ALSA Programming HOWTO

by Matthias Nagorni, last update: 15 Mar 2010

This document and the example programs are licensed under the GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE .


The author is grateful to Takashi Iwai for his assistance in writing this HOWTO. Thanks to Frank Neumann for carefully reading this document.


  1. Introduction
  2. Basic PCM audio
  3. PCM capture
  4. Writing a sequencer client
  5. A MIDI router
  6. Combining PCM and MIDI: miniFMsynth
  7. Scheduling MIDI events: miniArp
  8. Notes on writing a GUI based audio application
  9. Links

1. Introduction

This HOWTO intends to give a brief introduction in writing simple audio applications with ALSA

Section 2. explains the most basic functions for PCM audio. If you remove the explaining text, you end up with a minimal PCM playback program. Section 3. briefly treats some functions for PCM capture.

In section 4. you will learn how to write a simple client for the ALSA sequencer. The section is based on the example seqdemo.c, a program which can receive MIDI events and displays the most important event types. Section 5. demonstrates how the ALSA MIDI sequencer can be used to route MIDI events from one input port to several output ports. This section is based on the example midiroute.c.

Section 6. combines PCM playback and MIDI input and explains the mini synthesizer miniFMsynth.c. This section introduces callback-based audio playback, as proposed by Paul Davis on the linux-audio-dev mailing list. Section 7. provides a short introduction to MIDI scheduling on ALSA sequencer queues based on the small arpeggiator miniArp.c as example.

It is recommended to also have a look at the doxygen-generated function reference of the ALSA library.

Compiling an ALSA application:

Just use -lasound and make sure you have included

#include <alsa/asoundlib.h>

2. Basic PCM audio

To write a simple PCM application for ALSA we first need a handle for the PCM device. Then we have to specify the direction of the PCM stream, which can be either playback or capture. We also have to provide some information about the configuration we would like to use, like buffer size, sample rate, pcm data format. So, first we declare:
    /* Handle for the PCM device */ 
    snd_pcm_t *pcm_handle;          

    /* Playback stream */
    snd_pcm_stream_t stream = SND_PCM_STREAM_PLAYBACK;

    /* This structure contains information about    */
    /* the hardware and can be used to specify the  */      
    /* configuration to be used for the PCM stream. */ 
    snd_pcm_hw_params_t *hwparams;
The most important ALSA interfaces to the PCM devices are the "plughw" and the "hw" interface. If you use the "plughw" interface, you need not care much about the sound hardware. If your soundcard does not support the sample rate or sample format you specify, your data will be automatically converted. This also applies to the access type and the number of channels. With the "hw" interface, you have to check whether your hardware supports the configuration you would like to use.
    /* Name of the PCM device, like plughw:0,0          */
    /* The first number is the number of the soundcard, */
    /* the second number is the number of the device.   */
    char *pcm_name;
Then we initialize the variables and allocate a hwparams structure:
    /* Init pcm_name. Of course, later you */
    /* will make this configurable ;-)     */
    pcm_name = strdup("plughw:0,0");
    /* Allocate the snd_pcm_hw_params_t structure on the stack. */
Now we can open the PCM device:
    /* Open PCM. The last parameter of this function is the mode. */
    /* If this is set to 0, the standard mode is used. Possible   */
    /* other values are SND_PCM_NONBLOCK and SND_PCM_ASYNC.       */ 
    /* If SND_PCM_NONBLOCK is used, read / write access to the    */
    /* PCM device will return immediately. If SND_PCM_ASYNC is    */
    /* specified, SIGIO will be emitted whenever a period has     */
    /* been completely processed by the soundcard.                */
    if (snd_pcm_open(&pcm_handle, pcm_name, stream, 0) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "Error opening PCM device %s\n", pcm_name);
Before we can write PCM data to the soundcard, we have to specify access type, sample format, sample rate, number of channels, number of periods and period size. First, we initialize the hwparams structure with the full configuration space of the soundcard.
    /* Init hwparams with full configuration space */
    if (snd_pcm_hw_params_any(pcm_handle, hwparams) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "Can not configure this PCM device.\n");
Information about possible configurations can be obtained with a set of functions named
The availability of the most important parameters, namely access type, buffer size, number of channels, sample format, sample rate and number of periods, can be tested with a set of functions named
These query functions are especially important if the "hw" interface is used. The configuration space can be restricted to a certain configuration with a set of functions named
For this example, we assume that the soundcard can be configured for stereo playback of 16 Bit Little Endian data, sampled at 44100 Hz. Accordingly, we restrict the configuration space to match this configuration:
    int rate = 44100; /* Sample rate */
    int exact_rate;   /* Sample rate returned by */
                      /* snd_pcm_hw_params_set_rate_near */ 
    int dir;          /* exact_rate == rate --> dir = 0 */
                      /* exact_rate < rate  --> dir = -1 */
                      /* exact_rate > rate  --> dir = 1 */
    int periods = 2;       /* Number of periods */
    snd_pcm_uframes_t periodsize = 8192; /* Periodsize (bytes) */
The access type specifies the way in which multichannel data is stored in the buffer. For INTERLEAVED access, each frame in the buffer contains the consecutive sample data for the channels. For 16 Bit stereo data, this means that the buffer contains alternating words of sample data for the left and right channel. For NONINTERLEAVED access, each period contains first all sample data for the first channel followed by the sample data for the second channel and so on.
    /* Set access type. This can be either    */
    /* There are also access types for MMAPed */
    /* access, but this is beyond the scope   */
    /* of this introduction.                  */
    if (snd_pcm_hw_params_set_access(pcm_handle, hwparams, SND_PCM_ACCESS_RW_INTERLEAVED) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "Error setting access.\n");
    /* Set sample format */
    if (snd_pcm_hw_params_set_format(pcm_handle, hwparams, SND_PCM_FORMAT_S16_LE) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "Error setting format.\n");

