Aureal Interview

Any time you have any questions the best thing for you to do is to address them to a knowing person. Or to a person whois just a good company. But the combination of both is of course the best. You are already familiar with David Gaisor,I assume.

by Ilya Gavrichenkov
05/29/1999 | 12:00 AM

Any time you have any questions the best thing for you to do is to address them to a knowing person. Or to a person who is just a good company. But the combination of both is of course the best. You are already familiar with David Gaisor, I assume. And you may definitely have a lot of questions to Aureal company, am I right? Well, since David is an A3D advocate and dedicated promoter, i.e. the voice of Aureal, we addressed our questions to him. And as a result we can offer you an interview, a sort of historical info. Why historical? Well, if you read the interview, you will be able to find the answer to this question there. But we give you our word: it's an absolutely exclusive source, the only interview of the kind in the whole Web. It is always very interesting to listen to somebody promoting some hardware stuff. In most cases these people are very experienced guys with a perfect sense of humor. Besides, we would like to note that some answers are rather predictable from the very beginning and some questions will remain unanswered forever. Of course, you should bear in mind that a person working in a corporation like that has certain obligations concerning information disclosure that is why we tried to ask really urgent and interesting questions, which could be answered without breaking any ethic restrictions. Well, enough for that. The intro is over. Go and enjoy the interview. Hope you will find answers to most questions.  

Q: What should I do if I want to hear 3D sound in A3D 2.0 titles with an old ISA sound card?

A: Buy a new sound card. :)

No, actually, if a game uses A3D 2.0 as its audio engine and uses our resource manager, the older sound cards will benefit because the game will fall back to our A2D component. This component of the A3D 2.0 engine provides 3D support for legacy sound cards. It's important to note that the audio programmer doesn't have to do anything special to enable this; he (or she) just has to use the resource manager. At the time I write this, the only released titles that use A3D 2.0 and the resource manager are "Star Wars Episode I - Racer" and "Flatland". We'll certainly have more coming In the months ahead. If a game does use A3D 2.0 and the resource manager, make sure you enable 3D audio in the game, even if you don't have an A3D card. For example, owners of SB Live! cards, SB16 cards, Yamaha Waveforce cards, Ensoniq cards, etc., should enable 3D sounds in "Episode I - Racer" so that A3D 2.0 can do its thing on their sound cards, even though they are not A3D cards. We'll stillprovide them with 3D positional audio.

Q: 2030 pre-release drivers for Vortex 2 based graphics cards have recently come out. When I use these drivers in ZD Winbench, I get a considerably low CPU Utilization, especially while using 32 DS3D hardware streams. However the Half-Life benchmark didn' show anything like that (I mean that fps didn't increase). What's the matter?

A: AudioWinbench taxes only the sound card - it does not put any strain on the video or hard disk subsystems. It also only tests DirectSound 3D. This is done to get a (more or less) accurate reading of how much CPU time the sound card uses to handle audio. In a game, however, where you have literally thousands of polygons being sent to the video card, and constant disk activity, there's a lot more CPU usage going on. So, while the sound card may be using less CPU time, something else (like the video card) might jump in and take it. Also, very few games use just DS3D. Half-Life has A3D, plus occlusions and reflections and reverb sitting on top of the basic positional audio.

Q: I have installed 2030 pre-release drivers. However, when I set Quadro Speakers I have only 16 hardware 3D sound streams supported, while with two speakers set (monitors or desktop) or headphones I have 76 hardware 3D sound streams? (I used Minerva and AudioWinbench for my measurements)

A: With the current pre-release drivers, 76 voices are only possible in a two speaker mode. This is because of differences in how we handle 2 speaker and 4 speaker modes. Will 76 voices be available in quad mode with a future driver release? I don't know, but we are looking into it.

Q: Will Aureal make any extension boards for Vortex2 cards, like MX-25 for MX300 for instance?

A: We have no announced plans. Diamond will be creating their MX-25 (and possibly other) add-on cards. Turtle Beach will also be creating their own add-on cards, such as the ones for the Montego II Home Studio edition.

