Creative Labs is a company that ruled the DOS world with its Sound Blaster sound cards since 1990. Practically every DOS game had an option in its setup to choose some kind of Sound Blaster for sound and music. And what was better than to be able to choose either the Sound Blaster 16 or the Sound Blaster AWE 32. Maybe only Gravis Ultrasound or Roland SCC. Natural evolution for the AWE 32 was the Sound Blaster AWE 64, launched late 1996 in two versions, one could be called standard and the better one is called Gold. There were basically four differences, the Gold’s got more memory, 0.5MB vs 4MB, it’s got gold plated RCA connectors and SPDIF output and the last one is that the Gold’s got no amplifier, so if you rely on your headphones you’re out of luck. Unlike the AWE 32 which was upgradable by SIMM memory modules up to 28MB, the AWE 64 used proprietary memory modules, for obvious reasons, which are rather difficult to find these days. And unfortunately, I don’t have one, so I can’t test it together with the card.
04 – There are two additional possibilities to increase the memory though. First one is “fan” made memory card called AWE-SIMM, this option uses 30 pin SIMM memory modules and the second one is called SIMMConn and that allows you to use 72 pin SIMM memory modules to upgrade the AWE 64’s memory. Creative’s memory modules were available in four memory sizes, 4, 8, 12 and 24MB. Memory limit for E-mu 8000 is 28MB, so if you want to use 32MB SIMM module in the SIMMConn, you can but you’ll end up with 28MB anyway.
05 – Unlike the AWE 32, the AWE 64 lacks wavetable header, so you can’t use any kind of MIDI modules. Its back plate is rather unique compared to other sound cards from that era. The typical speaker out is missing, because the Gold lacks amplifier and instead of speaker out and line out connectors, you can see these two RCA connectors.
06 – The Gold can get quite pricey, this is what some people want for the card.
07 – As a part of Sound Blaster family, it should be compatible with Adlib, older Sound Blaster, Sound Blaster Pro or Sound Blaster 16 and even AWE 32 cards, and I wonder how much compatibility it actually retained.
08 – Installation ran pretty much without any problems. What was a problem though, was setting the card proper. Right after the installation, you won’t be able to use MIDI for some reason. You need to run manually CTCM program, which initialises the card. And then aweutil program, which initialises the MIDI part of the card. The installation won’t add these utilities to autoexec automatically.
09 – As if it weren’t enough, there was a problem with setting up resources. If you want to use common or your whatever values for IRQ and DMA, you need to edit two files, autoexec and ctpnp.cfg file, replace the values to the ones you want to use and restart the rig. It’s pretty stupid but there’s no way around it.
10 – What is also mental, is when you remove the card, start the system, turn it off and then start it again with the card, you have to re-edit the bloody files all over again, because everything returns to the initial values.
11 – Another important utility is mixerset. As you may have guessed, it’s a mixer utility, where you can adjust volume separate for sounds, MIDI, line, treble, bass, etc.
12 – Some games I’m going to test the AWE 64 with are compatible with Sound Blaster, some with General MIDI, some with MT-32 and some even with AWE 32.
13 – For FM synth the AWE 64 uses infamous CQM Creative Quadrature Modulation instead of Yamaha’s OPL3.
14 – The basic wavetable the Gold uses is utter rubbish. Good thing is, you’ve got 4MB of RAM for bank loading, so if you don’t fancy this crappy wavetable, you’ve got an option to load a different bank. Or do you? Well, the aweutil program is used for loading different banks and to emulate General MIDI, Roland Sound Canvas or MT-32. There are couple of drawbacks though.
15 – Some games can be set to use AWE 32, but with these drivers, it won’t use any loaded bank, so you’re stuck with the default bank that the AWE 64 offers.
16 – In case of General MIDI, Sound Canvas or MT-32 you can load a bank up to 4MB, either the ones provided by the installation CD or the ones you found online or if you know how you can create your own bank.
17 – Unfortunately, the AWE 64 supports only banks with sbk extension under DOS which are version 1 banks and they are quite rare unlike the version 2 banks which are abundant but usable only under Windows. You can recognise them by sf2 extension. The default “bank” in the card’s ROM memory is 1MB, so Creative has put 2 and 4MB banks on the installation CD for you to use, but only in sf2 format, so if want to use the card under pure dos, you have to look elsewhere.
