Marius on Sound Cards

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by Marius Gleeson

A sound card these days is not so much an option when buying a computer, but a standard accessory. Almost all of the software that is coming out for computers at the moment uses a sound card in some way, some more than others. Games are still the biggest uses of sound cards but with all the multimedia software being produced at the moment, it makes having one more of a tool rather than a toy.

Even operating systems have been taking advantage of sound cards by using them for system sounds and incorporating them into multimedia utilities. It is much more appealing to have digitised error messages instead of clunky beeps emanating from inside of the computer box and when combined with an operating system like OS/2, you can totally customise your system so that you feel comfortable when using your computer (or alternatively you can drive your flatmates wild - Ed). In fact, OS/2 lets you set up a personalised operating system using graphics and sound to a level that no other current PC operating system allows unless you wish to write your own.

However it's not that simple. Despite the increasing support and use of OS/2, hardware compatibility and drivers are still an issue, and the multitude of sound cards out in the shops at the moment makes the choice harder - Which one will give you the best performance for the applications that you are wanting to run? Which ones will work under OS/2 and has drivers available ?

Any sound card that you buy today will be able to perform two basic functions: digitised sound playback (usually in the form of .WAV files) and play music scores (usually in the form of .MID files). Digitised sound is a straight recording of the sound as if it was on a CD. When played back, it is the computer's job to tell the sound card what to do. Basically the data is read off your hard drive and just shunted straight through the sound card to the speakers as if it was coming from a CD-ROM.

When playing music though, it is the sound cards job to play the instruments, and the CPU's job is to tell the card which instruments are to be used and the notes they are to play. This means that the sound files can be much smaller as they don't need to hold an actual recording of the sound data, just things like which instruments to use, and the music score. Most average sound cards will perform music playback using FM synthesis. This is where the sounds are generated using the same chips you would find in a synthesiser, which gives an unrealistic 'electronic' overtone to the overall sound.

The better sound cards out at the moment are now using a different method called Advanced Wavetable Synthesis. This involves the card having it's own on board memory where samples of real instruments can be stored. The card then plays these rather than approximations via synthesiser chips. This however, means that the card itself must have memory on it to hold the sampled sounds and therefore it costs more than your normal sound card.

Also you must have some space available on your hard drive to store the samples that will be used by the card. This however, means that your programs have the option to use their own sounds by loading alternative samples into the cards memory.

Thus when a software writer is developing for a given sound card he can assume that if you have a Gravis Ultra sound ( a card that uses Wavetable synthesis) you will have certain sound files on your hard drive, and if you have a Wave Blaster ( A daughter board for the Sound Blaster family to give it Wavetable synthesis) you will have a different set of sound files. The difference in sound quality when using AWS and a program that takes advantage of it is instantly recognisable as the music sounds great. (You should hear what Descent sounds like!)

The difference between buying a Wavetable sound card and a normal one however may not be worth the extra cost if you only want basic sound support. Sure the quality of the music sounds great, but you also really need to consider such things as what you really need and the fact that to get the most from AWS, you need to run your sound through a stereo rather than a set of PC speakers.

So, I decided to examined some of the sound cards on the market today to see how well they ran under OS/2 using its multimedia utilities. The things that I was looking for were how well the drivers (if any) performed, support for OS/2 other than the disks in the box, and just general usage - playing games :-).

Creative Labs Sound Blaster 16

by Creative Labs

The Sound Blaster 16 by Creative Labs is the most recognised card on the shelves today. It is the most widely supported, and gives good performance. The basic Sound Blaster 16 comes with decent manuals and pretty standard software on the disks. OS/2 directly supports the Sound Blaster family, coming with drivers when you buy OS/2. You wont be disappointed if you buy one of these, they do the job they say they will and they do it quite well. If you are using the card for digitised recording or playback it will do CD quality sound at 16bits, with a sampling rate of 44kHz.

But probably the main benefit of this card over most others is everything will have a driver for it, be it games or operating systems. So this is really the minimum that you should get at the moment.

The Sound Blaster 16 uses FM synthesis to provide it's music playback, but for a card of this type and price you can't expect the highest quality. There are actually several versions of the Sound Blaster 16, they can come with SCSI ports for CD ROMS or standard CD ROM interfaces. You can also get upgradable versions that can have a daughter board plugged into them which will give full Wavetable synthesis. OS/2 and Win-OS/2 work fine with a sound Blaster giving a good range for personalising your system. If your buying one of these you should probably pay around $150.

Media Vision Pro Audio Spectrum16 (Pas16)


by Media Vision

The Pro Audio Spectrum 16 by Media Vision is another popular card at the moment. This card however does not offer many real benefits over the sound Blaster. It is Sound Blaster compatible, so even if you get software that does not support it directly you can still use the Sound Blaster drivers without worry. The other downside to this card is that to provide both PAS and Sound Blaster support you need two IRQs, DMA's, etc. Warp makes this a little easier as you can now have your Blaster IRQ back on 7 where most programs expect to find it. Under OS/2 this card does have its problems.

