Sound Card

Dennis Faas's picture

A sound card is a computer expansion card that can input and output sound under program control. Most personal computers today have sound cards built onto the main board and do not require a secondary / separate sound card.

Sound Cards: General Characteristics

A typical sound card includes a sound chip usually featuring a digital-to-analog converter that converts recorded or generated digital waveforms of sound into an analog format. This signal is led to a (earphone-type) connector where a cable to an amplifier or similar sound destination can be plugged in.

More advanced designs usually include more than one sound chip, and separate between synthesized sounds (usually for real-time generation of music and special effects with little amounts of data and CPU time and perhaps MIDI compatibility) and digital sound reproduction.

The latter is usually achieved by multi-channel DACs, able to play multiple digital samples at different pitches and perhaps even applying real-time effects to them, like filtering or distortion. Sometimes, multi-channel digital sound playback can also be used for music synthesis if used with a digitized instrument bank of some sort, typically a small amount of ROM or Flash memory containing samples corresponding to the standard MIDI instruments.

Audio Codecs

"Audio codecs" on the other hand rely heavily on software for music synthesis, MIDI compliance and even multiple-channel emulation, their purpose being to simplify the design of costs of the sound card itself.

Also, most sound cards have a "line in" connector where the sound signal from a cassette tape recorder or similar sound source can be connected to. The sound card can digitize this signal and store it (controlled by the corresponding computer software) on the computer's hard disk.

The third external connector a typical sound card has, is used to connect a microphone directly. Its sound can be recorded to hard disk or otherwise processed (for example, by speech recognition software or for Voice over IP).

There are however some sound cards aimed specifically at music synthesis and MIDI interfacing which lack any "real" sound recording capabilities, such as some Turtle Beach and Roland MT-32 products, which were however aimed at a specific market and are designed for professional high-quality MIDI music playback.

Sound Card Driver Architecture

To use a sound card, a certain operating system typically requires a specific device driver.

Microsoft Windows uses proprietary drivers supplied by sound card manufacturers and supplied to Microsoft for inclusion in the distributions. Sometimes drivers are also supplied by the individual vendors for download and installation.

The Linux kernel used in the Linux distributions have two different driver architectures, the Open Sound System and ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Architecture). Both include drivers for most cards by default. Sound card manufacturers seldom produce stand-alone drivers for Linux.

The Universal Serial Bus (USB) specification defines a standard interface for sound cards to adhere to, the USB audio device class, allowing a single driver to work with the various USB sound cards on the market.

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