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setaG_lliB
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Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 3:12 pm

Last night I brought my old 486 upstairs and hooked it up to a modern plasma TV and audio system to play some classic synth tunes. I can't believe how good this 23 year old computer sounded. These old sound cards have surprisingly decent analog output quality. They really shine when hooked up to a proper hi-fi instead of those early 90s Labtec multimedia speakers. Lots of nice, clean bass.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdFtF5XFIRs

The processor actually had trouble decompressing the original FLAC files in realtime, so I had to transcode them to 16/44.1 WAV files for skip-free playback.
I used my DSLR's built-in microphone, which actually wasn't that bad. :)
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 4:01 pm

I'm surprised it was able to do FLAC decoding even close to realtime.  I had a Cyrix 5x86-100 in my first college computer.  Couldn't do MP3s in realtime unless I reduced the output quality and didn't use the computer for anything else at the same time.
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 4:51 pm

ludi wrote:
I'm surprised it was able to do FLAC decoding even close to realtime.  I had a Cyrix 5x86-100 in my first college computer.  Couldn't do MP3s in realtime unless I reduced the output quality and didn't use the computer for anything else at the same time.

Isn't there much less decoding to do with FLAC than MP3?  I thought simply getting the entire file transferred from disk in less than the play time is the issue.  I remember standard audio CD's being played on a 486 with no issue.  Is this not similar to FLAC from a harddisk?
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 5:09 pm

ludi wrote:
I'm surprised it was able to do FLAC decoding even close to realtime.  I had a Cyrix 5x86-100 in my first college computer.  Couldn't do MP3s in realtime unless I reduced the output quality and didn't use the computer for anything else at the same time.


I had a Packard Bell, originally 486SX-33 and upgraded to a Pentium-83 Overdrive, no secondary cache. I seem to recall Winamp having trouble playing MP3s but if I booted into Debian 2.1 and used Freeamp (later renamed to Zinf and abandoned) on the console it'd play without stuttering.
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 5:20 pm

Legend wrote:
ludi wrote:
I'm surprised it was able to do FLAC decoding even close to realtime.  I had a Cyrix 5x86-100 in my first college computer.  Couldn't do MP3s in realtime unless I reduced the output quality and didn't use the computer for anything else at the same time.

Isn't there much less decoding to do with FLAC than MP3?  I thought simply getting the entire file transferred from disk in less than the play time is the issue.  I remember standard audio CD's being played on a 486 with no issue.  Is this not similar to FLAC from a harddisk?

CD playback on a system like that most likely would have been handled by the CD ROM itself. The CD drive itself read and decoded the audio back in those days, unless you used the two-pin digital SPDIF connector to a compatible sound card (which I think would have a built in decoder and would do the same work there). The CD audio cable that goes from the drive to the sound card carries the analog audio signal and goes directly to an analog input on the sound card, where it passes through a mixer and right back out to your speakers, with no real work being done by the CPU. Many of those old CD-ROMs have controls and headphone jacks right on the front and can play CDs totally independently of the computer... this was common up until the late 90s or so. Using this method, games with real CD (Red Book) music basically would just use the game to trigger the CD to play certain tracks at certain times, completely eliminating any system overhead for playing music (aside from the annoying lag time while the CD was seeking). This was much needed back in the days when CPU power was so limited and the CPU did all the work (graphics and audio acceleration were practically non existent).

I can't remember when exactly it started but I think Windows 98SE or XP was the first OS to support digital audio passing from the CDROM via the IDE\SATA cable to be decoded by the system (presumably the sound card or OS has some kind of efficient decoding method... I don't know the details though).

Playing a FLAC or even a .wav file from the hard drive on such an old system is actually way way more work for the system than using CD audio via the drive's internal analog output to the sound card.
Last edited by ozzuneoj on Sun Dec 25, 2016 5:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 5:28 pm

It also had the advantage that you could put the games CD in a conventional CD player and listen to the soundtrack. :D
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 6:06 pm

Ifalna wrote:
It also had the advantage that you could put the games CD in a conventional CD player and listen to the soundtrack. :D

Yes! And, for that matter, you could even throw in a different CD if you wanted to play different music while playing a game.

Until 1996 or so, the vast majority of games used MIDI music since it required so little processing power, RAM and storage... with one sticking point being that the actual sound of the music was highly dependent on the hardware or software available to the user. A midi track played on an FM chip on an old Sound Blaster clone may sound neat, or horrible, or anything in between, where as the same midi file played on a Roland SC55 Sound Module through a sound card's gameport midi interface would sound amazingly different (probably as the composer intended.

