I wrote a review of the Sound Blaster Live! sound card, but it should not be understood as an objective test report. For such a report I am lacking the technical prerequisites and knowledge about sound technic. A strong emphasis is laid on the accompanying software, and even for this reason only the report is certainly subjectiv and unbalanced.
Sound Blaster Live! Review
The Sound Blaster Live! is a surprisingly small card. First, one realizes that there are no memory sockets on the card any more, because the card shares memory on the motherboard with the processor and all applications. Second, it is a PCI card, which means that it does not use ISA PnP technology.
Furthermore, the card is accompanied by a smaller board with additional connectors - not all connectors fit in one single slot. So, the sound card uses up two slots of the case, although it does only occupy one PCI slot on the motherboard.
Pushing the card in the PCI slot needed a lot of pressure, but eventually it fit. Connecting the smaller board with the additional connectors to the main board and installing both in the case was no problem, although I only have a mini case. Because the card is small and very short, it will not hang through, and I'm sure I'll not experience deformations of the board as it happened with the Sound Blaster 32 PnP.
After booting Windows 95, the automatic hardware detection asked for a driver. I tried to use the Installation CD, but it failed. The hardware detection at boot time had to be aborted, and the installation had to be continued later, a fact that may be confusing to a beginner but probably does not surprise a more advanced user.
So, I aborted the auto detection and let Windows 95 complete the boot procedure. Then I inserted the Installation CD. Because I do not use the auto start feature, I started the installation program manually. It came up, and I was faced with a list of software items to choose from.
- CT SB Live!
- CT Keytar
- CT Rythmania
- SB Live Experience
- Cakewalk Express Gold
The list of software items at installation time
The first item is the hardware driver plus additional utilities, and is the only item which is mandatory. To install it, 56 MB free disk space are required, a fact that was quite disturbing to me, but unfortunately common in the Windows world. Although prizes for hard disks are decreasing, I'd appreciate it if software developers would care more about the size of the programs. The 56 MB are not a big deal, but if you add the size of the operating system and the required drivers for all hardware items installed, the complete size is unappealing to me. Another reason is that a lot of RAM will be wasted at run time. I'll come back later to this topic, when discussing the applications.
Direct X is needed, and will be installed automatically. As this is a component mostly independent from the sound card, it would be better to make this a seperate step, or at least ask for confirmation. In general I would prefer a more flexible way to choose components for installation, although I realize that the table above is ideal for unexperienced users.
After the necessary reboot, a Readme text was offered, which I investigated. As I have only a Pentium 100 MHz, the install program asked me for confirmation if I really want to proceed, as a Pentium with at least 200 MHz is recommended. Nevertheless I chose to continue.
Then, RUNDLL32 caused an error due to an invalid memory page in module KERNEL32.DLL. Fortunately I could ignore the error without impact on the installation. At least I could not detect any errors yet. An experienced user is used to random errors in Windows, but a beginner will certainly feel uneasy with this.
The installation is easy enough even for an unexperienced user, but an experienced user will miss the possibility to choose between smaller components. The installation went smoothly, although I encountered a few edges which may be seen as a real problem by beginners.
The Sound Blaster Live! consists of two boards, a PCI card and a smaller extension card providing additional connectors.
The board uses the PCI bus, which was necessary because the amount of data that has to be transmitted has increased with DirectSound by Microsoft and the use of multiple streams of audio. Hence, the change to a PCI bus architecture was necessary for Creative Labs to cope with the performance needs.
However, despite the difference in bus architecture, the SB Live! card should be backward compatible to prior Sound Blaster cards even under DOS.
Some connectors are placed on the card, some are at the outside and some on the extension card.
- Microphone in
- Digital CD in
- Line in
- Telephone Answering Device in
- Line level out (front)
- RCA S/PDIF in
- Line level out (rear)
- RCA S/PDIF out
- Joystick port
- Mini MIDI DIN in/out
- MPC-3 CD Audio in
- Auxiliary in
- Digital DIN out for future expansion to multi-speaker systems
The connectors of the SB Live! card
The Joystick port can be used to attach a PC analog joystick to the computer. MIDI cables which are connected to the joystick port using a special adapter cable also work, although you may prefer to use the mini MIDI DIN interfaces for this.
Mini MIDI DIN
Midi in and midi out are placed at the extension card and can be used to attach MIDI devices to the SB Live! card, makes it a good card for MIDI recording and playing. A converter for normal sized MIDI DIN plugs is provided with the card. This makes the special joystick adapter cable unnecessary, which had to be used with earlier Sound Blaster cards.
