Audio multi-channel routing and mixing using alsalib

ALSA logoRecently, one of our customers designing an embedded Linux system with specific audio needs had a use case where they had a sound card with more than one audio channel, and they needed to separate individual channels so that they can be used by different applications. This is a fairly common use case, we would like to share in this blog post how we achieved this, for both input and output audio channels.

The most common use case would be separating a 4 or 8-channel sound card in multiple stereo PCM devices. For this, alsa-lib, the userspace API interface to the ALSA drivers, provides PCM plugins. Those plugins are configured through configuration files that are usually known to be /etc/asound.conf or $(HOME)/.asoundrc. However, through the configuration of /usr/share/alsa/alsa.conf, it is also possible, and in fact recommended to use a card-specific configuration, named /usr/share/alsa/cards/<card_name>.conf.

The syntax of this configuration is documented in the alsa-lib configuration documentation, and the most interesting part of the documentation for our purpose is the pcm plugin documentation.

Audio inputs

For example, let’s say we have a 4-channel input sound card, which we want to split in 2 mono inputs and one stereo input, as follows:

Audio input example

In the ALSA configuration file, we start by defining the input pcm:

pcm_slave.ins {
	pcm "hw:0,1"
	rate 44100
	channels 4
}

pcm "hw:0,1" refers to the the second subdevice of the first sound card present in the system. In our case, this is the capture device. rate and channels specify the parameters of the stream we want to set up for the device. It is not strictly necessary but this allows to enable automatic sample rate or size conversion if this is desired.

Then we can split the inputs:

pcm.mic0 {
	type dsnoop
	ipc_key 12342
	slave ins
	bindings.0 0
}

pcm.mic1 {
	type plug
	slave.pcm {
		type dsnoop
		ipc_key 12342
		slave ins
		bindings.0 1
	}
}

pcm.mic2 {
	type dsnoop
	ipc_key 12342
	slave ins
	bindings.0 2
	bindings.1 3
}

mic0 is of type dsnoop, this is the plugin splitting capture PCMs. The ipc_key is an integer that has to be unique: it is used internally to share buffers. slave indicates the underlying PCM that will be split, it refers to the PCM device we have defined before, with the name ins. Finally, bindings is an array mapping the PCM channels to its slave channels. This is why mic0 and mic1, which are mono inputs, both only use bindings.0, while mic2 being stereo has both bindings.0 and bindings.1. Overall, mic0 will have channel 0 of our input PCM, mic1 will have channel 1 of our input PCM, and mic2 will have channels 2 and 3 of our input PCM.

The final interesting thing in this example is the difference between mic0 and mic1. While mic0 and mic2 will not do any conversion on their stream and pass it as is to the slave pcm, mic1 is using the automatic conversion plugin, plug. So whatever type of stream will be requested by the application, what is provided by the sound card will be converted to the correct format and rate. This conversion is done in software and so runs on the CPU, which is usually something that should be avoided on an embedded system.

Also, note that the channel splitting happens at the dsnoop level. Doing it at an upper level would mean that the 4 channels would be copied before being split. For example the following configuration would be a mistake:

pcm.dsnoop {
    type dsnoop
    ipc_key 512
    slave {
        pcm "hw:0,0"
        rate 44100
    }
}

pcm.mic0 {
    type plug
    slave dsnoop
    ttable.0.0 1
}

pcm.mic1 {
    type plug
    slave dsnoop
    ttable.0.1 1
}

Audio outputs

For this example, let’s say we have a 6-channel output that we want to split in 2 mono outputs and 2 stereo outputs:

Audio output example

As before, let’s define the slave PCM for convenience:

pcm_slave.outs {
	pcm "hw:0,0"
	rate 44800
	channels 6
}

Now, for the split:

pcm.out0 {
	type dshare
	ipc_key 4242
	slave outs
	bindings.0 0
}

pcm.out1 {
	type plug {
	slave.pcm {
		type dshare
		ipc_key 4242
		slave outs
		bindings.0 1
	}
}

pcm.out2 {
	type dshare
	ipc_key 4242
	slave outs
	bindings.0 2
	bindings.0 3
}

pcm.out3 {
	type dmix
	ipc_key 4242
	slave outs
	bindings.0 4
	bindings.0 5
}

out0 is of type dshare. While usually dmix is presented as the reverse of dsnoop, dshare is more efficient as it simply gives exclusive access to channels instead of potentially software mixing multiple streams into one. Again, the difference can be significant in terms of CPU utilization in the embedded space. Then, nothing new compared to the audio input example before:

  • out1 is allowing sample format and rate conversion
  • out2 is stereo
  • out3 is stereo and allows multiple concurrent users that will be mixed together as it is of type dmix

A common mistake here would be to use the route plugin on top of dmix to split the streams: this would first transform the mono or stereo stream in 6-channel streams and then mix them all together. All these operations would be costly in CPU utilization while dshare is basically free.

