Jun 012020

Brisbane Area WICEN Group (Inc) lately has been caught up in this whole COVID-19 situation, unable to meet face-to-face for business meetings. Like a lot of groups, we’ve had to turn to doing things online.

Initially, Cisco WebEx was trialled, however this had significant compatibility issues, most notably, under Linux — it just straight plain didn’t work. Zoom however, has proven fairly simple to operate and seems to work, so we’ve been using that for a number of “social” meetings and at least one business meeting so far.

A challenge we have though, is that one of our members does not have a computer or smart-phone. Mobile telephony is unreliable in his area (Kelvin Grove), and so yee olde PSTN is the most reliable service. For him to attend meetings, we need some way of patching that PSTN line into the meeting.

The first step is to get something you can patch to. In my case, it was a soft-phone and a SIP VoIP service. I used Twinkle to provide that link. You could also use others like baresip, Linphone or anything else of your choosing. This connects to your sound card at one end, and a Voice Service Provider; in my case it’s my Asterisk server through Internode NodePhone.

The problem is though, while you can certainly make a call outbound whilst in a conference, the person on the phone won’t be able to hear the conference, nor will the conference attendees be able to hear the person on the phone.

Enter JACK

JACK is a audio routing framework for Unix-like operating systems that allows for audio to be routed between applications. It is geared towards multimedia production and professional audio, but since there’s a plug-in in the ALSA framework, it is very handy for linking audio between applications that would otherwise be incompatible.

For this to work, one application has to work either directly with JACK, or via the ALSA plug-in. Many support, and will use, an alternate framework called PulseAudio. Conference applications like Zoom and Jitsi almost universally rely on this as their sound card interface on Linux.

PulseAudio unfortunately is not able to route audio with the same flexibility, but it can route audio to JACK. In particular, JACKv2 and its jackdbus is the path of least resistance. Once JACK starts, PulseAudio detects its presence, and loads a module that connects PulseAudio as a client of JACK.

A limitation with this is PulseAudio will pre-mix all audio streams it receives from its clients into one single monolithic (stereo) feed before presenting that to JACK. I haven’t figured out a work-around for this, but thankfully for this use case, it doesn’t matter. For our purposes, we have just one PulseAudio application: Zoom (or Jitsi), and so long as we keep it that way, things will work.

Software tools

  • jack2: The audio routing daemon.
  • qjackctl: This is a front-end for controlling JACK. It is optional, but if you’re not familiar with JACK, it’s the path of least resistance. It allows you to configure, start and stop JACK, and to control patch-bay configuration.
  • SIP Client, in my case, Twinkle.
  • ALSA JACK Plug-in, part of alsa-plugins.
  • PulseAudio JACK plug-in, part of PulseAudio.

Setting up the JACK ALSA plug-in

To expose JACK to ALSA applications, you’ll need to configure your ${HOME}/.asoundrc file. Now, if your SIP client happens to support JACK natively, you can skip this step, just set it up to talk to JACK and you’re set.

Otherwise, have a look at guides such as this one from the ArchLinux team.

I have the following in my .asoundrc:

pcm.!default {
        type plug
        slave { pcm "jack" }

pcm.jack {
        type jack
        playback_ports {
                0 system:playback_1
                1 system:playback_2
        capture_ports {
                0 system:capture_1
                1 system:capture_1

The first part sets my default ALSA device to jack, then the second block defines what jack is. You could possibly skip the first block, in which case your SIP client will need to be told to use jack (or maybe plug:jack) as the ALSA audio device for input/output.

Configuring qjackctl

At this point, to test this we need a JACK audio server running, so start qjackctl. You’ll see a window like this:

qjackctl in operation

This shows it actually running, most likely for you this will not be the case. Over on the right you’ll see Setup… — click that, and you’ll get something like this:

Parameters screen

The first tab is the parameters screen. Here, you’ll want to direct this at your audio device that your speakers/microphone are connected to.

The sample rate may be limited by your audio device. In my experience, JACK hates devices that can’t do the same sample rate for input and output.

My audio device is a Logitech G930 wireless USB headset, and it definitely has this limitation: it can play audio right up to 48kHz, but will only do a meagre 16kHz on capture. JACK thus limits me to both directions running 16kHz. If your device can do 48kHz, that’d be better if you intend to use it for tasks other than audio conferencing. (If your device is also wireless, I’d be interested in knowing where you got it!)

JACK literature seems to recommend 3 periods/buffer for USB devices. The rest is a matter of experiment. 1024 samples/period seems to work fine on my hardware most of the time. Your mileage may vary. Good setups may get away with less, which will decrease latency (mine is 192ms… good enough for me).

The other tab has more settings:

Advanced settings

The things I’ve changed here are:

  • Force 16-bit: since my audio device cannot do anything but 16-bit linear PCM, I force 16-bit mode (rather than the default of 32-bit mode)
  • Channels I/O: output is stereo but input is mono, so I set 1 channel in, two channels out.

Once all is set, Apply then OK.

