Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 153 / JUNE 1993 / PAGE 20

Test lab. (sound cards)(includes related articles and glossary) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by Tom Benford, Mike Hudnall

Trumpet fanfare heralds the opening of an application. A synthesized band with wailing guitars and a pounding beat draws your youngster into the latest educational (and highly entertaining) software. An ominous chord and an eerie tremolo from your electronic "orchestra" announce danger in an entertainment package. Thunder, crashes, squeaking doors, and a collection of sound effects worthy of a Hollywood studio enliven software of all sorts. All of these musical marvels are possible, thanks to sound cards.

The beeps and boops of tinny speakers, too long the repertoire of the PC, have given way to the incredibly rich and diverse sounds of today's sound cards in much the same way the Victrola gave way to sophisticated stereo systems or CGA displays gave way to Super VGA. If you've never heard music and sound effects generated by one of these electronic wonders, you're in for a treat. Once you've tried a sound card, you'll never again be satisfied with just a PC speaker. And if the sound card industry maintains its present evolutionary momentum, you'll continue to benefit from more and more features, truer and richer sound, and more value for your money.

While the sound card industry has developed a certain degree of standardization, such as Sound Blaster or Ad Lib compatibility, you'll find a surprising amount of variety--in design, capabilities, prices, and software bundles.

This month Test Lab focuses on ten cards that were chosen because they're likely choices for COMPUTE readers, because they were ready for testing, and because they offer a variety of prices and features. While you may associate sound cards with games or MIDI, one of the cards, the Windows Sound System from Microsoft, targets the business user. An increasing number of productivity applications, such as word processors and presentation packages, take advantage of sound. Sound can entertain and educate, certainly, but it can also make you more productive.

The least expensive card in this month's lineup lists for $129, and the most expensive will run you $429. Take a look at this month's grid of features to see why you'll be spending more for some of these cards than for others. There, you'll find details about everything from the input and output jacks to the synthesizer chip set, the number of synthesizer voices, and the supplied accessories.

Notice in the grid a similarity in terminology to describe slot requirements and sampling rates. Four of the cards require a 16-bit bus slot; the other six can fit into an 8-bit slot. However, six of the cards offer 16-bit sampling rates (in addition to their 8-bit rates), and the other cards offer 8-bit sampling rates. What that means is that cards with 16-bit sampling rates give you access to more sound information than cards with 8-bit sampling rates. Thus, 16-bit sampling rates offer better sound quality than 8-bit rates and also require more hard disk space to store all of that information. The greater amount of sound information with 16-bit sampling becomes apparent, too, when you notice the frequency ranges (listed in kHz) that go with these sampling rates. Simply put, 16-bit sampling at 44 kHz gives you CD-quality audio, while 8-bit sampling gives you the kind of audio you might hear with an inexpensive FM radio.

Seven of the sound cards provide a CD-ROM interface, increasingly important if you plan to take advantage of the growing number of CD-ROM titles, including many specifically developed for multimedia.

Some of the cards offer FM synthesis, some offer wavetable synthesis, and some offer both. If these technologies are foreign to you, take a look at the glossary and at the sidebar comparing these two techniques for synthesizing sounds.

The reviews of these cards also offer insights into sound technologies, as well as detailed information about each card. Each review discusses installation, software, options, and distinctive features.

Finally, you'll find test data. We tested the compatibility of each card using six different programs. More significantly, however, we checked each card for distortion levels and signal-to-noise ratios. The sidebar on methodology details exactly how we tested these cards, and our bar graphs provide the results.

Whether you're looking for an entry-level card or a more sophisticated MIDI-capable device, this month's Test Lab has information you can use to make a sound purchase.


If you're looking for plenty of musical voices, features, capabilities, and expandability, the UltraSound from Advanced Gravis may be the right audio board for you.

This full-length board installs in any 8- or 16-bit expansion slot and uses jumpers to alter any of the default settings, although these settings should work for the majority of installations. The jumper caps on the UltraSound are nifty little items with extended "handles" that make them easier for you to remove and reinsert as required using the fingers alone. Standard jumper caps usually require the assistance of tweezers, needle-nosed pliers, or similar implements to change their position, so this is a nice touch that makes installation a bit easier than usual.

The mounting bracket of the board contains a 15-pin D connector in the middle, which you use for attaching joysticks or the optional MIDI breakout box. Four jacks (two on each side of the D connector) provide audio input and output; the two uppermost jacks provide amplified output and line level output, while the lower two jacks accommodate microphone input and line level audio input.

The UltraSound does not contain an FM synthesizer chip. Instead, it uses a proprietary audio signal processor and wavetable synthesis to produce sounds. The board is capable of 16-bit, 44.1-kHz audio playback and can record 8-bit sound from 2.0 to 44.1 kHz in either mono or stereo. You can add 16-bit recording capability with an optional daughter board. Another daughter board for implementing the CD-ROM interface capabilities is also offered as an optional accessory.