    /* Set sample rate. If the exact rate is not supported */
    /* by the hardware, use nearest possible rate.         */ 
    exact_rate = rate;
    if (snd_pcm_hw_params_set_rate_near(pcm_handle, hwparams, &exact_rate, 0) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "Error setting rate.\n");
    if (rate != exact_rate) {
      fprintf(stderr, "The rate %d Hz is not supported by your hardware.\n 
                       ==> Using %d Hz instead.\n", rate, exact_rate);

    /* Set number of channels */
    if (snd_pcm_hw_params_set_channels(pcm_handle, hwparams, 2) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "Error setting channels.\n");

    /* Set number of periods. Periods used to be called fragments. */ 
    if (snd_pcm_hw_params_set_periods(pcm_handle, hwparams, periods, 0) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "Error setting periods.\n");
The unit of the buffersize depends on the function. Sometimes it is given in bytes, sometimes the number of frames has to be specified. One frame is the sample data vector for all channels. For 16 Bit stereo data, one frame has a length of four bytes.
    /* Set buffer size (in frames). The resulting latency is given by */
    /* latency = periodsize * periods / (rate * bytes_per_frame)     */
    if (snd_pcm_hw_params_set_buffer_size(pcm_handle, hwparams, (periodsize * periods)>>2) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "Error setting buffersize.\n");
If your hardware does not support a buffersize of 2^n, you can use the function snd_pcm_hw_params_set_buffer_size_near. This works similar to snd_pcm_hw_params_set_rate_near. Now we apply the configuration to the PCM device pointed to by pcm_handle. This will also prepare the PCM device.
    /* Apply HW parameter settings to */
    /* PCM device and prepare device  */
    if (snd_pcm_hw_params(pcm_handle, hwparams) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "Error setting HW params.\n");
After the PCM device is configured, we can start writing PCM data to it. The first write access will start the PCM playback. For interleaved write access, we use the function
    /* Write num_frames frames from buffer data to    */ 
    /* the PCM device pointed to by pcm_handle.       */
    /* Returns the number of frames actually written. */
    snd_pcm_sframes_t snd_pcm_writei(pcm_handle, data, num_frames);
For noninterleaved access, we would have to use the function
    /* Write num_frames frames from buffer data to    */ 
    /* the PCM device pointed to by pcm_handle.       */ 
    /* Returns the number of frames actually written. */
    snd_pcm_sframes_t snd_pcm_writen(pcm_handle, data, num_frames);
After the PCM playback is started, we have to make sure that our application sends enough data to the soundcard buffer. Otherwise, a buffer underrun will occur. After such an underrun has occured, snd_pcm_prepare should be called. A simple stereo saw wave could be generated this way:
    unsigned char *data;
    int pcmreturn, l1, l2;
    short s1, s2;
    int frames;

    data = (unsigned char *)malloc(periodsize);
    frames = periodsize >> 2;
    for(l1 = 0; l1 < 100; l1++) {
      for(l2 = 0; l2 < num_frames; l2++) {
        s1 = (l2 % 128) * 100 - 5000;  
        s2 = (l2 % 256) * 100 - 5000;  
        data[4*l2] = (unsigned char)s1;
        data[4*l2+1] = s1 >> 8;
        data[4*l2+2] = (unsigned char)s2;
        data[4*l2+3] = s2 >> 8;
      while ((pcmreturn = snd_pcm_writei(pcm_handle, data, frames)) < 0) {
        fprintf(stderr, "<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< Buffer Underrun >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>\n");
If we want to stop playback, we can either use snd_pcm_drop or snd_pcm_drain. The first function will immediately stop the playback and drop pending frames. The latter function will stop after pending frames have been played.
    /* Stop PCM device and drop pending frames */

