Sound card

Last updated
Audio interface
KL Creative Labs Soundblaster Live Value CT4670 (cropped and transparent).png
A Sound Blaster Live! Value card, a typical (circa 2000) PCI sound card.
Connects to via one of:

Line in or out: via one of:

Microphone via one of:

  • Phone connector
  • PIN connector
Common manufacturers Creative Labs (and subsidiary E-mu Systems)
VIA Technologies
Turtle Beach

A sound card (also known as an audio card) is an internal expansion card that provides input and output of audio signals to and from a computer under control of computer programs. The term sound card is also applied to external audio interfaces used for professional audio applications.


Sound functionality can also be integrated onto the motherboard, using components similar to those found on plug-in cards. The integrated sound system is often still referred to as a sound card. Sound processing hardware is also present on modern video cards with HDMI to output sound along with the video using that connector; previously they used a S/PDIF connection to the motherboard or sound card.

Typical uses of sound cards or sound card functionality include providing the audio component for multimedia applications such as music composition, editing video or audio, presentation, education and entertainment (games) and video projection. Sound cards are also used for computer-based communication such as voice over IP and teleconferencing.

General characteristics

Close-up of a sound card PCB, showing electrolytic capacitors, SMT capacitors and resistors, and a YAC512 two-channel 16-bit DAC Computer sound card01.JPEG
Close-up of a sound card PCB, showing electrolytic capacitors, SMT capacitors and resistors, and a YAC512 two-channel 16-bit DAC

Sound cards use a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which converts recorded or generated digital signal data into an analog format. The output signal is connected to an amplifier, headphones, or external device using standard interconnects, such as a TRS phone connector. [lower-alpha 1]

A common external connector is the microphone connector. Input through a microphone connector can be used, for example, by speech recognition or voice over IP applications. Most sound cards have a line in connector for an analog input from a sound source that has higher voltage levels than a microphone. In either case, the sound card uses an analog-to-digital converter to digitize this signal.

Some cards include a sound chip to support production of synthesized sounds, usually for real-time generation of music and sound effects using minimal data and CPU time.

The card may use direct memory access to transfer the samples to and from main memory, from where a recording and playback software may read and write it to the hard disk for storage, editing, or further processing.

Sound channels and polyphony

8-channel DAC Cirrus Logic CS4382 placed on Sound Blaster X-Fi Fatal1ty CirrusLogicCS4282-AB.jpg
8-channel DAC Cirrus Logic CS4382 placed on Sound Blaster X-Fi Fatal1ty

An important sound card characteristic is polyphony, which refers to its ability to process and output multiple independent voices or sounds simultaneously. These distinct channels are seen as the number of audio outputs, which may correspond to a speaker configuration such as 2.0 (stereo), 2.1 (stereo and sub woofer), 5.1 (surround), or other configuration. Sometimes, the terms voice and channel 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 output audio channel (i.e., a single mono output), requiring all voices to be mixed together. Later cards, such as the AdLib sound card, had a 9-voice polyphony combined in 1 mono output channel.

Early PC sound cards had multiple FM synthesis voices (typically 9 or 16) which were used for MIDI music. The full capabilities of advanced cards are often not fully 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 sound cards (i.e., those built into motherboards) such as audio codecs like those meeting the AC'97 standard and even some lower-cost expansion sound cards still work this way. These devices 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.

In the early days of wavetable synthesis, some sound card manufacturers advertised polyphony solely on the MIDI capabilities alone. In this case, typically, the card is only capable of two channels of digital sound and the polyphony specification solely applies to the number of MIDI instruments the sound card is capable of producing at once.

Modern sound cards may provide more flexible audio accelerator capabilities which can be used in support of higher levels of polyphony or other purposes such as hardware acceleration of 3D sound, positional audio and real-time DSP effects.

