Post Syndicated from Lennart Poettering original http://0pointer.net/blog/projects/jeffrey-stedfast.html
Jeffrey Stedfast seems to have made it his new hobby
In a series of very negative blog postings he flamed my software and hence me
in best NotZed-like fashion. Particularly interesting in this case is the
fact that he apologized to me privately on IRC for this behaviour shortly
after his first posting when he was critizised on #gnome-hackers —
only to continue flaming and bashing in more blog posts shortly after. Flaming
is very much part of the Free Software community I guess. A lot of people do
it from time to time (including me). But maybe there are better places for
this than Planet Gnome. And maybe doing it for days is not particularly nice.
And maybe flaming sucks in the first place anyway.
Regardless what I think about Jeffrey and his behaviour on Planet Gnome,
let’s have a look on his trophies, the five “bugs” he posted:
Not directly related to PulseAudio itself. Also, finding errors in code that is related to esd is not exactly the most difficult thing in the world.
The same theme.
Fixed 3 months ago. It is certainly not my fault that this isn’t available in Jeffrey’s distro.
A real, valid bug report. Fixed in git a while back, but not available in any released version. May only be triggered under heavy load or with a bad high-latency scheduler.
A valid bug, but not really in PulseAudio. Mostly caused because the ALSA API and PA API don’t really match 100%.
OK, Jeffrey found a real bug, but I wouldn’t say this is really enough to make all the fuss about. Or is it?
Jeffrey wrote something about ‘solution looking for a problem’ when
speaking of PulseAudio. While that was certainly not a nice thing to say it
however tells me one thing: I apparently didn’t manage to communicate well
enough why I am doing PulseAudio in the first place. So, why am I doing it then?
There’s so much more a good audio system needs to provide than just the
most basic mixing functionality. Per-application volumes, moving streams
between devices during playback, positional event sounds (i.e. click on the
left side of the screen, have the sound event come out through the left
speakers), secure session-switching support, monitoring of sound playback
levels, rescuing playback streams to other audio devices on hot unplug,
automatic hotplug configuration, automatic up/downmixing stereo/surround,
high-quality resampling, network transparency, sound effects, simultaneous
output to multiple sound devices are all features PA provides right now, and
what you don’t get without it. It also provides the infrastructure for
upcoming features like volume-follows-focus, automatic attenuation of music on
signal on VoIP stream, UPnP media renderer support, Apple RAOP support,
mixing/volume adjustments with dynamic range compression, adaptive volume of
event sounds based on the volume of music streams, jack sensing, switching
between stereo/surround/spdif during runtime, …
And even for the most basic mixing functionality plain ALSA/dmix is not
really everlasting happiness. Due to the way it works all clients are forced
to use the same buffering metrics all the time, that means all clients are
limited in their wakeup/latency settings. You will burn more CPU than
necessary this way, keep the risk of drop-outs unnecessarily high and still
not be able to make clients with low-latency requirements happy. ‘Glitch-Free’
PulseAudio fixes all this. Quite frankly I believe that ‘glitch-free’
PulseAudio is the single most important killer feature that should be enough
to convince everyone why PulseAudio is the right thing to do. Maybe people
actually don’t know that they want this. But they absolutely do, especially
the embedded people — if used properly it is a must for power-saving during
audio playback. It’s a pity that how awesome this feature is you cannot
directly see from the user interface.
PulseAudio provides compatibility with a lot of sound systems/APIs that bare ALSA
or bare OSS don’t provide.
And last but not least, I love breaking Jeffrey’s audio. It’s just soo much fun, you really have to try it! 😉
If you want to know more about why I think that PulseAudio is an important part of the modern Linux desktop audio stack, please read my slides from FOSS.in 2007.
Many people (like Jeffrey) wonder why have software mixing at all if you
have hardware mixing? The thing is, hardware mixing is a thing of the past,
modern soundcards don’t do it anymore. Precisely for doing things like mixing
in software SIMD CPU extensions like SSE have been invented. Modern sound
cards these days are kind of “dumbed” down, high-quality DACs. They don’t do
mixing anymore, many modern chips don’t even do volume control anymore.
