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Getting the raw I/Q data from the receiver

What's this about?

In the other pages related to higher-bandwidth (>192 kHz) 16 bit receivers on the PA3FWM WebSDR software it was (probably)mentioned somewhere that getting the raw I/Q data from the receiver - in our case, the SDRPlay RSP1a - but the RSP2 and RSP2pro has also bee found to work.  When an audio sound card and a "softrock" type receiver are used, getting raw I/Q data into the WebSDR is simply a matter of specifying the sound card's hardware ID, but what if you are not using a sound card + softrock?

Recently, USB-interfaced Software Defined Radio tuners have become much more affordable - one of these devices being the SDRPlay RSP1a which, at the time of this writing, is available for approximately US$130:  Other, similar devices are available from other suppliers that could be made to work, but we'll focus largely on the RSP1a in this article.

Getting Raw I/Q data via "rsp_tcp":

There are a number of different software packages available for the RSP1a - including those using the Soapy interface - the closest thing to a "universal" SDR package - but this package isn't particularly useful to us:  It doesn't natively support high-bandwidth (e.g. greater than audio bandwidth) raw I/Q data and it adds another layer of software and complexity - and likely delay - that is unnecessary and undesired as what we really want is to simply pipe the raw I/Q data to be sent into the ALSA sound system, anyway.

There is a bit of software provided by the SDRPlay folks that looks as though it might be useful - namely the "rsp_tcp" package found on Github (link to that package is HERE) that allows raw I/Q data to be sent via a UDP on a network connection (which could be a loopback or even a "real" socket over a LAN)  but it turns out that as it presented, this package is not useful for us in this context for one simple reason:  Critical settings for LNA Gain and attenuation are fixed in the source code, and these defaults are not at all suitable for any purpose whatsoever.  Simply put, the version linked above has the "LNAState" parameter set to "4" which put so much attenuation in front of the LNA that it's sensitivity on any frequency - even the lower HF bands - is uselessly poor, and for some (insane!) reason there are no means of configuring it from the command line.  The other issue with this code is that it has only an 8-bit pipeline meaning that one key of the RSP1a over an RTL-SDR dongle is lost.  To be fair, it is intended that the gain and other parameters be controlled via the TCP link, but this isn't useful to us if all we want is to pipe the I/Q data directly into ALSA where no such control exists.

A more useful fork of the package may be found here.  This version, produced in part by ON5HB, addresses some of the shortcomings of the original "rsp_tcp" in that the gain and LNA parameters may be specified - and it even has a more user-friendly means of configuring the AGC in the SDRPlay API, but its bit depth is still limited to 8 bits - although a previous version did have the ability to specify the use of the full 16 bit data path from the API.

Neither of these programs will get the raw I/Q data into ALSA, but one may use the Linux netcat utility to intercept the TCP stream and pipe it into ALSA via the Linux "aplay" utility.  For example, consider this:

rsp_tcp -a -p 1234 -f 5000000 -s 192000 -b 16 &

This line, assuming the use of a version of the "rsp_tcp" program that does support the full 16 bit data path (you'll have to find this version yourself - but it is given as an example, above) will configure a receiver with a bandwidth of 192 kHz centered at 5 MHz and send it out via the "loopback" interface on port 1234.

Before we can send this to ALSA, we need to set up an loopback device, so we can do:  sudo modprobe snd_aloop

Now, we set up a "receiver" for the I/Q stream being sent via TCP by doing:

nc 1234 | aplay -D <sound_device_name> -r 192000 -c 2 -f s16_le

Which will take the TCP data and send it to the sound device of our choice.  If we do aplay -l on the command line after starting "snd_aloop" as shown above, we'll see a device called "Loopback" in the list, and we'd note which "card" number this was.  If, for example, our loopback device was listed as card #2, we would put in our "aplay" statement the device name of:  hw:2,1,0  - this is our "input" device on our loopback interface

In "websdr.cfg" we would use hw:2,1,1 as the source of the I/Q audio as our sound card.  Note that the "swapiq" directive may be required in "websdr.cfg" if the resulting spectrum was inverted.

Again, for the above to be successful, the version of "rsp_tcp" required to work as described above would need to include:
The above configuration was tested and found to work satisfactorily, but there were several issues, but the most important was that the latency, as compared to the "sound card + softrock" approach, was significant - around 750 milliseconds.  This seemed to be "baked in" the TCP + netcat approach and couldn't easily be reduced.  The other issue was that the AGC built into the SDRPlay API didn't seem to be well-suited for multi-user, wideband operation - and it was difficult to configure in a manner that was easily understood.

