real thing, and you can add all kinds of screen filters, and other things to make your LCD TV behave like a CRT including overscan, and some saturation if you go further into the video settings.

The bundled controller is more SNES+WiiU feel to it.  Again I am just bummed out there is no SEGA knockoff stuff.

The good part is that it supports a crazy amount of formats!

  • Mega Drive
  • Famicom
  • Super Famicom
  • Game Boy
  • Game Boy Colour
  • Game Boy Advanced
  • PC-Engine

Which is pretty cool.  I always wonder why nobody has approached SEGA on licensing the BIOS for the MEGA-CD, or the 32x.  Naturally SONY wasn’t too thrilled about emulation of the Play Station 1 from a long time ago.

So the plus is that this does a LOT of emulation for the buck, if you want to read your own cartridges.  The practical side says that they have all been downloaded and converted ages ago and are trivial to find online.  It isn’t as cool as the actual hardware, but considering it is new it is much cheaper than buying and recapping a bunch of machines.

And honestly, you would probably prefer the retrode 2, which is a USB peripheral to read Mega Drive, and Super Famicom (Gensis and Super Nintendo).

While the Retro Freak does read many more formats it is better suited to someone who “just wants the damned thing to work!”  And it succeeds in being a magical box you can slap the cartridge into, and start playing.

And regarding what is under the hood, regarding the software license:

RetroFreak uses source code from the following open source projects:

  • VBA-M (both primary SVN and VBA-Next fork)
  • Genesis Plus GX
  • FCEU (FCEU-Next fork)
  • SNES9x (SNES9x-Next fork)
  • Mednafen

And of course a fork of the Linux kernel.

My experience with the Gravis UltraSound Part 2: Synergy ViperMax / Gravis UltraSound Extreme

(guest post from Frank Sapone)

ViperMAX_PCB

Synergy ViperMax / Gravis UltraSound Extreme

A few months ago I made a guest-post about my personal experiences with the
Gravis UltraSound cards.  In this article I mentioned there were a few variants
besides the standard GUS “Classic”, MAX, and PnP series.  I was unable to
comment on the other cards since I did not own them.  Well, that all changed
a few weeks ago when I contacted someone who wrote some pack-in software that
was included with most GUS cards and surprisingly he still had all his cards.
Even better, he was willing to give them to me!

One of the cards I received was the Synergy ViperMax.  I have read some usenet
posts and have talked to other people who were active in the demoscene in the
mid-90s and apparently this card was originally designed by STB and then STB
produced their own card that has an ESS1688 chipset (for SB Pro compatibility
and better Windows drivers) and the GF1 chipset (the IC that makes the GUS
it’s own).  How true is this story?  I have no clue, as I have never seen an
STB variant of this card, but I have seen STB GUS PnP (the AMD Interwave
version) as Compaq OEM clones for sale occasionally.

In any case, Synergy started producing this card and it’s kind of a rare
number.  Again, rumours afloat, that the guy from Synergy was coming to
demoparties and giving these away to groups that won competitions in an
effort to stir up some interest/sales.  And before Advanced Gravis all but
gave up on the sound card market they took the Synergy ViperMax cards and
simply placed stickers over the Synergy logo and card name.  Gravis also maxed
out the onboard RAM to 1MB (the ViperMax comes with 512kb by default). It is
exactly the same board, which leads me to believe Gravis may have purchased
remaining stock of the Synergy cards and unloaded them.  The UltraSound Extreme
may be even more rare than the ViperMax.  It’s hard to say as I have personally
never seen either of these cards for sale on ebay.

Keeping the GUS roots, the card is almost completely plug and play. The only
thing you must change is a jumper for CD-ROM Enable/Disable.  Like the GUS MAX
there is CD-ROM interface support.  Contrary to rumours, this card is NOT GUS
MAX compatible!  It does not contain the Crystal CS4231 CODEC chip or emulate
it.  This means no MAXSBOS and no special demos that will output 48khz (I only
know of one, The Secret Live of Mr. Black by Orange).  I feel this
misinformation was started because of the CD-ROM interface that was also unique
to the GUS MAX.  To setup your card you just run viprinit in DOS with your
appropriate SET BLASTER and SET ULTRASND variables and it configures the rest.
However, I noticed viprinit will not properly change your base address for the
ESS chipset (i.e. you want to change it from A220 to something else).  No fear,
Synergy included the ESSCFG.EXE utility as well allowing you to change the
base address.  Initial configuration is set with VSETUP.EXE from DOS.

