Sound Cards

3.3742489270539 (1165)
Posted by sonny 03/19/2009 @ 04:14

Tags : sound cards, components, hardware, technology

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Sound Blaster

Sound Blaster Pro 2

The Sound Blaster family of sound cards was for many years the de facto standard for audio on the IBM PC compatible system platform, before PC audio became commoditized, and backward-compatibility became less of a feature.

The creator of Sound Blaster is the Singapore-based firm Creative Technology, also known by the name of its United States subsidiary, Creative Labs.

The history of Creative sound boards started with the release of the Creative Music System ("C/MS") board in August 1987. It contained two Philips SAA 1099 circuits, which, together, provided 12 voices of square-wave bee-in-a-box stereo sound plus some noise channels.

These circuits were featured earlier in various popular electronics magazines around the world. For many years Creative tended to use off-the-shelf components and manufacturers' reference designs for their early products. The various integrated circuits had white or black paper sheets fully covering their top thus hiding their identity... On the C/MS board in particular, the Philips chips had white pieces of paper with a fantasy CMS-301 inscription on them; real Creative parts usually had consistent CT number references.

Surprisingly, the board also contained a large 40-pin PGA (Creative Technology Programmable Logic) integrated circuit, bearing a CT 1302A CTPL 8708 serigraphed inscription and looking exactly like the DSP of the later Sound Blaster. Presumably, it could be used to automate some of the sound operations, like envelope control.

A year later, in 1988, Creative marketed the C/MS via Radio Shack under the name Game Blaster. This card was identical in every way to the precursor C/MS hardware. Creative did not change any of the labeling or program names on the disks that came with the Game Blaster.

The first board bearing the Sound Blaster name appeared in 1989. In addition to Game Blaster features, it had an 11-voice FM synthesizer using the Yamaha YM3812 chip, also known as OPL2. It provided perfect compatibility with the then market leader AdLib sound card, which had gained support in PC games in the preceding years. Creative used the "DSP" acronym to designate the digital audio part of the Sound Blaster. This actually stood for Digital SOUND Processor, rather than the more common digital signal processor, and was really a simple microcontroller from the Intel MCS-51 family (supplied by Intel and Matra MHS, among others). It could play back monaural sampled sound at up to 23 kHz sampling frequency (approx. FM radio quality) and record at up to 12 kHz (approx. AM radio quality). The sole DSP-like feature of the circuit was ADPCM decompression.

The original card lacked an anti-aliasing filter, resulting in a characteristic "metal junk" sound. (This was rectified with the addition of two user-selectable filters in the later Sound Blaster Pro card.) It also featured a joystick port and a proprietary MIDI interface.

In spite of these limitations, in less than a year, the Sound Blaster became the top-selling expansion card for the PC. It achieved this by providing a fully AdLib-compatible product, with additional features, for the same, and often less, money. The inclusion of the game port, and its importance to its early success, is often forgotten or overlooked. PCs of this era did not include a game port. Game port cards were costly (around $50) and used one of a few expansion slot PCs had at the time. Given the choice between an AdLib card or a fully-compatible Sound Blaster card that came with a game port, saved you a slot, and included the 'DSP' for not much more money, many consumers opted for the Sound Blaster. In-game support for the digital portion of the card did not happen until after the Sound Blaster had gained dominance.

Sound Blaster 1.5, released in 1990, dropped the "C/MS chips". They could be purchased separately from Creative and inserted into two sockets on the board.

Sound Blaster 2.0 added support for "auto-init" DMA, which assisted in producing a continuous loop of double-buffered sound output and increased the maximum playback rate to 44 kHz (the same maximum as the Sound Blaster Pro, released around the same time). The earlier Sound Blaster 1.0 or 1.5 could be upgraded to support auto-init DMA by replacing the socketed V1.00 DSP with a V2.00 DSP, which was available from Creative Labs.

Sound Blaster MCV was a version created for IBM PS/2 model 50 and higher, which had a MicroChannel bus instead of the more traditional ISA one. It did not contain sockets for the C/MS chips and was unreliable in the faster PS/2 systems.

The Sound Blaster Pro (May 1991) was the first significant redesign of the card's core features: It could record and play back digitized sound at faster sampling rates (recording up to 44.1 kHz 8bits per sample in mono or up to 22.050 kHz 8bits per sample in stereo. Playback was similarly up to 44.1 kHz 8bits per sample mono or up to 22.050 kHz 8bits per sample in stereo), and added a "mixer" which allowed independent volume control of the various subsystems on the card as well as enable a crude highpass or lowpass filter. The first version of the Pro also used two YM3812 chips (one for left audio channel and the other one for the right one; both chips had to be programmed identically to get mono sound if not using the AdLib compatible interface). Version 2.0 switched to the improved Yamaha YMF262 chip, also known as OPL3. MIDI support became full-duplex and offered time stamping features, but was not yet industry-standard MPU-401 compatible.

The Sound Blaster Pro was the first Creative sound card to have a built-in CD-ROM interface. Most had a proprietary interface for a Panasonic (Matsushita MKE) drive, prior to the popularity of IDE CD-ROM drives. After the release of the Sound Blaster Pro, Creative also began to sell Multimedia Upgrade Kits, typically including a sound card, Matsushita CD-ROM drive (model 531 for single-speed, or 562/3 for the later double-speed (2x) drives), and a large selection of multimedia software titles on the revolutionary CD-ROM media. One such kit, named "OmniCD", included the 2x Matsushita drive along with an ISA controller card and software, including Software Toolworks Encyclopedia and Aldus PhotoStyler SE. It was compliant with the MPC Level 2 standard.

Sound Blaster cards were also sold to PC manufacturers and third-parties. Many of these so-called OEM cards have different types of CD-ROM interfaces or other unusual features.

The next model, Sound Blaster 16 (June 1992) introduced 16-bit digital audio sampling to the Sound Blaster line. Like the older Sound Blasters, they also natively supported FM synthesis through a Yamaha OPL-3 chip. The Sound Blaster 16 had a socket for an optional digital signal processor dubbed the Advanced Signal Processor (ASP or later CSP). The cards also featured a connector for add-on daughterboards with "wavetable synthesis" (actually, sample-based synthesis) capabilities complying to the General MIDI standard.

Creative offered such daughterboards in their Wave Blaster line. Finally, the MIDI support now included MPU-401 emulation (in dumb UART mode only, but this was sufficient for most MIDI applications). The Wave Blaster was simply a MIDI peripheral internally connected to the MIDI port, so any PC sequencer software could use it.

Eventually this design proved so popular that Creative made a PCI version of the card. This required a work-around to maintain backward compatibility with DOS programs. Moving the card off the ISA bus, which was already long in the tooth, negated the need for a DMA (Direct Memory Access) Line, which is still needed for DOS sound support.

Vibra 16 was an inexpensive single-chip implementation of the ISA SB16 for OEM market. Creative Labs also used this chip for the Sound Blaster 32, Sound Blaster VIBRA + FM and many other value-edition cards. This series included the Vibra16 (CT2501), Vibra16s and Vibra16c (CT2505) PnP chips.

The Sound Blaster AWE32 (Advanced Wave Effects), introduced in March 1994, was a full-length ISA card, measuring 14 inches (356 mm) in length. The AWE32 included two distinct audio sections; one being the Creative digital audio section with their audio codec and optional CSP/ASP chip socket, and the second being the E-mu MIDI synthesizer section. The synthesizer section consisted of the EMU8000 sampler and effects processor, an EMU8011 1 MiB sample ROM, and 512 kiB of sample RAM (expandable to 28 MiB).

