For a decade, entertainment software authors have struggled with one infernal shortcoming of the original IBM design -- the horrid little speaker and crude sound circuitry designed strictly for beeping and bonking.
IBM, Tandy and a few other manufacturers are beginning to add better sound circuits to their personal computers as standard equipment.
But if you own an IBM-compatible and want to hear the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd when you play computer baseball, or hear the scream of your F-16 when you hit the afterburner, you'll have to buy an add-on sound board.
When you do, chances are that you'll get more than you bargained for. The Sound Blaster Pro, from Creative Labs, for example, not only produces voice, music and sound effects with game software that supports it, but also puts you in command of a bewildering variety of do-it-yourself recording and playback capabilities that can turn your PC into a miniature sound studio.
The original Sound Blaster was the most popular low-end sound board for IBM-compatibles, and almost all games that support external sound hardware will drive it.
The new Sound Blaster Pro, ($299 list, about $225 on the street), adds a host of features, including a Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) adapter and sequencing software, as well as support for the new industry multimedia PC standard.
If you just want to add sound to games, you can pick up the original Sound Blaster for about $100. Both versions of Sound Blaster are compatible with the popular Ad Lib sound board. But if you have a little musical knowledge, want to venture into multimedia, or just want some extra fun, the Pro is worth the additional money.
The Sound Blaster Pro is a 16-bit circuit board that fits into an expansion slots inside any computer with an 80286 or better microprocessor. The original Sound Blaster is an eight-bit board that can be used in earlier XT-class computers.
Once you've installed the board, you'll see four new ports and a little volume control on the back of your computer. The most important is the output port, a standard miniature stereo phone jack that connects directly to speakers, headphones, or your stereo set.
The board includes a small, four-watt amplifier, but the output is set for 4 Ohm speakers. This works fine with headphones, but since most speakers today are 8 Ohms, you'll probably want to run a cable to your stereo or pick up a couple of small, self-amplified speakers. I found a set at Radio Shack for $20.
You'll also find two input ports -- one for a microphone, the other for your stereo, tape deck, or CD player. Finally, there's a joystick port that doubles as a MIDI interface.
While commercial games can use the card without additional software (they come with their own Sound Blaster drivers), the package includes a disk full of programs that that let you record and edit voice, sound effects and music files.
The programs take advantage of Sound Blaster's stereo Digital to Analog Converter, which plays back recorded sound files; an Analog to Digital Converter, which samples external sound and turns it into a digital file on your disk; a stereo FM Music Synthesizer with 22 voices; and the MIDI interface, which controls external instruments such as MIDI keyboards.
Some of the programs are silly, such as a talking parrot who repeats everything you say into a microphone. Others are potentially useful, such as a text-to-speech converter that will "speak" the words in any standard text file in a vaguely Romanian accent. A sound editor allows you to record speech or music digitally at a variety of sampling rates, modify it (including cut, paste, mixing and reverb), and then play it back. Just remember that sound files eat up disk space.
With a utility that converts Creative Labs' native voice files into those used by Microsoft Windows 3.1, you can use the Sound Blaster to record messages that can be embedded in Windows documents or used as sound effects. Now, when my kids start up Windows, they get a little message from Dad reminding them to do their homework.
There are also a couple of Windows programs -- one called Jukebox that will queue up and play MIDI files, and another that acts as a sound mixer to record from several sources at once.
Sound Blaster Pro has excellent, multi-instrument musical capabilities for a low-end board, but the software to put them to work is spotty and confusing.
An Intelligent Organ program will let you compose music at the PC Keyboard (with a shadow piano keyboard on the screen), or use a MIDI keyboard. It offers a variety of rhythms, arpeggios and effects, but it's hard to use and rather crude.
The most powerful program of the bunch is the Voyetra Sequencer Plus Pro, which can create, record, edit and play back standard MIDI files using the Sound Blaster's built-in music synthesizer, an external keyboard with a MIDI interface, or both simultaneously.
After a couple of enjoyable hours of fooling around, I was able to coax music into and out of the Yamaha PSR-90 keyboard I bought a couple of years ago. I also discovered that MIDI music, which uses a modified piano roll notation and all kinds of jargon that I'd never heard before, takes quite a bit of getting used to. But it's also a lot of fun if you like to tinker with the keyboard.
All things considered, the Sound Blaster Pro is good value for the money. My kids love the sound effects in their games, and I'm having a great time with the music and voice software.
For information, contact Creative Labs Inc., 2050 Duane Ave., Santa Clara, Calif. 95054.