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Q. Why aren't my SB Live! and EMU APS soundcards compatible?

At the centre of the Emu APS (below) lies a 64‑voice, 32‑channel multitimbral synth/sampler that uses up to 32Mb of your PC system RAM to store samples in SoundFont format.At the centre of the Emu APS (below) lies a 64‑voice, 32‑channel multitimbral synth/sampler that uses up to 32Mb of your PC system RAM to store samples in SoundFont format.

I own an Emu Audio Production Studio PCI soundcard system, which I use with my 600MHz Pentium III PC. I used to own a Creative Labs SoundBlaster Live! soundcard, which I was pleased with, and which was my reason for upgrading to the similar, but more professional, APS. However, I'm wondering how to expand the capabilities of my PC further. I work with SoundFonts and use them to their full potential, but I cannot see why Emu have limited the APS so much. Why is only 32Mb of allocated RAM available, for instance? I tried using my SB Live! alongside the APS with difficulty — the internal 32 MIDI channels of the SB Live! worked fine in parallel, but my computer kept crashing and there were other unexplained glitches in playback.

Which card would be best to use alongside the APS? I've heard that Creative Labs AWE64 Gold soundcard works fine alongside it but, if is this true, then why doesn't the SB Live!?

Will Dobson

Martin Walker replies: When the Emu APS was originally designed, 32Mb of allocated RAM probably seemed enormous, especially since many hardware samplers at the time had an identical limit. Now that most computers are shipped with 128Mb RAM, and many musicians have upgraded to 256Mb, even software samplers can use a lot more RAM than 32Mb, so I can understand your frustration.

The reason your SB Live! and Emu APS cards wouldn't behave together is due to the fact that they both use an identical EMU10K1 chip for audio processing. This means that their drivers will contain a lot of identical code, and this provides lots of opportunity for system conflicts (as you discovered). You can run multiple soundcards side by side, but only in two cases. The first is if soundcard drivers have been specially written to support more than one identical card simultaneously. If this is the case then you can install several of the same cards, and only one set of these drivers is needed to stay in control of them all without conflicts. Many Midiman cards do this for instance. Using identical cards in this way may also help to keep them fairly well in sync with each other, although since they all have their own crystal clocks they will eventually drift apart on long uninterrupted audio tracks. Only if the cards have suitable sockets to use one as a Master and the rest as Slaves, can you ensure that they remain permanently locked in sync.

The second way to install multiple soundcards is to choose totally different models, so that their drivers can't get confused between them and cause crashes. I have anything up to four soundcards running simultaneously in my own PC (three of my own and the current review model), and I rarely have problems, although occasionally I might have to remove one or disable its drivers to get a review card to run properly. My ageing AWE64 Gold card has successfully run alongside the Emu APS, and also the SB Live!, largely because it uses different chips to them both.

If you want to expand your SoundFont capabilities there are various options. You could buy a different sampling soundcard such as Creamware's PowerSampler (reviewed in SOS August 2000), and this will also give you compatibility with Akai‑format CD‑ROMs to expand your sound options. However, with a powerful processor such as a 600MHz or faster Pentium III or Athlon then you could try one of the various software samplers such as Bitheadz Unity DS1, Nemesys Gigasampler or Gigastudio. Seer Systems' Reality also has SoundFont compatibility, and all these software solutions let you use far bigger samples and many more simultaneous voices than most dedicated sampler cards. If you use Logic Audio then Emagic's EXS24 virtual sampler is yet another option.

The easiest way to run these is with either a second dedicated stereo soundcard, or using one or more stereo pairs of channels on a multitrack card. You can find out which models are suitable by visiting the web sites of the relevant developers. Various utilities are available to convert to and from SoundFont format to suit the individual application.

Q. Why aren't my SB Live! and EMU APS soundcards compatible?