There are drivers bundled with OS/2 for the PAS 16 but until the release of OS/2 warp Blue spine they were buggy. Giving off static on boot up and supplied mixers from Media Vision 'sort of' worked but had problems. Even under Warp blue spine I encountered the occasional software which would send it into a repeating loop (Descent). However, the Blue spine drivers are updated and are more stable and reliable than previous ones.

This card will give cleaner sound than a sound Blaster, but when your talking about basic digitised playback and FM synthesis this is not much of a benefit. I have read a lot of reports of people having trouble with these cards on occasion, running both OS/2 and DOS programs. All up, you might as well get an original Sound Blaster and save any potential hassles. But as far as installing for OS/2 goes, it's a breeze as the drivers are already in OS/2. This also means that Win-OS/2 will also use the drivers without a hassle.

PAS Studio

(Just a note from the ED.) I have one of these cards and effectively it is the same as the PAS16. i.e. It exhibits the same problems and has the same features.

Media Vision Premium 3D

Premium 3D

by Media Vision

Another card from Media Vision that I tried out was the Premium 3D. This card looked very snazzy in its box, lot's of disks, lots of software, and fairly descent manuals. But I could not get it to work. In fact I could not even get it to work under DOS let alone OS/2.

The installation software crashed when it tried to examine my system, even when I pulled half of my peripherals out and booted off a floppy. The software that came with it would not work even after I had done the finds the manual said to in the autoexec.bat and config.sys. I also had fun when I tried to hook my Panasonic CD ROM to it. It claimed that it had installed the drivers for my CD ROM on to the hard disk, but when I went and looked they weren't there. So I tried copying them off the disks directly, only to find that the drivers that the manual talked about were not on the disks at all. They had drivers for the Sony and Mitsumi CD ROMs but the Panasonic drivers were not there. The card itself did not seem to offer all that much anyway, having the features of the PAS 16, but with the CD ROM interfaces and a socket for a Wavetable upgradeable daughter board ( Meaning more money to get the card up to the standard of cards of the same price).

This card is supposed to give you a better surround sound feeling, and comes with hardware to enhance the effect. Unfortunately I did not experience this. After unsuccessfully hunting for OS/2 drivers off the internet I gave up on this card.

Gravis Ultra Sound Max

by Advanced Gravis

The best card that I tested was the Gravis UltraSound Max. This card gives great performance for money, so much so, that I bought the one that was sent to me.

What sets this card above the others is that it has full Wavetable synthesis when you buy it . The software is also quite impressive, coming on 8 disks. There is 256k or 512k of memory on board when you buy the card, and this can be expanded to 1Meg. The extra memory allows higher quality sound samples to be loaded onto the card. Another advantage is that the card will do a lot of the work that the CPU used to do when generating sound.

For example when you are playing something like Doom 2 where you can have up to 8 digitised sound channels all being played at once, normally the CPU would mix all the sounds together and then dump them to the sound card. The Gravis however, will do all the mixing on the card, as it can have 32 digitised channels all operating at the same time. This can result in a very large and noticeable increase in performance.

On the down side however, is the fact that it does not support the Sound Blaster directly on the card. Instead you must load a software driver which will make the Gravis emulate a Sound Blaster. This is not great as it only emulates the base Sound Blaster, which will not give you things like stereo sound or 16 bit playback. The software emulation is also a little fickle about which programs it will work under, and some games I tried would actually cause the system to reboot.

Not all is bad though because using the same software you can emulate professional synthesisers like the Roland MT32, and the Roland Sound Canvas. Instruments normally only available to professional musicians. There are no drivers for the gravis UltraSound that come with OS/2, so therefore you must hunt them down yourself. Currently you can get an Alpha version of the official drivers from gravis off their FTP site. These drivers are beginning to look good but still need some work. They wont allow any of the software emulation for OS/2 or DOS Sessions and give a crack of static on occasion when playing high quality digitised sound. They also do not yet support Win-OS/2.

But best of all, there are a 3rd party set of OS/2 drivers which are floating around at the moment known as the "Manley Drivers". These are very good, and have a lot of options. For example, they will add an option to your DOS Session Settings where you can choose which sound card emulation you want for that session. This really should be something incorporated into all kinds of drivers and shows just what can be done when someone really thinks about the drivers they are writing rather than just providing the basic support.

To get Win-OS/2 to recognise the Gravis when using these drivers you must physically edit your windows .ini files. This is a hassle and a point to be noted if you don't want to go messing in the .ini files by yourself. The only bad point with these drivers is that they do not allow Midi files to played unless you have a full Midi system.

Over the past few years there has been growing support for the Gravis UltraSound, with many games and applications supporting it directly. It has also been adopted as the hobbyists sound card, with mountains of software from the internet supporting it and nothing else. All up, if you can get hold of the Manley drivers the Gravis is great card under OS/2, and once the official drivers are finished it would be well worth looking very seriously at a Gravis as a general sound card.

There are two versions of Gravis UltraSound available, the cheaper of the two comes with 256k of memory, and everything that the larger version has except for the recording capabilities, it will only do 8bit recording but can play back at 16bit. This version will cost around $250. The larger version, the UltraSound Max comes with 512k and has everything on the card. It can perform 16bit recording at 48kHz and is around $350 to $400.