A discussion about the above may be found in THIS thread on the "websdr" group at

The "direct" approach:

After a few iterations, a more "direct" approach was finally taken:  The "rsp_tcp" code base was scrapped entirely and a stripped-down, minimalist utility called "sdrplayalsa" was written with the sole purpose of facilitating the shoveling of raw I/Q data from the SDRPLay API into ALSA.  This package may be found on Github here.  This package is a collaborative effort, the majority of it having been written by Gary W., AB1IP with additional work done by those noted in the source code.  A binary compiled for 64 bit x86 that is known to run on Ubutntu 18.x and 20.x may be downloaded here - but, of course, using this binary would require a bit of trust on your part which is why the source is available!

While this program is capable of putting this data directly into an ALSA loopback device, this has been a bit more difficult to manage owing to inconsistent buffering, causing audio drop-outs due to over/under running the audio buffer - but it also supports being able to stream the raw I/Q data directly vis the Linux stdout interface - that is, having the program send raw data directly into aplay (as depicted above) which then feeds it into an ALSA loopback device.

A few comments:
The source code is available above, so if you wish to tweak it for a wider variety of devices, feel free to do so - but if you do, please let us know so that we can make that information available to others.

Version changes for "sdrplayalsa":
The above changes are included in the .GIT and the binary linked above.

Using sdrplayalsa:

The sdrplayalsa binary, once produced, is copied into a usable directory and set to be executable by the WebSDR owner.  On the Northern Utah WebSDR, it is placed in the ~/cfg directly where it be called in a configuration script that will call "", and this script is called prior to starting the WebSDR server itself.

Invoking sdrplayalsa -h will give a list of available options - and these options are discussed in detail, below.

Configuring the receiver tuning and sample rate:

-f <freq>   -   "freq" is the center (tuner) frequency in Hz.

-r <sr>      - "sr" is the sample rate, in SPS, of the device.  For the PA3FWM WebSDR software, this must be 96000, 192000, 384000 or 768000, but values of 96000 or 192000 are not recommended due to aliasing/filtering issues.  See the discussion below in the section "Minimization of Images" if you wish to operate at 96000 or 192000.

-R <exp>    - This parameter is used to determine the decimation rate given the current sample rate:
 Usable values are 0-5.  This parameter is discussed in more detail, below.

Additional receiver configuration parameters:

-d            - This parameter, used by itself, will show the currently UNUSED devices and their serial numbers.  If a device is currently in use (e.g. configured and being used for receiving) will NOT show up on this list.  This is useful for determining the serial number of the connected device so that it may be be assigned for a particular frequency - see "-i", below.

-h            - Show usage (e.g. "help")

 -i <xxxx> - "xxx" is the serial number - partial or full -  of the target device for this configuration.  This is very useful when multiple receivers are used that may be preceded with band-specified pass filters - which are highly recommended!  Typically, one uses the last 4-6 characters (5-6 is recommended) of the unit's serial number printed on the RSP itself to uniquely specify a device.

-B <bw>   - "bw" is the receiver's baseband filter selection.  This filter, applied post-converter within the SDRPlay itself, is applied in the signal path at the input of the A/D converter, the value specifying the -3dB bandwidth.  Valid values, in kHz, are:  200, 300, 600, and 1536 kHz.  It is recommended that 200 or 300 be used at a sample rate of 384 kHz while 600 is reasonable for a sample rate of 768 kHz.

<lnastate> - "lnastate" sets the amount of "gain reduction" related to the LNA in the receiver.  The "LNAstate" setting is very critical for usable receiver performance and it will be discussed at length below.
    For the RSP1a: 0 = 0dB, 1 = 6dB, 2 = 12dB, 3 = 18dB,  4 = 37dB, 5 = 42dB, 6 = 61dB.  NOTE:  A value of "4" or higher will likely result in very poor receiver sensitivity and should probably never be used.
    For the RSP2 and RSP2pro:  0=0dB, 1=10dB, 2=15dB, 3=21dB, 4=24dB, 5=34dB, 6=39dB, 7=45dB, 8=64dB.   NOTE:  A value of "5" or higher will likely result in very poor receiver sensitivity and should never be used.
    As of the time of writing, neither the RSPduo or RSPdx have been tested.  It is expected that the RSPdx will also work, but it, too, different amounts of gain reduction for given "LNAstate" values.