The musical and sound capabilities of the UltraSound are impressive. Its on-board 16-bit synthesizer can generate 32 independent voices; in other words, you can control the volume, the amplitude, and the timbre of each voice independently. Since wavetable synthesis uses software "patches" of sound that can be loaded as desired, the ability to play 32 of these sound patches gives you the flexibility to create any type of orchestral arrangement you want. This capability is sure to find favor with serious computer musicians and MIDI users.

Installation is a bit more involved than with some of the other boards, but since it's highly automated, even novice users should be able to accomplish it without a problem. Function tests check the board's operation and detect any conflicts that may require resetting the board's jumpers; this is a great aid for troubleshooting and correcting any problems that you might encounter in systems heavily laden with installed peripherals.

The review board came equipped with 256K of on-board memory, which you can upgrade to 1MB by adding 128K of DRAM chips, although according to Advanced Gravis's press release, 512K will be the standard complement for retail versions. Adding RAM to the board increases its capacity for storing wavetable patches to increase the number of sounds available in memory.

Included with the UltraSound is a program called UltraSound Studio 8, a full-featured recording studio for playing, recording, mixing, and customizing digital sound files. The package also includes Windows and DOS drivers and recording and playing utilities, as well as a program for synchronizing digitized sound with the AutoDesk Animator FLI-format animations. A program for playing MIDI files and numerous samples of demo music, sequences, and sounds also comes with the package, as well as a set of 192 General MIDI instrument patches. All software comes supplied on 3 1/2-inch low-density (720K) disks, with no mention of the availability of 5 1/4-inch versions.

Sound Blaster and Ad Lib compatibility is provided by running a program called SBOS (Sound Board Operating System). This program tells the UltraSound's CPU to emulate the FM-synthesized sounds, but the resulting sounds are much better than their FM counterparts with respect to realism and clarity.

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Ease of installation and ease of use obviously ranked high on ATI's list of priorities as its engineers set about the task of designing the STEREO F/X-CD audio board. They've succeeded admirably in both areas.

The three-quarter-length card has no jumpers or DIP switches; you configure the card completely through the software, making the installation simply a matter of inserting the card into any available 8- or 16-bit slot and running the installation software. Interrupt 2, 5, or 7 is available for audio use, and you can select either 220 or 240 as the address.

The board uses pin connectors, and there's a cable for routing the PC's speaker sounds through the STEREO F/X-CD. Another channels a CD-ROM drive's audio output through the board. You'll also find a 40-pin interface for Mitsumi and compatible CD-ROM drives.

The backplane mounting bracket houses a 15-pin D connector for attaching joysticks or the optional MIDI connector box. Three jacks handle microphone and line level input and speaker or headphone output. The mounting bracket also contains a rotary knob for controlling volume.

The Yamaha YMF262-M (OPL3) synthesizer chip provides the sonic heart of the board, delivering 20 stereo voices with 8-bit sampling rates up to 44 kHz in monophonic and 22 kHz in stereo.

This board offers full Ad Lib and Sound Blaster compatibility, along with full programming support for software designed to conform with these standards under DOS and Windows.

The accompanying software comes provided on two 5 1/4-inch high-density disks, with no mention of the availability of 3 1/2-inch disks. Universal DOS and Windows drivers are provided, as well as several utilities and sound applications, including WinDAT and DOSDAT, two programs developed by Voyetra Technologies to provide an interface similar to the controls found on a stereo system and high-end tape deck. The DAT portion of these program names stands for Digital Audio Transport; the programs run from Windows and DOS, respectively.

For full, rich sound on applications written for mono FM synthesis, the STEREO F/X-CD has a feature which can add a stereo effect. I was somewhat skeptical of this feature until I actually tried running some mono FM sound samples through the card with and without the Stereo Effect feature active. I must admit that the effect made a noticeable difference in the sound and definitely added some dimension to it.

You'll also find mixer programs for DOS and Windows which permit actively mixing and blending the signals of six different sound sources (FM, Wave, CD audio, PC speaker, line input, and microphone). In addition to controlling the individual volume of each sound source, these mixer applications also regulate the left-to-right balance and overall volume.

In the bundled software, ATI includes a generous selection of MIDI song files and a DOS MIDI player utility.

The ATI STEREO F/X-CD provides a good means of adding stereo FM sound synthesis and audio capabilities at an affordable price. Circle Reader Service Number 372


Aztech Labs packs plenty of desirable features and options into its Sound Galaxy NX PRO sound card.