List of sound card standards

Sound card standards
NameYear Audio bit depth Sampling frequency TypeChannels
PC speaker 19816 bitPWM1 pulse-width modulation
PCjr [upper-alpha 1] 198416 volume settings122 Hz to 125 kHz PSG 3 square wave tone; 1 white noise
Tandy 1000 [upper-alpha 1] 198416 volume settings / 6 bit122 Hz to 125 kHzPSG3 square wave tone; 1 white noise; 1 pulse-width modulation
MPU-401 1984 MIDI 1 MIDI in; 2 MIDI out; DIN sync out; tape sync IO; metronome out
Covox 19878 bit1 DAC
AdLib 198764 volume settings≈49.716 kHz FM synthesizer 6-voice FM synthesizer, 5 percussion instruments
Roland MT-32 198716 bit32 kHz8 melodic channels; 1 rhythm channel
Sound Blaster 19898 bit22 kHzFM synthesizer1 DAC; 11-voice FM synthesizer
Roland Sound Canvas 199116 bit32 kHz24 voices
Gravis Ultrasound 199216 bit 44.1 kHz 16 stereo channels
AC97 199720 bit96 kHz PCM 6 independent output channels
Environmental Audio Extensions 20018 simultaneous 3D voices
Intel High Definition Audio 200432 bit192 kHzPCMup to 15 independent output channels
  1. 1 2 The Tandy 1000 and the PCjr used the same soundchip, but the Tandy 1000 utilized the Audio IN pin, whereas the PCjr did not. This allowed the Tandy to produce the speaker sound at the same time as the SN74689

Color codes

Connectors on the sound cards are color-coded as per the PC System Design Guide. [2] They may also have symbols of arrows, holes and soundwaves that are associated with each jack position.

Color Pantone [2] FunctionTypeConnectorSymbol
  Pink 701 CAnalog microphone audio inputInput3.5 mm minijack A microphone
 Light blue 284 CAnalog line level audio inputInput3.5 mm minijack An arrow going into a circle
  Lime 577 CAnalog line level audio output for the main stereo signal (front speakers or headphones)Output3.5 mm minijack Arrow going out one side of a circle into a wave
  Orange 157 CAnalog line level audio output for center channel speaker and subwoofer Output3.5 mm minijack
  Black Analog line-level audio output for surround speakers, typically rear stereoOutput3.5 mm minijack
  Silver/Grey422 CAnalog line level audio output for surround optional side channelsOutput3.5 mm minijack
  Brown/Dark4645 CAnalog line level audio output for a special panning, 'Right-to-left speaker'Output3.5 mm minijack
  Gold/Grey Game port / MIDI Input15 pin DArrow going out both sides into waves

History of sound cards for the IBM PC architecture

The AdLib Music Synthesizer Card, was one of the first sound cards circa 1990. Note the manual volume adjustment knob. ISA-8 bus. AdLib.png
The AdLib Music Synthesizer Card, was one of the first sound cards circa 1990. Note the manual volume adjustment knob. ISA-8 bus.
Sound card Mozart 16 for ISA-16 bus Mozart 16 (Oak OTI601).png
Sound card Mozart 16 for ISA-16 bus
A Turtle Beach sound card for PCI bus Turtle Beach Sound Card (Catalina).png
A Turtle Beach sound card for PCI bus
Echo Digital Audio's Indigo IO - PCMCIA card 24-bit 96 kHz stereo in/out sound card Echo Digital Audio Corporation's Indigo IO.png
Echo Digital Audio's Indigo IO  PCMCIA card 24-bit 96 kHz stereo in/out sound card
A VIA Technologies Envy sound card for PC, 5.1 channel for PCI slot A VIA Envy Sound Card 5.1 6 Channels (VIA VT1617A).jpg
A VIA Technologies Envy sound card for PC, 5.1 channel for PCI slot

Sound cards for IBM PC compatible computers were very uncommon until 1988. For the majority IBM PC users, the internal PC speaker was the only way for early PC software to produce sound and music. [3] The speaker hardware was typically limited to square waves. The resulting sound was generally described as "beeps and boops" which resulted in the common nickname "beeper". Several companies, most notably Access Software, developed techniques for digital sound reproduction over the PC speaker like RealSound. The resulting audio, while functional, suffered from heavily distorted output and low volume, and usually required all other processing to be stopped while sounds were played. Other home computers of the 1980s like the Commodore 64 included hardware support for digital sound playback or music synthesis, leaving the IBM PC at a disadvantage when it came to multimedia applications. Early sound cards for the IBM PC platform were not designed for gaming or multimedia applications, but rather on specific audio applications, such as music composition with the AdLib Personal Music System, IBM Music Feature Card, and Creative Music System, or on speech synthesis like Digispeech DS201, Covox Speech Thing, and Street Electronics Echo.

