Software you'll love to listen to. (software for use with a sound card) (Compute's Getting Started with PC Sound) (Buyers Guide)
by Gregg Keizer
Hardware makes things possible; software makes it happen.
Silence is what you get without software. The world's most expensive audio board sounds just like the world's most inexpensive--mute--until you put some sound-making software on your PC's hard drive. Fortunately, there's plenty to pick from.
In fact, the entertainment, edutainment, and music titles that follow are only a small sampling of the software that, with the addition of an audio card, makes your PC sound as good as, and in some cases, better than, the television it's competing against.
Games With Great Sound
Great sound doesn't guarantee a great game, but a great game doesn't make it to the top of the bestseller list with minimalist effects, canned music, or mumblled speech.
Realistic sound effects, though low on the audio totem pole, are vital to a game's success. For instance, take Red Baron (Dynamix, Distributed by Sierra On-Line, P.O. Box 485, Coarsegold, California 93614; 800-326-6654; $69.95). This flight simulator has smooth animation and quality graphics that let you fly against famous aces of the Great War. But without the thunk of bullets as they strike your Sopwith, or the thunka-thunka-thunka of your Spandau machine guns, Red Baron's suspension of disbelief is much less likely, and the game much less engrossing.
It's the sweeping scores that most people remember when they play on a PC with a sound card. Take Wing Commander II (Origin Systems, P.O. Box 161750, Austin, Texas 78716; 800-999-4939; $79.95). Though the music doesn't entirely walk away from the traditional PC game's habit of repetitive themes, it does branch into variations when the story moves along.
Lusasfilms' i/MUSE music system promises even more variation, much like movie iscore mood changes when the scene shifts. In Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge (Lucasfilm Games, P.O. Box 10307, San Rafael, California 94912; 800-782-7927; $59.95), score transitions are triggered when you walk the game's main character, Guybrush Threepwood, into rooms, or pick from one of the dialogue selections.
Speech, too, is only possible in most games when you have a sound board installed in your PC. Games such as Wing Commander II, which offers an add-on speech module for Sound Blaster owners, makes your PC literally talk. Unlike the robotic sounds of synthesized speech, these digitized versions of real actors' voice are natural, realistic, and often compelling. CD-based games, such as King's Quest V (Sierra On-Line, P.O. Box 485, Coarsegold, California 93614; 800-326-6654; $69.95), toss amazing amounts of speech into the hopper, and demonstrate one of multimedia's most powerful advantages over games that play from your hard disk drive.
Kids Want to Talk
Children can't shut up. They love to talk, sing, and just make noise. How foolish, then, for a kid's program to think it can get away with the silent treatment.
Edutainment software, a category that melds game elements with solid educational concepts, lets kids learn while they play (or is it play while they learn?). And few parts of the software spectrum benefit more from sound and speech.
Ecoquest: The Search for Cetus (Sierra, $59.95) includes a score as good as any grownup's role-playing adventure. Music ranges from reggae to country & western, for instance, and even switches from relaxing to suspenseful as you explore dangerous caves.
Kid Pix (Broderbund, 500 Redwood Boulevard, Novato, California 94948; 800-521-6263; $59.95) is a unique paint program that not only lets children doodle, but makes noise as they do. Letters and numbers announce themselves, and the sound effects guarantee grins.
If games demand music, then kids' software wants to talk. Some play-and-learn programs manage to speak without the benefit of a sound board. Super Solvers Spellbound! (The Learning Company, 6493 Kaiser Drive, Fremont, California 94555; 800-852-2255; $49.95), which uses excellent digitized speech, comes to mind. Many more require an audio add-on. KidWorks (Davidson and Associates, 3135 Kashiwa Street, Torrance, California 90505; 800-545-7677; $49.95) is a combination writing, painting, and storytelling tool that lets kids create and illustrate stories. The program then reads the stories aloud, albeit in a synthetic fashion.
But it's the compact disc games that are most amazing when it comes to sound and speech. In its CD form, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (Broderbund, $89.95) plays national anthems and folk songs as clues, and lets characters talk to players. Just Grandma and Me (Broderbund, $49.95), an MPC (Multimedia Personal Computer) storybook, speaks in a crystal-clear voice as it reads the words on screen.
Music Makes the World Go Round
While games and play-and-learn programs illustrate the power of sound, they pale in comparison to some of the music software now making it to market.
These programs aren't music makers (see "How to Get Started with MIDI" for MIDI programs that let you create music yourself), but music players. Music software pumps CD-quality sound through speakers or headphones, all the while giving you a better sense of music, its style, and even its history. The best of these run on a multimedia-ready PC from a compact disc.
Composer Quest (Dr. T's Music Software, 100 Crescent Road, Needham, Massachusetts 02194; 617-455-1454; $99) traces the major musical periods from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries as it plays selections from more than 60 compositions. Like the TV show, "Name That Tune," Composer Quest plays a short melody, then asks you to identify it. The twist is that you head into history, searching for the composer in a time-travel detective game. Along the way you'll find biographies of famous musicians and other artists, read about events of the period, and even view paintings by Rembrandt and Monet. Because Composer Quest is on CD, it packs enough music and images to keep you interested. And because it requires an MPC-compatible computer (one rigged with CD-ROM, sound card, and Microsoft's Windows with Multimedia extensions), it lets you bop from place to place by clicking buttons.
Another excellent computer compact disc is Multimedia Beethoven: The Ninth Symphony (Microsoft, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052; 206-882-8080; $79.95). Since it concentrates on one work, Multimedia Beethoven can get down into the details of the music and its maker. Proving multimedia's potential, this disc plays the symphony while it offers interesting information. Like a good teacher, Multimedia Beethoven interprets the music, giving you insights into everything from the instruments of the time to Beethoven's fight against deafness.
Selecting the software that you let sound off on your PC depends on your interests, of course. The common denominator among all the packages mentioned here, though, is great sound, great music, and in some cases, great speech.
Publishers have included sound, music, and even speech in their wares for years, but only in the past 12 months have they paid close attention to the possibilities. Multimedia gets some of the credit and will continue to push the envelope and raise expectations.
The trend is clear: Not only is PC sound more important than ever before, that importance is growing. You're already missing out if your PC lacks a sound add-on, but you'll really be in the backwater of home computing if you don't add sound soon.