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MK8330 ISA Sound Card, PC MIDI & E-Wave Review - A Cut Price Orpheus?
The MK8330 is a brand new (for 2022!) ISA sound card for DOS and early Windows PCs from sound card legends keropi and marmes. It’s built around the Sound Blaster 16/PRO/2.0 and AdLib compatible CMI8330, and even supports Windows Sound System in Windows 95 and 98. Oh, and it has drivers for Windows 3.11! It sports an authentic-sounding OPL3 implementation and is less than half the cost of the Orpheus.
Also on test here are the new E-Wave WaveTable card and the official PC MIDI expansion board, which adds sophisticated MIDI capabilities including support for the Roland MT-32’s Intelligent Mode.
So check out this review of the hottest new ISA sound card on the block!
If you’re something of a DOS gaming fan like me, you’ll no doubt have come across this, an all-singing, all-dancing, modern day ISA soundcard called the Orpheus. Created in 2019 by Keropi and his partner in crime Marmes (apologies if I’m mispronouncing that), this 21st century take on the must-have PC gaming accessory of the early 90s incorporates all the lessons they’ve learned from the iconic cards of the past, offering very high build quality, high compatibility, and very low noise.
So what if I told you that they’ve just released this thing’s little brother - the MK8330 - which - in my opinion based on my testing over the past couple of weeks - gets you 90% of the way to an Orpheus for 50% of the price.
Sound too good to be true? Well, let me show you.
But first - as always - a very quick history lesson!
ISA - or the Industry Standard Architecture - basically began life with the original IBM PC, way back in 1981. I say basically - it’s a bit more complicated than that - but I think even the most hardened YouTube commenter will find it hard to deny that ISA as we know and love it has been around since at least the 286 era, and that these slots were a standard feature in PCs right up until the turn of the century, around 15 years later. In fact you can even buy a brand new motherboard featuring ISA slots today.
It was this standardisation that lead to the IBM compatible PC’s dominance in the 90s and beyond - giving software and particularly game developers the confidence to target popular sound cards like the AdLib, and of course Creative Labs’ de facto standard SoundBlaster range, which even spawned a compatibles market all of its own.
It’s these cards that the Orpheus - and now the MK8330 - seek to recreate. But unlike the old cards from the 90s, these modern interpretations learn from the mistakes of that era to bring us something that would’ve been very special indeed, had it been around at the time.
Oh, and one more thing before we get started - in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that the MK8330 card and its associated accessories were provided to me for the purposes of this review by Keropi.
So let’s take a closer look at the card itself. Mine’s fully kitted out with the optional PC MIDI expansion - a popular MPU-401 clone that I’ve covered on the channel before and we’ll take a look at this new version shortly. In keeping with the “low cost Orpheus” theme, there’s also a new wavetable board called the E-Wave, which is based on an ESS chip and offers a lower cost alternative to the popular DreamBlaster boards. This is available separately - or bundled with a nice discount - and compatible with any card with a standard wavetable header, and indeed any standard wavetable board will work quite happily with the MK8330. We’ll hear what the E-Wave sounds like later in the video.
Much like its bigger brother, this card uses high quality Nichicon capacitors throughout, with audio grade caps used in the audio path itself. The PCB is a 4 layer design that’s been carefully engineered to eliminate all forms of noise and interference, unlike some of those notoriously noisy cards of 30 years ago.
It boasts the usual raft of connectivity, including a PC speaker input, CD audio and an AC97 standard header for your front panel connectors, should your case offer those. It even has a thoroughly modern SPDIF input and output. Well, modern by the standards we’re talking about anyway.
There are also jumpers to route the MIDI out however you’d like, including to this rather nifty dedicated 3.5mm to MIDI cable, meaning that you can use the gameport and an external MIDI device at the same time without needing a splitter.
The heart of the card - as the name might suggest - is the CMI8330 chip. In this case, it’s the SoundPRO HT1869V+ which was a popular choice for integrated audio on motherboards in the late 90s.
Indeed, although this thing was manufactured in 2022, it certainly doesn’t look out of place in a 90s PC. So lets stick it in my 233 MMX system and see what it sounds like.
The CMI8330 and some of those later chips have picked up something of a bad reputation, mainly due to the fact that they were often poorly implemented on some of those lower cost motherboards I mentioned earlier. I’ve seen claims in a few places that the 8330 implements a 1:1 clone of the original OPL3 chip as used in the higher end SoundBlaster cards, and although I can’t really find any definitive evidence either way, I can say that the OPL3 implementation sounds very authentic. There’s a long thread over on the Vogons forums where much smarter people than me pick it apart and look at waveforms and the like, and I’ll link to that down in the description.
So here’s a side by side comparison with the genuine OPL3 used on the Orpheus. The CMI8330 uses FM synthesis just like the original chip, unlike even some of the later PCI SoundBlaster cards themselves which resorted to using a wavetable.
This chip hails from a golden era when we were making the transition from DOS to Windows 9x, and it offers excellent compatibility with both, as well as Windows 3. In DOS it can be a SoundBlaster 16, SoundBlaster Pro or even an AdLib, and in Windows it has full Windows Sound System support and even support for DirectX 5 3D positional audio, if that’s what you’re into.
One thing that really struck me about this card vs some of the older soundcards I’ve used is just how painless it is to get up and running - the drivers from the official website just worked straight off the bat in Windows 95 and with some fiddling involving moving a few lines from autoexec.bat to dosstart.bat, it works great in DOS mode without causing any conflicts in Windows. Being plug and play there are no jumpers to mess around with, the card has its own DOS configuration utility and even a nice graphical mixer, which is cool.
You can even enable 3D audio in DOS - if that’s what you’re into.