18 – Another problem was, when I quit the game, sometimes, the bank was unloaded for some reason and the next game didn’t work, until I loaded the bank again.
19 – As far as the FM synth goes, loading any bank is, of course, useless, since it uses the CQM to play FM MIDI.
Sound & MIDI
20 – First thing I wanted to know was the noise floor and compare it to the AWE 64 standard if there is any difference. And there is, unfortunately, not too favourable for the Gold.
21 – The sound was clear, depending on the game of course and was working fine in every game I tested the card with, that was good news. Just like most other sound cards, it’s got 32 note polyphony, which means it can play 32 notes simultaneously.
22 – First game I tried was Alone in the Dark. At first, I couldn’t make it work, until I found out you need to initialise aweutil first even for the FM synth.
23 – BioForge supports FM synth, AWE 32, General MIDI and Roland SCC. While the FM and the AWE 32 drivers were working fine, the General MIDI and SCC needed an aweutil to enable emulation. However, the game crashes every time I tried to run it with GM or SCC.
24 – Doom and Doom 2 hardlocks the computer when using General MIDI or SCC driver. I also wanted to try different banks, and what are better games to try them with than Doom and Duke? Since the General MIDI driver doesn’t work in Doom and Duke under the DOS, I had to try it under Windows.
25 – Dune 2 is the first game that worked with GS and MT-32 emulation, it sounds terrible though.
Dungeon Master didn’t work with Sound Blaster 16, I had to use Sound Blaster Pro.
27 – Flashback didn’t work with MT-32 at all, but at least it didn’t crash.
28 – Gabriel Knight diskette version crashes on both GM and MT-32. CD version, however, crashes only on GM.
29 – Magic Carpet not only doesn’t work with GM and MT-32, but it’s bloody slow for some reason when set to GM.
30 – I couldn’t make Rise of The Triad work with AWE 32. And of course, the GM crashed the game.
31 – TFX works with all the drivers, but using the SCC crashed the game after the intro and it’s also perfect example of how the MT-32 should NOT sound.
32 – I’ve also noticed the FM is a lot quieter than the wavetable, this is the actual difference in System Shock.
33 – Well, to be brutally honest, of all the cards I’ve ever tested, the Sound Blaster AWE 64 is the shittiest and the most unusable card for DOS. At least in term of wavetable usage.
34 – There was no problem with sounds in any game I’ve tested the card with, neither was with the FM using either Adlib or any sort of Sound Blaster driver, except for the Sound Blaster 16 driver in Dungeon Master 2. Even though every game works fine with the FM synth, some could argue they don’t sound fine since the AWE 64 uses the CQM instead of the OPL3.
35 – Using the AWE 32 driver worked quite well, but since it didn’t work in Rise of The Triad for me, I can’t be sure about other games I haven’t tested.
36 – What was a massive disaster, was any kind of emulation using aweutil. Either GM or SCC or MT-32, all of them were terrible. They either crashed the game, hardlocked the computer, didn’t work at all or when they did work, they sounded absolutely atrocious.
37 – Most of the games didn’t work with the GM emulation, so you’re stuck with the awe 32 support and even then you can’t be sure it’s going to work. So, if you want some sort of Sound Blaster with wavetable for pure DOS, get either AWE32 or SB 32, they’re much better choice. I was wondering if the AWE 64 standard does the job better and don’t crash the games as the Gold does, but it was exactly the same.
38 – In Windows, however, it’s working perfectly. Every single DOS game that crashed under the DOS worked perfectly fine in Windows. Moreover, you can load 4MB bank from the installation CD which sounds pretty good compared to the default crappy ROM. You can install more memory and use larger and potentially better banks.
39 – For the DOS, there are tons of better sound cards, which work better and sound better. For Windows, if you don’t want to use FM synth and you’ll be able to get more memory for bank loading, it’s very good, not perfect though. Since the AWE 64 standard is less noisy and certainly cheaper, I wouldn’t bother with the Gold, unless I wanted the card for the collection.
40 – And that’s it, see you lot in the comments and don’t buy the AWE 64 Gold, it’s rubbish.