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Gentoo Linux ALSA Guide


1. Introduction

What is ALSA?

ALSA, which stands for Advanced Linux Sound Architecture, provides audio and MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) functionality to the Linux operating system. ALSA is the default sound subsystem in the 2.6 kernel thereby replacing OSS (Open Sound System), which was used in the 2.4 kernels.

ALSA's main features include efficient support for all types of audio interfaces ranging from consumer sound cards to professional sound equipment, fully modularized drivers, SMP and thread safety, backward compatibility with OSS and a user-space library alsa-lib to make application development a breeze.

ALSA on Gentoo

One of Gentoo's main strengths lies in giving the user maximum control over how a system is installed/configured. ALSA on Gentoo follows the same principle. There are two ways you can get ALSA support up and running on your system. We shall look at them in detail in the next chapter.

2. Installing ALSA


Warning: The methods shown below are mutually exclusive. You cannot have ALSA compiled in your kernel and use media-sound/alsa-driver. It will fail.

The two options are :

  1. Use ALSA provided by your kernel. This is the preferred/recommended method.
  2. Use Gentoo's media-sound/alsa-driver package.

We shall take a peek into both before finally deciding on one.

If you were to use ALSA provided by the kernel, the following are the pros and cons :

Kernel ALSA Pros and Cons
+ Pretty stable as drivers are integrated into kernel.
+ One shot solution, no repeating emerges.
- Might be a slightly older version than alsa-driver.

And, if you were to use alsa-driver,

alsa-driver Pros and Cons
+ Latest drivers from the ALSA Project.
- Every kernel recompile requires a re-emerge of alsa-driver.
- Needs certain kernel config options disabled to work correctly.


The main difference between using alsa-driver and ALSA that comes with the kernel is that alsa-driver is generally more up to date than the version in the kernel. Since this does not make any huge difference as such, you are encouraged to use the ALSA provided by the kernel for ease of use. Before reporting any sound related issues to Gentoo Bugzilla, please try to reproduce them using alsa-driver and file the bug report no matter what the result.

Before you proceed

Whichever method of install you choose, you need to know what drivers your sound card uses. In most cases, sound cards (onboard and otherwise) are PCI based and lspci will help you in digging out the required information. Please emerge sys-apps/pciutils to get lspci, if you don't have it installed already. In case you have a USB sound card, lsusb from sys-apps/usbutils might be of help. For ISA cards, try using sys-apps/isapnptools. Also, the following pages may help users with ISA based sound cards.

Note: For ease of use/explanation, we assume the user has a PCI based sound card for the remainder of this guide.

We now proceed to find out details about the sound card.

Code Listing 2.1: Soundcard Details

# lspci -v | grep -i audio
0000:00:0a.0 Multimedia audio controller: Creative Labs SB Live! EMU10k1 (rev 06)

We now know that the sound card on the machine is a Sound Blaster Live! and the card manufacturer is Creative Labs. Head over to the ALSA Soundcard Matrix page and select Creative Labs from the drop down menu. You will be taken to the Creative Labs matrix page where you can see that the SB Live! uses the emu10k1 module. That is the information we need for now. If you are interested in detailed information, you can click on the link next to the "Details" and that will take you to the emu10k1 specific page.

Using ALSA provided by your Kernel

If you're a person who likes to keep things simple like I do, then this is the way to go.

Note: Since the 2005.0 release, Gentoo Linux uses 2.6 as the default kernel. Unless you are specifically using the 2.4 profile, gentoo-sources will be a 2.6 kernel on most architectures. Please check that your kernel is a 2.6 series kernel. This method will not work on a 2.4 kernel.

Let us now configure the kernel to enable ALSA.

Important: genkernel users should now run genkernel --menuconfig all and then follow the instructions in Kernel Options for ALSA.

Code Listing 2.2: Heading over to the source

# cd /usr/src/linux
# make menuconfig

Note: The above example assumes that /usr/src/linux symlink points to the kernel sources you want to use. Please ensure the same before proceeding.

