Elephant LogoMarcus Brinkmann's Sound Blaster Review Page

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Software

The Sound Blaster Live! is only useful in conjunction with software to control its features. Fortunately, the driver ships with powerful and easy-to-use software for this purpose.

Driver Applications

Creative Launcher

The Launcher is an application that is started at boot time and sits in the background, waiting for the mouse to move to the top of the screen. When this happens, a menu scrolls down and gives the user the option to start an application shipped with the Sound Blaster Live! card. This is a very fast way to start the applications, but the drawbacks are easily identified.

First, you have to watch your mouse movements, or you'll make the menu appear by accident, which is at least irritating, but also either occupies expensive RAM or causes a small delay while the data is loaded from the swap space. Furthermore, this is far beyond the tasks I'd expect hardware driver software to fulfill. Personally, I like to choose the way I organize my desktop by myself.

However, some people may be happy that they can go right ahead with the sound card applications, and the launcher is very flexible. You can configure it quite easily, and add your own programs to the menu. Because it is also very easy to deactivate, it does no harm that it is installed by default.

The launcher can be configured to wait above the top border of the screen or below the bottom border. It can show symbols and text or only text, stay always on top and start automatically at boot time (and in this case, doesn't clutter up the autostart menu). The auto hide function can be switched off. You can add new menus and edit existing menus using the Group Manager.

PlayCenter

The PlayCenter replaces the earlier Creative MultiMediaDesk, and can play all commonly used audio formats and more (video, for example). It has the functionality to collect audio files in albums, which is very useful to organize your collection of sounds, midi files etc.

Beside the usual control elements for player applications (Play, Stop, Pause, Forward, Rewind, Next, Previous, number pad, various playing modes like Loop and Shuffle), the player allows direct access to two Sound Blaster Live! features, namely Environmental Audio and Stereo Enchancement Mode. The latter can only be switched on or off, whereas the former offers a menu containing the defined environments.

The PlayCenter can play Media files directly out of the file system or from albums, which are collections of media files. You can create and edit the albums as you like. A function to auto create initial albums using the media files found in your file system is provided, although the result should be edited to make them more useful.

The PlayCenter will run about any audio and video media format you can find. Sometimes, special system libraries are required that you most probably already have. With a special PC-DVD disk drive you can even play DVD disks comfortably. As I don't own such a disk, I couldn't test it, but the explanations in the help file look very promising.

The Look and Feel is modelled after a black metal hifi device. The same functionality could be offered by a more conventional interface, without a faked LCD display and the use of many colors. The grey shaded pull down menus are simply ugly and have a very low contrast, which makes them hard to read. I always wonder why great efforts are spent in the appearance of the driver software is made. The SB Live! is technically convincing and does not need additional gleam.

This is not only a matter of taste: Sometimes the colors of the launcher window are not restored properly in 256-colors (8 bit) mode.

The Launcher will play the media files in one album consecutively, without a break between the various file. This is not only disturbing, because there is no pause for the ear to prepare for a new sound, but also an error, because various Midi files last notes are not played long enough. I did not find an option to introduce a delay between two media files.

Creative WaveStudio

The WaveStudio application is a wave recorder and processor. It can record many wave files at the same time in three different sample rates. You can play back single files (even from a special point, skipping the beginning) or selected parts of it. You can play back all files and mix them, which can be fun. But there is no easy way to get all files in sync, as you can't play existing files while recording another one.

You can apply effects to the recordings. All important effects are there, namely Reverse, Fading, Panning, Echo, Phase Shift and some basic channel editing features.

However, there is a serious problem: There is no record volume indicator, which means, you can't control the input gain of your source correctly. This makes this program completely unusable for serious recording efforts and seems to be a bug in the application, as a volume indicator is mentioned in the help file. It is just nowhere to be found.

Soundo'LE

Soundo'LE is a very simple wave recorder with OLE support, to embed wave recordings in other applications (e.g. WordPad). Again, although a volume indicator is present in the window, it does not seem to work.

There is a better application to do wave recording professionally. SoundForge XP on the Applications CD is an advanced audio recording program (with a working volume monitor, by the way :).

Mixer

The mixer is used to control the volume level of the sound card in general and the seperate devices in particular. The Sound Blaster Live! mixer is very clear and easy to use, as was every Sound Blaster mixer before.

SB Live! Tour

The SB Live! Tour is a set of Screencam movies which demonstrate some ways to work with the SB Live! software.

