Stories about Software


New Ubuntu and Weird Old Sound Cards

In an earlier post, I described how one can go about installing a Belkin USB dongle and a very recent version of Ubuntu on a dinosaur PC. Tonight, I’m going to describe a similar thing, except that instead a new piece of hardware, it’s a dinosaur that came with the PC itself. I must admit, this is more likely to be useful to me the next time I encounter this on an old PC than it will be to anyone else, but, hey, you never know.

First, a bit of back story here. As I’ve alluded in previous posts, one of my main interests these days is developing a prototype affordable home automation system with the prototype being my house. So far, I have a server driving lights throughout the house. This can be accessed by any PC on the local network and by my Android phone and iPod. The thing I’m working on now is a scheme for playing music in any room from anywhere in the house. Clearly the main goal of this is to be able to scare my girlfriend by spontaneously playing music when I’m in the basement and she’s in the bedroom, but I think it’s also nice to be able to pull out your phone and queue up some music in the kitchen for while you’re making dinner.

Anyway, one of the cogs in this plan of mine is reappropriating old computers to serve as nodes for playback (the goal being affordability, as I’m not going to buy some kind of $3000 receiver and wire speakers all over the house). I should also mention that I’m using Gmote server for the time being, until I write an Android wrapper app for my web interface. So, for right now, the task is getting these computers onto the network and ready to act as servers for “play song” instructions.

The computers I have for this task are sort of strewn around my basement. They’re machines that are so old that they were simply given to me by various people because I expressed a willingness to thoroughly wipe the hard drive and I’m the only person most people know that’s interested in computers that shipped with Windows 98 and weigh in with dazzling amounts of RAM in the 64-256 megabyte range. These are the recipients of the aforementioned Ubuntu and Belkin dongles.

So, I’ve got these puppies up and humming along with the OS and the wireless networking, and I was feeling pretty good about the prospect of playing music. I setup Gmote, and everything was ready, so I brought my girlfriend in for my triumphant demonstration of playing music through my bedroom’s flatscreen TV, controlled purely by my phone. I plugged in the audio, queued up Gmote, and everything worked perfectly–except that there was no sound. My phone found the old computer, my old computer mounted the home automation server’s music directory (itself mounted on an external drive), Gmote server kicked in… heck, there was even some psychedelic old school graphic that accompanied the song that was playing on the VGA output to the flat screen. But, naturally, no sound.

So, I got out my screwdriver and poked around the internals of the old computer. I reasoned that the sound card must be fried, so I pried open another computer and extracted its card, and put everything back together, and viola! Sound was now functional (half a day later, thus taking a bit of the wind out of my grand unveiling’s sails). So, I pitched the sound card and moved onto getting the next PC functional. This PC had the same sound card, and I got the same result.

I smelled a rat, reasoning that it was unlikely that two largely unused sound cards were fried. After a bit of investigation, I discovered that the problem was the card in question was an ESS ES169, which is actually a plug and play ISA device and not a PCI device. I had reasoned the previous card was fried when I didn’t see it in BIOS PCI list. But, there it was in BIOS ISA list. Because, naturally, a sound card inside of the computer, like a printer or USB external hard drive, is a plug-and-play device.

But anyway, with that figured out, I was all set… kind of. It took me an hour or two of googling and experimenting to figure it out, but I got it. I had to experiment because this card was pretty dated even five years (or roughly the 438 version of Ubuntu) ago, and so I wasn’t dealing with the same utilities or configuration files.

So anyway, with the grand lead up now complete, here is the nitty gritty.

When you boot into Ubuntu, it, like me or any other sane entity, has no idea what this thing is. You’ll see nothing in lspci about it, of course, and if you sudo apt-get install the toolset that gives you lspnp, you’ll see it as an unknown device. Don’t let that get you down, though; it was, at some time, known to someone. The first thing to do is use sudo and your favorite text editor to modify /etc/modules. You’re going to add “snd-es18xx” to that file and save it.

Next, add the following text to the configuration file “/etc/modprobe.d/alsa-base.conf”:

And that’s that. Now, if you reboot you should see a working audio driver and all that goes with it. You can see that it’s working by playing a sound, or by opening up volume control and seeing that you no longer are looking at “Dummy Output” but a realio-trulio sound output.

I confess that I don’t know all of the exact details of what that configuration setup means, but I know enough mundane computer architecture to know that you’re more or less instructing this device on how to handle interrupts like the PCI device it’s pretending to be and Ubuntu thinks it ought to be.

I’d also say that this is by no means a high-performance proposition. I’d probably be better served to get a regular sound card, but there’s just something strangely satisfying about getting a twelve-year-old computer with a stripped down OS to chug along as well as someone’s new, high powered rig that’s been loaded down with unnecessaries. I suppose that’s just the hopeless techie in me.