Hoontech SoundTrack 128 Ruby


The Card

The card is a half-length ISA card packed with the usual SMT parts. There are two key chips on the board:

  • Crystal Semiconductor CS4237B

    This chip seems to have been provided primarily for legacy DOS/Windows compatibility. It provides Soundblaster, WSS/MSS, Joystick and MIDI interfaces, and basic MPU-401 functionality.

  • Dream SAM9407

    This is the 'magic' DSP chip that makes this card special. This chip is also used on the Terratec EWS64XL, and the Guillemot Homestudio Pro 64. For generic sound support, this DSP is capable of simultaneously playing 8 stereo 16bit audio streams and recording 1 track at the same time. When used in its wavetable capacity, it is capable of up to 64 voice polyphony, using samples from up to 64mb of wavetable RAM. Its effects palette includes reverb, chorus, stereo 4 band parametric equalizer, a surround sound processor, and pitch shifter device. The firmware also contains specific support catering to development of 'MOD' players. At least one mod player has started making use of this support.

    The fact that the firmware is uploaded from the PC and stored in RAM means that new functionality can easily be added to the card without any need for hardware modifications. Hoontech has released special firmware with support for Dolby stereo and 4-channel MIDI (so one can make good use of the front/rear speaker connectors :-)

    The Soundtrack card has 1 72pin SIMM socket which is capable of taking 4mb, 16mb, 32mb, and 64mb. There are on-board connectors for Phone-in, Video-in, CD-in, and a 10-pin header for the digital bracket. The backplate has connectors for Front-Speakers, Rear-Speakers, Line-Out, Line-In, Mic, and a MIDI/Joystick connector.

    The digital bracket

    There seems to be a strange manufacturing problem with Hoontech's Digital I/O Board - the backing plate was bent out about 5 to 7 degrees, and I had to manually bend it back before it would fit in my PC. The backplate has TOSlink in/out, Coax digital in/out, and Coax midi in/out. The board also has a connector for CD-Digital-In (if your CD-rom has digital outputs). The switch you see on the backplate is to select between Coax midi-in, and CD-Digital-In.

    Using the card

  • Windows 95

    The card installation was straightforward under Windows 95. After installing the card, Windows 95 detected the PnP card, and prompted for the drivers off the included CD-rom. Installation went smoothly -- until the point where Windows 95 rebooted. After rebooting, Windows 95 bitched at me that there were now drivers running in 16 bit legacy mode. The IDE cd-rom drive was no longer accessable, even when I removed the card >B/ I blame microsoft for making such a stinking heap of shit OS.

    To test the sound output, I connected my Denon DMP-R70 to the TOSlink output on the digital bracket. I played a few MIDIs and mpeg files, and discovered that the output was very noisy, with lots of hissing from RF interference. I fiddled with the drivers and discovered that the drivers use the CS4237B as the default output device. Upon close study of the board and architecture diagram I discovered that the path from the CS4237B to the digital bracket is not 100% digital. It contains an additional D-A-D conversion from a CS4222 before being fed into the digital bracket. Hoontech's tech support later confirmed this.

    Fortunately the SAM9407 path to the digital bracket is 100% digital. Although Hoontech's windows drivers seem to default to the CS4237B for wave output, they included support for using any of the SAM9407's 8 digital output channels as playback devices.

    I discovered that not only was it necessary to select the SAM9407 for ouput, but I also needed to use the software to disable the CS4237B entirely from the audio path. And once I did this -- blissful silence :-)

    After this, my TOSlink tests with my Denon DMP-R70 went wonderfully. MIDI and MPEG output was perfectly clear, with no noise (as far as my ears could tell :-)

    I find it odd that Hoontech's drivers would default to using the CS4237B as an output device, since the SAM9407 is far more powerful.

  • Linux

    I had two primary reasons for purchasing this card - the fact that it's the cheapest card I could find with S/PDIF TOSlink outputs (next to the infamous $18 HT1689V+), and the fact that it had Linux drivers available. Wavetable and other functionality were secondary concerns.

    The Linux drivers for the card include CS4237B drivers, software to initialize the card's PnP settings, and software to load the firmware and MIDI patchsets into the SAM9407.

    Unfortunately, no drivers were provided to use the SAM9407 as a wave output device. Under linux, all wave output is via the CS4237B, and MIDI is via the SAM9407 in MPU-401 emulation mode.

    The sound quality under Linux is decent enough (in fact the same as it is under Windows 95), until you use the digital bracket :-/

    I was able to find SAM9407 documentation, and hope to rectify this situation soon. I am looking forward to flawless TOSlink output from this card under Linux. :-)

    Summary


    I find it odd that Hoontech decided not to make the audio path from the CS4237B 100% digital, especially considering that the CS4237B has the ability to output S/PDIF directly. This is not a critical problem considering the SAM9407 path is 100% digital, but it is definitely annoying.

    Hoontech also makes a PCI version of this card, however there are apparently compatibility problems with certain motherboards. There are no Windows NT drivers for the PCI version, and the Linux drivers do not support the PCI version either. Keep this in mind when deciding which card to buy.

    Nothing about the Soundtrack 128 is particularly outstanding, with the exception of the digital bracket and the front/rear speaker connectors. It is a good wavetable card and a good wave card. It has good effects processors, and good software.

    The support for TOSlink output was enough reason for me to buy this card - considering that the next closest card was the Zefiro ZA2 at almost $200 more! And the ZA2 doesn't support MIDI.

    In summary, I give the card a 'thumbs up'. If you're looking for a decent wavetable card with both TOSlink and Coax digital I/O, this is the board to get.