Creative Technologies founder, CEO and chairman Sim Wong Hu has died, his company has confirmed. He “passed away peacefully on January 4, 2023,” according to a press release. He was 67 years old.
It may seem hard for younger readers to believe, but there was a time when computer sound was not guaranteed. If you want to plug in headphones or speakers that can do more than beep or beep, you probably need a sound card—and none have been as successful as Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster. It sold over 400 million units by its 30th anniversary in 2019.
In the pre-Windows 95 / DirectX era, few words in PC gaming were as important as the phrase “Sound Blaster compatible”, allowing players to hear the dogs barking Wolfenstein 3Dor mess around with the synthesized voice in the demo of Dr. Creative’s Sbaitso (you can stream it on the web these days).
The company was also huge in the MP3 player space with its Creative Nomad and Zen line of players, and successfully sued Apple over its iPod, winning a $100 million settlement.
Success was not immediate. Sim originally set out to build an entire computer that could talk, according to the 1993 and 1994 Human Profiles. Bloomberg and New York Times. He founded Creative Technologies in Singapore in 1981, and yet by 1986 – two years after Steve Jobs let the Macintosh “speak for itself” – the company’s personal computers were selling so poorly that he was reportedly laid off to just a handful of engineers.
But when they took the Cubic CT music board to a computer show in the United States, the company found its footing. “The money we made from a few hundred boards was equivalent to the money we made from the computer,” he said NYT.
Even then, the idea wasn’t quite frozen. Creative’s first sound card was sold as the Creative Music System before the company realized that PC gamers would become its biggest audience. In 1987, Sierra On-Line stunned the gaming industry with its launch King’s Quest IV with actually soundtrack scoreintended to be played on early sound cards such as the AdLib and Roland MT-32, and the publisher continued to advertise these computer parts for sale in its own catalog of games.
Creative got some of that action by rebranding its card the “Game Blaster” in 1988, and in 1989 the company’s first Sound Blaster added a dedicated game port to include a joystick. This is something that PC gamers usually had to buy separately and helped make the Sound Blaster look like an excellent deal to AdLib.
Sim’s determination made him a rare symbol of startup success in Singapore, as Creative became the first Singaporean company to list on the Nasdaq stock exchange. In 1994 New York Times’ the title was literally “The Entrepreneurial Company Defies the Singapore Model” and he went on to write a book called Chaotic thoughts from the old millennium where he coined the phrase “No U-Turn Syndrome” to describe the main difficulty of becoming an entrepreneur in that era of Singaporean culture.
Razer CEO and co-founder Min-Liang Tan, who turned Razer into a Singaporean company, carried over to social media to say that “the tech world and Singapore have lost a legend”. Razer bought its own audio company, founded by George Lucas THX, in 2016.
Even after PCs began to be able to reproduce quality audio on their own—every modern consumer motherboard comes with integrated sound—Creative kept gamers interested with features like the Sound Blaster Crystallizer, a dynamic range amplifier that “applies sound amplification (audio effect) to lower, transition and higher frequency regions on demand.’
I still remember how proud I was to install the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro in a gaming desktop and what it unlocked for me at the time – I ran three game consoles into my PC monitor using the sound control card and was amazed how this single gadget can take an optical audio signal from my PlayStation 2 and convert it to great sounding analog audio for my headphones and digital 3.5mm audio to my Boston Acoustics 4.1 speakers for surround sound, all at the same time. (Yes, I had those Gateway speakers that only accepted digital input via the 3.5mm jack, and the Audigy was very handy.)
Creative hasn’t been a household name in recent years, but it still sells popular soundbars like the Sound Blaster Katana, speakers, webcams, and headphones. There is even still a dedicated Sound Blaster sound card in the range.
And I hear Audigy 2 is still going strong in some people’s computers.
Update, 8:32 p.m. ET: Added more images and information about Cubic99, an earlier Creative computer. You may also want to read this CustomPC interview with Sim from 2019where he talks about the early days, the name of Michael Jackson and others, and BrassicGamer’s debunking of some of the things he said on CustomPC.