To my knowledge, neither MS-DOS nor BIOS offers any kind of API for sound cards. Therefore the concept of a "driver" is absent, as we know it today. Apart from accessories and sample files and Windows-related stuff found in the setup package, what is the essentials needed for a DOS-program to use a sound card?

One thing I've read somewhere and cannot find anymore is that some sound cards are 'inactive' at power-up and need some sort of initialization to work. Can you please comment on this?

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    From what I recall, all a DOS program needs or gets is the address of the SoundBlaster, its IRQ line, and a DMA channel. The rest is up to it. But I never programmed a sound card, so take that with a pinch of salt. Compare with printer drivers, which were also supplied by application programs.
    – dave
    Commented Dec 30, 2020 at 23:20
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    A driver is something that knows how to talk to the hardware on the card. The official soundblaster software read the configuration from an environment variable, so many other soundblaster drivers for games supported it too to avoid a configuration step. This in turn prompted other sound card vendors wanting to be soundblaster compatible to do the same. Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 11:28
  • My experience is pretty much limited to an AWE-64, and I think there was a TSR although I don't know what the API was like. ISA PnP devices did something odd using- I think- one of the printer port addresses to expose their configuration, but this is not something I ever fiddled with directly. Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 12:30
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    I wonder what you imagine a driver to be :) The difference between DOS and Windows is in the abstraction - on DOS, if you cared about performance or capability, you talked directly to the hardware (using IO ports, interrupts and memory access). On Windows, this is still done - just by the driver. There were sound libraries on DOS that abstracted access to the hardware - these were pretty much the same thing you would call "drivers". Funnily enough, on 32-bit Windows, most of the DOS software still works - Windows intercepts the accesses and redirects them to the appropriate drivers.
    – Luaan
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 12:38
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    Bear in mind that DOS did not even have an interrupt driven serial interface driver. The BIOS just contained a very simple, polled, interface. Every application was responsible for finding out where the port was and hooking the appropriate interrupt.
    – JavaLatte
    Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 9:26

5 Answers 5


The typical way to provide "driver" services to other programs in DOS is to run a TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident) program installing a software interrupt vector such that running DOS programs could invoke this INT for services (see Ralph Brown's Interrupt List).

In the sound context, however, programs would typically do the device I/O directly by reading and writing I/O ports directly, handling interrupts and DMA transfers when relevant. Maybe due, in part at least, to the fact that multimedia services were rapidly evolving.

With no resource management provided by DOS, you would have to detect devices manually which could be a bit tricky and potentially trigger crashes depending on what happened to be installed in the I/O space. It is possible that some devices only monitored a minimal I/O footprint until an init sequence was performed to reduce this risk, but this is not behaviour I recognize from the sound routines I wrote myself for AdLib, Roland MPU-401 MIDI and classic SoundBlaster cards.

Mainly, detection was based on conventional I/O, IRQ and DMA allocations supplemented by environment variable conventions specifying these configuration points.

You basically wrote a piece of code that should only give a certain result in the presence of the expected device (fx setting up the on-board timers on the AdLib card), ran it blindly against the conventional or specified I/O addresses and saw what dropped out of the sky.

  • So, again, there is no "driver". The game (or any program) talks directly to the driver using DMA and I/O ports. That's what I assumed and wanted clarification for.
    – Dercsár
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 19:46


  1. Real ISA Sound Blaster cards don't need any drivers to initialise or support them. Later PNP Sound Blasters (SB16/AWE) and clones may need a driver that performs one-time initialisation. Exotic cards may need memory-resident translation layers.

  2. Games use a collection of per-card drivers to talk to the appropriate hardware interface of the sound card, such as one of the Sound Blaster interface tiers, or the Gravis Ultrasound wavetable. These drivers can be hard-coded into the game, or stored as a collection of external files like in HMI or Miles.

Depending on the game and card you have, one or both of these may apply:

To play Halloween Harry on a real Sound Blaster ISA card, no extra drivers are needed in autoexec.bat. The SB support is hard-coded in the game.

To play Theme Hospital on a SB Live! PCI under MS-DOS, two different kinds of drivers are used. The SB Live! PCI itself requires a Creative resident MS-DOS driver to imitate the hardware interface of an MS-DOS-era SB16 card. The game itself uses a third-party Miles driver to abstract the Sound Blaster (or Pro Audio Spectrum, Windows Sound System, Wavjammer...) card for the game's use - this is what you select when you pick Sound Blaster 16 on the setup screen.