Now we will look at some of the options we will have to enable in the 2.6 kernel to ensure proper ALSA support for our sound card.

Please note that for the sake of ease, all examples show ALSA built as modules. It is advisable to follow the same as it then allows the use of alsaconf which is a boon when you want to configure your card. Please do not skip the Configuration section of this document. If you still like to have options built-in, ensure that you make changes to your config accordingly.

Code Listing 2.3: Kernel Options for ALSA

Device Drivers  --->
   Sound  --->
(This needs to be enabled)
<M> Sound card support

(Make sure OSS is disabled)
Open Sound System   --->
   < > Open Sound System (DEPRECATED)

(Move one step back and enter ALSA)
Advanced Linux Sound Architecture  --->
   <M> Advanced Linux Sound Architecture
   (Select this if you want MIDI sequencing and routing)
   <M> Sequencer support
   (Old style /dev/mixer* and /dev/dsp* support. Recommended.)
   <M> OSS Mixer API
   <M> OSS PCM (digital audio) API 

(You now have a choice of devices to enable support for. Generally,
you will have one type of device and not more. If you have more than one 
sound card, please enable them all here.)

(Mostly for testing and development purposes, not needed for normal 
users unless you know what you are doing.)
Generic devices  --->
(For ISA Sound cards)
ISA devices   --->
(IF you had the Gravis, you would select this option)
   <M> Gravis UltraSound Extreme

(Move one level back and into PCI devices. Most sound cards today are 
PCI devices)
PCI devices   --->
   (We now select the emu10k1 driver for our card)
   <M> Emu10k1 (SB Live!, Audigy, E-mu APS)
   (Or an Intel card would be)
   <M> Intel/SiS/nVidia/AMD/ALi AC97 Controller
   (Or if you have a VIA Card)
   <M> VIA 82C686A/B, 8233/8235 AC97 Controller

(Move one level back and select in case you have an USB sound card)
USB Devices   --->

Now that your options are set, you can (re)compile the kernel and ALSA support for your card should be functional once you reboot into the new kernel. Don't forget to update your GRUB configuration to use the newly built kernel. You can now proceed to ALSA Utilities and see if everything is working as it should.

Using the ALSA Driver package

So you've decided to go the alsa-driver way. Let's get started then. There are a few minor things to be done to ensure only the drivers for your sound card are compiled. Although this is not really necessary, it cuts down on the unnecessary drivers that will be compiled otherwise.

If you don't have an idea of what drivers your sound card might need, please take a look at the lspci section of this guide. Once you have your driver name (emu10k1 in our example), edit /etc/make.conf and add a variable, ALSA_CARDS.

Code Listing 2.4: Adding ALSA_CARDS to make.conf

(For one sound card)
(For more than one, separate names with spaces)
ALSA_CARDS="emu10k1 via82xx"

If you have compiled your kernel and want to use alsa-driver, please ensure the following before proceeding, else alsa-driver is likely to fail. The next code listing gives you one way of performing the checks.

Note: genkernel users can proceed with Installing alsa-driver as their configuration is in sync with the one shown below by default.

  1. CONFIG_SOUND is set. (Basic Sound support enabled)
  2. CONFIG_SOUND_PRIME is not set. (In-built OSS support disabled)
  3. CONFIG_SND is not set. (In-built ALSA support disabled)
  4. /usr/src/linux points to the kernel you want ALSA working on.

Code Listing 2.5: .config checks

(Assuming the linux symlink points to the correct kernel)
# cd /usr/src/linux
# grep SOUND .config
(1. is true)
(2. is true)
# grep SND .config
(and 3. is true)
CONFIG_SND is not set

Now all you have to do is type the magic words... and no, it's not abracadabra.

Code Listing 2.6: Installing alsa-driver

# emerge alsa-driver

Important: Please note that you will have to run emerge alsa-driver after every kernel (re)compile, as the earlier drivers are deleted.