The Sound Blaster 32 (SB32) was a value-oriented offering from Creative, announced on June 6, 1995, designed to fit below the AWE32 Value in the lineup. The SB32 lacked onboard RAM, the Wave Blaster header, and CSP port. The boards also used the Vibra digital audio chip which lacked adjustments for bass, treble, and gain. The SB32 was fully equipped with the same MIDI capabilities (the same EMU8000/EMU8011 combination) as the AWE32, and had the same 30-pin SIMM RAM expansion capability. The board was also fully compatible with the AWE32 option in software and used the same Windows drivers. Once the SB32 was outfitted with 30-pin SIMMs, the SB32's sampler section performed identically to the AWE32's.

The AWE32's successor, the Sound Blaster AWE64 (November 1996), was significantly smaller, being a "half-length ISA card" ( that term is misleading - see the pictures for size comparison ) . It offered similar features to the AWE32, but also had a few notable improvements, including support for greater polyphony, although this was a product of 32 extra software emulated channels. The 30-pin SIMM slots from AWE32/SB32 were replaced with a proprietary memory format which could be (expensively) purchased from Creative.

The main improvements were better compatibility with older SB models, and an improved signal-to-noise ratio. The AWE64 came in 3 versions: A Value version (with 512KB of RAM), a Standard version (with 1 MB of RAM), and a Gold version (with 4 MB of RAM and a separate S/PDIF output).

Creative released many cards using the original AudioPCI chip, Ensoniq ES1370, and several boards using revised versions of this chip (ES1371 and ES1373), and some with relabeled AudioPCI chips (they say Creative on them.) Boards using AudioPCI tech are usually easily identifiable by the board design and the chip size because they all look quite similar. Such boards include Sound Blaster PCI64 (April 1998), PCI128 (July 1998), Creative Ensoniq AudioPCI, Vibra PCI and Sound Blaster 16 PCI.

These cards were full-featured, but the features were limited in capability. MIDI, for example, was rather poor in quality and there was no ability to customize the sample sets beyond the 3 pre-made sets (2, 4, and 8 MB) included with the cards. The chips do not support hardware acceleration of any kind as they are entirely software-driven. These cards also did not support SoundFonts.

The Sound Blaster PCI512 is an EMU10K1-based sound card designed to fill a lower cost segment than the Live! Value. It is capable of most of the Live! Value's features aside from being limited to 512 MIDI voice polyphony (a software-based limitation), lacking digital I/O, removal of expansion headers, and only stereo or quadraphonic output support. The card's circuit layout is somewhat simpler than that of the Live! series.

Sound Blaster Live! (August 1998) saw the introduction of the EMU10K1 processor, a 2.44 million transistor DSP capable of 1000 MIPS for audio processing. The use of a programmable digital signal processor in a broad consumer audio card was largely unprecedented at the time (professional Turtle Beach cards used them). The EMU10K1 and FX8010 chips provided the ability to offload functions previously reliant on custom creative chipsets. The EMU10K1 provided a high-speed DMA interface, which only required a single extra chip to interface with the PCI bus, allowing the realisation of a ROM-free virtualised wavetable in dynamic system memory which could be added to and remapped whilst in use.

Because of this, the EMU10K1 represented a paradigm shift in PC audio and proved to be a highly marketable product that was significantly cheaper to manufacture and update with new features/bug fixes and co-bundled musician-targeted applications and further income-generation through third party licensing. The main features prominent to most non-musicians were EAX 1.0 (and later 2.0) (environmental audio extensions, which competed with A3D before the demise of the latter), a high-quality 64-voice sample-based synthesizer (a.k.a. wavetable), with self-produced or third-party customized patches or "Soundfonts", and the ability to resample the audio output as input and apply a range of real-time DSP effects to any set of audio subchannels present in the device. All the original series of SB Live! came standard with 4-channel analog audio outputs and standard AC'97 chip features, and the ubiquitous 15-pin MIDI/Joystick multiport.

The first model on the market, the retail SB Live! Gold, featured gold tracings on all major analog traces and external sockets, along with an EMI-suppressing printed circuit board substrate and lacquer. It came standard with a daughterboard that implemented a separate 4-channel alternative mini-DIN digital output to Creative-branded internal-DAC speaker sets, a S/P-DIF digital audio Input and Output with separate software mappings, and a fully decoded MIDI interface with an Input and Output provided on mini-DIN connectors for which a converter was provided, purportedly for direct plug-and-play for musicians. Like all other audio sources, the MIDI synthesis complete with Soundfonts could be "Rendered" inside a virtual environment (reverb, etc.), and the output recaptured directly in software, whilst performing.

The Sound Blaster Live! was marketed as featuring higher audio quality than previous Sound Blasters, since the majority of sound processing was in the digital domain, with Digital-to-Analog conversion/amplification taking place on separate chip packages to the EMU10K1 chipset and its digitally-noisy data bus to the FX8010 DSP chip, which were themselves further separated from PC system noise through a board-shielded PCI device controller. Sound Blaster Live! supported multi-speaker output, initially up to a 4-speaker setup (4 satellites and a subwoofer).

Later versions of the Live!, usually called Live! 5.1, offered 5.1-channel support which adds a center channel speaker and LFE subwoofer output, most useful for movie watching. The Live! 5.1 could also use one of the 3.5 mm jack ports as an SPDIF out, which allowed the connection of an external decoder.

The Sound Blaster Audigy (August 2001) featured the Audigy processor (EMU10K2), an improved version of the EMU10K1 processor that shipped with the Sound Blaster Live!. The Audigy could process up to 4 EAX environments simultaneously with its upgraded on-chip DSP and native EAX 3.0 ADVANCED HD support, and supported from stereo up to 5.1-channel output.

The Audigy was advertised as a 24-bit sound card. However, with some controversy, the Audigy's audio transport (DMA engine) was fixed to 16-bit sample precision at 48 kHz (like Live!), and all audio had to be resampled to 48 kHz in order to be rendered through its DSP, or recorded from its DSP.

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 (September 2002) featured an updated EMU10K2 processor, sometimes referred to as EMU10K2.5, has a new audio transport (DMA engine) that could support playback at 24-bit precision up to 192 kHz (2-channel only. 6.1 limited to 96 kHz) and recording at 24-bit precision up to 96 kHz. In addition, Audigy 2 supported up to 6.1 (later 7.1) speakers and had improved signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) over the Audigy (106 vs. 100 decibels (A)). It also featured built-in Dolby Digital EX 6.1 and 7.1 decoding for improved DVD play-back.

Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS (2004) is essentially an Audigy 2 with updated DAC and opamps. Audigy 2 ZS uses the Cirrus Logic CS4382 DAC together with the opamps and can produce an output SNR of 108dB. There were a few slight printed circuit board modifications and 7.1 audio support was added.

Sound Blaster Audigy 4 Pro was an Audigy 2 ZS with updated DACs and ADCs, the new DAC is the Top of the line Cirrus Logic CS4398, boosting the output SNR to 113dB. Other than a breakout box, it has no distinguishable difference from the Audigy 2 ZS. The DSP is identical to the Audigy 2 ZS's but Creative put an "Audigy 4" sticker to cover the chip, making it appear as if it is a new chip. The Audigy 4 Pro is not to be confused with the Audigy 4 (Value) which contains lower quality DACs and does not have golden plated jacks. The Audigy 4 (Value) is more in line with the Audigy 2 Value series. The Audigy 4 enjoyed a relatively short life span because of the imminent debute of the Soundblaster X-Fi.