Duplicating streams

Another common use case is trying to copy the same PCM stream to multiple outputs. For example, we have a mono stream, which we want to duplicate into a stereo stream, and then feed this stereo stream to specific channels of a hardware device. This can be achieved using the following configuration snippet:

pcm.out4 {
	type route;
	slave.pcm {
	type dshare
		ipc_key 4242
		slave outs
		bindings.0 0
		bindings.1 5
	}
	ttable.0.0 1;
	ttable.0.1 1;
}

The route plugin allows to duplicate the mono stream into a stereo stream, using the ttable property. Then, the dshare plugin is used to get the first channel of this stereo stream and send it to the hardware first channel (bindings.0 0), while sending the second channel of the stereo stream to the hardware sixth channel (bindings.1 5).

Conclusion

When properly used, the dsnoop, dshare and dmix plugins can be very efficient. In our case, simply rewriting the alsalib configuration on an i.MX6 based system with a 16-channel sound card dropped the CPU utilization from 97% to 1-3%, leaving plenty of CPU time to run further audio processing and other applications.

Bootlin toolchains updated, edition 2020.02

Bootlin provides a large number of ready-to-use pre-built cross-compilation toolchains at toolchains.bootlin.com. We announced the service in June 2017, and released multiple versions of the toolchains up to 2018.11.

After a long pause, we are happy to announce that we have released a new set of toolchains, built using Buildroot 2020.02, and therefore labelled as 2020.02, even though they have been published in April. They are available for 38 CPU architectures or architecture variants, supporting the glibc, uclibc-ng and musl C libraries when possible.

For each toolchain, we offer two variants: one called stable which uses “proven” versions of gcc, binutils and gdb, and one called bleeding edge which uses the latest version of gcc, binutils and gdb.

Overall, these 2020.02 toolchains use:

  • gcc 8.4.0 for stable, 9.3.0 for bleeding edge
  • binutils 2.32 for stable, 2.33.1 for bleeding edge
  • gdb 8.2.1 for stable, 8.3 for bleeding edge
  • linux headers 4.4.215 for stable, 4.19.107 for bleeding edge
  • glibc 2.30
  • uclibc-ng 1.0.32
  • musl 1.1.24

2020.02 toolchains

In total, that’s 154 different toolchains that we are providing! If you are using these toolchains and face any issue, or want to request some additional change of feature, do not hesitate to contact us through the corresponding Github project. Also, I’d like to thank Romain Naour, from Smile for his contributions to this project.

SFP modules on a board running Linux

We recently worked on Linux support for a custom hardware platform based on the Texas Instruments AM335x system-on-chip, with a somewhat special networking setup: each of the two ports of the AM335x Ethernet MAC was connected to a Microchip VSC8572 Ethernet PHY, which itself allowed to access an SFP cage. In addition, the I2C buses connected to the SFP cages, which are used at runtime to communicate with the inserted SFP modules, instead of being connected to an I2C controller of the system-on-chip as they usually are, where connected to the I2C controller embedded in the VSC8572 PHYs.

The below diagram depicts the overall hardware layout:

Our goal was to use Linux and to offer runtime dynamic reconfiguration of the networking links based the SFP module plugged in. To achieve this we used, and extended, a combination of Linux kernel internal frameworks such as Phylink or the SFP bus support; and of networking device drivers. In this blog post, we’ll share some background information about these technologies, the challenges we faced and our current status.

Introduction to the SFP interface

SFP moduleThe small form-factor pluggable (SFP) is a hot-pluggable network interface module. Its electrical interface and its form-factor are well specified, which allows industry players to build platforms that can host SFP modules, and be sure that they will be able to use any available SFP module on the market. It is commonly used in the networking industry as it allows connecting various types of transceivers to a fixed interface.

A SFP cage provides in addition to data signals a number of control signals:

  • a Tx_Fault pin, for transmitter fault indication
  • a Tx_Disable pin, for disabling optical output
  • a MOD_Abs pin, to detect the absence of a module
  • an Rx_LOS pin, to denote a receiver loss of signal
  • a 2-wire data and clock lines, used to communicate with the modules

Modules plugged into SFP cages can be direct attached cables, in which case they do not have any built-in transceiver, or they can include a transceiver (i.e an embedded PHY), which transforms the signal into another format. This means that in our setup, there can be two PHYs between the Ethernet MAC and the physical medium: the Microchip VSC8572 PHY and the PHY embedded into the SFP module that is plugged in.

