Sound of the future. (sound cards and devices for PCs)(includes list of manufacturers) (Buyers Guide)
by Paul C. Schuytema
YOUR COMPUTER'S SMART. BUT CAN IT TALK?
Not only can computers talk, but they can listen, play a fugue, or blurt out a hot sax riff at the click of a mouse button.
Sound on the computer has truly entered the mainstream, and the acceptance of this capability has led to a rapid development of sound technology. Now, a PC-sound addict can record an aria in 44-kHz, 16-bit, CD-quality audio (more about this later) and paste it into a memo to his boss.
Sound is one of those computer features you only abstractly miss until you have actually experienced it. Take it from a former nonbeliever: When you plug sound--real sound--into your PC, you will never go back.
Sound can transform the output of your computer. A computer without sound relies entirely on vision, which is reasonable because vision is a human's most important sense. But close behind sight is hearing. Having both sight and sound adds a completeness to the computer experience.
Hearing is Believing
But what good is a talking computer? What do we really need sound for? Answering that question could be arbitrarily complex, but let's look at the beast in simple terms. In terms of your PC, sound comes in two "flavors": digital sound and music.
Digital sound is real-world sound that has been sampled (captured live or off tape) by the computer and represented as binary data. The sounds of glass breaking and the swing of a golf club are examples of digital sound.
Music is played back differently. Sound devices often employ integrated FM synthesizers to create a wide array of musical sounds, from the whining of an oboe to the beeps and boops associated with early electronic synthesizers. PC music comes in two species as well, manufacturer-specific music and MIDI (Musical Instrument Device Interface). While any manufacturer could create its own proprietary music interface, the industry standard is MIDI, a data format that allows a wide range of devices (from computers to the electronic drum sets in your favorite MTV video) to share musical data.
Now that we know a little more about PC sound, the question remains: What good is sound? The answers are many. Sounds can make computer entertainment and education programs come alive. PC users can record their own sounds to augment applications or leave voice notes on spreadsheet files. Sound can be an aural cue to swap disks or enter another record of data into a database. And sound is essential to the growing field of PC multimedia. In multimedia, visual images are combined with sounds to create interactive experiences (such as encyclopedias, training programs, and reference materials) which the user can control and explore at his or her own rate and level of interest. For ideas about the uses of sound, just flip through the pages of COMPUTE, and you'll see that sound for the PC is everywhere.
What follows is a sampling of sound devices available for personal computers. An exhaustive list would be prohibitively long because so many manufacturers are offering sound equipment now.
The most common type of sound device is a sound card. The sound card is an internal circuit board you would install in your computer's expansion bus. Sound cards generally provide access to sampling, MIDI, and manufacturer-specific synthesis. We'll also talk about several portable devices, such as external peripherals which include sound cards as well as an integrated amplifier and speaker.
How do you decide what type of sound device is best for you? There are several things to consider: cost, compatibility, and purpose. If the card is only for entertainment, a simple 8-bit card would probably do fine, but if you're interested in speech or recording your own music--or if you have an audiophile's ear for sound--look into the new generation of 16-bit cards. If MIDI is your game and you want the features of a full-fledged synthesizer, look into cards like the Roland SCC-1.
The ATI Stereo-F/X is an 8-bit stereo card which allows you to record at either 11 kHz or 22 kHz in stereo (provided you have a stereo microphone or line input). You can record in 11 kHz, 22 kHz, or 44 kHz in mono.
The ATI card installs easily with no jumpers to configure, and the card holds the current settings in memory, allowing you to software-select the volume to a comfortable level and change it only when you need to (it remains constant even after power-down).
The Stereo-F/X comes with the usual assortment of software: drivers, DOS and Windows digital sampling software, a library of sounds and songs, and a program that allows you to synchronize sound and graphics. The software also gives access to the most intricate parts of the card, and the manual provides clear documentation on how to take advantage of the card in your own programming.
The ATI card allows connection to MIDI devices via an optional connector box, but the card has its own 11-voice FM synthesizer that allows it to play MIDI files without any extra equipment. It also sports a joystick port which is software selectable to provide smooth performance on even the fastest computers (a godsend for those of us with 486s). The Stereo-F/X is fully compatible with Sound Blaster and Ad Lib (and doesn't require any memory-resident programs for compatibility), and it simulates stereo when playing mono Sound Blaster files.
