PC sound card with stacks of software
All PC sound cards may be created equal, but the software they come bundled with is not. Ian Waugh gets snowed under by new programs in the Sound Blaster 16 ASP package
Choosing a sound card for your PC can be a minefield, but it's easier if you can draw up a few particular requirements.
Virtually all PC cards, except the higher-end ones designed primarily for digital recording, look to the games player and home user as their major customer, and so emulate the Ad Lib and Sound Blaster cards. These offer sound (generally FM) and digital audio capabilities which most games support. However, that doesn't mean that some of the gamesy cards are not suited to digital recording, as many produce quite excellent results.
The person who never wants to play a game on his or her PC will be fairly exceptional, so Ad Lib and Sound Blaster compatibility will probably be a consideration. Most cards do a good emulation, but since Sound Blaster invented the standard, an original SB card looks like a good choice.
The Sound Blaster 16 ASP is one of the latest SB cards to appear. It's similar to the Sound Blaster 16, but with the addition of an ASP (Advanced Signal Processing) chip which can perform high-speed, realtime manipulation on digital data. It can perform hardware compression and decompression, and allows functions such as speech recognition.
The installation and setup procedure is fairly straightforward, although there are lots of settings to get right - IRQ, I/O port and DMA channels. If there's a conflict you'll have to track it down yourself, and you may have to alter jumpers on the board. Incidentally, whenever you install a new piece of PC hardware it's a good idea to make a note of its settings so you can avoid them with any new devices you install.
One of the attractive aspects of SB 16 is the number of extras you get with it. We'll look as these as we go along, but let's look at the hardware first. It's a 16-bit card requiring a 16-bit slot in your PC. It has a Mic In, a stereo Line In and a stereo output with an adjustable volume control. It also has a MIDI/joystick connector, although you need an optional MIDI Kit to be able to use them.
There's a Panasonic CD-ROM interface on the board, but the manual tells you very little about it. You get a mic (low quality as you might expect, but adequate for voice recognition) plus a stereo mini-jack-to-phonos lead for plugging into an amp or hi-fi system; this is fine as long as the two bits of kit are within 1.5m of each other.
The card supports 44.1kHz stereo digital recording, and the quality is quite excellent. The sound edit software is Creative's own WaveStudio. It's not a bad bit of software with the usual cut, copy and paste functions. It has a very convincing Reverb function, plus fade in and out options.
The main snag is that it can't display a waveform which is too big to fit into memory - although it will play it - which limits its use for direct-to-disk recording. However, if d-t-d is your aim, you'll probably want a more sophisticated piece of software than the standard kit with most sound cards.
And so to the software - and there's plenty of it. First off, Soundo'LE performs simple recording and playback functions but it also offers an easy way to embed sounds within documents using OLE (see the 'Jargon busters' panel). You can embed MIDI files, too, using the Juke Box which can cue and play MIDI files from anywhere on your hard disk. You can't, however, save a collection of files for recall later on.
The SB 16 uses a Yamaha OPL3 four-operator FM chip for its sounds and this is GM-compatible. However, the sounds are obviously FM, and don't reach the standard of those sound cards which use wavetable synthesis.
If you want better sounds, the SB 16 supports the Wave Blaster daughter board which has an E-mu chip set. It contains 4Mb of waveform samples which are used to produce 128 instrument sounds and 10 drum kits. It's 32-voice polyphonic, has 50 sound effects and it also has an MT32 emulation.
The difference between this and the FM chip is chalk and cheese. It's interesting to listen to the output and compare it with other GM instruments. Subjectively it's not quite as good as Roland's SC7 or the CBX-T3 (the TG100 clone in Yamaha's Hello Music! pack). It is also missing reverb, a mere smattering of which can add a hundred pound's worth of perceived value to an instrument's sound. Still, when you consider the price of the card, it's fair value.
"You need a CD-ROM drive to use the Encyclopedia, but if you've any aspirations towards multimedia you should be seriously thinking about CD-ROM anyway"
The Wave Blaster Control Panel lets you create your own banks of instruments and alter volume and pan positions. However, the software isn't very sophisticated. For example, there are no numbers to show the values of the settings.
The pack includes a copy of Twelve Tone's Cakewalk Apprentice which is a rather nice introduction to sequencing, and you also get the MIDI/Joystick adaptor which is an extra with the SB 16.
The Talking Scheduler is an interesting multimedia program. It lets you set up appointments and include text-to-speech and voice annotation functions. You can select one of three charming fellows to remind you of them.
Next up, Monologue will read text to you. A special Excel mode reads columns of figures, which is useful for checking what you've typed in against paper originals. It can read text from any application which can copy it to the clipboard, although the procedure is a bit long-winded and not very practical as a read-as-you-go system.
Voice Assist is a fascinating program which lets you control Windows with your voice. It comes with 32 common commands such as New, Close, Up, Down and so on, and you use the mic to train it by saying each one in turn. Thereafter it will perform the specified action.
