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How Sound Cards Work

by Gary Brown

-he oice in your computer that lets you +now when you/ e recei ed a new e!mail is made possible by the sound card, Before the arri al of sound cards) personal computers (PCs) were limited to beeps from a tiny spea+er on the motherboard, &n the late 0123s) sound cards ushered in the multimedia PC and too+ computer games to a whole different le el,
Industry Standard Architecture 16-bit sound card

&n 0121) Creati e 4abs introduced the Creati e 4abs SoundBlaster5 card, Since then) many other companies ha e introduced sound cards) and Creati e has continued to impro e the SoundBlaster line, &n this edition of How Stuff Works) you/ll learn how a sound card wor+s and e'plore the many uses for this technology, 6ou will also learn what %$ and wa etable synthesis mean,

Anatomy of a Sound Card

A typical sound card has:

a digital signal processor (DSP) that handles most computations a digital to analog con erter (DAC) for audio lea ing the computer an analog!to!digital con erter (ADC) for audio coming into the computer read!only memory ("#$) or %lash memory for storing data musical instrument digital interface ($&D&) for connecting to e'ternal music e(uipment (for many cards) the game port is also used to connect an e'ternal $&D& adapter) *ac+s for connecting spea+ers and microphones) as well as line in and line out a game port for connecting a *oystic+ or gamepad

Current sound cards usually plug into a Peripheral Component &nterconnect (PC&) slot) while some older or ine'pensi e cards may use the &ndustry Standard Architecture (&SA) bus, $any of the computers a ailable today incorporate the sound card as a chipset right on the motherboard, -his lea es another slot open for other peripherals, -he SoundBlaster Pro is considered the de facto standard for sound cards, .irtually e ery sound card on the mar+et today includes SoundBlaster Pro compatibility as a bare minimum,

Photo courtesy Ama7on,com

Creative Labs SB4 4! Sound B"aster 16 #CI

#ften) different brands of sound cards from different manufacturers use the same chipset, -he basic chipset comes from a third!party endor, -he sound card manufacturer then adds arious other functions and bundled software to help differentiate their product, Sound cards may be connected to:

headphones amplified spea+ers an analog input source microphone radio tape dec+ CD player a digital input source digital audiotape (DA-) CD!"#$ dri e an analog output de ice ! tape dec+ a digital output de ice DA CD recordable (CD!")

Some of the current high!end sound cards offer four!spea+er output and digital interface through a *ac+, %or audiophiles) there is a new generation of di$ita" sound cards, A digital sound card is practical for applications that need digital sound) such as CD!" and DA-, Staying digital without any con ersion to or from analog helps pre ent what is called 8generational loss,8 Digital sound cards ha e pro isions for digital sound input and output) so you can transfer data from DA-) D.D or CD directly to your hard dis+ in your PC,

Catching -he 9a e
-ypically) a sound card can do four things with sound:

play pre!recorded music (from CDs or sound files) such as wa or $P:)) games or D.Ds record audio in arious media from e'ternal sources (microphone or tape player) synthesi7e sounds

process e'isting sounds

-he DAC and ADC pro ide the means for getting the audio in and out of the sound card while the DSP o ersees the process, -he DSP also ta+es care of any alterations to the sound) such as echo or re erb, Because the DSP focuses on the audio processing) the computer/s main processor can ta+e care of other tas+s, ;arly sound cards used %& synthesis to create sounds, %$ synthesis ta+es tones at arying fre(uencies and combines them to create an appro'imation of a particular sound) such as the blare of a trumpet, 9hile %$ synthesis has matured to the point where it can sound ery realistic) it does not compare to wavetab"e synthesis, 9a etable synthesis wor+s by recording a tiny sample of the actual instrument, -his sample is then played in a loop to re!create the original instrument with incredible accuracy, 9a etable synthesis has become the standard for most sound cards) but some of the ine'pensi e brands still use %$ synthesis, A few cards pro ide both types, .ery sophisticated sound cards ha e more support for &I'I instru(ents, <sing a music program) a $&D&!e(uipped music instrument can be attached to the sound card to allow you to see on the computer screen the music score of what you/re playing,

Producing Sound
4et/s say you spea+ into your computer/s microphone, A sound card creates a sound file in wa format from the data input through the microphone, -he process of con erting that data into a file to be recorded to the hard dis+ is: 0, -he sound card recei es a continuous) analog!wa eform input signal from the microphone *ac+, -he analog signals recei ed ary in both amplitude and fre(uency, =, Software in the computer selects which input(s) will be used) depending on whether the microphone sound is being mi'ed with a CD in the CD!"#$ dri e, 3. -he mi'ed) analog wa eform signal is processed in real!time by an analog!to!digital con erter (ADC) circuit chip) creating a binary (digital) output of 0s and 3s, >, -he digital output from the ADC flows into the DSP, -he DSP is programmed by a set of instructions stored on another chip on the sound card, #ne of the functions of the DSP is to compress the now!digital data in order to sa e space, -he DSP also allows the computer/s processor to perform other tas+s while this is ta+ing place, ?, -he output from the DSP is fed to the computer/s data bus by way of connections on the sound card (or traces on the motherboard to and from the sound chipset), @, -he digital data is processed by the computer/s processor and routed to the hard! dis+ controller, &t is then sent on to the hard!dis+ dri e as a recorded wa file, -o listen to a prerecorded wa file) the process is simply re ersed:

1. -he digital data is read from the hard dis+ and passed on to the central processor,
=, -he central processor passes the data to the DSP on the sound card, 3. -he DSP uncompresses the digital data, >, -he uncompressed) digital data!stream from the DSP is processed in real!time by a digital!to!analog con erter (DAC) circuit chip) creating an analog signal that you hear in the headphones or through the spea+ers) depending on which is connected to the sound!card/s headphone *ac+,

Sound Card <pgrades

Sound!card upgrades are an option if the motherboard does not ha e a sound chipset built in or if the user wants higher performance, A common upgrade path is to mo e from an &SA sound card to a PC& sound card, Generally) your intended application determines whether you need a new sound card, %or some audio applications) such as telephony or certain games) full!duple' sound is a must, %ull!duple' sound has the ability to accept a sound input while simultaneously pro iding sound output, &n 9indows) you can test for full!duple' capability by launching two copies of Sound "ecorder, -o do this) clic+: 0, =, :, >, ?, Start menu Programs Accessories ;ntertainment Sound recorder

"epeat the process to launch two copies of the program, 6ou can test for full duple' by playing a file on one 9indows Sound "ecorder and) while that file is playing) ma+ing a recording with the other,