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Sound Card


Contents :-

Introduction to Sound Cards

Before the invention of the sound card, a PC could make one sound - a beep. Although the computer could change the beep's frequency and duration, it couldn't change the volume or create other sounds.

At first, the beep acted primarily as a signal or a warning. Later, developers created music for the earliest PC games using beeps of different pitches and lengths. This music was not particularly realistic -- you can hear samples from some of these soundtracks at Crossfire Designs.

PC sound card

Fortunately, computers' sound capabilities increased greatly in the 1980s, when several manufacturers introduced add-on cards dedicated to controlling sound. Now, a computer with a sound card can do far more than just beep. It can produce 3-D audio for games or surround sound playback for DVDs. It can also capture and record sound from external sources.

Analog vs. Digital

Sounds and computer data are fundamentally different. Sounds are analog - they are made of waves that travel through matter. People hear sounds when these waves physically vibrate their eardrums. Computers, however, communicate digitally, using electrical impulses that represent 0s and 1s. Like a graphics card, a sound card translates between a computer's digital information and the outside world's analog information.

The most basic sound card is a printed circuit board that uses four components to translate analog and digital information:

• An analog-to-digital converter (ADC)

• A digital-to-analog converter (DAC)

• An ISA or PCI interface to connect the card to the motherboard

• Input and output connections for a microphone and speakers

Instead of separate ADCs and DACs, some sound cards use a coder/decoder chip, also called a CODEC, which performs both functions.

A sound card must translate between sound waves and bits and bytes.

ADCs and DACs

Imagine using your computer to record yourself talking. First, you speak into a microphone that you have plugged into your sound card. The ADC translates the analog waves of your voice into digital data that the computer can understand. To do this, it samples, or digitizes, the sound by taking precise measurements of the wave at frequent intervals.

An analog-to-digital converter measures sound waves at frequent intervals.

The number of measurements per second, called the sampling rate, is measured in kHz. The faster a card's sampling rate, the more accurate its reconstructed wave is.

If you were to play your recording back through the speakers, the DAC would perform the same basic steps in reverse. With accurate measurements and a fast sampling rate, the restored analog signal can be nearly identical to the original sound wave.

Even high sampling rates, however, cause some reduction in sound quality. The physical process of moving sound through wires can also cause distortion. Manufacturers use two measurements to describe this reduction in sound quality:

• Total Harmonic Distortion (THD), expressed as a percentage

• Signal to Noise Ratio (SNR), measured in decibels

For both THD and SNR, smaller values indicate better quality. Some cards also support digital input, allowing people to store digital recordings without converting them to an analog format.

Methods of Sound Creation

Computers and sound cards can use several methods to create sounds. One is frequency modulation (FM) synthesis, in which the computer overlaps multiple sound waves to make more complex wave shapes. Another is wave table synthesis, which uses samples of real instruments to replicate musical sounds. Wave table synthesis often uses several samples of the same instrument played at different pitches to provide more realistic sounds. In general, wave table synthesis creates more accurate reproductions of sound than FM synthesis.

Sound Card Components

In addition to the basic components needed for sound processing, many sound cards include additional hardware or input/output connections, including:

• Digital Signal Processor (DSP): Like a graphics processing unit (GPU), a DSP is a specialized microprocessor. It takes some of the workload off of the computer's CPU by performing calculations for analog and digital conversion. DSPs can process multiple sounds, or channels, simultaneously. Sound cards that do not have their own DSP use the CPU for processing.

• Memory: As with a graphics card, a sound card can use its own memory to provide faster data processing.

• Input and Output Connections: Most sound cards have, at the very minimum, connections for a microphone and speakers. Some include so many input and output connections that they have a breakout box, which often mounts in one of the drive bays, to house them. These connections include:

• Multiple speaker connections for 3-D and surround sound

• Sony/Philips Digital Interface (S/PDIF), a file transfer protocol for audio data. It uses either coaxial or optical connections for input to and output from the sound card.

• Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI), used to connect synthesizers or other electronic instruments to their computers.

• FireWire and USB connections, which connect digital audio or video recorders to the sound card

A PCI sound card

Next, we'll look at integrated motherboard and external sound control options.

Options for Sound Control

Not every computer has a sound card. Some motherboards feature integrated audio support instead. A motherboard that has its own DSP can process multiple data streams. It may also support 3-D positional and Dolby surround sound. However, in spite of these features, most reviewers agree that separate sound cards provide better audio quality.

External sound controller

Laptops usually have integrated sound capabilities on their motherboards or small sound cards. However, space and temperature control considerations make top-of-the-line internal cards impractical. So, laptop users can purchase external sound controllers, which use USB or FireWire connections. These external modules can significantly improve laptop sound quality.

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