The X-Fi (for "Extreme Fidelity") was released in August 2005 and comes in XtremeMusic, Platinum, Fatal1ty FPS, XtremeGamer and Elite Pro configurations. The 130 nm EMU20K1 audio chip operates at 400 MHz and has 51 million transistors. The computational power of this processor, i.e. its performance, is estimated as 10,000 MIPS (million instructions per second), which is about 24 times higher than the estimated performance of its predecessor – the Audigy processor. It is interesting to note that the processor’s computational power is optimized for the work mode selected in the software. With the X-Fi's "Active Modal Architecture" (AMA), the user can choose one of three optimization modes: Gaming, Entertainment, and Creation; each enabling a combination of the features of the chipset. The X-Fi uses EAX 5.0 which supports up to 128 3D-positioned voices with up to four effects applied to each. This release also included the 24 bit crystalizer, which is intended to pronounce percussion elements by placing some emphasis on low and high pitched parts of the sound. The X-Fi, at its release, offered some of the most powerful mixing capabilities available, making it a powerful entry-level card for home musicians. The other big improvement in the X-Fi over the previous Audigy designs was the complete overhaul of the resampling engine on the card. The previous Audigy cards had their DSPs locked at 48/16, meaning any content that didn't match was resampled on the card in hardware; which was done poorly and resulted in a lot of intermodulation distortion. Many hardcore users worked around this by means of resampling their content using high quality software decoders, usually in the form of a plugin in their media player. Creative completely re-wrote the resampling method used on the X-Fi and dedicated more than half of the power of the DSP to the process; resulting in a very clean resample.

Up until the AWE line, Creative cards has short text inscriptions on the backplane of the card, indicating which port does what (i.e. Mic, Spk, Aux In, Aux Out). On later cards, the text inscriptions were changed to icons. With the latest cards from Creative, the cards were changed to use numbers as the ports are flexi-jacks and can have different functions assigned to them at run-time (i.e. changed from speaker output to mic in), but a color overlay sticker is included with retail units to help consumers identify the commonly-used functions of the ports in its default mode.

Some drivers from the Audigy 2 ZS have been soft-modded by enthusiasts. These can be installed on Creative's older cards, including Sound Blaster Live!, Audigy, and Audigy 2. It has been claimed to offer improved sound quality, hardware acceleration of higher EAX versions in games, 64-channel mixing for Audigy 1, and an overall improvement in the card's performance. Several forum posts across the web have reported favourable results with this technique, excepting Live! users where the drivers only add the ability to use the newer software applications (i.e. the newer mixer applet). Comments on forums from developers of the software mod have said that Live!'s hardware is not capable of EAX3 nor 64-channels of hardware sound mixing.

Later, in 2004, Creative released updated drivers top-to-bottom for the Audigy through Audigy 4 line that put these cards basically at feature parity on a software level. As of 2006, the entire Audigy lineup uses the same driver package. DSP decoding at the driver level on other cards than Audigy 2 ZS and 4 is still not supported by official drivers, but it works with soft-modded drivers on the other cards with hardware DSP (like Audigy 2 6.1).

When Vista was released, there was only a single beta driver for the Creative Audigy series that was usable on the operating system with minimal functionality and frequent instability reported by users. A Creative Forum activist named Daniel K modified drivers from the X-Fi and applied it to the Audigy and Live! series, restoring most if not all of the features that came with the original XP setup CD in Vista. X-Fi drivers have noticeably better sound quality under Vista, and more bug fixes because of the newer build (last modified version is 2.15.0004EQ April). He managed to enable the X-fi Crystallizer to work on Audigy series cards in software, however because of the patents involved, he was forced to remove all the modified drivers and DDL patch. The event ended as a PR disaster for Creative, especially on the Creative Forum and technical blog sites. Daniel K has since stopped developing modified support files for the above sound cards, however some of the files (as of July, 2008) may still be hosted on individual tech/blog sites. Creative has since then released a newer official Audigy Vista driver (2.18.0000 as of July 28, 2008) due to public and consumer pressure.

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Dolby Digital

Dolby Digital logo that is sometimes shown at the beginning of broadcasts, feature films, and games

Dolby Digital is the marketing name for a series of lossy audio compression technologies developed by Dolby Laboratories.

Dolby Digital includes several similar technologies, which include Dolby Digital, Dolby Digital EX, Dolby Digital Live, Dolby Digital Surround EX, Dolby Digital Plus, and Dolby TrueHD.

Dolby Digital, or AC-3, is the common version containing up to six discrete channels of sound. The most elaborate mode in common usage involves five channels for normal-range speakers (20 Hz – 20,000 Hz) (right front, center, left front, right rear and left rear) and one channel (20 Hz – 120 Hz allotted audio) for the subwoofer driven low-frequency effects. Mono and stereo modes are also supported. AC-3 supports audio sample-rates up to 48 kHz. Batman Returns was the first film to use Dolby Digital technology when it premiered in theaters in Summer 1992. The Laserdisc version of Clear and Present Danger featured the first Home theater Dolby Digital mix in 1995.

Dolby Digital EX is similar in practice to Dolby's earlier Pro-Logic format, which utilized matrix technology to add a center channel and single rear surround channel to stereo soundtracks. EX adds an extension to the standard 5.1 channel Dolby Digital codec in the form of matrixed rear channels, creating 6.1 or 7.1 channel output. However, the format is not considered a true 6.1 or 7.1 channel codec because it lacks the capability to support a discrete 6th channel unlike the competing DTS-ES codec.

The Cinema Version of "Dolby Digital EX" is called Dolby Digital Surround Ex and works the same way. Dolby Digital Surround EX was co-developed by Dolby and Lucasfilm THX in time for the release in May 1999 of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It provides an economical and backwards-compatible means for 5.1 soundtracks to carry a sixth, center back surround channel for improved localization of effects. The extra surround channel is matrix encoded onto the discrete Left Surround and Right Surround channels of the 5.1 mix, much like the front center channel on Dolby Surround encoded stereo soundtracks. The result can be played without loss of information on standard 5.1 systems, or played in 6.1 or 7.1 on systems equipped with Surround EX decoding and additional speakers. Dolby Digital Surround EX has since been used for the Star Wars prequels on the DVD versions and also the remastered original Star Wars trilogy. A number of DVDs have Dolby Digital Surround EX audio option.

Dolby Digital Live (DDL) is a real-time hardware encoding technology for interactive media such as video games. It converts any audio signals on a PC or game console into the 5.1-channel Dolby Digital format and transports it via a single S/PDIF cable. A similar technology known as DTS Connect is available from competitor DTS.

Dolby Digital Live is currently available in sound cards from manufacturers such as Creative Labs, TerraTec, Turtle Beach, HT OMEGA SYSTEM, Auzentech and Asus using C-Media chipsets. The SoundStorm, used for the Xbox game console and certain nForce2-based PCs, used an early form of this technology.

DDL is also available on motherboards with codecs such as Realtek's ALC882D, ALC888DD and ALC888H.

DDL is also supported by all Creative X-Fi based sound cards, but is intentionally disabled in the drivers by Creative on all but the Auzentech Prelude. A programmer named Daniel Kawakami has re-enabled this feature and fixed other bugs in the Windows Vista drivers in a series of modified drivers that he made available. Creative Labs has alleged that Daniel has violated their intellectual property and has demanded he cease distributing his modified drivers. Creative has since released the X-Fi Titanium sound card which fully supports Dolby Digital Live.

In September 2008 Creative released the "Dolby Digital Live" pack which enables Dolby Digital Live on Creative's X-Fi sound cards. The product can be bought from Creative directly.

An important benefit of this technology is that it enables the use of digital multichannel sound with consumer sound cards, which are otherwise limited to PCM stereo or multichannel analog.

E-AC-3, more commonly known as Dolby Digital Plus, is an enhanced coding system based on the AC-3 codec. It offers increased bitrates (up to 6.144 Mbit/s), support for more audio channels (up to 13.1), improved coding techniques to reduce compression artifacts, and backward compatibility with existing AC-3 hardware.

