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PulseAudio and quirks

Seems like even my previous post about PulseAudio got one of the PA-bashers to think I’m a nuisance for their “cause”, whatever that is. For this reason I’d like to try to explain some of the quirks regarding PulseAudio, distributions, quirks and so on. Let’s call this a bit of a backstage analysis of what’s going on about Linux and audio, from somebody that has little vested interested in trying to roll the thing for PulseAudio.

The first problem to address relates to the comments that KDE people find PulseAudio a problem; I guess this has to be decomposed in a series of multiple problems: Lennart is a GTK/GNOME guy, so he obviously provided the original tools for GTK/GNOME. For a while I was interested in writing the equivalents for KDE (3) but I never had the time; now that I also moved to GNOME independently, I sincerely have no intention to write KDE tools for PA… but one has to wonder why nobody in KDE went out of his/her way to try doing this before. It’s not like it had to be part of KDE proper, it would have been okay to be an unofficial standalone application.

There is also another problem: most of the KDE guys who do see problems with PulseAudio are most likely using Phonon with xine-lib backend, configured to use the PulseAudio output plugin. Given I’m the one I wrote most of it originally, I can say that it sucks big time. Unfortunately I have had no time to work on that lately, I hope I might have that time in the future, but the two years I spent between hospitals seriously indebted me to the point I’m doing about 18 hours of work a day on average. For those who do want to use xine-lib with Pulse, I’d like to suggest the long route: set up the ALSA Pulse plugin, and then let xine just use ALSA.

There is of course another problem for KDE: while GNOME historically had no problem with force in dependencies that are Linux-specific or that work most of the time just on Linux (think about HAL adoption for instance), and relied on the actual vendors to do the eventual porting, KDE strives to work most of the time on multiple operating systems, including as of KDE 4 also Mac OS X and Windows. Now you might like this or not, but it’s their choice; and the problem is that while there is some kind of PulseAudio support for Windows, at least OSX is pretty badly shaped (also on my radar).

For what concerns distribution support, it is true that Lennart usually just care about Fedora; you have to accept this as part of the deal given RedHat is – as far as I know at least, Lennart feel free to correct me if I’m wrong – the one vendor paying his bills. Now of course we’d all love to support all the distributions at the same time, but the only way that’s possible is if multiple maintainers do coordinate; I’ve been doing my best to pass all the patches upstream when I’ve added them to Gentoo, and I see Colin Guthrie from Mandriva doing the same. One thing I can “blame” Lennart for (and I told this to him before, too!) is not creating a GIT branch with the cherry-picked patches he applies on the Fedora packaging for us to pick up… and the fact that he doesn’t like neither making releases or leaving access to others to do so.

To be honest, there is little different in this from what other projects do with distributions like Ubuntu when they are paid by Canonical. I think this is obvious, everybody looks at their little garden first. But this is not something that should concern us I guess. Gentoo has been quite out of the loop for what concerns PulseAudio, and I’m sorry, that was mostly my fault. I’m doing my best to let us update as soon as possible, but it’s not just that simple, as I already explained .

Then let me just say something about Lennart’s refusal to support system mode (which is available and advertised in Gentoo since PulseAudio entered the tree): I can’t blame him for that. First, his design for PulseAudio is based on providing something that works for the desktop use case. Something along the lines of Windows’s or OSX’s audio subsystems, neither of which provide anything akin to system mode. And indeed PulseAudio, by design, can handle the same situations, including multi-user setups with fast user switching. The fact that a system mode exists at all is due to the fact that I for one needed something like it on my setup, hacked it around for Gentoo, and then Lennart made my life easier implementing some extra bits on PulseAudio proper, but it was certainly not his idea.

What people complain about usually is the need for an X session (not strictly true, PulseAudio will start just fine in SSH — it would probably be possible to even fix it up so that it would tunnel audio just like you can tunnel X!), and the fact that audio does not continue to work when X exits (also not strictly true, if your audio player is running in screen it would be working just fine; it’s the fact that the media player crashes that makes your audio stop). Additionally people complain about the security problem of wanting to have all the processes to run under the same user, rather than allowing them to be on different users, like mpd.

Well, some complains are valid, other are not: it is true that PulseAudio does not work in multi-seat-multi-user environments, at least not with a single audio device, it is unfortunate and I don’t know if it’ll ever do work in that situation without a system mode. It is also true that running processes as different users for privileges separation does not work without system mode. But both these options are walking quite away from the the desktop design that PulseAudio is implementing; sure they are valid use cases, just like embedded systems (Palm Pre uses PulseAudio if you didn’t notice that before), but they are not what Lennart is interested in himself; at the same time I don’t think he’d be stopping anyone to improve the system mode support for those, as long as it wouldn’t require the desktop setup to make compromises.

Because the idea is, as usual in any software design, the one that you have to take compromises; Lennart wants the best experience for what concern desktop systems, and he compromises that system mode is not part of his plan, and it shouldn’t be hindering him. At the same time, while he does get upset when people ask for support about it, and he wrote why it’s not supported he hasn’t removed it (yet — if I was him, at this point I could have just removed it out of spite!). So colouring him as the master of evil does not seem the very best idea — and especially that makes me picture him in the part of Warren in the Trio, from Buffy’s season six.

Oh and a final note: it doesn’t have to surprise that Lennart and Fedora don’t care about running mpd and other services as different users, there are probably quite a few reasons for this. I cannot speak for Fedora, given I’m not involved in it, but my suppositions are that firstly the ALSA dmix plugin is somewhat scary from a security point of view (for me too) because it uses shared memory between processes from different users to do the mixing, and the second is that Fedora does a lot to use SElinux even on standard desktops. This is much tighter than separating privileges with different users since it forces the processes to behave as instructed. Unfortunately on Gentoo the SElinux support seems to have gone for good, at least to me.

Comments 5
  1. PulseAudio is not part of KDE proper. It is not installed by default. The default in KDE is for sound to be routed by Phonon directly to the sound card.I agree with you completely that Pulse Audio is not ready for KDE, and though it is offered as an option in KDE, I wouldn’t advise users to install it (at this time). It ruined my sound permanently every time I installed it, and there is no way back.

  2. Wasn’t this type of mess the reason KMS was created? Multiple drivers for the same hardware, multiple userspace apps fighting to use it at once…I wouldn’t be surprised if a few months from now there’s an effort started to give sound cards real memory management and stuff, and then ALSA can be relegated to an interchangeable API on top.

  3. I never EVER had ANY sound related problems until Ubuntu 9.04… And it’s so frustrating. The sound is choppy, every 4 seconds or so it is discontinued…KDE, Gnome, fluxbox, XFCE of whatever, it’s the same!

  4. I don’t find Pulse Audio ready for ANYTHING on Linux, Call me in a few years when the PA coordinators stop blaming every Pulse Audio breakage on ALSA and actually makes a sound server worth using.Pulse Audio sucks. It serves no real purpose and breaks sound. And the level by which one has to completely rework their configuration to get PA to work, or to remove PA and get ALSA to work shows that the overambitious-yet-completely-incompetent PA developers aren’t happy to have PA just be a simple ESD-style sound daemon.No, they have to have Pusle Audio attempt to do system-wide sound wrapping, whether the user wants it or not.I bet you anything every single PA developer wants ALSA to be replaced by their incredibly shitty sound platform in the Linux kernel.That happens and I guarantee every last machine that runs Linux will have broken sound, if not no sound at all.

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