The Stereo-F/X is bundled with a pair of small, card-powered speakers, and the card has a built-in eight-watt amplifier (the most powerful I've seen on a card) that delivers plenty of power to the speakers. Setting the card up for Windows is a bit of a chore, since it requires tracking down the information in a cluttered READ.ME file. The READ.ME file gives the wrong location for the Windows drivers, so I had to hunt for them. Once I slogged through the cryptic process (hindered by the less-than-intuitive manner sound is set up in Windows), everything worked fine.
In the included Windows sampling software, the version I received was a newer version than the software manual referred to, and a small additional sheet notified me of this. The newer version of the software separates the mixer program from the recording program, which is at once an improvement and a drawback. It's a nuisance because I had to move from window to window to adjust the volume and the stereo balance. But this proved to be a good idea when I used other software, such as Windows' own Sound Recorder or media player. It allowed me to use a third-party program easily while controlling the ATI card.
Ad Lib Gold 1000
The newly designed Ad Lib Gold 1000 card boasts an impressive array of features. The card provides 20 independent FM channels (16-bit stereo with 96 dB of dynamic range) and 2 digital channels. It also offers 12-bit stereo sampling and the ability to accept either 8-, or 12-, or 16-bit data. It can sample at rates from 44 kHz down to 5.5 kHz (the higher the sample rate, the better the sound quality).
The card has a self-contained 1.2-watt amplifier, which was weaker than those of the other cards for powering speakers. Headphones or self-powered speakers worked fine, however.
The Gold 1000 comes bundled with a DOS and Windows mixer program, a music player (jukebox), and a DOS-based voice recorder, as well as other utilities. The card is difficult to install because of its numerous jumpers and cryptic instructions (the instructions label the jumpers according to a diagram and not according to the numbers printed on the card). The dual joystick jumper is especially difficult to adjust. The instructions are also a little foggy about setting up the IRQs and DMAs, never explaining them clearly (although conflict warnings abound).
When it comes to audio quality, the Gold 1000 sounds great (with self-powered speakers). However, at this time it suffers from compatibility problems. The card supports previous Ad Lib formats, but there aren't nearly enough software titles that take advantage of the new capabilities to make this card even as compatible as some of those smaller, compatible-only cards.
By far the best feature of this card is its sound quality, and it looks as if it won't be long before the software catches up to its capabilities. The Gold 1000 is also user upgradable, and it can support a CD-ROM interface and a Surround Sound module as well as a telephone-answering system.
Sound Master II
The Covox Sound Master II is an 8-bit mono audio board that performs well and comes supplied with an interesting array of software. The board sports a four-watt, built-in amplifier.
While the card isn't fully Sound Blaster compatible, it does include a memory-resident program that can emulate Sound Blaster sounds (not Sound Blaster MIDI or voices).
The card comes bundled with a solid package of software, including PC-Lyra, a visual MIDI music composition program.
The most unique feature of the Sound Master II is the voice recognition software. Voice Master allows you, through the included headset microphone, to create DOS macro files that will activate at your spoken word. You simply train the software to recognize your command and edit the macro. Then, when you're running the software, you tap a hot key and speak your command.
I found that the recognition works very well. When you're training the software, you record each command three times, and the software averages them all together, to allow the widest possible range of recognition.
The Sound Master includes two speakers, a headset microphone, and MIDI cables, but no joystick port.
While the Sound Master is very impressive in its varied uses, setting the card up is difficult because of its awkward documentation (some is outdated) and clunky IRQ and DMA setups. It took a while to get the Windows multimedia drivers to find the card, even though it was "visible" in DOS.
Pro AudioSpectrum 16
Media Vision's Pro AudioSpectrum 16 is one of the new generation of 16-bit cards that adds another level of realism to the sound quality. By doubling the resolution of digital samples, the quality of a 16-bit card's sound approaches that of a CD's.
Installing the Pro AudioSpectrum 16 is a breeze, the DOS installation works well with the defaults (no manual jumpers on the card to set), and installing the Windows drivers is as easy as running an installation program and restarting Windows. The installation program even lets you know every addition and modification it makes to your SYSTEM.INI and WIN.INI files.
