Cheap Sample Cards


Hi! I'm Ben Weaver, and I'm an electronics engineer. I'm also a keen musician. That means I whenever I get a new synth to play with, I take it to bits and see if I can make it work better. This page is about using cheap memory cards with the Alesis QS6. You may also like to read how I modded my QS6 to use 16Mb sample cards, and mounted the QS6 power supply inside the keyboard.

The Alesis QS range of synthesisers are famed for their ability to play sounds from user-programmable sample cards. These cards are linear PCMCIA flash cards, although there are pre-made ROM cards (known as QCards) available too.

Unfortunately, PCMCIA flash cards are quite rare and expensive. Even more unfortunately, Alesis specify that you can only use AMD type-C and type-D cards which, guess what... are even more rare and expensive. The largest card you can use is 8MB, and a quick look around during March 2006 revealed that they cost an average of $95 (£54, €79) - that's way too expensive for a poor student like me. (And that's excluding any VAT or P&P!)

Supplier Price for 8Mb AMD card Web Address
Synchrotech $71 (£41, €59)
Psism $95 (£54, €79)
Pretec $119 (£68, €99)

Now, in their efforts to simplify things, Alesis didn't tell the whole truth. There are very few technical things that are both simple and complete. If we look in to the situation a little deeper, we can see that the synth CAN use other memory cards as long as you play by a few rules.

Why is this good news? Well, flash cards made by other manufacturers such as Intel are used in other devices such as the Apple Newton, and many Cisco routers. This means that there are lots of them floating around second-hand. In March 2006, I bought a 16Mb Intel flash card for £10 including P&P - twice! Using my synth mod which lets me use all 16Mb of the card (normally Alesis synths can only use 8Mb cards) I was effectively buying 8Mb of flash for £5 ($9, €7) all in. That's about 10% of the price of new AMD flash cards!

What synths are we talking about here?

All of my testing has been done on my QS6 (hardware revision A, software revision 2.00). I'd fully expect, however, this hack to work just the same on any Alesis synth that can take PCMCIA sample cards. If you have any success or disappointment with a different synth, then please let me know!

Update: I've heard from people in the field that this hack works fine on a QS6.1, but someone tried it on a QSR and it didn't work.

What flash cards can I use?

Okay, this is a hard one. There are lots of types available, and I haven't tested them all. What I can do, is tell you what categories are available and which will and won't work. At the highest level, there are two main types of flash card available: linear flash cards and ATA flash cards. ATA flash cards present themselves as a hard disk controller, which is great if your host is used to talking to hard disks (e.g. a PC), but not great if your host doesn't know what a hard disk is (e.g. an Alesis synthesiser). So anything that says ATA on it won't work. Also, all compact flash (CF) cards are ATA, so you can't cheat and plug a CF card in to an adaptor. That won't work either.

So we need to look at linear flash cards. There are two main types here: Intel and AMD. Lots of other manufacturers make flash cards, but they make them to be compatible with either Intel or AMD. We know that AMD card will work. Now, here's the science bit: The only real difference between these two types of card is that they write data in different ways. For reading back data (which is what the synth does most of the time), there's no real difference. If I'm an Alesis synth and I'm just reading samples from a memory card, I've got no idea whether I'm looking at an AMD card or an Intel card. Ka-ching!

So, will all Intel cards work in the synth? Good question. There are three different types of Intel card: Series 1, Series 2, and Series 2+. I've tried some series 2 cards, and they work; they get a big green tick. I've also tried a series 2+ card, and it didn't work. I don't know whether the problem is with just that card, or all series 2+ cards. For for moment, I'm putting a big question mark on series 2+ cards. I haven't yet tried any series 1 cards. I've summarised my findings in the diagram below.

In a quest to find out which cards will and won't work, I've put a list of cards I've tested at the bottom of this page. Please do look through it. And if you try a different card (or even one listed!) then let me know how you get on. Also, you may like to read my tips on buying memory cards

How do I use these cards?

Now, the astute reader will spot a problem here. If the method of writing data to the cards is different, then the synth won't be able to write to non-AMD cards. This is indeed the case: Alesis synthesisers can't write to Intel cards. How do we put samples on to the cards in the first place? Luckily, there's a way around it: prepare your sample cards in a laptop! Just about all laptops are able to write to any linear flash card, given the right software. And there's a bonus here too. Laptops can write complete cards in just a few minutes, compared to the hour or so the synthesiser takes to write a complete card. Double whammy!

Okay, how do we use a laptop to make a sample card? Well, first off you use SoundBridge to prepare a sample card image (.img) file. I use SoundBridge v3.0.1 d2, and other versions may or may not work. (Let me know how you get on if you try a different version!)