-L <latency in uSec> - This parameter, which is used only with the "-o" parameter, below, sets the amount of latency (buffering) to be implemented in the ALSA device's pipeline.  The minimum allowed value is 35000 (35 msec) and the default is 50000.  Depending on the computer and loading, the minimum value is likely to be 50000 to avoid buffer underruns (which manifest as brief drop-outs).  A value of 75000-100000 (75-100 msec) is suggested.  

-o <dev>  - "dev" is the output device, which could be an ALSA device:  Use with the "-L" parameter, above.  If unspecified, STDOUT will be used.  As noted above, STDOUT is typically used in conjunction with "aplay".

 -v            - If specified, this will enable verbose output, used for troubleshooting.

 -w <msec> - This specifies, in milliseconds, how often verbose output will be sent to the console if "-v" is used.

-W           - If specified, this will enable "wideband signal mode" which will enforce stronger filtering, but this can dramatically increase CPU usage.  "Wideband signal mode" enables additional DSP bandpass filtering which can increase the amount of usable bandwidth while reducing aliasing at the extreme edges of the receiver response.  (This parameter may not work properly at this time with all configuration.)

AGC configuration:

Even though the SDRPlay API includes its own AGC, testing showed that this AGC didn't seem to be appropriate for multi-user wide-bandwidth used - but the main problem is that its precise operation and configuration is not at all well documented, making it difficult to set up properly.  Because of this, an AGC algorithm was included in the sdrplayalsa program that may be well-understood and characterized.

AGC operation:

The purpose of AGC in any receiver is to adjust the signal path to accommodate the current signal conditions - and this is very important with an SDR receiver to keep the input signal range within the capabilities of the A/D converter:  Too little signal into the A/D converter, quantization distortion will occur causing the generation of spurious signals, while too much signal will effectively "waste" A/D range, increasing the likelihood of clipping under high-signal conditions.  With a wideband receiver, knowing where to set the signal level is more difficult than with a single-user narrowband receiver as both weak and strong signals must be accommodate simultaneously.

With a wideband receiver, the total signal power is what must be carefully regulated - but at wider bandwidths, this is arguably easier as the aggregate of disparate signals is more akin to random noise, the average level changing fairly slowly over time - but there is always the probability that occasional A/D clipping will happen with impulse noise such as lightning static.  If the percentage of clipped samples is low, the amount of signal degradation across the receiver bandwidth will be negligible - particularly from the perspective of the individual users who will be using virtual receivers operating at narrow bandwidth (e.g. around 3 kHz).

Any AGC system has a threshold above which AGC action (decrease of gain to prevent overload) will occur:  Signals above this threshold will cause the gain to be reduced to prevent overload/clipping of later stages and it this case, this level is specified as an A/D input value, and because the I/Q signal being sourced by the API is a 16 bit signed number, it can range from about -32768 to 32767, so our threshold would be expressed as the absolute value of the input signal.  Knowing the precise threshold level to set to cause AGC action is going to be a matter of observation and experimentation over time.

Unlike a typical receiver's AGC, there is also a threshold below which the AGC will increase gain again and the reason for this is that when looking at a wide frequency swath, the total power level is going to change far less than that of the individual signals, so we would want to "ride" the average level over time - which also means that once we decrease gain, the best strategy would be to keep in there until the average signal level had dropped down again for a reasonable amount of time.  In other words, the AGC should be reasonably quick on its "attack" to reduce gain, but be rather slow to increase it again - just like a typical AGC.

Configuring the AGC:

The AGC configuration in sdrplayalsa is configured using the following parameters:

-n      - Including this parameter will enable the AGC in the driver, configured with parameters a, b, c, e, g, G, s, S, x, y, z below.

-a <high>   - "high" is the A/D value above which a "high signal" condition is declared.  The A/D value to which it is compared is the absolute of the 16 bit signed value from the API in which full scale is 32768 and this parameter would be set no higher than one-half of this value.
 The default is 16384.

-b <low>    - "low" is the A/D value below which a "low signal" condition is declared.  A typical value would be one quarter of the value of "-a".  The default is 8192.

-c <msec>  - This specifies the period, in milliseconds, of the sampling window for AGC operation and during this period, the minimum and maximum signal levels are monitored.  It should be remembered that the total number of samples analyzed is the ratio between the sample rate and this period.  For example, if the period is 100 msec (1/10th of a second) and the sample rate is 768000, 76800 samples will occur during this period.

-e<file>     - If this parameter is specified, a text file of the name "file" will be written with the gain value, relative to the "-g" parameter, indicating the amount of gain reduction.  This file is updated ONLY AND IF the gain changes.  If "-g" is set to 30, an internal gain reduction value of 40 will result in a value of 10, indicating 10 dB of gain reduction.  This information may be made available to the WebSDR's clients (e.g. javascript running on the users' computers) to provide a correction factor of the S-meter to compensate for the gain reduction.  When "sdrplayalsa" is invoked, the file is created (if it doesn't exist) and a value of "0" is written into it.

