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Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live!

PCI Soundcard By Martin Walker
Published May 1999

Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live!

Over the years many musicians have got started with a low‑cost Creative Labs soundcard, but the latest upmarket Soundblaster Live! model is even more tempting. Martin Walker checks out the specs.

Choosing a new soundcard is never easy, but until recently at least you knew that anything costing less than £200 was primarily intended for mass‑market consumption. Compared with soundcards designed from the ground up for musicians, it would therefore probably have significantly poorer audio quality, non‑standard MIDI ports (SysEx dumps were notoriously unreliable with some older consumer cards), and be bundled with a selection of game software almost guaranteed to cripple the performance of your MIDI + Audio sequencer.

The SoundBlaster Live! card turns all this on its head. For a street price of less than £120, it not only claims a significant improvement in audio quality over its predecessor (the AWE64 Gold), but also provides both S/PDIF In and Out sockets, and an impressive software bundle that includes Sonic Foundry's Sound Forge XP v4.0, Steinberg's Cubasis AV, and Mixman Studio.

You still have to take some of the more extravagant claims, such as 'Hollywood‑Quality Audio Re‑creation', with a pinch of salt, but the SB Live! does feature exactly the same core chip (the EMU10K1) as the Emu Audio Production Studio that I reviewed in the January '99 issue. This provides a 64‑voice hardware wavetable synthesizer that can use up to 32Mb of your system RAM to store samples, along with a selection of 32‑bit digital effects and mixing capabilities.

Fitting In

With a 64‑voice hardware sampler, multiple effects, and good audio quality, the Soundblaster Live! leaves many other consumer soundcards behind.With a 64‑voice hardware sampler, multiple effects, and good audio quality, the Soundblaster Live! leaves many other consumer soundcards behind.

The SB Live! hardware is in two parts. The bulk of the circuitry is contained on a compact PCI card (just under five inches long), which also houses the analogue I/O sockets. The backplate has four 3.5mm jack sockets for stereo Line In, mono Mic In, stereo Line Out, and stereo Rear Out for four‑channel surround sound, along with the standard 15‑way D‑type connector providing combined joystick and MIDI support.

Five Molex connectors along the top edge of the card allow you to internally connect a wide range of extras, which Creative list in the User Guide as a Telephone Answering Device, CD Audio (stereo analogue), Aux (TV Tuner), PC Speaker, I2S In (from a Creative MPEG decoder), and CD S/PDIF In (if you have a digital out on your CD‑ROM drive). Two more multi‑pin connectors are provided, for a Modem and the Audio Extension. This latter item is the other piece of hardware — a further backplate (along with some support circuitry) that connects to the PCI card via a supplied ribbon cable. It provides a further five I/O sockets: a Digital DIN (for connecting a multi‑channel 7.1 Theatre system), the co‑axial S/PDIF In and Out on phonos, and a further MIDI In and Out using a pair of PS/2 style sockets (two supplied seven‑inch adaptor cables convert these to standard 5‑pin DIN in‑line sockets).

With a socket complement like this, no one could grumble about having to use up two backplate sockets. However, at least the supplied ribbon cable is eight inches long, which should allow you to mount the auxiliary backplate in the ISA card section, since this may be less populated with expansion cards in many modern PCs.

Driver Installation

The SB Live! Playback Mixer is certainly comprehensive, although many of the potential playback channels will remain unconnected, and can be individually hidden.The SB Live! Playback Mixer is certainly comprehensive, although many of the potential playback channels will remain unconnected, and can be individually hidden.

The drivers are installed in the same way as those of any other soundcard — the new hardware is detected when you reboot, and you insert the installation CD‑ROM when requested. Both Windows 95/98 and NT 4.0 drivers are supplied. When you reach the desktop, your MIDI and Audio applications will contain a set of new options. On the MIDI side there is a single input (SB Live! MIDI In), and four outputs named 'A:SB Live! MIDI Synth' and 'B:SB Live! MIDI Synth' (between them these provide 64 voices across 32 MIDI channels), SB Live! MIDI Out (the pair of external sockets), and Creative S/W Synth. Although there are two sets of external MIDI sockets these run in parallel and both connect to the same MIDI ports. There is a single SB Live! Audio In and Audio Out.