So, onto the subject of MIDI and the E-Wave wavetable board. If you played Dark Forces using a SoundBlaster back in the day like I did, you probably remember it sounding like this…
If you were a millionaire and had a high end external MIDI device like the Roland SoundCanvas, you’ll remember it sounding like this…
By the way, apologies for not playing a longer clip, but if I do there’s a certain giant evil corporation that wants to claim this video as their own and cover it in ads and pocket the few pennies raised as a result, but I’ll post the raw captures and a load more over on my second channel so you can give them a listen. I’ll link the playlist in the description.
Anyway, the wavetable board acts as a tiny MIDI device, with a high quality preloaded soundbank that sounds like this…
Not bad for a €40 option. I should add that, like most wavetable cards, this one is ROM based with a built-in soundbank. It actually uses a new old stock chip from an ESS AudioDrive sound card. If you want to experiment with loading your own soundbanks you’d have to go with a more expensive option like the DreamBlaster. Realistically though, I think the E-Wave is enough of a step up from what the 8330 chip has to offer that it’s well worth considering, and certainly a good compromise between FM audio and an expensive external MIDI device, with all the extra cables and desk space that entails.
Either way, the MK8330 doesn’t suffer from the hanging note bugs of some of the early SoundBlaster cards - where certain notes would just get stuck on like this…
Working out which specific SoundBlaster models have proper working MIDI output can be a bit of a minefield, so it’s good to not have to worry about that.
Anyway, talking about external MIDI devices, this is where the PC MIDI addon comes in. Now, this one is certainly something of a luxury, and it’s not actually available at launch thanks to the global supply chain issues.
I covered the PC MIDI in my older video. It’s basically a modern recreation of the legendary Roland MPU-401 interface (well, the ISA card part of it anyway), and adds a professional grade MIDI output. One of the main benefits is when connecting a Roland MT-32, which supports something called “Intelligent Mode”. It’s kind of a whole subject in and of itself, but if you own one of these devices and want to use it to play the older DOS games that support it, the PC MIDI is essential if a software solution like SoftMPU doesn’t work out for you for whatever reason.
If you already own an ISA PC MIDI card or even an original MPU-401 the MK8330 will work quite happily alongside that, but the dedicated add-on here does save an ISA slot. In fact this header basically just passes through the ISA bus, with the smaller header carrying the MIDI data to the outside world. A very neat solution, and much better looking than the version of the Orpheus without all the PC MIDI stuff, which just serves as a constant reminder of what you’re missing out on.
Of course if you’re planning on using a DOS machine to control external MIDI synths and the like for more serious audio work, this dedicated MPU-401 clone is a much more professional solution than the 8330 chip’s more basic onboard MIDI capabilities.
The MK8330 also boasts AdLib support, so I tested out a few older AdLib games and it all worked seamlessly and sounded exactly as expected. I did find that the DOS configuration utility for this card wouldn’t run on the IBM 5162 that I’ve been fixing up and upgrading in my current series - it’s a 286 so my best guess is that the driver uses some 386 or later instructions. That’s certainly important to be aware of for owners of these much older machines, as the CMI8330 chip was aimed squarely at the 90s era of DOS gaming.
If it’s not obvious yet, I like this sound card a lot. In fact, with the prices of those original 90s cards only getting higher as they die out and become more rare, I reckon this should be the default option for anyone building a 386, 486 or Pentium era DOS gaming machine going forward - or of course for adding audio capabilities to such a machine. It’s even a very worthy upgrade from a lot of those older cards if you already have one.
One thing that really struck me about this card is how quiet it is - some cheaper soundcards and onboard audio chips can hum, buzz, and make weird electronic sounds when the machine is accessing drives or other devices, as a result of poor electrical isolation. I heard absolutely none of that in the hours of testing I’ve done with the MK8330 so far.
Of course the Orpheus continues to be the gold standard and I’m very happy with mine and will continue to use it in my 486. If you absolutely must have a genuine OPL3 chip and you can absorb the extra cost then I still think it’s worth paying the premium for one. But I reckon the smart money is on the MK8330.
I’ll leave it to the real experts like Phil’s Computer Lab and the like to really pick this thing apart in great detail, and of course there’s the thread on Vogons that’s linked in the description if you’d like to do some more technical research. But as a DOS gaming enthusiast looking for a very high quality and hassle free solution the bare MK8330 card without the add-ons is a very easy recommendation to make.
Whether those extras are worth the money is a little bit more complicated and depends on what you’re going to be using the card for, of course.
As far as negatives go - well, apart from the 286 issue I mentioned, I did find audio levels to be a bit inconsistent in some games compared to what I’m used to, with either the music too loud or too quiet compared to the sound effects, but enabling the SB Mixer compatibility mode in the driver does supposedly go a way towards fixing that, and besides, it only takes a second to tweak the audio levels in most games anyway. There’s also quite a difference in volume levels between Windows and DOS mode and even between SoundBlaster and AdLib modes, but again, playing with the mixer settings can help even those out so it’s pretty much a non-issue. I only really mention it because everything else worked so well out of the box.
Keropi also made me aware of some potential compatibility issues meaning that some games don’t like either the SoundBlaster Pro or SoundBlaster 16 emulation, the solution being to switch from one to the other, but in all honesty I didn’t come across this at all in the games that I tested.
In short, I’m really clutching at straws to find anything bad at all to say about this card.
So thanks as always for watching, big thanks to my patrons and channel members whose names you see on screen as I speak, and I’ll hopefully see you again soon for some more vintage tech and gaming shenanigans.
Original Video Links
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MK8330 Test Captures Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLcEaE8CtOwkRFXXRCV5byjor9_OM-3PHs
DOS Gaming MIDI Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYIup8RyiOs
Vogons Announcement / Discussion Thread: https://www.vogons.org/viewtopic.php?f=62&t=87454
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