3. Configuring/Testing ALSA

ALSA Utilities

alsa-utils forms an integral part of ALSA as it has a truckload of programs that are highly useful, including the ALSA Initscripts. Hence we strongly recommend that you install alsa-utils

Code Listing 3.1: Install alsa-utils

# emerge alsa-utils

Note: If you activated ALSA in your kernel and did not compile ALSA as modules, please proceed to the ALSA Initscript section. The rest of you need to configure ALSA. This is made very easy by the existence of the alsaconf tool provided by alsa-utils.


Note: Please shut down any programs that might access the sound card while running alsaconf.

The easiest way to configure your sound card is to run alsaconf. Just type alsaconf in a shell as root.

Code Listing 3.2: Invoking alsaconf

# alsaconf

You will now see a neat menu guided interface that will automatically probe your devices and try to find out your sound card. You will be asked to pick your sound card from a list. Once that's done, it will ask you permission to automatically make required changes to /etc/modules.d/alsa. It will then adjust your volume settings to optimum levels, run modules-update and start the /etc/init.d/alsasound service. Once alsaconf exits, you can proceed with setting up the ALSA initscript.

ALSA Initscript

We're now almost all setup. Whichever method you chose to install ALSA, you'll need to have something load your modules or initialize ALSA and restore your volume settings when your system comes up. The ALSA Initscript handles all of this for you and is called alsasound. Add it to the boot runlevel.

Code Listing 3.3: Adding ALSA to the boot runlevel

# rc-update add alsasound boot
 * alsasound added to runlevel boot
 * rc-update complete.

Next, just check the /etc/conf.d/alsasound file and ensure that SAVE_ON_STOP variable is set to yes. This saves your sound settings when you shutdown your system.

Audio Group

Before we move on to testing, there's one last important thing that needs to be setup. Rule of thumb in a *nix OS : Do not run as root unless needed. This applies here as well ;) How? Well, most of the times you should be logged in as a user and would like to listen to music or access your soundcard. For that to happen, you need to be in the "audio" group. At this point, we'll add users to the audio group, so that they won't have any issues when they want to access sound devices. We'll use gpasswd here and you need to be logged in as root for this to work.

Code Listing 3.4: Adding users to the audio group

(Substitute <username> with your user)
# gpasswd -a <username> audio 
Adding user <username> to group audio

Volume Check!

We've completed all the setups and pre-requisites, so let's fire up ALSA. If you ran alsaconf, you can skip this step, since alsaconf already does this for you.

Code Listing 3.5: Start the service

(ALSA as modules)
# /etc/init.d/alsasound start
 * Loading ALSA modules ...
 * Loading: snd-card-0 ...        [ ok ]
 * Loading: snd-pcm-oss ...       [ ok ]
 * Loading: snd-seq ...           [ ok ]
 * Loading: snd-emu10k1-synth ... [ ok ]
 * Loading: snd-seq-midi ...      [ ok ]
 * Restoring Mixer Levels ...     [ ok ]
(ALSA compiled in)
# /etc/init.d/alsasound start
 * Loading ALSA modules ...
 * Restoring Mixer Levels ...     [ ok ]

Now that the required things have been taken care of, we need to check up on the volume as in certain cases, it is muted. We use alsamixer for this purpose.

Code Listing 3.6: Starting alsamixer

(Opens up a console program. Only required settings are shown)
# alsamixer

Important: If you have issues starting up alsamixer and get errors such as alsamixer: function snd_ctl_open failed for default: No such file or directory, this is usually an issue with udev setting up the devices. Run killall udevd; udevstart to reload /dev entries and fire up alsamixer. It should solve the issue.

This is how the ALSA Mixer might look the first time you open it. Pay attention to the Master and PCM channels which both have an MM below them. That means they are muted. If you try to play anything with alsamixer in this state, you will not hear anything on your speakers.

Figure 3.1: The Alsa Mixer Main Window, Muted

Fig. 1: AlsaMixer Muted

Now, we shall unmute the channels, and set volume levels as needed.

Warning: Both Master and PCM need to be unmuted and set to audible volume levels if you want to hear some output on your speakers.