Dolby TrueHD, developed by Dolby Laboratories, is an advanced lossless audio codec based on Meridian Lossless Packing. Support for the codec was mandatory for HD DVD and is optional for Blu-ray Disc hardware. TrueHD supports 24-bit, 96 kHz audio channels at up to 18 Mbit/s over 14 channels (HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc standards currently limit the maximum number of audio channels to eight). It also supports extensive metadata, including dialog normalization and Dynamic Range Control.

All of these configurations can optionally include the extra Low Frequency Effect (LFE) channel. The last two with stereo surrounds can optionally use Dolby Digital EX matrix encoding to add an extra Rear Surround channel.

Many Dolby Digital decoders are equipped with downmixing functionality to distribute encoded channels to available speakers. This includes such functions as playing surround information through the front speakers if surround speakers are unavailable, and distributing the center channel to left and right if no center speaker is available. When outputting to separate equipment over a 2-channel connection, a Dolby Digital decoder can optionally encode the output using Dolby Surround to preserve surround information.

The '.1' in 5.1, 7.1 etc. refers to the LFE channel, which is also a discrete channel.

Dolby Digital SR-D cinema soundtracks are optically recorded on a 35 mm release print using sequential data blocks placed between every perforation hole on the sound track side of the film. A CCD scanner in the projector picks up a scanned video image of this area, and a processor correlates the image area and extracts the digital data as an AC-3 bitstream. These data are finally decoded into a 5.1 channel audio source.

Dolby Digital audio is also used on DVD-Video and other purely digital media, like home cinema. In this format, the AC-3 bitstream is interleaved with the video and control bitstreams.

The system is used in many bandwidth-limited applications other than DVD-Video, such as digital TV. The AC-3 standard allows a maximum coded bit rate of 640 kbit/s. 35 mm film prints use a fixed rate of 320 kbit/s. HD DVD and DVD-Video discs are limited to 448 kbit/s, although many players can successfully play higher-rate bitstreams (which are non-compliant with the DVD specification). ATSC and Digital cable standards limit AC-3 to 448 kbit/s. Blu-ray Disc, the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Microsoft Xbox game console can output an AC-3 signal at a full 640 kbit/s. Some Sony PlayStation 2 console games are also capable to output AC-3 standard audio as well.

Dolby is also part of a group of organizations involved in the development of AAC (Advanced Audio Coding), part of MPEG specifications, and considered the successor to MP3. AAC outperforms AC-3 at any bitrate, but is more complex.

Dolby Digital Plus (DD-Plus) is supported in HD DVD, as a mandatory codec, and in Blu-ray Disc, as an optional codec.

The data layout of AC-3 is described by simplified "C-like" language in official specifications. An AC-3 stream is made up by a series of synchronization frames, which are composed of six audio blocks. Each audio block contains 256 audio samples per channel. Note 6×256 = 1536 = Audio frame size. Below is a simplified AC-3 header intended to give an introduction into the data syntax. A detailed description of the header can be found in the ATSC "Digital Audio Compression (AC-3) Standard", section 5.4.

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Sound card

Close-up of a sound card PCB, showing electrolytic capacitors, SMT capacitors and resistors, and a YAC512 two-channel 16-bit DAC.

A sound card (also known as an audio card) is a computer expansion card that facilitates the input and output of audio signals to/from a computer under control of computer programs. Typical uses of sound cards include providing the audio component for multimedia applications such as music composition, editing video or audio, presentation/education, and entertainment (games). Many computers have sound capabilities built in, while others require additional expansion cards to provide for audio capability.

Sound cards usually feature a digital-to-analog converter, that converts recorded or generated digital data into an analog format. The output signal is connected to an amplifier, headphones, or external device using standard interconnects, such as a TRS connector or an RCA connector. If the number and size of connectors is too large for the space on the backplate the connectors will be off-board, typically using a breakout box, or an auxiliary backplate. More advanced cards usually include more than one sound chip to provide for higher data rates and multiple simultaneous functionality, eg between digital sound production and synthesized sounds (usually for real-time generation of music and sound effects using minimal data and CPU time). Digital sound reproduction is usually done with multi-channel DACs, which are capable of multiple digital samples simultaneously at different pitches and volumes, or optionally applying real-time effects like filtering or distortion. Multi-channel digital sound playback can also be used for music synthesis when used with a compliance, and even multiple-channel emulation. This approach has become common as manufacturers seek to simplify the design and the cost of sound cards.

Most sound cards have a line in connector for signal from a cassette tape recorder or similar sound source. The sound card digitizes this signal and stores it (under control of appropriate matching computer software) on the computer's hard disk for storage, editing, or further processing. Another common external connector is the microphone connector, for use by a microphone or other low level input device. Input through a microphone jack can then be used by speech recognition software or for Voice over IP applications.

An important characteristic of sound cards is polyphony, which is more than one distinct voice or sound playable simultaneously and independently, and the number of simultaneous channels. These are intended as the number of distinct electrical audio outputs, which may correspond to a speaker configuration such as 2.0 (stereo), 2.1 (stereo and sub woofer), 5.1 etc. Sometimes, the terms "voices" and "channels" are used interchangeably to indicate the degree of polyphony, not the output speaker configuration.

For example, many older sound chips could accommodate three voices, but only one audio channel (ie, a single mono output) for output, requiring all voices to be mixed together. More recent cards, such as the AdLib sound card, have a 9 voice polyphony and 1 mono channel as a combined output.

For some years, most PC sound cards have had multiple FM synthesis voices (typically 9 or 16) which were usually used for MIDI music. The full capabilities of advanced cards aren't often completely used; only one (mono) or two (stereo) voice(s) and channel(s) are usually dedicated to playback of digital sound samples, and playing back more than one digital sound sample usually requires a software downmix at a fixed sampling rate. Modern low-cost integrated soundcards (ie, those built into motherboards) such as audio codecs like those meeting the AC'97 standard and even some budget expansion soundcards still work that way. They may provide more than two sound output channels (typically 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound), but they usually have no actual hardware polyphony for either sound effects or MIDI reproduction, these tasks are performed entirely in software. This is similar to the way inexpensive softmodems perform modem tasks in software rather than in hardware).

Also, in the early days of wavetable synthesis, some sound card manufacturers advertised polyphony solely on the MIDI capabilities alone. In this case, the card's output channel is irrelevant (and typically, the card is only capable of two channels of digital sound). Instead, the polyphony measurement solely applies to the amount of MIDI instruments the sound card is capable of producing at one given time.

Today, a sound card providing actual hardware polyphony, regardless of the number of output channels, is typically referred to as a "hardware audio accelerator", although actual voice polyphony is not the sole (or even a necessary) prerequisite, with other aspects such as hardware acceleration of 3D sound, positional audio and real-time DSP effects being more important.

Since digital sound playback has become available and provided better performance than synthesis, modern soundcards with hardware polyphony don't actually use DACs with as many channels as voices, but rather perform voice mixing and effects processing in hardware (eventually performing digital filtering and conversions to and from the frequency domain for applying certain effects) inside a dedicated DSP. The final playback stage is performed by an external (in reference to the DSP chip(s)) DAC with significantly fewer channels than voices (e.g., 8 channels for 7.1 audio, which can be divided among 32, 64 or even 128 voices).

