Sound Blaster AWE32. (sound board) (Hardware Review) (Evaluation)
by David English
With so many sound cards available, it takes a lot to make one card stand out from the others. Creative Labs' new top-of-the-line sound card does just that. It includes a powerful E-mu Systems DSP (Digital Signal Processor), lets you load your own MIDI samples to the on-board 512K of RAM (upgradable to a whopping 28MB), and features the best text-to-speech engine you're likely to hear on a PC anytime soon. In short, this is one feature-packed sound card.
First, the basics: In most respects the Sound Blaster AWE32 is a standard Sound Blaster 16. It performs both 8-bit and 16-bit stereo sampling and playback; has a standard four-operator, 20-voice stereo FM synthesizer; features a built-in amplifier; and includes the usual ports and interfaces for microphone, stereo line-in, CD audio, speaker, stereo line-out, joystick, MIDI (with an optional $79.95 MIDI kit), and CD-ROM drive (currently Sony, Mitsumi, and Creative Labs drives--but no SCSI drives).
You also get Creative Labs' ASP (Advanced Signal Processing) chip, which is available now as an option on most of the company's 16-bit sound cards. The ASP chip functions as a DSP, letting you add sound effects such as QSound, which lets you place sounds anywhere along a 180-degree space.
The Sound Blaster AWE32 also has an E-mu Systems EMU8000, a chip new to the Sound Blaster line. Creative Labs owns E-mu, so it's no surprise that Sound Blaster cards are starting to use audio technology from this outstanding keyboard-synthesizer manufacturer. The E-mu chip is yet another DSP that lets you add what Creative Labs calls Advanced WavEffects. With Advanced WavEffects, you can turn your AWE32 into a standard General MIDI card, a Roland Sound Canvas, or a Roland MT-32. You can also add reverb, chorus, and pan to your wave-table MIDI instruments (features that aren't currently offered with the Wave Blaster, Creative Labs' General MIDI daughterboard). The instrument sounds are excellent, as you would expect from E-mu, but you can also load your own sampled sounds into the card's RAM, essentially turning your AWE32 into a music-sampling workstation (the kind that cost about $2,000 just five years ago). Allowing you to bring the onboard RAM up to 28MB means this board will attract serious attention from professional musicians.
The other major improvement is AWE32's TextAssist programs. These are five text-to-speech programs that use Digital Equipment's innovative DECtalk technology. Most text-to-speech programs sound too robotic and mispronounce too many words to be of much use. The TextAssist programs feature realistic voices and are significantly more accurate than other systems running on PCs.
How realistic are the voices? They actually have names and personalities. The package ships with nine voices: four adult female, four adult male, and one child. For example, Dennis has a breathy male voice, Wendy has a whispery female voice, and Kit has a child's voice. In most cases, you wouldn't confuse them with real voices, but if you didn't listen too closely and there was a fair amount of background noise, you could be fooled. The voices really are that good.
The five TextAssist programs that ship with the AWE32 are all Windows programs. They are Texto'LE, which lets you embed text-to-speech objects into OLE client applications; TextAssist Reader, which can speak text files out loud; Talking Scheduler, which verbally reminds you of your appointments; TextAssist Control Panel, which lets you create new voices, customize old voices, and associate voices with your Windows applications; and TextAssist Dictionary, which lets you customize the pronunciation of words. (By the time you read this, the TextAssist programs should be shipping with all Sound Blaster 16 cards that have the ASP chip. Current owners of Sound Blaster 16 cards with the ASP chip can order the TextAssist upgrade kit for $29.95.)
The package also contains a strong selection of audio applications and utilities, including Creative VoiceAssist, an easy-to-use speech recognition system; Creative WaveStudio 2.0, a Windows-based WAV file-editing program; HSC Interactive (Special Edition), a scaled-down version of the powerful multimedia authoring program; and Cakewalk Apprentice for Windows, a 256-track MIDI sequencer that includes staff notation.
Despite the price, the Sound Blaster AWE32 offers a lot for your money. The versatile General MIDI emulation from E-mu, the ability to load your own MIDI samples into memory, and the natural-sounding text-to-speech engine make this card a great choice for anyone looking for state-of-the-art PC audio. Creative Labs (800) 998-5227 $399.95 Circle Reader Service Number 550