-g <min>    - "min" is the MINIMUM amount of gain reduction in dB and may be in the range of 20-59.  When AGC operation is NOT enabled, this sets the fixed amount of gain reduction and when the AGC IS enabled, this sets the amount of gain reduction.  Internally, this value is subtracted from the actual gain setting when the "-e" parameter is used to indicate the amount of gain reduction with respect to the minimum amount of gain reduction (e.g. no gain reduction = 0).  The minimum value is 20.

-G <max>   - "max" is the MAXIMUM amount of gain reduction:  The value may be 20-59, the default is 59.

-s <dec>     - "dec" is the step size in dB when the gain reduction value is reduced by the AGC.

-S <inc>     - "inc" is the step size in dB when the gain reduction value is increased by the AGC.

-x <samp>  - "samp" is the number of samples that are above the "high signal" value set by "-a" that must occur during the period specified by "-c" in order to cause a gain reduction of the number of dB specified by "-S".  This parameter is used to prevent gain reduction on too-few A/D samples (e.g. extremely brief impulse noise) and prevent over-active gain reduction operation.

-y <inc>     - "inc" is the MINIMUM time, in milliseconds, allowed between gain reductions.  This value sets the timer to prevent too many gain reduction operations in too-little time.

-z<dec>    - "dec" is the MINIMUM time, in milliseconds, allowed between gain increases.  This values sets the timer to prevent the gain from being increased too quickly when a high-signal condition subsides.

"Custom" sample rates using the "-R" parameter:

There is another parameter, "-R", that is used to specify the decimation of the sample rate.  If this parameter is invoked with a number from 0-5, the "-r" parameter will allow any sample rate (within reason) to be entered.  The program will determine if the resulting rate is within the parameters (described below) and if not, it will bail out.

The RSP's A/D converter internally runs at a higher rate than you might thin:

The actual A/D converter in the RSP1a is capable of operating down to 2.048 Msps, and with "14 bits" of sampling, can operate thusly below 8.064 Msps.  In order to get rates lower than 2.048 Msps, "decimation" must occur, which is the act of throwing away a bunch of the samples, leaving us with fewer to deal with and a much lower bit rate - but in doing so, spectrum of the data prior to decimation must be filtered such that the energy above the Nyquist limit is removed or else aliasing will occur.

As it turns out, the RSP1a's hardware and software can decimate by powers of 2, with values from 1 through 32 - which corresponds to two raised to the "n" power, as in:  20=1, 21=2, 22=4, 23=8, 24=16 and 25=32.

By default, sdrplayalsa utilizes only the rates of 96, 192, 384 and 768 kHz, which utilize a decimation of 32, 16, 8 and 4, respectively starting from a sample rate of 3.072 Msps:  In other words, no matter which of the above sample rates you chose, it is derived from the A/D converter operating at 3.072 Msps.

Why might you need odd sample rates?

In theory, any sample rate is thus possible as long as it is below 8.094 Msps (with a decimation of 1) and 64 ksps (2.048 Msps with a decimation of 32), allowing "custom" rates to be specified.  Again, it's worth noting that the current version of the WebSDR software won't work properly with all rates as noted above - but the built-in resampling of ALSA will allow the input of about any rate up through 768 ksps and convert it to the rate requested by the WebSDR program.

For example, if a WebSDR sample rate of 384 kHz is desired, one wish to configure the RSP1a with a rate of 425 ksps and let ALSA convert it it a lower rate.  This might be desirable if ALSA's low-pass filtering and downsampling is superior to that of the SDRPlay driver - or you may even wish to pipe the raw data through another utility to do the downsampling and filtering (e.g. SOX, CSDR).

Using this parameter to change CPU loading and/or quality:

Taking 768 ksps as an example, the default configuration by sdrplayalsa is to use a decimation of 4, meaning that the A/D converter is running at 3.072 Msps.  According to Nyquist theory, if we oversample, we can "create" additional lower-order bits, so oversampling by 4 implies that we have created (sqrt(4) ) 2 more bits of data from whatever we had and improved the useful dynamics of the A/D converter at the "low signal" end of the range by 12 dB.  This would imply that if we run the A/D converter even higher, we could gain even more bits - and that means that if we specify a rate of 768 ksps with a decimation of 8 (e.g. -R 3, where 23 = 8) the A/D converter is now running at 6.144 Msps.  In theory, we now have ( sqrt(8) ) = 2.8 additional bits (about 17dB) of additional useful (low signal) A/D range.  In theory, this amount is likely to be noise-limited by the A/D converter itself and the other circuitry (e.g. amplifiers, thermal noise from other components, etc.) and is likely to be less than the idea.