Windows 95 installation is basically the same as the earlier cards. You
run the setup.exe and it will install the ESS drivers.  It tries to setup
some extra stuff for UltraSound as MIDI device.  And it does work just fine
but a gotcha is that the DOS stuff will break.  I never had a reason to use
GUS’ MIDI capabilities from within Windows so this wasn’t a deal breaker
for me.  After a reboot you will likely have to reconfigure your card
manually from the device manager but after that it’s smooth sailing.  And yes,
you can install the updated ESS1688 drivers with no ill-effects. However,
if there are any differences in performance I have yet to notice it. Last known
official ESS drivers for Windows 9x at http://dk.toastednet.org/GUS/drivers/WIN95/VMAX-GUS_Extreme/1688_v1087.zip

The ESS chip is really nice, it sounds very similar to the OPL3 and it has
SB PRO compatibility (take THAT SB16!).  Whats the difference?  The SB16 only
states that it’s Sound Blaster compatible, not Sound Blaster PRO compatible.
This means some earlier titles like Wolfenstein 3D will only output in mono
on the SB16.  With the ViperMax, you can hear stereo sounds again.

Wolfenstein 3-D

Wolfenstein 3-D

Someone asked me if SBOS and MegaEm work.  SBOS, no.  MegaEm, yes but with no SB emulation.  You can probably make MegaEm work with the SB emulation if you
want to play around with running ESSCFG, changing your PnP settings, updating
your BLASTER and ULTRASND variables then running viprinit.  But, you’ll need
a lot of free resources and quite frankly I fail to see a point.  If anyone
out there has pulled it off drop me a comment.

Since the card has a GF1 IC there is no comparision between the earlier GUS
cards.  They will all sound the same.  The signal-to-noise ratio is acceptable
though I haven’t measured what it truly is, but for gaming and watching some
demos it’s capable.

All in all, this is a great card.  If it was released earlier and through
Advanced Gravis they could have still been in the market.  Another nice
side effect of this card is that Windows XP has ESS1688 drivers. Just install
the cards as a non-pnp legacy device, configure manually and enjoy sound!

I made a few more rips comparing the differences between the ESS mode and GUS.
The few module files are played with XTC-Play and two of them (ATBIA3 and
Parallel Universe) are XM modules over 1MB.  XTC-Play has a way of quadrupling
the RAM usage by downsampling.  However, the modules still sound quite good
and it’s quite a thing to hear the GUS playing large high-quality modules.

VMAX 3D

VMAX 3D

Before I bring this article to a close, here is some ViperMax/GUS Extreme
Resources:

* Gravis UltraSound Extreme Manual: http://dk.toastednet.org/GUS/docs/EXTMAN.ZIP
* Gravis UltraSound Extreme CD ISO: http://dk.toastednet.org/GUS/ISO/GUS_EXTREME_CD.ZIP
* Synergy ViperMax CD ISO: http://dk.toastednet.org/GUS/ISO/VMAX_V10.zip

Enjoy the rips!  In a few weeks I’ll have a write up on the Gravis UltraSound
Plug and Play Pro (waiting for my RAM upgrade) and finally some last minute
thoughts and information about a few other OEM cards and the GUS ACE.

For comparison here is DOOM II Map 06


Gravis


Sound Blaster

Advanced Gravis

My experience with the Gravis UltraSound

(guest post from Frank Sapone)

gravlogo

Sometime around 1992, Advanced Gravis teamed up with Forte/E-Tek to design a wavetable synthesis card around the ICS11614 IC. This card offered 32 channels, 14 channels @ 44khz and more channels would start dividing down in sound quality until you got to 32 channels at ~19khz. The mixing was done on-board which saved precious CPU cycles in the days of 286 and 386. The card originally advertised sound blaster support, but reading usenet posts from these days you can tell a lot of people were agitated that it was through a TSR, SBOS, that had hit or miss support and sometimes sounded better or worse than the FM because SBOS mixed it all into stereo.