The Pro AudioSpectrum 16 is supplied with the graphically impressive TrackBlaster Pro DOS-based, fourtrack recording "studio" as well as a customized version of Voyetra's sequencer program. The Windows-based Pocket Recorder and Pocket Mixer programs take a little while to get used to, since there are so many things that you're able to control. During recording, the Pocket Recorder provides a VU meter reminiscent of a tape deck, and the Pocket Mixer allows you to adjust recording (and playback) levels for each form of input and output. The mixer also provides controls for volume, balance, bass, and treble. The Pocket Recorder doesn't allow any cut-and-paste editing for digital samples, but it does offer a wide array of interesting effects.
While the Pro AudioSpectrum 16 claims full Ad Lib and Sound Blaster capability, you must load the PAS program into memory to make the board behave like them. When you're using an extremely memory-hungry software program, the PAS program might eat up enough memory so that your program won't load.
The Pro AudioSpectrum 16 also comes with an interesting text-to-speech TSR program for DOS that allows the card to "read" any selected text in a male robotlike voice. While I'm a little skeptical about the usefulness of this program, it's very interesting to play with. You invoke it with a hot key when the text you want it to read is on the screen and then highlight the text and press Enter. The program is very limited, since you have to select the text, and it will not work with Windows. I am, however, excited by any program (or person) that can pronounce my last name correctly.
The Pro AudioSpectrum 16 is a true 16-bit stereo card, and it records extremely clean sound. It also contains a SCSI port that allows the connection of a CD-ROM drive. (Media Vision also makes a complete multimedia kit.)
If digital samples and games aren't your forte but you have an interest in MIDI, the SCC-1 from Roland is a great card. Basically, the SCC-1 is a preset synthesizer on a card. I use the term preset because you can't alter the waveforms and filters of a particular sound; the SCC-1 sounds are built in.
This isn't really a problem (for a desktop computer user) because the SCC-1 contains 127 instrument sounds (from a French horn to a jazz guitar) and many of the sounds are variable, meaning that the card can create 317 instrument sounds. Beyond that, the card boasts nine complete drum sets as well as a library of special sound effects.
Roland has been in the electronic music business for a long time. The quality of the sounds of the Roland synthesizer is the best I've heard on a PC card. The demo songs that come with the card are so realistic that I found myself thinking that they must have been sampled. I could hardly believe they were just a MIDI file.
This card has limited uses, however. It's not a game card (but it does emulate the Roland LAPC-1's music with breathtaking quality, though digitized sounds and effects are absent), nor can it use programs like Windows' Sound Recorder to sample digital sounds. This is a MIDI synthesizer card, pure and simple, and while this card follows the MIDI standard, it also follows the more stringent GS sound format. The best environment for this card exists when you have a MIDI device (like a keyboard) connected for input and a sequencer program (such as Passport Design's Master Tracks Pro) loaded into your computer.
One of the advantages of the SCC-1 card is that its low computer overhead and unobtrusive presence mean it can be paired with another sound card. Put an SCC-1 into a computer with a 16-bit card like Pro AudioSpectrum 16 or Sound Blaster 16 ASP, and you have an unbeatable combination of talent.
Sound Blaster Pro
Look at nearly any game that supports sound, and you'll see that it supports the Sound Blaster card. When you're looking at a third-party card, Sound Blaster capability is a big draw. So how well does the Sound Blaster Pro card itself perform?
All things considered, it's the industry standard, and it lives up to its reputation. The Sound Blaster Pro is an 8-bit card, so the sampling isn't as crisp as that of a 16-bit card, but it's very good, and you can boost the sampling rate to 44 kHz for superior sound.
What keeps the original Sound Blaster Pro ahead of the competition is the fact that it is the original. When you install the card, you aren't forced to use a pile of memory-resident programs to emulate the Sound Blaster (some emulation programs take up so much memory that you can't run certain programs).
The Sound Blaster Pro card (and 100-percent compatibles) can synthesize speech, which is an important consideration with many of the newer games and multimedia programs. The Sound Blaster Pro also sports a CD-ROM interface and the software to play CD audio through the card.