Now, on qjackctl itself, click the “Start” button. It should report that it has started. You don’t need to click any play buttons to make it work from here. You may have noticed that PulseAudio has detected the JACK server and will now connect to it. If click “Graph”, you’ll see something like this:

qjackctl‘s Graph window

This is the thing you’ll use in qjackctl the most. Here, you can see the “system” boxes represent your audio device, and “PulseAudio JACK Sink”/”PulseAudio JACK Source” represent everything that’s connected to PulseAudio.

You should be able to play sound in PulseAudio, and direct applications there to use the JACK virtual sound card. pavucontrol (normally shipped with PulseAudio) may be handy for moving things onto the JACK virtual device.

Configuring your telephony client

I’ll use Twinkle as the example here. In the preferences, look for a section called Audio. You should see this:

Twinkle audio settings

Here, I’ve set my ringing device to pulse to have that ring PulseAudio. This allows me to direct the audio to my laptop’s on-board sound card so I can hear the phone ring without the headset on.

Since jack was made my default device, I can leave the others as “Default Device”. Otherwise, you’d specify jack or plug:jack as the audio device. This should be set on both Speaker and Microphone settings.

Click OK once you’re done.

Configuring Zoom

I’ll use Zoom here, but the process is similar for Jitsi. In the settings, look for the Audio section.

Zoom audio settings

Set both Speaker and Microphone to JACK (sink and source respectively). Use the “Test Speaker” function to ensure it’s all working.

The patch up

Now, it doesn’t matter whether you call first, then join the meeting, or vice versa. You can even have the PSTN caller call you. The thing is, you want to establish a link to both your PSTN caller and your conference.

The assumption is that you now have a session active in both programs, you’re hearing both the PSTN caller and the conference in your headset, when you speak, both groups hear you. To let them hear each other, do this:

Go to qjackctl‘s patch bay. You’ll see PulseAudio is there, but you’ll also see the instance of the ALSA plug-in connected to JACK. That’s your telephony client. Both will be connected to the system boxes. You need to draw new links between those two new boxes, and the PulseAudio boxes like this:

qjackctl patching Twinkle to Zoom

Here, Zoom is represented by the PulseAudio boxes (since it is using PulseAudio to talk to JACK), and Twinkle is represented by the boxes named alsa-jack… (tip: the number is the PID of the ALSA application if you’re not sure).

Once you draw the connections, the parties should be able to hear each-other. You’ll need to monitor this dialogue from time to time: if either of PulseAudio or the phone client disconnect from JACK momentarily, the connections will need to be re-made. Twinkle will do this if you do a three-way conference, then one person hangs up.

Anyway, that’s the basics covered. There’s more that can be done, for example, recording the audio, or piping audio from something else (e.g. a media player) is just a case of directing it either at JACK directly or via the ALSA plug-in, and drawing connections where you need them.

May 262020

Lately, I’ve been socially distancing a home and so there’s been a few projects that have been considered that otherwise wouldn’t ordinarily get a look in on a count of lack-of-time.

One of these has been setting up a Raspberry Pi with DRAWS board for use on the bicycle as a radio interface. The DRAWS interface is basically a sound card, RTC, GPS and UART interface for radio interfacing applications. It is built around the TI TMS320AIC3204.

Right now, I’m still waiting for the case to put it in, even though the PCB itself arrived months ago. Consequently it has not seen action on the bike yet. It has gotten some use though at home, primarily as an OpenThread border router for 3 WideSky hubs.

My original idea was to interface it to Mumble, a VoIP server for in-game chat. The idea being that, on events like the Yarraman to Wulkuraka bike ride, I’d fire up the phone, connect it to an AP run by the Raspberry Pi on the bike, and plug my headset into the phone:144/430MHz→2.4GHz cross-band.

That’s still on the cards, but another use case came up: digital. It’d be real nice to interface this over WiFi to a stronger machine for digital modes. Sound card over network sharing. For this, Mumble would not do, I need a lossless audio transport.

Audio streaming options

For audio streaming, I know of 3 options:

  • PulseAudio network streaming
  • netjack
  • trx

PulseAudio I’ve found can be hit-and-miss on the Raspberry Pi, and IMO, is asking for trouble with digital modes. PulseAudio works fine for audio (speech, music, etc). It will make assumptions though about the nature of that audio. The problem is we’re not dealing with “audio” as such, we’re dealing with modem tones. Human ears cannot detect phase easily, data modems can and regularly do. So PA is likely to do things like re-sample the audio to synchronise the two stations, possibly use lossy codecs like OPUS or CELT, and make other changes which will mess with the signal in unpredictable ways.

netjack is another possibility, but like PulseAudio, is geared towards low-latency audio streaming. From what I’ve read, later versions use OPUS, which is a no-no for digital modes. Within a workstation, JACK sounds like a close fit, because although it is geared to audio, its use in professional audio means it’s less likely to make decisions that would incur loss, but it is a finicky beast to get working at times, so it’s a question mark there.

trx was a third option. It uses RTP to stream audio over a network, and just aims to do just that one thing. Digging into the code, present versions use OPUS, older versions use CELT. The use of RTP seemed promising though, it actually uses oRTP from the Linphone project, and last weekend I had a fiddle to see if I could swap out OPUS for linear PCM. oRTP is not that well documented, and I came away frustrated, wondering why the receiver was ignoring the messages being sent by the sender.