I found out about these mythical cards a few years ago. A buddy went along with me to the local flea market out in the country-side of York, PA and we found a fellow who was trying to sell some P2-era laptops with USB wifi dongles and Windows XP loaded laptops for $100(!). I started talking with this gentleman and eventually convinced him to let me take a trip to his house and see what other stuff he may have. I took home a healthy share of various SB clones (mostly of the ESS variety, but a few Yamahas were in there as well) and some S3 Virge cards all for free. I built a computer with some of these parts, enough to play Doom and Heretic and started hitting up vogons and was reading some fanboism on the Gravis UltraSound cards. Where did I hear that name before? Oh, yes, in my mid-late 90s days of Doom I remember the setup.exe listed this card as an option and so did Duke3D and some other games I used to play quite frequently.

I did a lot of research on the card. Reading about how it used wavetable synthesis instead of FM. Basically, you can upload real MIDI-like patches to the cards RAM to get exceptional sound quality out of these older games and this also opens the window to creating your own patches if you wanted to tweak the sound of the songs.

Ultrasound Classic

Ultrasound Classic

Fast forward a couple of years later, I finally broke down and bought a GUS Classic v2.4 on ebay for $60. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out of the box. Failing to detect the card every single time, even if I removed everything from the computer and even disabled everything in the BIOS, including the FDC, Serial and Parallel ports. I got a refund, but a few days later I noticed some resistor had a broken leg and I soldered this and it started working! Immediately I loaded up Doom and the music sounded so much better than my SB or any of it’s clones.

Doom

Doom

Enjoying the sound, I started loading up other titles I played a lot back then that I remembered supporting this card: Descent, Heretic, Duke3D, Quake 1. I got a taste of some infamous Gravis issues when it came time to load up any Build engine title (Duke3D, Blood, SW, etc.) and Rise of the Triad. The music sounded great, but the digital voices had some weird clicks and somewhat static-like sound at the end of their samples. More research revealed that the GUS was known for this with those particular titles, and a ìsimpleî workaround is to get an SB card coexisting in the same box.

I amazingly got the SB and GUS living in the same machine after a few hours of fiddling around with some jumpers and tweaking autoexec.bat. Originally, I used one of those stereo to stereo cables. Running line out of the SB to the line in of the GUS, but the GUS’ mixer ìcolouredî the sound of the line in and mic in with entirely way too much bass. I made a cable that ran from line out of the SB16 to the CD-In of the GUS and it sounded excellent. I even found a way to keep my SB working in Win98SE this since it was known that the GUS had shitty support for the Win9x family (more on this later).

There are some shortcomings of the classic cards, the main being the Win9x drivers have no DirectSound support, only software emulation and usenet says that this had unpredictable results. Another annoying thing was no volume mixer(!), they expected you to hook this card up to powered speakers or ideally an amplifier. The v3.7 revision has a volume mixer but had problems with flip flopped stereo (whoops!) and v3.74 (the final GUS classic) fixed this problem. For those curious, for the most part revision versions don’t have bug fixes in their firmware, they just started finding ways to shrink the number of ICs on board. The exception to this was the v3.7 and v3.74 adding the volume mixer. GUS MAX v1.7 apparently had some sort of DMA or IRQ bug (forget these specifics) according to usenet, v1.8 fixed this problem and v2.1 is a v1.8 but lower component count and everything is now soldered on instead of sockets.

Other gotchas include: sound clicking and corruption on High-DMA, sometimes you can resolve this by setting 16-bit delay transactions but not all motherboards have this option and some just won’t work either way. Doubling up on the baseport, i.e. 220 also steals 320. Gravis claims you need to set the GUS and SB Emu IRQ to different values but they can be the same usually and have no problems. Same with the Playback and Recording DMA, unless you want full-duplex. If you’re just gaming it’s irrelevant.