If you're a science fiction fan you'll love the idea of voice control. Can it really be bundled in with a two-hundred quid sound card? As ever, you tend to get what you pay for. Yes, the system works but it can get confused between instructions. So unless you can issue commands clearly and consistently in any state of inebriation, you might end up wiping a file.
At a safer level you can train it to perform functions which might otherwise take several mouse-clicks or keystrokes. These could include launching applications, opening a dialogue box, and even navigating your way through those nooks and crannies which Windows laughingly calls dialogue boxes.
It can be used to start and stop a MIDI sequencer, enter editors, and do virtually anything you can do with the mouse or keyboard. A voice-controlled sequencer - how about that? Ideally you would want to use it with a headset mic and you need to watch the screen for errors. I don't know if or when the novelty will wear off, but I certainly had a lot of fun with it.
There are some interesting DOS-based programs, too. If you're not completely entrenched in the Windows GUI interface, MMPlay lets you create multimedia presentations combining graphics, sound and animation using a script language which you create in a wordprocessor. It's not programming exactly, but neither is it click and drag. One for the techies, I suspect.
PC Animate is a rather more substantial multimedia presentation program. Operation revolves around Frames which are put together to form a complete animation. The program includes a comprehensive paint feature so you can draw animations, and you can load graphic images in PCX, GIF, TIFF, and BMP formats.
"You'll have a job to find better value anywhere in the PC sound card market"
It has powerful functions such as Tweening which can make an image move across the screen automatically. There are overlays and underlays and transparent and opaque colours so you can selectively decide which parts of an image and background appear. You can add sound, and there is a host of special effects such as shifting colours, blending, rotation, size, and fade. To dedicated Windows users it may lack a certain je ne sais quois, but it's an interesting bonus.
Also of interest is the Windows-based HSC InterActive Special Edition, which lets you create interactive multimedia programs combining graphics, animation, and audio. It's primarily geared towards the creation of computer-based training courses, interactive desktop presentations, point-of-sale systems and so on - but you could use it to create an interactive music album. Now there's a thought.
It's an icon-based system and you use the icons to create a flowchart of your application. It's quite sophisticated, although the demo program is a poor example of what can be done.
This 'Special Edition' is actually a cut-down version of the full program with an uneditable icon library, no facility for copying your applications to floppy disk, and no license-free runtime module. The full version also gives you more room to cast your flowchart, and has a graphics editor. But the SE version is fun to play with to see what such systems can achieve.
The final biggy in the bag is the Software Toolworks Multimedia Encyclopedia, albeit the 1992 edition. Yep, you need a CD-ROM drive to use it, but if you've any aspirations towards multimedia you should be seriously thinking about CD-ROM, anyway. The Encyclopedia has thousands of entries and includes video movies, sounds, and animation - all the sorts of things you'd expect, in fact.
Most of the other applications will be of peripheral interest to the musician, although there are some interesting toys here. Mosaic is one of those sliding block puzzles where you have to get the tiles in the correct order. You can use numbers or load a bitmap picture. It includes sound, too.
There are several DOS utilities which I'll gloss over on the assumption that most users will be running under Windows. You can record and play WAV and VOC files and convert VOCs to WAVs and vice versa. You can also play MIDI files, and there's lots of techy information for the cone-heads.
The Intelligent Organ provides home keyboard-type auto-accompaniments which you can play along with - not likely to set many hearts aflutter - while Dr Sbaitso is a sort of Dr Eliza (see panel) with verbal diarrhoea.
There are several manuals - seven, to be exact - which explain how to set up the card and use the various pieces of software. Apart from the time required to read them all, you should have few problems using the programs.
Is the SB 16 ASP the PC sound card to go for? Well, that depends on what you want it for. The card itself is very well-suited to the games player, and to anyone wanting to add multimedia capabilities to their PC.
"The difference between Wave Blaster and the FM chip is chalk and cheese"
For more serious musicians, subjectively the digital audio quality is excellent - but you'll need some additional software for serious direct-to-disk recording.
The GM sound set is par for the course for an FM unit. The Wave Blaster improves it no end, but the lack of reverb stops this from being a complete alternative to the likes of the SC7 and TG100. And because of the slight differences between sounds, you will probably have to tweak MIDI GM files which have been configured to a Sound Canvas.
The music and multimedia programs give you a taste of what's possible, rather than offering complete solutions, but again, taking price into account it's a reasonable compromise. The Encyclopedia is a superb extra if you have a CD-ROM drive.
You can't complain about the volume of software, at least some of which you will probably find yourself using in other areas of your computer life.
All in all, this is a superb package marred only slightly by the limitations of the hardware. You'll have a job to find better value anywhere in the current PC sound card market.
Price: Sound Blaster 16 ASP £219 Wave Blaster £175
More from: Westpoint Creative, (Contact Details)
Review by Ian Waugh
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