    /* Stop PCM device after pending frames have been played */ 

3. PCM capture

It is not possible to use one pcm handle for both playback and capture. So you have to configure two handles if you want to access the PCM device in both directions. The snd_pcm_open function now has to be called with stream set to SND_PCM_STREAM_CAPTURE.
    /* Capture stream */
    snd_pcm_stream_t stream_capture = SND_PCM_STREAM_CAPTURE;
The other settings are identical to the playback settings. For interleaved capture, we call
    /* Read num_frames frames from the PCM device  */
    /* pointed to by pcm_handle to buffer capdata. */
    /* Returns the number of frames actually read. */
    snd_pcm_readi(pcm_capture_handle, capdata, num_frames);
For noninterleaved access, we would have to use the function
    /* Read num_frames frames from the PCM device  */         
    /* pointed to by pcm_handle to buffer capdata. */      
    /* Returns the number of frames actually read. */   
    snd_pcm_readn(pcm_capture_handle, capdata, num_frames);
As in the case of playback, we have to take care that the application calls the read function before the capture buffer of the soundcard is completely filled. Otherwise there will be a buffer overrun.
    int pcmreturn;

    while ((pcmreturn = snd_pcm_readi(pcm_capture_handle, capdata, periodsize>>2)) < 0) {
      fprintf(stderr, "<<<<<<<<<<<<<<< Buffer Overrun >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>\n");

4. Writing a sequencer client

The example seqdemo.c demonstrates how to create a simple client for the ALSA sequencer. This client can receive MIDI data from other clients and it displays NOTE ON/OFF, 7-bit CONTROLLER and PITCHBENDER events. Let's have a look at the functions of seqdemo.c:

a) snd_seq_t *open_seq()

This function uses snd_seq_open to create a new client for the ALSA sequencer. Since we only want to receive MIDI events, the parameter streams is set to SND_SEQ_OPEN_INPUT. The client is given a name using snd_seq_set_client_name. Now we need a port which can receive MIDI events. We create it by calling snd_seq_create_simple_port. Here, we have to specify the capabilities of the port. SND_SEQ_PORT_CAP_WRITE allows write access and SND_SEQ_PORT_CAP_SUBS_WRITE allows other clients to subscribe to the port as writeable port. Since our application reads from the port, we would have to add SND_SEQ_PORT_CAP_READ, but at the moment, this can be omitted since it is not checked.

b) void midi_action(snd_seq_t *seq_handle)

This function retrieves an event from the input buffer of the ALSA sequencer by calling snd_seq_event_input. The event is processed and then freed using snd_seq_free_event. The loop is repeated until the input buffer is empty. This is checked with snd_seq_input_pending, which returns the byte size of the events remaining in the input buffer.

c) int main(int argc, char *argv[])

seqdemo uses polling to check whether there are incoming MIDI events. snd_seq_poll_descriptors_count returns the number of poll descriptors for input polling events (parameter POLLIN). At present, this is always 1. Then a struct pollfd is allocated on the stack and initialized using snd_seq_poll_descriptors. The call to poll returns either if a MIDI event can be read from the ALSA sequencer or after timeout. You can check the manpage of poll if you are not familiar with polling.

5. A MIDI router

ALSA makes it very easy to implement any MIDI router you can think of. midiroute.c provides a simple example. It creates one input port and two ouput ports. The program takes the parameter split_point. Input note events with note < split_point are routed to the first output port, all other note events are routed to the second output port. Any other events (e.g. control or pitchbender events) are routed to both output ports simultaneously. Of course you can easily modify this in various ways by only changing the if conditions in the function midi_route. You can e.g. have different instrument played depending on the velocity. Let's see how it works:

a) int open_seq(snd_seq_t **seq_handle, int in_ports[], int out_ports[], int num_in, int num_out)

Here, we open the ALSA sequencer with SND_SEQ_OPEN_DUPLEX, since we would like to read and write MIDI events. Since we need the port IDs to distinguish between the different output ports, we have to store the return value of snd_seq_create_simple_port. In addition to a) in the previous section, we also create output ports. To let other clients read from them, we have to allow read access and read subscription. It is not necessary to explicitely allow write access as well, although the application itself writes to the output port. At present, a client can always access its ports without explicit permission.

