Gravis UltraSound clones are quite rare. Much rarer than Sound Blaster clones, or the original UltraSound for that matter. I just bought this Primax SoundStorm Wave and I wonder if it’s any good.
Gravis Ultrasound’s PCBs are always red, so if you see an UltraSound card with different colour, you can be pretty much sure, it’s a clone card. This one is based on Gravis’ own GF1 chip, which made the original Gravis an outstanding sound card, with super clean output, astonishing wavetable, but very poor compatibility. And since Primax uses the same chip, compatibility won’t be any better, but it may exceed Gravis in terms of sound quality.
Same as original Gravis, it lacks waveblaster connector, so any kind of MIDI daughter board is out of question. If you can’t live without external MIDI device, use gameport on the backplate with some external sound module. Backplate has a standard layout, line in, mic, line out, speaker out and already mentioned gameport. However, to use an external module, you need a breakout box to connect the module to and a program called Mega-Em, which I’ll mention later. You’ll find lots of jumpers on the board to set up address, IRQ and DMA. Memory upgrade slot and usual CD ROM connectors found on old sound cards are here as well. There is no PC speaker input on the card, but that’s a feature nobody actually needs.
Installation is pretty much straightforward. I used latest drivers for UltraSound Classic, version 4.11. It just asked for the installation path, installed all necessary files and went straight to testing the card for available resources. After the testing’s done, the setup asks if you want to update system files and reboot the system.
Original Gravis cards use series of patch files with recorded instruments to play MIDI music. And since this card uses the same system, it also works the same. The system Gravis developed is quite smart and easy to use. The card loads instruments into its memory, and since each instrument is one file, the card doesn’t need to load all the instruments at once, as you may be familiar with in case of SF2 format, it loads just the ones it currently needs. Patch files can be exchanged for your own if know how to create them. There are many different patch sets online, but I used patch files from the original installation to avoid any problems during testing.
The card should be compatible with the same games as the original UltraSound. Unfortunately, it also should be incompatible with the same games as the original UltraSound. Most of all DOS games lack UltraSound support, but you may find patches online, that add the support for some. If there is no patch for the game, there may still be a chance to get it working. UltraSound Classic as well as Primax don’t have any OPL capability which makes it quite difficult to play FM synthesis on the card. It has to emulate it with a special software. You’ve got two simple programs you can use for games that lack native support.
SBOS and Mega-Em. Some games work with SBOS, some games with Mega-Em, some games with both and some games don’t work at all. SBOS can emulate Sound Blaster Pro and Adlib. Mega-Em is able to emulate Sound Blaster, Adlib, Roland MT-32, Sound Canvas and General MIDI. Even though Mega-Em is able to somehow emulate FM synth, it is bloody horrible. SBOS does much better job, but it’s far cry from perfect. One game that works with both is Dune II. I have recorded entire intro four times, it’s quite interesting how differently one card can sound in one game, check out the video.
As I mentioned before, you need Mega-Em to make external sound modules to work. However, no matter what I tried, it just didn’t work. I’d recommend to forget about that and if you really need an external MIDI device or some daughter board, get another card, that’s easier and more reliable to set it up, like some cheap ESS card.
Classic vs Primax
There are couple of hardware differences, apart from the colour of PCB.
- Primax clearly uses higher quality components.
- The original Gravis uses different type of RAM slots. It had 256kB of RAM on-board, upgradable to 1MB with classic DIP modules. Primax, on the other hand had 512kB of RAM, also upgradable to 1MB, but with SOJ modules.
- UltraSound Classic was one of the first sound cards that featured hardware mixer. They released many revisions, but first one that included hardware mixer was 3.7 and fortunately Primax was released after 3.7 revision and included hardware mixer as well.
- Unlike the Classic, Primax doesn’t have connector for connecting Gravis’ recording daughter board, thus can’t record PCM in 16bit 44kHz. These daughter boards were quite rare and are even rarer today. It’s impossible to find a working piece, or any piece, that is.
- Primax is also a bit louder, about 1 and a half db.
- As I said before, it needs to use software to emulate Sound Blaster or Adlib. I tested both cards in same games to see if I can hear any differences between them. Mega-Em was fine, but it sounded a bit different using SBOS.
This card is almost 30 years old and it still sounds brilliant with its crystal clear output. Left and right channels are as they should be, not swapped. Perhaps the only problem, that it suffers from quite often, is hanging notes.
BioForge doesn’t support Gravis natively. And this is where dealing with UltraSound cards gets quite messy. I tried all the emulators and none of them worked, neither sound nor music. Then I found a patch online. It wasn’t too difficult to apply the patch, however the patch is only for MIDI music. You need to disable sounds, set the music to Sound Blaster, edit a file that holds settings, run a program, that initializes Gravis wavetable and run the game. Intro music is pretty good, great actually. On the other hand, menu music is terrible, not that the instruments are off or something, they are simply missing.
Doom woks perfectly as always. I just set UltraSound for music and sounds and ran the game.
Same goes for Doom 2, I just set UltraSound in the setup and I’m ready to go. Doom uses its own UltraSound settings and as such it sounds differently in-game than if you simply play the MIDI file.
Duke 3D’s got native support as well, no problem there, then.
Duke 2 needs an emulator, works with both, SBOS and Mega-Em. I’ll let you be the judge what sounds better.
Even though Dungeon Master 2 supports Gravis natively, it simply didn’t work until I applied the latest patch.
Gabriel Knight needs a bloody patch as well. There’s a patch for multiple Sierra games out there, which is working quite well for some tracks. Some, however, not so much.
Heroes of Might and Magic 2 and Rise of The Triad sound brilliant.
MT-32 emulation works great in some games. Then, there are games that rely on MT-32’s sounds and since Gravis can’t replicate these sounds, it’s not very nice to listen to.
TFX is an interesting one. It’s got native support for Gravis but the game was always crashing during startup, until I applied patch #3. Even though it supports Gravis natively, the support is only for sounds. When you choose Gravis in the setup, it disables MIDI completely for some reason. To make MIDI work, I had to run Mega-Em emulator, but like this the sound doesn’t work. I tried all the options for MIDI in the setup and all of them worked, but Sound Blaster option was way too quiet. Personally, I fancy SCC version best. The only way to get both, sound and music working, is to get CD version, set Gravis as a sound driver and CD for music.
Ultima 8 uses the same patch as BioForge, which means only MIDI and no sound.
Primax is an excellent sound card with cracking wavetable and clean output. Many games support it natively and others can be made to work using one of the emulators. Despite what people say about UltraSound cards, there are very little games, that don’t work at all with them. For those that support it natively it’s brilliant, for those that need the emulator it’s not always that great. If you’re looking for an UltraSound card, this is one is as good as any, however, Primax is almost impossible to find, so expect pretty steep price.
I found only couple of differences between Primax and Ultrasound Classic. First is a little difference in emulating FM synth using SBOS, which is a bit weird, since these two cards are using the same chip. Second is a slight difference in output noise. Using line out, Gravis is a bit cleaner, on the other hand, its amplifier is a bit noisier. Otherwise these two cards are practically the same.