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Turtle Beach Multisound PC Sound Card

Article from Sound On Sound, July 1992

Dedicated PC users will welcome the introduction of this new, high-quality sound card to further enhance PC music-making possibilities. Brian Heywood investigates.



The buzz word of the year in the world of personal computers has to be "multimedia". Like a lot of hyped words and concepts, it tends to mean different things to different people. But as far as it interests musicians, multimedia means the integration of high quality sound and music into computer applications.

So what's new about this? The basic facilities needed for multimedia have been available on the Macintosh and other personal computers for some time. The answer — and the problem — is that you need a lot of processing power to drive sound, animation, and possibly live video as well. The general increase in the computing power and display quality of personal computers over the last few years means that this is not only practical at last, but affordable. This has led to the introduction of standards that incorporate multimedia features into the operating systems of the two most popular personal computers currently available. In the Mac world, this means the QuickTime system extension, and for the IBM PC it means the Multimedia PC (MPC) standard.

HARDWARE



Unlike the Macintosh, the IBM PC has no in-built sound capability. This is not necessarily the disadvantage it seems at first sight, since it allows the PC owner more control over the capabilities of sound generating hardware. You can select the features and quality of the sound hardware to suit your particular application and budget. From the point of view of the MPC software, it doesn't matter which card you use, since Windows will use the driver software supplied with the card to talk to the sound hardware.

A sound card needs to be able to perform a number of tasks to satisfy the MPC standard. Firstly, it must reproduce digital audio and synthesized sound conforming to the MPC MIDI standard, which is based on General MIDI. Secondly, the card must allow you to combine these two sound sources with the output of the CD player, since the CD-ROM drive on an MPC system can also play standard music CDs. In fact, MPC software CD-ROMS will usually contain CD audio as well as CD-ROM data, which is then played back under the control of the program. Other features, such as joystick ports, MIDI ports and CD-ROM interface, may be found on MPC soundcards.

The most common card for adding internal sound to the PC is the Sound Blaster Pro from Creative Labs, whose features include 8-bit mono and stereo digitised sound with sample rates of up to 44.1 kHz and a 20-note polyphonic FM synthesizer. While the Sound Blaster is a cost effective way of adding sound to your PC, and compares well to the in-built sound facilities of the Macintosh (8-bit mono sampled sound up to 22kHz, 4-channel sound chip), it sounds pretty weak when compared to fairly modest musical equipment. You really wouldn't consider using the Sound Blaster for any serious presentation or musical application. The Sound Blaster is good value for the price but in the end you get what you pay for.

MUITISOUND



Turtle Beach's new MultiSound card is designed to fill the gap in the market place for high-quality sound from the IBM PC, and comes with drivers conforming to the MPC standard. Turtle Beach are perhaps best known for their Sample Vision sample editing software and the 56K hard disk recording system. Priced at just under £1,000, the card is not exactly a cheap option, although you do get a cut-down version of their Wave for Windows software bundled with it.

The most obvious criteria for judging a card is the audio specification, which, on the MultiSound, is very impressive. The sample replay section supports CD quality sound (16-bit stereo, 64x oversampled) with a sample rate of 44.1 kHz, as well as the lower rates of 22.05 and 11.025kHz. The synthesised sounds are provided by what is essentially a built-in Emu Proteus 1/XR, which has a general MPC sound-set as well as the standard factory preset sounds. The overall price of the card starts to look more reasonable if you consider that a Proteus expander will set you back more than £600 by itself.


The MultiSound also has some less obvious advantages over competing products in terms of performance and upgradability. The first of these advantages is that the MultiSound won't place as much load on the PC's processor as an equivalent sound card, thus making the PC appear to be faster. This is due to the fact that the Multisound card is designed around a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) — essentially an independent computer that is optimised for handling sound — which means that the Turtle Beach card can take some of the strain in producing the sound, leaving the PC's main processor free to do other things. This will undoubtedly become more important as ever more sophisticated MPC software becomes available.