  • To move between channels, use your left and right arrow keys. (<- & ->)
  • To toggle mute, move to the specific channel, for example Master and press the m key on the keyboard.
  • To increase and decrease the volume levels, use the up and down arrow keys respectively.

Note: Be careful when setting your Bass and Treble values. 50 is usually a good number for both. Extremely high values of Bass may cause jarring on speakers that are not designed to handle them.

After you're all done, your ALSA Mixer should look similar to the one below. Note the 00 instead of the MM and also the volume levels for some optimum settings.

Figure 3.2: Alsa Mixer ready to roll

Fig. 2: AlsaMixer Unmuted

Sound Check!

The irritating way to check your soundcard is to see if you can hear static on the speakers. This isn't exactly fun, but hey, it tells you the card is configured and working.

Code Listing 3.7: Bring on the static

# cat /dev/urandom > /dev/dsp

Note: /dev/dsp is a symlink to /dev/sound/dsp and should be automatically created. Try re-directing the output to /dev/sound/dsp in case you don't get a "No such file or directory" error.

You should hear static. Press Ctrl + C to stop. If you don't hear anything, now is a good time to go back and check/trace out the issue and rectify it.

Finally. Some music. If everything above is perfect, you should now be able to listen to some good music. A quick way to test is to use a command line tool like media-sound/madplay. You could also use something more well known like mpg123 or xmms. If you are an ogg fan, you could use ogg123 provided by media-sound/vorbis-tools. Use any player you are comfortable with. As always, emerge what you need.

Code Listing 3.8: Getting the software

(Install the applications you want)
# emerge madplay mpg123 xmms
(To play .ogg files)
# emerge vorbis-tools

And then play your favorite sound track...

Code Listing 3.9: Playing Music

# madplay -v /mnt/shyam/Music/Paul\ Oakenfold\ -\ Dread\ Rock.mp3
MPEG Audio Decoder 0.15.2 (beta) - Copyright (C) 2000-2004 Robert Leslie et al.
          Title: Dread Rock
         Artist: Paul Oakenfold
          Album: Matrix Reloaded
           Year: 2003
          Genre: Soundtrack
 00:04:19 Layer III, 160 kbps, 44100 Hz, joint stereo (MS), no CRC

# ogg123 Paul\ Oakenfold\ -\ Dread\ Rock.ogg
Audio Device:   Advanced Linux Sound Architecture (ALSA) output

Playing: Paul Oakenfold - Dread Rock.ogg
Ogg Vorbis stream: 2 channel, 44100 Hz
Genre: Soundtrack
Transcoded: mp3;160
Title: Dread Rock
Artist: Paul Oakenfold
Date: 2003
Album: Matrix Reloaded
Time: 00:11.31 [04:28.75] of 04:40.06  (200.6 kbps)  Output Buffer  96.9%


You can now add the alsa use flag to /etc/make.conf to ensure that your applications that support ALSA get built with it. Some architectures like x86 and amd64 have the flag enabled by default.


If for some reason you're unable to hear sound, the first thing to do would be to check your alsamixer settings. 80% of the issues lie with muted channels or low volume. Also check your Window Manager's sound applet and verify that volumes are set to audible levels.

/proc is your friend. And in this case, /proc/asound is your best friend. We shall just take a short look at how much info is made available to us there.

Code Listing 3.10: Fun with /proc/asound

(First and foremost, if /proc/asound/cards shows your card, ALSA has 
picked up your sound card fine.)
# cat /proc/asound/cards
0 [Live           ]: EMU10K1 - Sound Blaster Live!
                     Sound Blaster Live! (rev.6, serial:0x80271102) at 0xb800, irq 11

(If you run ALSA off the kernel like I do and wonder how far behind 
you are from alsa-driver, this displays current running ALSA version)
# cat /proc/asound/version
Advanced Linux Sound Architecture Driver Version 1.0.8 (Thu Jan 13 09:39:32 2005 UTC).

