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Output signal quality on ISA soundcards


Experienced Member
Mar 12, 2015
What are some of the best ISA Sound Blaster compatible cards, e.g. for DOS gaming, in this regard? I have AWE64 Value and an ESS, they both have a lot of noise on their output.
There is no single card that will be any less noisy, because there are so many factors at play. Sound Blaster cards in general are very noisy, I've had my hands on a good number of different Creative ISA cards, and the earlier ones were incredibly bad when it came to noise. Additionally, they often had bugs, like the infamous hanging note bug or playing the wrong notes. Those problems are arguably worse than the high noise floor, because they're super distracting. It's not a fun time when a loud high pitched note hangs after a game exits and persists through a reboot until the driver is loaded again to re-initalize the card.

The YM3812 (OPL2) and YMF262 (OPL3) chips themselves were noisy, but could be made worse by bad sound board layout (common with Creative cards) and motherboards with bad cross talk issues, which was a ton of those. Power supplies also could introduce noise if they were low quality junk, which was common in the era as well. Everyone was rebranding shitty cheap Taiwanese PSU boxen and selling them by the million.

If your AWE64 is noisy, maybe try running them in a different motherboard with a different power supply and see if anything changes. You also may try recapping the card, the caps on those cards are 25+ years old and can be degraded. Same with the caps on the motherboard and power supplies.
Best sound quality will be a card with digital output (SPDIF) going to an external DAC like a stereo receiver. AWE64 has SPDIF output, but the Value models require soldering to add the pins.

If you want something self-contained, the Orpheus II LT is supposed to have pretty clean analog output, but I haven't tested it myself.
@GiGaBiTe I'm aware of Creative card issues, hence why I ask for clone recommendations too. The high noise floor is a problem to me in my setup, I would try to use one of my old machines for tracking, so it gets connected to my soundboard but it's not located next to it. Right now I have to turn around get up and hit the mute buttons on the input strips because the noise is too much.

I've not done measurements - for reference, when soundboard is on 0db, input strips and master out, no eq, no low cut, with poweramp level I use (more than enough for my quarters) there is absolutely no noise coming out of the speakers. If I hook my cellphone over a 2x1/4 mono to 1/8 stereo cable to it there is 0 audible noise. On same cable these old soundcards hum like a wolf. 0db level is a headache. The noise is all over the low and mid ends.

About PC noise I've tried multiple boards and multiple PSUs including picos. I mean I've used it around in last few months and noticed noise everywhere, I'll try to do a test and see whether some stuff is less noisy than other.

@Plasma I can try to switch to SPDIF and dedigitize it. But Orpheus II is quite pricey, enough to buy a new entry level USB interface and used netbook and run FastTracker on Linux on it. Kind of kills my idea of using original hardware for tracking, if I need to invest ~250 euros into it.
Back when I used an ISA soundcard for audio streaming of a broadcast radio station, after much research I picked a Pro Audio Spectrum 16, as it had the cleanest input I found. Since I was using Red Hat Linux 4.1 at the time, and had to build a custom kernel for the PAS16 driver, I can't attest to its DOS compatibility.
I think I'm gonna go with Orpheus+Dreamblaster. It's a hefty price but should be worthwhile.
What are some of the best ISA Sound Blaster compatible cards, e.g. for DOS gaming, in this regard? I have AWE64 Value and an ESS, they both have a lot of noise on their output.
I would suggest a PAS16 or GUS. I have a few PAS16's, as I find them to be decently compatible, and very clean sound quality.
Thanks for suggestion but I went for Orpheus 2 LT + X16GS combo. At 310eur+shipping it's pretty expensive but looks like an ultimate solution to everything I want to do. Having enormous wavetable frees me up from MIDI routing including use of physical Roland soundcanvas. The OPL3 output section should be quiet.