Remember the days where having a Wavetable chip was a killer feature of a
sound card? Those days are gone, today wavetable synthesizing is done almost
exlcusively in software — and that’s exactly what happened to hardware mixing
too. And it is good that way. In software mixing is is much easier to do
fancier stuff like DRC which will increase quality of mixing. And modern CPUs provide
all the necessary SIMD command sets to implement this efficiently.
Other people believe that JACK would be a better solution for the problem.
This is nonsense. JACK has been designed for a very different purpose. It is
optimized for low latency inter-application communication. It requires
floating point samples, it knows nothing about channel mappings, it depends on
every client to behave correctly. And so on, and so on. It is a sound server
for audio production. For desktop applications it is however not well suited.
For a desktop saving power is very important, one application misbehaving
shouldn’t have an effect on other application’s playback; converting from/to
FP all the time is not going to help battery life either. Please understand
that for the purpose of pro audio you can make completely different
compromises than you can do on the desktop. For example, while having
‘glitch-free’ is great for embedded and desktop use, it makes no sense at all
for pro audio, and would only have a drawback on performance. So, please stop
bringing up JACK again and again. It’s just not the right tool for desktop
audio, and this opinion is shared by the JACK developers themselves.
Jeffrey thinks that audio mixing is nothing for userspace. Which is
basically what OSS4 tries to do: mixing in kernel space. However, the future
of PCM audio is floating points. Mixing them in kernel space is problematic because (at least on Linux) FP in kernel space is a no-no.
Also, the kernel people made clear more than once that maths/decoding/encoding like this
should happen in userspace. Quite honestly, doing the mixing in kernel space
is probably one of the primary reasons why I think that OSS4 is a bad idea.
The fancier your mixing gets (i.e. including resampling, upmixing, downmixing,
DRC, …) the more difficulties you will have to move such a complex,
time-intensive code into the kernel.
Not everytime your audio breaks it is alone PulseAudio’s fault. For
example, the original flame of Jeffrey’s was about the low volume that he
experienced when running PA. This is mostly due to the suckish way we
initialize the default volumes of ALSA sound cards. Most distributions have
simple scripts that initialize ALSA sound card volumes to fixed values like
75% of the available range, without understanding what the range or the
controls actually mean. This is actually a very bad thing to do. Integrated
USB speakers for example tend export the full amplification range via the
mixer controls. 75% for them is incredibly loud. For other hardware (like
apparently Jeffrey’s) it is too low in volume. How to fix this has been
discussed on the ALSA mailing list, but no final solution has been presented
yet. Nonetheless, the fact that the volume was too low, is completely
unrelated to PulseAudio.
PulseAudio interfaces with lower-level technologies like ALSA on one hand,
and with high-level applications on the other hand. Those systems are not
perfect. Especially closed-source applications tend to do very evil things
with the audio APIs (Flash!) that are very hard to support on virtualized
sound systems such as PulseAudio . However, things are getting better. My list of issues I found in
ALSA is getting shorter. Many applications have already been fixed.
The reflex “my audio is broken it must be PulseAudio’s fault” is certainly
easy to come up with, but it certainly is not always right.
Also note that — like many areas in Free Software — development of the
desktop audio stack on Linux is a bit understaffed. AFAIK there are only two
people working on ALSA full-time and only me working on PulseAudio and other
userspace audio infrastructure, assisted by a few others who supply code and patches
from time to time, some more and some less.
More Breakage to Come
I now tried to explain why the audio experience on systems with PulseAudio
might not be as good as some people hoped, but what about the future? To be
frank: the next version of PulseAudio (0.9.11) will break even more things.
The ‘glitch-free’ stuff mentioned above uses quite a few features of the
underlying ALSA infrastructure that apparently noone has been using before —
and which just don’t work properly yet on all drivers. And there are quite a
few drivers around, and I only have a very limited set of hardware to test
with. Already I know that the some of the most popular drivers (USB and HDA)
do not work entirely correctly with ‘glitch-free’.