It’s worth noting that trx probably isn’t a good example of a streaming application using oRTP. It advertises the stream as G711u, but then sends OPUS data. What it should be doing is sending it as a dynamic content type (e.g. 96), and if this were a SIP session, there’d be a RTPMAP sent via Session Description Protocol to say content type 96 was OPUS.

I looked around for other RTP libraries to see if there was something “simpler” or better documented. I drew a blank. I then had a look at the RTP/RTCP specs themselves published by the IETF. I came to the conclusion that RTP was trying to solve a much more complicated use case than mine. My audio stream won’t traverse anything more sophisticated than a WiFi AP or an Ethernet switch. There’s potential for packet loss due to interference or weak signal propagation between WiFi nodes, but latency is likely to remain pretty consistent and out-of-order handling should be almost a non-issue.

Another gripe I had with RTP is its almost non-consideration of linear PCM. PCMA and PCMU exist, 16-bit linear PCM at 44.1kHz sampling exists (woohoo, CD quality), but how about 48kHz? Nope. You have to use SDP for that.

Custom protocol ideas

With this in mind, my own custom protocol looks like the simplest path forward. Some simple systems that used by GQRX just encapsulate raw audio in UDP messages, fire them at some destination and hope for the best. Some people use TCP, with reasonable results.

My concern with TCP is that if packets get dropped, it’ll try re-sending them, increasing latency and never quite catching up. Using UDP side-steps this, if a packet is lost, it is forgotten about, so things will break up, then recover. Probably a better strategy for what I’m after.

I also want some flexibility in audio streams, it’d be nice to be able to switch sample rates, bit depths, channels, etc. RTP gets close with its L16/44100/2 format (the Philips Red-book standard audio format). In some cases, 16kHz would be fine, or even 8kHz 16-bit linear PCM. 44.1k works, but is wasteful. So a header is needed on packets to at least describe what format is being sent. Since we’re adding a header, we might as well set aside a few bytes for a timestamp like RTP so we can maintain synchronisation.

So with that, we wind up with these fields:

  • Timestamp
  • Sample rate
  • Number of channels
  • Sample format


The timestamp field in RTP is basically measured in ticks of some clock of known frequency, e.g. for PCMU it is a 8kHz clock. It starts with some value, then increments up monotonically. Simple enough concept. If we make this frequency the sample rate of the audio stream, I think that will be good enough.

At 48kHz 16-bit stereo; data will be streaming at 192kbps. We can tolerate wrap-around, and at this data rate, we’d see a 16-bit counter overflow every ~341ms, which whilst not unworkable, is getting tight. Better to use a 32-bit counter for this, which would extend that overflow to over 6 hours.

Sample rate encoding

We can either support an integer field, or we can encode the rate somehow. An integer field would need a range up to 768k to support every rate ALSA supports. That’s another 32-bit integer. Or, we can be a bit clever: nearly every sample rate in common use is a harmonic of 8kHz or 11.025kHz, so we devise a scheme consisting of a “base” rate and multiplier. 48kHz? That’s 8kHz×6. 44.1kHz? That’s 11.025kHz×4.

If we restrict ourselves to those two base rates, we can support standard rates from 8kHz through to 1.4MHz by allocating a single bit to select 8kHz/11.025kHz and 7 bits for the multiplier: the selected sample rate is the base rate multiplied by the multipler incremented by one. We’re unlikely to use every single 8kHz step though. Wikipedia lists some common rates and as we go up, the steps get bigger, so let’s borrow 3 multiplier bits for a left-shift amount.

7 6 5 4 3 2 1 0

B = Base rate: (0) 8000 Hz, (1) 11025 Hz
S = Shift amount
M = Multiplier - 1

Rate = (Base << S) * (M + 1)

  00000000b (0x00): 8kHz
  00010000b (0x10): 16kHz
  10100000b (0xa0): 44.1kHz
  00100000b (0x20): 48kHz
  01010010b (0x52): 768kHz (ALSA limit)
  11111111b (0xff): 22.5792MHz (yes, insane)

Other settings

I primarily want to consider linear PCM types. Technically that includes unsigned PCM, but since that’s losslessly transcodable to signed PCM, we could ignore it. So we could just encode the number of bytes needed for a single channel sample, minus one. Thus 0 would be 8-bits; 1 would be 16-bits; 2 would be 32-bits and 3 would be 64-bits. That needs just two bits. For future-proofing, I’d probably earmark two extra bits; reserved for now, but might be used to indicate “compressed” (and possibly lossy) formats.

The remaining 4 bits could specify a number of channels, again minus 1 (mono would be 0, stereo 1, etc up to 16).

Packet type

For the sake of alignment, I might include a 16-bit identifier field so the packet can be recognised as being this custom audio format, and to allow multiplexing of in-band control messages, but I think the concept is there.