The second advantage of the MultiSound also relates to the fact that the sound card is designed around a DSP. Since the card is partly software based, it can be easily updated as techniques for handling sound are improved. For instance, when data compression is incorporated into the MPC standard, the Multisound will require only a software update to add this to your system.

The card also has the mandatory audio mixer which allows you to mix the CD audio, sample replay, Proteus sounds, and a line level input under the control of the computer. There is also a connector for an external MIDI adapter and/or a standard IBM joy-stick.

OUT OF THE BOX, INTO THE PC



So what do you get for your money? The MultiSound card is a full length, 16-bit ISA card, which means that you should be able to use it in any AT-compatible PC with at least one full-length expansion slot. The board has two stereo line level inputs, one for connecting an external CD player, and the other designed to be used as a general purpose 'line' or auxiliary input. The CD signal input can also be connected internally (i.e. directly onto the card) if your PC has an internal CD-ROM drive fitted. Turtle Beach can supply this lead as an optional accessory.

Unlike the Sound Blaster, there is no microphone level input, so you must always record using one of the line inputs. This is not surprising, since it would be pretty difficult to incorporate the circuitry for a decent microphone pre-amp, especially if you consider the dodgy nature of some PCs' power supplies. If you need to record high quality samples using the MultiSound, it actually makes more sense to record onto DAT, select the best sample and then transfer the material to the PC. It's a shame that you can't keep the signal completely in the digital domain, perhaps by having an optional digital input module, but Turtle Beach have no plans to add one in the foreseeable future.

Due to size constraints, all the audio connectors are stereo mini-jacks, which are mounted on the card's back panel. There is also a 9-way D-type connector which shares the MIDI and — presumably — the joy-stick signals. According to the specifications printed on the outside of the packaging, the card has an IBM compatible joy-stick port, though this doesn't seem to be mentioned anywhere else in the documentation. The manual does say that Turtle Beach can supply an optional external MIDI adapter which provides MIDI In, Out and Thru connectors on flying leads. The external MIDI connections can either be used to interface to a keyboard and additional sound modules, or allow you to use the Proteus section of the card as part of your regular MIDI set-up.

The card's only audio output is a stereo line level signal, which is also located on the back panel of the card. The output is designed to be connected to a fairly decent amplifier and speakers, to take advantage of the 16-bit audio, and you can also connect a set of high impedance headphones to get a personal performance.


SOFTWARE EXTRAS



In addition to the hardware, you get a CD-ROM and a 3.5" floppy disk with the software that you need to use the MultiSound in a Multimedia PC (MPC) system. The CD-ROM contains the Multimedia extensions for Windows 3.0, the Windows HyperGuide help system, and a load of sample wave and MIDI files. The floppy disk contains the Windows drivers specific to the MultiSound, four Windows applets for controlling the sound hardware, plus a couple of DOS-based applications that allow you to record and play back Windows .WAV sound files from the DOS prompt.

The Windows applets are simply small applications (thus app-iets) that allow you to control various elements of the sound card. Specifically, you get an audio mixer, a VU meter, an MPC MIDI patch-bay, and a 'front panel' for the Proteus. Taking each applet in turn, the mixer allows you to balance the levels of the audio inputs against the internal Proteus and sampled sounds, as well as control the master output level and the input gain on the line inputs. The Rec Prep applet gives you an accurate VU meter to use whilst recording. Unlike most sound cards, the MultiSound can sense signal greater than the clipping point of the digital input. When you reduce the Rec Prep window to an icon on the Windows desktop it will continue to monitor the input, updating the peak values for later reference.

The Patchbay allows you to choose where all the various MIDI data streams go, allowing you to control where Windows sends MIDI. You can patch the Proteus to the external MIDI ports and turn your PC into a very large, noisy synthesizer module. Finally the Front Panel applet allows you the same control of the Proteus sound chips as you would get from the front panel of the Proteus 1/XR expander module. Turtle Beach will sell you a technical manual if you want to delve further into the depths of the Proteus.