Anything that didn't use MIDI was generally using Red Book CD audio, though there were later games that used MOD music, which I'm less familiar with, and as far as I know would have required more processing power than CD audio or MIDI (since it uses digital samples stored in the audio file and creates a song out of them... basically)... I'm pretty sure it used less disk space than CD or Wav audio though. I think the Command and Conquer series used this method, as the music worked without the disk if you copied files from the CD, but it was definitely not midi and the files weren't large enough to be uncompressed high-sample-rate wavs.

I love this era of game audio. :)
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 7:08 pm

ozzuneoj wrote:
Ifalna wrote:
It also had the advantage that you could put the games CD in a conventional CD player and listen to the soundtrack. :D

Until 1996 or so, the vast majority of games used MIDI music since it required so little processing power, RAM and storage... with one sticking point being that the actual sound of the music was highly dependent on the hardware or software available to the user. A midi track played on an FM chip on an old Sound Blaster clone may sound neat, or horrible, or anything in between, where as the same midi file played on a Roland SC55 Sound Module through a sound card's gameport midi interface would sound amazingly different (probably as the composer intended.

Anything that didn't use MIDI was generally using Red Book CD audio, though there were later games that used MOD music, which I'm less familiar with, and as far as I know would have required more processing power than CD audio or MIDI (since it uses digital samples stored in the audio file and creates a song out of them... basically)... I'm pretty sure it used less disk space than CD or Wav audio though. I think the Command and Conquer series used this method, as the music worked without the disk if you copied files from the CD, but it was definitely not midi and the files weren't large enough to be uncompressed high-sample-rate wavs.

I love this era of game audio. :)

Yeap.  The MIDI instrumentation was entirely dependent on the card, and could either sound amazing or incredibly cheesy.  We had a Soundblaster AWE32, which was probably among the best available, and put all others (that I tried) to shame.  I remember using it to listen to MIDI files of classical music on Compton's encyclopedia.

As far as the original topic.....a 486 should be able to play uncompressed WAVs just fine.  Decoding MP3 would probably be too much, and FLAC I'm not sure (though I would expect less overhead than MP3).  How much RAM does the machine in question have?  Anyone know if FLAC files are generally decoded entirely into RAM during playback, or just read in realtime from the source?


Edit: After thinking about it, not sure it matters. A decompressed FLAC would essentially be a WAV, and require 64-128MB to be stored in RAM, which is substantially more than most 486's ever saw (didn't they use 72-pin SIMMs?)
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 9:07 pm

IIRC MP3 decoding worked on a K6-2, but took a non-trivial percentage of the CPU.
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 9:13 pm

just brew it! wrote:
IIRC MP3 decoding worked on a K6-2, but took a non-trivial percentage of the CPU.

A Pentium 233MMX could play an MP3 and run Quake at the same time provided you had a hardware 3D accellerator.  It wasn't ideal but it worked.
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 9:21 pm

The Egg wrote:
A decompressed FLAC would essentially be a WAV, and require 64-128MB to be stored in RAM, which is substantially more than most 486's ever saw (didn't they use 72-pin SIMMs?)


Yes, and I think some older/cheaper ones used 30-pin SIMMs. I'd expect the average 486 to have topped out at 32-64 megs. My first x86 box (Tandy 486SX-25) could hold up to 32 megs across 4 72-pin SIMMs, which IIRC would have cost ~$1600 back in the day.
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 9:24 pm

The Egg wrote:
Edit: After thinking about it, not sure it matters. A decompressed FLAC would essentially be a WAV, and require 64-128MB to be stored in RAM, which is substantially more than most 486's ever saw (didn't they use 72-pin SIMMs?)

Why would the entire thing need to be stored in RAM? Even modern media players on systems with GBs of RAM don't do that; they decode it as needed on the fly and stream it to the audio interface.
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Sun Dec 25, 2016 10:40 pm

just brew it! wrote:
The Egg wrote:
Edit:  After thinking about it, not sure it matters.  A decompressed FLAC would essentially be a WAV, and require 64-128MB to be stored in RAM, which is substantially more than most 486's ever saw (didn't they use 72-pin SIMMs?)

Why would the entire thing need to be stored in RAM? Even modern media players on systems with GBs of RAM don't do that; they decode it as needed on the fly and stream it to the audio interface.

Well that was my last question directly above the edit.  Decoding 100 or so megs into RAM for faster seeking on a modern system doesn't seem terribly far fetched, but I wasn't sure how it was generally done.
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Mon Dec 26, 2016 12:35 am

MOD files did require more power for mixing. That was the advantage of the Gravis UltraSound card. GUS could hardware mix something like 12 channels at 16 bit and 44 KHz and above that it scaled back to 22 KHz or something. SoundBlaster didn't get that type of hardware mixing until the AWE32 where it loaded sound banks for MIDI. I am unsure if any mod players took advantage of the hardware. It did something like 30 channels.

