ALSA (Linux)


ALSA is the low level audio API that is used in the Linux kernel. The ALSA project also maintains various user-space tools and utilities that are installed by default in most Linux distributions.

This readme only covers some basics of ALSA. For more details, see for example the ALSA Documentation and A close look at ALSA

Hardware devices

In the ALSA scheme, a soundcard or dac corresponds to a "card". A card can have one or several inputs and/or outputs, denoted "devices". Finally each device can support one or several streams, called "subdevices". It depends on the driver implementation how the different physical ports of a card is exposed in terms of devices. For example a 4-channel unit may present a single 4-channel device, or two separate 2-channel devices.

PCM devices

An alsa PCM device can be many different things, like a simple alias for a hardware device, or any of the many plugins supported by ALSA. PCM devices are normally defined in the ALSA configuration file see the ALSA Plugin Documentation for a list of the available plugins.

Find name of device

To list all hardware playback devices use the aplay command with the -l option:

> aplay -l
**** List of PLAYBACK Hardware Devices ****
card 0: Generic [HD-Audio Generic], device 0: ALC236 Analog [ALC236 Analog]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0

To list all PCM devices use the aplay command with the -L option:

> aplay -L
    HD-Audio Generic, HDMI 0
    HDMI Audio Output

Capture devices can be found in the same way with arecord -l and arecord -L.

A hardware device is accessed via the "hw" plugin. The device name is then prefixed by hw:. To use the ALC236 hardware device from above, put either hw:Generic (to use the name, recommended) or hw:0 (to use the index) in the CamillaDSP config.

To instead use the "hdmi" PCM device, it's enough to give the name hdmi.

Find valid playback and capture parameters

To find the parameters for the playback device "Generic" from the example above, again use aplay:

> aplay -v -D hw:Generic /dev/zero --dump-hw-params
Playing raw data '/dev/zero' : Unsigned 8 bit, Rate 8000 Hz, Mono
HW Params of device "hw:Generic":
SAMPLE_BITS: [16 32]
FRAME_BITS: [32 64]
RATE: [44100 48000]
PERIOD_TIME: (333 96870749)
PERIOD_SIZE: [16 4272000]
PERIOD_BYTES: [128 34176000]
PERIODS: [2 32]
BUFFER_TIME: (666 178000000]
BUFFER_SIZE: [32 8544000]
BUFFER_BYTES: [128 68352000]
aplay: set_params:1343: Sample format non available
Available formats:
- S16_LE
- S32_LE

Ignore the error message at the end. The interesting fields are FORMAT, RATE and CHANNELS. In this example the sample formats this device can use are S16_LE and S32_LE (corresponding to S16LE and S32LE in CamillaDSP, see the table of equivalent formats in the main README for the complete list). The sample rate can be either 44.1 or 48 kHz. And it supports only stereo playback (2 channels).

Combinations of parameter values

Note that all possible combinations of the shown parameters may not be supported by the device. For example many USB DACS only support 24-bit samples up to 96 kHz, so that only 16-bit samples are supported at 192 kHz. For other devices, the number of channels depends on the sample rate. This is common on studio interfaces that support ADAT.

CamillaDSP sets first the number of channels. Then it sets sample rate, and finally sample format. Setting a value for a parameter may restrict the allowed values for the ones that have not yet been set. For the USB DAC just mentioned, setting the sample rate to 192 kHz means that only the S16LE sample format is allowed. If the CamillaDSP configuration is set to 192 kHz and S24LE3, then there will be an error when setting the format.

Capture parameters are determined in the same way with arecord:

> arecord -D hw:Generic /dev/null --dump-hw-params

This outputs the same table as for the aplay example above, but for a capture device.

Routing all audio through CamillaDSP

To route all audio through CamillaDSP using ALSA, the audio output from any application must be redirected. This can be acheived either by using an ALSA Loopback device, or the ALSA CamillaDSP "I/O" plugin.

ALSA Loopback

An ALSA Loopback card can be used. This behaves like a sound card that presents two devices. The sound being send to the playback side on one device can then be captured from the capture side on the other device. To load the kernel module type:

sudo modprobe snd-aloop

Find the name of the device:

aplay -l

Play a track on card "Loopback", device 1, subdevice 0:

aplay -D hw:Loopback,1,0 sometrack.wav

The audio can then be captured from card "Loopback", device 0, subdevice 0, by running arecord in a separate terminal:

arecord -D hw:Loopback,0,0 sometrack_copy.wav

The first application that opens either side of a Loopback decides the sample rate and format. If aplay is started first in this example, this means that arecord must use the same sample rate and format. To change format or rate, both sides of the loopback must first be closed.

When using the ALSA Loopback approach, see the separate repository camilladsp-config. This contains example configuration files for setting up the entire system, and to have it start automatically after boot.

ALSA CamillaDSP "I/O" plugin

ALSA can be extended by plugins in user-space. One such plugin that is intended specifically for CamillaDSP is the ALSA CamillaDSP "I/O" plugin by scripple.

The plugin starts CamillaDSP whenever an application opens the CamillaDSP plugin PCM device. This makes it possible to support automatic switching of the sample rate. See the plugin readme for how to install and configure it.

Configuration of devices

This example configuration will be used to explain the various options specific to ALSA:

    type: Alsa
    channels: 2
    device: "hw:0,1"
    format: S16LE
    retry_on_error: false (*)
    avoid_blocking_read: false (*)
    type: Alsa
    channels: 2
    device: "hw:Generic_1"
    format: S32LE

Device names

See Find name of device for what to write in the device field.

Sample rate and format

Please see Find valid playback and capture parameters.

Workarounds for device quirks

The ALSA capture device has two optional extra properties that are used to work around quirks of some devices. Both should normally be left out, or set to the default value of false.

ALSA Documentation


A close look at ALSA


ALSA Plugin Documentation




ALSA CamillaDSP plugin




ADAT achieves higher sampling rates by multiplexing two or four 44.1/48kHz audio streams into a single one. A device implementing 8 channels over ADAT at 48kHz will therefore provide 4 channels over ADAT at 96kHz and 2 channels over ADAT at 192kHz.