Likely forced due to the technical advance of the Ultrasound, Creative Labs soon introduced add-on boards for their Sound Blaster 16 line ("WaveBlaster"), that added a Wavetable synth.
However the sound was so humble, they wisely took the board off the market and replaced it with the Waveblaster II - which incorporated the EMU 8000, a chip developed by E-mu systems Inc., shortly after bought by Creative Labs. These boards added a real MPU401-Interface the the Sound Blaster 16.
Since these boards did their purposes better than expected, why not integrate them on a single card? Creative did exactly this, and the result was called "Advanced Wave Effects". The "32" not really stated the bits this time, instead it should likely tell the consumer the advance in technology. Of course, the DSP's of the card still worked with 16 bits, merely the EMU 8000 could process 32 voices simultaneously (which, in the end, this card couldn't - more on this later). Creative improved this time on sound quality. According to a test of the German c't magazine in 1995, the output is almost linear and finally doesn't suffer so much from noise.
This E-mu 8000 wavetable synthesizer was connected to its own sample RAM and ROM, which in the basic equipment were sized 512KByte (RAM) and 1 MByte (ROM - UNCOMPRESSED, contrary to many different statements). It mixed its sounds with a better form of interpolation, that should minimize distortions, and is able to apply Reverb and Chorus effects.
Only the full version of the AWE could be memory-expanded in form of SIMM's, owners of the Value Edition went out empty. The maximum possible expansion was 28 MByte. The chip of course could access 32 MByte, however the first 4 MByte were already reserved for the ROM.
An also interesting capability of the card was the possibility to capture sound data of the E-mu chip directly with CD quality as digital signal in form of S/PDIF.
However, it became even more interesting if one knew that Creative saved some bucks once again. In order not to have to add third DAC (one for the samples, one for the EMU and one for the OPL), they decided to connect the OPL3 directly digitally to the E-mu chip.
On one hand this allowed to capture and handle OPL3 data digitally, even apply the EMU chorus and reverb effects to it, on the other hand however this way they "stole" the chip two voices! The EMU 8000 can therefore only play 30 voices on the AWE32. Through driver optimization, however, Creative said to have compensated this.
More annoying the following: instead of sending MIDI commands through the MPU 401 interface the E-mu part, they saved this and favored the proprietary AWE interface instead. They handled MIDI compatibility merely in form of a driver or better: emulator, which didn't work in some situations.
Explanation in Creative's FAQ concerning that kind of problems: "As more developers include support in native mode, this NMI problem will gradually disappear"...
In summary, the AWE admittedly was only a "better" SB16, however its tonal qualities could expel competitors at least in the same price league. And so the card represented the tonal climax of ISA cards of the house Creative Labs.
A later AWE64 followed, but was mainly another revision of the AWE 32 with better signal to noise ratio, a higher integrated chipset and proprietary RAM expansion. The additional 32 voices were achieved with software synthesis and were not really comparable to the hardware voices.
Which one to buy?
There are quite a lot of Sound Blaster AWE 32 versions, but decisions are a bit easier than for its predecessors. If you just want to use the AWE part with the delivered samples and don't need the wave table header or extra RAM? You may try the value edition:
Want to add extra RAM or need the wavetable header? You may use the normal version. As for the Sound Blaster 16: DSP versions above 4.05 have a hanging notes bug when using MIDI and sample playback at the same time. The earlier versions can be identified by separate IRQ jumpers. You may also spot the DSP version on the CT1740A or CT1741 chip, for example a "V413" for DSP version 4.13.
Certain versions with DSP 4.13, the long cards, also don't seem to exhibit the hanging notes bug.