All the other answers given here so far are correct, for different scenarios. What may confuse the reader is that there are two distinct phases that both could correctly be called 'drivers'. Let me describe what I mean:

Pretty much everything here applies to both digitised audio output and AdLib/OPL2/OPL3 support equally, but I'll focus on digitised audio.

1) Initialisation and support to -provide- the hardware interface

Legitimate, first-party Sound Blaster series cards are programmed directly through I/O ports. There's a chip on-board known as the 'DSP'* which handles all the data movement between system memory (requested through a system DMA channel) and the card's DAC/ADC. If you have a real Sound Blaster card, and the game is hardcoded to 'talk Sound Blaster'** then that's all that's needed.

If you have a clone card, a third-party 'compatible card', or a later SB16/AWE card then one of the following applies:

  • The card exactly mimics the behaviour of one the Sound Blaster series cards and no further intervention by a 'driver' is necessary. The 'Snark Barker' is designed as an SB 1.x clone - it transparently acts as an SB without a driver.
  • The card starts off 'inert' and requires some initialisation. This is common with 1995-1997 PnP compatible cards whose IRQ and DMA settings are done in software rather than by jumpers. My Avance ALS100+ based card and CMI8330 cards require a start-up program to be run before they will work. This program talks to the card, tells it what IRQ and DMA to use, and from that point onwards the card acts as a clone card. No persistent program resides in memory to translate a game's Sound Blaster DSP commands into Avance commands, etc. If you've installed the 'driver' for a clone-like card, this most likely applies to you.
  • If the card is not capable of directly acting as a clone card because it is exotic like a Gravis Ultrasound, or a very new (relatively speaking: post 1996) Sound Blaster / Ensoniq PCI card, then it cannot be simply initialised into acting as an SB clone card. These cards require a software shim layer to be loaded resident to intercept Sound Blaster DSP commands and translate them in real time to commands the card understands. For the GUS, this is called SBOS - it attempts to wrap the GUS' wavetable hardware into a single output stream compatible with SB. If the game you're playing natively supports GUS, then you don't need SBOS. For cards without FM chips/clone chips present, the shim layer may synthesize the audio in software in real-time, with mixed results. For Ensoniq/SB Live/SB Audigy, this is SBEINIT.COM, which emulates an SB16 card in software, setting up a 'phantom' card at IRQ 2/5/7/10 which responds to the standard set of DSP commands and ISA bus behaviour.

These drivers would come shipped with your sound card.

*(Not to be confused with a 'DSP' in other usage which provides programmable effects like reverb or echo.)

**(You can read about this in the Sound Blaster Series Hardware Programming Guide)

2) Game support to -consume- the hardware interface

Now that your sound card is ready to receive commands, the games have to know how to play sound through its hardware interface. In MS-DOS, every game ships with its own set of drivers to control the sound card hardware.

Each card has its own set of primitive capabilities and interfaces, such as streaming digitised audio output (Sound Blaster, Windows Sound System, etc.), FM synthesis (Adlib, Sound Blaster, GUS SBOS), wavetable hardware accelerated output (Gravis Ultrasound, SB AWE) and MIDI support. The sound card drivers included with the game interact with the motherboard and sound card hardware directly to abstract the capabilities of the sound card into a uniform interface for the game programmer.

Because digitised audio output, wavetable output, FM synthesis and MIDI playback are dissimilar in nature, the sound card drivers at this layer typically also take on the role of an audio library, providing useful functions such as sound effect playback and looping, sound mixing (with volume and panning support), and music playback/cueing. Tracker music and sound effect playback map onto the features of the Gravis Ultrasound directly, but to do this on a Sound Blaster requires a software mixer with a wavetable-like system in software to pitch and combine the channels.

Early games would have their sound card drivers coded directly into the game in a sort of ad-hoc fashion because the interface is so simple - Halloween Harry supports the original Sound Blaster card, and the support is hard-coded into the game. (Luckily, all SB series cards support the original Sound Blaster interface tier, so Harry works with these cards too.) Rise of the Triad has its own huge sound library; since RoTT is open source, you can see all of the different initialisation and support routines on Github.

For late, mature MS-DOS games like Theme Hospital, a commercial library like Miles or HMI is used. If you've seen a sound card set up screen with dozens of sound cards available, then they most likely use one of these libraries. I point this out since the different sound card drivers can be shown in a directory listing as .386 or .ovl or .hmi files. Epic MegaGames Jensen-library games like One Must Fall 2097 and Jazz Jackrabbit store their sound card drivers in MDRV---R.MUS files. These are good examples of a games which support both Gravis Ultrasound and Sound Blaster.