I had no problems installing and running the SB Live! in tandem with my existing AWE64 Gold and Gina soundcards (I had to temporarily remove the SW1000XG simply to gain an extra PCI slot), although the SB Live! SB16 Emulation driver (for games purposes) wasn't automatically installed, since my AWE64 Gold already contains Soundblaster 16 hardware. However, I subsequently removed my AWE64 Gold card, and this Emulation got installed on the next reboot to provide compatibility with DOS games. Those of you who don't get involved with games can disable the driver altogether inside the System applet of Control Panel, and if you do this the new SB Live! uses only a single IRQ and I/O address. This is far more user‑friendly than the old ISA‑based SB cards that used an IRQ, two DMAs and about six I/O address ranges.

Software Installation

If you opt for to use the 4‑speaker configuration (using the separate Rear output socket to feed two additional rear speakers, you can place each audio source anywhere in the soundfield.If you opt for to use the 4‑speaker configuration (using the separate Rear output socket to feed two additional rear speakers, you can place each audio source anywhere in the soundfield.

When it comes to the rest of the software, musicians might want to opt for some slightly different options to game players, and thankfully the SB Live! installation lets you choose which options you want to install — there is over 100Mb worth of options in total. I declined the dubious delights of Prody Parrot and Creative's own Keytar and Rhythmania, as well as the SB Live! Experience (a guided tour of all the features), and instead just installed the SoundBlaster Live! option (about 56Mb).

After the relatively quick installation of files, a box came up on screen advising me not to worry, my PC hadn't crashed, but that I had to wait for about five minutes. True to its word the install finished about five minutes later. Thankfully I had run the Cleansweep install monitor, and so after the reboot could examine just what the Creative installation had been doing. I've mentioned in the past that consumer soundcards tend to install many more files than 'professional' ones, but even I was aghast at the 1848 items recorded!

Only about a hundred of these were files the remainder were additions to the Registry, most of which seemed to be environmental settings for named games (such as Tomb Raider and Doom). It was hardly surprising that my System.dat Registry file had risen from 1.1Mb to 2.4Mb. Although this does seem to be bloatware of the first order, having presets stored in the Registry does make them easily accessible — if DirectShow plug‑ins did the same then we could avoid the current ludicrous position whereby you have to load and save presets in each host application using a different file format. However, I do feel that users ought to have the option of installing the game presets on demand.

Audio Hq

The Reverb provides a tasty number of parameters to adjust, and the sounds range from rich and smooth right through to weird.The Reverb provides a tasty number of parameters to adjust, and the sounds range from rich and smooth right through to weird.

At this stage all I had to show for the 30Mb of installation was one extra icon on the Taskbar. This opens selected items in the AudioHQ, a collection of utilities controlling various aspects of the soundcard: Mixer, Speaker, Keyboard, Environmental Audio, Sound Graph, Device Controls, and SoundFont. The Mixer has a dozen channels for Play (overall) Control, CD Audio, Line In, Mic, PC Speaker, Auxiliary, TAD In (Telephone Answering Device), I2S In (DVD), Wave/DirectSound, MIDI, CD Digital, and S/PDIF In. Each has a fader for playback level, and the stereo sources also have balance controls. Many of these will be unused if you don't have the relevant internal connectors attached to other peripherals, and can be individually Muted (to keep noise levels to a minimum), or hidden from view (to make things less confusing). The Record mixer is similarly comprehensive.

