[Portaudio] Alsa: support for sub-device & 24-bit BE format only

Alan Horstmann gineera at aspect135.co.uk
Fri Mar 30 08:51:07 EDT 2012

Hi Dmitry, Ross,

On Friday 30 March 2012 10:55, you wrote:
> Thank you for the details you provided regarding this case.
> > It is not uncommon for audio hardware to have very specific hardware
> > formats.
> Yes, I believe so, but with Audio4DJ this is the reality. It does
> provide only 3-byte 24-bit BigEndian format for capturing/playback.
> Portaudio's Alsa implementation was missing ability to handle such
> case.

Very limited raw hardware flexibility is the reality with a great many sound 
cards in one way or another, but doesn't need fixing in Portaudio, IMHO.

> > But Alsa provides a 'plug' layer that handles conversions
> But does 'plug' operate with same low latency as it happens with
> direct talking to hardware? What is the additional overhead of routing
> audio through 'plug'? Does this routing is always safe and stable for
> all Linux versions?

The 'plug' layer adds no latency AFAIK; it is the standard mechanism for 
working with audio on Alsa

> To avoid consideration of these questions to my 
> view it is better to handle format conversion inside Portaudio's Alsa
> implementation which is usually overhead of 1 additional CPU
> instruction and provide low-latency stable operation out of the box.
> > Otherwise does channel mapping and rate conversion need also to be
> > provided to support all hardware raw?
> Well, Portaudio's ASIO implementation handles byte swapping of host
> format to native endianness and I do not see a reason why Alsa
> implementation can't do the same. Are you concerned about increased
> size of binary, or some other things? What are the most important
> reasons for not doing that with Alsa too.

The fact that Alsa provides it, supported by a world-wide community, several 
full-time paid developers etc.  I presume ASIO does not provide that 
capability in the host api?

> To my view, not handling byte swapping for Alsa in Portaudio is a bug
> because Alsa API provides declaration for LE and BE formats. If BE
> format is ignored and not processed then this is the bug. If API
> provides ability that format can be in BE format then Alsa
> implementation shall be ready to handle such situation. Using 'plug'
> to my view is just a workaround for this bug.

At heart, I think there is perhaps a mis-understanding of the structure of 
Alsa, although I would not claim to be an expert.  I will try to communicate 
this as best I can, taking a step back to look from a distance; these points 
are probably all known to you, but I am putting them in an order so-as to 
follow a line of discussion.

Sound card hardware varies a lot in its design, capabilities, limitations and 
target market.  Eg those based on the Envy24 chipset (I happen to know these 
chips reasonably well) are 96KHz capable semi-pro devices such as the Delta 
1010.  These chips ONLY handle playback data as 10 channels of 4-bytes 
containing 24-bit signed pcm values.  It is not possible to send 2 channels, 
or to send 16-bit data in 2 bytes pairs.  Regardless of the operating system, 
drivers, host api, etc that is always what occurs on the PCI bus.  However, 
it can switch hardware clocks to most common rates, whereas many 
motherboard-based systems can only operate at 48KHz.  So a card may have many 
limitations of rate, format, channels etc.

Host apis provide a framework to use audio on the given machine.  Each host 
api provides a mechanism to send data to the sound card through some kind of 
software 'drivers'.  But different apis take divergent approaches to how this 
is done.

Linux first had OSS, which presents the Envy24 cards as a series of stereo 
devices, 16-bit only (24-bit is not supported), and handles all the 
conversions etc internally invisibly.  I believe some of the Windows hosts do 

However Alsa set out to give more flexibility and capability.  So it is 
separated into at least 2 layers.  At the lowest level are the hardware 
drivers that run the sound card chipsets.  Each type of board has it's own 
driver.  They run in what is known as Linux 'kernel-space' and simply expose 
the hardware as is to the Alsa user-space library, which apps can access.  
But the drivers provide no conversions/adjustments to any of the hardware 
capabilities or limitations.

The Alsa user-space provides a powerful and flexible configuration capability.  
Virtual devices are created that allow access to the card in a way that 
incorporates modification of the pcm stream by means of the 'plugin' layer.  
Config files unique to each type of card are provided as standard, and load 
automatically when the card is opened.  The user can also add his/her own 
features.  So although a system may have just one sound card, it might 
normally have, say, 8 devices for that card, eg hw, plughw, front, side, 
rear, surround41, dmix, default, etc.

The 'hw' device provides access direct to the hardware with all it's 
limitations, which could be fixed rate, fixed number of channels, fixed 
format etc.  Those that work with Alsa should understand that fact, which is 
why it puzzles me that guys at Mixx would be pushing for certain direct 
hardware limitations to be worked around in Portaudio.  On the Envy24 cards, 
stereo cannot be played out of the hw device at all.  But Alsa provides the 
virtual devices that achieve all the functionality of other host apis (and 
more) as a result of the configured plugins.  So 'front' on an Envy24 card 
includes channel mapping using the 'route' plugin so it can handle stereo 
streams.  The configurations can be stacked so nowadays the 'default' device 
includes multiple-stream mixing through 'dmix', with format, rate, channel 
conversion through the 'plug' plugin.  It can get rather complex.

That is why it is NOT a poor workaround to use Alsa plugins; they are *THE* 
provided mechanism for doing all the conversions that other host apis may 
hide, including endian conversion.  In the case of the Audio4DJ, when running 
under Windows apis the card must still be using _BE format itself, so the 
apis (except ASIO) must be doing the conversion for the hardware.  It's just 
that they don't (?) also show the raw _BE device as well, which Alsa does.  I 
don't think any of the Portaudio converters are needed when using Alsa 
through plugins.

There are 2 side notes:
a) if the Audio4DJ does not work with the plugins in place, that would be an 
Alsa bug.

b) it may be that Portaudio-alsa should show the 'plughw' device instead of 
deliberately ignoring it, although the PA_ALSA_PLUGHW method exists.

Sorry that my explanation is long, and never as clear as my understanding.



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