Even if performance is improved in this manner, the penalty is higher CPU usage - likely to be between 5 and 15% on an X86 3 GHz core - although the amount may vary.

Conversely, one could also use this parameter to reduce CPU usage.  While the math above shows that you can't use lower than 3.072 Msps to get 768 ksps given the limitations of the decimation values (e.g. we have only 1, 2, 4, 8, 16 and 32) lower rates may benefit.  For example, for a 192 kHz receiver configuration it may be possible to acheive overall lower CPU utilization if a rate of 256 ksps were specified with a -R paramter of 3 (e.g. 23=decimation value of 8), which would configure the A/D converter to its lowest rate (2.048 Msps) and have ALSA down-sample to 192 kHz.

Discussion of AGC parameters:

AGC Timing and thresholds:

The "-c" parameter sets the time sample ("window") period of the AGC algorithm.  If set to "100" (100msec) the AGC window will have looked at  the number of samples that occurred during that time (e.g. 19200 for 192kHz, 76800 for 768 kHz, etc.) With this in mind, the  value of of "-x" must be chosen appropriately.  Because "-x" is the number of samples during the period that must exceed the value of "-a" (high signal threshold) in order to trigger a gain reduction, that means that if the sample rate is 768 kHz (76800 samples during the period) and "-x" is set at 1000, that means that (1000/76800) = 1.3% of the samples must have exceeded this value.  This value should be scaled accordingly for different sample rates and AGC window periods.

Care should be taken in choosing these parameters as it isn't desirable to have the AGC action occur too quickly at too-low a threshold or too quickly.  Of course, a gain reduction in response to high-signal conditions should occur more rapidly than a gain reduction so the suggested "-S" parameter is 3 dB and the "-y" parameter is 200 msec, meaning that the gain can be reduced (AGC "attack") by 3dB every 200 milliseconds.  For a gain increase, the parameter of "-s" at 1 dB and "-z" of 5000 msec means that the gain will be increased (e.g. AGC decay) by 1 dB every 5 seconds at the fastest, provided that not a single sample exceeded the value set by "-b".

A typical value of "-a" at 16384 represents half-scale of the A/D converter - about 6 dB below clipping.  Experience has shown that while this will not prevent ALL A/D clipping events, a small fraction of clipped samples (a few samples out of every thousand) are unlikely to be noticed in an acquisition channel which is effectively oversampled compared to the typical receiver bandwidth (e.g. a 3 kHz SSB bandwidth on a receiver sampling at 768 kHz).  The threshold for the AGC decay (e.g. increase in gain) using the "-b" parameter is typically 4096 - a value that is about 1/8th of A/D full-scale and only if NO A/D samples above this value occur during the window set by "-c" will the gain be increased again.

LNA and gain settings:

The "-g" parameter is used to specify the MINIMUM amount of gain reduction (lowest value is 20).  Typically, this will be set, along with the "-l" parameter, so that under "no signal" conditions, a reasonable A/D value (around 500) will be obtained so that weak signals - and the antenna system noise floor - may be just detected.  A setting of "-l" of 4 or greater is NOT likely to be usable for any receiver configuration!  It has been observed that at least for HF, a "-g" parameter of lower than 30 will NOT improve sensitivity, but simply raise the noise floor and increase the probability of overload.  Practically speaking, this won't affect performance because of AGC action, but it is preferrable to specify the minimum gain necessary to comfortably hear the noise floor of the receive system - with the noise floor increasing by about 6 dB when one switches the antenna input of the receiver from a 50 ohm load to the antenna system under "dead band" conditions:  More gain than this will NOT improve performance!  Remember:  The "-g" value specifies a "gain reduction", so a higher number means less gain.

A warning is appropriate here as the "-l" parameter sets the amount of attenuation IN FRONT of the LNA and this sets the system noise figure, and "-l" should NOT be set too high to prevent "seeing" the antenna system noise floor under no-signal conditions!  Typically, these parameters are set - WHEN THE BAND IS DEAD AND THERE ARE NO SIGNALS - by setting the "-g" parameter to 20 and then increasing the "-l" parameter until a difference of about 6 dB can NO LONGER be seen when connecting/ disconnecting the antenna - at which point the "-l" parameter is reduced again so that this 6 dB difference is again visible.

