Taming the loud system beep (Shallow Thoughts)

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

Tue, 13 Dec 2011

Taming the loud system beep

One of the distros I'm trying on my Dell Latitude 2120 laptop is Arch Linux. I like a lot of things about Arch; I had to stop using it on my previous laptop because something broke in the wi-fi drivers, but I always regretted giving it up. And it seems to work quite well on the Dell, with one exception: the system beep (which other distros don't support at all) was ear-shatteringly loud, far too loud to consider being able to use this laptop in a public space. Clearly that needed to be fixed.

The usual approach to system beeps, unloading or blacklisting the pcspkr module, had no effect. xset b off turned the beep off in X; I could also set its pitch and duration to change it to a nice quiet click, though I wasn't able to change the volume that way. I actually do like having a system beep, as long as it's fairly quiet and won't disturb people nearby. Unfortunately, xset b only affects the bell while in X; it didn't have any effect on the deafening sound Arch gave upon shutdown or reboot.

It turns out that on some laptops, including this Dell, the system beep goes not through the old-style pcspkr driver, but through the normal sound card. And the sound card has a separate channel for the system beep, so even if you have your volume turned down, the beep may still be at 100%. All I needed to do was run alsamixer and find out what the channel was called: "Beep".

Given that, I could use the amixer program to ensure the beep volume will be sane when I log in. I added the following to .zlogin (for zsh; obviously, adjust for your own shell):

amixer -q -c 0 set Beep 5

That gave me a nice quiet beep. If I need to turn it off completely, amixer can do that too: amixer -q -c 0 set Beep mute (curiously, amixer -q -c 0 set Beep 0 doesn't actually set the volume to zero, just sets it very low).

That volume setting applies to the shutdown beep, too, fortunately. Though what I'd really like is to have quiet beeps while I'm running, but no shutdown beep at all. I don't understand the purpose of the shutdown beep; obviously I know when I've told my machine to shut down or reboot, so why do I need an audible reminder? But I've been unable to find anything explaining what's causing this beep. I tried adding a amixer -q -c 0 set Beep mute to /etc/rc.local.shutdown, but it didn't help; apparently the shutdown beep is called before that file is run. Which strongly suggests it is being run by Arch Linux, not by something in the BIOS. But nobody I've asked had any suggestions as to its source, or how to change it. Another enduring Linux mystery ...

Update: I mentioned xset b as a way to adjust beeps inside X -- in addition to turning beeps totally off, you can also set pitch, duration, and sometimes volume though the volume part didn't work for me. But outside X, you can make similar adjustments with setterm, e.g. setterm -bfreq 400 -blength 50. Thanks to Mikachu for the tip!

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[ 11:05 Dec 13, 2011    More linux | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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