Q: Will be any software DVD player available for Vortex2 boards from Aureal like Zoran version for MX300? If yes, then when and who is going to make it?

A: We have no plans to write our own DVD software. In addition to Zoran's SoftDVD, there are other software DVD players available that support the Vortex chipsets.

Quadrant International's Software Cinemaster supports our S/PDIF. Intervideo's WinDVD supports our S/PDIF and 4 speakers. Mediamatics Software DVD supports our S/PDIF. Cyberlink's PowerDVD supports A3D (currently only 2 speakers) and will be adding support for our S/PDIF in the future. We are always willing to work with DVD player developers in order to get support in.

Q: Does Aureal have any plans concerning DVD Audio support?

A: To be honest, I've heard nothing about DVD Audio specifically, but with the large number of audio professionals at the company, DVD in general is always something we're looking at.

Q: Why Vortex2 boards don't have CD-S/PDIF in? What's the problem?

A: It just wasn't a feature that they wanted, I guess. Turtle Beach's Montego II Home Studio will feature S/PDIF input, but not through a 2 pin internal connector, as far as I know. If that is a feature you want, make sure you let Diamond, Turtle Beach, Xitel, etc. know that so that when they design boards (or add-ons), they will know its something users want.

Q: Aureal makes SuperQuad Vortex 2 PCI boards and Xitel, Terratec and VideoLogic sell them in their own boxes. Why don't they change anything in the design?

A: Because it's a very good, solid product. Each company has a different marketplace and a different market share in mind, and their software/hardware bundles reflect that. That's how they differentiate themselves.

Q: According to our tests, the digital EQ in Vortex2 produces the noises, which can cut up to 20dB! You claim that it has >96dB SNR but in practice it's not true. Why?

A: The signal to noise ratio that we claim is based on reference designs for our chipset. Each vendor can design their own board layout with their own codec and their own choice of parts. These choices can have an effect on overall SNR. The EQ can also have an effect on SNR, just like normal bass and treble controls can. I don't believe its anywhere near a 20 dB change, however. Of course, the EQ can also be disabled for the purest sound.

Q: Let's talk about HRTF. Recently Creative (with their CMSS) and Sensaura (with their MultiDrive Technology) announced HRTF support on 4 speakers and more with Cross-talk cancellation. We all know that Aureal use HRTF on front speakers, and simple panning on rear ones. Why did Aureal decide on this method? Which method is the best? Do you plan to add HRTF support for more than four speakers?

A: At the time the Vortex 2 was released, HRTF positioning on the front speakers and panning on the rear speakers was more than anyone else was doing. The only other real 4 speaker card (the SB Live!) did no HRTFs in 4 speaker mode, according to Chris Owens of Creative. Now, it seems like everyone is jumping on the HRTF bandwagon and applying HRTFs on all speakers. Is it necessary? I don't think so. Rear speaker placement is never as precise as front speaker placement so the "sweet spot" in which rear HRTFs will be effective will most likely not be present for most people. In a perfectly controlled environment, HRTFs on all four speakers may yield a better effect, but I have yet to hear it. Of course, what is more important is the quality of the HRTFs used. We still feel we have the best positioning of any technology currently available.

Q: What does simple panning exactly mean? Does it imply stereo panning?

A: It just means that we can position sounds on either the left or right speaker or on both of them simultaneously. We apply no HRTFs to the streams so there is no elevation. It's sort of equivalent to Dolby Digital - independent control over the rear speakers.

Q: Which method do you use with HRTF? Did you use standard HRTF or one of a standard HRTFs set? Do you plan to utilize an individual HRTF, or a model HRTF? How much HRTFs are in the library?

A: We've taken many HRTF measurements over the years, and we use an average of many of those. We have done listening tests with significant numbers of people to determine which HRTF was the best for general usage. Based on the praise we've gotten for our effect, I'd say we picked well.