A three-quarter-length card, the NX PRO requires a 16-bit expansion slot for installation. One of the interesting things about this board is that only Aztech proprietary chips are used for sound generation; the familiar Yamaha OPL2 or OPL3 chips are nowhere to be found on this board. A connector provided on the board routes CD-ROM audio through it, and another connector permits channeling the sound that would ordinarily go to the PC's speaker through the board as well.

The NX PRO boasts two CD-ROM interfaces, both 40-pin, which can accommodate a Panasonic CR-521 or CR-522 or a Mitsumi LU005S CD-ROM drive. An optional Future Domain SCSI upgrade kit (a Future Domain SCSI controller chip and device driver software) costs $30 and adds SCSI capability to the sound board.

The card's backplane mounting bracket holds three jacks used for microphone input, line input, and speaker or headphone output. There's a volume wheel between the speaker and the microphone input jack and a 15-pin D connector used for attaching a joystick or the optional MIDI cable.

To install the NX PRO, you simply insert the board into any available 16-bit slot and start the software installation process. The installation software and the other software come supplied on 3 1/2-inch disks only, and I could find no mention in the manual or other supplied material of the availability of 5 1/4-inch disks. That's too bad, because the package is exceptionally complete in other respects.

In addition to the NX PRO sound card and the installation software, an RCA patch cable and a pair of miniature Walkman-style speakers are provided, along with a cable for routing the PC speaker's output through the board.

The real bonus is the software that comes with the hardware. You get First Byte's Monologue text-to-speech synthesizer; Voyetra's WinDAT waveform editor for Windows; SoundScript, a multimedia authoring program; and Galaxy Master, a digital recording and playback program. Another utility program called Jukebox permits you to create playlists and play sound files, and CD Player serves as a CD-audio control panel. Another disk, called Sound Tracks, is a collection of song files, and still another disk contains Windows 3.1 drivers. There's certainly no lack of software here.

Of all the sound cards covered in this issue, the NX PRO undoubtedly offers the widest spectrum of compatibility. This stereo board supports four sound standards: Ad Lib, Sound Blaster Pro 2.0, Covox Speech Thing, and even the Disney Sound Source. During the review I ran several software titles which use sound, including Dune, King's Quest VI, Operation Neptune, Zoo Keeper, and Out of This World. I encountered no compatibility or audio playback problems.

The Sound Galaxy NX PRO provides good stereo sound quality, exceptional compatibility, a nice selection of features, and good upgrade and expansion potential.


One of the first audio cards on the scene for PCs, the original Sound Blaster from Creative Labs set the industry standard for sound. Creative Labs has continued to refine and improve the Sound Blaster, so it's an oldie but a goodie.

As the Sound Blaster has evolved over the years, its physical form has changed as well. The original Sound Blaster, a three-quarter-length card, contained lots of discrete components; the new Sound Blaster Deluxe, now only half-length, uses plenty of large-scale integration to reduce the number of components required. The board will install in any available 8-bit slot.

Creative Labs has added a one-eighth-inch jack on the backplane of the board, increasing the total number of jacks to 3 (from 2 on the earlier Sound Blaster versions). This additional input jack accommodates line input, whereas line and microphone input shared the same jack in the past. There's also a line output jack, a manual volume wheel, and a 15-pin D connector for attaching a joystick. This connector doubles as an attachment point for an optional MIDI Connector Box so that you can use a MIDI keyboard or instrument with the Sound Blaster. The Sound Blaster Deluxe does not provide a built-in CD-ROM interface, however.

The Sound Blaster Deluxe comes preconfigured to use I/O address 220, IRQ 7, and DMA channel 1; these default settings will work with most systems, although there are some instances when IRQ 5 may be more desirable (LPT1 is usually assigned to IRQ 7, and this might be troublesome in some systems). You change any of these default values by relocating the jumpers over the desired pair of pins to correspond with your choice.

Once you've completed the physical installation, all that remains is to run the automated installation application provided on the two high-density 3 1/2-inch disks supplied; one contains the DOS programs, and the other contains Windows drivers and programs. A format-request card lets you receive low-density 3 1/2-inch disks or either low- or high-density 5 1/4-inch disks. Your only cost for the optional-size media: the price of a stamp to mail the card back to Creative Labs.

During the review I installed the Sound Blaster Deluxe in a 486DX/50 PC, and the DOS portion of the installation proceeded without a hitch. The software correctly found the card; identified the IRO, I/O, and DMA settings; and successfully played the provided sound test files. I ran several DOS-based games with the Sound Blaster Deluxe, and everything worked just fine.

Windows, however, was another matter. Running the Winsetup.exe program from within Windows produced an error message telling me that the Sound Blaster Deluxe environment wasn't set (even though it had been from the DOS installation) and refusing to let me proceed any further.