The Sound Blaster Pro comes with a healthy array of bundled software, including Voyetra's Sequencer Plus Pro MIDI sequencing software (cables included). You also get text-to-voice utilities and a digital recording editor. Ironically, the Sound Blaster Pro is a little weak in its Windows support (you get drivers, a mixer, and a jukebox). You don't get a customized wave recorder, so you must use the one supplied with Windows, which doesn't give you the options you'll want to have when making recordings.
Sound Blaster 16 ASP
Creative Labs has moved beyond the Sound Blaster Pro and has recently released the 16 ASP. This stereo sound card is a 16-bit board that employs an advanced signal processor to do realtime, on-the-fly compression of digital sound data. With multimedia coming into its own, the demand for processor power is becoming more of a premium, and Creative Labs designed the 16 ASP to be a sleeker, more nimble sound card, especially in the Windows environment.
The Sound Blaster 16 ASP installs easily, but the manual warns that there may be compatibility problems when trying to get the 16-bit addressing to work. The card features a healthy selection of Windows-specific bundled software. The most notable accessories are the Creative WaveStudio and Monologue. Creative WaveStudio is a high-powered wave editor that goes far beyond the tiny Windows Sound Recorder. Monologue is a little Windows application that can read and speak the contents of the Clipboard (and provides powerful capabilities when included within a macro).
The 16 ASP also includes HSC's InterActive, a Windows multimedia authoring program.
Like the Pro, the 16ASP has a CD-ROM interface. The 16 ASP also has an optional Wave Blaster daughter board that uses sophisticated sampling technology to provide nearly flawless MIDI instrument sounds. The basic instrument sounds are created by digital samples that are tweaked to fit the particular MIDI tone (as opposed to a traditional synthesized instrument which is created by a blending of sound waves and filters). The 16 ASP is also GS MIDI compatible.
The 16 ASP records very cleanly and can reach resolutions up to 16 bits at 44 kHz. The ASP compression makes a noticeable difference in the amount of memory the samples gobble up (less than expected), and the sound quality is as good as it gets.
External Sound Devices
While sound cards can be great, installing a card into the computer might not be practical. The slots may be full, or you may wish to use sound with a laptop for presentations. One of the most popular and easiest-to-use external sound products is Disney's Sound Source. This inexpensive external device connects to the computer's parallel port. The Sound Source runs on one nine-volt battery and is extremely lightweight. It features an integrated amplifier and speaker with a front-mounted volume control and a headphone jack. While the Sound Source isn't a sound-recording device, it can play back wave digital files created by other cards through Windows' Sound Recorder application. The Sound Source is compatible with a wide variety of applications and comes with a substantial library of voice clips and sound effects.
AudioMan is an external, Windows-specific sound device from Logitech which allows both playback and recording of Windows' WAV files. The AudioMan contains an integrated speaker and microphone as well as a headphone jack. It also plugs into the computer's parallel port and provides a pass-through connection for the printer. The AudioMan is ruggedly constructed, making it a good choice for on-the-road use. It's powered by either AA batteries or AC current.
Digispeech has recently released its Port-Able Sound external sound device. Port-Able Sound is an external system which is compatible not only with Windows but with internal sound cards such as Sound Blaster Pro and Pro AudioSpectrum. The device plugs into the computer's parallel port and also allows printer data to pass through. The Port-Able Sound device features a built-in microphone and speaker, stereo sound, and both line-in and line-out jacks. The device can record both 8-bit and 16-bit sound. It's powered by either six AA batteries or an included AC adapter.
Media Vision has created the Audio Port, a pint-sized external device that plugs into the computer's parallel port. The Audio Port is a self-contained unit: There are no cables, and its parallel plug, speaker, and amplifier are all contained in a unit just a little bigger than a pack of cards. The unit runs on either four AAA batteries, a six-volt battery eliminator, or an included AC adapter. The card records at 8 bits through its microphone jack and comes with software to allow it to emulate Ad Lib and Sound Blaster.
MA-12 Micro Monitor
Smaller speakers might be all you ever need to generate your PC sound. But if you're a professional, an enthusiast, or someone who just likes your sound loud and rich, take a look at the MA-12 Micro Monitor from Roland. The MA-12 is a self-powered (ten-watt) four-inch speaker system with the capacity to blow you off your desk chair.
The Sound Experience
Sound cards can give your computer the gift of music as well as the gift of gab. Once you've heard what a sound-savvy computer can do, you'll never settle for a mute desk companion again.