In 1988, a panel of computer-game CEOs stated at the Consumer Electronics Show that the PC's limited sound capability prevented it from becoming the leading home computer, that it needed a $49–79 sound card with better capability than current products, and that once such hardware was widely installed, their companies would support it. Sierra On-Line, which had pioneered supporting EGA and VGA video, and 3-1/2" disks, promised that year to support the AdLib, IBM Music Feature, and Roland MT-32 sound cards in its games. [4] A 1989 Computer Gaming World survey found that 18 of 25 game companies planned to support AdLib, six Roland and Covox, and seven Creative Music System/Game Blaster. [5]

Hardware manufacturers

One of the first manufacturers of sound cards for the IBM PC was AdLib, [3] which produced a card based on the Yamaha YM3812 sound chip, also known as the OPL2. The AdLib had two modes: A 9-voice mode where each voice could be fully programmed, and a less frequently used "percussion" mode with 3 regular voices producing 5 independent percussion-only voices for a total of 11. [lower-alpha 2]

Creative Labs also marketed a sound card about the same time called the Creative Music System (C/MS). 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 SAA1099 chip which was essentially a square-wave generator. It sounded much like twelve simultaneous PC speakers would have except for each channel having amplitude control, and failed to sell well, even after Creative renamed it the Game Blaster a year later, and marketed it through RadioShack in the US. The Game Blaster retailed for under $100 and was compatible with many popular games, such as Silpheed.

A large change in the IBM PC compatible sound card market happened when Creative Labs introduced the Sound Blaster card. [3] Recommended by Microsoft to developers creating software based on the Multimedia PC standard, [6] the Sound Blaster cloned the AdLib and added a sound coprocessor [lower-alpha 3] for recording and playback of digital audio. The card also included a game port for adding a joystick, and capability to interface to MIDI equipment using the game port and a special cable. With AdLib compatibility and more features at nearly the same price, most buyers chose the Sound Blaster. It eventually outsold the AdLib and dominated the market.

Roland also made sound cards in the late 1980s such as the MT-32 [3] and LAPC-I. Roland cards sold for hundreds of dollars. Many games had music written for their cards, such as Silpheed and Police Quest II. The cards were often poor at sound effects such as laughs, but for music were by far the best sound cards available until the mid nineties. Some Roland cards, such as the SCC, and later versions of the MT-32 were made to be less expensive.

By 1992, one sound card vendor advertised that its product was "Sound Blaster, AdLib, Disney Sound Source and Covox Speech Thing Compatible!" [7] Responding to readers complaining about an article on sound cards that unfavorably mentioned the Gravis Ultrasound, Computer Gaming World stated in January 1994 that, "The de facto standard in the gaming world is Sound Blaster compatibility ... It would have been unfair to have recommended anything else." [8] The magazine that year stated that Wing Commander II was "Probably the game responsible" for making it the standard card. [9] 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 video games, or even reproduce full 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, when 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 was a standard that many other sound cards supported to maintain compatibility with many games and applications released.

Industry adoption

Three early ISA (16-bit) PC sound cards showing the progression toward integrated chipsets Three-isa-audio-cards.jpg
Three early ISA (16-bit) PC sound cards showing the progression toward integrated chipsets

When game company Sierra On-Line opted to support add-on music hardware in addition to 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 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 (e.g., chirping birds, clopping horse hooves, etc.) before the Sound Blaster brought digital audio playback to the PC. 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.

Feature evolution

Early ISA bus sound cards were half-duplex, meaning they couldn't record and play digitized sound simultaneously. Later, ISA cards like the SoundBlaster AWE series and Plug-and-play Soundblaster clones supported simultaneous recording and playback, but at the expense of using up two IRQ and DMA channels instead of one. Conventional PCI bus cards generally do not have these limitations and are mostly full-duplex.

Also, throughout the years, sound cards have evolved in terms of digital audio sampling rate (starting from 8-bit 11025 Hz, to 32-bit, 192 kHz that the latest solutions support). Along the way, some cards started offering 'wavetable' sample-based synthesis, which provides superior MIDI synthesis quality relative to the earlier OPL-based solutions, which uses FM-synthesis. Also, some higher end cards started having their own RAM and processor for user-definable sound samples and MIDI instruments as well as to offload audio processing from the CPU.

