Open Sound System (OSS) is a device driver for accessing sound cards and other sound devices under various UNIX operating systems. OSS has been derived from the Linux Sound Driver. The current version supports almost all popular sound cards and sound devices integrated on computer motherboards. 
Sound cards normally have several separate devices or ports which produce or record sound. There are differences between various cards but most of them have the following devices. 
  • Digitized voice device (usually called as codec, PCM, DSP or ADC/DAC) is used for recording and playback of digitized voice.
  • Mixer device is used to control various input and output volume levels. The mixer device also handles switching the input sources from Mic-input, line-input and CD-input.
  • Synthesizer device is used mainly for playing music. It is also used to generate audio effects in games. OSS driver currently supports two kind of synthesizer devices. The first one is the Yamaha FM synthesizer chip which is available in most of the sound cards. There are two models of the FM chip. Yamaha OPL2 is a 2 operator version which was used in earliest sound cards such as AdLib and SB 1.x/2.x. It had just 9 simultaneous voices and was not capable of producing realistic instrument timbres. OPL3 is an improved version of the OPL2. It supports 4 operator voices which gives it the capability to produce more realistic sounds. The second type of synthesizer devices are so called Wave Table Synthesizers. These devices produce sound by playing back prerecorded instrument samples. This method makes it possible to produce extremely realistic instrument timbres. Gravis Ultrasound (GF1) is one example of wave table synthesizer.
  • MIDI interface is a device which is used to connect external synthesizers to the computer. Technically MIDI interface is similar to (but not compatible with) serial ports (RS-232) used in the computers. It runs at 31.5K baud instead of common serial baud rates of 9.6K, 14.4K and 28.8K baud. The MIDI interface is designed to work with on-stage equipment like stage props and lighting controllers. The synthesizers and computers communicate together by sending messages through MIDI cable.
Most of the sound cards have also a joystick port and some kind of interface for a CD-ROM drive. These devices are not controlled by OSS but there are separate drivers available (at least in Linux). 

in General

The programming interface (API) of OSS driver is defined in the C language header file sys/soundcard.h. (There is another include file for the Gravis Ultrasound card - sys/ultrasound.h, but normally it should not be required. ultrasound.h is actually not part of OSS API but a hardware specific extension to it). 

Header file soundcard.h is distributed with the driver. Ensure that you use the latest version of this file when compiling the driver. Otherwise you may not be able to access some recently introduced features of the API. In Linux this header file is distributed in the directory linux/include/linux of the kernel source distribution. On most other systems it is distributed in the include sub-directory of the distribution. 

In case you have installed a separately distributed (test) version of the driver, you have to manually copy the soundcard.h from the driver distribution package to it is proper place. Please refer to documentation of the driver package. 

If your program doesn't compile, just check to see if you are using the latest version of soundcard.h. You have to recompile (on Linux) both the driver and the application if there are problems with the versions of the soundcard.h (just to be sure). 

Types of
Device Files
Supported by

OSS driver supports several different types of device files. These types are the following: 
  • /dev/mixer
    • Mixer device files are used mainly for accessing the built-in mixers of most sound devices. With a mixer it is possible to adjust playback and recording levels of various sources. This device file is used also for selecting the recording sources. Typically a mixer will control the output levels of the digital audio and synthesizer and also mix it with the CD-input, Line-input and microphone-input sources. 

      OSS driver supports several mixers on the same system. Mixer devices are named as /dev/mixer0, /dev/mixer1, ..., /dev/mixerN. File /dev/mixer is a symbolic link to one of these device files (usually /dev/mixer0). 
  • /dev/sndstat
    • This device file is just for diagnostic purposes. Use cat /dev/sndstat to print some useful information about the driver configuration. This device will print out all the ports and devices detected by the OSS driver. 
  • /dev/dsp and /dev/audio
    • These are the main device files for digitized voice applications. Any data written to this device is played with the DAC/PCM/DSP device of the sound card. Reading this device returns the audio data recorded from the current input source (the default is microphone input). Device files /dev/audio and /dev/dsp are very similar. The difference is that the /dev/audio uses logarithmic u-Law encoding by default while /dev/dsp uses 8 bit unsigned linear encoding. With u-Law encoding a sample recorded with 12 or 16 bit resolution is represented by a 8 bit byte. Note that the initial sample format is the only difference between these device files. Both devices behave similarly after program selects specific sample encoding by calling ioctl(). This device file can be used for applications such as speech synthesis and recognition and voice mail. 