To get around the problem, I tried installing the drivers from the Add Drivers section in the Windows control panel. I managed to install the Sound Blaster Deluxe MIDI Synthesizer and Sound Blaster Deluxe Wave and MIDI drivers; I was not, however, able to get them to work. Upon loading Windows I heard a distinct "click" sound from the speakers but no opening Windows sound (the default "tada" sound). Looking in the control panel section under Sounds, I found that all of the sound file names were ghosted out, signifying that Windows wasn't recognizing the Sound Blaster Deluxe.

I called Creative Labs' tech support department and waited only about six or seven minutes in the holding queue before a technician picked up my call. After double-checking my settings and asking me a few questions about my system, the tech support person told me that there were some known problems with the Deluxe drivers when used with high-speed 486 systems. I was advised to use the Sound Blaster 1.5 drivers included on the Windows system disks to get me up and running until a set of updated Deluxe drivers arrived via Federal Express the next day.

Time being of the essence, I decided to turn off both the internal and external caching on my 486DX/50 system to see if that would help. Presto--with the caching disabled, I could load and use the Sound Blaster Deluxe drivers without further incident or problems. Since my motherboard does not support dual speeds, disabling the caching apparently slowed the system down enough for the 8-bit Sound Blaster board to be recognized. When the new drivers did arrive, I still found it necessary to keep the on-board caching disabled in order for them to work correctly.

Like earlier Sound Blasters, the Sound Blaster Deluxe is an inexpensive audio product that delivers good performance and has industrywide software support. Circle Reader Service Number 374


Creative Labs has taken the basic features of its Sound Blaster Pro card and added its ASP (Advanced Signal Processing) technology to produce true 16-bit stereophonic recording and playback while maintaining full compatibility with software designed to run on the original Sound Blaster and Ad Lib sound boards.

The 20-voice FM synthesizer capabilities of the Yamaha YMF262-M (OPL3) chip combine with lots of highly integrated components and several of Creative Labs' proprietary chips to deliver the best of both the FM synthesis and digital audio technologies.

This three-quarter-length card requires a 16-bit expansion slot for installation. A wheel mounted on the board's backplane bracket controls volume. There you'll also find jacks for microphone input, line level input, and speaker or headphone output. Creative Labs supplies a high-quality dynamic microphone and a miniphone-to-RCA patch cable. A 15-pin D connector for attaching joysticks or the optional MIDI breakout box also resides on the mounting bracket.

As with the other better-quality sound cards covered here, the 16 ASP provides several connectors for channeling various sound elements through the board for recording, playback, mixing, or integrating. Connector pins are provided for routing the sound of the PC's internal speaker and CD audio through the 16 ASP. The board also includes a CD-ROM interface that supports internal CD-ROM drives from Creative Labs or Panasonic drive models CR-521 and CR-523. For attaching the optional Wave Blaster daughter board, there's a pin connector.

The Wave Blaster daughter board endows the 16 ASP with 32-voice, multitimbral stereo sound using E-mu Systems' sampled wavetable synthesis technology. If you're interested in exploiting the musical and MIDI capabilities of this board, you should also consider buying the Wave Blaster Upgrade option.

The Sound Blaster 16 ASP comes with plenty of software. The assortment includes Creative Wavestudio, a Windows-based wave editor that supports editing multiple sound files simultaneously. Creative Soundo'le, an object-linking recording and playback utility, is also included, along with Creative Mosaic, a tile-matching game with bit-mapped graphics and, of course, sound effects. The Creative Talking Scheduler helps you keep up with your calendar and appointments by giving you voice-annotated reminders.

Other bundled software consists of HSC's Interactive, a multimedia presentation-authoring, icon-animating, and image-enhancing package; PC Animate Plus, an animation creation program; and Monologue for Windows, a text-to-speech utility.

Several of the standard software offerings from Creative Labs also come with the Sound Blaster 16 ASP, including SBTalker with Dr. Sbaitso, FM Intelligent Organ, SBMIDI (MIDI file driver), SBSIM (Sound Blaster Standard Interface Module), MMPLAY (multimedia presenter), and DOS and Windows 3.1 software drivers. Creative Labs supplies the software on 3 1/2-inch high-density disks, but a format-request card makes getting low-density 3 1/2-inch or low- or high-density 5 1/4-inch disks as simple as affixing a stamp, filling in your name, address, and other pertinent information, and dropping the card into a mailbox.

The Sound Blaster 16 ASP proves that you can make a good thing better by constantly improving it with the latest technological advances.

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Media Vision's Pro AudioSpectrum 16 audio board has been around for some time now, but additional features and software utilities that the manufacturer now provides with the hardware keep this 16-bit stereo sound card current for today's more demanding audio applications.