For years, sound cards had only one or two channels of digital sound (most notably the Sound Blaster series and their compatibles) with the exception of the E-MU card family, the Gravis GF-1 and AMD Interwave, 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' sample-based synthesis, sound card companies would also sometimes boast about the card's polyphony capabilities in terms of MIDI synthesis. In this case polyphony solely refers to the count of MIDI notes the card is capable of synthesizing simultaneously at one given time and not the count of digital audio streams the card is capable of handling.

Crippling of features

Most new sound cards no longer have the audio loopback device commonly called "Stereo Mix"/"Wave out mix"/"Mono Mix"/"What U Hear" that was once very prevalent and that allows users to digitally record speaker output to the microphone input.

Lenovo and other manufacturers fail to implement the chipset feature in hardware, while other manufacturers disable the driver from supporting it. In some cases loopback can be reinstated with driver updates (as in the case of some Dell computers [10] ); alternatively software (Total Recorder or Virtual Audio Cable) can be purchased to enable the functionality. According to Microsoft, the functionality was hidden by default in Windows Vista (to reduce user confusion), but is still available, as long as the underlying sound card drivers and hardware support it. [11] Ultimately, the user can connect the line out directly to the line in (analog hole).

In laptops, manufacturers have gradually moved from providing 3 separate jacks with TRS connectors – usually for line in, line out/headphone out and microphone in to just a single combo jack with TRRS connector that combines microphone in and line out.


The number of physical sound channels has also increased. The first sound card solutions were mono. Stereo sound was introduced in the early 1980s, and quadraphonic sound came in 1989. This was shortly followed by 5.1 channel audio. The latest sound cards support up to 8 physical audio channels in the 7.1 speaker setup. [12]

A few early sound cards had sufficient power to drive unpowered speakers directly - for example, two watts per channel. With the popularity of amplified speakers, sound cards no longer have a power stage, though in many cases they can adequately drive headphones.[ citation needed ]

Professional sound cards (audio interfaces)

A pair of professional rackmount audio interfaces MOTU Audio Interfaces 7849.jpg
A pair of professional rackmount audio interfaces

Professional sound cards are special sound cards optimized for 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 sound cards.

Professional audio interfaces often have industry-standard inputs in addition to analogue audio, in this case ADAT, TDIF, and S/PDIF MOTU Audio Interfaces 7851.jpg
Professional audio interfaces often have industry-standard inputs in addition to analogue audio, in this case ADAT, TDIF, and S/PDIF

Professional sound cards are usually described as "audio interfaces", and sometimes have the form of external rack-mountable units using USB, 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 sound card. 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 sound cards.

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

The typical "consumer-grade" sound card 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 sound cards impose several restrictions and inconveniences that would be unacceptable to an audio professional. One of a modern sound card's purposes is to provide an Analog-to-digital converter (ADC, AD converter), and a Digital-to-analog converter (DAC, DA converter). However, in professional applications, there is usually a need for enhanced recording (analog to digital) conversion capabilities.

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

Sound devices other than expansion cards

Integrated sound hardware on PC motherboards

A spinoff of the classic IBM SN76489 by Squareinator 2014-08-31T15-57-14.141Z-IMG 1195.JPG.2560x2560 q85.jpg
A spinoff of the classic IBM SN76489 by Squareinator

In 1984, the first IBM PCjr had 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 and playback capabilities. Many games during the 1980s that supported the PCjr's video standard (described as "Tandy-compatible", "Tandy graphics", or "TGA") also supported PCjr/Tandy 1000 audio.

In the late 1990s, many computer manufacturers began to replace plug-in sound cards with a "codec" chip (actually a combined audio AD/DA-converter) integrated into the motherboard. Many of these used Intel's AC'97 specification. Others used inexpensive ACR slot accessory cards.

From around 2001, many motherboards incorporated integrated "real" (non-codec) sound cards, usually in the form of a custom chipset providing something akin to full Sound Blaster compatibility, providing relatively high-quality sound.

However, these features were dropped when AC'97 was superseded by Intel's HD Audio standard, which was released in 2004, again specified the use of a codec chip, and slowly gained acceptance. As of 2011, most motherboards have returned to using a codec chip, albeit an HD Audio compatible one, and the requirement for Sound Blaster compatibility relegated to history.

Integrated sound on other platforms

Various non-IBM PC compatible computers, such as early home computers like the Commodore 64 (1982) and Amiga (1985), NEC's PC-88 and PC-98, Fujitsu's FM-7 and FM Towns, the MSX, [13] 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 Macintosh, Amiga, C64, PC-98, MSX, FM-7, and FM towns, 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.