      OSS driver supports several codec devices on the same system. Audio devices are named as /dev/dsp0, /dev/dsp1, ..., /dev/dspN. File /dev/dsp is a symbolic link to one of these device files (usually /dev/dsp0). Similar naming scheme is used for /dev/audio devices. 
  • /dev/sequencer
    • This device file is intended for electronic music applications. It can be also used for producing sound effects in games. The /dev/sequencer provides access to any internal synthesizer devices of the sound cards. In addition this device file can be used for accessing any external music synthesizer devices connected to the MIDI port of the sound card as well as General MIDI daughtercards connected to the "Wave Blaster" connector of many sound cards. The /dev/sequencer interface permits control of up to 15 synthesizer chips and up to 16 MIDI ports at the same time. 
  • /dev/music (formerly /dev/sequencer2)
    • This device file is very similar than /dev/sequencer. The difference is that this interface handles both synthesizer and MIDI devices in the same way. This makes it easier to write device independent applications than it is with /dev/sequencer. On the other hand /dev/sequencer permits more precise control to individual notes than /dev/music which is based on MIDI channels. 
    Unlike other device files supported by OSS, both /dev/sequencer and /dev/music accept formatted input. It is not possible to play anything with these files just by catting MIDI (or any other) files to them. 
  • /dev/midi
    • These low level MIDI ports work much like tty devices (raw mode). These device files are intended for 'non-realtime' use. There is no timing capability so everything written to the device file will be sent to the MIDI port as soon as possible. Low level MIDI devices are suitable for use by applications such as MIDI sysex and sample librarians. 

      There are several MIDI device files which are named as /dev/midi00, ..., /dev/midi0N (note! two digit numbering). Name /dev/midi is a symbolic link to one of the actual device files (usually /dev/midi00). 
    Many of the device file categories are numbered between 0 and N. It is possible to find out the proper number by using command "cat /dev/sndstat". The printout produced contains a section for each device category. Devices in each category are numbered and the number corresponds to the number in device file name. Numbering of devices depends on order the devices have been initialized during startup of the driver. This order is not fixed so don't make any assumptions about device numbers. 


    These device files share the same major device number. The major device number is 14 in Linux. On other operating systems it is probably something else.. The minor number assignment is given in the table below. The four least significant bits of the minor number are used to select the device file type or class. If there is more than one devices in this class, the upper 4 bits are used to select the device. For example the class number of the /dev/dsp is 3. Then the minor number of /dev/dsp is 3 and the /dev/dsp1 is 16+3=19. 

    ####Under construction. Insert table here 


    One of the main goals of OSS API is full portability of applications (source code) between systems supporting OSS API. This is possible if you follow the following guidelines when designing and programming the audio portion of your application. It is even more important that the rest of your application is written portably. In practice, most portability problems in current sound applications written for Linux are in program modules doing screen handling. Sound related portability problems are usually just endianess problems. 

    The term "portability" doesn't cover just the program's ability to work on different machines having different operating systems. It also covers the capability to work on different sound hardware. This is even more important than inter system portability since differences between current and future sound devices are likely to be relatively big. OSS  makes it possible to write applications which work with all possible sound devices by hiding device specific features behind the API. The API is based on universal "physical" properties of sound and music rather than hardware specific properties. 
    • Use API macros. Macros defined in soundcard.h provide good portability since possible future changes in driver's internals will be handled transparently by the macros. It is possible to use, for example, /dev/sequencer by formatting the event messages by the application itself. However it is not guaranteed that this kind of application works in all systems.

    • Device numbering and naming. In some cases there might be several sound devices in the same system (e.g. a sound card and on-board audio). In such cases the user may have reasons to use different device with different applications. This is not a major problem with freeware applications where the user has freedom to change device names in source code. However the situation is different when source code of the program is not available. In both cases it is very useful if user has chance to change the device in application's preferences or configuration file. The same is true with MIDI and synthesizer numbers used in /dev/sequencer and /dev/music. Design your application so that it is possible to select the device number(s). Don't make your program to use hardcoded device names which have a numeric suffix. For example program your application to use /dev/dsp and not /dev/dsp0. /dev/dsp is a symbolic link which normally points to /dev/dsp0. The user may have reasons to change audio applications to use /dev/dsp1 by changing the link. In this case all applications using /dev/dsp0 directly will use incorrect device.

