A sound card (also known as an audio card) is a computer expansion card that facilitates the input and output of audio signals to and from a computer under control of computer programs. Typical uses of sound cards include providing the audio component for multimedia applications such as music composition, editing video or audio, presentation, education, and entertainment (games). Many computers have sound capabilities built in, while others require additional expansion cards to provide for audio capability.
Sound cards usually feature a digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which converts recorded or generated digital data into an analog format. The output signal is connected to an amplifier, headphones, or external device using standard interconnects, such as a TRS connector or an RCA connector. If the number and size of connectors is too large for the space on the backplate the connectors will be off-board, typically using a breakout box, or an auxiliary backplate. More advanced cards usually include more than one sound chip to provide for higher data rates and multiple simultaneous functionality, eg between digital sound production and synthesized sounds (usually for real-time generation of music and sound effects using minimal data and CPU time). Digital sound reproduction is usually done with multi-channel DACs, which are capable of multiple digital samples simultaneously at different pitches and volumes, or optionally applying real-time effects like filtering or distortion. Multi-channel digital sound playback can also be used for music synthesis when used with a compliance, and even multiple-channel emulation. This approach has become common as manufacturers seek to simplify the design and the cost of sound cards.
Most sound cards have a line in connector for signal from a cassette tape recorder or similar sound source. The sound card digitizes this signal and stores it (under control of appropriate matching computer software) on the computer's hard disk for storage, editing, or further processing. Another common external connector is the microphone connector, for use by a microphone or other low level input device. Input through a microphone jack can then be used by speech recognition software or for Voice over IP applications.
Sound channels and polyphony
8-channel DAC Cirrus Logic CS4382 placed on Sound Blaster X-Fi Fatal1ty.
An important characteristic of sound cards is polyphony, which is more than one distinct voice or sound playable simultaneously and independently, and the number of simultaneous channels. These are intended as the number of distinct electrical audio outputs, which may correspond to a speaker configuration such as 2.0 (stereo), 2.1 (stereo and sub woofer), 5.1 etc. Sometimes, the terms "voices" and "channels" are used interchangeably to indicate the degree of polyphony, not the output speaker configuration.
For example, many older sound chips could accommodate three voices, but only one audio channel (ie, a single mono output) for output, requiring all voices to be mixed together. Later cards, such as the AdLib sound card, had a 9 voice polyphony and 1 mono channel as a combined output.
For some years, most PC sound cards have had multiple FM synthesis voices (typically 9 or 16) which were usually used for MIDI music. The full capabilities of advanced cards aren't often completely used; only one (mono) or two (stereo) voice(s) and channel(s) are usually dedicated to playback of digital sound samples, and playing back more than one digital sound sample usually requires a software downmix at a fixed sampling rate. Modern low-cost integrated soundcards (ie, those built into motherboards) such as audio codecs like those meeting the AC'97 standard and even some budget expansion soundcards still work that way. They may provide more than two sound output channels (typically 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound), but they usually have no actual hardware polyphony for either sound effects or MIDI reproduction, these tasks are performed entirely in software. This is similar to the way inexpensive softmodems perform modem tasks in software rather than in hardware).
Also, in the early days of wavetable synthesis, some sound card manufacturers advertised polyphony solely on the MIDI capabilities alone. In this case, the card's output channel is irrelevant (and typically, the card is only capable of two channels of digital sound). Instead, the polyphony measurement solely applies to the amount of MIDI instruments the sound card is capable of producing at one given time.
Today, a sound card providing actual hardware polyphony, regardless of the number of output channels, is typically referred to as a "hardware audio accelerator", although actual voice polyphony is not the sole (or even a necessary) prerequisite, with other aspects such as hardware acceleration of 3D sound, positional audio and real-time DSP effects being more important.
Since digital sound playback has become available and provided better performance than synthesis, modern soundcards with hardware polyphony don't actually use DACs with as many channels as voices. Instead, they perform voice mixing and effects processing in hardware (eventually performing digital filtering and conversions to and from the frequency domain for applying certain effects) inside a dedicated DSP. The final playback stage is performed by an external (in reference to the DSP chip(s)) DAC with significantly fewer channels than voices (e.g., 8 channels for 7.1 audio, which can be divided among 32, 64 or even 128 voices).