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A Brief History of the Evolution of Computer Sound Cards

written by: John Garger•edited by: M.S. Smith•updated: 5/20/2011

The computer sound card has a long and strange history. Learn how early sound cards evolved into the audio cards we know today.

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    It is hard to imagine computers without high-tech sound, but there was a time when sound cards were a luxury item that only a few possessed. Through aggressive marketing, companies such as AdLib and Creative Labs made sound cards a necessary component in the modern computer. Read on to learn about the evolution of the computer sound card and the impact it has had on the computing industry.

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    The Early Days of the Evolution of Computer Audio

    AdLib Sound Card from the 1980s In the days before computer granularity, home computers were all-in-one packages that had few removable or upgradable parts save for some extra RAM. These computers such as the Commodore 64 and the Atari 800xl took advantage of hard-wired sound chips that produced not much more than blips and bleeps to alert users to errors or add some shallow immersion to video games.

    The granular nature of the IBM computers of the mid to late 1980s, however, paved the way for the introduction of expansion cards that would greatly enhance the sound capabilities of computers. At that time in computer history, there was no Internet, MP3s, DVD movies, or computer speakers. It never occurred to any one at the time that computers would someday double as stereos systems and home theaters.

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    The Need for the First Computer Sound Cards

    Since the adoption of digital media such as MP3s and DVD movies was still some years away, the first computer sound cards focused on the two main reasons home computer users would want great sound from their computers.

    The first reason was gaming. Until the introduction of sound cards, gaming sound was restricted to inane blips and bleeps with almost no option to add music to an otherwise silent gaming experience. The second reason was music production such as MIDI files that allowed musicians to interface instruments with a computer for recording and editing.

    In 1989, a company called AdLib marketed one of the first successful add-in sound cards for the IBM PC family of computers. Soon after, the better-known Creative Labs company marketed the Creative Music System which later gave rise to its Sound Blaster line of sound cards, a line of cards still in production today.

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    The Evolution of Modern Sound Cards

    ISA Motherboard Slot The first sound cards plugged into a free ISA slot on an IBM-based computer. These cards were quite large and often had volume controls right on the card forcing the user to reach behind the computer to change the main volume control for the card. At that time, DOS was the most popular operating system so there was no volume control built in to a graphical user interface with which many computer users are familiar with today.

    Later cards used the more efficient and higher bandwidth PCI slots and opened up more doors for the sound card manufacturers to create better sounding cards. This switch from ISA to PCI also coincided with the rise of the Microsoft Windows operating system that brought standards to the cards’ hardware interface protocols. This allowed great sound in applications and PC video games. Today, the best sound cards use the PCIe port to connect to a computer.

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    The Modern Sound Card and the Future of Computer Audio

    Creative Labs Sound Blaster Fatal1ty Pro PCIe Sound Card Creative Labs is the best-known audio card manufacturer the world over. Several other manufacturers have made some headway competing with the giant such as Turtle Beach and Diamond Multimedia, but so far no one has been able to knock Creative Labs from its perch high above its competitors.

    The X-Fi line of Sound Blasters is Creative Labs’ premiere line of computer sound cards. Offering 24-bit surround sound and EAX sound effects, the X-Fi is the card most sought after by hard-core gamers, amateur audiophiles, and those home computer users recreating the cinema experience in their homes.

    A few years ago, computer gurus began speculating that computer audio had reached its zenith. Some speculated that Creative Labs would have to reinvent itself to adapt to a new computer audio market due mainly to advances in on-board audio and a general lack of interest for more or better sound in consumers’ computers.

    Recently, Creative Labs has ventured into other markets such as headphones and home theater audio devices and has shown increased interest and investment in laptop computer product development. Whether the company continues in this direction because of changes in what the market demands remains to be seen.

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    Conclusion

    The sound card has changed dramatically from its roots as a gaming and music instrument to a part that doubles as a stereo system and essential home theater component. Companies like AdLib led the way to the modern sound cards made by the number one manufacturer of computer sound devices, Creative Labs. However, changes in the market and physical limitations of the sound cards themselves have led at least one company to rethink its position in the dominant sector of the computer audio market.

The Evolution of the Video and Sound Card

These two articles discuss the brief history and evolution of two of the most upgraded components in the modern computer. The first article looks at the video card's evolution while the second article tackles the sound card from its humble beginnings.
  1. The Evolution of the Computer Video Card
  2. A Brief History of the Evolution of Computer Sound Cards

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