A sound card (also known as an audio card) is an internal computer expansion card that facilitates the input and output of audio signals to and from a computer under control of computer programs. The term sound card is also applied to external audio interfaces that use software to generate sound, as opposed to using hardware inside the PC.

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.  Digital sound reproduction is usually done with multichannel DACs.

An important sound card characteristic is polyphony, which refers to its ability to process and output multiple independent voices or sounds simultaneously. These distinct channels are seen as the number of audio outputs, which may correspond to a speaker configuration such as 2.0 (stereo), 2.1 (stereo and sub woofer), 5.1 (surround), or other configuration. Sometimes, the terms voice and channel are used interchangeably to indicate the degree of polyphony, not the output speaker configuration.

Professional soundcards are special soundcards optimized for real-time (or at least low latency) multichannel sound recording and playback, including studio-grade fidelity. Their drivers usually follow the Audio Stream Input Output protocol for use with professional sound engineering and music software, although ASIO drivers are also available for a range of consumer-grade soundcards.

USB sound “cards” are mostly external boxes that plug into the computer via USB.
The USB specification defines a standard interface, the USB audio device class, allowing a single driver to work with the various USB sound devices and interfaces on the market.

Colour Function Connector symbol
Pink Analog microphone audio input. 3.5 mm TRS A microphone
Light blue Analog line level audio input. 3.5 mm TRS An arrow going into a circle
Lime green Analog line level audio output for the main stereo signal (front speakers or headphones). 3.5 mm TRS Arrow going out one side of a circle into a wave
Brown/Dark Analog line level audio output for a special panning,’Right-to-left speaker’. 3.5 mm TRS
Black Analog line level audio output for surround speakers, typically rear stereo. 3.5 mm TRS
Orange Analog line level audio output for center channel speaker and subwoofer 3.5 mm TRS
Gold/Grey Game port / MIDI 15 pin D Arrow going out both sides into waves

To use a sound card, the operating system (OS) typically requires a specific device driver. This is a low-level program that handles the data connections between the physical hardware and the operating system. Some operating systems include the drivers for some or all cards available, in other cases the drivers are supplied with the card itself, or are available for download.

* DOS programs for the IBM PC often had to use universal middleware driver libraries (such as the HMI Sound Operating System, the Miles Audio Interface Libraries (AIL), the Miles Sound System etc.) which had drivers for most common sound cards, since DOS itself had no real concept of a sound card. Some card manufacturers provided (sometimes inefficient) middleware TSR-based drivers for their products. Often the driver is a Sound Blaster and AdLib emulator designed to allow their products to emulate a Sound Blaster and AdLib, and to allow games that could only use SoundBlaster or AdLib sound to work with the card. Finally, some programs simply had driver/middleware source code incorporated into the program itself for the sound cards that were supported.

* Microsoft Windows uses drivers generally written by the sound card manufacturers. Many device manufacturers supply the drivers on their own discs or to Microsoft for inclusion on Windows installation disc. Sometimes drivers are also supplied by the individual vendors for download and installation. Bug fixes and other improvements are likely to be available faster via downloading, since CDs cannot be updated as frequently as a web or FTP site. USB audio device class support is present from Windows 98 SE onwards. Since Microsoft’s Universal Audio Architecture (UAA) initiative which supports the HD Audio, FireWire and USB audio device class standards, a universal class driver by Microsoft can be used. The driver is included with Windows Vista. For Windows XP, Windows 2000 or Windows Server 2003, the driver can be obtained by contacting Microsoft support. Almost all manufacturer-supplied drivers for such devices also include this class driver.

* A number of versions of UNIX make use of the portable Open Sound System (OSS). Drivers are seldom produced by the card manufacturer.

* Most present day Linux distributions make use of the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA). Up until Linux kernel 2.4, OSS was the standard sound architecture for Linux, although ALSA can be downloaded, compiled and installed separately for kernels 2.2 or higher. But from kernel 2.5 onwards, ALSA was integrated into the kernel and the OSS native drivers were deprecated. Backwards compatibility with OSS-based software is maintained, however, by the use of the ALSA-OSS compatibility API and the OSS-emulation kernel modules.

* Mockingboard support on the Apple II is usually incorporated into the programs itself as many programs for the Apple II boot directly from disk. However a TSR is shipped on a disk that adds instructions to Apple Basic so users can create programs that use the card, provided that the TSR is loaded first.

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