    • Endianess. This is serious problem with applications using 16 bit audio sampling resolution. Most PC sound cards use little endian encoding of samples. This means that there is no problems in getting audio applications to work in little endian machines such as i386 and Alpha AXP. In these environments it is possible to represent 16 bit samples as 16 bit integers (signed short). This is not a problem in big endian machines which have built in big endian codec device. However endianess is a big problem in "mixed" endian systems. For example many RISC systems use big endian encoding but it is possible to use little endian ISA sound cards with them. In this case, using 16 bit integers (signed short) directly will produce just white noise with faint audio signal mixed with it. This problem can be solved if the application takes care of endianess (using standard portability techniques).

    • Don't trust "undefined" default conditions. For most parameters accepted by OSS driver there is a defined default value. These defined default values are listed in this manual in point where specific features are discussed. However in some cases the default condition is not fixed but depends on characteristics of the machine and the operating system where the program runs. For example the timer rate of /dev/sequencer is fixed and it depends on systems timer frequency parameter (HZ). Usually the timer frequency is 100 Hz which gives timer resolution of 0.01 seconds. However there are systems where the timer frequency is 60 or 1024 Hz. Programs assuming (this is very common) that the tick interval is always 0.01 seconds and they will not work on these systems. The proper way to handle this kind of variable conditions is to use the method defined for querying the default value.

    • Don't try to open the same device twice. Most device files supported by OSS driver have been designed to be used exclusively by one application process (/dev/mixer is the only exception). It is not possible to reopen a device while the same device is already opened by another process. Don't try to overcome this situation by using fork() or any other "tricks". This may work in some situations but in general the result is undefined (using fork() is OK if only one process actually uses the device. The same is true also with threads).

    • Avoid extra features and tricks. Think at least twice before adding a new feature to your application. The main problem in many programs is that there are lot of unnecessary features which are untested and just cause problems when used (this is actually a general problem - not just with sound applications). An example of a very common extra feature is including a mixer interface to an audio playback application which doesn't normally need a mixer. It is very likely that this kind of extra feature gets poorly implemented and causes troubles on systems which are somehow different.

    • Don't use undocumented features (unless all others use them). There are many features that are defined in soundcard.h but which are not documented here. This kind of undocumented features are left undocumented for reason. Usually they are obsolete features which are no longer supported and will disappear in future driver versions. Some of them are features which have not been tested well enough and they may cause problems in some systems. Third class of undocumented features are device dependent features which work just with few devices (which are usually discontinued). So be extremely careful when browsing soundcard.h and looking for nice features. Please consult Undocumented OSS for list of these features.

    • Avoid false assumptions. There are many common assumptions which make programs non-portable or highly hardware dependent. The following is a list of things that are commonly misunderstood:
      • Mixer
        • All sound cards don't have mixer. This is true with 1) older sound cards, 2) sound cards that are not (yet) fully supported by OSS driver and 3) some high end professional ("digital only") devices which are usually connected to an external mixer. Your program will not work with these cards if it requires availability of a mixer.
        • All mixers don't have "main volume" control. Yes this is true. For some reason almost all mixer programs written for OSS API make this assumption.
        • Set of available mixer controls is not fixed but varies between devices. Your application should query available available channels from driver before attempting to use them (alternatively the application can just ignore selectively some error codes returned by the mixer API but this is a really crude and semantically incorrect method).
        • Try to avoid "automatic" use of the "main volume" mixer control. This control affects volume of all audio sources connected to the mixer. Don't use it for controlling volume of audio playback since it also affects the volume of an audio CD that may be playing in the background. Your program should use only the "PCM" channel to control volume of audio playback.
      • /dev/dsp and /dev/audio
        • The default audio data format is 8kHz/8bits unsigned/mono (/dev/dsp) or 8kHz/mu-Law/mono (/dev/audio). However this is not always true. Some devices simply don't support 8 kHz sampling rate, mono mode or 8bit/mu-Law data formats. An application which assumes these defaults will produce unexpected results (144 dB noise) with some (future 24 bits only) hardware.
      • /dev/sequencer and /dev/music
        • Don't assume that the timer rate of /dev/sequencer is 100 Hz (0.01 sec). This is not always true. For example, Linux/Alpha uses much higher system clock rate.
        • Set timing parameters of /dev/music before using the device. There are no globally valid default values.
        • Don't assume that there is always at least one MIDI port and/or one synthesizer device. There are sound cards which have just a synthesizer device or just a MIDI port.
        • Don't try to use MIDI port or synthesizer device before first checking that it exists.

    Guide Menu soundcard.h