SB Live! Experience

The SB Live! Experience is a guided demonstration of the features of the SB Live! card. It is an interactive demonstration and it is recommended to try it after installation to get an impression of the capabilities of the card.

Indeed, the demonstraction is quite impressive, and you can go and show it to your friends. After that, you may want to deinstall the Tour program again, because it is occupying a lot of disc space.

Environmental Audio

Environmental Audio makes the SB Live! an ideal card for games: It adds effects to the sound dynamically, and increases the atmosphere. But not only games can benefit from Environmental Audio. You can apply the effects to all audio sources you can use with the SB Live!.

The Environmental Audio option window provides a way to apply effects to the audio sources. Predefined environments are ready for selection, but you can also design your own audio environments and save them for later use. Beside multiple Reverb and Chorus effects, you can also add Vocal Morpher, Ring Modulator, Auto Wah, Flanger, Distortion, Echo and Pitch Shifter. Each effect can be configured seperately in amount.

The problem with conventional 3D positioning sound is that although the position of the sound seems to be correct, it does not take into account the surrounding space. For example, a sound in a cave does sound quite different if it is near or far away. The difference is not only the volume, but also the amount of echo, reverb and other characteristics.

To deal with this problem, the software had to provide many samples of the same sound with different characteristics. This eats up a lot of disc space and is very expensive.

Environmental Audio provides another solution for this. The driver software can be configured to take into account sound-modifying characteristics of the surrounding space, resulting in a more realistic sound experience.

Software can benefit in two ways of the Environmental Audio features provided by the SB Live! cards. The first way effects existing software that is not aware of Environmental Audio. In this case, the user can specify an environment before the game is started. Although the enhancement is limited this way, you can improve the atmosphere of your favourite game or other audio source.

New software will be able to make use of the Environmental Audio Extensions (EAX), a Environmental 3D positioning API by Creative Labs. This development software is an extension to the DirectSound3D API by Microsoft. As the latter is the standard API used by game developers using 3D positional audio games, many games will make use of the SB Live! features very soon.

There is already one game which is aware of Environmental Audio, the game Unreal by Epic Games. Others will follow soon. According to George Thorn, director of developer relations at Creative Labs, over 100 developers are already working with EAX, and 30 titles currently under development are actually using it.

Creative Keyboard

Creative Keyboard is a simple application to test the sounds of your installed MIDI banks. It is a virtual keyboard to be played with the mouse, and is derived from the virtual keyboard of the AWE control center shipped with the AWE cards. Unfortunately, you still can't use the computer keyboard to play the notes, but some other things have improved, for example the octave shift and controller setting lever.

Creative Keytar

Creative Guitar is a fun program that allows the user to choose among a set of guitars (ranging from Folk Guitar over Jazz Guitar to Electric Guitars) and play them using the mouse or the keyboard.

Using the mouse, you move a plectrum over the strings, holding the mouse buttons down. The strings run from top to bottom, so you have to move the mouse from left to right. You can imagine that no fast play of single strings is possible.

Using the keyboard, you hold it in your hand vertically, the keys outside. On the function keys, you can choose the chords with your left hand. On the number pad, you can play the bass string and the three chord strings. Changing the chords is a bit tricky, because on PC keyboards, some keys block other keys, and you can't press more than four keys anyway. Although this works a bit better than using the mouse, it does not give you fine control over what is happening.

There are some configuration options, for example the chords which are set with the function keys, the midi instruments used, and the position of the string keys on the number pad. There are some background rythm you can sue for accompaning your solos.

However, this is neither a replacement for a real guitar nor a tool to produce audio recordings, as no export facilites are provided.

Creative SoundGraph

The Creative SoundGraph is a small applet that shows the spectrum, amplitude or wave curve of the sounds currently recorded or played. This can be useful if you want to check your audio setup. For example, if you can't hear anything, you can first test if a sound is produced before examining your speaker connection. Or, you can see if the volume settings are well balanced.

SoundFont

The SoundFont window makes it possible for you to choose the MIDI sound font banks you want to load into your memory. They are used to generate the MIDI sounds via the WaveFont device.

The SB Live! ships with three banks, different in size and therefore quality. You can choose between 2 MB, 4 MB and 8 MB soundfont banks. These default banks are GM Midi compatible and provide the standard set of GM instruments.

You can either load complete sound font banks, or define the instruments of a bank explicitely. Furthermore, you can load a wave file to be used as an instrument.

Speaker

In the speaker setup window, you can specify how many speakers are used (you can use up to 8 speakers). Furthermore, you can place the various sound sources in the virtual room to get flexible surround sound as you like it.