Ultrasound MAX box

Ultrasound MAX box

At some point, I was hungry for more, wanting to try out the later GUS models like the MAX, ACE, and PnP. Particularly the GUS MAX because it included the volume mixer, had a special Crystal CODEC chip for 16-bit recording (was released late in GUS classics life as a daughterboard but it is very rare), the CODEC chip allowed for Windows Sound System, but the port is non-standard (gotcha!) and a special SBOS, MAXSBOS, takes advantage of the CODEC chip as well, and finally some CD-ROM support on board but I was uninterested in that since most of you know how much of a nightmare it is to get that shit working properly. Back to ebay, found a fellow selling a boxed GUS MAX for $100. I didn’t have the total cash on me at the time and it was buy-it-now. Considering the card was fairly hard to find, at least from what I researched at the time, I contacted the guy about paying half now and the other half in a few days. He agreed, and asked that I send it as a gift via paypal. Long story short, he never sent it, stopped replying to my emails and since it was sent as a ìgiftî I had no recourse through ebay or paypal. Learn that lesson when dealing online everyone! Always offer to pay a little extra for the processing fee if they claim this is why they want it set as a gift!

Bummed out, I found another classic, this time a v2.7 and well what do you know, this one doesn’t work either! Tried for 3 days all kinds of things. Cleaning the entire board off with electrical contact cleaner, reseating the contacts on the socketed chips, reflowing solder joints, replacing capacitors, but nothing ever brought it back to life. A year or two later, I found another GUS MAX for sale on ebay, purchased it immediately and it did not work. I tried it in 3 separate PCs and got no results. It always just said baseport UNAVAIALBLE FOR ULTRASOUND for whatever baseport I set it to. However, it wasn’t a total loss. On a whim, I took the GF1 IC from this MAX and placed it in the broken v2.7 classic and it made this card live again.

I setup daily searches for ebay to alert me immediately of any GUS developments appearing. If you’re new to the whole Gravis thing you’ll see theres a guy in Hungary who always has overpriced ones for sale and is unwilling to budge on price. If you check out his feedback you will see that he has been selling GUS cards of all flavours since at least 2010(!) almost monthly. Months and months went by with no MAX showing up and when one finally did it went for way more than I was willing to spend especially with the track record of 2 (almost 3) DOA cards that required soldering and intense cleaning to live again. If you’re planning to experiment with GUS cards be sure the card was tested recently, if you get the typical responses of not having an ISA PC around any more to test it, get the card cheaply and be certain that they will honour the return policy if it does not work.

MAX 2.1 board

MAX 2.1 board

Finally, after a couple of years I did some networking and found some fellow demosceners with GUS MAXes for the price of shipping. I’m waiting on my v2.1, but received two v1.8s. The first one did not work at all, would never detect properly. Tried the usual suspects of cleaning it up, reseating, rocking the caps a little back and forth to make sure everything was making contact, etc. The second one, actually detected the card saying UNAVAIALBLE FOR ULTRASOUND yet again, but this time after I disabled my FDC, Serial and Parallel ports it worked! Excited, I loaded up the usual games and all worked great and the CODEC chip’s mixer program worked properly. Now, I was read to add the SB16 back in but now no matter what base port I would select it always complained it was unavailable, yet again! At some point I got it working sort of but then it wouldn’t let me set any DMA properly in the setup utility. Enough of this nonsense, I thought, I have a few socket 7 towers not being used.

I popped it in to a P1 166MHZ living by itself. Now we can try out that special MAXSBOS!… and unfortunately it doesn’t sound better than SBOS, in fact it sounds worse! And yes, I tried a separate IRQ for SB emulation and low-DMA, high-DMA, making sure the CD-ROM baseport doesn’t conflict with GUS’ baseport and I have 1MB RAM onboard that is 70ns.

At this point I should stop and mention a few other gotchas on these MAX cards. The GUS ìdoublesî up on the baseport. i.e. if you set 220 it will also grab 320. The CD-ROM baseport on these cards will be set, even if you disable the rest of the CD-ROM interface. So make sure you don’t have the CD-ROM set to the same or else it will always complain it’s unavailable for ultrasound in the setup utility. And yes, you just have to remove the IRQ and DMA jumpers on the card and put the jumper on the CD-ROM disable. Panasonic enable jumper appears to make no difference regards to enabling parts of the CD-ROM circuit, unless of course you planned on using the CD-ROM interface. I’m assuming most of you out there won’t be. You also need 70ns rated (or better) 256kx4 chip. The MAX has 512kb RAM on board but you NEED 1MB on any GUS card to get great results or live with missing instruments and all kinds of funnies happening to you. The CODEC also uses some baseport, but this is software selectable so you should have no serious problem there.

