A Note About Open Sound System (OSS)

A while ago I wrote about creating random numbers out of noise gathered from audio device and also created a password generator based on the idea. The implementation was based on Open Sound System (commonly known as OSS). OSS was the defacto way to access audio device couple of years ago, when it hit licensing issues and subsequently replaced by ALSA. As Ubuntu no longer supports OSS (and even the ALSA wrapper for it is in Universe), I’ve decided to re-write the code in some modern alternative.

This is the place to note by the time OSS was being replaced, it was behind ALSA in many advanced features (such as mixing and support for audio devices), but ALSA’s emulation layer for OSS solved most of them. But one may ask why use the emulation layer at all when one can ALSA directly? Because OSS is about as simple as it gets if you don’t need anything fancy.

Take a look at a simple OSS code that reads from the microphone

m_dsp_fd = fopen("/dev/dsp","rb");
if (!m_dsp_fd)
    goto error;
if (fread(&sample_buffer, sizeof(int16_t), 512, m_dsp_fd) != 512)
    goto error;

This is the gist of it. Just reading/writing “plain” files – the true Unix way. You want to change the default format just throw a bit of ioctls like

int format = AFMT_S16_NE;
if (ioctl(fileno(m_dsp_fd), SNDCTL_DSP_SETFMT, &format)==-1)
    goto error;
if (format != AFMT_S16_NE)
    goto error;
int speed = 44100; // cd speed, should be supported anywhere
if (ioctl(fileno(m_dsp_fd), SNDCTL_DSP_SPEED, &speed)==-1)
    goto error;

As you see OSS simple and it’s actually well documented.

I’m ported my password generator to PortAudio, and it just doesn’t feel intuitive like OSS (for example you need to explicitly start/stop the stream before/after reading from it), but at least it says it’s cross platform. PortAudio has it’s quircks too. As part of the library initialization it enumerates all the ALSA devices, and apperantly some of the devices aren’t supposed to work (or something along those lines), so it just dumps 8 lines of errors complaining about ALSA, which there isn’t a way to silence.

I’m planning to try and make another backend of my program, this time using ALSA directly, but from a couple of quick looks, it isn’t simple as OSS as well (and the documentation isn’t as good).

I think the common cause for this is that audio library writers try to offer many features and capabilities to suite advanced applications. But somewhere along those lines, they neglect offering a simple way to use them for the many developers and applications out there which don’t need any special feature.

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