Is it Live, or is it Sampleblaster?

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on in November 1998, contributed by then Contributing Editor Peter Leoni. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

What in the world have we here?

Can it really be true? An $85 high quality sampler?

Well, err, yes! It seems so!

For years the very word “SoundBlaster” has been enough to send shivers up and down the spine of any self respecting digital audiophile, and rightfully so! From poorly written drivers to, shall we say, “somewhat misleading” advertisements, to package info that boldly claimed “full duplex” when such was not the case at all has left a bitter taste in the mouth of those who have attempted to use these cards with a digital audio sequencing app.

The real truth is that these cards were not primarily designed for digital audio they were designed for gaming and here, as any rabid “Unreal” player will tell you, they have greatly succeeded.

However, in an attempt to garner a bigger market share, Creative Labs decided to try and grab a share of the rapidly rising “computer musician” market. With the release of the SoundBlaster 32 series of cards, Creative labs introduced something called a “Soundfont”.

A Soundfont turns out to be nothing more than a silly name for a sample. The problem with the AWE 32 and 64 series of cards was that the audio and sampling engine really didn’t quite make it up to what could be termed “Hi Fidelity” standards. Although claiming to use 16-bit resolution, astute users soon discovered there was some internal digital finagling occurring. The AWE 32/64 cards were somewhat noisy and in general just weren’t cutting it as high quality samplers, but hey, that was not the primary purpose of the card to begin with. These were gaming cards, right?

Ahh, but now the fun starts! Like so many other facets of the computer industry, progress in sound cards is so rapid and competition so fierce, that before the marketing department of a manufacturer knows what in the hell they have on their hands, someone in R and D has already handed them a “New and Improved” version. Witness: The Intel Celeron A processor, primary subject of my column last month. Intel barely had the PII series of CPU’s out of the door when they were forced by market dynamics to introduce a less expensive version (the Celeron “A” series) which actually outperformed the original PII in most applications!

Where is this all going? And what has it got to do with the SoundBlaster Live?

Well, I am happy to report to you that the same kind of thing has occurred again, and what we now have on our hands is an $85 high quality sampler!

This time we have two products sharing nearly the same internal devices (with some important limitations of course) being introduced under two different banners.

1: The $700 EMU APS (Audio Production Studio) and
2: The $85 (street) SoundBlaster Live! Value Edition

How close are they? When it comes to the sampling and DSP abilities, very close it seems.

Here in a nutshell are the salient features common to both cards: These are small PCI cards, which allow you to use system memory for your samples. You may load as many 32 Mb banks of samples as you have the system ram to handle (above what you need to run the system, of course), but note, only one 32 MB bank at a time.

Both products share the same new EMU synth engine with all internal processing is done at 32-bit resolution. (No misprint.) Does that lead you to believe that this card may be capable of some high quality sampling? Read on!

Both cards also share one of the most advanced DSP chips ever produced. The reverb algorithms are very dense and dare I say “Lexicon like” in character. They can be applied either in front or in back of the signal chain, and yes this does allow the use of this unit as an outboard processor. There are several effects included. All very tweakable and depending on the amount of processor power required, you may have multiple effects loaded at one time.

Before I forget to mention this, these effects can not only assigned on a per channel basis, but can be assigned on a per sample basis. For example it is possible to have reverb on your snare and toms, but not on you kicks and cymbals, while all samples are using the same midi channel. This feat is easily accomplished with the free “Vienna” sample editing software. For those of you who are familiar with Vienna, it is now up to Ver. 2.3 and now supports the SF2 sample format.

Creative, incidentally, has made the Soundfont 2 spec open to the public, so there is little doubt that it will soon be supported by the major sample venders. In addition, utilities exist which are capable of converting samples in other formats (Akai, Kurzweil, etc.) ensuring there will be plenty of grist for the mill. Another common feature is the capability 64-voice polyphony. Not bad at all for any sampler and superb for less than $100!

Ok what do you get with the APS unit for $600 more? Well, you do get this nifty breakout box enabling you to hang wires out of one of the 5 ½ bays in the front of your computer, and oh yeah, you also get a lot of “neato” mixing software to put with your rapidly growing collection of other “neato” software. You get a back plane with the SP/DIF I/O nicely connected to RCA jacks for those who are too, shall we say “mentally challenged” to figure out how to get the SP/DIF I/O hooked up to the connector on the Live! Value card.

OK, OK, I don’t want to get too cocky and carried away here, the APS is rumored to have cleaner digital converters. This would probably be more important if I was recommending the SB Live! as a primary soundcard, but the fact is I am not. I feel there are better cards, with multiple inputs and SP/DIF I/O becoming available now that are far better choices for a primary audio card than either the APS or the SB Live! Also true, the APS does include a nice collection of EMU samples and true, it does have some other extra features not included in the SoundBlaster Live! card but in $600 worth of them? You be the judge.

All right you say, this is sounding pretty good so far, but there has got to be a catch. What’s the downside? Where are the negatives?

Semi-big point number one: All internal processing is locked at 48 Khz, which means the SP/DIF out is also locked at 48 KHZ. Bummer. The SP/DIF input however, is capable of on the fly sample rate conversion at all the standard frequencies. As with any sample rate conversion, results will vary. In any case the SP/DIF limitation isn’t quite bad as it would seem as due to the fact that the analog output on this card is fairly quiet and certainly on a par with most outboard samplers. In any case, most of the time we will be importing samples into the unit from outside sources, and not depending on the Live’s inputs.

Semi-big point number two, also true of both cards: Only one pair of stereo in/outs.

Semi-big point number three: Although you can layer multiple samples at different velocity ranges, and the sample editor is otherwise very comprehensive, as of yet the Vienna editor, includes no direct VCF implementation. Odd, as VCF is definitely included in the Soundfont 2 spec, and the hardware is capable of it as well. This may or may not be a big problem to you depending on your use of the unit. There may well be other issues that emerge, and if I were paying $1000 for this unit I might be tempted to nit pick, but at this price I still have to say, this is one great unit.

Again, I would like to point out that I feel that the card is somewhat too noisy to use as a primary audio card and stress its use only as a sampler. In fact, here is how I would recommend setting up the card: After installing the card, load ONLY the drivers and necessary software, go directly to Device Manager and disable SB16 emulation, all multimedia features, joystick, etc. Proceed from there to Multimedia Properties/Advanced and turn off all audio features leaving ONLY the midi features, this will leave you with just the sampler and none of the other IRQ and resource robbing items. When configured in this manner there will be little chance of conflicts, and you will be left with only a clean Soundfont/sampler interface to deal with in your applications and not a lot of other audio devices popping up in your apps that you probably wont need.

In conclusion, this is one fine little sampler, just don’t expect it to be perfect and capable of all your production chores. Combine it with one of the new low cost, high quality audio cards such as the upcoming Gadget Labs 8*24 and you will be rockin’!

This is “More For Less” at it’s best!