The Emu 10K1 is the nerve of the SB Live! card, an audio processor with over two millions transistors and more than 1,000 MIPS of raw processing power. The chip provides 131 hardware audio channels.
- 64 Sound Engine channels
- 32 Host Record channels
- 2 Stereo Sample-Rate-Converted Record Channels
- 1 Single Microphone 8 kHz Sample-Rate-Converted Host Record Channel
- 32 External TRAM 32 reads or writes for effects engine, delay lines for reverbs etc.
The channels of the EMU 10K1
The 64 audio channels are dedicated to output sounds, and can be played back at an arbitrary sample rate. But each of these channels can also be used as a Wavetable synthesizer in addition of the 192 voices of the PCI wave-table synthesis. The audio channels process signals at 32-bit, 192 dB, 48kHz using 8-point interpolation to smoothen the sound. This makes the Sound Blaster card highly useful to record and play audio sources with CD quality.
The hardware does support full duplex at 8 standard sample rates.
The Emu 10K1 is also responsible for the effects that can be applied to the sound sources. Real time effects such as echo, flanger, pitch shifting, auto-wah, ring modulator, distortion, reverb and chorus can be combined and configured, allowing a wide variety of distinct sound transformations. Effects can be routed into each other, which allows a fine control of what happens to the sound.
You can use the effect engine of the SB Live! for many things, including as an effect processor for musical instruments (like a guitar), as a pitch shifter for karaoke, or to enhance digital audio or midi tracks.
The Emu 10K1 operates as a DirectSound accelerator, and can accelerate up to 64 high quality 16-bit 48kHz audio streams and 32 DirectSound 3D streams. Furthermore, it can still apply Environmental Audio to all of these and deliver the streams to multiple speakers. This shows how much processing power is included in the Emu 10K1 chip.
The 256 voices can be used with 48 MIDI channels on three MIDI ports, allowing the composer to forget about the hardware limitations and concentrate on the music instead.
The SoundBlaster Live! sound card allows the use of two or four speakers to produce surround sound of high quality. If only two speakers are connected, the card tries to emulate 3D sound on those as good as possible, but the best result is achieved when four speakers are connected to the card.
It is possible to position the sound of an audio source in the virtual space created by four speakers using the speaker configuration software.
In the future, software updates will make it possible to use up to eight speakers with the SB Live! card.
The extension card features not only two mini MIDI connectors, but also digital S/PDIF input/output as well as a digital DIN connector. The latter will make it possible to connect up to eight speakers to the card.
The S/PDIF connectors make it possible to connect S/PDIF compatible digital audio devices to the sound card for digital audio recording and playback. S/PDIF complatible devices are for example DAT player. Users can also connect their CD-ROM drive to the CD Digital-In connector on the card if their CD ROM player is S/PDIF compatible. This way, they can record the digital audio data directly.
The SB LIve! card allows music synthesis with up to 256 voices. Those are seperated in 192 PCI Wavetable voices and 64 voices from the Emu 10K1 itself. This allows the use of an increased number of MIDI instruments at the same time. Now you can use the sustain pedal in your midi works without being afraid that prior notes are chopped off due to a limited number of midi voices.
To use MIDI music, you need to load a SoundFont in the RAM of the host machine. Up to 32 MB RAM can be dedicated to the SB LIve! to be used for SoundFonts. Provided are 2 MB, 4 MB and 8 MB default SoundFonts (GM compatible). Additional SoundFonts can be purchased and easily installed using the SoundFont configuration program.
The hardware of the SB Live! card is excellent, and usable for both, entertainment and productivity. The complete set of interfaces to external devices, the number of high quality audio channels and the high number of midi channels and voices show how usable the SB Live! card is for music recording and composing. The Environmental Audio and DirectSound3D support, as well as the possibility to connect up to eight speakers prove the usability of the card for entertainment.
The Sound Blaster Live! is only useful in conjunction with software to control its features. Fortunately, the driver ships with powerful and easy-to-use software for this purpose.
- Creative Launcher
- Creative Wave Studio
- SB Live! Tour
- SB Live! Experience
- Environmental Audio
- Creative Keyboard
- Creative Keytar
- Creative Rythmania
- Creative SoundGraph
Tools installed with the driver software.
The Launcher is an application that is started at boot time and sits in the background, waiting for the mouse to move to the top of the screen. When this happens, a menu scrolls down and gives the user the option to start an application shipped with the Sound Blaster Live! card. This is a very fast way to start the applications, but the drawbacks are easily identified.