Several Japanese computer platforms, including the PC-88, PC-98, MSX, and FM-7, featured built-in FM synthesis sound from Yamaha by the mid-1980s. By 1989, the FM Towns computer platform featured built-in PCM sample-based sound and supported the CD-ROM format. [13]

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, 14/15-bit was accomplishable at the cost of high CPU usage) for each channel and a 6-bit volume control per channel. Sound playback on Amiga was done by reading directly from the chip-RAM without using the main CPU.

Most arcade games have integrated sound chips, the most popular being the Yamaha OPL chip for BGM coupled with a variety of DACs for sampled audio and sound effects.

Sound cards on other platforms

The earliest known sound card 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.

Certain early arcade machines made use of sound cards to achieve playback of complex audio waveforms and digital music, despite being already equipped with onboard audio. An example of a sound card used in arcade machines is the Digital Compression System card, used in games from Midway. For example, Mortal Kombat II on the Midway T Unit hardware. The T-Unit hardware already has an onboard YM2151 OPL chip coupled with an OKI 6295 DAC, but said game uses an added on DCS card instead. [14] The card is also used in the arcade version of Midway and Aerosmith's Revolution X for complex looping BGM and speech playback (Revolution X used fully sampled songs from the band's album that transparently looped- an impressive feature at the time the game was released).

MSX computers, while equipped with built-in sound capabilities, also relied on 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 sound cards called MSX Music and MSX Audio, which uses OPL2 and OPL3 chipsets, for the system.

The Apple II series of computers, which did not have sound capabilities beyond a beep until the IIGS, could use plug-in sound cards from a variety of manufacturers. The first, in 1978, was ALF's Apple Music Synthesizer, with 3 voices; two or three cards could be used to create 6 or 9 voices in stereo. Later ALF created the Apple Music II, a 9-voice model. The most widely supported card, however, was the Mockingboard. Sweet Micro Systems sold the Mockingboard in various models. Early Mockingboard models ranged from 3 voices in mono, while some later designs had 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 made by Applied Engineering. In late 2005 a company called produced a 6-voice clone called the Mockingboard v1 and also had plans to clone the Phasor and produce a hybrid card user-selectable between Mockingboard and Phasor modes plus support both the SC-01 or SC-02 speech synthesizers [ citation needed ].

The Sinclair ZX Spectrum that initially only had a beeper had some sound cards made for it. One example is the TurboSound. [15] Other examples are the Fuller Box, [16] [17] Melodik for the Didaktik Gamma, AY-Magic et.c. The Zon X-81 for the ZX81 [18] [19] was also possible to use on the ZX Spectrum using an adapter.

External sound devices

Devices such as the Covox Speech Thing could be attached to the parallel port of an IBM PC and feed 6- or 8-bit PCM sample data to produce audio. Also, many types of professional sound cards (audio interfaces) have the form of an external FireWire or USB unit, usually for convenience and improved fidelity.

Sound cards using the PCMCIA Cardbus interface were available before laptop and notebook computers routinely had onboard sound. Cardbus audio may still be used if onboard sound quality is poor. When Cardbus interfaces were superseded by Expresscard on computers since about 2005, manufacturers followed. Most of these units are designed for mobile DJs, providing separate outputs to allow both playback and monitoring from one system, however some also target mobile gamers, providing high-end sound to gaming laptops who are usually well-equipped when it comes to graphics and processing power, but tend to have audio codecs that are no better than the ones found on regular laptops.

USB sound cards

USB sound card Soundblaster Live USB.png
USB sound card

USB sound "cards" are external devices that plug into the computer via USB. They are often used in studios and on stage by electronic musicians including live PA performers and DJs. DJs who use DJ software typically use sound cards integrated into DJ controllers or specialized DJ sound cards. DJ sound cards sometimes have inputs with phono preamplifiers to allow turntables to be connected to the computer to control the software's playback of music files with timecode vinyl.

The USB specification defines a standard interface, the USB audio device class, allowing a single driver to work with the various USB sound devices and interfaces on the market. Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux support this standard. However, many USB sound cards do not conform to the standard and require proprietary drivers from the manufacturer.

Even cards meeting the older, slow, USB 1.1 specification are capable of high quality sound with a limited number of channels, or limited sampling frequency or bit depth, but USB 2.0 or later is more capable.

