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Sound Blaster Live!
January 5, 2001 | Lucian Fong

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For as long as I can remember, Apple has included a sound chip and a tinney-sounding internal speaker on their motherboards to provide sound ouput for their Macs. For a while, this was adequate on Macs and PCs, since 3D sound did not exist and the games of that era were not very demanding in the sound area (not to mention MP3s didn't exist yet).

The paths of the Mac and PC diverged when Origin's Wing Commander was released. The release of Wing Commander changed the way gamers looked (and listened) to sound. For once, gamers felt compelled to buy a sound card and a pair of external speakers so they could enjoy the dynamic soundtrack and professional voice acting in all its glory. It was then that Creative Labs' Sound Blaster card established itself as the best low cost sound solution on the PC.

Even when Wing Commander was ported to the Macintosh several years later, the state of sound on the Macintosh remained stagnant. Apple has upgraded the audio subsystem a couple of times throughout the years (including the Crystal sound chip found in the latest G4 PowerMacs), but the quality of that sound is nowhere near the quality created by a Sound Blaster card in a PC, paired with a quality speaker system.

With the explosion of games and gamers that require high quality sound, and Creative Labs' acquisitions of speaker maker Cambridge Soundworks and former rival Aureal, they have become a dominant force on the PC. They offer a full line of sound cards and Cambridge Soundworks speakers for almost every type of user. And now, they are bringing their expertise to the Macintosh.

What is Sound Blaster?
When Creative Labs announced last year that they were going to enter the Mac market with their Sound Blaster Live! product, many Mac users were excited at first. After the glow of the annoucement at MacWorld San Francisco wore off, we were left scratching our heads and asking ourselves, "Wait, why do I need Sound Blaster? What can it do for me?"

The answer is simple: To make your games sound better.

Recently, the Macintosh has been hit with a wave of A-list 3D games, like Rune and Elite Force. There are also the classics, such as Quake 3: Arena and Unreal Tournament. Not only do those games have top drawer 3D graphics, they also have immersive 3D (positional) audio. Many Mac gamers (including myself) probably purchased a set of quality speakers or headphones to get the full experience. In reality, we were never able to realize the full potential for those games as the sound hardware on the Macintosh was never able to produce "true" 3D sound. This is where Creative Labs comes into play.

For many years, PC gamers have enjoyed high quality 3D sound because Creative Labs pushed game developers and Microsoft to support EAX (Environmental Audio Extension) and more recently, OpenAL (OpenAL is a refined version of EAX, but open-sourced). EAX and OpenAL are similar to OpenGL and RAVE on the Macintosh, but for sound. Those two 3D sound APIs allow game developers to include immersive sound effects like reverberation (distance of footsteps in a room) and Doppler Effect (fire engine approaching and passing you) into their games. As long as the sound card supports EAX and/or OpenAL, you will be able to hear the games the way they were meant to be heard.

Another advantage of having a Sound Blaster card in your computer is that it can reduce the workload of your CPU by using its onboard DSP (Digital Signal Processor) to process sound, freeing up your CPU to do other things, like pump out more frames per second. It is a common misconception, though, that dropping a Sound Blaster into your computer will magically give you better timedemo scores. Again, the software (game) and the hardware (sound card) must support the same 3D sound API. Even then, don't expect huge increases in framerates, as Macintosh hardware is limited in several ways (software, hardware).


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