Mini-Sound Tweak Guide
Posted: September 16, 2000
Written by: Keith "Farrel" McClellan
Sure, we gave you the low-down on audio tweaking in our big juicy Sound Tweak Guide, but maybe you aren't quite ready for something that in-depth. Or maybe you are tweaking out someone else's sound system and you only want to focus your time on the most important tweaks to improve audio quality. We understand, honestly, we do - and this guide is for you. We're taking easy to understand tweaking to the next level by avoiding all the complicated and possibly dangerous tweaks of our regular guides and putting all of the 'set in stone' tweaks down in one place for easy referencing. When you are reading this guide, you need to remember the bias of the article towards optimum sound quality as opposed to optimum system performance - that means that some performance tradeoffs will be made to make the computer sound as well as possible.
'The Sweet Spot'
Anyone that is familiar with home entertainment systems knows of the phenomenon of the 'sweet spot.' The sweet spot, for those of you who aren't familiar with the term, is the place in-between the speakers where all of the speaker channels combine to create the desired special sound effect. Any person that is in the 'sweet spot' is going to benefit from much richer and generally better sounding audio, so proper placement of the speakers (different speaker placements change the location of the sweet spot) is important.
The 'sweet spot' for a stereo, or two-speaker setup (with or without a subwoofer), is any point directly in-between the satellite speakers. If you are looking to improve the speaker setup even more, it is ideal to tilt the speakers in slightly so that the drivers (the actual 'speaker' part of the speakers that make the noise) are pointed at your head. If the speakers are above or below the level of your head, you might also benefit from tilting them slightly up or down depending on the placement. If you are looking for some directional benefits within a game (such as Quake or Unreal), it is ideal to place your monitor in-between the speakers as well, but music will sound the same whether you have your monitor in between the speakers or not.
The 'sweet spot' for a surround sound, or four-speaker setup (with or without a subwoofer), is the point where the diagonals of the opposite satellite speakers cross. Imagine a piece of string going from the front right satellite to the rear left satellite, and another piece of string going from the front left satellite to the rear right satellite. Where those two strings cross is the sweet spot for that particular speaker configuration. The ideal configuration for any four-speaker setup is a rectangle, making those two imaginary strings cross each other at the others midpoint like an X. Monitor placement in this case (assuming you want spatial sound accuracy) would be directly in-between the front two satellites. If it is not possible for the satellites to all be placed at head level, it is ideal to put two of the satellites (both front or both back - if you were to do left and right you would have to cock your head sideways to get spatial accuracy) above head level and the other two satellites proportionally below head level so that the midpoint of both imaginary lines is still the same spot.
As for the subwoofer in these instances, it has more to do with personal preference than anything else - the closer to head level the subwoofer is the stronger the base will be, but in general you can place the subwoofer anywhere because the human ear cannot easily distinguish direction on the very low and very high ends of the human audible range.
Crystal Clear Windows Settings
There are a few special settings within Windows that can make your audio sound a lot better. If you go into the Control Panel and open the Multimedia applet (in Windows ME it is now called Sounds and Multimedia), and go to the Audio tab, you will see a section called sound playback that has an Advanced button. Within the Advanced Audio Properties section there are several settings which should be properly configured. The first, Speaker Setup, refers to how you have your speakers placed around your computer - choose the one that closest matches your setup and move on to the Performance tab.
Under the Performance tab there are two sliders - hardware acceleration and sample rate conversion quality. For optimal sound quality at the lowest possible performance hit, I would recommend enabling full hardware acceleration and the best sample rate converter available (move both sliders to the far right). Perform the same procedure under the Voice tab if you are using Windows ME, otherwise move onto the next setting.
If you have a newer CD-ROM drive, you might have the option of enabling digital audio playback. This will improve the sound quality of CD tracks (as well as the background music in many games) by allowing the information to remain digital for a longer period of time (analog signals can be distorted by electrical interference but digital signals cannot). To enable digital audio playback, go into the Device Manager in the System applet and open up the properties of your CD-ROM drive. Under the properties tab, if you have the feature available to you, you will be able to enable Digital CD playback.
If you happen to have an equalizer available to you of some sort (be it as simple as treble/bass knobs or as complicated as a 12-band equalizer), you are in for a treat - you can tweak out the sound coming from your speakers even more. If you are simply using treble/bass knobs, I would recommend putting the bass slightly higher than the treble (to personal preference, of course). Generally computer speakers don't push as much bass as they ought to and this is to account for that. If you have a 12-band software equalizer available to you (either in WinAmp or as a part of your sound driver package), I generally recommend a slope that starts out high on the left (lots of bass), hits its low near the center (between 1 and 5 kHz normally), and then slopes up slightly for the high range. This, in my experience, gives a very rich sound - however, just as with the bass and treble knobs, tweaking this to taste is a must - whatever sounds best in your situation is what you should go with. And keep in mind this is going to be slightly different on every sound system.
Dan's EQ while listening to APC.
Hopefully, this short guide has helped you get as good a sound out of your computer as possible and is proof positive that even measly looking speakers can pack something of a punch. If you are interested in more information about tweaking out the sound of your computer, have a look see at out excellent Sound Card and Speakers Tweak Guide.
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