All SFP modules embed an EEPROM, accessible at a standardized I2C address and with a standardized format, which allows the host system to discover which SFP modules are connected what are their capabilities. In addition, if the SFP modules contains an embedded PHY, it is also accessible through the same I2C bus.

Challenges

We had to overcome a few challenges to get this setup working, using a mainline Linux kernel.

As we discussed earlier, having SFP modules meant the whole MAC-PHY-SFP link has to be reconfigured at runtime, as the PHY in the SFP module is hot-pluggable. To solve this issue a framework called Phylink, was introduced in mid-2017 to represent networking links and allowing their component to share states and to be reconfigured at runtime. For us, this meant we had to first convert the CPSW MAC driver to use this phylink framework. For a detailed explanation of what composes Ethernet links and why Phylink is needed, we gave a talk at the Embedded Linux Conference Europe in 2018. While we were working on this and after we first moved the CPSW MAC driver to use Phylink, this driver was rewritten and a new CPSW MAC driver was sent upstream (CONFIG_TI_CPSW vs CONFIG_TI_CPSW_SWITCHDEV). We are still using the old driver for now, and this is why we did not send our patches upstream as we think it does not make sense to convert a driver which is now deprecated.

A second challenge was to integrate the 2-wire capability of the VSC8572 PHY into the networking PHY and SFP common code, as our SFP modules I2C bus is connected to the PHY and not an I2C controller from the system-on-chip. We decided to expose this PHY 2-wire capability as an SMBus controller, as the functionality offered by the PHY does not make it a fully I2C compliant controller.

Outcome

The challenges described above made the project quite complex overall, but we were able to get SFP modules working, and to dynamically switch modes depending on the capabilities of the one currently plugged-in. We tested with both direct attached cables and a wide variety of SFP modules of different speeds and functionality. At the moment only a few patches were sent upstream, but we’ll contribute more over time.

For an overview of some of the patches we made and used, we pushed a branch on Github (be aware those patches aren’t upstream yet and they will need some further work to be acceptable upstream). Here is the details of the patches:

In terms of Device Tree representation, we first have a description of the two SFP cages. They describe the different GPIOs used for the control signals, as well as the I2C bus that goes to each SFP cage. Note that the gpio_sfp is a GPIO expander, itself on I2C, rather than directly GPIOs of the system-on-chip.

/ {
       sfp_eth0: sfp-eth0 {
               compatible = "sff,sfp";
               i2c-bus = <&phy0>;
               los-gpios = <&gpio_sfp 3 GPIO_ACTIVE_HIGH>;
               mod-def0-gpios = <&gpio_sfp 4 GPIO_ACTIVE_LOW>;
               tx-disable-gpios = <&gpio_sfp 5 GPIO_ACTIVE_HIGH>;
               tx-fault-gpios = <&gpio_sfp 6 GPIO_ACTIVE_HIGH>;
       };

       sfp_eth1: sfp-eth1 {
               compatible = "sff,sfp";
               i2c-bus = <&phy1>;
               los-gpios = <&gpio_sfp 10 GPIO_ACTIVE_HIGH>;
               mod-def0-gpios = <&gpio_sfp 11 GPIO_ACTIVE_LOW>;
               tx-disable-gpios = <&gpio_sfp 13 GPIO_ACTIVE_HIGH>;
               tx-fault-gpios  = <&gpio_sfp 12 GPIO_ACTIVE_HIGH>;
       };
};

Then the MAC is described as follows:

&mac {
      pinctrl-names = "default";
       pinctrl-0 = <&cpsw_default>;
       status = "okay";
       dual_emac;
};

&cpsw_emac0 {
       status = "okay";
       phy = <&phy0>;
       phy-mode = "rgmii-id";
       dual_emac_res_vlan = <1>;
};

&cpsw_emac1 {
       status = "okay";
       phy = <&phy1>;
       phy-mode = "rgmii-id";
       dual_emac_res_vlan = <2>;
};

So we have both ports of the MAC enabled with a RGMII interface to the PHY. And finally the MDIO bus of the system-on-chip is described as follows. We have two sub-nodes, one for each VSC8572 PHY, respectively at address 0x0 and 0x1 on the CPSW MDIO bus. Each PHY is connected to its respective SFP cage node (sfp_eth0 and sfp_eth1) and provides access to the SFP EEPROM as regular EEPROMs.

