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[ The PC Guide | Articles and Editorials | Sound Beginnings ]

Sound Card Specifications

Lately new sound cards keep coming out with bigger and bigger numbers tacked on to them. The number you see in the name of your sound card (Soundblaster 16, Orchid Soundwave 32, Soundblaster AWE64 etc.) refers to the number of simultaneous voices it can output. It does not refer to the bit resolution as most people are led to believe. Each voice represents a different, distinct instrument being played by the sound card; so if you are playing a piece of classical music, the piano would be one voice, the clarinet a second, and so on. In contrast, bit resolution is what we discussed here; it refers to how well a signal at any given time is "described" in amplitude. Virtually all sound cards use 16-bit digital resolution just like your CD player (whether it be the CD-ROM drive in your computer, or the CD player in your stereo system.)

When considering FM synthesis by the sound card, the number of oscillators dictates the number of simultaneous voices your sound card can output. Soundblaster AWE64 has 32 hardware voices (oscillators), and 32 software voices (created by mixing frequencies in software and not hardware). The Orchid Soundwave 32, as well as the original 8-bit Soundblaster, have 11 voices. More voices means the potential for richer sound.

Leif Gregory has a Bachelor's in Computer Studies from the University of Maryland, and is currently serving with the United States Air Force in Japan as a Satellite Communications Technician. He publishes a free weekly newsletter about computers and the Internet called PCWize.

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