Q: A few words about reverb. Aureal promises to add reverb support via EAX and I3DL2. When will we see the new drivers? How will it work? And what about CPU Utilization? What about knobs and preset reverb for games? David Rossum from Creative said that Aureal EAX drivers must be certified by Creative, and he thinks you are most likely to fail the tests. What can you say in this respect?

A: We are currently working on our reverb algorithm and I've heard it on development equipment and it sounds great. How it will translate over to the Vortex 2 is unknown at this time. Our goal is to balance the quality of the effect with the load on the host.

As for knobs and presets, we will be adding reverb to the A3D 2.0 audio engine which will provide developers with extensive control over reverb. This reverb will work not only on our products, but on other sound cards as well. Currently, EAX only works on cards that have EAX support in the drivers. What we will provide to developers is a way to support reverb on all cards, not just our own.

As for Dave Rossum's comment, I find it ironic that Creative must "certify" any EAX drivers, especially considering that they call EAX an open standard. Yet, Creative has no problems with claiming to emulate A3D 1.x - a proprietary standard, for all intents and purposes - without any certification from us. As I've felt since my first negative experience with Creative Labs five years ago, Creative makes up the rules as they go along, with little regard for competitors or customers. When our drivers are released that support DS3D property sets (EAX among them), we'll see what happens. Until then, I think Dave Rossum is just trying to create FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) in an already cloudy marketplace.

Q: When will the new drivers with reverb support come out? Will they also support EAX 2.0?

A: Vortex 2 drivers that support reverb, EAX, and I3DL2 are supposed to be released sometime this summer. I don't have anything more specific than that.

Q: What about buying a Creative? :-)

A: Hahah, why?

Q: What can you say about IAS technology from EAR?

A: It's another audio engine that thus far has had very limited usage. With the hardware acceleration of DS3D now, and significant add-ons such as A3D 2.0, EAX, Voice Manager, etc., there are just so many alternatives. We've worked with EAR to add A3D support into certain titles, but the benefits from using IAS are quite unclear.

Q: What can you say about Q3D and other QSound technologies?

A: Qsound was very cool when they came out originally as a spatializing effect. Their actual positional 3D effect seems to leave a lot to be desired, though. I have to admit that I really haven't heard it like I've heard other competing technologies. At GDC, they were showing the game Forsaken which doesn't have 3D audio. At WinHec, they were showing Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II which does have A3D support, and was our signature title when A3D 1.x was released back in 1997. I was unimpressed with Q3D (on the VLSI Thunderbird chipset) in the game at that show. The only real review I have read of it was in a round-up that PC Magazine did where they called it ­unimpressive". As for their audio engine, why developers would pay for something from QSound that they can get for free from other companies (like us) just confuses me.

Q: What can you say about Sensaura and ZoomFX and other technologies? Did you work in such a way?

A: What I like about Sensaura is that they are really a technology company, unlike most of our competitors who are more into marketing and bundling. I've heard the Sensaura stuff and it sounds good - too bad they have allied themselves with chipmakers whose products haven't been commercially successful.

Q: And back to Aureal. Will the next chip from Aureal, shall we call it Vortex3, be a pure DSP like EMU10k1 or a hybrid like Vortex2?

A: We're still looking into what is best. We're very happy with how the Vortex 2 is performing right now and don't see a need to replace it in the market immediately.

Q: Vortex 2 boards support 320 voices polyphony, so do you have at least one MIDI file with 320 voices?

A: Yes, we have custom MIDI files to test the polyphony of our wavetable engine.

Q: Can we download that file? Can we make it public?

A: No, it's not a publicly available file. Not for any other reason then itssole purpose is to act as a test case for our SQA group. We have lots ofvarious test apps that we can use to test the functionality of our cards anddrivers that remain internal. If someone really wants a MIDI file with 320voices, it can be created using a sequencer like Voyetra's MIDI OrchestratorPlus.

Q: Did you have a Vortex 2 based board in your home PC?

A: Yes, I do. I actually have an MX300 and an SB Live! Value co-existing. The dual card setup lets me make informed decisions regarding A3D vs EAX, especially in key titles like Half-Life, Heretic II, and Unreal. The MX300 is the default sound card.