So you ask why I plan to release this code knowing that it will break
things? Well, it works on some hardware/drivers properly, and for the others I
know work-arounds to get things to work. And 0.9.11 has been delayed for too
long already. Also I need testing from a bigger audience. And it is not so
much 0.9.11 that is buggy, it is the code it is based on. ‘Glitch-free’ PA
0.9.11 is going to part of Fedora 10. Fedora has always been more bleeding
edge than other other distributions. Picking 0.9.11 just like that for an
‘LTS’ release might however be a not a good idea.
So, please bear with me when I release 0.9.11. Snapshots have already
been available in Rawhide for a while, and hell didn’t freeze over.
The Distributions’ Role in the Game
Some distributions did a better job adopting PulseAudio than others. On the
good side I certainly have to list Mandriva, Debian, and
Fedora. OTOH Ubuntu didn’t exactly do a stellar job. They didn’t
do their homework. Adopting PA in a distribution is a fair amount of work,
given that it interfaces with so many different things at so many different
places. The integration with other systems is crucial. The information was all
out there, communicated on the wiki, the mailing lists and on the PA IRC
channel. But if you join and hang around on neither, then you won’t get the
memo. To my surprise when Ubuntu adopted PulseAudio they moved into one of their
‘LTS’ releases rightaway . Which I guess can be called gutsy —
on the background that I work for Red Hat and PulseAudio is not part of RHEL
at this time. I get a lot of flak from Ubuntu users, and I am pretty sure the
vast amount of it is undeserving and not my fault.
Why Jeffrey’s distro of choice (SUSE?) didn’t package pavucontrol 0.9.6
although it has been released months ago I don’t know. But there’s certainly no reason to whine about
that to me and bash me for it.
Having said all this — it’s easy to point to other software’s faults or
other people’s failures. So, admitting this, PulseAudio is certainly not
bug-free, far from that. It’s a relatively complex piece of software
(threading, real-time, lock-free, sensitive to timing, …), and every
software has its bugs. In some workloads they might be easier to find than it
others. And I am working on fixing those which are found. I won’t forget any
bug report, but the order and priority I work on them is still mostly up to me
I guess, right? There’s still a lot of work to do in desktop audio, it will
take some time to get things completely right and complete.
Calls for “audio should just work ™” are often heard. But if you don’t
want to stick with a sound system that was state of the art in the 90’s for
all times, then I fear things *will have* to break from time to time. And
Jeffrey, I have no idea what you are actually hacking on. Some people
mentioned something with Evolution. If that’s true, then quite honestly,
“email should just work”, too, shouldn’t it? Evolution is not exactly
famous for it’s legendary bug-freeness and stability, or did I miss something?
Maybe you should be the one to start with making things “just work”, especially since
Evolution has been around for much longer already.
Back to Work
Now that I responded to Jeffrey’s FUD I think we all can go back to work
and end this flamefest! I wish people would actually try to understand
things before writing an insulting rant — without the slightest clue — but
with words like “clusterfuck”. I’d like to thank all the people who commented
on Jeffrey’s blog and basically already said what I wrote here
So, and now I am off hacking a bit on PulseAudio a bit more — or should
I say in Jeffrey’s words: on my clusterfuck that is an epic fail and that no desktop user needs?
 BTW ‘glitch-free’ is nothing I invented, other OS have been doing something
like this for quite a while (Vista, Mac OS). On Linux however, PulseAudio is
the first and only implementation (at least to my knowledge).
 In fact, Flash 9 can not be made fully working on PulseAudio.
This is because the way Flash destructs it’s driver backends is racy.
Unfixably racy, from external code. Jeffrey complained about Flash instability
in his second post. This is unfair to PulseAudio, because I cannot fix this.
This is like complaining that X crashes when you use binary-only
 To Debian’s standards at least. Since development of Debian is
very distributed the integration of such a system as PulseAudio is much more
difficult since in touches so many different packages in the system that are
kind of private property by a lot of different maintainers with different
views on things.
 I maintain the Fedora stuff myself, so I might be a bit biased on this one… 😉
 I guess Ubuntu sees that this was a bit too much too early, too.
At least that’s how I understood my invitation to UDS in Prague. Since that
summit I haven’t heard anything from them anymore, though.