&davinci_mdio {
       pinctrl-names = "default";
       pinctrl-0 = <&davinci_mdio_default>;
       status = "okay";

       phy0: ethernet-phy@0 {
               #address-cells = <1>;
               #size-cells = <0>;

               reg = <0>;
               fiber-mode;
               vsc8584,los-active-low;
               sfp = <&sfp_eth0>;

               sfp0_eeprom: eeprom@50 {
                       compatible = "atmel,24c02";
                       reg = <0x50>;
                       read-only;
               };

               sfp0_eeprom_ext: eeprom@51 {
                       compatible = "atmel,24c02";
                       reg = <0x51>;
                       read-only;
               };
       };

       phy1: ethernet-phy@1 {
               #address-cells = <1>;
               #size-cells = <0>;

               reg = <1>;
               fiber-mode;
               vsc8584,los-active-low;
               sfp = <&sfp_eth1>;

               sfp1_eeprom: eeprom@50 {
                       compatible = "atmel,24c02";
                       reg = <0x50>;
                       read-only;
               };

               sfp1_eeprom_ext: eeprom@51 {
                       compatible = "atmel,24c02";
                       reg = <0x51>;
                       read-only;
               };
       };
};

Conclusion

While we are still working on pushing all of this work upstream, we’re happy to have been able to work on these topics. Do not hesitate to reach out of to us if you have projects that involve Linux and SFP modules!

Linux 5.6, Bootlin contributions inside

Linux 5.6 was released last Sunday. As usual, LWN has the best coverage of the new features merged in this release: part 1 and part 2. Sadly, the corresponding KernelNewbies page has not yet been updated with the usual very interesting summary of the important changes.

Bootlin contributed a total of 95 patches to this release, which makes us the 27th contributing company by number of commits, according to the statistics. The main highlights of our contributions are:

  • Our work on supporting hardware-offloading of MACsec encryption/decryption in the networking subsystem and support for this offloading for some Microchip/Vitesse PHYs has been merged. See our previous blog post for more details about this work done by Bootlin engineer Antoine Ténart
  • As part of our work on the Rockchip PX30 system-on-chip, we contributed support for LVDS display on Rockchip PX30, and support for the Satoz SAT050AT40H12R2 panel. This work was done by Miquèl Raynal
  • Alexandre Belloni as the RTC maintainer did his usual number of cleanup and improvements to existing RTC drivers
  • We did a number of small contributions to the Microchip AT91/SAMA5 platform: support for the Smartkiz platform from Overkiz, phylink improvements in the macb driver, etc.
  • Paul Kocialkowski improved the Intel GMA 500 DRM driver to support page flip.
  • Paul Kocialkowski contributed support for the Xylon LogiCVC GPIO controller, which is a preliminary step to contributing the Xylon LogiCVC display controller support. See our blog post on this topic.

In addition to being contributors, a number of Bootlin engineers are also maintainers of various parts of the Linux kernel, and as such:

  • Alexandre Belloni, as the RTC subsystem maintainer and Microchip platforms co-maintainer, has reviewed and merged 55 patches from other contributors
  • Miquèl Raynal, as the MTD co-maintainer, has reviewed and merged 21 patches from other contributors
  • Grégory Clement, as the Marvell EBU platform co-maintainer, has reviewed and merged 12 patches from other contributors

Here is the detail of all our contributions:

Covid-19: Bootlin proposes online sessions for all its courses

Tux working on embedded Linux on a couchLike most of us, due to the Covid-19 epidemic, you may be forced to work from home. To take advantage from this time confined at home, we are now proposing all our training courses as online seminars. You can then benefit from the contents and quality of Bootlin training sessions, without leaving the comfort and safety of your home. During our online seminars, our instructors will alternate between presentations and practical demonstrations, executing the instructions of our practical labs.

At any time, participants will be able to ask questions.

We can propose such remote training both through public online sessions, open to individual registration, as well as dedicated online sessions, for participants from the same company.

Public online sessions

We’re trying to propose time slots that should be manageable from Europe, Middle East, Africa and at least for the East Coast of North America. All such sessions will be taught in English. As usual with all our sessions, all our training materials (lectures and lab instructions) are freely available from the pages describing our courses.

Our Embedded Linux and Linux kernel courses are delivered over 7 half days of 4 hours each, while our Yocto Project, Buildroot and Linux Graphics courses are delivered over 4 half days. For our embedded Linux and Yocto Project courses, we propose an additional date in case some extra time is needed to complete the agenda.