(ALSA OSS emulation details)
# cat /proc/asound/oss/sndstat
Sound Driver:3.8.1a-980706 (ALSA v1.0.8 emulation code)
Kernel: Linux airwolf.zion 2.6.11ac1 #2 Wed May 4 00:35:08 IST 2005 i686
Config options: 0

Installed drivers:
Type 10: ALSA emulation

Card config:
Sound Blaster Live! (rev.6, serial:0x80271102) at 0xb800, irq 11

Audio devices:


Midi devices:
0: EMU10K1 MPU-401 (UART)

7: system timer

0: SigmaTel STAC9721/23

The other most common issue users face is the dreaded "Unknown symbol in module" error. An example of the same is shown below.

Code Listing 3.11: Unknown Symbol in module error

# /etc/init.d/alsasound start
 * Loading ALSA modules ...
 *   Loading: snd-card-0 ...                                              [ ok ]
 *   Loading: snd-pcm-oss ...
WARNING: Error inserting snd_mixer_oss
(/lib/modules/2.6.12-gentoo-r6/kernel/sound/core/oss/snd-mixer-oss.ko): Unknown
symbol in module, or unknown parameter (see dmesg) FATAL: Error inserting
(/lib/modules/2.6.12-gentoo-r6/kernel/sound/core/oss/snd-pcm-oss.ko): Unknown
symbol in module, or unknown parameter (see dmesg)                             
                                                                          [ !! ]
 *   Loading: snd-mixer-oss ...
FATAL: Error inserting snd_mixer_oss
(/lib/modules/2.6.12-gentoo-r6/kernel/sound/core/oss/snd-mixer-oss.ko): Unknown
symbol in module, or unknown parameter (see dmesg)                             
                                                                          [ !! ]
 *   Loading: snd-seq ...                                                 [ ok ]
 *   Loading: snd-emu10k1-synth ...                                       [ ok ]
 *   Loading: snd-seq-midi ...                                            [ ok ]
 * Restoring Mixer Levels ...                                             [ ok ]

And when you take a look at dmesg as suggested, you're quite likely to see:

Code Listing 3.12: dmesg output

(Only relevant portions are shown below)
# dmesg | less
ACPI: PCI Interrupt 0000:02:06.0[A] -> Link [APC3] -> GSI 18 (level, low) -> IRQ 209
snd_mixer_oss: Unknown symbol snd_unregister_oss_device
snd_mixer_oss: Unknown symbol snd_register_oss_device
snd_mixer_oss: Unknown symbol snd_mixer_oss_notify_callback
snd_mixer_oss: Unknown symbol snd_oss_info_register
snd_pcm_oss: Unknown symbol snd_unregister_oss_device
snd_pcm_oss: Unknown symbol snd_register_oss_device
snd_pcm_oss: Unknown symbol snd_mixer_oss_ioctl_card
snd_pcm_oss: Unknown symbol snd_oss_info_register
snd_mixer_oss: Unknown symbol snd_unregister_oss_device
snd_mixer_oss: Unknown symbol snd_register_oss_device
snd_mixer_oss: Unknown symbol snd_mixer_oss_notify_callback
snd_mixer_oss: Unknown symbol snd_oss_info_register

The above issue is caused when you switch from alsa-driver to in-kernel ALSA because when you unmerge alsa-driver the module files are config protected and hence get left behind. So, when you switch to in-kernel drivers, running modprobe gives you a mix of alsa-driver and in-kernel modules thus causing the above errors.

The solution is quite easy. We just need to manually remove the problem causing directory after you unmerge alsa-driver. Be sure to remove the correct kernel version and not the current one!

Code Listing 3.13: Removing the alsa-driver modules

(Replace KERNELVER with your kernel version)
# rm -rf /lib/modules/KERNELVER/alsa-driver

4. Other things ALSA

Setting up MIDI support

If your sound card is one of those that come with on-board MIDI synthesizers and you would like to listen to some .mid files, you have to install awesfx which is basically a set of utilities for controlling the AWE32 driver. We need to install it first. If you don't have a hardware synthesizer, you can use a virtual one. Please see the section on Virtual Synthesizers for more information.