The second AudioHQ component controls the Speaker options, and here I found why my Registry had expanded so much. The Speaker Configuration can be set to '2 Speaker' (for use with a normal stereo pair of speakers), '4 Speaker' (if you have a second pair of speakers connected to the additional stereo Rear output socket, or 'Headphone'. In both speaker modes your listening position is represented in the central window of the utility by a sofa, with graphic speakers shown in the appropriate corners of the room. With both the two‑speaker and headphone options you can drag any of the icons representing playback channels from the 'Panning Source' selection at the bottom of the window and drop them anywhere in a line along the top of the main part of the window to position them across the stereo image. In four‑speaker mode (shown in the lower screenshot on page 82) you control the surround sound positioning — the majority of game presets seem to place the WAV sound effects just in front of you, while the music (in true pantomime tradition) is behind you.

The SB Live! certainly provides value for money — I've never seen so much crammed into a single box for £120.

The Keyboard component is essentially a revamped version of the one in the old AWE64's AWE Control — a way to play any selected MIDI sound using a graphic keyboard, complete with access to various MIDIcontrollers. You can also use this as front end to audition the sounds using an external MIDI keyboard, by selecting a MIDI input in its Options page. The remainder of the old AWE Control controls can be found in the SoundFont utility: the Synth and User pages have now been combined into a new Configure Bank tab, while the old WaveFX tab now becomes Configure Instrument. The new Options tab lets you choose your SoundFont device (if you have installed several cards), and since SoundFonts now occupy system RAM rather than dedicated soundcard RAM, you can alter the size of the cache from 4Mb to 63.5Mb. Using a large value does not reserve this amount of system RAM solely for the soundcard — it can still be used by the system if you don't fill it with SoundFonts.

I also installed the latest version 2.3 of the Vienna SoundFont editor — it didn't seem to be included in the box, but I soon found it on the web site. Its Preferences section lets you choose between multiple devices if you have them, and it worked fine for me with both the SB Live! and AWE64 Gold cards.

Effective Treatment

I'm sure that Creative Labs would be horrified to see me using the word 'effects' to describe their Environmental Audio system, but this is essentially what they are. The Environmental Audio Control configures the EMU10K1 effects engine. Most of the 'Hollywood' hype is centred around this aspect, with promises of sounds so lifelike that you can see them!

The applet has four pages: Master, Source, MIDI, and Options. Master effects, as their name would imply, are added to the card's stereo outputs (there's no way to apply the on‑card effects to individual audio tracks in an application like Cubase). The central window in the Master page initially shows three effect entries — Reverb, Chorus, and Original Sound, but you can optionally add third and fourth effects (see the specification box for a full list) to this fixed chain using the Add and Remove buttons beneath. You can adjust the amount of each effect using a horizontal slider, and if you click in the Type column all effects will show a dropdown selection box containing its presets. If you want to gets your fingers dirty tweaking the individual parameters you can open a further window (shown above) by clicking on the Parameters button. There are also various serial/parallel routing options available using the 'Play Into' box, which selects where in the chain the effects are patched — the reverb is always at the end, but the others can be inserted anywhere.

The second page allows you to add effects to any enabled input, and since the effects are running in hardware this achieves the Holy Grail for computer‑recording musicians: monitoring using real‑time effects with near‑zero latency. The only possible limitation is that the signals will be recorded with these effects — I couldn't find a way to monitor wet and record dry. The third page allows you to apply differing amounts of reverb, chorus and the other effects to the output of each channel of the onboard MIDI synth/sampler. The amount of any two of the effects can be controlled from a sequencer using data from a selectable MIDI controller on a channel‑by‑channel basis — I suspect that most people will tend to use these for Reverb and Chorus. The final page is Options which, apart from a few preference settings, also has a very useful Audition selection that lets you choose a WAV file to use when tweaking the effect settings — a Test button is visible on the other three pages, and clicking on this loops the sample until you click it again.

So, How Did It Sound?