First, you have to watch your mouse movements, or you'll make the menu appear by accident, which is at least irritating, but also either occupies expensive RAM or causes a small delay while the data is loaded from the swap space. Furthermore, this is far beyond the tasks I'd expect hardware driver software to fulfill. Personally, I like to choose the way I organize my desktop by myself.
However, some people may be happy that they can go right ahead with the sound card applications, and the launcher is very flexible. You can configure it quite easily, and add your own programs to the menu. Because it is also very easy to deactivate, it does no harm that it is installed by default.
The launcher can be configured to wait above the top border of the screen or below the bottom border. It can show symbols and text or only text, stay always on top and start automatically at boot time (and in this case, doesn't clutter up the autostart menu). The auto hide function can be switched off. You can add new menus and edit existing menus using the Group Manager.
The PlayCenter replaces the earlier Creative MultiMediaDesk, and can play all commonly used audio formats and more (video, for example). It has the functionality to collect audio files in albums, which is very useful to organize your collection of sounds, midi files etc.
Beside the usual control elements for player applications (Play, Stop, Pause, Forward, Rewind, Next, Previous, number pad, various playing modes like Loop and Shuffle), the player allows direct access to two Sound Blaster Live! features, namely Environmental Audio and Stereo Enchancement Mode. The latter can only be switched on or off, whereas the former offers a menu containing the defined environments.
The PlayCenter can play Media files directly out of the file system or from albums, which are collections of media files. You can create and edit the albums as you like. A function to auto create initial albums using the media files found in your file system is provided, although the result should be edited to make them more useful.
The PlayCenter will run about any audio and video media you can find. Sometimes, special system libraries are required that you most probably already have. With a special PC-DVD disk drive you can even play DVD disks comfortably. As I don't own such a disk, I couldn't test it, but the explanations in the help file look very promising.
The Look and Feel is modelled after a black metal hifi device. The same functionality could be offered by a more conventional interface, without a faked LCD display and the use of many colors. The grey shaded pull down menus are simply ugly and have a very low contrast, which makes them hard to read. I always wonder why great efforts are spent in the appearance of the driver software is made. The SB Live! is technically convincing and does not need additional gleam. This is not only a matter of taste: Sometimes the colors of the launcher window are not restored properly in 256-colors (8 bit) mode.
The Launcher will play the media files in one album consecutively, without a break between the various file. This is not only disturbing, because there is no pause for the ear to prepare for a new sound, but also an error, because various Midi files last notes are not played long enough. I did not find an option to introduce a delay between two media files.
The WaveStudio application is a wave recorder and processor. It can record many wave files at the same time in three different sample rates. You can play back single files (even from a special point, skipping the beginning) or selected parts of it. You can play back all files and mix them, which can be fun. But there is no easy way to get all files in sync, as you can't play existing files while recording another one.
You can apply effects to the recordings. All important effects are there, namely Reverse, Fading, Panning, Echo, Phase Shift and some basic channel editing features.
However, there is a serious problem: There is no record volume indicator, which means, you can't control the input gain of your source correctly. This makes this program completely unusable for serious recording efforts and seems to be a bug in the application, as a volume indicator is mentioned in the help file. It is just nowhere to be found.
Soundo'LE is a very simple wave recorder with OLE support, to embed wave recordings in other applications (e.g. WordPad). Again, although a volume indicator is present in the window, it does not seem to work.
There is a better application to do wave recording professionally. SoundForge XP on the Applications CD is an advanced audio recording program (with a working volume monitor, by the way :).
The mixer is used to control the volume level of the sound card in general and the seperate devices in particular. The Sound Blaster Live! mixer is very clear and easy to use, as was every Sound Blaster mixer before.
SB Live! Tour
The SB Live! Tour is a set of Screencam movies which demonstrate some ways to work with the SB Live! software.
SB Live! Experience
The SB Live! Experience is a guided demonstration of the features of the SB Live! card. It is an interactive demonstration and it is recommended to try it after installation to get an impression of the capabilities of the card.
Indeed, the demonstraction is quite impressive, and you can go and show it to your friends. After that, you may want to deinstall the Tour program again, because it is occupying a lot of disc space.
Environmental Audio makes the SB Live! an ideal card for games: It adds effects to the sound dynamically, and increases the atmosphere. But not only games can benefit from Environmental Audio. You can apply the effects to all audio sources you can use with the SB Live!.
The Environmental Audio option window provides a way to apply effects to the audio sources. Predefined environments are ready for selection, but you can also design your own audio environments and save them for later use. Beside multiple Reverb and Chorus effects, you can also add Vocal Morpher, Ring Modulator, Auto Wah, Flanger, Distortion, Echo and Pitch Shifter. Each effect can be configured seperately in amount.