Here are all the available sessions. If the situation lasts longer, we will create new sessions as needed:

Type Dates Time Duration Expected trainer Cost and registration
Linux Graphics (agenda) Sep. 22, 23, 24 and 25, 2020 14:00 – 18:00 (Paris time) 16 h Paul Kocialkowski 519 EUR + VAT* (register)
Yocto Project (agenda) Sep. 28, 29, 30, Oct. 1, 2, 2020 14:00 – 18:00 (Paris time) 16 h Maxime Chevallier 519 EUR + VAT* (register)
Embedded Linux (agenda) Sep. 28, 29, 30, Oct. 1, 2, 5, 6 2020. 17:00 – 21:00 (Paris), 8:00 – 12:00 (San Francisco) 28 h Michael Opdenacker 829 EUR + VAT* (register)
Buildroot (agenda) Oct. 1, 2, 5, 6, and 8, 2020 14:00 – 18:00 (Paris time) 16 h Thomas Petazzoni 519 EUR + VAT* (register)
Embedded Linux (agenda) Nov. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 12, 2020. 14:00 – 18:00 (Paris), 8:00 – 12:00 (New York) 28 h Michael Opdenacker 829 EUR + VAT* (register)
Linux kernel (agenda) Nov. 16, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25, 26 14:00 – 18:00 (Paris time) 28 h Alexandre Belloni 829 EUR + VAT* (register)

* VAT: applies to businesses in France and to individuals from all countries. Businesses in the European Union won’t be charged VAT only if they provide valid company information and VAT number to Evenbrite at registration time. For businesses in other countries, we should be able to grant them a VAT refund, provided they send us a proof of company incorporation before the end of the session.

Each public session will be confirmed once there are at least 6 participants. If the minimum number of participants is not reached, Bootlin will propose new dates or a full refund (including Eventbrite fees) if no new date works for the participant.

We guarantee that the maximum number of participants will be 12.

Dedicated online sessions

If you have enough people to train, such dedicated sessions can be a worthy alternative to public ones:

  • Flexible dates and daily durations, corresponding to the availability of your teams.
  • Confidentiality: freedom to ask questions that are related to your company’s projects and plans.
  • If time left, possibility to have knowledge sharing time with the instructor, that could go beyond the scope of the training course.
  • Language: possibility to have a session in French instead of in English.

Online seminar details

Each session will be given through Jitsi Meet, a Free Software solution that we are trying to promote. As a backup solution, we will also be able to Google Hangouts Meet. Each participant should have her or his own connection and computer (with webcam and microphone) and if possible headsets, to avoid echo issues between audio input and output. This is probably the best solution to allow each participant to ask questions and write comments in the chat window. We also support people connecting from the same conference room with suitable equipment.

Each participant is asked to connect 15 minutes before the session starts, to make sure her or his setup works (instructions will be sent before the event).

How to register

For online public sessions, use the EventBrite links in the above list of sessions to register one or several individuals.

To register an entire group (for dedicated sessions), please contact training@bootlin.com and tell us the type of session you are interested in. We will then send you a registration form to collect all the details we need to send you a quote.

You can also ask all your questions by calling +33 484 258 097.

Questions and answers

Q : Should I order hardware in advance, our hardware included in the training cost?
R : No, practical labs are replaced by technical demonstrations, so you will be able to follow the course without any hardware. However, you can still order the hardware by checking the “Shopping list” pages of presentation materials for each session. This way, between each session, you will be able to replay by yourself the labs demonstrated by your trainer, ask all your questions, and get help between sessions through our dedicated Matrix channel to reach your goals.

Q: Why just demos instead of practicing with real hardware?
A: We are not ready to support a sufficient number of participants doing practical labs remotely with real hardware. This is more complicated and time consuming than in real life. Hence, what we we’re proposing is to replace practical labs with practical demonstrations shown by the instructor. The instructor will go through the normal practical labs with the standard hardware that we’re using.

Q: Would it be possible to run practical labs on the QEMU emulator?
R: Yes, it’s coming. In the embedded Linux course, we are already offering instructions to run most practical labs on QEMU between the sessions, before the practical demos performed by the trainer. We should also be able to propose such instructions for our Yocto Project and Buildroot training courses in the next months. Such work is likely to take more time for our Linux kernel course, practical labs being closer to the hardware that we use.

Q: Why proposing half days instead of full days?
A: From our experience, it’s very difficult to stay focused on a new technical topic for an entire day without having periodic moments when you are active (which happens in our public and on-site sessions, in which we interleave lectures and practical labs). Hence, we believe that daily slots of 4 hours (with a small break in the middle) is a good solution, also leaving extra time for following up your normal work.