The "-g" parameter is then set to obtain the needed no-signal A/D value - which should be in the 200-500 range.  Too-low a "-g" value will result in too-easily triggered AGC action, but a too-high a "-g" value will limit that available operational AGC range (e.g. setting "-g" to 50 means that only as much as 9 dB of AGC can occur as the highest value is 59.)

It is only after the "-l" and "-g" parameters are established that the "gain" value in "websdr.cfg" is set to provide S-meter calibration.

Example configuration using "sdrplayalsa" with output directly into ALSA:

The following shows the use of "sdrplayalsa" output directly into ALSA using the "-o" parameter.

( ./sdrplayalsa -i 4798 -r 768000 -f 14150000 -n -B 600 -g 37 -l 3 -a 16384 -b 4096 -c 100 -x 1000 -y 200 -z 5000 -s 1 -S 3 -e ~/pub/g1.txt -o plug:f_loop0_in -L 65000 ) < /dev/null 2>> $logfile &

Breaking this down:
Example configuration using "sdrplayalsa" and sending raw I/Q data to "STDOUT":

In some cases you may wish to use STDOUT rather than an ALSA device as the recipient of data.  One example why one might wish to do this would be to send the raw I/Q data over TCP or UDP using "netcat" or similar program, send it into another program for further processing (e.g. "csdr" for demodulation/filtering or into another SDR program).  This may be done via the typical methods of using a "pipe".

In the example below we are using STDOUT to send the raw I/Q data to the "fplay" utility - a version of "aplay" modified to operate through at least 768 kHz - to pass audio through to ALSA.

( ./sdrplayalsa -i 4798 -r 768000 -f 14150000 -n -B 600 -g 37 -l 3 -a 16384 -b 4096 -c 100 -x 1000 -y 200 -z 5000 -s 1 -S 3 -e ~/pub/g1.txt | ./fplay -D plug:f_loop0_in -r 768000 -c 2 -f s16_le --disable-softvol -B 40000 ) < /dev/null 2>> $logfile &

For the "sdrplayalsa" portion:

Everything is the same as the example above except that the "-o" and "-L" parameters weren't used.  Because the "-o" parameter was not used on sdrplayalsa, the raw I/Q output is sent via STDOUT, and we happen to use be using the fplay utility to send it on to ALSA as described below.

For the "fplay" portion:

The Linux "pipe" character ( | ) follows the invocation of sdrplayalsa meaning that the raw I/Q data is fed into fplay via STDOUT.  "fplay" is a version of "aplay" modified to accept audio rates higher than 192 kHz and is described on the "Making fplay" page.
The remainder of the parameters pipe errors and diagnostic information to the logfile as shown:  "$logfile" may be specified as an actual file for debugging or as "/dev/null" in normal operation to prevent output from the programs from cluttering up the console.  The final ampersand ( & ) indicates that the two programs (sdrplayalsa and fplay) should run in background mode.

Which should I use - fplay or directly into ALSA?

If it works for you, the "direct to ALSA" approach using the "-o" (and "-L") parameters is easier as you won't need to compile/install the "fplay" utility - but they both seem to work equally well as long as the buffering is set sufficiently large to avoid brief audio drop-outs.

Testing has shown that a "-B" setting of 40000 when used with "fplay" (or aplay) has about the same amount of overall delay as a "Latency" (-L) setting of about 60000 when sdrplayalsa is used with the "-o" parameter to put data directly into ALSA - likely because the use of STDIO, itself, adds a small amount of delay.  Further testing has shown that a "-B" buffer setting of 35000 used with "fplay" and a "-L" setting of 60000 with direct ALSA output using the "-o" parameter are both on the "ragged edge" of (mostly) avoiding audio drop-outs caused by underruns:  A "-B" (for "fplay") setting of 50000 and a "-L" (using the "-o" parameter for direct-to-ALSA output) setting of 65000 are the minimum that you might want to consider to minimize drop-outs as system load changes.

Minimization of images:

Like any receiver, filtering is required to avoid image responses - and the RSP series is no different.  With the current version of the sdrplayalsa driver, there "-w" option - which adds filtering in software - is not yet supported so one must rely on the built-in hardware filtering specified by the "-B" parameter.  For 768 kHz, the best fit is the 600 kHz filter, but even this results in images within about 50 kHz of the top and bottom edges of coverage.  For the lower bands (160-12 meters) the bands are much smaller than 768 kHz and images within the amateur bands can be avoided by placing the amateur band in the center.

