High-End Audio for Multimedia Environments

By McKell, Lynn J.; McKell, Kenneth B. | T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education), September 1994 | Go to article overview

High-End Audio for Multimedia Environments


McKell, Lynn J., McKell, Kenneth B., T H E Journal (Technological Horizons In Education)


Multimedia has become one of the fastest-growing areas of the technology age. And while visuals are impressive, audio is nearly as integral. Still, the most under-utilized and neglected component in the multimedia equation is sound reproduction.

Frequently, sound for a multimedia computer is treated as afterthought, using cheap, "tinny" -- sounding speakers. Even worse is the built-in speaker of most computers, barely adequate for occasional beeps. Yet "hearing" is one of our most powerful senses. Sound provides a high density of information and a rich set of attributes that strongly complement the visual elements.

Furthermore, sound, properly used, in many cases can add as much (or more) drama, emotion and information to a presentation as the visual aspects. (To test this assertion, compare watching a TV program with the sound off to watching it with the sound on. In most instances, more information is actually contained in the audio than in the picture.) It is not surprising, therefore, that education, training and other presentation environments using multimedia computers can be greatly enhanced by paying careful attention to the sound-reproducing elements in the systems. This article primarily focuses on that which delivers the audio to our ears-speakers.

* Software and Audio Cards

In a computer-based multimedia environment, sound reproduction mainly depends on three components: software, a sound card and self-powered speakers. (Though sound card outputs can be run through regular amplifiers and speakers, in all but large auditoriums it is much less complicated, cumbersome and costly to use self-powered speakers.) While the focus of this article is on such speakers, the following observations about software and sound cards will help the reader better understand the full environment.

Software: Early educational software just used beeps, buzzes and primitive musical note sequences for emphasis. However, some current educational software as well as most programs now in production include more sophisticated audio components.

Sound is becoming particularly important where animation and full-motion video are included in the content. Software drivers are available to support various emerging industry standards. Furthermore, the integration of CD formats into a multimedia presentation offers the possibility of an extremely high-quality audio component. This, of course, is also true when VCR-based video is included in the package.

Sound Cards: Low-end sound cards (like the original Sound Blaster from Creative Labs) typically use an 8-bit format, which restricts the quality of the audio that can be generated from software. Technologically superior 16-bit sound cards (Sound Blaster 16) offer much higher quality sound output.

Furthermore, some software (mostly games presently, but undoubtedly to become more prominent in the education and presentation sectors) is capable of also driving MIDI sound cards. These are able to generate literally hundreds of high-quality synthesized or sampled musical sounds, thus providing full symphonic/orchestral reproductions of music passages. Two leading vendors of MIDI technology are Roland (with the SCC-1 and RAP-10 GS boards) and Yamaha (with the CBX 301 system).

A multimedia computer user may also use the CD-ROM drive to play music CDs directly through the sound card and speakers while performing some other non-related function on the computer. Noteworthy, too, is Yamaha's CBX-T3 module, which integrates a sound card into an external package that can be used with computers via the serial port. This enables even notebook computers to support quality sound for external self-powered speakers.

* Categories of Self-Powered Speakers

The dramatic increase in interest for multimedia systems in the past two years has resulted in a flood of self-powered speakers. Most are relatively small, low-powered and inexpensive (under $100 list price). …

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