A USB audio interface may also describe a device allowing a computer which has a sound-card, yet lacks a standard audio socket, to be connected to an external device which requires such a socket, via its USB socket.


The main function of a sound card is to play audio, usually music, with varying formats (monophonic, stereophonic, various multiple speaker setups) and degrees of control. The source may be a CD or DVD, a file, streamed audio, or any external source connected to a sound card input.

Audio may be recorded. Sometimes sound card hardware and drivers do not support recording a source that is being played.

A card can also be used, in conjunction with software, to generate arbitrary waveforms, acting as an audio-frequency function generator. Free and commercial software is available for this purpose; [20] there are also online services that generate audio files for any desired waveforms, playable through a sound card.

A card can be used, again in conjunction with free or commercial software, to analyse input waveforms. For example, a very-low-distortion sinewave oscillator can be used as input to equipment under test; the output is sent to a sound card's line input and run through Fourier transform software to find the amplitude of each harmonic of the added distortion. [21] Alternatively, a less pure signal source may be used, with circuitry to subtract the input from the output, attenuated and phase-corrected; the result is distortion and noise only, which can be analysed.

There are programs which allow a sound card to be used as an audio-frequency oscilloscope.

For all measurement purposes a sound card must be chosen with good audio properties. It must itself contribute as little distortion and noise as possible, and attention must be paid to bandwidth and sampling. A typical integrated sound card, the Realtek ALC887, according to its data sheet has distortion of about 80 dB below the fundamental; cards are available with distortion better than −100 dB.

Sound cards with a sampling rate of 192 kHz can be used to synchronize the clock of the computer with a time signal transmitter working on frequencies below 96 kHz like DCF 77 with a special software and a coil at the entrance of the sound card, working as antenna [ permanent dead link ], .

Driver architecture

To use a sound card, the operating system (OS) typically requires a specific device driver, a low-level program that handles the data connections between the physical hardware and the operating system. Some operating systems include the drivers for many cards; for cards not so supported, drivers are supplied with the card, or available for download.

List of sound card manufacturers

See also


  1. 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, an auxiliary backplate, or a panel mounted at the front.
  2. The percussion mode was considered inflexible by most developers; it was used mostly by AdLib's own composition software.
  3. This was likely an Intel microcontroller relabeled by Creative.

Related Research Articles

Ad Lib, Inc.

Ad Lib, Inc. was a Canadian manufacturer of sound cards and other computer equipment founded by Martin Prevel, a former professor of music and vice-dean of the music department at the Université Laval. The company's best known product, the AdLib Music Synthesizer Card (ALMSC), or simply the AdLib as it was called, was the first add-on sound card for IBM compatibles to achieve widespread acceptance, becoming the first de facto standard for audio reproduction.

Music tracker Type of software for creating music

A music tracker is a type of music sequencer software for creating music. The music is represented as discrete musical notes positioned in several channels at discrete chronological positions on a vertical timeline. A music tracker's user interface is usually number based. Notes, parameter changes, effects and other commands are entered with the keyboard into a grid of fixed time slots as codes consisting of letters, numbers and hexadecimal digits. Separate patterns have independent timelines; a complete song consists of a master list of repeated patterns.

Sound Blaster Family of sound cards by Creative Technology

Sound Blaster is a family of sound cards designed by Singaporean technology company Creative Technology. Sound Blaster sound cards were the de facto standard for consumer audio on the IBM PC compatible system platform, until the widespread transition to Microsoft Windows 95, which standardized the programming interface at application level, and the evolution in PC design led to onboard audio electronics, which commoditized PC audio functionality. By 1995, Sound Blaster cards had sold over 15 million units worldwide and accounted for seven out of ten sound card sales.

MOS Technology 6581 MOS Technology sound chip

The MOS Technology 6581/8580 SID is the built-in programmable sound generator chip of Commodore's CBM-II, Commodore 64, Commodore 128 and Commodore MAX Machine home computers. It was one of the first sound chips of its kind to be included in a home computer prior to the digital sound revolution.

Game port Computer device port

The game port, originally introduced on the Game Control Adapter, is a device port that was found on IBM PC compatible and other computer systems throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It was the traditional connector for joystick input, and occasionally MIDI devices, until obsoleted by USB in the late 1990s.


The Mockingboard is a sound card for the Apple II series of microcomputers built by Sweet Micro Systems, which improve on the Apple II's limited sound capabilities.