Sound cards for computers compatible with the IBM PC were very uncommon until 1988, which left the single internal PC speaker as the only way early PC software could produce sound and music. The speaker hardware was typically limited to square waves, which fit the common nickname of "beeper". The resulting sound was generally described as "beeps and boops". Several companies, most notably Access Software, developed techniques for digital sound reproduction over the PC speaker; the resulting audio, while baldly functional, suffered from distorted output and low volume, and usually required all other processing to be stopped while sounds were played. Other home computer models of the 1980s included hardware support for digital sound playback, or music synthesis (or both), leaving the IBM PC at a disadvantage to them when it came to multimedia applications such as music composition or gaming.

It is important to note that the initial design and marketing focuses of sound cards for the IBM PC platform were not based on gaming, but rather on specific audio applications such as music composition (AdLib Personal Music System, Creative Music System, IBM Music Feature Card) or on speech synthesis (Digispeech DS201, Covox Speech Thing, Street Electronics Echo). Only until Sierra and other game companies became involved in 1988 was there a switch toward gaming.

Creative Labs also marketed a sound card about the same time called the Creative Music System. Although the C/MS had twelve voices to AdLib's nine, and was a stereo card while the AdLib was mono, the basic technology behind it was based on the Philips SAA 1099 chip which was essentially a square-wave generator. It sounded much like twelve simultaneous PC speakers would have, and failed to sell well, even after Creative renamed it the Game Blaster a year later, and marketed it through Radio Shack in the US. The Game Blaster retailed for under $100 and included the hit game Silpheed.

A large change in the IBM PC compatible sound card market happened with Creative Labs' introduced the Sound Blaster card. The Sound Blaster cloned the AdLib, and added a sound coprocessor for recording and play back of digital audio (likely to have been an Intel microcontroller relabeled by Creative). It was incorrectly called a "DSP" to suggest it was a digital signal processor), a game port for adding a joystick, and capability to interface to MIDI equipment (using the game port and a special cable). With more features at nearly the same price, and compatibility as well, most buyers chose the Sound Blaster. It eventually outsold the AdLib and dominated the market.

The Sound Blaster line of cards, together with the first inexpensive CD-ROM drives and evolving video technology, ushered in a new era of multimedia computer applications that could play back CD audio, add recorded dialogue to computer games, or even reproduce motion video (albeit at much lower resolutions and quality in early days). The widespread decision to support the Sound Blaster design in multimedia and entertainment titles meant that future sound cards such as Media Vision's Pro Audio Spectrum and the Gravis Ultrasound had to be Sound Blaster compatible if they were to sell well. Until the early 2000s (by which the AC'97 audio standard became more widespread and eventually usurped the SoundBlaster as a standard due to its low cost and integration into many motherboards), Sound Blaster compatibility is a standard that many other sound cards still support to maintain compatibility with many games and applications released.

When game company Sierra On-Line opted to support add-on music hardware (instead of built-in hardware such as the PC speaker and built-in sound capabilities of the IBM PCjr and Tandy 1000), what could be done with sound and music on the IBM PC changed dramatically. Two of the companies Sierra partnered with were Roland and Adlib, opting to produce in-game music for King's Quest 4 that supported the Roland MT-32 and Adlib Music Synthesizer. The MT-32 had superior output quality, due in part to its method of sound synthesis as well as built-in reverb. Since it was the most sophisticated synthesizer they supported, Sierra chose to use most of the MT-32's custom features and unconventional instrument patches, producing background sound effects (eg, chirping birds, clopping horse hooves, etc.) before the Sound Blaster brought playing real audio clips to the PC entertainment world. Many game companies also supported the MT-32, but supported the Adlib card as an alternative because of the latter's higher market base. The adoption of the MT-32 led the way for the creation of the MPU-401/Roland Sound Canvas and General MIDI standards as the most common means of playing in-game music until the mid-1990s.

Early ISA bus soundcards were half-duplex, meaning they could not record and play digitized sound simultaneously, mostly due to inferior card hardware (eg, DSPs). Later, ISA cards like the SoundBlaster AWE series and Plug-and-play Soundblaster clones eventually became full-duplex and supported simultaneous recording and playback, but at the expense of using up two IRQ and DMA channels instead of one, making them no different from having two half-duplex sound cards in terms of configuration. Towards the end of the ISA bus' life, ISA soundcards started taking advantage of IRQ sharing, thus reducing the IRQs needed to one, but still needed two DMA channels. Many PCI bus cards do not have these limitations and are mostly full-duplex. It should also be noted that many modern PCI bus cards also do not require free DMA channels to operate.

Also, throughout the years, soundcards have evolved in terms of digital audio sampling rate (starting from 8-bit 11.025 kHz, to 32-bit, 192 kHz that the latest solutions support). Along the way, some cards started offering wavetable synthesis, which provides superior MIDI synthesis quality in relative to the earlier OPL-based solutions, which uses FM-synthesis. Also, some higher end cards started having its own RAM and processor for user-definable sound samples and MIDI instruments as well as to offload audio processing from the CPU.

For years, soundcards had only one or two channels of digital sound (most notably the Sound Blaster series and their compatibles) with the exception of the Gravis Ultrasound family, which had hardware support for up to 32 independent channels of digital audio. Early games and MOD-players needing more channels than a card could support had to resort to mixing multiple channels in software. Even today, the tendency is still to mix multiple sound streams in software, except in products specifically intended for gamers or professional musicians, with a sensible difference in price from "software based" products. Also, in the early era of wavetable synthesis, soundcard companies would also sometimes boast about the card's polyphony capabilities in terms of MIDI synthesis. In this case polyphony solely refers to the amount of MIDI notes the card is capable of synthesizing simultaneously at one given time and not the amount of digital audio streams the card is capable of handling.

In regards to physical sound output, the number of physical sound channels has also increased. The first soundcard solutions were mono. Stereo sound was introduced in the early 90s, and quadraphonic sound came in the late 90s. This was shortly followed by 5.1 channel audio. The latest soundcards support up to 8 physical audio channels in the 7.1 speaker setup.

Professional soundcards are special soundcards optimized for real time (or at least low latency) multichannel sound recording and playback, including studio-grade fidelity. Their drivers usually follow the Audio Stream Input Output protocol for use with professional sound engineering and music software, although ASIO drivers are also available for a range of consumer-grade soundcards.

Professional soundcards are usually described as "audio interfaces", and sometimes have the form of external rack-mountable units using USB 2.0, Firewire, or an optical interface, to offer sufficient data rates. The emphasis in these products is, in general, on multiple input and output connectors, direct hardware support for multiple input and output sound channels, as well as higher sampling rates and fidelity as compared to the usual consumer soundcard. In that respect, their role and intended purpose is more similar to a specialized multi-channel data recorder and real-time audio mixer and processor, roles which are possible only to a limited degree with typical consumer soundcards.

On the other hand, certain features of consumer soundcards such as support for Environmental audio extensions, optimization for hardware acceleration in video games, or real-time ambience effects are secondary, nonexistent or even undesirable in professional soundcards, and as such audio interfaces are not recommended for the typical home user.

The typical "consumer-grade" soundcard is intended for generic home, office, and entertainment purposes with an emphasis on playback and casual use, rather than catering to the needs of audio professionals. In response to this, Steinberg (the creators of audio recording and sequencing software, Cubase and Nuendo) developed a protocol that specified the handling of multiple audio inputs and outputs.

In general, consumer grade soundcards impose several restrictions and inconvenieces that would be unacceptable to an audio professional. One of a modern soundcard's purposes is to provide an AD/DA converter (Analog to Digital/Digital to Analog). However, in professional applications, there is usually a need for enhanced recording or Analog to Digital conversion capabilities.

One of the limitations of consumer soundcards is their comparatively large sampling latency; this is the time it takes for the AD Converter to complete conversion of a sound sample and transfer it to the computer's main memory.

