What you need to know about sound cards. (Compute's Getting Started With: PC Sound) (Buyers Guide)
by Richard O. Mann, David English
Before we get into actual sound card listings, we need to cover a few technical details. When you move beyond simple gaming functions, certain factors gain importance.
In the matter of 8-bit versus 16-bit hardware, the battle is long since over. You can still buy 8-bit cards, but not for long. This bit count refers to the number of digital bits used to record a single sound sample. In an 8-bit card, you can create 256 sounds from a single sample. With 16-bit sound, the number of possible sounds expands to over 65,000 per sample. (A sample is an instantaneous snapshot of the sound, much like a frame in a movie, only played back thousands of times faster.) In other words, buy a 16-bit board.
The number of voices or channels is also important. A 12-voice card plays 12 sound elements at once to create its sound; if it were an orchestra, you'd have 12 instruments. The more voices, the more rich and full the sound will be.
Families of Sound Cards
The Sound Blaster family. (Creative Labs, 800-998-5227) The Creative Labs lineup includes six sound boards and a daughterboard, starting with the original Sound Blaster Deluxe ($115.95), an 8-bit monaural card with 11 voices. It sold so well that now everything has to be Sound Blaster compatible. The Sound Blaster Pro Deluxe ($179.95) adds stereo and moves up to 20 voices, but is still an 8-bit card without a CD-ROM interface. The Sound Blaster 16 Basic ($199.95) moves to 16-bit, 20-voice FM-synthesized stereo sound, with a proprietary Creative Labs CD-ROM interface.
The Sound Blaster 16 MultiCD ($249.95) adds a CD-ROM interface for Sony, Panasonic, and Mitsumi drives. The Sound Blaster 16 SCSI-2 ($279.95) adds the more standard SCSI-2 interface for CD-ROM drives.
And the new top-of-the-line Sound Blaster AWE32 ($399.95) includes improved General MIDI, 512K of RAM for MIDI sampling, and advanced text-to-speech synthesis.
You can upgrade any of the 16-bit boards to wave-table sound and General MIDI by adding a Wave Blaster daughterboard ($249.95), which provides 128 instruments, 18 drums, and 50 sound effects in 4MB of on-board ROM, playing back in 32 voices. Also, many of the 16-bit boards have a socket for the Advanced Signal Processor DSP chip ($69.95), which supplies hardware sound compression and QSound, a 3-D surround-sound system.
Sound Blaster boards come with an unusually rich set of bundled software. The three high-end boards include VoiceAssist, a Windows voice recognition program that lets you give voice commands to any Windows application.
The Pro Audio family. (Media Vision, 800-845-5870) Industry sources indicate that Media Vision's 16-bit boards outsell the other sound boards by a wide margin. They're the only licensed, Sound Blaster-compatible boards on the market.
The standard board is the Pro AudioSpectrum 16 ($299), based on a 20-voice FM synthesizer. It includes an industry-standard SCSI CD-ROM interface.
The low-end Pro Audio 16 Basic ($199) leaves out the SCSI interface and some software to provide good, basic FM-synthesized sound.
On the high end, the Pro AudioStudio 16 ($349) adds impressive voice recognition software, a professional waveform editor, and MIDI software to the Pro AudioSpectrum's bundle, making it capable of serious sound mixing and editing. Sound cards featuring wave-table sound and DSPs have been announced, but aren't yet available from Media Vision.
The Aztech Sound Galaxy family. (Aztech Labs, 510-623-8988) The Aztech Sound Galaxy Pro 16 Extra ($279) is a 16-bit, 20-voice card that comes with FM synthesis and a CD-ROM interface for Sony, Panasonic, and Mitsumi drives. Upgrades are available to add a SCSI interface and/or wave-table sound through a plug-in daughterboard.
The Sound Galaxy Pro offers voice recognition and the Monologue for Windows text-to-speech program in its unusually comprehensive suite of software programs. The package also includes a microphone and headphones.
Aztech offers a full line of 8-bit and 16-bit cards; the lower-end cards are also compatible with Disney Sound Source and COVOX Speech Thing.
Standard Wave-Table Boards
SoundMan Wave. (Logitech, 510-795-8500, $349) Logitech's wave-table board uses Yamaha's OPL4 chip set to provide excellent General MIDI. This 16-bit sound board features hardware-based audio compression, a SCSI-based CD-ROM interface, an optional DSP chip upgrade (for various audio effects, such as surround sound, reverb, and chorus), a jumperless installation, and a built-in six-watt amplifier with both speaker and lineout connectors.
The board also comes with a generous selection of bundled software that includes Animotion's MCS MusicRack (which features a digital recorder for recording and editing WAV files, an audio-CD player for CD-ROM drives, a MIDI file player, and an audio mixing console), Midisoft's Recording Session (which combines MIDI sequencing and notation), and Berkeley Speech Technologies' BeSTspeech ReadOut (which converts ordinary text to spoken words).
You also get Moon Valley's Icon Hear-It (which lets you add sound effects to your Windows icons) and Voyetra's SoundMan Annotator (which lets you annotate messages in any Windows OLE application).
And if all that isn't enough to convince you, Logitech offers a 60-day money-back guarantee on its SoundMan Wave. If you don't like the card, return it to the place where you bought it for a full refund.
Advanced Gravis UltraSound. (Advanced Gravis Computer Technology, 800-663-8558, $199) The UltraSound board has generated a lot of excitement by offering surprisingly good 32-voice wave-table sound at an extremely low price. The manufacturers decided to reach for a new standard instead of competing with the expensive wave-table MIDI boards from companies such as Roland and Turtle Beach. Although the UltraSound is a 16-bit board, Advanced Gravis made it 16-bit for playback and 8-bit for recording, with 16-bit recording available as an option. Most users record voice, for which 8-bit recording is more than adequate. Advanced Gravis is aggressively pushing software developers to write for this card and take full advantage of its high-quality wave-table features.