Code Listing 4.1: Installing awesfx

# emerge awesfx

Note: You will need to copy over SoundFont (SF2) files from your sound card's driver CD or a Windows installation into /usr/share/sounds/sf2/. For example a sound font file for the Creative SBLive! card would be 8MBGMSFX.SF2.

After copying over the Soundfont files, we can then play a midi file as shown. You can also add the asfxload command to /etc/conf.d/local.start, so that the sound font is loaded every time the system starts up.

Note: /mnt paths mentioned in the code listing(s) below will not be the same in your machine. They are just an example. Please be careful to change the path to suit your machine.

Code Listing 4.2: Loading Soundfonts

(First, copy the Soundfont)
# cp /mnt/win2k/Program\ Files/CreativeSBLive2k/SFBank/8MBGMSFX.SF2 /usr/share/sounds/sf2/ 
(Or get it from your SoundBlaster CD)
# cp /mnt/cdrom/AUDIO/ENGLISH/SFBANK/8MBGMSFX.SF2 /usr/share/sounds/sf2/
(We load the specific Soundfont)
# asfxload /usr/share/sounds/sf2/8MBGMSFX.SF2

You can now play midi files using a program like aplaymidi. Run aplaymidi -l to get a list of available ports and then pick one to play the file on.

Code Listing 4.3: Playing MIDI

(Check open ports)
# aplaymidi -l
 Port    Client name                      Port name
 64:0    EMU10K1 MPU-401 (UART)           EMU10K1 MPU-401 (UART)
 65:0    Emu10k1 WaveTable                Emu10k1 Port 0
 65:1    Emu10k1 WaveTable                Emu10k1 Port 1
 65:2    Emu10k1 WaveTable                Emu10k1 Port 2
 65:3    Emu10k1 WaveTable                Emu10k1 Port 3
(Pick a port, and play a mid file)
#  aplaymidi --port=65:0 /mnt/shyam/music/midi/mi2.mid

Virtual Synthesizers

If your sound card lacks a hardware synthesizer, you could use a virtual one like timidity++. Installation is a breeze.

Code Listing 4.4: Installing timidity++

# emerge timidity++

For timidity to play sounds, it needs a sound font. If you do not have any, install timidity-eawpatches or timidity-shompatches which will give you some sound fonts. You can have multiple sound font configurations installed, and you can place your own in /usr/share/timidity/. To switch between different timidity configurations, you should use the timidity-update tool provided in the timidity++ package.

Code Listing 4.5: Installing sound fonts

# emerge timidity-eawpatches
# timidity-update -g -s eawpatches


# emerge timidity-shompatches
# timidity-update -g -s shompatches

Don't forget to add timidity to the default runlevel.

Code Listing 4.6: Adding timidity to the default runlevel

# rc-update add timidity default
# /etc/init.d/timidity start

You can now try out Playing MIDI files.

Tools and Firmware

Some specific sound cards can benefit from certain tools provided by the alsa-tools and alsa-firmware packages. If you need alsa-tools, be sure to define the ALSA_TOOLS variable in /etc/make.conf with the tools you require. For instance:

Code Listing 4.7: Selecting ALSA Tools in /etc/make.conf

ALSA_TOOLS="as10k1 ac3dec"

If the ALSA_TOOLS variable is not set, all available tools will be built. Now, install the alsa-tools (and/or alsa-firmware) package(s):

Code Listing 4.8: Installing ALSA Tools

# emerge alsa-tools

A Big thank you to...

Everyone who contributed to the earlier version of the Gentoo ALSA Guide: Vincent Verleye, Grant Goodyear, Arcady Genkin, Jeremy Huddleston, John P. Davis, Sven Vermeulen, Benny Chuang, Tiemo Kieft and Erwin.



Updated September 10, 2005

Summary: This document helps a user setup ALSA on Gentoo Linux.

Shyam Mani

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