The problem with conventional 3D positioning sound is that although the position of the sound seems to be correct, it does not take into account the surrounding space. For example, a sound in a cave does sound quite different if it is near or far away. The difference is not only the volume, but also the amount of echo, reverb and other characteristics.
To deal with this problem, the software had to provide many samples of the same sound with different characteristics. This eats up a lot of disc space and is very expensive.
Environmental Audio provides another solution for this. The driver software can be configured to take into account sound-modifying characteristics of the surrounding space, resulting in a more realistic sound experience.
Software can benefit in two ways of the Environmental Audio features provided by the SB Live! cards. The first way effects existing software that is not aware of Environmental Audio. In this case, the user can specify an environment before the game is started. Although the enhancement is limited this way, you can improve the atmosphere of your favourite game or other audio source.
New software will be able to make use of the Environmental Audio Extensions (EAX), a Environmental 3D positioning API by Creative Labs. This development software is an extension to the DirectSound3D API by Microsoft. As the latter is the standard API used by game developers using 3D positional audio games, many games will make use of the SB Live! features very soon.
There is already one game which is aware of Environmental Audio, the game Unreal by Epic Games. Others will follow soon. According to George Thorn, director of developer relations at Creative Labs, over 100 developers are already working with EAX, and 30 titles currently under development are actually using it.
Creative Keyboard is a simple application to test the sounds of your installed MIDI banks. It is a virtual keyboard to be played with the mouse, and is derived from the virtual keyboard of the AWE control center shipped with the AWE cards. Unfortunately, you still can't use the computer keyboard to play the notes, but some other things have improved, for example the octave and controller setting lever.
Creative Guitar is a fun program that allows the user to choose among a set of guitars (ranging from Folk Guitar over Jazz Guitar to Electric Guitars) and play them using the mouse or the keyboard.
Using the mouse, you move a plectrum over the strings, holding the mouse buttons down. The strings run from top to bottom, so you have to move the mouse from left to right. You can imagine that no fast play of single strings is possible.
Using the keyboard, you hold it in your hand vertically, the keys outside. On the function keys, you can choose the chords with your left hand. On the number pad, you can play the bass string and the three chord strings. Changing the chords is a bit tricky, because on PC keyboards, some keys block other keys, and you can't press more than four keys anyway. Although this works a bit better than using the mouse, it does not give you fine control over what is happening.
There are some configuration options, for example the chords which are set with the function keys, the midi instruments used, and the position of the string keys on the number pad. There are some background rythm you can sue for accompaning your solos.
However, this is neither a replacement for a real guitar nor a tool to produce audio recordings, as no export facilites are provided.
The Creative SoundGraph is a small applet that shows the spectrum, amplitude or wave curve of the sounds currently recorded or played. This can be useful if you want to check your audio setup. For example, if you can't hear anything, you can first test if a sound is produced before examining your speaker connection. Or, you can see if the volume settings are well balanced.
The SoundFont window makes it possible for you to choose the MIDI sound font banks you want to load into your memory. They are used to generate the MIDI sounds via the WaveFont device.
The SB Live! ships with three banks, different in size and therefore quality. You can choose between 2 MB, 4 MB and 8 MB soundfont banks. These default banks are GM Midi compatible and provide the standard set of GM instruments.
You can either load complete sound font banks, or define the instruments of a bank explicitely. Furthermore, you can load a wave file to be used as an instrument.
In the speaker setup window, you can specify how many speakers are used (you can use up to 8 speakers). Furthermore, you can place the various sound sources in the virtual room to get flexible surround sound as you like it.
The Sound Blaster Live! is accompanied by a rich software bundled, featuring some excellent sound applications as well as some not-so-excellent add-ons to play with. The documentation is included on the CD in Acrobats PDF . The Acrobat Reader itself is also contained.
- SoundForge XP 4.0
- Mixman Studio
- Cakewalk Express Gold
- Prody Parrot
- Unreal by Epic Games
Software contained on the Application CD.
SoundForge XP 4.0
SoundForge XP by Sonic Foundry is an advanced audio recording program, much better than WaveStudio that is installed with the driver. It offers a complex but easy to use recording and editing suite and extensive online help with many background information about sound processing.
With SoundForge, you can process multiple wave files at the same time. To record a source, a special window is opened, which offers a volume and peak monitor as well as flexible recording options, for example, how long you want to record (this is useful to overwrite only a part of an existing recording).
SoundForge provides convenient display and edit options, including but not limited to Zoom, Cut & Paste, Mix, Crossfade as well as cuseful Undo and Redo features. You can place Markers in a file at anywhere and use them to specify regions of audio data.