You also get around 35MB of samples with the MultiSound, and standard MIDI files, which can be used for presentations or as Windows' system sounds. Some of the sounds have been developed by Turtle Beach specifically for Windows events such as when you start up, shut down or get an error in Windows. The rest of the sounds and MIDI files are samples from companies like Prosonus, Passport and MIDI Notes, of 'off the shelf' multimedia sounds. You need to have a CD-ROM drive to be able to access these files.

INSTALLATION



Installing the card was extremely simple; just a matter of taking the lid off the PC and inserting the card in the first available slot. The factory set-up worked fine. An interesting feature of the card is that two out of the three hardware settings can be changed from the set-up software, so you don't have to keep removing the board to alter settings if you do have problems.

Next you have to install the software. If you are using Windows 3.0 then you have to use the CD ROM supplied to install the Multimedia Extensions (MME). If you have Windows 3.1 then the multimedia facilities are already included, which means that you don't have to have a CD-ROM drive to use the MultiSound. After installing the MME by using the set-up program on the CD-ROM, you can use the Windows Control Panel to add a new driver for the MultiSound from the 3.5" disk supplied with the card. The next stage is to install the applets by running the set-up program on the supplied floppy, which creates a MultiSound program group in the process.

Once you have installed the drivers and applets you can check that everything is working by activating the MIDI Demo in the MultiSound driver's set-up panel. If you hit real problems you can use the supplied diagnostic software to isolate any conflicts or hardware problems. All this setting up might sound complicated, but in fact it only takes about half an hour to complete the entire process.

WAVE LITE



The MultiSound also comes bundled with a cut-down version of Turtle Beach's sound editing software Wave for Windows. This Windows application, called Wave Lite, allows you to record and play back sound files, cut, copy and paste the sound data with a graphical editor. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this review, Wave Lite was still at the Beta test stage, and therefore not available. I did, however, look at the pre-release version.

The first thing that struck me about Wave Lite was its similarity to Sample Vision in terms of its features and 'look and feel'. This bodes well for the application, since it probably means that the software is descended from a tried and tested piece of software rather than being a completely new development. Wave Lite is also obviously meant to advertise its big brother, Wave for Windows, since almost all the menu options pop up a dialogue box saying that this option is only available in the more expensive product!

As supplied, Wave Lite is a high powered version of the Windows Sound Recorder tool, with much enhanced editing features and more flexible display options. One piece of good news is that registered MultiSound users will get a discount on Wave for Windows when it becomes available.


SOUND QUALITY



Not surprisingly, the sound quality is excellent, both sample output (at 44.1 kHz sample rate) and the Proteus sounds. Even at the lower sample rate of 22.05kHz, the sound quality was still very good, although reducing the word size to eight bits introduces a noticeable level of quantisation noise. It seems a shame that most MPC applications won't use the full power of this sound card due to disk space constraints and the fact that most CD-ROM drives aren't fast enough to play back 44.1kHz stereo samples in real-time.

One of the common problems you get when you install a sound card in the PC is background noise transmitted through the power supply. Most PC designers will not have considered the audio implications of their power supply design, especially if they were working to a budget. I found that, if I raised the monitor volume on my desk, I could hear a distinct 'ticking' from the MultiSound, probably due to one of the PC's hard disk drives. This kind of problem can sometimes be reduced by moving the sound card to another expansion slot.

USING THE CARD



Having read the above about the card and its supporting software you may be asking yourself "What use is it to the creative computer musician?". After all, this card is really meant to be used as a play-back device for sound produced by MPC applications, albeit with a high enough quality to maximise the impact on the user. However I think the card will be useful outside this rather narrow application.

