Configuring ALSA controls from an application

ALSA logoA common task when handling audio on Linux is the need to modify the configuration of the sound card, for example, adjusting the output volume or selecting the capture channels. On an embedded system, it can be enough to simply set the controls once using alsamixer or amixer and then save the configuration with alsactl store. This saves the driver state to the configuration file which, by default, is /var/lib/alsa/asound.state. Once done, this file can be included in the build system and shipped with the root filesystem. Usual distributions already include a script that will invoke alsactl at boot time to restore the settings. If it is not the case, then it is simply a matter of calling alsactl restore.

However, defining a static configuration may not be enough. For example, some codecs have advanced routing features allowing to route the audio channels to different outputs and the application may want to decide at runtime where the audio is going.

Instead of invoking amixer using system(3), even if it is not straightforward, it is possible to directly use the alsa-lib API to set controls.

Let’s start with some required includes:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <alsa/asoundlib.h>

alsa/asoundlib.h is the header that is of interest here as it is where the ALSA API lies. Then we define an id lookup function, which is actually the tricky part. Each control has a unique identifier and to be able to manipulate controls, it is necessary to find this unique identifier. In our sample application, we will be using the control name to do the lookup.

int lookup_id(snd_ctl_elem_id_t *id, snd_ctl_t *handle)
{
	int err;
	snd_ctl_elem_info_t *info;
	snd_ctl_elem_info_alloca(&info);

	snd_ctl_elem_info_set_id(info, id);
	if ((err = snd_ctl_elem_info(handle, info)) < 0) {
		fprintf(stderr, "Cannot find the given element from card\n");
		return err;
	}
	snd_ctl_elem_info_get_id(info, id);

	return 0;
}

This function allocates a snd_ctl_elem_info_t, sets its current id to the one passed as the first argument. At this point, the id only includes the control interface type and its name but not its unique id. The snd_ctl_elem_info() function looks up for the element on the sound card whose handle has been passed as the second argument. Then snd_ctl_elem_info_get_id() updates the id with the now completely filled id.

Then the controls can be modified as follows:

int main(int argc, char *argv[])
{
	int err;
	snd_ctl_t *handle;
	snd_ctl_elem_id_t *id;
	snd_ctl_elem_value_t *value;
	snd_ctl_elem_id_alloca(&id);
	snd_ctl_elem_value_alloca(&value);

This declares and allocates the necessary variables. Allocations are done using alloca so it is not necessary to free them as long as the function exits at some point.

	if ((err = snd_ctl_open(&handle, "hw:0", 0)) < 0) {
		fprintf(stderr, "Card open error: %s\n", snd_strerror(err));
		return err;
	}

Get a handle on the sound card, in this case, hw:0 which is the first sound card in the system.

	snd_ctl_elem_id_set_interface(id, SND_CTL_ELEM_IFACE_MIXER);
	snd_ctl_elem_id_set_name(id, "Headphone Playback Volume");
	if (err = lookup_id(id, handle))
		return err;

This sets the interface type and name of the control we want to modify and then call the lookup function.

	snd_ctl_elem_value_set_id(value, id);
	snd_ctl_elem_value_set_integer(value, 0, 55);
	snd_ctl_elem_value_set_integer(value, 1, 77);

	if ((err = snd_ctl_elem_write(handle, value)) < 0) {
		fprintf(stderr, "Control element write error: %s\n",
			snd_strerror(err));
		return err;
	}

Now, this changes the value of the control. snd_ctl_elem_value_set_id() sets the id of the control to be changed then snd_ctl_elem_value_set_integer() sets the actual value. There are multiple calls because this control has multiple members (in this case, left and right channels). Finally, snd_ctl_elem_write() commits the value.

Note that snd_ctl_elem_value_set_integer() is called directly because we know this control is an integer but it is actually possible to query what kind of value should be used using snd_ctl_elem_info_get_type() on the snd_ctl_elem_info_t. The scale of the integer is also device specific and can be retrieved with the snd_ctl_elem_info_get_min(), snd_ctl_elem_info_get_max() and snd_ctl_elem_info_get_step() helpers.

	snd_ctl_elem_id_clear(id);
	snd_ctl_elem_id_set_interface(id, SND_CTL_ELEM_IFACE_MIXER);
	snd_ctl_elem_id_set_name(id, "Headphone Playback Switch");
	if (err = lookup_id(id, handle))
		return err;

	snd_ctl_elem_value_clear(value);
	snd_ctl_elem_value_set_id(value, id);
	snd_ctl_elem_value_set_boolean(value, 1, 1);

	if ((err = snd_ctl_elem_write(handle, value)) < 0) {
		fprintf(stderr, "Control element write error: %s\n",
			snd_strerror(err));
		return err;
	}

This unmutes the right channel of Headphone playback, this time it is a boolean. The other common kind of element is SND_CTL_ELEM_TYPE_ENUMERATED for enumerated contents. This is used for channel muxing or selecting de-emphasis values for example. snd_ctl_elem_value_set_enumerated() has to be used to set the selected item.

	return 0;
}

This concludes this simple example and should be enough to get you started writing smarter applications that don't rely on external program to configure the sound card controls.

Author: Alexandre Belloni

Alexandre is a kernel and embedded Linux engineer at Bootlin, which he joined in 2013. His experience with embedded systems started much earlier! More details...

2 thoughts on “Configuring ALSA controls from an application”

Leave a Reply