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Given a Linux machine for which no app or command produces sound, and an arbitrarily messed up configuration involving an arbitrary non-empty subset of ALSA, JACK, and Pulse, how to investigate the problem and fix it?

I happen to have an ArchLinux machine in front of me, but consider any Linux distro recent enough to be using systemd and hardware made since 2010.

It also happens to be true that 'aplay' given a .wav file, does play the sound, but nothing else works. However, I could tomorrow be dealing with a machine for which this isn't true. I'm looking for a troubleshooting strategy, a diagnostic flow chart, to deal with any machine with nonfunctioning sound.

Assume that speakers are physically plugged in, have power, and no other 'duh' stupidities are in effect. The problem has been narrowed down to an issue of audio software configuration.

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    There's a lot of "arbitrary" which you'll have to specify in some way - troubleshooting is a process that needs feedback, and there is no flowchart for a general case, because it's always different problems. The first step would be to disable Jack and Pulseaudio, and check if ALSA works, because in the end both Jack and Pulseaudio use the ALSA drivers to control the hardware. What's necessary for troubleshooting is a good idea of how each system works (aka "experience"), and not a flowchart.
    – dirkt
    Oct 6, 2016 at 6:51

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I found this page on troubleshooting audio on Linux http://www.troubleshooters.com/linux/sound/sound_troubleshooting.htm which explains the ALSA tools, gives a flowchart, and enough other details to be useful. It's too much to retell or summarize here.

Another page seems to have a fine explanation of ALSA, PulseAudio and JACK, what they are and how they fit together. Provides the big picture essential to troubleshooting.

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