Is MIDI important?
I suppose I should answer this question before I review a sound card whose primary strength is its MIDI performance. The answer, simply, is yes. There has been some argument about this; games are increasingly using CD audio or proprietary digital audio schemes that simply require a sound card capable of 16-bit, 44.1KHz digital playback. There are two great reasons that MIDI is still important, though.
First, many games still use it for music. Duke Nukem 3D, Daggerfall and Ultima Online are notable examples. Second, though OGR is strictly a computer gaming site, we would be naive to think that all you use your computer for is playing games. If you’re reading this article, you obviously access the World Wide Web, where MIDI is common.
It’s also worth noting that many users who don’t have good MIDI capabilities don’t care about it, and when they finally get a sound card that has good MIDI playback, they take far more interest in it. Regardless, wavetable sound cards are very affordable now, and there’s no reason that you should settle for FM synthesis.
What is the AWE64?
The name would seem to suggest that it is the 64-voice equivalent of the Sound Blaster AWE32. Not exactly so, though Creative Labs would like you to think so. The AWE64 essentially is the AWE32 PnP. It uses the same 1MB ROM bank for MIDI instruments, has 512k onboard RAM for instrument samples called “SoundFonts” (4MB RAM on the AWE64 Gold) and is fully Plug-and-Play enabled. It’s full-duplex, which means that it can both record and play digital audio at the same time (important for Web-phone applications).
It comes with a standard mid-quality desk-boom-style microphone and the standard array of software: the AWE control panel, text-to-speech converters, Voyetra MIDI sequencer, Web-phone, SoundFont editing utility and all kinds of redundant control panels for the CD player, WAV recording and playing and what have you. The AWE64 also packs in full versions of Accolade’s Eradicator and Bullfrog’s Magic Carpet 2. But one shouldn’t really consider this a reason to buy a sound card. It should be chosen for the hardware.
What you would expect is that, where the AWE32 PnP is 32-voice polyphonic, meaning that it can play 32 voices at a time, the AWE64 would be 64-note polyphonic. This is not quite the case. The AWE64 will let you play 64 notes at a time, but 32 of them are played by the WaveSynth/WaveGuide synth, which is a 32-note polyphonic software wavetable synthesizer. Especially interesting is the WaveGuide part, which doesn’t rely on wavetable synthesis to reproduce instrument sounds.
Wavetable synthesis uses digital samples pitch-shifted to the appropriate note to create its sounds, while WaveGuide relies on a relatively new sound technology that uses a mathematical model of an instrument’s acoustic properties to reproduce the sound it makes. This is good for solo instruments, but not as good for group instruments like “String Ensemble” and “Orchestra Hit.” It also allows more realistic expression, much as a real musician would produce.
The catch is, wavetable instruments are easy to make, and the AWE64 (and AWE32 PnP) comes with a nice utility to do so. WaveGuide instruments are very difficult to produce, so don’t count on doing much with them yourself.
While the WS/WG is a niftly little bit of technology, there is really no excuse for Creative Labs to market a card that is essentially an AWE32 PnP and a 32-voice software synthesizer and call it the AWE64. It should also be noted that this software synthesizer will eat up 10-15% of your CPU power, so don’t count on many games supporting it. Had Creative Labs included this technology in the AWE64 hardware, it would have been more deserving of its name and a much better value.
With the AWE32, Creative Labs introduced the idea of SoundFonts. These are instrument banks of custom wavetable sounds that developers and users can load into the sound card’s RAM to customize their music. The original SoundFont format had some information that was directly related to the Emu-8000 chip and the AWE32, making it a pretty closed format.
Those have been removed from the SoundFont 2.0 format, making it much more open and accessible so that other sound cards, keyboards and synths could be made that use SoundFont banks. The AWE32 PnP includes 512k of RAM to store these SoundFonts, and the AWE64 follows suit. All AWE32 and AWE64 cards’ RAM can be upgraded to store more, higher-quality samples. This is a fine idea, works very well and is even occasionally used by game developers, but it’s nothing new.
So how, from a hardware perspective, is the AWE64 different from the AWE32 Pnp? Well, the AWE32 uses 30-pin SIMMS for RAM, which are sort of old and a little hard to come by but relatively cheap (especially now that they’re nearing obsolescence).
The AWE64 uses a special add-on daughtercard that you must buy from Creative Labs. The company says that this is a good thing because it ensures quality control and will be easily available. It sounds like a scam to make more money to me; 30-pin SIMMS are not that hard to come by and cheaper, and I’ve never heard of anyone buying “bad SIMMS” for their AWE32 and having trouble returning them.
The Final Word
With some decent PCI sound cards coming to market soon, users should shop carefully when considering a current-market sound solution. At $230, the AWE64 is $80 more expensive than the AWE32 PnP and offers nothing of significance for your money but the WS/WG software synth, which is unlikely to ever be used for games. Couple this with an idiotic RAM-upgrade scheme, and there is no reason on Earth the average gamer should choose the AWE64 over the AWE32 PnP.
Don’t get me wrong — the card is good. It has excellent sound quality, slightly improves on the AWE32 PnP’s signal/noise ratio and is full of features. And true to the Sound Blaster name, it’s compatible with everything under the sun. It’s just 50% more expensive than a card that is almost exactly the same and even better in the RAM-upgrading respect, the AWE32 PnP.
Written by: Jason Cross
Date: April 2, 1997