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AWE32 Soundcard

Brian Heywood hails the arrival of Windows 95, and passes on some hints for getting digital sound out of your AWE32 soundcard.

So, Windows 95 has finally arrived. The world's worst‑kept secret, and probably most publicly‑tested Beta software to date. With all the hype that has accompanied the launch, it seems likely that a lot of people will be disappointed with the new operating system. This is not because there is anything inherently wrong with the new version of Windows (quite the reverse, from what I've seen of it — it's more stable, faster and has a lot of the features built in that you had to buy as extras for Windows 3.1), it's just that there is not a lot to get excited about in an operating system upgrade. Sure, it looks prettier, but since most people will continue to use their existing applications, the novelty will wear off in about a day.

This will be especially true for musical users of the PC, since it will probably be a little while before current applications, drivers, and so on are converted to take full advantage of the new features buried in Windows 95. I have yet to come across any application that refuses to work with Windows 95, though I have not done any comprehensive testing. I would suggest to anyone who is interested in upgrading to Windows 95 that it would be prudent to wait until it is certain that all your main applications work.

Installation Blues

While we are on the subject of installing new software, one of my ongoing bugbears is the way that many Windows applications litter the system directories with new files and silently modify the various initialisation and configuration files. While most users won't be particularly bothered by this, I am constantly installing new programs for evaluation, and it can be a real pain 'cleaning up' the hard disk when I've finished with the software. One useful utility I've come across is a piece of 'freeware' called Inst‑All which allows you to keep track of any changes to the Windows control files and directories.

Operation is quite simple; the application runs the setup program that installs the new software on your PC, and then produces a report listing any files that have been added to or updated in the Windows and Windows/System directory. The report also lists any alterations to the system configuration files, which means you can reverse the installation process should anything go wrong. The program only works when installing Windows‑based applications, and occasionally fails to run installation programs that have been created by Microsoft's Visual Basic, but you can get around this last problem by running Inst‑All before and after the installation.

Inst‑All is freeware, and is available to download from CIX, and I would guess a number of other bulletin boards. Alternatively, you could email the Inst‑All author ( and ask him about how to get your hands on a copy.

Helpful Hint: Using The AWE32 Digital Output

One topic I keep banging on about is the advantage of having digital outputs (like S/PDIF — and if you're wondering just what S/PDIF is, check out the sidebox explaining all about it) on your PC sound system, allowing you to transfer your digital audio to a DAT machine entirely in the digital domain. Observant owners of the Creative Labs AWE32 card may have noticed that the manual states that the card does have an S/PDIF output, which makes it look like a very cost‑effective way to add this facility to your PC, as all you have to do is make a simple lead.

Unfortunately, it isn't as useful as it first appears. In fact, only the signal from the onboard Emu 8000 synth chip is connected to this output, so you will only get the output of the AWE's synth section (ie. the MIDI sounds) from this connector — no wave files or CD audio. To look at it in a more positive light, you do get a very high‑quality sample playback system, which is easily on a par with many semi‑professional quality musical instruments, as it is not 'filtered' by the AWE's consumer quality audio electronics.

Creative Labs have produced an application note that tells you how to connect up the S/PDIF signal. This is available on the web from:

For anyone who doesn't have access to the Internet, here's a quick resumé of the process. First remove the AWE from your PC and lay it on a flat surface, with the component side up and the metal mounting bracket on the left‑hand side. The S/PDIF pins are located on the component side of the AWE, about a third of the way along the PCB from the left‑hand end — ie. away from the metal mounting bracket. The connector is labelled J10 and S/PDIF. The two pins of J10 are labelled 0 and 1; 0 is the signal and 1 is the ground. The easiest (and safest) way to connect a digital device to the card is to mount an RCA (phono) socket on a blank back plate and make a cable with a 0.1‑inch header connector to attach the RCA socket to the AWE32's S/PDIF pins. Maplin part number HB59P looks like it might be suitable for attaching to the connector on the PCB. Creative Labs do apparently sell a kit with the appropriate parts, but I have been unable to find out how you can purchase it — you could try ringing their salespeople on 01734 828291 for more information.

By fitting an RCA phono connector to bring the digital signal out of your PC, you can use a standard mono phono cable to connect your PC to the digital device, and can then disconnect your DAT or DCC without having to open up your PC. This method of connection is also more robust than a flying lead, and will prevent the cable from accidentally coming adrift from the AWE32. When using the S/PDIF output, the AWE's analogue outputs and mixer will continue to operate as normal. However, changing either the MIDI or the master volume levels with the mixer will not have any effect on the level of the digital output.

Creative Labs say that with a reasonable quality audio amplifier and speakers, you will hear an enhanced sharpness and clarity of the music, together with an almost total lack of noise and hiss. The dynamic range of the system will also increase significantly.

Here is a 10‑stage checklist for the whole procedure:

1. Assemble the backplane to AWE32 S/PDIF cable assembly (if working from kit).

2. Open the system unit of your PC (see manufacturers instructions).

3. Locate AWE32 and remove.

4. Locate the S/PDIF connector pins.

5. Attach adapter cable to pins (red side to 0).

6. Re‑fit AWE32 to system, taking care to ensure that all cables are securely connected.

7. Fit adapter to backplane slot adjacent to AWE32.

8. Close system unit.

9. Connect adapter to DAT, DCC or amplifier.

10. Test the digital output by playing a MIDI file using the AWE32's synthesizer.

Creative Labs point out that you should always use moderate listening levels to ensure that your amplifier and loudspeakers are not damaged.

What Is S/Pdif ?

S/PDIF (or SP‑DIF or SPDIF) stands for Sony/Philips Digital InterFace, and is an internationally‑recognised standard for interconnecting consumer electronics in the digital domain. Essentially, the interface provides a digital audio data stream that can be fed directly to digital audio devices such as DAT (Digital Audio Tape) and DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) recorders, or even into a digital signal ready amplifier — allowing you to keep the audio signal entirely digital until the last possible moment in the audio chain. This means that you can achieve much higher signal‑to‑noise ratios, as any additional processing stages or interconnections will not add any noise to the signal. The sound quality provided by this output is of the highest level, and is limited only by the digital‑to‑analogue converters used — and the quality of the original recording, of course!

Incidentally, S/PDIF is 'bit'‑compatible with the professional (AES/EBU) digital standard to the point that you can plug an S/PDIF signal into an AES/EBU input. The major difference between the two standards is that the latter uses XLR connectors and has different signal levels. I've found that using XLR‑to‑phono adapters (such as part number 575‑530 and 575‑540 from Studiospares) you can connect an S/PDIF signal straight into professional equipment without any problems. Look for the Studiospares advert on page 45 of this month's issue to find out how to get a free copy of their catalogue.

Cyberspace Corner

Creative Labs have quite a comprehensive set of web pages covering various aspects of the company's product line. For example, the information about how to use the AWE32's digital output mentioned elsewhere in this month's column is available in the AWE32 section. To find out more, point your web browser at: