Open Windows to sound. (Multimedia PC)(includes glossary and related articles) (Column)
by David English
You wouldn't watch TV with the sound turned off, yet most of us have the sound turned off in Windows. Granted, Windows isn't yet an all-talking, all-dancing, all-singing kind of operating system, but there's a lot you can do with Windows and a half-decent sound card. Over the next few pages, we'll explore what kind of hardware you'll need in order to add sound to Windows, which kinds of audio Windows can work with, and which software lets you create and manipulate this audio.
All in the Cards
Before we talk about the wonderful things you can do with Windows and sound, we need to discuss what kind of hardware you'll need. The quick answer is a sound card and a pair of speakers. The sound card can be either an 8-bit or a 16-bit card (or one of the in-between 12-bit cards), though 16-bit cards are inexpensive enough that I wouldn't recommend anything else these days.
When you hear people talk about 8-bit and 16-bit sound cards, they're not talking about cards that require an 8-bit or 16-bit bus. They're talking about the sampling rate of the card. A 16-bit card can theoretically sound as good as an audio-CD player (theoretically, because electrical interference from the motherboard and adjacent cards can degrade the sound). With its lower sampling rate, an 8-bit card will have more inherent noise and won't be capable of reproducing the high frequencies that a 16-bit card can handle. In other words, a 16-bit card can sound as good as the CD player in your home stereo system, while an 8-bit card can sound only as good as an inexpensive FM radio.
The sampling portion of a sound card uses a DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) and an ADC (Analog-to-Digital Converter). This provides the Sound Blaster compatibility. Most cards include Sound Blaster compatibility so you can play the wide variety of DOS games that use it for realistic music, voice, and sound effects. Most cards also include an FM-synthesis chip (usually Yamaha's OPL2 or OPL3) for Ad Lib compatibility. This allows a sound card to play back the computer-sounding music and sound effects that DOS games have been using since the middle 1980s.
Microsoft's specifications for Windows audio include the 8-bit DAC and ADC of the Sound Blaster and the FM synthesis of the Ad Lib card as a minimum standard. Most sound cards designed specifically for Windows also support the Sound Blaster and Ad Lib standards for DOS games, though some don't. A few cards, such as Turtle Beach's MultiSound and Microsoft's Windows Sound System, will soon offer DOS game compatibility through a small TSR program that you'll load when you boot your system.
Many sound cards significantly improve on the FM synthesis portion of the card by offering General MIDI, either built in or as an optional chip set. General MIDI uses the actual sounds, usually stored in ROM, to re-create musical instruments. When an FM chip creates a trumpet, it approximates the sound mathematically. When a General MIDI device creates a trumpet, it calls up the actual wave information based on the recording of a real trumpet. Most of today's professional synthesizers use this same technology to create musical instruments that are virtually indistinguishable from the originals.
General MIDI brings this highly realistic sound to inexpensive consumer products, such as computer sound cards. By 1994, the majority of sound cards should have General MIDI built in. Yamaha has even announced a new version of the FM chip, called the OPL4, that includes General MIDI.
For a preview of just how good General MIDI can sound in a computer program, check out the best-selling CD-ROM game, The 7th Guest. When installed with a General MIDI device, its music sounds like a fully orchestrated movie score.
If your present sound card doesn't have General MIDI or offer it as an add-on, don't worry. Most sound cards offer a MIDI interface that can hook up to an external General MIDI device, such as Roland's Sound Canvas ($399-$895), Yamaha's TG100 ($449), and Yamaha's Hello Music! ($449).
So you've bought a great-sounding 16-bit sound card and maybe even have General MIDI. Now what? If you're like most of us, you'll scrimp on the speakers, possibly hooking up an old pair lying around the house. You can do that, of course, but you should consider investing in a pair of powered speakers that are magnetically shielded. You'll want powered speakers because the two- to four-watt amplifier on most sound cards just doesn't give you much volume. In fact, you can barely hear your sound card with many small speakers. Some cards also provide a separate output that completely bypasses the often-inferior built-in amplifier. You'll want magnetically shielded speakers because the magnets in your speakers can permanently scramble the data on disks you place on or even near them, as well as temporarily distort the image on your speakers you place your speakers beside it.
How much should you pay for a pair of powered speakers that are magnetically shielded? They start at about $40 for the least expensive pairs from companies such as Koss and Labtech. Yamaha (714-522-9011) makes an excellent pair for $149, called the YST-M10. For top-of-the-line sound, check out the Altec Lansing Multimedia ACS-300 (Altec Lansing Consumer Products, 800-258-3280, $400 a pair) and the Power Partner 570 (Acoustic Research, 800-969-2748, $475 a pair). The Yamaha, Altec, and Acoustic Research speakers sound so good that you may also want to use them with your CD player or Walkman.