For smaller bands like 30, 17 and 12 meters, one could use a 192 kHz sample rate from the RSP1a and select 200 kHz as the "-B" parameter - but this will result in very noticeable images within 30 kHz or so of the band edges.  If one configures the receiver for 384 kHz (still using the 200 kHz filter) the ALSA system - by way of the looback - can resample and filter down to 192 with very good results.

The loopback system - which is defined in the ".asoundrc" file (see the discussion in the page "Configuring high-rate audio loopback devices" - link) will operate at whatever rate the WebSDR is configured:  If you specify the bandwidth in the "websdr.cfg" file at 384 kHz, no matter what the rate is being input to the loopback device, the output will be resampled, as necessary - to 384 kHz.  In the process of resampling, ALSA does a good job of filtering and images that would be present if you were to configure the RSP itself to yield 192 kHz will be absent.

For example:

Suppose that you have a 30 meter receiver and want to cover 192 kHz bandwidth.  In the U.S., you would be tempted to set the receiver's center frequency at 10080 kHz so that you would include the 10 MHz WWV signal, but if this is done images from very strong signals from the 31 Meter SWBC band may appear in the top of the 30 meter band coverage.

If the RSP is configured using "sdrplayalsa" for a 384 kHz rate (-r parameter) with the 200 kHz bandwidth filter (-b parameter) specified (to keep the signal input to the A/D converter from "seeing" signals outside the desired range)you can configure the rate in "websdr.cfg" as 192 kHz, which will direct ALSA to down-sample and filter the signal from 384 to 192 kHz - and do a very good job of removing images in the process!

This scheme cannot work to from a higher rate down to a 768 kHz rate (implying, perhaps, a rate of 1536 kHz or higher prior to resampling) as the ALSA system in current Linux systems will not accept higher than 768 kHz without significant modification of the sound kernel.  In theory, such down-sampling could be done in "sdrplayalsa", but this would be a future project.


The above statement is not strictly true if you are willing to use other utililties to process the raw I/Q data.  As described above, sdrplayalsa doesn't need to  output directly to the ALSA sound system, but it can also output via STDIO and then to ALSA via "fplay".  Because the pipeline between sdrplayalsa and "fplay" does not involve ALSA, and uses STDIO/pipelining there's no obvious sample rate limit so one could, instead, use a utility like csdr to filter and decimate a higher-rate stream down to 768 kHz to produce the desired anti-alias filtering - at the expense of CPU utilization.

For more information about the use of csdr see the following page:  Using "csdr" for auxiliary receiver streams on a WebSDR system - link.  While this page describes the use of csdr to processes "auxiliary" streams the same techniques could apply to the pipelined output of sdrplayalsa before it is applied to the ALSA sound system.

If one does start at a higher bandwidth - particularly using a higher value of the -B (bandwidth) parameter than one might otherwise choose - then the A/D converter (and thus the AGC) will then be able to "see" signals above and below the bandwidth that is ultimately set by csdr (e.g. not visibile to the user).  These "extra" signals will affect the AGC - and, of course, the wider the bandwidth, the less "energy per bit per Hertz" you are allocating to the raw I/Q data meaning that there is the possibility that ultimate receiver performance will degrade as the bandwidth is increased and more signal energy is present at the input of the A/D converter.

The use of csdr also provides for the possibility of covering more bands with a single SDRPlay receiver:  If, for example, the sample rate were set to 3072 kHz, a single receiver would be able to cover frequencies from a few kHz through at least 160 meters:  Using the Linux "pee" command (part of the "moreutils" package - link) to split the pipe from sdrplayalsa it may be possible to send this to multiple instances of csdr which would "tune" and filter out several 768 kHz wide segments, each of which could, in turn, invoke fplay to send those instances to different ALSA devices.  Again, the bandwidth limit of the 16 bit pipeline is 768 kHz and the maximum number of "bands" allowed by the PA3FWM WebSDR software is eight - and as mentioned above, one should also consider the signal dynamics and overall performance as the RF input bandwidth is increased.

Using the "gain" files:

The Northern Utah WebSDR's servers have modified javascript code that will periodically (every 625 milliseconds) read the "gain" file from the server (which is why it should be placed within the ~/pub directory structure) and use this data (which is just the number of dB of extra attenuation) to offset the S-meter reading so that it - and any S-meter graph files that you may be creating - are corrected for RF AGC changes at the receiver:  The current value of "RF AGC" is also displayed on the screen, next to the numerical S-meter reading.