  • Sound Blaster did need a driver, but it was built into each program. Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 20:27
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    @chrylis-cautiouslyoptimistic- That's not really the same thing. You could argue that in DOS, the Adlib & SB register set was the API for sound output. A driver would be a layer that sits between the API and the hardware.
    – Chromatix
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 21:59
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    @Chromatix Or, alternatively, you could say that a driver is some code specific to a given hardware interface that abstracts differences between different hardware away from the API the application is coded for.
    – ssokolow
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 23:31
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    "By itself, a Sound Blaster provides a single output stream of audio.", it also provides adlib-compatible FM synthesis chips. IIRC many DOS games used the digital audio for sound effects and the FM synthesis chips for music. Commented Jan 1, 2021 at 2:32
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    Thanks for your efforts to explain this. I find it strange to call a piece of code coming the application 'driver'. I would call it 'library'. But that's just my preference.
    – Dercsár
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 19:51

Most PCI soundcards do not have hardware support for games and other applications that expect a SoundBlaster or AdLib to be present. Older cards made a special effort to provide what's known as "register level compatibility", so they could be used with a wide range of existing games. By the time PCI arrived, Windows had become the PC operating system of choice, so compatibility with DOS games was less important at the hardware level.

The DOS "driver" for these newer cards is actually emulation software, which intercepts accesses to the I/O ports normally occupied by Adlib and SB hardware, and converts them into commands to the actual soundcard present. This may include performing audio synthesis and/or mixing in software.

  • 1
    IIRC, Sound Blaster Live! required launching its sw to emulate opl3, which it didn't really had on board. And it did use emm386 for ports trapping.
    – Vlad
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 10:05
  • @Vlad SB Live was a PCI card, wasn't it? That seems to support my argument.
    – Chromatix
    Commented Dec 31, 2020 at 21:54

Like any hardware, the hardware of a sound card needs to be “prepared for operation” after having powered up in an unconfigured state.

Usually this consists of writing certain values to certain hardware ports and/or memory addresses (after testing for the presence of said sound card). After this, the sound card is ready for operation.

In Windows or any other modern Operating Systems this is done by a driver upon booting the operating system and scanning for any hardware that’s present. In DOS this configuration is (usually) done by the game or application utilizing the sound card when it is started. Before the application starts, the hardware is not yet configured.

  • What I meant with this idea is that the sound card does not work at all right after boot-up. Unlike early SB products that default to port 220h, irq 5, etc. Later clone cards were 'deaf' on power-up and needed special operations to set DMA, IRQ and other values that they would work with -- until power-off or restart. What you describe is the actual using of a sound card, including starting and stoping sound or setting modes of operation (8 or 16 bits, FM or wave or MIDI, etc.) Is that correct?
    – Dercsár
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 19:41

When the Sound Blaster was first introduced, the documented way to use the digitized audio features was to make use of a supplied blob of code which was supplied by Creative Labs. If memory serves, using this blob of code required reading it into RAM at a multiple-of-16 address, and invoke it with a normalized form of that address (offset zero of whatever segment it happened to start at). If memory serves, the MIDI interface was defined in terms of I/O port operations, and the documentation may have specified how code which was able to run fast enough could output individual samples to an I/O port without using DMA [which ended up being how many programs actually used the SoundBlaster], but I think Creative Labs' expectation was that people would use the supplied blob of code. I don't think it was clear, however, whether they expected that programmers would always put that blob in a file with a certain name in a certain place so as to allow it to be replaced with alternative implementations, or how much space they expected programmers to allocate for it.

  • That's new to me :) This 'blob of code' is what @knol above refers to as 2nd type, right? I wouldn't call it a driver, but it's really just a word. If I am not mistaken, that code should be part of the application, not the system. Maybe it was just a sample or demonstration program for better understanding, aimed at programmers.
    – Dercsár
    Commented Jan 2, 2021 at 19:31
  • If memory serves, Creative Labs referred to the blob in their documentation as a "driver", though elsewhere such a thing might have been called a "library". Since what CL supplied doesn't really fit either description, I think the term "blob of code" seems appropriate. I don't think CL gave much thought to whether it should be part of the application or the system; I don't remember whether the SB itself came with a copy of the blob in question.
    – supercat
    Commented Jan 3, 2021 at 6:23

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