b) void midi_route(snd_seq_t *seq_handle, int out_ports[], int pick_channel)

As in 4. b) snd_seq_event_input is used to read single events from the input buffer. Now we would like to route the event to one of the output ports. Since it is more flexible to allow arbitrary clients to subscribe to the output ports and receive the events, we do not explicitely specify the destination with snd_seq_ev_set_dest. Instead, we call snd_seq_ev_set_source to make the event originate from the desired output port. The function snd_seq_ev_set_subs will then set all subscribers to the output port as destination. We would like to output the event as quickly as possible. Therefore, we call snd_seq_ev_set_direct to bypass event queueing (this sets the queue for the event to SND_SEQ_QUEUE_DIRECT). Then we call snd_seq_event_output_direct for unbuffered output of the event.

By modifying the arguments of the if conditions, you can easily implement different routing behaviour.

Examples: if (ev-> < split_channel) channel splitting
if (ev->data.note.velocity < threshold) velocity dependence
if (ev->type == SND_SEQ_EVENT_CONTROLLER) extract controller events

c) int main(int argc, char *argv[])

Well, this is not essentially different from 4. c).

6. Combining PCM and MIDI: miniFMsynth

The tiny synthesizer miniFMsynth.c demonstrates MIDI event processing and PCM playback. It takes several parameters:

  miniFMsynth <device> <FM> <harmonic> <subharmonic> <transpose> <a> <d> <s> <r> 
<device> PCM device
<FM> Strength of the frequency modulation
<harmonic> Harmonic of the modulator (integer)
<subharmonic> Subharmonic of the modulator (integer)
<transpose> Common note offset for carrier and modulator (integer)
<a> <d> <s> <r> Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release

Some examples:

Harpsichord ./miniFMsynth hw:0 7.8 3 5 24 0.01 0.8 0.0 0.1
Bell ./miniFMsynth hw:0 3.5 7 9 0 0.01 0.2 0.3 1.5
Oboe ./miniFMsynth hw:0 0.7 1 3 24 0.05 0.3 0.8 0.2

miniFMsynth responds to pitchbender and modulation wheel events. Since it is not optimized with respect to performance (you would e.g. never call the expensive sin function in a "real" program), you might have to decrease the polyphony in the source by modifying the #define POLY.

Having read the previous sections, it should be easy to understand the MIDI part of the program. As to PCM playback, miniFMsynth uses polling for this purpose as well. This technique is more advanced than the direct output described in section 2. Let's have a look at some interesting details:

a) snd_pcm_t *open_pcm(char *pcm_name)

Most of the snd_pcm_hw_params functions called here are already known from section 2. However, here we do not specify the buffersize, but we set the periodsize instead. Since we would like to use polling for PCM output, we also have to set the software parameter avail_min. A poll on a PCM file descriptor will then only return if at least avail_min frames can be written to the device. We initialize a snd_pcm_sw_params_t with the current configuration calling snd_pcm_sw_params_current, then set avail_min with snd_pcm_sw_params_set_avail_min and activate this configuration by calling snd_pcm_sw_params.

b) double envelope(int *note_active, int gate, double *env_level, double t, double attack, double decay, double sustain, double release)

If gate==1, the note is still pressed ==> the envelope is in the attack, decay, sustain area. If gate==0, the envelope is in the release area. If t>release, the respective oscillator cell is freed by setting note_active to zero.

c) int midi_callback()

Most of this is already known from section 4. When a NOTEON event is received, a new oscillator cell is initialized by setting the respective note_active to 1. This only works if the polyphony is not exceeded, otherwise the note is omitted. If you don't like this, you can modify it and let e.g. the oscillator cell with the lowest env_level be freed and used for the new note. There is one important detail about note events: Some keyboards (e.g. Kawai MP 9000) do not send NOTEOFF events, but send a NOTEON with velocity 0 instead. In this case, you have to add the lines

    if ((ev->type == SND_SEQ_EVENT_NOTEON) && (ev->data.note.velocity == 0)) 
         ev->type = SND_SEQ_EVENT_NOTEOFF;
directly after snd_seq_event_input.

d) int playback_callback (snd_pcm_sframes_t nframes)

This processes the PCM data and sends it to the device by calling snd_pcm_writei. This call will immediately return since we only call playback_callback if we know that at least nframes can be written to the PCM device. miniFMsynth always writes chunks of fixed size, so nframes always equals BUFSIZE.

e) int main (int argc, char *argv[])

Here, we use polling both for MIDI event input and for PCM playback. The call to poll will return either if a MIDI event can be read from the sequencer input buffer or if at least avail_min (== BUFSIZE) frames can be written to the PCM device. If the PCM data is not delivered to the PCM device before the buffer of the soundcard is empty, a buffer underrun occurs. This will cause the playback to stop. In this case, the return value of snd_pcm_writei will be smaller than BUFSIZE. We then have to restart the playback by calling snd_pcm_prepare.

