Windows XP Professional is a very capable digital media platform for sound, but there are a couple of tweaks worth doing to the stock operating system for maximum aural enjoyment.
Recently, I took delivery of a Hercules Digifire 7.1 sound card to use with my Windows XP workstation. The card can be bought for around $115, and uses a PCI slot in your computer. It’s an eight-channel card, which means you can surround yourself totally with speakers — one subwoofer for the low frequency range, and seven satellite speakers for higher frequencies and directional and positional sound information.
The positional and directional audio is the reason you’d get a multi-channel sound card: it adds greatly to the realism of games and DVDs, making the experience very immersive. In games, you hear foes sneaking up on you from the side and behind, and thanks to advanced digital signal processing algorithms which utilise reverb, signal phase changes and delays, you can set up different pseudo environments (like a concert hall) for listening to music.
The Digifire 7.1 supports Microsoft’s DirectSound 3D Application Programming Interface (API) for this (as well as other proprietary positional sound schemes like EAX and A3D, which are popular for games). You also get Dolby Digital Surround EX, which provides the positional audio encoding for DVDs.
After the card is installed, speakers plugged in and the latest device drivers loaded, you want to check that Windows XP is set to pump sound through all speakers. Go to Control Panel and click on the Sounds and Audio Devices icon; in the dialogue that pops up, select the Advanced button in the Speaker settings section near the bottom of the Volume page.
In the Advanced Audio Properties, select the Speakers tab, and find the configuration that’s appropriate for your system. Close the open dialogues until you get back to the main Sounds and Audio Devices Properties one.
Click the Advanced button in the Device volume section of the dialogue: this fires up Microsoft’s somewhat rudimentary Volume Control audio mixer applet, which allows you to set volume levels for the input and output channels. To add volume controls for your extra speakers (and additional sound devices like a synthesiser), click Options-Properties and then Playback in the Adjust volume for section. If the audio card driver is correctly installed, you should see tick boxes for the front, surround, centre and subwoofer speakers in the Show the following volume controls section.
Have a look at what volume controls are available when you click on the Recording and Other radio buttons as well, but bear in mind that Volume Control becomes wider and wider the more you add to it, especially for Playback volume controls (see here for s screenshot example). No, you can't resize or stack the volume controls, so you might want to de-select some of the ones not in use.
With the different speaker controls active, you can now adjust their volume to suit your tastes. Unfortunately, there is no positional audio control, or adjustments for different sound environments in Windows XP. For that, you have to rely on what the sound card vendor provides, or look for third-party software.
There are a couple of tweaks to do in Windows Media Player 9.0 as well. To start with, if the sound card supports 24-bit resolution (192KHz) for audio CDs, click on the Tools menu, select Options, and in the dialogue that pops up click on the Devices tab, select the Speakers icon, and click the Properties button. In the Speaker Properties page, go to the Performance section and select Use 24-bit audio for audio CDs to enable high-quality playback.
Close the Speaker Properties page, go to the DVD tab and click the Advanced button. Here, you can set up multi-channel audio for DVDs: two, four, six speaker sound (or the S/PDIF interface), Dolby Surround (or ProLogic), or just plain stereo, depending on what your sound card supports.
That’s it: you’ve bought a ticket to Surround Sound City. Enjoy.
TIPS: Note: most of the tips below require you to have Administrator rights on Windows XP Professional. A normal user does not have the permission to install software that affects the system, such as DirectX.
Our test system was running DirectX 9.0a and Windows Media Player 9; Windows XP Professional comes with DirectX 8.1 and Windows Media Player 8, so some of the settings may not be available, or are found in different places in the user interface. Updates for DirectX and Windows Media Player are found either through Windows Update or at www.microsoft.com/directx and http://windowsmedia.com/9series/Download/download.asp, respectively.