A three-quarter-length board, the PAS 16 requires a 16-bit expansion slot for mounting. Three one-eighth-inch jacks on the board's mounting bracket accommodate microphone input, stereo line input, and stereo line output. A 15-pin D connector on the mounting bracket connects the optional MIDI Mate or an external SCSI cable kit.

The board also has a standard 50-pin SCSI interface connector for attaching a ribbon cable, as well as a 5-pin connector for routing CD audio through the board. There's also a 4-pin connector for channeling the PC's system beeps through the board instead of through the computer's speaker (appropriate cables for making these connections are available as options). The board's mounting bracket doesn't contain a manual volume control wheel or knob because you adjust the volume via the software rather than through hardware.

Installing the board involves inserting it in a suitable expansion slot and putting the PC back together again; there are no jumpers or DIP switches to set, making this one of the easiest boards to install.

You should find the software installation for both DOS and Windows almost as easy as the hardware portion. Default IRQ, DMA, and port settings; subdirectory options; and installation options will work just fine with the majority of installations. However, you're given the opportunity to override the defaults if you so desire. A particularly nice feature is the automatic IRQ and DMA conflict testing, which alerts you to the possibility of a conflict and even tells you how to resolve it.

Running the Setup.exe program from within Windows will configure the board, load the appropriate drivers, create a program group, and install the audio applications in that group. The PAS 16 package includes four applications. Pocket Recorder, a simple recording and playback program, offers surprisingly good editing and effects features. Pocket Mixer, a simplified audio mixing console, uses an analog representation of dials to make adjustments. Pocket CD is a CD-audio player utility (this works only if you have a CD-ROM drive installed). Pro Mixer, a ten-control mixer, uses "sliders" to increase or decrease recording or playback volumes from all of the audio components. The ten sliders are labeled SYNTH, REC, AUX, CD, MIC, WAVE, SPKR, BLSTR, Master, and Record.

The DOS utilities provided include Stereo Studio F/X, a recording, playback, and editing package; SP Spectrum, a MIDI sequencer program; a DOS mixer; TrakBlaster Pro, a four-track music studio; Audio Mate, a DOS-based multimedia presentation package; and Monologue, a text-to-speech synthesizer.

One of the more noteworthy improvements to the software is Media Vision's new virtual device driver for Windows, which allows Windows and DOS software applications to share the PAS 16 hardware without the conflicts that frequently cause applications to crash. This feature allows you to run DOS applications (such as games) through a DOS window and still have full access to the sound card from both the DOS application and Windows.

With the ability to record and play back sound at a sampling rate of up to 44.1 kHz, this board is capable of CD-quality audio. Media Vision's Pro AudioSpectrum 16 remains a highly desirable product for adding sound to your system.

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If you're looking for an inexpensive way to get into the world of sound and audio for both DOS and Windows applications, the Media Vision Thunder Board merits a close look.

The Thunder Board, a half-length card, installs easily into any available 8-bit expansion slot in the PC. The board uses a bank of four jumpers for changing the default IRQ setting, as well as a six-position DIP switch to select addresses, activate or deactivate the Joystick port, enable or disable FM synthesis, and other functions.

The board's mounting bracket contains a volume wheel, a pair of one-eighth-inch jacks (one for input and one for output), and a 15-pin D connector for attaching a joystick. External MIDI functions are not supported by the Thunder Board, nor does it have a CD-ROM interface.

While it may lack these expanded capabilities, the Thunder Board does have all of the basic elements that most users interested in adding sound to their computing will want. It uses a Yamaha 3812 (OPL2) synthesizer chip to produce 11-voice FM music synthesis, and it's capable of recording and playing back 8-bit sounds up to 22 kHz. The Thunder Board's microphone input circuit also has AGC (Automatic Gain Control) to provide smooth recording at the proper volume level with minimal distortion.

You install the Thunder Board from DOS using an automated installation program that creates a subdirectory on the hard drive and copies over a series of files. The package includes both 3 1/2-inch and 5 1/4-inch disks, a practice that I like.

During installation, the software checks to determine the card's address and IRQ settings, and a test tone helps you adjust the volume. The entire process takes only a few minutes and, like the Thunder Board itself, is efficient without frills.

Included in the Thunder Board package you'll find a series of DOS-based utilities, which are copied to the THUNDER subdirectory during the installation process. The Recfile.exe program records sound files, and as you might guess, the Playfile.exe program plays them back. A Setvol.exe program produces an audible tone so you can manually adjust the volume (using the volume wheel on the board's mounting bracket) to a suitable level. A diagnostic program called Tbtest.exe determines the board's hardware settings and will optionally also play the test tone for checking volume.

