How to choose the best sound card. (includes related article) (Compute's Getting Started with Multimedia) (Buyers Guide)
by Heidi E.H. Aycock
If you haven't treated your ears to a sound card yet, you may want to consider buying one during this initial MPC blitz. Four companies have released--or have announced that they will release--new sound adapters specially designed to take advantage of multimedia.
These cards have much in common. They all support digitized speech. They all play stereo music, although some are more stereophonic than others. They all record samples from various sources, such as CD-ROMs and microphones. And they all include a mixer, a device which coordinates audio input from all the different multimedia peripherals you might hook up to your PC.
What sets these cards apart from each other are the technological decisions made by each company. Consider these major differences in each product as a guide for judging sound cards.
Two Chips or One
Two cards sing through the same Yamaha 3812 chip that drove such successful sound adapters as the old Ad Lib and Sound Blaster cards. Creative Labs, maker of the Sound Blaster Pro, and Media Vision, maker of the Pro Audio Spectrum, chose to use the old 3812 in a new way. Both put two chips on eahc sound card. One FM synthesizer chip is associated with the left channel and one with the right. Presto, stereo sound.
The new Yamaha OPLIII chip, a chip heralded by many people as an improvement over the 3812, is used by Ad Lib, maker of the Ad Lib Gold Stereo Sound Adapter, and Video Seven, maker of the Media FX sound card. Both chose to use the new chip because they say it offers more sophisticated sound and better stereo.
The new OPLIII chip has two significant benefits over the old 3812 chip. First, it creates sound with four operators instead of two operators. With more operators, a chip can make more complex sounds. The second advantage to the OPLIII is that the single chip can direct sound to the left, right , and center channels. The 3812 chips must direct output from both sides to create the effect of sound coming from the center. Even though the Sound Blaster Pro and Pro Audio Spectrum have two 3812 chips, they produce half as many voices when the music must sound like it's coming from the center channel. These two differences suggest that Yamaha's new chip will make better music.
However, there are disadvantages to the new chips--and subsequently to the Ad Lib Gold and Media FX boards that rely on them. At the time that the MPC Marketing Council announced the new wave of multimedia hardware and software, a good Yamaha OPLIII was hard to find. By now, however, that problem should be resolved.
Sooner or later you'll want to add a CD-ROM drive to your PC, so the companies releasing these sound cards have included CD-ROM interfaces with their products. Ideally, all of these cards would sport a SCSI interface, making them compatible with just about any Cd-ROM drive on the market. Creative Labs, however, chose to use a proprietary interface that works with only one drive. The Ad Lib Gold 2000 card, the Pro Audio Spectrum, and the Media FX cards include SCSI interfaces.
Each card supports MIDI sound, but only Media FX supports the long-time standard, MPU-401. The value of this support depends on whether your software is only compatible with the MPU-401 standard. Any MPC-compatible software should be able to cooperate with any MIDI standard on any sound card, according to Microsoft.