I can see a number of possible applications. The first, and most obvious, is for the working multimedia author who needs high quality samples and MIDI scores for incorporation into MPC software titles. To perform this task you need to have a decent MPC sound editing application like Wave for Windows or Voyetra's new Audio View, and a sequencer for producing the MIDI scores. This is not a trivial application if you consider the potential market for multimedia software. If you've ever fancied doing film or video soundtrack work, be aware that a very large new market may just be about to open up as the MPC market takes off.

Another possible use is as part of a high quality music workstation along with a master keyboard (or other MIDI controller) and an appropriate MPC-compatible MIDI sequencer and/or scoring package. In terms of the sound quality, the MultiSound compares very favourably with the other PC sound cards, the Roland Sound Canvas-based SCC1 card being the nearest rival at present. You would get a very compact desktop composition or production workstation for your money, without compromising the quality of the sound. In this application the sample recording and replay section would be redundant at the moment, but I'm sure that MPC music software will soon take advantage of this feature.

One of the first things that occurred to me when I was asked to review this product was whether it could be used as a hard disk recording system. While there is no reason that the MultiSound couldn't be used for this purpose, there are couple of things which mean that it is not ideal for this task. The first is the lack of any digital input and output, which means that every time you transfer your programme material to or from the card you are going to add a generation of noise. The second is the lack of software for this task; from what I've seen of it, Wave would be too slow and cumbersome for this kind of work. The sampling section is really more suited for recording and editing 'sound bites' which are suitable for incorporation into multimedia software.

SO WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?



Basically, the MultiSound is probably the best quality MPC sound card on the market at the moment. This is evident not only in the superior sound quality, but also in the underlying technology built into the card's hardware. The use of the DSP on the card takes a lot of the strain off the PC's main CPU, effectively speeding up your system; this is a big plus for processor intensive MPC software. The DSP also makes a MultiSound-equipped PC virtually 'future proof', as you can upgrade the card's software as new features become available. Since Turtle Beach are a well established company in the music scene you don't have to worry about support for the hardware or software.

Whether you should buy this system rather depends on your requirements and budget. If you have to give 'killer' presentations or are an audiophile with a healthy bank balance, then this is the card for you. If you want to produce sound and/or music for multimedia and can afford to pay around £1,000 for the sound element of the system then you should probably go for MultiSound. If on the other hand you simply want a good quality PC based music workstation then something like the new Roland card is probably a better bet. If you've got a limited budget then you have very little choice but to go for the Sound Blaster.

Further information

£949 inc VAT.

MCMXCIX, (Contact Details)

TURTLE BEACH MULTISOUND SPECIFICATIONS

DIGITAL AUDIO
Sample rates: 44.1 kHz, 22.05kHz, 11.025kHz
Resolution: 16 or 8-bit, stereo or mono
Convertors: 64x oversampled sigma-delta ADC
8x interpolating filter, 64x oversampled sigma-delta DAC

MIDI SYNTHESIZER SECTION
Compatibility: 100% with Emu Proteus 1/XR
Polyphony: 32 simultaneous voices
Preset storage: 384 Presets
MIDI channels: 16, supports MIDI volume and Pan

AUDIO SPECIFICATIONS
Frequency Response: DC to 19kHz +0/-0.2 dB
DC to 20kHz +0/-2 dB
Signal/Noise Ratio: -89 dBV (A weighted)
-85 dBV (unweighted)
THD: <0.005% (A weighted)
<0.006% (unweighted)
IM Distortion: 0.01%
Phase Response: +/1 0.5 degree
Stereo Crosstalk: -98 dBV @ 100 Hz
-76 dBV @ 1kHz
-58 dBV @ 10kHz



Previous Article in this issue

Road Warriors

Next article in this issue

Back To Bach


Publisher: Sound On Sound - SOS Publications Ltd.
The contents of this magazine are re-published here with the kind permission of SOS Publications Ltd.


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Sound On Sound - Jul 1992

Review by Brian Heywood

Previous article in this issue:

> Road Warriors

Next article in this issue:

> Back To Bach


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