As I’ve begun to delve into the world of retro-PC hardware, I have found things both familiar and new. For instance, while I’ve been a fan of Doom since the original release in 1993, I had never experienced the soundtrack the way it was SUPPOSED to sound.
Now, when I first played Doom all those years ago, I didn’t even have a sound card. I fell in love with the way the game played and only later got to hear the soundtrack (and the effects), when I had upgraded to a Pentium 75 with a Sound Blaster 16. Somehow, adding music to the game made it a more visceral experience. Also, it’s no secret that Doom has some of the most iconic PC music ever written, instantly recognizable to (probably) millions.
As time went on, I moved on to different games. I never forgot about Doom, but a steady progression of more advanced games caused me to regard it as something of a quaint relic. It wasn’t until I picked it back up again on the Xbox 360 (it’s part of the Doom 3 BFG package) that I remember how ridiculously fun it was. The music on the Xbox 360 port is relatively good–I believe it’s a rip of the Gravis UltraSound soundtrack. But it wasn’t what I remembered…and it certainly didn’t sound like the Doom soundtracks I’d listened to online.
Intrigued, I went to my PC, fired up a VM and installed Doom. A few minutes later, after fiddling with the Sound Blaster config on the VM, I had Doom. And I had sound. And it was terrible. What happened? The sound effects were fine, but the music was tinny and (dare I say) irritating. I decided it had to be the VM, and that I’d revisit this when I had some original hardware.
Fast forward a bit. I acquired a few machines/parts from the DOS era, including a handful of different sound cards (mostly Creative cards). It was time to see what Doom REALLY sounded like all those years ago.
I tried several different SB16 cards, an AWE64, and a couple of no-name cards. Though they varied in sound quality, none of them blew me away. I must have imagined how good it sounded to me all those years ago. Years of listening to remastered (or re-recorded) versions on YouTube had spoiled me.
Defeated, I decided I’d go ahead and research the remaining sound cards in the “Music Card” list in Doom. When I stumbled upon the Sound Canvas, however, all other research goals paused.
The Sound Canvas isn’t a sound card. It plugs into a sound card, but it’s entirely dedicated to MIDI (the instruction-based music of the DOS era) and, as I later discovered, was the gold standard in MIDI music. Could this be what I sought?
I was able to find an SC-55mkII on eBay for a reasonable price. I also needed a gameport to MIDI cable and an RCA to 3.5mm cable. The steps to set it up are as follows:
- Plug in the MIDI cable to the gameport on your sound card and the “MIDI In 1” connection on the Sound Canvas.
- Plug in the RCA end of the RCA-to-3.5mm to the output jacks on the Sound Canvas.
- On your soundcard, you’ll be plugging in the 3.5mm end to the “Line In”.
- Make sure your “Line In” volume is all the way up (I usually use the Sound Blaster mixerset utility in DOS).
- Usually, the final step is to select “Sound Canvas” from your DOS game’s setup menu and select port 330 (the default). However, in my case, the config file for my sound card was setting the default MIDI port to 310 (which Doom can’t choose as an option). I ended up having to dig through the config files to find the line that specified MIDI ports and change it to 330. A reboot did the trick after that.
All My Hopes and Dreams
So, did it make a difference? Absolutely. So much so that I will NEVER go back to Sound Blaster MIDI again. I think the difference is especially noticeable in Doom II (which happens to be my favourite FPS of all time). When I first played it, I remember thinking that Doom II’s soundtrack paled in comparison to the first game. That was kind of the general consensus, as well. It just sounded so harsh. Had I listened to it on an SC-55, I might have thought differently. Witness:
Doom II – Running from Evil – Original MIDI
Doom II – Running from Evil – Roland Sound Canvas
It’s night and day. It makes the entire game that much better.
The SC-55 also makes a positive difference in Duke Nukem 3D. I don’t hate the original MIDI here, but the SC-55 has so much more depth and clarity:
Duke Nukem 3D – Intro – Original MIDI
Duke Nukem 3D – Intro – Roland Sound Canvas
Can you hear the difference? Which do you prefer? Let us know in the comments!