Consumer soundcards are also limited in the effective sampling rates and bit depths they can actually manage (compare Analog sound vs. digital sound) and have lower numbers of less flexible input channels: professional studio recording use typically requires more than two channels which consumer soundcards provide, and more accessible connectors, unlike the variable mixture of internal -- and sometimes virtual -- and external connectors found in consumer-grade soundcards.

In 1984, the first IBM PCjr had only a rudimentary 3-voice sound synthesis chip (the SN76489) which was capable of generating three square-wave tones with variable amplitude, and a pseudo white noise channel that could generate primitive percussion sounds. The Tandy 1000, initially a clone of the PCjr, duplicated this functionality, with the Tandy TL/SL/RL models adding digital sound recording/playback capabilities.

In the late 1990s, many computer manufacturers began to replace plug-in soundcards with a "codec" chip (actually a combined audio AD/DA-converter) integrated into the motherboard. Many of these used Intel's AC97 specification. Others used inexpensive ACR slot accessory cards.

As of 2005, these "codecs" usually lack the hardware for direct music synthesis or even multi-channel sound, with special drivers and software making up for these lacks, at the expense of CPU speed (for example, MIDI reproduction takes away 10-15% CPU time on an Athlon XP 1600+ CPU).

Nevertheless, some manufacturers offered (and offer, as of 2006) motherboards with integrated "real" (non-codec) soundcards, usually in the form of a custom chipset providing something akin to full ISA or PCI Soundblaster compatibility; this saves an expansion slot while providing the user with a (relatively) high quality soundcard.

Various non-IBM PC compatible computers, such as early home computers like the Commodore C64 and Amiga or Apple's Macintosh, and workstations from manufacturers like Sun have had their own motherboard integrated sound devices. In some cases, most notably in those of the Commodore Amiga and the C64, they provide very advanced capabilities (as of the time of manufacture), in others they are only minimal capabilities. Some of these platforms have also had sound cards designed for their bus architectures that cannot be used in a standard PC.

The custom sound chip on Amiga, named Paula, had four digital sound channels (2 for the left speaker and 2 for the right) with 8 bit resolution (although with patches, 14/15bit was accomplishable at the cost of high CPU usage) for each channel and a 6 bit volume control per channel. Sound Play back on Amiga was done by reading directly from the chip-RAM without using the main CPU.

The earliest known soundcard used by computers was the Gooch Synthetic Woodwind, A music device for PLATO terminals, and is widely hailed as the precursor to sound cards and MIDI. It was invented in 1972.

While many of Apple's machines come with on-board sound capabilities, their bestselling Apple II suffered from a lack of more than minimal sound devices, using only a beeper like the PC. To get around the problem, the Sweet Micro Systems company developed the Mockingboard (a name-play on mockingbird), which was essentially a sound card for the Apple II. Early Mockingboard models ranged from 3 voices in mono, while some later designs were 6 voices in stereo. Some software supported use of two Mockingboard cards which allowed 12 voice music and sound. A 12 voice, single card clone of the Mockingboard called the Phasor was also made by Applied Engineering. In late 2005 a company called produced a 6 voice clone called the Mockingboard v1 and also has plans to clone the Phasor and produce a hybrid card which will be user selectable between Mockingboard and Phasor modes plus support both the SC-01 or SC-02 speech synthesizers.

MSX computers also relied on a sound cards to produce better quality audio. The card, known as Moonsound, uses a Yamaha OPL4 sound chip. Prior to the Moonsound, there were also soundcards called MSX Music and MSX Audio, which uses OPL2 and OPL3 chipsets, for the system.

USB sound "cards" are actually external boxes that plug into the computer via USB.

The USB specification defines a standard interface, the USB audio device class, allowing a single driver to work with the various USB sound devices on the market. Cards meeting the USB 2.0 specification have sufficient data transfer capacity to support high quality sound operation if their circuit design permits.

USB Sound Cards are far from the first external devices allowing a computer to record or synthesize sound. For example, devices such as the Covox Speech Thing were attached to the parallel port of an IBM PC and fed 6- or 8-bit PCM sample data to produce audio. Also, many types of professional soundcards (audio interfaces) have the form of an external Firewire or USB unit, usually for convenience and improved fidelity.

Soundcards using the PCMCIA cardbus interface were popular in the early days of portable computing when laptops and notebooks did not have onboard sound. Even today, while rare, these cardbus audio solutions are still used in some setups in which the onboard sound solution of the notebook or laptop is not up to par with the owners' expectations or requirements, and are particularly targeted at mobile DJs, with units providing separated outputs usually allow both playback and monitoring from one system.

To use a sound card, the operating system typically requires a specific device driver. This is a low-level program that handles the data connections between the physical hardware and the operating system. Some operating systems include the drivers for some or all cards available, in other cases the drivers are supplied with the card itself, or are available for download.

This article was originally based on material from the Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, which is licensed under the GFDL.

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E-mu Systems

E-mu Systems, Inc. is a synthesizer maker and pioneer in the manufacture of low-cost digital sampling music workstations.

Founded in 1971 by Scott Wedge and Dave Rossum, E-mu began making modular synthesizers. During this time they also created the digital scanning keyboard (1973) and with Solid State Microtechnologies developed several synthesizer module IC chips, that were used by both E-mu and many other synthesizer companies. In 1979 E-mu released the Audity, their first non-modular synthesizer. With a price of $69,200 (over $200,000 when adjusted for inflation) only one machine was ever produced. In this same year, Wedge and Rossum saw the Fairlight CMI at a convention and set about making a less expensive sampler. The Emulator debuted in 1981 at a list price of $7,900, less than the $30,000 Fairlight.

Following the Emulator II and III, the company also began producing a line of rackmount modules called the E-mu Proteus, containing pre-recorded samples in ROM. At its introduction, the Proteus had a relatively large library of high-quality samples priced much lower than the competition. In 1987, E-mu's SP-1200 drum sampler offered an "all-in-one" box for sequencing not only drum sounds, but looping samples, and it quickly became the instrument of choice for hip-hop producers. In 1993 E-mu was acquired by Creative Technology (the Singaporean parent company of Creative Labs) and began working on PC soundcard synthesis. Throughout the 1990s E-mu made many different rackmount keyboard-less synthesizers. In 1998, E-mu was combined with Ensoniq, another Creative Technology acquisition. In 2001 the Proteus line of modules was repackaged in the form of a line of tabletop units, the XL7 and MP7 Command Stations, which featured 128-voice polyphony, advanced synthesis features, and a versatile multitrack sequencer. A complementary line of keyboard synthesizers was also released using the same technology. Subsequent products from E-mu were exclusively in software form. In 2004 E-mu released the Emulator X, a PC-based version of its hardware samplers with extended synthesis capabilities. While a PCI card is used for audio input and output, the algorithms no longer run on dedicated hardware but in software on the PC. Proteus X, a software-based sample player was released in 2005.

During 2003-2005, E-mu designed and published a series of high-fidelity "Digital Audio Systems" (computer sound cards), intended for semi-professional / computer audio enthusiast use. They were released under the name E-mu, however bearing a "Creative Professional" label. The card names are number-coded: 0404, 1212m, 1616, 1616m, 1820 and 1820m, where 1616 is a CardBus version and the rest for PCI, while "m" denotes extra high-quality analogue outputs and inputs. The 1820m is touted as the series' flagship product. All of the cards have drivers for Microsoft Windows 2000 and up (32- and 64-bit). Apple Macintosh support appeared to be pending, but may have been affected by Apple's migration towards Intel.

