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Article from Sound On Sound, August 1993

Brian Heywood reports on an outbreak of new soundcards, SADiE gets an update and the PC finds a niche at the APRS show. Eight out of 10 exhibitors said their stand preferred it...

The APRS show was very busy this year, with lots of companies showing off their products and trying to part the punters from their money — politely, of course! As I wandered around the various stands, I decided on the spur of the moment to do a straw poll of the numbers and types of personal computers on the stands. Of the 120 or so stands I checked out, just over a third of them had a computer of any sort, with a total of 52 computers in all. Of these, 40 were PCs, 10 were Macintoshes (two of them were turned off!) and there were two lonely Ataris. Of the PCs, about 40% were running Windows, whilst the other 60% were showing MS-DOS applications. The applications being shown ranged from digital audio recording (Digidesign, Soundscape, SADiE and Digigram) to library music and radio station control systems. It looks like the PC has found itself a home in the professional music and broadcast world.

Sadie's new Digital Mixing page.


Studio Audio were showing the latest version of their PC-based SADiE hard disk recording system. Version two of the software seems to add quite a few new features, including support for 24-bit digital audio, 8-track operation, and signal processing, such as a digital compressor. You may wonder why you need 24-bit digital audio when DAT and CD can only handle 16 bits, but it seems you can use the higher resolution to improve the apparent signal to noise ratio of the 16-bit signal. This is most useful when you are dealing with recordings that have a very large dynamic range, such as classical music. Sony already use a similar technique on their most recent classical CDs.


I've had a chance to look at the new Gravis software (reviewed SOS March '93) and it is a big improvement on that reviewed. The synthesizer section sounds are considerably better than the originals, and the Windows sample-playing driver now replays 16-bit digital audio. This makes the card very good value if you need a multimedia soundcard that provides a decent sound quality when used with MIDI. The Windows drivers still only work in enhanced mode, which may be a problem if you are using Cubase. Contact Optech on (Contact Details) for details of how to upgrade or purchase the card.

Turtle Beach — who make the Multisound MPC soundcard (reviewed in SOS July '92) — have announced a wavetable synthesizer upgrade card called the Maui. The new soundcard is being introduced so that owners of sound cards with lower quality synthesizer sections — such as the Sound Blaster — can add the benefits of a 24-voice wavetable synthesizer and sampling capabilities to their Windows 3.1 system. The Maui's GM-compatible, 24-voice, 16-bit samples are stored in 2MB of ROM on the card. The most interesting feature is the bundled Sample Store software, a user-definable sample player for creating your own samples and 'downloading' them to RAM resident on the Maui, using existing Windows WAV files as a starting point. Thus, you can use MPC software like Turtle Beach's Wave for Windows to prepare your samples and then use the Maui to play them back polyphonically. The card should be released in September and the US price will be $199. I'll keep you informed of developments.

SeqWin v2.


Finally, I've had a look at the new version of SeqWin, and it looks very impressive. One of the new features is the ability to handle digital audio in the same way that MIDI data is handled — you need an MPC soundcard to hear it, of course. This means that you can record an audio track within the sequence — say a vocal line — and manipulate it in exactly the same way as you would the 'normal' MIDI data using the graphical arranger. You can even perform simple editing of the wave form, such as adding echo or changing the equalisation. This program is definitely worth a look.

SoftZone have also produced a MIDI interface driver that allows multiple Windows applications to share a single MPU 401 (or compatible) interface. The driver merges the MIDI data streams and even allows you to feed the MIDI output from one program into the input of another. One use of this would be to record the output of your auto-accompaniment program into your sequencer or to add MIDI 'filters' into the data stream to perform additional processing on the MIDI data in real-time.


For the last month or so I've had a Sound Blaster 16 ASP with the Wave Blaster add-on card in my main 'writing' PC. The Sound Blaster 16 (or SB16) card is the latest multimedia sound offering from the Singapore based company Creative Labs. As you might guess from the name, the SB 16 can both record and play stereo 16-bit digital audio files with sample rates of up to 44.1kHz (CD quality). The ASP part of the name stands for 'Advanced Signal Processor', which appears to be an additional processor optimised for manipulating 16-bit audio, rather like a DSP (Digital Signal Processor). The ASP doesn't seem to be supported by any software at the moment, though it is suggested that it might be used for soundfile compression or speech recognition. As well as the sound functions, the card can also be used as a CD-ROM interface for the Panasonic drives.

The basic card has the usual set of four-operator FM voices, but these can be augmented by the addition of the Wave Blaster expansion daughterboard, which effectively adds an Emu Proteus sound module to the card's synthesizer section. The sound chipset used is a later version than that used on Turtle Beach's Multisound card, and has a redesigned General MIDI sound set which occupies 4MB of ROM. Being a wavetable synthesiser, the sounds are actual samples of the instruments — recorded at CD quality — which means that you get some very realistic sounds but there is no possibility of you designing your own. You can, however, design your own voice bank configurations, selecting the order of the voices in the MIDI program change map and choosing between the 18 different drum sets. The Wave Blaster appears to Windows as a MIDI device — taking up all 16 channels — so there is probably not a lot of point in buying the external MIDI option for connecting other sound modules to your PC.

I found that the 16-bit sound quality was very good when used with appropriate samples, although to record at full CD quality you need to ensure that your hard drive is fast enough. I also had problems getting the card to use my PC's 16-bit DMA channel; this didn't seem to affect the operation of the card at all, though maybe it slowed things down a bit. The Wave Blaster sounds were very good compared to the 'native' FM synthesis, but when compared to a Yamaha TG100 and a Roland CM300, the lack of on-board effects became noticeable. The Wave Blaster won out in the area of polyphony, though, having 32 notes compared to the CM module's 24 and the TG100's 28 notes. Like most GM modules, the sound set has its own character, having a good range of percussion sounds and rock/pop type voices. I wasn't particularly impressed with the way the orchestral strings sounded when tested with some commercial MIDI files I had lying around.

For use in a music environment, the lack of effects shouldn't be a problem since you will usually have some outboard effects processors to 'spice up' the sounds. On the other hand, for multimedia applications, I think the Wave Blaster will suffer when compared to the opposition, such as the Roland SCC1 card or external modules such as the TGI00. The Sound Blaster 16 ASP card will cost you around £292 and getting the Wave Blaster will add another £229 to the bill. If you want to connect to an external MIDI input device you will also need to get the optional MIDI kit which — at £81 — will bring the price up to just over £600. It should be said that these are the 'recommended' retail prices so it's worth shopping around for a better deal.


Brian Heywood has a Masters from the Music Department of City University and has been using PCs professionally in audio production for longer than he cares to remember. He is also co-author of the PC Music Handbook which is available from the SOS Bookshop and is a technical consultant to the UK MIDI Association. Brian can be contacted via email on CIX as brianh@cix or on PAN as BRIANHEYWOOD.

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Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
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Sound On Sound - Aug 1993



Feature by Brian Heywood

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