The Thunder Board packs plenty of free software samplers in the package. A full working copy of MicroProse's F-15 Strike Eagle II is supplied, along with a complete 96-page user manual for the game. In addition, sampler editions of the following games are also provided: Nova 9 (the sequel to Stellar 7), Lemmings, LexiCross, Rex Nebular, and Goblins. If you're into games, the software included justifies the purchase price of the board alone.

Media Vision's Thunder Board is an good entry-level sound card that will appeal to gamesters and others who want to add sound to their applications without breaking the bank.

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The Microsoft Windows Sound System, as its name clearly indicates, is designed for Windows only, and it targets the business computer user.

Look at the board closely, and you'll see that its physical configuration departs from the norm with regard to its components. A half-length unit, the Windows Sound System has both a Yamaha YMF262-M FM synthesizer and an Analog Devices CODEC digital sound processor as sound-generation sources.

The metal mounting bracket of the board contains three jacks to accommodate line input, microphone input, and headphone or speaker output. Two RCA jacks route the board's line output to another location; the only things you need are standard audio cables.

Along with 5 1/4-inch and 3 1/2-inch high-density software disks, you get a form for requesting 3 1/2-inch low-density (720K) disks. A decent pair of lightweight stereo headphones and a microphone also come with the Windows Sound System package, so you're ready to record, play back, and use sounds as soon as you complete the installation.

Installing the Windows Sound System consists of inserting the sound board into any available 8- or 16-bit expansion slot. A 16-bit slot, however, provides the best flexibility for the hardware configuration, because with a 16-bit slot you have additional addresses and IRQ lines to avoid conflicts in systems with plenty of peripherals. Jumpers on the card allow you to change the default address of 530, although this I/O address should work without a problem in most systems.

You can install the software from either DOS or Windows; the only difference is that the DOS installation starts Windows first, a step not required if you launch the setup from within Windows itself.

The Windows Sound System setup automatically starts when Windows is rebooted. First, the sound test checks the proper operation of the board and helps you troubleshoot any problems. If everything checks out as it should, the software installation can proceed. If changes are required to resolve conflicts, an installation option permits modifying the settings for the board prior to installing the software.

The setup program installs Volume Control, Recording Control, SoundScapes, and Sound Control Panel in the Windows Control Panel, since these are required as system sound software elements. The setup program also creates a Windows Sound System program group and installs the system sound software icons and other applications in this group as well. The Proofreader application is installed with a Proof menu in Microsoft Excel or Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows if selected as an option during the installation process.

In addition to creating annotated voice files which can be embedded and linked into word-processing documents, spreadsheets, and other Windows applications, the Windows Sound System offers an innovative feature--voice recognition capabilities. The supplied voice recognition application, called Voice Pilot, enables you to execute commands by voice using the microphone that comes with the Windows Sound System.

With Voice Pilot, it's possible to navigate through the Windows operating system and 15 popular Windows-based applications via limited voice recognition. You can issue menu commands, including system commands such as "next window," or commands in a word-processing document, such as "Cut" and "Paste." Voice Pilot can also control customized commands, such as using a standard closing or boilerplate, which will insert predefined standard text into a document upon a spoken command.

The voice recognition is surprisingly accurate, and while I found that Voice Pilot understood my speech without a problem, you can also use a training mode to adapt it to different accents, pronunciations, or dialects.

If you're a game enthusiast, take note. While the lab was unable to test the Windows Sound System for Ad Lib or Sound Blaster compatibility because the test unit did not have these capabilities at the time of testing, Microsoft now provides Ad Lib compatibility and Sound Blaster compatibility, according Microsoft representatives.

Business users will find the Windows Sound System to be a most useful add-on that really enhances the power and dimension of computing under Windows 3.1.

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Omnilabs has taken a modular approach with its AudioMaster sound board, offering special enhancements and capabilities as accessory modules which attach to the sound board.

The almost-full-length board requires a single 16-bit expansion slot for installation, even with an optional daughter board (such as the FM Synthesizer Module) installed on the main AudioMaster unit. The board's backplane bracket provides a home for three jacks: one for line output, one for auxiliary input, and one for microphone input. A standard 15-pin D connector can attach one or two joysticks or the optional MIDI breakout box accessory ($69.95).

A variety of CD-ROM interface accessory modules ($69.95-$79.95) permit adding an internal CD-ROM drive and routing its audio through the AudioMaster. Kits are available for generic SCSI CD-ROM drives, for the Sony SLCD drive, for the Sony 531 and 525 drives, for Mitsumi CD drives, for Matsushita or Panasonic drives, and for Philips and LMSI (Philips manufactured) CD-ROM drives. The necessary driver software, ribbon interface cables, and audio output cables come with each of these kits. These kits are intended for use only with internal drives.