You could add some RAM on the GUS cards too. 256 KB up to 1 MB. Later cards had up to 16 MB. After that everyone moved to MP3 and no one cared.

Most notable game that used MODs that I know of is Star Control 2. UT2004 had a composer that was decent in the MOD community but I think they used OGGs.

If you wanted good sound quality, the DAC on the Pro Audio Spectrum 16 (PAS-16) was reputed to be good along with the super expensive Turtle Beach cards.

If you want some fun and like messing with config.sys, look up mod demos or the demo scene. You can see some cool stuff rendered in realtime on your system where your video card can even make a difference. Like, one demo offers cooler effects if it detects a Diamond Stealth24 for hicolor DOS mode.
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Mon Dec 26, 2016 12:51 am

Also, many MOD files (short for MODules which I guess are sound modules) have 4 channels since they originated on the original Amiga that had a dedicated sound chip, the PAULA which can hardware mix 4 channels. Not bad for a system with 1 MB of RAM and 8 MHz 6800 CPU!
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Mon Dec 26, 2016 12:52 am

Gravis Ultrasound, baby! Absolutely the best sounding MIDI card I had back then.
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Mon Dec 26, 2016 6:31 am

Scrotos wrote:
Most notable game that used MODs that I know of is Star Control 2. UT2004 had a composer that was decent in the MOD community but I think they used OGGs.


The original Unreal Tournament used MOD files, S3M to be exact. The composer was Andrew Sega (Straylight Productions), who was and still is a famous composer for video games and started in the demoscene earlier on. UT represents the pinnacle of MOD game music in my mind, and you could rip the mods right out of the game and play them in a standalone player.

Back in the day different players processed effects differently, so the songs would sound different depending on which player you played them in. Scream Tracker was my favorite early on, then Impulse Tracker.


If you wanted good sound quality, the DAC on the Pro Audio Spectrum 16 (PAS-16) was reputed to be good along with the super expensive Turtle Beach cards.


I had a PAS-16 as my first sound card. It was great, but didn't play sounds in all games correctly when in SB16 emulation mode. The sounds it did play were clearer and higher quality overall than SB16.


If you want some fun and like messing with config.sys, look up mod demos or the demo scene. You can see some cool stuff rendered in realtime on your system where your video card can even make a difference. Like, one demo offers cooler effects if it detects a Diamond Stealth24 for hicolor DOS mode.


The demoscene is still active, and yes, you can get all the original demos from back in the day, too, if you want to struggle making them work. It's a fun project, and worth it if you're in an historic mood :)
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Mon Dec 26, 2016 9:24 pm

That spectrum graph is probably using a sizeable chunk of CPU time, especially since it looks like it's updating at 30Hz. If you disable it, you might be able to play FLAC and MP3s on it, depending on the type of 486. I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe FLAC uses integer based decoding and MP3 uses floating point (so a DX2 or DX4 would be required).

Sounds awesome even through my modest setup. What kind of subwoofers are those? 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Mon Dec 26, 2016 9:41 pm

The subs look like SVS PC-12s.
 
setaG_lliB
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Tue Dec 27, 2016 10:31 pm

Legend wrote:
Isn't there much less decoding to do with FLAC than MP3?  I thought simply getting the entire file transferred from disk in less than the play time is the issue.  I remember standard audio CD's being played on a 486 with no issue.  Is this not similar to FLAC from a harddisk?

Yeah, it did have less trouble with FLAC. The highest MP3 bit rate it could muster was 96kb/s, although the sound quality left much to be desired. The absolute worst were VBR AAC files downloaded from iTunes. It spent more time "buffering" than actually playing audio samples. 

I think it's pretty cool how quickly processor technology improved back in the 90s. A PII-400 can play 320kb/s MP3s with only 1% CPU usage.

bthylafh wrote:
I had a Packard Bell, originally 486SX-33 and upgraded to a Pentium-83 Overdrive, no secondary cache.  I seem to recall Winamp having trouble playing MP3s but if I booted into Debian 2.1 and used Freeamp (later renamed to Zinf and abandoned) on the console it'd play without stuttering.

Yeah, Winamp is not very efficient on this hardware. When I boot Windows 95 and play MP3s in Winamp, the best it can do is 64kb/s (vs. 96K in DOS). Playing MP3s in Win95 kind of has a neat effect on this computer: everything slows waaayyy down! Example: when I drag a window, the outline lags behind the pointer. 

