What Is a Sound Card? Concept, Background, Functions, and More!

Sound cards are a common product in the computer industry. These devices are used in computers to enhance your audio experience. The thing is that they aren’t as cheap as you may think.

In fact, sound cards are some of the main reasons why people spend hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars. However, the sound quality is worth it.

what is a sound card
Image Source: Pixabay.

For most people that means music or movies, but for other people that means voice and chat. 

They are vital to your computer’s operation, so it’s important to have one or know the functions of the one you already have. 

Keep reading if you want to know more about this important device and how you can take advantage of them.

What is a Sound Card?

A sound card is a device that turns your computer’s onboard sound hardware into a more powerful sound-processing system. 

The sound card uses a DAC – which means digital to analog converter – to transform the generated signal data and turn it into analog format. 

This output signal is connected to a headphone, an amplifier, and/or an external device via a standard connection. For example, a TRS phone. The regular external connector is a microphone connector. 

The input can be used through the microphone, such as voice recognition or voice-over. Most sound cards have a line-in connector for analog input from an audio source that has a higher voltage than the microphone.

Others contain an audio chip that helps synthesize sound, usually to create music and sound effects in real-time with minimal use of data and CPU time.

The card uses direct memory access to transfer sound samples to – and from – the main memory. Here’s where recording/playback software can read or write them to the hard disk for storage, editing, or processing.

History Of Sound Cards

Sound cards for IBM PC-compatible computers were not common until 1988. For most IBM PC users, the PC’s internal speakers were the only way the original computer software could output sound and music. 

The speaker equipment was generally limited to a square wave. The resulting sound is often described as “beep and beep,” leading to the common name of the “beeper”.

Several companies like Access Software have developed methods for reproducing digital sound through computer speakers, for example, RealSound. The sound produced during the operation was severely distorted and had a low volume, and it was necessary to stop all other processes while the sound was playing.

Other home computers from the 1980s – such as the Commodore 64 – included hardware support for digital audio playback or music synthesis. This put the IBM PC at a disadvantage when it came to all multimedia applications.

The first sound cards on the market for the IBM PC platform were not designed for games or multimedia applications but for specific audio applications. For example, music composition with the AdLib personal music system, IBM’s music feature cards, and creative music or audio synthesis systems such as the Digispeech DS201. 

When Sierra and other game companies entered the business in 1988, they focused on the gaming world as well.

AdLib was one of the first sound card manufacturers for IBM personal computers, making cards that used the Yamaha YM3812 sound chip as the base. It was later known as OPL2. 

This brand had two modes:

The 9-voice mode where each sound could be fully programmed. 
A minor “percussion” mode, that used 3 regular sounds to produce only 5 sounds for independent percussion resulting in 11 sounds.

At the same time, Creative Labs also released a sound card called Creative Music System (C/MS). Although C/MS has twelve peeps compared to AdLib nine, the core technology behind it is based on the Philips SAA1099 chip, which is essentially a square waveform. 

It had twelve simultaneous PC speakers, but each channel had amplitude control and did not sell well. Even after Creative Labs renamed it Game Blaster a year later and marketed it by RadioShack in the United States.

Functions Of Sound Cards

To make sure you get the best possible sound, you’ll need to know about a few different functions of a sound card. The main function of a sound card is to reproduce sound, usually music, in a variety of formats like:

Various speaker configurations.
Control levels. 

The source can be a CD or DVD, a file, an audio stream, or any external source connected to the input of the sound card. In addition to this, the sound can be recorded. 

Sometimes the hardware and driver of your sound card do not support recording from the playback source. The card can also be used in conjunction with arbitrary waveform generation software and run as an audio frequency function generator.

How Does a Sound Card Work?

Most sound cards have four main components:

Analog-to-digital converter (ADC).
Digital-to-analog converter (DAC).
Input and output connections.
A PCIe interface.

Some cards use an encoder/decoder called a CODEC that acts as both a digital-to-analog converter and an analog-to-digital converter. When the computer plays a sound, it sends the signal to the sound card through the PCIe interface. 

This signal passes through a DAC before being pumped to the output connector.

Audio recording on the computer does the same process but backward. Your sound card receives the signal through the incoming connection. It is then converted to 1’s and 0’s by the ADC. 

The card then sends a signal through PCIe to the CPU for processing. Other sound cards also have digital signal processors (DSP) and amplifiers. 

DSP is a microprocessor designed for audio processing. It provides the processing power required by the DAC/ADC/CODEC for signal conversion. If your sound card does not have a DSP, use your CPU for this conversion.

Types Of Sound Cards

There are different types of sound cards that you can find. Some are internal, PCI, and even have multiple functionalities.

As such, to make sure that you are getting the sound card that is best for your needs, you should read the following table.

Motherboard Sound ChipsA motherboard sound chip is an integrated expansion card that motherboards have so you can hear what you’re doing on the computer.
Standard Sound CardsA standard sound card connects through a PCI-E connector and helps the processor to have less load when you are listening to something on the PC. It also improves overall sound effects.
External Sound adaptersThese are sound cards that you can connect using a USB. They usually have the same or less quality than integrated sound cards.

Frequently Asked Questions

Wrap Up

Sound cards can be used for a variety of different purposes. From editing to mixing, they are invaluable tools. 

A sound card can also help you to create the perfect experience as you listen to your favorite music, watch a movie, or play a game. 

With the right device, you can immerse yourself in a completely different state and feel like you’re inside that movie or game you want to watch/play so much.

Particularly, I love horror games, and with a sound card, my gaming experience improved so much that now I can’t stand playing for more than 2 hours.

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Alberto Araujo
Alberto Araujo

Alberto Araujo is a former tech support professional that had a change of heart and now aims to write top-notch tech content for his readers. Writer, digital nomad, tech-geek and hunger for knowledge, that’s how you can describe him. If you want to learn about technology, building PCs, and software applications to make your life easier, his content is for you.

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