Q: What speaker setup do you use or what headphones?

A: I have a pair of Sony digital monitor headphones, though the exact modelnumber eludes me off hand. For speakers, I have the Altec Lansing ACS 45.1setup.

Q: We hear that when you worked for Turtle Beach you wrote drivers for Tropez (+). Have you finished them?

A: Actually, it was for the Tropez Classic sound card, and I got them to as far a point as I could. I haven't used my Tropez in ages, but the drivers were working perfectly for me back with Windows 95. I have no idea what has gone on with them since. The Tropez was the card that launched me into this whole industry actually. I look back on it and find it amusing … if only my AWE32 had actually worked, I may never be where I am today …

Q: Why did Aureal choose a SigmaTel AC'97 codec STAC9708?

A: It was one of, if not the, first quad codec available. I think most of our audio boards going back to Vortex 1 have used Sigmatel codecs as well. We comply with the AC97 standard, though, that you can drop a different AC97 codec (like those from Wolfson and TriTech) on the board and it will work as well.

Q: Codec from SigmaTel has internal Surround Sound support, however Vortex 2 drivers lack this feature. Why is it so? We downloaded the SigmaTel utility and it worked really nice. Did you try it?

A: The surround sound feature in the codecs will distort or negate the effectsof HRTFs, which is why that feature is disabled.

Q: What do you think about integrating Aureal audio chips into mainboards? Do you have any special programs for OEM?

A: I think its great. I would be the first person in line to buy an ATX Slot 1motherboard that featured Voodoo 3 or TNT2 and a Vortex 2 down on the board.Placing components on the motherboard is a great way to drive down the costof a product. It's nice to see Aureal's Vortex chips getting on moremotherboards because of its built in support for A3D for a lot of customers whomay not have ever heard of it before. Even if A3D (or 3D audio in general)is something they are not interested in, they still get a high quality audiochipset. The only downside to audio down on the motherboard is that theyusually only provide one output jack, which means 2 speaker support only.It's not a limitation as much as a design choice.

Q: What do you think about AMR? Do you plan to make AMR boards?

A: Our new 8810 chipset has soft modem capabilities, and includes plans forAMR. We were showing off the 8810 and AMR products at WinHEC this year.

Q: What can you say about DirectMusic?

A: DirectMusic is a nice addition to the rest of the Microsoft APIs, but Ithink it will still meet some resistance or support delays. DirectMusicuses DLS, which is currently not nearly as capable a sound bank format asothers (like Aureal's ARL format or Creative's SoundFont 2.0 format), andcurrently, DirectX has no hardware acceleration for DirectMusic. I thinkDirectMusic will become more prevalent, however, in the future - possibly assoon as with DirectX 7.

Q: Will Vortex2 chip support DLS 2.0? Do you work with Microsoft?

A: We are working on implementing support for DLS 2.0 in our wavetable engine.DLS 2.0 is built upon Creative's SoundFont 2.0 standard. Our own nativebank format is also similar to the SoundFont 2.0 standard, so hopefully, DLS2.0 support will be a simple add for us. We have been working closely withMicrosoft on our drivers, but mostly in regards to the upcoming WDM audiostandards.

Q: Thank you very much, David, for your kind help. However, we still have a dozen of other questions that seem of great interest and importance. Would you mind answering them?

A: Well, actually, today - 21 May, 1999 - is my last day over at Aureal, that will probably be the best answer to all your questions. :-)

Q: And what about your new job? Have you already found anything?

A: Oh, yes.

Q: I hope you are not going to Creative?

A: No, I am not going to work for Creative. I do have some standards. :) Plus they've never offered me a job.

Well, thank you once again, David. It turned out that we got a historical interview because the last answers came exactly on May 21. We wish you good luck with your new position.

As for our further questions to Aureal, we will not give up this idea and are going to address them to somebody else in this company. Hopefully not all of them have made up their mind to quit. :-) By the way, if you have any questions to Aureal, you are free to send them to us and we will address them to our interviewees.