With virtually all recent sound cards, the volume is controlled through a Windows Control Panel speaker icon that can also be found in the system tray (near the onscreen clock). If you're switching from a bare-bones stereo sound card to a more sophisticated one featuring Dolby Digital 5.1, 6.1, or 7.1 output or input, you will need to use the mixing options in the volume control to select the proper sources and appropriate volume levels for incoming and outgoing audio connected to the card or a breakout box. Keep in mind that if you are sending sound to an external audio receiver, you will need to adjust the volume on that device as well.
If the PC speakers are amplified but you aren't hearing any sound, remember to check that the power is on, the volume control on the speakers is turned up, and the correct speakers are selected and properly connected. If the sound card has a thumbwheel volume control (as some older ones do), make sure it is turned up as well.
MIDI Support Features
At one time, when evaluating audio adapters, you had to decide whether to buy a monophonic or stereophonic card. Today, all audio adapters are stereophonic and can play music using the MIDI standard, which plays scores using either synthesized instruments or digital samples stored on the audio adapter or in RAM.
Stereophonic cards produce many voices concurrently and from two sources. A voice is a single sound produced by the adapter. A string quartet uses four voices, one for each instrument. On the other hand, a polyphonic instrument, such as a piano, requires one voice for each note of a chord. Thus, fully reproducing the capabilities of a pianist requires 10 voices—one for each finger. The more voices an audio adapter is capable of producing, the better the sound fidelity. The best audio adapters on the market today can produce up to 1,024 simultaneous voices.
Early audio adapters used FM synthesis for MIDI support; the Yamaha OPL2 (YM3812) featured 11 voices, whereas the OPL3 (YMF262) featured 20 voices and stereophonic sound. However, virtually all audio adapters today use recorded samples for MIDI support; audio adapters using this feature are referred to as wavetable adapters.
Wavetable audio adapters use digital recordings of real instruments and sound effects instead of imitations generated by an FM chip. When you hear a trumpet in a MIDI score played on a wavetable sound card, you hear the sound of an actual trumpet, not a synthetic imitation of a trumpet. The first cards featuring wavetable support stored 1MB of sound clips embedded in ROM chips on the card or on an optional daughtercard. However, with the widespread use of the high-speed PCI bus for sound cards and large amounts of RAM in computers, most soundcards now use a so-called "soft wavetable" approach, loading 2MB–8MB of sampled musical instruments into the computer's RAM.
While early games supported only digitized audio samples (because most early sound cards had very poor MIDI support), late DOS games such as DOOM began to exploit the widespread wavetable-based MIDI support found on most mid-1990s and more recent sound cards. With all current sound hardware supporting wavetable MIDI and the improvements in DirectX 8.x and above for MIDI support, MIDI sound has become far more prevalent for game soundtracks. Many Web sites also offer instructions for patching existing games to allow MIDI support. Whether you play the latest games or like music, good MIDI performance is likely to be important to you.
The most important factor for high-performance MIDI is the number of hardware voices. Even the best sound cards, such as Creative Labs' Sound Blaster Audigy 2 series, support only 64 voices in hardware; the remainder of the voices required by a MIDI soundtrack must come from software. If your sound card supports only 32 MIDI voices in hardware or uses software synthesis only, consider replacing it with a newer model. Many of the models currently on the market support more than 500 simultaneous voices and 64 hardware voices for under $100.
Virtually all audio adapters on the market today can easily produce CD-quality audio, which is sampled at 44.1KHz. At this rate, recorded files (even of your own voice) can consume more than 10MB for every minute of recording. To counter this demand for disk space, many audio adapters include their own data-compression capability. For example, the Sound Blaster series includes on-the-fly compression of sound files in ratios of 2:1, 3:1, and 4:1.
Most manufacturers of audio adapters use an algorithm called Adaptive Differential Pulse Code Modulation (ADPCM) compression (it's also called IMA-ADPCM), which was developed by the Interactive Multimedia Association (IMA) to reduce file size by more than 50%. IMA-ADPCM compresses 16-bit linear samples down to 4 bits per sample. However, a simple fact of audio technology is that when you use such compression, you lose sound quality. Unfortunately, no standard exists for the use of ADPCM. For example, although both Apple and Microsoft support IMA-ADPCM compression, they implement it in different ways. Apple's standard AIFF and Microsoft's standard WAV file formats are incompatible with each other unless you use a media player that can play both.
When you install an audio adapter, several codecs (programs that perform compression and decompression) are installed. Typically, some form of ADPCM is installed along with many others. To see which codecs are available on your system, open the Windows Control Panel and open the Multimedia icon (Windows 9x), the Sounds and Multimedia icon (Windows 2000), or the Sounds and Audio Devices icon (Windows XP). In Windows 9x, click the Devices tab followed by the plus sign next to Audio Compression to see the installed codecs. In Windows 2000 and Windows XP, click the Hardware tab, followed by Audio Codecs and Properties. The codecs are listed in order of priority, highest to lowest. You can also change the priority if you prefer a different order of priority. If you create your own recorded audio for use on another computer, both computers must use the same codec. You can select which codec you want to use for recording sounds with most programs, including the Windows Sound Recorder.
The most popular compression standard is the Motion Pictures Experts Group (MPEG) standard, which works with both audio and video compression and is gaining support in the non-PC world from products such as DVD players. MPEG by itself provides a potential compression ratio of 30:1, and largely because of this, full-motion-video MPEG DVD and CD-ROM titles are now available. The popular MP3 sound compression scheme is an MPEG format, and it can be played back on most versions of the Windows Media Player, as well as by various other audio player programs and devices.
Multipurpose Digital Signal Processors
Many audio adapters use digital signal processors (DSPs) to add intelligence to the adapter, freeing the system processor from work-intensive tasks, such as filtering noise from recordings or compressing audio on-the-fly.
The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS's CA0102-ICT programmable DSP, for example, supports hardware sound acceleration needed by the latest version of Microsoft DirectX/DirectSound 3D, which enables multiple sounds to be played at the same time to synchronize with the onscreen action in a video game. The DSP can be upgraded with software downloads to accommodate more simultaneous audio streams. The widespread use of DSPs in better-quality audio adapters enables you to upgrade them through software instead of the time-consuming, expensive process of physical replacement.
For additional examples of DSPs, see the section " Who's Who in Audio," later in this chapter.
This chapter is from Upgrading and Repairing PCs, 16th edition,by Scott Mueller. (Que Books, 2004, ISBN: 0789731738). Check it out at your favorite bookstore today.
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