Computers: Quietly driven nuts by sound and fury: Scaring the servants and horses with loud noises is one of the pleasures of computing - if you can get them to work. Andrew Brown had problems

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The Independent Online
Suppose when you bought a new car it came with a big bag of wheelnuts so you could bolt the wheels on yourself before driving away. That is how computer software used to be sold and much still is. A few weeks ago I acquired some with a sound card.

Making computers produce silly noises is one of the great pleasures of a deskbound life. Macintosh and Acorn users get this stuff for free, but all except the most modern and expensive PC-compatibles need to be fitted with circuit boards known as sound cards and speakers before they can make tolerable noises.

Decent sound cards, virtually essential for playing games, can now be bought for less than pounds 50. For more serious uses, such as music or loud and realistic noises, you need to spend about pounds 100 more on a 16-bit stereo card with a Midi interface, a piece of circuitry which allows the computer to be connected to and play with real instruments. More expensive cards are often fitted with sockets for the control leads of CD- rom drives and quite often sold with a CD-rom drive and the software to access the information on computer-readable CDs as part of a Multimedia upgrade.

The best-known company in the field is Creative Labs, which makes a range of cards called Soundblasters. It is foolish to buy a card that cannot imitate - 'emulate' in the jargon - a Soundblaster.

I decided to try an Orchid Soundwave 32, from a rival company, on the strength of some excellent reviews in magazines. It came with decent speakers and a microphone and - to take last things first - it does sound practically as good as a CD player. But I can almost guarantee you will be screaming at the machine long before it is warbling to you, because of the software that comes with it. It is not the large things that are wrong, just small ones - like wheelnuts.

The first thing the software should do is to 'install' the card: to arrange for it to become a usable part of the computer. If you put a piece of circuitry into a PC, you have to tell the operating system, which controls the computer's basic functions, what you have done.

This is difficult when you are not too sure yourself. The process involves mysterious entities called 'IRQs' and 'address lines', about which the ordinary user needs to know only that everything must have one each. If a sound card and a printer, say, are trying to share an IRQ, the soundcard will scream every time you try to print and so, after a while, will you.

Plugging the card into the back of the machine was as simple as these things ever are. It is not difficult or frightening. Telling it to use an address line of 300 instead of 330, as it wanted to, seemed just as simple. The problem was that every time I loaded Windows, the PC's graphics-based point-and-click operating system, the machine would freeze completely. After five hours of trial and error I gave up and telephoned Orchid's technical support. With patient help, I found the fault.

The installation software will tell Dos, the PC's basic text-based operating system, what you ask it to. But when Windows starts up, it has to be told all about sound cards and so on all over again. It reads this information from a special file called Win. ini - and whatever address line you tell the Orchid installer you want the card to use, it always writes 330 into the Win. ini file, and so Windows always crashes if something else is already using the address line. In the end, I wrote information into the Win. ini file directly from the keyboard, but this is more like putting in a new clutch than changing a wheelnut.

Once in Windows, I was able to admire the detail of the card: it is controlled by a program that looks exactly like the front of a hi-fi system, with separate units for the CD player, two different sorts of music files, a mixer and a microphone control. With this set of programs, I could mimic a complete sound studio, recording, blending and distorting any sound I could find. Well, I could have done if it had worked.

But one crucial set of lights on this panel, shown in the manual and absolutely essential for mixing, does not exist in screen displayed by my version of the program. It was in the early version, the one used to write the manual, Orchid explained, but not in the finished software.

This explanation would be less unsatisfactory if the software they had released was finished. But it shows every sign to me of having been rushed to market. The sound editing program repeatedly and reliably refuses to play the sounds it has just edited. The CD player refuses to play certain CDs at all. No doubt the Midi player has similar flaws, but the samples supplied sound so horrible I have not explored them.

Still, the noises that games now make are so clear and so loud that no one else can stand to be in the room with them. I am not sure that is really compensation. This is not so much software without the wheels screwed on as software with wheelnuts that do not fit.

(Graphic omitted)

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