The audio stack in Linux/Ubuntu evolves over time. What used to be good advice is not necessarily good advice anymore. (That also means, that if you happen to read this blog post in 2019 or something, don’t trust it!)
Here are some things that people try, and sometimes they even fix the problem, but are often bad in one way or the other. Or at least, they have side effects one needs to be aware of. So – while there are valid exceptions, as a rule of thumb, don’t do the following:

5. Don’t add your user to the “audio” group

A user has access to the audio card if that person is either logged in – both VT and GUI login counts, but not SSH logins, or if that user is in the “audio” group. However, on the level of access we’re talking about here, only one user has access at a time. So the typical problem scenario goes like:

  • User Homer has an audio issue, and tries to fix it by adding himself to the audio group. This doesn’t help to resolve the problem.
  • Homer discovers his audio is muted, and unmutes it. Happy to have his audio issue resolved, he forgets he’s still in the audio group, or doesn’t realise it leads to problems.
  • User Marge comes and wants to borrow the computer. Homer does a fast-user-switching so Marge can log in.
  • Because Homer is in the audio group, he has still access to the audio device. If some software, e g PulseAudio, has the audio device opened, it blocks access to other software trying to use it.
  • Now Marge has an audio issue!

I’ve written a longer article about the audio group here. In short, there are some usages for it, including that it is also the standard group name for assigning realtime priorities when used together with JACK. But don’t leave a user in the audio group unless you have a good reason.

4. Don’t try different “model” strings

A common way to try to get HDA Intel soundcards to work is to edit /etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base.conf and add the following line:

options snd-hda-intel model=[something]

…where [something] are values you find in some file. Contrary to official documentation, this is in most cases obsolete. In particular, avoid model=generic – that is almost guaranteed to give you trouble. In many cases, when trying different models, you will find that you might fix one thing but break another.
In fact, there is only one model to try, and that is model=auto. If your machine happen to be one of those quirked to use an older model parser, changing to model=auto can improve the situation.

Instead do:
It still happens that BIOS/UEFI assigns the wrong values to pin nodes, which causes an output or input not to work correctly. If so, I recommend trying to tweak this with hda-jack-retask.
In some cases, trying different modules can actually be okay – sometimes, these models point to lightweight fixups instead of the earlier, more heavyweight code that was used in previous kernels. (In this context, I have to mention that Takashi Iwai has done a fantastic job of converting the older models to the newer auto-parser.)

3. Don’t upgrade ALSA drivers by following random blog posts

I’ve seen far too many people reporting bugs on Launchpad where they’ve been following some random blog post that tells you how to upgrade ALSA, and are having audio issues as a result. These guides are of varying quality and often come without good uninstall instructions, so you have no way to revert in case the upgrade did not solve your problem, or broke something else.

First, something not everybody is aware of: 95% of ALSA code is in the kernel, and follows the kernel’s release cycle. That means that even if “/proc/asound/version” says something that was released a year or two ago, don’t panic. It’s the kernel release that tells you how new your sound drivers are, so if you have a new kernel, and you see an ALSA release coming out, you are unlikely to gain from an upgrade.

Instead do:
In some case you do have an old kernel, and newer sound drivers can be worth a try. The Ubuntu Audio Developer’s team provides daily snapshot drivers for HDA Intel cards. Guide is available here and it also comes with proper uninstall instructions.
In the past we have also provided drivers for other cards, but due to the maintenance required to keep this up-to-date, in combination with that the vast majority of people’s bugs concern HDA Intel anyway, this support has been discontinued.

2. Don’t purge PulseAudio

First, PulseAudio itself isn’t perfect, some of the bindings to PulseAudio aren’t perfect, and some of the drivers are not perfect in the way PulseAudio wants to use it either. So there might be valid reasons to temporarily move it out of your way, even if it would be better to actually fix the problem and submit a bug fix patch (if you’re capable of doing so).
But don’t try uninstalling the PulseAudio package, as it has far too many dependencies.

Instead do:
If you just need direct access to your sound card, you can run the “pasuspender” command. You can either run “pasuspender” (in a terminal) to make PulseAudio stay away for the duration of the application. Or if you think that’s simpler, just run “pasuspender bash” (in a terminal), start your application through the menu/dash/whatever you prefer, and when you’re done, write “exit” in the terminal.
If you need to stop the PulseAudio process completely, execute these commands:

echo autospawn=no > ~/.pulse/client.conf
pulseaudio -k

If you need PulseAudio back again, remove ~/.pulse/client.conf, then try to start an application that uses PulseAudio, and it should start automatically.

Unexpected side effects:

  • The Gnome sound settings, the sound indicator and the volume up/down keys relies on PulseAudio, so they won’t work when PulseAudio is off.
  • PulseAudio mixes audio, so that means that only one application at a time can output audio if PulseAudio is disabled (and you aren’t using some other sound server).
  • Several applications have PulseAudio backends. Some of them will need reconfiguration to use ALSA directly, some will just automatically redirect themselves, and some won’t work at all.
  • Bluetooth audio might not work without PulseAudio.

1. Don’t replace ALSA with OSS

OSS was the standard used before ALSA came along. These days, ALSA is much better, both when it comes to hardware support, and when it comes to how much software that supports outputting sound to either sound system. OSS is also entirely unsupported, at least by Ubuntu. In addition, I’m not sure exactly how to get back to a working system after you’ve tried OSS…!

Instead do:
If you know your problem is in ALSA, either drivers or userspace, try to track down and/or fix the bug, and talk to us about it. If you’re running Ubuntu, file a bug against the alsa-driver package. You can also contact the alsa-devel mailinglist. While we won’t guarantee responses due to the high volume of bugs/traffic, we are often able to help out.

Final notes

Note 1. HDA Intel cards are the built-in audio inputs and outputs on your motherboard (at least if you bought your computer after ~2006 or so). HDMI and DisplayPort audio are also HDA Intel cards, but they are covered in more detail here.

Note 2. I have had some problems with spammers posting spam comments to my blog post. I don’t want to spend too much time just reading spam and marking it as such, so I might close for comments in a relatively short period. Sorry for the inconvenience.