Now I go on to try this bad boy out in Win98SE with the special DirectSound enabled drivers. When you install the Gravis GF1 (non PnP) series drivers it will tell you that you have to install the card as a non-PnP device and restart, then manually set the DMA, IRQ, Baseport in the advanced properties for the card. This is fairly trivial if you’re used to DOS, but for newbies just keep it in mind. Another gotcha here is that the drivers will blank out your SET ULTRASND= and SET ULTRA16(for MAX users)= in your autoexec.bat after the reboot so write these values down. I believe this was done on purpose since most people auto loaded SBOS or MEGAEM (the other SB emulator they had) and this conflicts with Windows big time. The drivers do work and the sound quality is fine, but the biggest issue I’ve had is that sndvol32.exe never loads now. You can not adjust the volume or disable the mic-in and line-in and you really should as every card I’ve owned the recording inputs pick up a lot of interference. Moving the mouse and the HDD just all come through your speakers. I haven’t tried Windows 95 yet, maybe the mixer works okay there? At some point I’ll post an update and let internet-land know.

Gravis Ultrasound ACE

Gravis Ultrasound ACE

SoundBuddy 1.0 prototype

SoundBuddy 1.0 prototype

I don’t own these cards, but will mention them for clarity. The GUS ACE (internally referred to as the Sound Buddy) is simply a GUS Classic without the recording capabilities or the gameport. It was meant to be a supplement to a sound blaster or similar clone. You simply run the line out of this card to your line in of your SB16 (or maybe it’s vice-versa? Correct me if need be). You have to update your ultrinit to the last known version because there’s a bug in the official drivers(!) that does not disable the nonexistant gameport and it will steal your other sound cards gameport cause conflicts. For those who need the fix, GUS0047.ZIP. At one point, Gravis struck a deal with AMD to make an enhanced chip, called the InterWave which had GUS support and allows 8MB of samples (16MB apparently if you solder some stuff, but I have yet to see any pictures or even a textfile on this hack). Pouet.net sceners say that it has problems with long loops so some demos may sound wrong. IWSBOS is based from MAXSBOS so I assume it probably sounds just as bad compared to the final revision of SBOS. Usenet posts of users crying that the Win9x drivers are awful too, but again, I don’t own this card so I’m only just passing on what I have heard. Feel free to prove me wrong in the comments.

ViperMAX board

ViperMAX board

Other weirdo cards included the Synergy ViperMAX, which is basically a GUS with an ESS chip for SB compatibility. In theory, this means you should get decent Win9x support through the ESS. These cards are kind of rare now. I have yet to see one appear in the US. But, fellow Pouet.net users have found them across the EU so maybe they are common there. There were some other OEM variants, most similar in design to the ViperMAX. Check out Wikipedia for information on those if you really must know more.

My final thoughts on this long (still not quite yet over) journey is that the GUS Classic is a fun card for breathing some life into the soundtracks of older id and apogee titles with a few silly hang ups on getting it to work initially. The MAX did not live up to its mythical hype with the mixer, special CODEC chip, and Win9x drivers. These cards appear to be very delicate because I have had 3 out of 5 cards DOA and required fooling around to get them to work again. Even though 2 MAX cards still do not work no matter what I’ve tried. Expect to buy more than one to get a working card. The ideal setup would be to get a GUS Classic or ACE and get that to coexist with an SB or compatible clone. I can’t comment on the ViperMAX as I have not located one yet.

Gravis Ultrasound MAX 2.3 prototype

Gravis Ultrasound MAX 2.3 prototype

As much frustration these cards have brought me, they still sound nice when they work! But, it really does make a lot of sense why they are rare today. It is quite aggravating to get one working properly!

All of this would be useless without some samples of what a GUS sounds like, all samples were recorded at 44,100Hz, …

DOOM e1m1


DOOM e2m6


DOOM e2m8


DOOM e3m1


DOOM e3m2