The initial MIDI sounds will be familiar to any previous SoundBlaster owner, since the default bank is the 4Mb GM/GS one dated 1996. This, along with 2Mb and 8Mb versions (also dated 1996) are the onlySoundFonts installed by default. There are however a further 52Mb of them to be found on the separate Tour and Demo CD‑ROM. Compared with the AWE64 Gold, sound playback quality has certainly improved, with a much cleaner delivery and lower background noise. The Sound Graph applet is useful when recording, as it can display the input signal as a VU meter, oscilloscope, or spectrum analyser, but only one input source can be used, as it is not possible to mix various inputs together when recording.

With my now‑standard Wavelab A‑D noise test I measured a background RMS level of ‑88.8dB. This is a very respectable figure, and 6dB better than my AWE64 Gold — exactly the figure claimed by Creative Labs. Many stand‑alone MIDI synths are no quieter than this, and the SB Live! figure is as good as any I've measured using 16‑bit converters. Indeed, most 20‑bit converters recording at 16 bits will only manage a figure between ‑92 and ‑93dB (just 3 to 4dB better). I would be happy to use the analogue output of the SB Live! alongside any synth in my collection.

I fully expected the effects to be impressive, simply due to the Emu10K1 chip, and they didn't disappoint. I started by listening to the reverb, which offers even more parameters than the Emu APS version with Decay Time, High‑Frequency Decay, High‑Frequency Cutoff, Size, Diffusion, Density, Early Reflections Level, Late Reverb Level, Detuning Rate, and Detuning Depth (the last are similar to the Swirl effect in Alesis reverbs). Algorithm quality is excellent (particularly at this price), and the sounds vary from smooth and rich to downright bizarre — many of the presets are designed for games, so apart from Concert Halls and Stone Corridors there are some intriguing ones such as Mountains and Drugged. The other effects are good but fairly basic, and do face the limitation that they cannot be applied to individual sounds unless you record the result in isolation and incorporate it into the sample.

The DirectSound drivers provide a latency of 204mS in Cubase VST (just like the AWE64 Gold) but few people will be surprised that there is no ASIO driver available (although this doesn't stop a few users attempting to install the ASIO drivers available for the Emu APS).


The SB Live! certainly provides value for money — I've never seem so much crammed into a single box for £120. However, in common with most consumer soundcards, it does tend to do rather more to the contents of your hard drive than the average professional card, and the Registry bloat is totally unnecessary for non‑game‑playing musicians. In addition, while I can see the attraction of the environmental multi‑speaker controls, and the amount of fun they will give to gamesplayers, these are still largely irrelevant to most musicians working towards stereo releases on Audio CD.

The 64‑voice polyphonic SoundFont sampler and effects are the most important features for the musician, and the analogue audio performance is as good as I've seen with any 16‑bit soundcard. It may not be quite up to the performance of most modern specialist soundcards, but it's not that far behind either. Despite the limitations of the fixed 48kHz digital output, it's impossible to knock the SB Live! at the price. The Soundblaster has finally come of age.

The Family Connection

Of the SB Live!'s predecessors, the AWE32 managed 32 voices across 16 MIDI channels, and the AWE64 increased this to 64 voices across 32 channels, by adding a separate software synth (although this did take a significant amount of your main PC processor power to run). With the new card and the latest version of the SB Live! drivers (a 2.6Mb download from the site) the maximum number of voices rises to 512 across 48 MIDI channels. The Emu 10K1 chip provides 64 hardware‑accelerated voices (as it does on the Emu APS card). The remainder use a fixed GM set created in software, and will therefore drain some of your main PC processor power. Even Creative find it hard to come up with many legitimate uses for this number of voices, and sound quality is very lacklustre compared to the hardware voices.

There is a lot of confusion concerning the cut‑down Live! Value soundcard, but it's not surprising that many people consider it, since the street price is only about £57. The Value version doesn't include the second backplate with the circuit board providing MIDI In and Out, but the 15‑way D‑type joystick connector on the main card will still provide MIDI support in time‑honoured SB tradition. The internal CD Digital Input is still available, but unfortunately there is no digital output that could be wired to an external socket. However, several enterprising companies (including Hoontech) have released add‑on boards that provide both co‑axial and optical digital I/O for both the Live! and Value cards. Creative themselves have just started shipping an optical add‑on I/O board for £40 to supplement the existing co‑axial digital one for the Live! Card.

