The Sound Card Variable

If you’re into game music you should check out the Retro Game Music Bundle. I put $10 on this and got FLAC versions of all this stuff.1 What’s interesting is how they went about it:

Most of the games had available audio files, or an audio test mode – one of those things we never really understood when we were younger, but found ourselves profoundly grateful for now. Some of the games had neither, and needed to be played entirely through with the music on and SFX off – Ryland got stuck with that task, and performed admirably. Then, Ryland and Josh mixed and mastered the recordings to bring out their original magic, and our designer, Amanda, created beautiful album art for each game. In the process, the soundtracks were transformed them into professional-quality albums.

PC game music from the 90’s oftentimes relied on whatever hardware you had in your PC. What was your sound card capable of?2 Just FM synthesis? Did you have an AWE32? Did you configure it right?

Because of the sound card variable, playing a game with one sound card may feel differently than playing it on another. Doom isn’t as scary when it sounds like a Sega Genesis game because all you had was hardwire capable of FM synthesis. I always wondered what the TRUE sound card was. Which audio hardware did I need to experience the game and its general MIDI soundtrack the way the developers intended?

Anything they needed to play through and record was likely one of these soundtracks. No word on what sound card was used.


  1. Ever since iTunes Match and a hard drive upgrade I always get lossless versions when possible. Their FLAC version of the Myst soundtrack is at 44/24, but it doesn’t MAGICALLY make a Mastered For iTunes version. Also, LOTS of music here – which is a bummer because now I’m having to cull my music collection to fit under the 25,000 iTunes Match limit…again. 

  2. People USED TO, and still do I suppose, spend hundreds of dollars on sound cards. Sound Blaster used to be THE name because of their sound banks. Final Fantasy VII on PC is my favorite example of this. You could have the STANDARD sound track, but if you had a Soundblaster card you could use the custom FF7 soundfont, which was basically a sound bank that made the game sound more like the PSX version. I wonder how many Soundblaster cards were sold because of that.