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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.
A sound card (also known as an audio card) is an internal expansion card that provides 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 used for professional audio applications.
Modern low-cost integrated soundcards (i.e., those built into motherboards) such as audio codecs like those meeting the AC'97 standard and even some lower-cost expansion sound cards still work this way.
These devices 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.
For example, many older sound chips could accommodate three voices, but only one audio channel (i.e., a single mono output) for output, requiring all voices to be mixed together.
Later cards, such as the Ad Lib sound card, had a 9-voice polyphony combined in 1 mono output channel.
Sound processing hardware is also present on modern video cards with HDMI to output sound along with the video using that connector; previously they used a SPDIF connection to the motherboard or sound card.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, an auxiliary backplate, or a panel mounted at the front.More advanced cards usually include more than one sound chip to support higher data rates and multiple simultaneous functionality, for example digital production of synthesized sounds, usually for real-time generation of music and sound effects using minimal data and CPU time.Input through a microphone jack can be used, for example, by speech recognition or voice over IP applications.An important sound card characteristic is polyphony, which refers to its ability to process and output multiple independent voices or sounds simultaneously.
For some years, most PC sound cards have had multiple FM synthesis voices (typically 9 or 16) which were usually used for MIDI music.