The Egg wrote:
Yeap.  The MIDI instrumentation was entirely dependent on the card, and could either sound amazing or incredibly cheesy.  We had a Soundblaster AWE32, which was probably among the best available, and put all others (that I tried) to shame.  I remember using it to listen to MIDI files of classical music on Compton's encyclopedia.

As far as the original topic.....a 486 should be able to play uncompressed WAVs just fine.  Decoding MP3 would probably be too much, and FLAC I'm not sure (though I would expect less overhead than MP3).  How much RAM does the machine in question have?  Anyone know if FLAC files are generally decoded entirely into RAM during playback, or just read in realtime from the source?

My original plan was to showcase this computer playing MIDI, but unfortunately it was closer to the cheesy side of things, so I used WAVs instead.  :)
It has 16MB of RAM, and the files are definitely being read in realtime. 

jackbomb wrote:
That spectrum graph is probably using a sizeable chunk of CPU time, especially since it looks like it's updating at 30Hz. If you disable it, you might be able to play FLAC and MP3s on it, depending on the type of 486. I'm sure someone will correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe FLAC uses integer based decoding and MP3 uses floating point (so a DX2 or DX4 would be required).

Sounds awesome even through my modest setup. What kind of subwoofers are those?

I couldn't find any way to disable it. This is a 486DX2 - 80MHz.
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Tue Dec 27, 2016 10:39 pm

Am I crazy, or did some sound cards of the era very briefly feature MP3 "acceleration"? Well, maybe not the same era.

On that note, remember all the trouble MP3 patents caused?
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Wed Dec 28, 2016 2:49 am

Now I'm wondering....what's the most modern OS capable of running on a 486, assuming you could get enough RAM into it?  I know that I had XP running on a few machines that had no business running it.
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Wed Dec 28, 2016 5:33 am

The Egg wrote:
Now I'm wondering....what's the most modern OS capable of running on a 486, assuming you could get enough RAM into it?  I know that I had XP running on a few machines that had no business running it.

Technically, Windows 2000 and ME are the newest unmodified Windows OSes that will install on a 486.  XP installs fine on a Pentium Overdrive 83MHz, although SP3 would likely run terribly even with 128MB RAM and L2 cache module.  ME runs great, especially if using the Win95 shell and since nowadays there's no longer any antivirus or modern web browser available will seem reasonably speedy for anything you'd use it for.
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Wed Dec 28, 2016 5:34 am

The Egg wrote:
Now I'm wondering....what's the most modern OS capable of running on a 486, assuming you could get enough RAM into it?  I know that I had XP running on a few machines that had no business running it.


Does the 486 have PCI or VLB buses on it? ;)
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Wed Dec 28, 2016 8:11 am

What's the sample rate and bit depth of the FLACs in question? The burden of sample rate conversion from, say, 96/24 to 44/16 could be quite heavy and it probably requires floating point math.
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Wed Dec 28, 2016 10:45 am

Krogoth wrote:
The Egg wrote:
Now I'm wondering....what's the most modern OS capable of running on a 486, assuming you could get enough RAM into it?  I know that I had XP running on a few machines that had no business running it.


Does the 486 have PCI or VLB buses on it? ;)

Did 486's have PCI? Hmmm....the first PC which was my very own was an AMD 5x86 133mhz. I'm pretty sure that was just a glorified 486, and I'm pretty sure the board had PCI.

Anyhow, assume the best case scenario. Best board, and maxed out RAM. I believe I ran XP on an original Pentium 166 MMX. What about Lubuntu or some other flavor of Linux?
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Wed Dec 28, 2016 11:00 am

My Retro brothers! I must ask that you all join the 'RETRO Machines' Facebook group which has most of the well known retro YouTubers as members. I have every generation of CPU from the 286 to Core 2 series. I also have a, a bunch of Sound Blasters, a Roland SC-55 MIDI synth, and even a brand new Dreamblaster X1 MIDI module from Serdashop.

We have much to discuss!!
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Wed Dec 28, 2016 11:08 am

Not that I ever owned one, but I've been led to believe that Roland had the best MIDI sound back in the day.
 
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Wed Dec 28, 2016 11:13 am

The Egg wrote:
Did 486's have PCI?


I've seen a couple very late 486 motherboards with PCI. I don't recall which revision it was, but probably pre-2.1, so it would have been a bit glitchy. Most were either ISA or ISA+VLB.
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Re: Music on a very old computer

Wed Dec 28, 2016 11:28 am

You can still get them, if your embedded system still requires it.
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