7. Scheduling MIDI events: miniArp

In section 5. we have used immediate output of MIDI events. However, MIDI events are usually scheduled on a queue which is driven by a hardware timer. The arpeggiator miniArp.c provides a simple example for MIDI scheduling. miniArp takes two parameters, the tempo (beats per minute) and the filename of the sequence to be looped. This sequence file has to be made up of one single line of single characters. Each note is characterized by 4 or 5 characters vwxyz, where

is the note ('c', 'd', 'e', 'f', 'g', 'a', 'h'),
is an optional sharp ('#'),
specifies the octave,
denotes the length of the note and
the interval between this note and the following note.
y and z are both given as a fraction of a quarter note: length = 1 / y quarters.

A valid sequence would be:


miniArp processes pitchbender and modulation wheel events. Just try it out. Any NOTEON event will transpose the sequence according to the difference of the pressed note and the middle C.

Now, what are the secrets of this program ? Many techniques are already known from other sections. The interesting functions are init_queue, set_tempo, arpeggio, clear_queue, and get_tick. A signal handler for SIGINT and SIGTERM is implemented to avoid persisting notes.

a) void init_queue()

This allocates a queue and sets its buffer size. The buffer size is passed to snd_seq_set_client_pool_output as the number of events. While gaining experience with queues it might be helpful to have a look at /proc/asound/seq/queues.

b) void set_tempo()

The schedule time of events can be given either in realtime or in ticks. If you would like to vary the tempo, it is convenient to specify the time in ticks. This will allow to even change the tempo of events which already have been scheduled on the queue. The tempo is passed to snd_seq_queue_tempo_set_tempo in microseconds per tick. The function snd_seq_queue_tempo_set_ppq sets the ticks per quarter. Usually, one would like to specify the tempo in beats per minute (bpm). Therefore set_tempo calculates the correct tempo and ppq parameters from bpm.

c) void arpeggio()

Here, all the notes of the sequence are scheduled on the queue. First, we have to clear the event structure. Then, we define a note event of fixed length by calling snd_seq_ev_set_note. This note event is scheduled by specifying its tick time with snd_seq_ev_schedule_tick. The source of the event is the output port of miniArp and we call snd_seq_set_subs to tell ALSA that we would like the event to be passed to all subscribers of this port. Finally, we use snd_seq_event_output_direct for unbuffered output of the event to the queue. Note events work as follows: At their scheduled time, they create a NOTEON event and then convert themselves to a NOTEOFF event which is scheduled at the current time plus note length. Since we would like the sequence to be looped, we schedule a SND_SEQ_EVENT_ECHO event after each sequence. This time, the destination is the application itself. When the SND_SEQ_EVENT_ECHO event is dispatched, it will cause the poll function in main() to return and midi_action is called. In midi_action, SND_SEQ_EVENT_ECHO will result in a call to arpeggio and the loop is complete.

d) void clear_queue()

When miniArp receives a NOTEON event, the sequence is transposed. clear_queue is called on each NOTEON event to trigger a new sequence. SND_SEQ_REMOVE_OUTPUT | SND_SEQ_REMOVE_IGNORE_OFF is passed to snd_seq_remove_events_set_condition to tell ALSA that only output events should be removed from the queue and NOTEOFF events should not be deleted. The latter condition ensures that all notes of the sequence receive a NOTEOFF event after their length has elapsed, even when a new sequence is triggered.

e) snd_seq_tick_time_t get_tick()

This functions retrieves the current tick value from a queue status structure.

8. Notes on writing a GUI based audio application

You probably would like to use PCM audio in a GUI based application. In this case it is recommended to use two threads, an audio thread and a GUI thread. Both threads can then communicate e.g. via shared memory. This also has the advantage that you can increase the priority of the audio thread seperately from the priority of the GUI thread. A sample audio thread could look like

  while(shared_data->do_audio) {
      process_buffer(buf, bufsize);
      while ((pcm_return = snd_pcm_writei(pcm_handle, buf, bufsize)) < 0) {
          fprintf(stderr, "xrun !\n");
It is not necessary to use polling in this case since snd_pcm_writei will block until bufsize frames can be written to the device.

9. Links

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