A sound driver is the software interface between a computer’s sound card and its operating systems and programs. In order to update a computer’s drivers, a user needs to know the manufacturer and model of the sound card. While up-to-date sound drivers are somewhat important for system stability and to access a sound card’s enhanced features, a sound driver is often a low priority update.
Drivers, in general, allow computer hardware and software to interact. A computer’s operating system generally knows how to use a piece of hardware well enough for it to function, but not well enough to do anything special with it. In the case of a sound card, the system may recognize it and transfer sound through it, but it wouldn’t be able to use any specialized output ports or equalizing functions.
Manufacturers make drivers to teach the operating system how to use these features. A sound driver instructs the operating systems and other programs how to access special features on the card. This is a transparent operation, requiring no input from the user beyond installing the driver.
There are generally two kinds of sound cards in a modern computer system; built-in and expansion. A built-in sound card is part of the system's motherboard. Regardless of who made the chips for the card, drivers for this type of system generally come from the maker of the motherboard rather than a sound card manufacturer. Expansion cards used to be very common, but have become less so as built-in cards take over. The drivers for these cards typically come from a sound card company.
In order for a user to locate an updated sound driver, he needs to know two things. For an expansion sound card, he needs to find the sound system’s manufacturer and model; for a built-in card, he needs the motherboard manufacturer and model. If a computer came premade like one from a major computer manufacturer, the manufacturer will often have a catalog of drivers for individual systems. This will allow a user to update with less technical information.
A sound driver is generally seen as low-priority. Once the basic driver is on the system and the functions of the sound card are available, updates are often overlooked. In fact, most sound cards are rudimentary enough that operating system-specific drivers allow the majority of their functions to operate; this is especially true with built-in cards. Even when using manufacturer drivers, changes between versions generally only apply to high-end expansion cards.