PC speaker

A PC speaker is a loudspeaker built into some IBM PC compatible computers. The first IBM Personal Computer, model 5150, employed a standard 2.25 inch magnetic driven (dynamic) speaker. More recent computers use a tiny moving-iron or piezo speaker instead. The speaker allows software and firmware to provide auditory feedback to a user, such as to report a hardware fault. A PC speaker generates waveforms using the programmable interval timer, an Intel 8253 or 8254 chip.

The digital sound revolution refers to the widespread adoption of digital audio technology in the computer industry beginning in the 1980s.

Gravis Ultrasound

Gravis UltraSound or GUS is a sound card for the IBM PC compatible system platform, made by Canada-based Advanced Gravis Computer Technology Ltd. It was very popular in the demo scene during the 1990s.

Sound Blaster X-Fi Computer sound card

Sound Blaster X-Fi is a lineup of sound cards in Creative Technology's Sound Blaster series.

Ensoniq Soundscape S-2000

Soundscape S-2000 was Ensoniq's first direct foray into the PC sound card market. The card arrived on the market in 1994. It is a full-length ISA digital audio and sample-based synthesis device, equipped with a 2 MiB Ensoniq-built ROM-based patch set. Some OEM versions of the card feature a smaller 1 MiB patch set. It was praised for its then-high quality music synthesis and sound output, high compatibility and good software support.

Ensoniq AudioPCI

The Ensoniq AudioPCI is a PCI-based sound card released in 1997. It was Ensoniq's last sound card product before they were acquired by Creative Technology. The card represented a shift in Ensoniq's market positioning. Whereas the Soundscape line had been made up primarily of low-volume high-end products full of features, the AudioPCI was designed to be a very simple, low-cost product to appeal to system OEMs and thus hopefully sell in mass quantities.

Sound Blaster Live! is a PCI add-on sound card from Creative Technology Limited for PCs. Moving from ISA to PCI allowed the card to dispense with onboard memory, storing digital samples in the computer's main memory and then accessing them in real time over the bus. This allowed for a much wider selection of, and longer playing, samples. It also included higher quality sound output at all levels, quadrophonic output, and a new MIDI synthesizer with 64 sampled voices. The Live! was introduced in August 1998 and variations on the design remained Creative's primary sound card line into the 2000s.

Sound Blaster Audigy Computer sound card

Sound Blaster Audigy is a product line of sound cards from Creative Technology. The flagship model of the Audigy family used the EMU10K2 audio DSP, an improved version of the SB-Live's EMU10K1, while the value/SE editions were built with a less-expensive audio controller.

Sound Blaster 16

The Sound Blaster 16 is a series of sound cards by Creative Technology. They are add-on boards for PCs with an ISA or PCI slot.

Windows Sound System

Windows Sound System (WSS) is a sound card specification developed by Microsoft released at the end of 1992 for Windows 3.1. WSS featured support for up to 16-bit, 48 kHz digital sampling, beyond the capabilities of the popular contemporary Sound Blaster Pro, although it was less frequently supported than Sound Blaster and Gravis sound cards, as well as Roland sound cards, daughterboards, and sound modules. In addition, the WSS featured RCA analog audio outputs, an uncommon feature among sound cards of this era; other connections were a microphone input, a stereo line input and a stereo headphone output.

Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum

The Media Vision Pro AudioSpectrum family of personal computer sound cards included the original 8-bit Pro AudioSpectrum (1991), the 8-bit Pro AudioSpectrum Plus, 16-bit Pro AudioSpectrum 16, Pro AudioSpectrum 16 Basic and 16-bit Pro Audio Studio. All PAS cards with the exception of Pro AudioSpectrum 16 Basic could connect to CD-ROM drives—variants having SCSI or various proprietary interfaces—and many were sold in multimedia kits with compatible CD-ROM drives.

Creative Technology Pte Ltd. is a Singaporean multinational technology company headquartered in Jurong East, Singapore, with overseas offices in Shanghai, Tokyo, Dublin, as well as the Silicon Valley.

Throughout its lengthy, multi-model lifespan, the Apple II series computers lacked any serious built-in sound capabilities. At the time of its release in 1977, this did not distinguish it from its contemporaries, but by 1982, it shared the market with several sound-equipped competitors such as the Commodore 64, whose SID chip could produce sophisticated multi-timbral music and sound effects.


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