When the WebSDR is started, the script that configures the SDRPlay devices and sdrplayalsa also creates eight "gain" files, each containing the value of "-1":  When an instance of sdrplayalsa is started it will immediately place the value of "0" (zero) in the appropriate gain file.  If the javascript "sees" a value of "-1", it will know that the receiver in question does not have the ability to change AGC gain but any other value will cause the S-meter correction and "RF AGC" values to be modified accordingly.

If you are interested in this code, please contact us using the information at the bottom of this page.

Using a RAM disk for the gain and log files

Although they don't produce a much data at all, the gain and log files may be frequently written and with solid-state drives, it's prudent to minimize the number of writes to the storage media.  Also, it's possible that when sdrplayalsa writes to the storage that it may "block" the rest of the code (possibly resulting in brief underruns or audio drop-outs) briefly if the system is busy and can't write to the storage device immediately.

Whether or not either of the above are really of concern, it's easy to configure and mount temporary storage devices.

Temporary storage for the gain file:

Because the gain file must be publically aceessible, it must be located within the "\pub" directory tree - and in keeping with the above, we'll call this subdirectory "t" for "temporary":  As a user other than sysop, create the subdirectory as follows:  mdkir ~/pub/t

At the moment, this directory uses "normal" disk storage so we must cause it to be mounted as a "temporary" disk (using RAM) upon boot-up, so we need to add a line to /etc/fstab.  First, we need to edit this so we do:  sudo nano /etc/fstab - or you can use your favorite text editor.

Now, add the following lines to /etc/fstab:  

# For sdrplayalsa gainfile
tempfs /home/websdr/pub/t tmpfs size=1M,mode=0777 0 0

This will mount to the directory previously created a RAM disk of 1 Megabyte in size.  Since this mount is "owned" by sysop, we must allow "everyone" to read/write it (e.g. "mode=0777").  This also assumes that the WebSDR runs in a directory structure named "websdr" - but if not, you'll have to rename it accordingly.  1 Megabyte of storage is orders of magnitude more than is needed to store a handful of very small files, but you can make it any size that you like - within reason, of course.

Once the system is rebooted, you'll be able to see that ~/pub/t is "owned" by "sysop" rather than as the user that created it in the first place - but you should be able to read from and write to it.  At this point, be sure to modify the invokation of "sdrplayalsa" so that it uses this new location, as in:  
-e ~/pub/t/g1.txt which specifies that the gain file be written to "~/pub/t".  Of course, the users' Javascript code that would read this gain file must also know to look for this file - but in "/t".

Logfiles in RAM disk:

Even if you don't plan to use the gain file, it's also a good idea to use a RAM disk to store any log files produced by sdrplayalsa in the event that it, too, could be affected by "blocking" should the OS briefly hang the driver when trying to write to the log. The procedure is as above, with some minor changes.  First, let's presume that we wish to store these log files in ~/cfg/temp, so we would create that subdirectory:  mkdir /~cfg/temp

Next, we create temporary storage and mount it at the above location as follows by adding
the following lines to /etc/fstab:  

# For sdrplayalsa log file
tempfs /home/websdr/cfg/temp tmpfs size=100M,mode=0777 0 0

Again, this won't take effect until a reboot.

This time we create a RAM disk of 100 Megabytes in size which should be enough to store a significant number of log entries - but make sure that you have plenty of free RAM to accommodate this.  Note that there is no check to prevent the size of the log file to exceed 100 Megabytes and if it does so, it's possible that sdrplayalsa would crash:  Generating 100 Megabytes of log entries over a period of many months - even if multiple receivers are used - is very unlikely if the receiver is operating normally and if the system is rebooted even occasionally, this should never happen - but if this bothers you, you might consider scheduling a "cleanup" once a week or so that would rename/copy the "old" files elsewhere - or it could simply trim the file a given number of lines:  There are plenty of examples of limiting file size using scripts (called by a "cron" job) to be found on the web.


The above information should be enough to get the loopback system up and running.  Again, the above has been tested and found to work on Ubuntu 18.x and 20.04, but it is not known if this same procedure will work for other Linux distributions like Debian.  If you try it on another distribution, please let us know if it works - and what it took to make it work if it didn't do so "out of the box".  At the time of writing, we don't have a Debian system on which to try/troubleshoot this installation.

Please understand that we don't have the time or inclination to try the above procedure on OSes other than Ubuntu 18 and 20 (there are so many!) so again, please let us know about your successes or failures so that we can let others know.

 I would like to thank Gary Wong, AB1IP, for taking the time to produce and test the base "sdrplayalsa" utility.

Additional information:
 Back to the Northern Utah WebSDR landing page