Technologically, the Audio Master differs a great deal from other sound cards. It has its own 32-bit Motorola 68008 CPU complete with an operating system and RAM as integral components of the board. This board uses wavetable lookup synthesizer technology rather than chip-based FM sound and music synthesis. This gives the AudioMaster an impressive range of 24 polyphonic channels which are fully independently controlled via MIDI commands. You get 128 instrument sounds, and 24 different timbres (or voices) can be played simultaneously, so you can virtually duplicate the instrument ensemble of a decent-sized orchestra. The excellent quality of the instrument sounds is equivalent to that of a high-end music synthesizer keyboard.

Since the AudioMaster uses wavetable technology it isn't compatible with software designed to support Ad Lib or Sound Blaster sound standards unless you add the optional FM Synthesizer Module daughter board ($69.95). This small board snaps into a connector on the main board and contains a Yamaha 3212 (OPL2) chip, which enables the Audio Master to play FM-synthesized sounds and music. Sound Blaster speech functions, however, are not supported, even with the FM accessory module installed.

The Audiomaster's 128-instrument-sound wavetables are stored in its 384K of on-board memory. The RAM Expansion Module daughter board accessory ($99.95) adds another 1152K of memory, allowing more sophisticated and comprehensive wavetables to be stored and used. You also get a disk of enhanced instrument files with the module, which snaps into two connector receptacles on the AudioMaster board.

An RCA-to-miniphone audio cable and a good dynamic microphone come with the package, along with 3 1/2-inch disks, an excellent user's guide, an equally excellent music application software manual, and an accessory catalog. The software bundled with the Audio Master includes a digital audio recorder, a mixing studio, a CD-music player, and MIDI jukebox applications for Windows, as well as numerous sound clips and Monologue text-to-speech software. DOS applications include Band-in-a-Box (an automated music composer), 2-Part Music Tutor, Sequencer Plus Jr., Multimedia Control Center, Command-Line Multimedia Player, and recorder, mixer, jukebox, and CD-music player programs.

If you're seriously interested in exploiting the sound capabilities of wavetable synthesis and the power of MIDI as a control medium, along with excellent CD-quality audio recording and playback capability, the AudioMaster is a product that deserves your attention.

Circle Reader Service Number 379.


The Sigma Designs WinStorm gives you full 16-bit audio and 24-bit true color SVGA video, along with joystick, MIDI, and SCSI interfacing capabilities, all on a single card.

The three-quarter-length WinStorm board is densely populated with highly integrated components. The board's mounting bracket contains a 15-pin D connector for attaching a color monitor, along with three jacks for microphone input, line input, and headphone or speaker output; no manual volume control is provided. In addition to a 16-bit expansion slot for installation, you'll require a second access slot in the PC's case to receive the mounting bracket which contains the 15-pin D connector for attaching a joystick (this connector doubles as the MIDI I/O connector and attaches via a ribbon cable to the board).

The WinStorm's video is excellent, providing 24-bit true color (16.8 million colors) and SVGA modes up to 1024 x 768 with 256 colors. The board also features fast vertical refresh rates and VESA BIOS compatibility, which means that any modes supported under the VESA specification work correctly with this board. A MultiMode Control Panel application allows instant resolution switching via software under Windows, a very novel and handy capability. For popular applications such as AutoCAD and others, the package provides a number of DOS video drivers.

The WinStorm is certainly no slouch when it comes to audio capabilities. It has a Yamaha YMF262 (OPL3) 20-voice stereo synthesizer chip as its sound source, which also endows the board with full Ad Lib and Sound Blaster compatibility. Since the audio chip set used on the WinStorm comes from Media Vision, the board is also fully compatible with the Thunder Board and Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum 16 sound standards.

This board uses jumpers for enabling or disabling functions (for example, VGA on and off), altering default settings (such as IRQ), and other variables, although the defaults will prove satisfactory for most installations. Several pin connectors on the board attach various cables. One routes the PC's sound through the board, and another channels the CD-ROM drive's audio through it as well. Another 4-pin block attaches external audio sources, and there's also a 50-pin SCSI connection, in addition to the connector for attaching the joystick or MIDI ribbon cable noted earlier.

All of the WinStorm software comes supplied on high-density (1.44MB) 3 1/2-inch disks; I found no mention of the availability of 5 1/4-inch disks on or in the package. Of the nine disks provided, three contain Windows drivers, OS/2 2.0 drivers, DOS drivers, and utilities.

Additional software exploits the sound and multimedia capabilities of the WinStorm card. Animotion's MCS MusicRack, a Windows-based utility, allows you to control multimedia hardware with an interface resembling a home stereo. You also get Midisoft's Multimedia Music Library, a collection of MIDI music and sounds. Multimedia Make Your Point, a Windows-based presentation application from Asymetrix, completes the assortment of bundled software.