Creative Labs AWE32

by Creative Labs

We tried to get hold of a Sound Blaster AWE32 from Creative Labs but it did not show up in time for this article. From my own observations of the card however, it does not appear that the AWE is worth the cost when compared to cards like the Gravis. For example, the box of the AWE contains some suspicious marketing. It mentions on the box that the card comes with 4Megabits of onboard memory, but that's Megabits NOT megabytes. This therefore translates to 512k of onboard memory, not 4Meg which you could read if you are not careful. This has been updated for the new value edition of the AWE.

The other point about the AWE is that it says it comes with Advanced WavEffects Synthesis which could be mistaken as Advanced Wavetable Synthesis. These are not the same, and if you want the AWE to give you full Wavetable Synthesis you must buy the WaveBlaster daughter board. The AWE is however very upgradable, allowing up to 28Meg of memory to be installed onto the card. But even for a music enthusiast a couple of meg is really all you would ever need, and a gravis with the 1Meg expansion should be plenty if you organise your files correctly.

For use under OS/2 the AWE is supported directly, with drivers coming with OS/2. When looking at other applications, the AWE is supported about just as much as the Gravis but it also offers full compatibility with all previous Sound Blasters making it better in that area than the Gravis. The cost of the AWE is generally about $350 to $400 which is no more than the Gravis, however you will have to pay extra to bring it up to the same standard in sound quality.


Running Sound

A point that should be made though, is that if you really want to get the best out of your sound card you are going to have to plug it into a decent sound system. If your going to just use basic speakers plugged straight into the sound card you will lose half of the effect of most of functions that come with the better sound cards.

There really is no comparison to playing Descent on an UltraSound with massive amounts of bass pounding through 4 speakers mounted in the corners of your room. However this may be a little excessive for some people, so just running through a ghetto blaster or a small stereo is probably the best choice.

Using OS/2's Multimedia

When you install OS/2 you get the option to set up any installed sound cards. If you have a card that is already supported by OS/2 this is a very simple process. The installation program will take you through a series of questions asking you about the port address, IRQ, and DMA of the card. Once this is done your card is set up and ready to go.

If you have a card that is not supported by OS/2 you must load up the multimedia Setup. From here go to drive or directory where the drivers are located. You will then see the driver appear and it is a simple matter of selecting it and the choosing install. The multimedia programs that come with OS/2 are quite good. I have been able to set up two sound cards in my system and have them running at the same time. OS/2's multimedia handled this very easily, and had no problem. An icon for playing digital files, and playing midi files appears for each sound card, and you can run them simultaneously.

Why would you want to run two sound cards? I had a Sound Blaster 16 in my system with a CD ROM connected to it. When I bought the Gravis UltraSound I left the SB16 in there. This way I get the best of both worlds, great sound when using software that supports the Gravis, and if it doesn't, I can always use the SB16 without a hassle. All you have to do is make sure that all the settings for the different drivers are unique for both cards.

If you want to remove sound cards from OS/2 however, you may have some difficulty, as I did when I had finished testing the various cards. Basically, OS/2 does not allow you to simply remove the driver from the system. If you want to get rid of sound drivers and icons, you must do it manually by deleting icons and editing the config.sys. Unfortunately there are still bits left over, and so the only way to truly get rid of everything is to selectively remove multimedia and then reinstall it. This is pretty silly and hopefully will be fixed up later.

If you want to find the latest drivers or utilities for OS/2 you will have to find them on the internet or another service. There is not much commercially available software that will let you really manipulate sound. This goes for OS/2, Windows or DOS. Most of the sound card manufactures have FTP sites, and also WWW home pages set up. The only trouble is waiting for the companies to update the drivers that are available at these sites. I'm still waiting for the full Gravis drivers.

There is usually a lot of shareware programs and utilities that you can find for particular sound cards that will run under OS/2 or other operating systems. One thing I did find while hunting for software was an abundance of Gravis Ultrasound programming files. This is very good on Gravis' part, and shows that the manufactures are willing to hand out assistance to developers for no cost, unlike some other companies.

For utilising OS/2's multimedia capabilities, you can use most of the cards that are available today. Some though like the Media Vision Premium 3D and the Gravis Ultrasound, will require a bit more work to get going. OS/2 lets you find all of the system sounds, but they really could expand on this by allowing things like different sounds for different windows when they open and close, and individual sounds for specific applications. As it is though you can find most things and there is enough room to build a theme around the system sounds. For example, a friend of mine who has set up his system with sounds from 'The X Files', so he has Scully and Mulder spouting quotes all over the place. So a bit of imagination and access to some weird sounds you can set up a system that will really annoy anyone working next to you.

To summarise, as yet there is no tried and true answer to what sound card you should get. The lack of a set standard (even though Creative Labs have come close) makes it a difficult decision and one not to be taken lightly. I would definitely recommend establishing that there are drivers for the card you want to buy before handing over any money and preferably find out how good they are as well. And finally, never trust the sales person.