Brief Specification


  • A/D & D‑A Converters: 16‑bit.
  • Sampling Rates: 8kHz to 48kHz (16‑bit or 8‑bit).
  • THD: 0.008% (unweighted).
  • Dynamic Range: A‑D+D‑A typically 91dB, D‑A typically 94dB.
  • Frequency response (A‑D): 10Hz to 21kHz, +0.2/‑1dB.
  • Internal path: 32‑bit.


  • External Analogue I/O: 1 stereo input, 1 stereo output, 1 rear stereo output (for surround sound).
  • External Digital I/O: 1 stereo S/PDIF input (32, 44.1, 48kHz), 1 stereo S/PDIF output (fixed at 48kHz sample rate).


  • Hardware Synth/Sampler: 64‑voice polyphony, 32 channel multitimbral, using up to 32Mb of PC system RAM.
  • Software PCI Wavetable synthesis: up to 512 voices (subject to PC spec), 16 MIDI channels.
  • 3D Audio: Supports 2‑speaker, 4‑speaker, and headphones.
  • Hardware Acceleration: DirectSound, DirectSound3D (up to 32 audio streams).


  • Reverb.
  • Chorus.
  • Frequency Shifter (different directions for left and right channels).
  • Vocal Morpher (LFO sweep between two phonemes).
  • Ring Modulator.
  • Auto Wah.
  • Flanger.
  • Distortion (with pre and post EQ).
  • 2‑tap Echo.
  • Pitch‑Shifter.

Digital Confusions

Whereas the digital output of the AWE64 Gold was fixed at 44.1kHz, both the Emu APS and SB Live! cards have their digital output fixed at 48kHz. This is determined by a hardware master clock, and cannot be changed in software. Creative say that a single fixed frequency is required to run their digital mixing engine, and that choosing 48kHz gives better audio quality.

However, there are no restrictions on recording at other sample rates such as 44.1kHz — it is only when the tracks are passed through the effects engine that they are internally converted to 48kHz. If, as many people do, you create your final mix by taking the analogue output of your soundcard, and then feeding it into an external analogue mixer along with various other external MIDI synths, then you can re‑record the overall analogue stereo mix at 44.1kHz and burn it direct to CD without further conversion.

One advantage of the SB Live! approach is that a number of digital input signals running at differing sample rates can be mixed together using their real‑time Sample Rate Conversion. The only real problem occurs if you want to run the digital output of the SB Live! to another soundcard to use them in tandem: in this case both will be permanently forced to 48kHz. For instance, when playing back samples on my Gina card, as soon as I switched its input clock to S/PDIF (fed from the SB Live!) playback jumped to the 48kHz rate — whether the samples themselves were 22, 44.1, or 48kHz.

Caring For The Environment

The SB Live! supports Microsoft's DirectSound (up to 32 audio streams can be accelerated using the hardware, which removes this duty from your main PC processor) and DirectSound3D, so that games software can place audio sources around the listener. Then the Environmental Audio is used to wrap a virtual acoustic environment around the whole thing. EAX (Environmental Audio eXtensions) are the set of API calls provided for game developers to access the effects. Development is ongoing — version 2 introduced occlusion and obstruction (the masking effects of objects between the source and listener) and the latest version 3 includes morphing between environments. With 4‑speaker support this does elevate the game experience a great deal.


  • Excellent value.
  • Good sound quality.
  • 'Zero' latency monitoring with effects.
  • Good software bundle.


  • Fixed 48kHz digital output.
  • Huge increase in Registry size due to game presets.
  • Only two of the four simultaneous effects can use MIDI controllers.


A stereo soundcard that provides good sound quality, 64‑voice sampling, and versatile effects at a bargain price, which should prove ideal for many financially challenged musicians who are prepared to work round its limitations.