Sigma Designs' WinStorm is a good, cost-effective means of adding high-resolution video, 16-bit audio, and other multimedia features, all in one product.

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decibel. A measure of sound intensity. One decibel is the smallest unit of sound that the human ear can hear.

8-bit/16-bit sound. This refers to the dynamic range of the sampled sound, with 16-bit having double the amount of sound data of 8-bit sound. While 8-bit sound provides 48 dB of dynamic range, 16-bit increases the range to 96 dB, or double that of 8-bit. Since more sound information is involved, 16-bit sound requires more memory and more disk space for storing the sounds than 8-bit sound does, but it provides much better quality.

FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesizer chip. A chip with predefined circuits that generate sound waves. To synthesize different sounds, one fixed waveform modulates (adjusts the characteristics of) another. The resultant waveform can have harmonics (tonal quality) better than those of either of the two waveforms used to create it. By varying the modulation and adding more waveforms to the mix, you can approximate the sounds of musical instruments. The Yamaha YM3812 and YMF262 are the two most commonly used FM synthesizer chips.

harmonic distortion. The "overtones" produced as byproducts of generating the original signal. These are naturally occurring signals that are generally multiples of the original signal. Unfortunately, the harmonics can degrade the original quality of the signal. The greater the number, the lower the quality.

line level input/output. A line level signal is typically put out by audio components which do not require preamplification (CD and cassette players, for example), Line level signals are based roughly on the signal intensity sent over a telephone line.

MIDI breakout box. An assembly which usually attaches to the 15-pin joystick connector on an audio card to provide additional input and output connectors. The breakout box usually provides MIDI in, MIDI out, and MIDI thru connections for attaching external MIDI devices such as keyboards and drum machines. A connector for attaching a joystick is also usually provided on the breakout box.

patch. A sound data file used for loading desired sound libraries (data about a particular sound) into the sound card's memory. Patch files are usually used with wavetable and MIDI devices.

sample. The first step required to convert an analog signal into a digital representation. The analog sound is measured at regular intervals called samples. These measurement values are then encoded to provide a digital representation of the analog signal.

signal-to-noise ratio. This number represents the strength ratio of the desired signal (for example, music) to that of the extraneous noise present (for example, background hiss). The higher the number, the cleaner the sound will be. The signal (music) is measured at full volume. whereas the noise (hiss) is measured when no signal is present (during silence). In addition to hiss, noise can also include the whine of the computer or any other undesirable noise which is not a part of the signal itself.

timbre. Also called tonal color or musical quality, this term refers to the sound characteristics that allow us to differentiate one sound from another, the qualities that make sounds unique. For example, timbre is what makes a saxophone sound like a sax instead of a guitar.


The lab tested all of the sound boards on the same PC system. This system included an 1486DX/50 motherboard with 256K external caching and 8MB RAM, 1.2MB and 1.44MB floppy drives, a 213MB hard drive, one parallel port, two serial ports, a Microsoft serial mouse, a Renoir NT SVGA Windows Accelerator 1MB video adapter, and a multiscan SVGA monitor.

The system components were mounted in a minitower case with a regulated and calibrated 200-watt power supply, provided courtesy of General Technics, Ronkonkoma, New York.

Lab technicians installed all of the sound boards using the supplied software installation utilities and the manufacturers' default jumper, I/0, address, and DMA settings.

The test results appearing in the bar graphs are relative performance comparisons that are based on proprietary CPTS test files.

We used a Leader instruments LAG-126 Audio Signal Generator to generate signal sound files. The 1-kHz and 10-kHz files offer a testing range easily heard by the human ear and supported by each of the boards. A Leader Instruments LDM-171 Distortion Meter provided distortion and signal-to-noise measurements. The LAG-126 and LDM-171 were provided courtesy of Leader Instruments, Hauppauge, New York.

The sine waveforms and characteristics of the test signals were checked using a Gage Compu-Scope Lite 64K oscilloscope board and Gage Scope Digital Oscilloscope software, which we installed in the test system. The board and software were provided courtesy of Gage Applied Sciences, Montreal, Canada.

We ran the CPTS proprietary audio test files from within Windows 3.1 using Voyetra Technologies' Audio-View software. Distortion and signal-to-noise readings were taken from each board's headphone or speaker output using both the I-kHz and 10-kHz test files.

We tested each sound board's Ad Lib, Sound Blaster, and Disney Sound Source compatibility using Spectrum, HoloByte's Falcon 3.0, Davidson's Zoo keeper, The Learning Company's Operation Nepture, Sierra On-Line's King's Quest VI, Interplay Productions' Out of This World, and Virgin Games'Dune.

Joseph Fisher, product manager at Leader Instruments, provided technical assistance in calibrating and setting up the LAG-126 and LDM-171 Distortion Meter.