Affordable digital recording on the PC
Microsoft MSS PC Sound Card & Voyetra AudioView Digital Audio Editor
Panicos Georghiades and Gabriel Jacobs examine whether a new PC sound card and a Wave editor program could finally give the home musician affordable digital recording and editing.
Microsoft is the company responsible for MS-DOS, Windows and the Microsoft mouse. And since MS-DOS and Windows are the operating environments for the PC, Microsoft effectively controls the personal computer industry.
When a company such as this sets out to produce a sound card — the Microsoft Sound System (MSS) — as only its second hardware product, you can take it as a sure sign that, for the first time, sound within computing is to be taken seriously — at least as seriously as the mouse (and the mouse is certainly no joke). Combine this move with the fact that hardware prices have generally more than halved in the last year, and you have some very good news for musicians, who represent probably the poorest computer user group.
During the last year we have seen numerous new models and brands of sound card, including some capable of 44.1kHz 16-bit sound, as opposed to the 22kHz 8-bit standard that used to be the norm. And the prices of these new cards have fallen dramatically. We're now asked to pay £150 for something that last year cost £1,000.
The MSS is a short 16-bit AT card with lots of bundled software — 10MB for a full installation (4MB minimum). It requires at least a 386 SX with 1MB of memory (2Meg or more is recommended), a typical price for such a machine being around £500.
We found nothing in the MSS manual about its on-board synthesizer or its sound quality specifications, other than that it's capable of CD-quality sound. We suspect this is a deliberate marketing decision to help make sound acceptable in the business world. (If you've ever seen the bewildered face of a company director when an employee requests a SoundBlaster for his or her PC, you'll know exactly what we mean.) So we had to dig deep for the hard specs of this card, which is in fact run by two chips, one from Yamaha and the other from Analog Devices (US audio chip specialists).
The Yamaha chip is the YMF262, better known as OPL3, upgrade to the OPL2 of the original SoundBlaster (see the panel on this chip). The OPL3 offers up to 4-operator FM synthesis, similar to what you find on the now-aged TX81Z. The main sound chip, however, is the Analog Devices AD1848, nicknamed SoundPort. This integrates all the key audio data conversion and control into a single chip, from the microphone input to the speaker/headphones output. It has been designed specifically to work inside a computer for use in business audio and multimedia applications, and this could mean that the specs are perhaps not so demanding on the audio side. On the other hand, it could equally well mean that it's better able to handle interference from strong power supplies (in computers, typically 150-200 Watts) than one designed for audio equipment (with power supplies typically in the region of 25-50 Watts). Some computer audio cards using chips designed for audio equipment sound noisy for this reason.
The AD1848 uses 16-bit linear AD/DA, and manages a typical dynamic range of 85dB (similar to some low-end DAT recorders like the Aiwa HDS1 or the Casio DA2).
The MSS card has the following connections:
• Mic input (1/8 inch stereo jack)
• Line in (stereo 1/8 inch jack)
• Line out (two phonos)
• Headphone/Speaker output (stereo 1/8 inch)
A clip-on microphone and headphones are supplied.
The software bundled with the MSS covers business aspects of the use of sound, though the recording and editing program is just about adequate for music. For more accurate work, however, you need another editor (see our comments on AudioView later on).
You get seven programs with the MSS:
• Volume Control is an on-screen real-time mixer with stereo inputs for the on-board synth, digital sound from disk, and auxiliary In (mic or line), all mixed to a stereo out. There's a balance control for every fader. This program can be set to stay 'on top', so you can have real-time control with whatever other program you're running.
• Recording Control is for setting recording levels and selecting the input source (mic or line).
• Quick Record is the recording and sound-editing program. Most menu options are also displayed as buttons on a horizontal tool bar at the top of the screen, and there are two wave display windows visible at all times: an overall view and a zoomed view.
Editing functions in Quick Record include Cut, Copy, Paste, Mix Paste (for overdubbing), Fade In/Out, Volume Increase/Decrease, Speed Up, and Slow Down. There's also a very useful Normalise function which raises the amplitude to the point just before distortion to give you maximum dynamic range. And there are five preset echo effects, a bass/treble filter, and a Trim Silence function for deleting parts of the recording that approximates silence — useful for deleting lead-in silences.
Sampling rates and resolutions can be set to 11 kHz, 22 kHz, 44.1 kHz, and 4-, 8-, and 16-bit respectively, for stereo or mono recording.
It must be said that most functions in this program work with preset values which you can't change, and this is why we've decided here to combine this review of the MSS with one of AudioView.
• Sound Finder is a program that loads and plays any type of sound or MIDI file. It can also read Apple (AIF) and NeXT Computer (SND) as well as SoundBlaster (VOC) sound-file formats.
• Music Box turns a CD-ROM drive into a CD audio player, with additional functions like naming tracks and the ability to start playback anywhere in the track.
• Voice Pilot enables you to give spoken commands to various Windows programs using the supplied microphone. So, with this program you could 'tell' your sequencer to "start recording", "delete" a track or "cut" a section, "open" a file and so on. There's also a facility for proof reading documents from Windows programs.
Although the recording and editing facilities that come with the MSS are adequate, you can't get accurate results with them because they work on preset values for most of their functions. You'll get better results, and feel more at home, by using a dedicated editing package, especially one manufactured by a music software company.
Voyetra Technologies is one of the veteran companies dealing with music hardware and software for the PC. The AudioView digital audio editor for PC sound cards under Windows is one of their first ventures into the Windows software arena — they're better known for their MIDI interfaces and their professional Sequencer Plus (and we're all waiting to see what the Windows version, out this year, will look like).
AudioView includes three programs for Windows that allow you to control the digital audio functions of sound cards. The suite includes a digital audio mixer and a CD-player program similar to the one which comes with the MSS. But AudioView itself, the editor, is a fully fledged program with many useful editing functions and effects.
There is, of course, the usual graphic display of the audio file, with variable zoom levels. There are also Cut, Paste, and Mix Paste type of facilities. However, a Transform section also includes useful functions like Normalise, Find the peak of a wave, Scale the amplitude by a factor (.1 to 10), Fade In/Out (using different types of curves to shape the fade as you wish), a Noise Gate, Invert the sample, DC Offset (raises or lowers the waveform above or below the zero line), Reverse in time, and Crossfade (creates smooth transitions when joining two files).
On top of all that, there are digital effects like Ambience (short reverb), Stadium (longer types of reverb), Resonance (for creating robotic voices) and Long Echo (discrete number of echoes). With all these you set the duration and depth of the effect, so you have absolute flexibility.
The Windows clipboard window provides a convenient way to verify and audition sections you intend to mix into another sound file. And since Windows can multitask, you can activate two 'instances' of AudioView to work on two files at once, cutting and pasting between them. AudioView also supports OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) with Windows 3.1, so you can insert sound files as objects in files of other programs like word-processors.
The program is easy to use and the 120-page manual includes sections introducing digital audio concepts, the Multimedia PC specification and so on. We liked this program very much, and its combination with the MSS really could herald a revolution in affordable digital recording and editing.
Microsoft Sound System (MSS) C£135 inc VAT.
Microsoft Ltd, (Contact Details).
Either of the two chips in the MSS card can be bought separately from Polar Electronics (Contact Details) who also supplied the specs included in this article.
AudioView £99 inc VAT.
Computer Music Systems, (Contact Details).
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