Soundings. (use of sound in computers)(includes related articles)
by Lamont Wood
Whether it's biff-bam sound effects or a narrator telling you that you just inserted the wrong disk in drive A, sound adds an important new dimension to computer interaction. PC games and tutorials make increasing use of sound, and many require sound cards to achieve their full potential. Although other computers like the Apple IIGS, the Commodore 64, and the Amiga were designed around sound chips, the PC has been justly famous for its tinny little speaker and poor sound reproduction. As a result, an entire industry has grown up around this shortcoming--an industry entering its second generation and enjoying an unexpected boost from the movement to multimedia. Two items typify recent changes in sound: the introduction of inexpensive single-purpose boards for gameplay and the movement to more expensive cards that rival studio-quality synthesizers of only a few years ago. The new sound boards may have input jacks for microphones or recording devices and often (since they're intended for use with games) joystick ports.
The Great Divide
There are several types of computer audio, but the main split is between waveform and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface). Waveform, also called digitized sound, involves encoding and storing sound in digital format by sampling it many times a second. Output can be almost indistinguishable from input. The quality varies according to the sampling rate, which can run from 4,000 to 44,000 times a second. Since these sample rates are so high, even compressed waveform files can be huge, straining even CD-ROMs.
MIDI files, meanwhile, can be dramatically smaller, with bytes representing musical notes rather than fragments of sound waves. However, the MIDI device must be able to synthesize each instrument the music calls for, and a "saxophone" being played by one MIDI device may sound more or less realistic than a "saxophone" on another MIDI device.
Aside from this variability, the main drawback of the MIDI standard is that there's no entirely satisfactory way of producing the human voice with it. Sound boards used for Windows with Multimedia, for instance, are required to offer both MIDI and waveform circuitry so they can provide hardware support for music and speech.
The Electronic Ocarina
For this feature article I looked at PC sound boards from the leading vendors--Creative Labs, Ad Lib, Covox, and ATI. All offer both MIDI and waveform support. The waveform files can sound remarkably life=like, depending on the quality of the speakers being used. (You'll find that large, powered speakers provide better reproduction from any sound card.)
The MIDI files sound about the same, regardless of the card, because the eight-bit cards all use the same basic Yamaha synthesizer chips, which can play 11 instruments at a time. Whether that quality of music is acceptable or exceptional depends entirely on your expectations.
If you're used to beeps and boops from your PC or if you've grown accustomed to the sound quality of Nintendo games, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Yet the music doesn't measure up to your home stereo, unless you've purchased an expensive MIDI synthesizer as your output device.
But even if you find the sound itself similar, nothing else is--software support, auxiliary inputs and outputs, and other options differ greatly from board to board. (Incidentally, because of space limitations, all of the sound boards use 1/8-inch miniature jacks on their ports.) Some offer stereo output, although a MIDI file has to have been recorded in stereo in order to be reproduced in stereo. Some boards offer joystick ports that could also be used to interface to an external MIDI synthesizer for those PC users who are serious about music reproduction.
Creative Labs undoubtedly offers the most diversity. For $849.85 you get not just a sound card but a whole upgrade kit to turn your PC into an MPC (Multimedia PC). This includes a Creative Labs Sound Blaster Pro sound card which also controls an internal CD-ROM drive, Windows with Multimedia on CD, and four other CD titles: Microsoft Bookshelf (don't miss the animated encyclopedia entries), a game, a collection
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of sound effects, and a software sampler. By itself, Sound Blaster Pro sells for $299.95.
The Windows CD includes several utilities geared to the Sound Blaster, including Chatterbox to play waveform files, Jukebox to play MIDI files (although both types can be played by the standard Media Player multimedia utility from Microsoft), and a sound mixer. The CD also has a collection of music files and sound effects you can use with the Multimedia Alarm Clock--the car-crash effect is sure to rouse you.
Other DOS software bundled with the Sound Blaster includes a voice editor that lets you edit waveform files, complete with an oscilloscopelike display that lets you cut and paste; MIDI music composition software; and software to integrate Sound Blaster sound with existing onscreen animations. There's also a voice synthesizer that will read ASCII files aloud. (Predictably, the output can be quite stilted; if, for instance, it encounters a page divider of 60 equal signs, it will pronounce "equal sign" 60 times.)
At the opposite end of the feature spectrum is the Ad Lib MSC (Music Synthesizer Card), which is intended to be plugged in and used by the application software without much user involvement. There are no settings or jumpers or drivers to worry about--you tell your game software to use Ad Lib, and suddenly you have sound.
For $119.95 you get the card itself and a utility called Jukebox that plays music files in Ad Lib's own ROL format. Ad Lib does additionally offer musical composition software called Visual Composer that represents the notes in player-piano format (that is, as holes in a sliding display adjacent to piano keys) rather than in the musical staff. (Visual Composer, bundled with the board, costs $199.95.)
The only outputs on the board are the speaker jack and the volume control--there is no jack provided for microphone input.
As this was being written, Ad Lib was readying its Ad Lib Gold card, a $299.95 package that will offer higher-quality MIDI, stereo output, microphone input jacks, Windows with Multimedia drivers, and other auxiliary features. The Ad Lib Gold Card won't use the standard Yamaha chips. For PC users who are seeking the illusion of being in a concert hall, a Surround Sound add-on module is available to add the appropriate reverb.
To Master Sound
Meanwhile, there's the $229.95 Sound Master II from Covox. It's fully compatible with the Ad Lib card, but it has many more features--as you'd expect from lookig at the price.
The board has two microphone inputs (for powered and unpowered mikes), a joystick/MIDI connector, and a volume control. The unit comes with two small, unpowered speakers; however, if quality sound reproduction is of high importance to you, you would get better-quality sound using almost any set of headphones or powered speakers.
Notable among the provided software is what might be called a voice-command utility. It lets you speak a phrase up to 1 1/2 seconds long into the microphone. You repeat the phrase three times and tell the system that the phrase equals a particular keyboard input. Thereafter, when you say the phrase, your computer will execute the keyboard input. This feature could be used as an attention-getting gimmick at a presentation, allowing you to command your computer to change slides or sum a column of figures just by speaking to it.
Sound Master II also comes with a music composition program called Lyra (which produces staff notation) and a waveform editor. Windows with Multimedia drivers for Sound Master II are reportedly in the works.
Meanwhile, the $199 Stereo F/X card from ATI Technologies offers both Ad Lib and Sound Blaster emulation. The board has stereo input and output jacks, a volume control, and a MIDI/joystick interface. DOS and Windows with Multimedia drivers, MIDI players, waveform editors, and animation synchronization software are provided, but the board isn't shipped with any music composition software as such.
All of these boards will launch you fairly painlessly into the brave new world of PC sound. But sound is a big world, and MIDI constitutes a whole industry unto itself. Before getting involved, you might want to consider the alternatives discussed in the accompanying sidebar.
Whatever sound decision you make, you'll find that many of your action and adventure games--most games now support sound cards--are more enjoyable when you can hear them. And who knows? Once you become familiar with some of the MIDI music-composition software available on the market, you might discover that you or someone else in your family is a budding musical genius.