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Soundcard Problems 03: Is the SB Live! soundcard a good choice for musicians?

For anything relating to music-making on Windows computers, with lots of FAQs. Moderated by Martin Walker.

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Soundcard Problems 03: Is the SB Live! soundcard a good choice for musicians?

Postby Martin Walker » Sat Jun 23, 2001 11:24 am

Creative Lab's SB Live! Range is remarkable value for money, and provides good quality audio with a noise floor at least 6dB lower than the previous AWE64 Gold model. It also continues the tradition of including a built-in hardware sampler that supports SoundFont format files, and there are now loads of these available. The built-in DSP effects are also of good quality, making this an absolute bargain. However, you can't expect everything to run smoothly at such a bargain price-point, and there are several issues that musicians should be aware of.

First, Creative only ship the SB Live! with MME and DirectSound drivers. MME drivers tend to have high latency (the time lag between playing a sound and hearing it), which makes software synths feel less responsive. However, this problem has largely been overcome when running Cakewalk's Sonar and with Microsoft's DirectX 8.0a installed. Using DirectSound drivers, latency can be a lot lower, but these are only normally capable of playback, and not recording. So, they are perfect for software synths, but not for recording audio.

The best driver type for low latency audio is ASIO or EASI, but Creative still haven't officially released ASIO drivers for the SB Live!, despite having announced their intention to do so well over a year ago. To make the matter worse, the Emu APS soundcard, which uses exactly the same Emu10K1 soundchip, does have ASIO drivers, so plenty of enterprising individuals have attempted to get these to run with the SB Live!, with mixed results (do a Search through our PC Music forum for 'APS' to see how others got on). If you want to try your luck (and bear in mind this is NOT an official tweak, is not supported by Creative Labs, and some musicians have ended up having to reformat their hard drives afterwards), take a look at the following web site:

Some people have even worked out how to modify the soundcard itself by cutting or adding tracks to the circuit board to add more features only normally enabled on the Emu APS, but again this is not for the squeamish, and of course you will immediately invalidate your guarantee.

The second main limitation is that the internal workings of the SB Live! run at a fixed 48kHz, whatever sample rate you choose for your projects. Of course there's nothing wrong with using 48kHz - it's capable of high quality - but if you ever intend to burn an Audio CD then you'll need to convert your final files to 44.1kHz. If you choose a 44.1kHz sample rate in your software application for the entire project then the SB Live! will convert your audio recordings to 48kHz on the way in using a sample rate converter, and then back to 44.1kHz again when they are saved to your hard drive, slightly downgrading the audio quality on each occasion. The best option is to choose a 48kHz sample rate in your MIDI+Audio sequencer software, and then run your final song mixdowns through a high quality sample rate converter to 44.1kHz, so that this process only happens once. Because of this design, the digital output is also fixed at 48kHz, which may not be compatible with some other gear. There is absolutely no way to change this.
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Martin Walker
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