One interesting feature of the UltraSound is that its sound patch files are loaded onto your hard disk, then downloaded into DRAM on the board when you boot the computer. This way, they're changeable. This may not sound important to you, but it allows software developers to provide their own sounds for special situations. Psygnosis's new game Hired Guns replaces 60 of the UltraSound sound patches with futuristic high-tech weapon sounds. And as future improvements to the patch files become available, upgrading your system will be easy. (Creative Lab's new SoundBlaster AWE32 has a similiar ability to load sound patch files from your hard drive.)
The UltraSound board comes with the interface for Sony, Panasonic, and Mitsumi drives, but the more expensive SCSI interface is available as an option.
Orchid SoundWave 32. (Orchid Technology, 800-7-ORCHID, $299) Based on the Analog Devices DSP chip, the SoundWave 32 provides 16-bit, 24-voice wave-table sound and a Sony CD-ROM interface. The SoundWave has the standard compatibilities and also offers both MIDI and Roland MT-32. It can use three of its modes simultaneously, so gamers can have Sound Blaster sound effects and the MIDI or Roland music the game provides. It comes with a microphone and speakers as well as several multimedia-authoring software tools.
ViVa Maestro 16 and 16VR. (Computer Peripherals, 800-854-7600, $169 and $219, respectively) The Maestro 16 board use the Aria chip set to deliver 32-voice, 16-bit wave-table sound and includes its own SCSI CD-ROM interface--all for a very good price. The Maestro 16VR includes the Aria Listener chip, which provides hardware voice recognition.
Reveal SoundFX WAVE 32. (Reveal computer Products, 800-669-3559, $299) Using the Ensoniq Soundscape chip set, the SoundFX WAVE 32 delivers 32-voice, 16-bit wave-table sound from an unusually rich 317-instrument wave table. It comes with a Sony CD-ROM interface, a how-to video to ease installation fears, and a bundle of software that includes the entertaining SuperJAM! Jr. MIDI-based music-composition program.
MediaMagic DSP-16 Plus. (MediaMagic, 800-624-8654, $259) Media-Magic, a division of Austin Computers, offers a full line of sound boards and multi-media upgrade kits. The DSP-16 Plus is a 16-bit wave-table board that offers MPEG compression--the only board with MPEG that we found in our research for this article. (MPEG compression is usually video related, requiring a special board. This sound board won't do video compression, but it provides extremely effective audio file compression.)
High-End Wave-Table Boards
RAP-10. (Roland, 213-685-5141, $599) Roland has always been the Rolls-Royce of computer music. Its RAP-10 board converts your PC into a professional recording studio, providing both 16-bit, 26-voice wave-table sound and a sophisticated set of software tools in the Roland Audio Toolworks. It's fully compatible with all MIDI software and works with any games that provide full MIDI soundtracks. There's no Sound Blaster compatibility, however--this is a serious music tool, not a gamer's board. (But in concert with your old Sound Blaster, it's a dream come true.) It provides both reverb and chorus processing to add a finished studio quality to your music. This is state-of-the-art MIDI sound.
Turtle Beach Maui. (Turtle Beach Systems, 800-645-5640, $199) Turtle Beach, supplier of the serious MultiSound ($599) sound card for Windows, has created the inexpensive Maui board for us ordinary folks. It adds 24-voice, 16-bit wave-table sound to your existing Sound Blaster-compatible card. Use your old card for the voice and sound effects, but run the music through the Maui board for the best of both worlds--for less money than Sound Blaster's wave-table upgrade. Of course, you'll need an extra slot to hold the board. The Maui board provides both General MIDI and the MPU-401 interface that most wave-table-enabled software supports. It also provides a way to replace patches in its wave table with sounds you record on your existing sound board.
Microsoft Windows Sound System 2.0. (Microsoft, 206-882-8080, $219) The original Windows Sound System provided business audio only; it was strictly a Windows device. The new version 2.0 adds Sound Blaster compatibility for gaming die-hard, but also adds a robust set of software tools for voice recognition. A special directional microphone helps focus the software on your voice commands. The Voice Pilot and voice annotation software are also available for $79 without the sound board. Text-to-speech software allows proofreading your documents, as the computer reads the text to you from the screen. The Windows Sound System is still not the board for serious entertainment buffs, but its business audio tools are unmatched.
ACE Advanced Communications Enhancement Board. (Best Data Products, 818-773-9600, $259) Using IBM's Mwave DSP chip set, Best Data Products has created a sound board that's a lot more than other sound boards. Not only does it provide 16-bit wave-table sound, but it also includes a 14,400-bps modem, a 14,400-bps fax with fax-back and fax-forward features, a telephone answering machine and voice-mail system with ten mailboxes, and an interface for Sony, Panasonic, and Mitsumi CD-ROM drives.
It does 3:1 data compression and soon will have fax-to-speech capability to read your incoming faxes to you. It has onboard call discrimination to separate voice calls from modem or fax calls, routing them to the proper channels. It can do any two of these functions at once, with the additional capability of being able to handle incoming phone calls even when you're already using two other functions.
This is an exciting product; it shows what full use of DSP chips can do. Look for more multifunction boards in the near future.
PC sound is a vibrant, lively arena with new products and ideas being heralded almost daily. The developments of the last year, bringing wave-table sound into the price range of ordinary mortals, were welcome, as the next year's surprises will be.
If you aren't participating in PC sound yet, now's the time to make your move. Study the current slate of available cards, buy one, and start enjoying a new dimension of computing.