Next, you need to convert your SoundBridge .img file to a format ready for writing to flash cards. The easiest way of doing this is using a small program that I wrote called img2bin.exe. You can download it by right clicking the link and selecting "Save As..." or whatever your browser has. You run it from a command window, and supply the name of the image file that you want to convert, and an output file name. If you have a soundbridge img file, say, called mypiano.img then you can convert it to a file suitable for flash card writing by typing this at a command prompt:

img2bin mypiano.img mypiano.bin

Make sure that the img2bin.exe file is in the same directory as the image files.

Okay, now we have a file ready for burning to a flash card. How do we do this? Well, you need some suitable software. There's not too many suitable software packages available, but I've listed the ones that I know about. If you know of any others, please tell me.

AMD embed.exe
This can write to AMD cards. It must be run from DOS.
Intel File-to-Flash (F2F.exe)
This can write to some Intel cards. It must be run from DOS. I think it checks for card size first, which is stored in attribute memory. If this isn't set up right, then card writing will fail even if there is enough space on the card. [link]
SMART FlashTools
This looks good. It runs under Windows, and should be able to write to all cards. I don't know how much it costs, and I haven't tried it. [link]
Elan Memory Card Explorer v3.14
This is quite good. It runs under Windows, and can write to all flash cards. But it costs hundreds of dollars, which in my opinion is very expensive indeed. And the people who wrote it can't spell. If you want to have a go with it, then you can download a demo version of Memory Card Explorer, but it will only work for five writes. [link]

Tried and Tested memory cards

So, which cards can we use? Good question! I've tried some, and here are my findings. If you have the opportunity of trying a card (even if it's one listed here), then please let me know. Also, if you have a card that you're not using for a while, then you might like to consider letting me borrow it for a while - that way I'll be able to test cards without spending too much money!

Image Manufacturer Size Type Part Number Result Notes
Smart Modular Technologies 4Mb Intel Series 2 SM9FA2043IP280 Works This was sold on eBay as being suitable for a Cisco router. Inside, there are two Sharp LH28F016SAT-70 flash chips and some attribute memory in the form of a Atmel AT28C16 EEPROM.
Sharp 16Mb Intel Series 2 ID24ZK03 Works This was sold on eBay as being suitable for a Cisco router, part number MEM-RSP-FLC16M.
Intel 10Mb Intel Series 2 Don't Know Works This was tried by a reader and is reported as working fine.
Intel (Cisco) 16Mb Intel Series 2+ Intel: iMC016FLSP -15/25-S
(Cisco: MEM-S3-FLC16M)
Doesn't Work This card, despite saying Cisco on it, is made by Intel. I think that series 2+ cards have a problem. I don't know what it is. I think it may be a timing issue. Inside there are eight E28F016SA Intel flash chips and two proprietary Intel ASICs. Maybe the ASICs are introducing extra delay in operation. But the flash chips are rated at 70ns for 5V operation - could the ASICs really be extending this figure past the synth limit of 150ns? In 1999, Centennial Technologies acquired the flash memory card business of Intel Corporation, and in 2001, SMART Modular Technologies acquired Centennial Technologies. Neither Intel or SMART have any data on these cards. If anyone has a datasheet for Intel Flash Series 2+ cards, then please let me know!
Intel (Cisco) 16Mb Intel Series 2+ Intel: iMC016FLSP -15/25-S Doesn't Work This is like the card above. The label was a little different, which made me think that maybe it was a different card, but no. My current thinking is that Intel Series 2+ cards just do not work in this application.

How to spot and buy memory cards

The best way I've found of buying memory cards is on eBay. They are sold either under their generic "Linear Flash" name, or as memory cards for either Cisco Routers or the Apple Newton. The generic Cisco part number seems to be "MEM-{software}-FLC{size}M" where {software} is the name of any pre-loaded software, and {size} is the size of the card in megabytes. As far as I can see, there is no way of telling from the Cisco part number whether a particular card will be based on Series 2 or Series 2+ technology.

The names PCMCIA and PC-Card are interchangeable, so suitable memory cards might be described as one, other, or both of these names.

Many Cisco routers use Intel-compatible linear flash memory cards. The 1600 series, 7200 series and 7500 series definitely take them, and there are probably many more. (Please let me know if you find anything else out!) Be warned, though, that lots of Cisco routers also take internal DIMM flash memory upgrades (the 1600-1800 and 2500-2800 series do, and there's probably more) which obviously won't work in the synth. So if you spot something advertised as "8MB flash memory for Cisco routers" then you need to check whether it's a PCMCIA card or an internal memory module.

The Nortel Networks 8000 series router takes PCMCIA cards, but they're ATA and so won't work

How to contact me

If you have a go at using sample cards in your synthesiser, then I'd love to hear how you get on. In particular, I'd very much like to know what cards do and don't work so I can update the list on this page, and how people get on with different Alesis synths.

I'm also keen to get hold of any technical datasheets for flash cards. I have one for Intel Series 2, but I'd really love to have a look through the one for Intel Series 2+ cards.

The best way of contacting me is through email. My email address is .

This webpage and its content is © 2006 by Ben Weaver.