The Sound and the Fury
Now that you have an idea of the hardware you'll need, let's look at the kinds of sound Windows can produce. Windows 3.1 supports two major categories of sound: waveform audio and MIDI audio. Waveform audio is recorded sound that's usually stored in files with the WAV extension. Once you associate these files with a program that can play WAV files, such as Windows' Media Player (MPLAYER.EXE) or Sound Recorder (SOUNDREC.EXE), you can simply load up Windows' File Manager, double-click on a WAV file, and hear the sound. Many Windows games and multimedia CD-ROMs use WAV files, so you can give them a listen, copy the ones you like, and alter the sounds using one of the sound-editing programs that we'll look at later in this article.
While MIDI files can play music, much like WAV files, they have a radically different structure--which gives them both advantages and disadvantages. Instead of storing the actual sound, MIDI files contain the control commands for a MIDI-controlled musical instrument. These control commands consist mainly of note-on, note-off, pitch-change, instrument-change, and volume information. Because a MIDI file stores only the bare essentials of a musical performance, the music in a MIDI file can take as little as 1/100 the space on your hard drive that music of the same quality would take in a WAV file. On the other hand, because a MIDI file contains only control commands, it's highly dependent on the quality and availability of a MIDI device. WAV files sound essentially the same with any sound card, while MIDI files can vary dramatically according to the quality of the MIDI-based musical instrument. In addition, WAV files can store any kind of sound, whether it's instrumental music, narration, or sound effects (essentially whatever you can record with a microphone). MIDI files can reproduce only the kinds of sounds that the accompanying MIDI device is capable of reproducing (usually 128 or more specific instrument sounds).
As if that weren't confusing enough, Windows Jazz: A Multimedia History, The New Grolier Multimedia Ency-clopedia, and hundreds of other Win-dows-based multimedia applications. You'll be ab-le to capture and play back software-based video files using Video for Windows and QuickTime for Windows. And you'll be able to add audio to your presentations, with programs such as Action! and Compel.
Second, you can add sounds to your various Windows system events. While it's true that this isn't really a serious use of sound, that's the point--to have some fun. It's a way to personalize your computing environment. For instance, I use the computer sound effects from "Star Trek: The Next Generation" for my system sounds. They're short and unobtrusive, and they create a high-tech mood. In the past, I've used HAL 9000 recordings from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey ("Human error" for an error message and "I'm completely operational, and all my circuits are functioning perfectly" for a Windows startup sound). Sound Source Unlimited (800-877-4778) sells collections of sounds from both the original "Star Trek" and "Next Generation", as well as a collection of sounds from 2001 ($59.95 each). Micro-soft (206-882-8080) offers similar collections of movie, cartoon, and musical instrument sounds, called Sound-Bits ($39.95 each).
The third thing you can do with Windows audio is to manipulate sound files. In fact, with a capable 16-bit sound card and sound-editing program, you'll have the makings of a near-studio-quality digital editing system. I'm not exaggerating, either; we're talking about high-quality stereo recording direct to your hard drive, with cut-and-paste editing and nondestructive digital effects, such as echo, reverb, flange, fade, reverse, volume, and pan. Sound-editing packages such as Wave for Windows 2.0 (Turtle Beach, 717-843-6916, $149) and Sound Forge 2.0 (Sonic Foundry, 608-256-3133, $179) let you alter sounds in ways that completely operational, and all my circuits are functioning perfectly" for a Windows startup sound). Sound Source Unlimited (800-877-4778) sells collections of sounds from both the original "Star Trek" and "Next Generation", as well as a collection of sounds from 2001 ($59.95 each). Microsoft (206-882-8080) offers similar collections of movie, cartoon, and musical instrument sounds, called Sound-Bits ($39.95 each).
The third thing you can do with Windows audio is to manipulate sound files. In fact, with a capable 16-bit sound card and sound-editing program, you'll have the makings of a near-studio-quality digital editing system. I'm not exaggerating, either; we're talking about high-quality stereo recording direct to your hard drive, with cut-and-paste editing and nondestructive digital effects, such as echo, reverb, flange, fade, reverse, volume, and pan. Sound-editing packages such as Wave for Windows 2.0 (Turtle Beach, 717-843-6916, $149) and Sound Forge 2.0 (Sonic Foundry, 608-256-3133, $179) let you alter sounds in ways that recording studios would have killed for just 10 or 15 years ago. Turtle Beach also offers an excellent introductory sound package for Windows, called Turtle Tools ($89). It includes a relatively powerful wave editor, several useful MIDI utilities, and a CD-ROM with over 300 sound effects and musical pieces.
I've only skimmed the surface of what you can do with Windows and sound. With a sound card becoming a necessary component of any new PC and talk of adding audio circuitry to many new motherboards, expect to see some exciting new audio technologies--such as voice recognition and video conferencing--being integrated into your everyday computing environment. With all this new audio technology, you won't be able to keep Windows quiet any longer.