While the core DSP of the cards is the same as used in Creative's Sound Blaster Audigy2 cards (and hence capable of 24-bit 192 kHz PCM sound), official press releases for the E-mu sound cards have emphasized Creative's lack of input on the design, and the in-house development of the cards and drivers — that is, they wanted to distinguish their "own" series from Creative's signature Sound Blasters. Notably, the cards and drivers entirely omit internal wavetable MIDI synthesis, Creative's proprietary EAX sound routines and basically anything commonly associated with the parent company. Although the cards were rushed into market and originally came bundled with fairly raw drivers (which have subsequently received periodical major improvements and even additions beyond the advertised specifications), they have generally met with rather favourable reviews.

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Diamond Multimedia

Diamond Stealth 3D 2000

Diamond Multimedia is a company that specializes in many forms of multimedia technology. They have produced graphics cards, motherboards, modems, sound cards and MP3 players, however the company began with the production the TrackStar a PC add-on card which emulated Apple II computers. They were one of the major players in the 2D and early 3D graphics card competition throughout the 1990s and early 2000s.

Originally founded by Chong Moon Lee and H. H. Huh (the technical designer), Diamond Multimedia was merged (after a long-time companionship) with S3, Incorporated in 1999. The merger was mostly due to S3's willingness to expand their trade from simply producing graphics chipsets to retail graphics cards. The act is somewhat similar with the 1999 3dfx purchase of STB Technologies. The merger was hoped to boost the company's overall capabilities by combining the resources of S3 and Diamond, who were quite close partners over the preceding years. Unfortunately things did not go so well. The greatly anticipated S3 Savage 2000 was a failure, and the excitedly growing 3D sound card market nearly fell apart with the loss of Aureal Semiconductor.

With these market failures, the new combined Diamond/S3 company decided to change direction and leave the PC addon-board market. SONICblue was formed. Diamond Multimedia resurfaced in 2003 after the brand and assets had been purchased by Best Data. Diamond again built expansion boards.

Diamond's earliest line, now defunct, was the Speedstar series. The line typically consisted of the cheaper, value-oriented chips in low-cost implementations. Some were actually just lesser ISA port versions of their very powerful PCI port siblings, like the Tseng Labs ET4000, and thus their thoroughput was reduced, a deciding factor for VGA graphics speed at the time.

Early on, popular chips on Speedstars were Cirrus Logic graphics solutions. They were good performers in their market segment, besting offerings from Trident Microsystems and others in many cases.

The Stealth cards of the 2D era were usually based on GUI accelerators from S3 Graphics. This line from Diamond is one of their oldest, spanning back to the early '90s. The line started with the most rudimentary of 2D accelerators, but today displays the latest in 3D chips. Initially the Stealth line was Diamond's high-end lineup, but as time progressed the line became more of a mid-range/low-end selection. With more than adequate performance in most cases, the Stealths offered excellent value. This line was Diamond's most popular.

Notable members of the Stealth family have been the Diamond Stealth 3D 2000, by far the most popular S3 Virge-based board. The Diamond Stealth32, using the popular and impressive Tseng Labs ET4000/W32p chipset, was capable of impressive price/performance, especially in DOS. The Diamond Stealth64 Graphics 2001, with the ARK 2000PV/MT chipset, was known for excellent DOS performance at the time. The Diamond Stealth II S220, using the Rendition Verite V2100 2D/3D accelerator, was popular with enthusiasts for its excellent price/performance for both 2D and 3D gaming. In fact a BIOS was released by Diamond for the Stealth II S220 which brought its clock speed up to the same level as the high-end Verite V2200 chip, resulting in equal performance at a significantly lower price.

In the middle of the Stealth line-up, Diamond chose to implement a numbering scheme to differentiate their cards in a new way. For example, the Diamond Stealth Video VRAM was rechristened the Diamond Stealth Video 3xxx. The numbers had more than a random meaning. Specifically, they tell the buyer the card's memory amount and type. The Stealth Video 3240 uses VRAM (3), is equipped with 2MB initially (2), and is upgradeable to 4MB (4). If the first digit is a (2), then the card uses plain DRAM.

The numbering scheme confused many people since Diamond just renamed current cards with new names. The Stealth Video 3240 was simply the old Stealth Video VRAM. New cards did also use the scheme, however, such as the S3 Trio64V+ cards.

The Diamond Edge 3D was the first consumer 3D accelerator card, based on the NVIDIA NV1 chipset. It was manufactured under license from EDGE Games (The Edge Interactive Media Inc, later EDGE Games Inc). The boards were strangely all-encompassing designs. The chipset included full 2D/3D acceleration, an audio engine capable of General MIDI synthesis, and the ability to use Sega Saturn controllers.

The architecture of the NV1 predates the Direct3D philosophy and, as such, game compatibility was a problem with the Diamond Edge boards. Limited and slow Direct3D-supporting drivers did eventually show up, but the boards were simply not up to the task and were unacceptably slow and buggy. It didn't help that the audio section of the card was not particularly excellent either, receiving luke warm reviews regarding MIDI quality (extremely important during the card's time).

The Monster3D line was based on 3DFX Voodoo Graphics and Voodoo2 chips - as such, they had no on-board 2D and thus had to be used with a separate VGA card, connected externally. Both Voodoo and Voodoo2 based offerings were in production until the STB-3dfx merger. The series was highly successful and, for a significant part, responsible for the 3D Graphics revolution of the mid-late 1990s. 3DFX's Voodoo chipsets were revolutionary and for several years (approx. 1997-1999) were simply the fastest hardware for 3D gaming acceleration in both the arcade market and home PC arena.

A critically acclaimed feature of the Monster 3D II (and all other Voodoo2 boards) was the capability to connect two identical boards in a SLI (Scan-line Interleave) configuration. In SLI, a pair of Voodoo2 boards splits the effort of rendering the 3D scene, allowing performance to be nearly doubled.

The Viper line was Diamond's high-end offering. Initially it consisted of a graphics accelerator board for VLB or PCI that was a combination of two graphics chips. For non-GUI environments such as DOS, the original Viper used an Oak Technology OTI-087 display chip with its own 256 KB DRAM. This chip was rather slow and basic. The Viper SE card moved to a Weitek 5186 chip with 1 MB DRAM for non-GUI functions. For GUI environments such as Windows, the Viper cards used a Weitek graphics co-processor which accelerated many drawing functions and performed very well for its time. The original Viper used the Weitek P9000/P9001, while the Viper SE used a Weitek P9100, both lines equipped with 2-4 MB VRAM. The separate slow DOS chip was a problem for owners who played DOS games because these chips were quite slow and had limited and buggy VESA BIOS Extensions implementations. While the GUI accelerator was very capable, drivers from Diamond were rather buggy and were only revised a few times during the lifetime of the card.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the Viper line consisted of NVIDIA-based graphics cards. The Diamond Viper V330 used the the highly-integrated RIVA 128 accelerator that featured very capable 2D, 3D and video acceleration. The later Diamond Viper V550 and V770 utilized the RIVA TNT and RIVA TNT2 accelerators which were evolutions of the RIVA 128.

In 1999, Diamond was acquired by S3 Graphics and became primarily a supplier of products based upon their graphics accelerator chips. The Diamond Viper II Z200 was based upon the S3 Savage 2000, a supposed NVIDIA GeForce 256 killer. Unfortunately the chip itself was not fully functional and the drivers were very buggy.

Diamond's workstation-class 2D/3D graphics cards.

The FireGL team was bought by ATI in 2001 once the combined Diamond/S3 dropped out of the graphics market to form SONICblue. ATI continues the Fire GL lineup.

Diamond has also preparing an upcoming video card as of September 2007, based on the latest-generation R600 graphics core, the same core used for FireGL V8650 and V8600 cards, but altered the PCB design and also renamed as VFX 2000 series professional workstation graphics card, with at least 2 GB GDDR4 memory onboard .

