Audio Output from a Raspberry Pi Zero (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 28 Sep 2017

Audio Output from a Raspberry Pi Zero

Someone at our makerspace found a fun Halloween project we could do at Coder Dojo: a motion sensing pumpkin that laughs evilly when anyone comes near. Great! I've worked with both PIR sensors and ping rangefinders, and it sounded like a fun project to mentor. I did suggest, however, that these days a Raspberry Pi Zero W is cheaper than an Arduino, and playing sounds on it ought to be easier since you have frameworks like ALSA and pygame to work with.

The key phrase is "ought to be easier". There's a catch: the Pi Zero and Zero W don't have an audio output jack like their larger cousins. It's possible to get analog audio output from two GPIO pins (use the term "PWM output" for web searches), but there's a lot of noise. Larger Pis have a built-in low-pass filter to screen out the noise, but on a Pi Zero you have to add a low-pass filter. Of course, you can buy HATs for Pi Zeros that add a sound card, but if you're not super picky about audio quality, you can make your own low-pass filter out of two resistors and two capacitors per channel (multiply by two if you want both the left and right channels).

There are lots of tutorials scattered around the web about how to add audio to a Pi Zero, but I found a lot of them confusing; e.g. Adafruit's tutorial on Pi Zero sound has three different ways to edit the system files, and doesn't specify things like the values of the resistors and capacitors in the circuit diagram (hint: it's clearer if you download the Fritzing file, run Fritzing and click on each resistor). There's a clearer diagram in Sudomod Forums: PWM Audio Guide, but I didn't find that until after I'd made my own, so here's mine.

Parts list:

And here's how to wire it: [Adding audio to the Raspberry Pi Zero]
(Fritzing file, pi-zero-audio.fzz.)

This wiring assumes you're using pins 13 and 18 for the left and right channels. You'll need to configure your Pi to use those pins. Add this to /boot/config.txt:



Once you build your circuit up, you need to test it. Plug in your speaker or headphones, then make sure you can play anything at all:

aplay /usr/share/sounds/alsa/Front_Center.wav

If you need to adjust the volume, run alsamixer and use the up and down arrow keys to adjust volume. You'll have to press up or down several times before the bargraph actually shows a change, so don't despair if your first press does nothing.

That should play in both channels. Next you'll probably be curious whether stereo is actually working. Curiously, none of the tutorials address how to test this. If you ls /usr/share/sounds/alsa/ you'll see names like Front_Left.wav, which might lead you to believe that aplay /usr/share/sounds/alsa/Front_Left.wav might play only on the left. Not so: it's a recording of a voice saying "Front left" in both channels. Very confusing!

Of course, you can copy a music file to your Pi, play it (omxplayer is a nice commandline player that's installed by default and handles MP3) and see if it's in stereo. But the best way I found to test audio channels is this:

speaker-test -t wav -c 2

That will play those ALSA voices in the correct channel, alternating between left and right. (MythTV has a good Overview of how to use speaker-test.

Not loud enough?

I found the volume plenty loud via earbuds, but if you're targeting something like a Halloween pumpkin, you might need more volume. The easy way is to use an amplified speaker (if you don't mind putting your nice amplified speaker amidst the yucky pumpkin guts), but you can also build a simple amplifier. Here's one that looks good, but I haven't built one yet: One Transistor Audio for Pi Zero W

Of course, if you want better sound quality, there are various places that sell HATs with a sound chip and line or headphone out.

Tags: , , , ,
[ 15:49 Sep 28, 2017    More hardware | permalink to this entry | comments ]
(Commenting requires Javascript from and, and a cookie from
blog comments powered by Disqus