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How can I use multiple soundcards with JACK?

JACK is fundamentally designed to be a component in a pro-audio/music creation environment and standard operating practice for such setups involves using only a single digital sample “clock” (something counting off the time between audio samples). This means that trying to use multiple independent soundcards is problematic, because each soundcard has its own sample clock, running independently from the others. Over time, these different clocks drift out of sync with each other, and cause glitches in the audio. You can’t stop this drift, although in some cases the effects may be insignificant enough that some people might not care about them.

Thus in an ideal world you should not use multiple independent soundcards but instead use a single device with a single clock and all the inputs, outputs and other features that you need.

Of course, a lot of people don’t live in an ideal world, and believe that software should make up for this. Accordingly, JACK offers several ways for you to use more than 1 device at a time.

1. Use the alsa_in and alsa_out clients (Linux & ALSA only)

If you are using JACK on Linux and want to use additional devices that have ALSA driver support (i.e. most PCI, USB and Bluetooth devices), then this is the best option.

alsa_in and alsa_out are two clients written by Torben Hohn that make a single specified ALSA device appear as a set of JACK ports. They both use Erik de Castro Lopo’s libsamplerate library to do any resampling required to keep the audio in sync as the clocks of each device drift over time.

To use them, you start JACK as normal. Then you start an instance of alsa_in or alsa_out for each additional device (and “direction”) that you want to use. alsa_out will create a set of ports representing the playback capabilities of the device, and alsa_in will represent the capture/recording capabilities. These two clients must be run inside a terminal window - there is no GUI for either of them. They both take arguments very much like those of the JACK ALSA backend, with some additional controls that affect the way that resampling is done. Full details are available in the man pages for each client, which you can read in a terminal window with the command man alsa_in (this page covers both clients, since their arguments are identical).

Note that you can use these clients even if you are running JACK with a FFADO- supported device. The requirement for ALSA support only applies to the extra devices you want to use, not the one that JACK itself is using.

2. Use the JACK2 audio adapter(s) (Jack2 only)

More information is needed on this option

3. Using OS facilities to merge devices into a single pseudo-device

Both OS X and Linux provide ways to configure your machine so that it appears to have a new audio device that is actually a combination of one or more real devices. You can use this approach to create the configuration you want to use and then start up JACK using that new “pseudo” device.


You must perform these steps as a user with administrative priviledges. The first thing to do is to open up Applications -> Utilities -> Audio/MIDI Setup. Go to the main menu bar, click on Audio and then select Open aggregate device editor. Follow the simple instructions to add each desired playback or capture device to your new aggregate device. Then pick a name for the new device. This is the name you will also use to choose the device for use with JACK.

Note that there are quite a few subtle bugs with Apple’s “aggregate device” facilities. Various things can happen that will cause the device to lose all of its playback channels or all of its capture channels, for example. If this happens, it is generally necessary to close all applications that are using any audio devices, and quite often a reboot is required.

Starting with JACK2 version 1.9.6, the CoreAudio backend can now dynamically create “aggregate devices” when needed (like when the -C and -P arguments are used to specify the separated input and output devices).


You will need to use a text editor to create or add to your ~/.asoundrc file. This file is read by any ALSA application (including JACK, if its using the ALSA backend) and can be used to define pseudo-devices of many different kinds. The key idea here is that you’re going to define a new pseudo-device composed of 2 or more other devices. In our example, we’ll just focus on 2 devices being merged into 1, where both devices have just 2 channels in and out. This is the text you need to make sure is in ~/.asoundrc (below, we describe what this does):

pcm.merge {
    type multi;
    slaves.a.pcm hw:0
    slaves.a.channels 2;
    slaves.b.pcm hw:1
    slaves.b.channels 2;
    bindings.0.slave a; 0;
    bindings.1.slave b; 0;
    bindings.2.slave a; 1;
    bindings.3.slave b; 1;

Lets see what this does.

Note that numbering of devices and channels in ALSA starts at zero, not one.

The most important and complex part of the above definition is the channel mappings defined by the bindings lines. A full channel mapping definition consists of a pair of a lines of the following general form:


So the specific pair of lines:

    bindings.0.slave a; 0;

mean that “channel 0 of the pseudo-device will correspond to channel 0 of the first slave device”. Obviously by playing with this definition you can create all sorts of wierd and wonderful mappings from the real physical device channels to the pseudo-device channels. You probably don’t want to do that, though. The example above shows the most common example: take the first N channels from the first device, and the second M channels from the second device.

The Control Pseudo-device

In theory, the above is enough to define a new pseudo-device, but many applications, including JACK’s ALSA backend, also want to open a “control device” associated with the audio playback device. This is where they can find out (and possibly control) various hardware parameters associated with the device. Unfortunately there is no way to merge these together in the same way, so we have to provide a “dummy” control device definition that will keep such applications happy. This definition looks like this:

ctl.merge {
    type hw
    card 0

Notice that name following the ctl. text must be the same as the name following pcm. in the device definition above. The control device definition we’ve given here effectively means “if you want to open the control device associated with “merge”, open the control device associated with the first installed audio/MIDI device”. This probably isn’t right of course - “merge” involves two cards - but it will generally work just fine.

You can use this same approach to merge more than 2 devices - the resulting pcm._DEVICE-NAME_ specification will obviously include more lines. You can also use different devices than we did above, where we just used the first and second installed card.

“Slave” Device naming

Note that you are likely better off using “hw:CARD” device names, rather than “hw:N” names, when defining a “multi” pseudo-device, as explained here. But further note that if you are using multiple instances of the same type of audio hardware (say, 4 RME Multiface devices), you will have to use “hw:N” because every card will have the same “CARD” name. In fact, with such hardware, it may be very difficult to ensure that “hw:0” always refers to the same audio interface, because there is no ALSA name that uniquely defines a particular PCI slot. This is currently an unsolved problem when using multiple identical devices. If you use PCI (or PCIe or PCIx or other derivatives of PCI) devices, the chances are that the first card will always be the same one, and so forth, so its not likely to be an issue. If you use several identical USB devices, it may be a more significant problem.

4. Using the -P and -C arguments to a JACK backend

Several JACK backends, including the ALSA, FFADO and CoreAudio versions, support the -P and -C arguments that can be used to specify two different devices, one for playback and one for capture/recording. You cannot use this to merge multiple devices for playback or capture. This approach will not do any clock drift correction, so as the two devices drift over time, you may get glitches in the audio stream. Nevertheless, it can be an easy if unreliable way to set up JACK so that, for example, it records from a USB microphone and plays back via a builtin audio device.

When using -P or -C to specify different devices, do not use the -d argument (which specifies a single device) and do not use the -D argument (which tells JACK to configure a device for playback & capture).