The Diamond Monster Sound gaming sound card series was a very innovative line. They were the first to really push the envelope in the at-the-time bleeding-edge PCI audio card market. The Monster Sound cards were among the first to support hardware mixing acceleration with Microsoft's new DirectSound and DirectSound3D audio APIs. Most, if not all, also supported Aureal's burgeoning A3D API.

The original Monster Sound card was highly innovative in this regard, but also controversial because it basically broke DOS game compatibility which was still critical at the time. DOS game audio was only functional within a Windows 95 DOS box, which was a finicky way to try to run these old games. It came equipped with a 2MB AdMOS MIDI daughterboard.

The Monster Sound M80 was similar to the original monster sound, but lacked 4 speaker support. It also had a reduced quality AdMOS MIDI daughterboard (1MB).

Monster Sound MX200 was known for its excellent General MIDI quality because of the high quality patch set (licensed from Roland) it was equipped with on its 4MB Dream daughtercard. Otherwise it was technically identical to the original Monster Sound.

The Diamond Monster Sound MX300 was based on the Vortex2 audio ASIC from Aureal Semiconductor. It was a revolutionary step forward in gaming audio, with impressive 3D audio positioning and other innovative effects. Utilizing the then state-of-the-art Aureal A3D 2.0 3D audio API, the MX300 was capable of producing startlingly immersive audio. Its capability to turn simple stereo speakers into a 3D-audio experience was clearly ahead of the pack for the time, and is unique in its presentation compared to even the renowned and far newer Creative Audigy 2 series.

Monster Sound MX400 was advertised as being one of the first sound cards with hardware MP3 decoding acceleration. Unfortunately this was hardly a worthwhile reason to buy the card because the central CPUs in PCs at the time were more than capable of handling MP3 playback. It was also somewhat complicated to make use of the MP3 acceleration because special software was needed to use it.

The Vortex2-equipped MX300 was a notably superior card for 3D audio. Unfortunately Aureal had gone into bankruptcy and was dissolved so their next-generation chips never saw the light of day. Diamond was forced to go with ESS's less powerful chip to be able to continue the line. The MX400 was the last of the Monster Sound cards.

The Sonic Impact was the value-oriented sound card line from Diamond. Whereas the MonsterSound lineup was targeted at no-holds-barred gamers, the Sonic Impact cards were more generally aimed, and were cheaper and less powerful. Still the lineup consisted of several capable cards.

Diamond XtremeSound is the first sound card line launched after the company's restructuring in 2003.

Rio PMP300 Diamond's innovation created the Rio PMP300, one of the first consumer MP3 players, but they soon sold their MP3 player line and no longer provide support for it. The RIAA had been upset about the possibility of digital music theft when the product was launched.

SupraMax DSL modems The SupraMax line is a popular value DSL modem line.

Diamond Micronics motherboards Diamond began manufacturing PC-compatible motherboards after purchasing Micronics Computers Inc. in 1998.

Maximum DVD Diamond was an early (1997) entrant into PC DVD kits with their Maximum DVD 1000DB-VAR (Value Added Reseller) and 2000-RETKIT (RETail KIT). These kits bundled a 'feature reduced' (several pin headers and other parts not installed) full length PCI MPEG2 analog overlay decoder card made by divion. This card connected to the VGA card with an external passthrough cable, a 3.5mm (1/8") external patch cord to the soundcard's line-in jack, and the analog audio cable from the included Toshiba SD-M1002 DVD-ROM drive connected to the divion card while a second cable passed the audio on to the soundcard's internal connector.

Diamond also made kits called the Maximum DVD 1500 and 2500. (Hardware specifications unknown.) The drivers and player software for these are not compatible with the DVD 1000 and 2000. They are a slightly newer product with the 'Navigator' player software having a cleaner user interface.

None of these DVD kits are DirectX compatible and as the drivers are the VXD type they will only work with Windows 95 through 98SE. Dual-layer DVDs are not supported in original Windows 95 or 95a, but are in the various versions of 95 OEM Service Release 2. Windows 98 or 98SE is not recommended due to problems that may happen with video color and alignment. Only the bundled player software can use the hardware MPEG2 decoding of the card.

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Media Vision

Media Vision logo

Media Vision was an American electronics manufacturer of primarily computer sound cards and CD-ROM kits, operating from 1990 to approximately 1995 in Fremont, California. Media Vision was widely known for its Pro AudioSpectrum PC sound cards -- which it often bundled with CD-ROM drives -- and its spectacular growth and demise.

Media Vision was founded in May 1990 by Paul Jain and Tim Bratton. Early employees also included Russ Faust, Sandy Pfister, Dan Gochnauer and Bryan Colvin. Many of the founders and early employees had worked together under Mr. Jain at Video Seven, a video card maker which by then had been purchased by and absorbed into LSI Logic. As Mr. Bratton recalls, he wrote the company's business plan while an engineer at National Semiconductor and studying for his MBA at Santa Clara University. Mr. Jain and Mr. Bratton used the plan to raise $1 million in funding and by July 1990, after returning from the MPEG standard committee meeting in Porto, Portugal, Mr. Bratton joined the company as its first full time employee. Mr. Faust and Ms. Pfister joined soon after. Mr. Jain remained at National Semiconductor for another month and joined the company full time in August 1990. Within its first two years of operation, Media Vision had become the second-largest producer of personal computer sound cards, providing strong competition to Creative Labs.

In 1992, Media Vision was the first company to publish Microsoft Windows with Multimedia Extensions on CD-ROM; having beat Microsoft to market with its own product, Bill Gates's assistant telephoned and ordered two copies. During the same year, the company acquired Pellucid, Inc., a computer graphics company, and began producing a line of high-performance video graphics cards for the PC. Media Vision became a publicly-traded company in late 1992.

In 1993, Media Vision updated its logotype to reflect its expanding product lines and broad foray in to technologies beyond computer audio. Perhaps one of the biggest endeavors was the company's leap into software publishing with the creation of its Multimedia Publishing Group. CD-ROM titles such as Critical Path, Quantum Gate, and Forever Growing Garden were often bundled with its multimedia kits. The new logo reflected the company's desire to be known as a cutting-edge multi-media technology company.

Media Vision could not sustain its meteoric rise. On May 17, 1994, CEO Paul Jain resigned as Media Vision quickly became the subject of the longest-running securities fraud case in Silicon Valley history. The investigation and trial lasted nearly a decade, resulting in criminal charges filed against Jain in 1998 and ultimately his indictment on 27 counts of financial fraud (Wired) and the incarceration of Jain and CFO Steve Allen ().

The collapse of Media Vision cost investors and bond holders US$200,000,000.

Media Vision ultimately became Aureal Semiconductor. When the company changed its name to Aureal, it sold all product lines, key technologies, and trademarks related to the old Media Vision to SVT Shiva, Inc. (SVTI) of San Jose, Calif. SVTI then created a new division called Media Vision Innovations, Inc. to sell existing inventory. The new division also developed and sold a few new multimedia products under the Media Vision name. SVTI agreed to purchase audio chips from Aureal for the first two years as part of the deal.

Media Vision's products included PC adapter cards, other hardware, and computer games.

Internally, Media Vision was dominated by its large engineering and marketing departments, roughly equal in size and reporting to the Chief Operating Officer Russell Faust. Director of Manufacturing Wayne Nakamura also reported to the COO.

The company's engineering efforts were headed by VP of Engineering Dan Gochnauer, formerly of the Sperry-Rand Corporation.

The Director of Hardware Engineering was Bryan J. Colvin, once an early employee of Apple Computer, where he designed much of the Apple IIc.

The development of SCSI device drivers was outsourced to Trantor Systems.

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Source : Wikipedia