Many ways to process the audio data are provided. You can fade, mute, invert, normalize, pan, convert between audio formats, smooth and enhance the audio source. Furthermore, a special function allows to change the length of a sample without affecting the pitch. This does work quite good, as long as you stay within reasonable durations. Stretching the length of a sample to 120% of its original size is reasonable. Speech can be stretched up to 140% of its original length. If you go further, you get a distorted sound, which can give quite interesting results.
Many effects can be applied to the samples, namely Chorus, Delay/Echo, Distortion, Dynamics, Flange, Noise Gate, Pitch Bend and Reverb. Some of these names hide multiple similar effects, some of them are highly configurable. For example, for the Pitch Bend effect you can draw a curve diagramm to specify the amount of pitching at each time.
A tone generator allows you to generate sine curves of a certain length, frequency and volume, but also square, saw, triangle and noise waveforms. Even DTMF/MF dial tones can be generated. Last but not least you can attach an AVI movie and synchronize the pictures with the audio samples.
SoundForge is a high-quality addition to your audio production software collection. It is highly configurable and flexible, but nevertheless easy and comfortable to use. All important elements are directly accessible, and so you can get good results very fast. The good online documentation makes it a perfect environment for audio recording and editing.
Mixman Studio by Mixman Technologies is a fast way to create techno mixes and similar noise. It makes available up to sixteen tracks with keys on your keyboard, and in a special mix mode the tracks are played if you press down those keys. You can tag certain tracks with the space bar, so they are played even when you unrelease the key. Pressing the Ctrl key, you enter the "solo mode", where all tagged tracks are silent until you release the Ctrl key again. In this way, you can mix techno songs and alike very fast and conveniently.
As there are no editing capabilities, it is not useful for serious sound composing. Obviously, this program is intended to be fun for people who want to play their own techno sounds without learning much about music and music recording. For this group, Mixman Studio is a nice program to play with.
For this sort of programs, it is very important that they are accompanied by many tracks to include in a mix. Mixman Studio comes with about 80 tracks, a random selection of bass lines, harmonics and drum breaks for techno, house and other scene music styles. People who want to use this softwware seriously will need to buy additional tracks on CD, 80 will not give enough variety to mix the songs you want to.
Another solution is to record your own tracks, or to use existing .wav files, which is supported by Mixman Studio. However, one concern is that you usually can't achieve high quality recordings with home equipment. However, it is good and important that these import facilities are there. Additionally, you can save the complete mix as one huge wave file and share it with your friends. Well, if you have enough disk space at least: The demo mix that comes with Mixman Studio would take over 30 MB to save as a .wav file :)
Cakewalk Express Gold
Cakewalk Express Gold is a full-featured midi sequencer and notation software. To cover all the capabilities of Cakewalk Express Gold would certainly not fit in this review. Beside midi recording and playback facilities, Cakewalk can also play up to 4 audio tracks parallel to the midi tracks.
Together with SoundForge, Cakewalk provides an ideal base for your home composing efforts with the SB Live! card.
Cakewalk Express Gold is aware of the SoundFont capabilities of the SB Live! card.
Prody Parrot is most likely the worst software in the bundle. It features a talking parrot, controlled by speech recognition, in the loosest sense of the term.
The parrot is actually a small animated graphic which is flying around, sitting on windows frames and annyoing the user from time to time with his unintelligent comments. The comments are generated from text files by Text Assist, the text-to-speech software that was already bundled with the AWE cards. Unfortunately, it has hardly improved since then. Most advertised feature added in this version is an email filter, which should be able to read emails without confusing the listener by spelling each control character. But, Text Assist is still an insult to the ear and human language. The intonation is hardly correct, and the voice melody is so wrong that it is not only annoying, but often also confusing.
The language recognition is done by Voice Assist and seems to work most of the time. I didn't spend much time to train the recognition algorithm, it worked surprisingly good out of the box, and I assume it works even better for a native english speaker. You can bind actions to certain phrases, which control windowing functions or start applications on request. Beside spoken language, Voice Assist can interpret keyboard commands and even mouse movements. The latter is disabled by default, and should be used carefully if at all.
Everytime I started these applications, I wondered if they can be useful for anyone at all. Visually challenged people won't use TextAssist, because real text-to-speech engines are implemented in hardware and give much better results. People who want to use a microphone to work with the computer will buy serious dictating software which does not cost too much these days. The parrot is actually more useless then the Paper Clip in Word 97. If somebody uses one of these applications for their daily work, please let me know! Maybe there is some field of endeavor which I don't know and where these applications are useful.