~jpetazzo/Streaming tech talks and training / Using Linux

If you are using Linux as your main operating system, you might wonder if it’s doable to use it to stream content, and how. In this article, I’ll tell you everything I learned about this: what works, what doesn’t, and the various hacks that I’m using to keep it working.

This will be interesting if you are using (or want to use) Linux for these things, but there will be also technical tidbits (related to e.g. USB webcams) that you might find useful even if you’re using other systems.

We’re going to talk about:

It’ll be fun!


The short version is that Linux is a robust platform to stream video. As often with Linux, the user interface can be a bit less polished and I often had to learn more than I wanted to know about some parts of the system. However, it offers a lot of flexibility and you can combine things in very powerful ways.

If the previous paragraph let you wondering “what does that exactly mean?”, I will give you a little example. I’m using a Stream Deck to change scenes with OBS Studio. Each button on the Stream Deck is a tiny LCD screen. I’m told that on macOS and Windows, you can set things up so that the scene change buttons actually show a tiny preview of the scene that you’re about to change to. On my setup, these buttons just show a dull, boring text string. However, I am able to take the video stream that comes out of OBS, encode it with 4 different video bitrates using GPU acceleration, send these streams to various platforms like Twitch or YouTube, record locally the highest bitrate, while also sending it to another computer on my network that will rebroadcast it to a Zoom or Jitsi meeting. (Not because it’s fun, but because I actually need these features sometimes.)

Install this

I’m going to suggest that you run various commands to see by yourself how things work. If you want to follow along, or generally speaking, If you want to tinker with video on Linux, I recommend that you install:

You might also want to get:


On Linux, webcams use V4L2. That stands for “Video For Linux, version 2”. Every USB webcam that you plug into your system (as well as other video acquisition devices) will show up as a device node like /dev/video0.

On all the laptops that I used so far, the built-in webcam was actually a USB webcam, by the way.

All the USB webcams that I worked with actually showed up as two device nodes. The first one is the one from which you can get the actual video stream. The second one only yields “metadata”. I don’t know what kind of metadata. I wasn’t able to do anything useful with that other device node, so I just ignore it.

You can check it out for yourself and list your webcams like this:

v4l2-ctl --list-devices

If you have at least one webcam, it should be on /dev/video0, so there is a good chance that you can run the following command to see a preview of that webcam:

ffplay /dev/video0

This should open a window with a live preview of the webcam, and output a bunch of information in the terminal as well. For instance, on my laptop, I see this:

Input #0, video4linux2,v4l2, from '/dev/video0':B sq=    0B f=0/0
  Duration: N/A, start: 437216.677903, bitrate: 147456 kb/s
    Stream #0:0: Video: rawvideo (YUY2 / 0x32595559), yuyv422, 1280x720, 147456 kb/s, 10 fps, 10 tbr, 1000k tbn, 1000k tbc

What’s particulary interesting is the yuyv422, 1280x720, 147456 kb/s, 10 fps bit.

  1. yuyv422 is the pixel format. While most screens work with RGB data (since they have actual red, green, and blue pixels), video acquisition and compression often works with YUV. Y is luminance (brightness), U and V are chrominance (color). Our eyes are more sensitive to changes in brightness than to changes in color, so YUV formats often discard some of the U and V data to save space without losing much in quality. That particular pixel format requires 16 bits per pixel (instead of 24 for RGB).
  2. 1280x720 is the current capture resolution.
  3. 10 fps is the current capture frame rate: 10 frames per second.
  4. 147456 kb/s is the data transfer, corresponding exactly to 1280 pixels x 720 lines x 16 bits per pixel x 10 frames per second.

That data transfer information is important, because many webcams are USB 2, which is limited to 480 Mb/s. This is a significant limiting factor, as we are about to see.

The USB rabbit hole

You might have noticed that in the example above, we have “only” 10 frames per second. This is a bit low, and we can probably see that the video is a bit choppy. (TV and movies are typically 24 to 30 frames per second.) How can we get more?

Easy: use the -framerate option with ffplay. This instructs ffplay to try and open the device with extra parameters to achieve that frame rate. Our command line becomes:

ffplay -framerate 30 /dev/video0

On my system, we get exactly the same result as earlier (10 frames per second), with a message telling us:

The driver changed the time per frame from 1/30 to 1/10

This is because we asked a frame rate and resolution too high for the webcam, or rather, its USB controller. The formula that we used above tells us that we would need 442 Mb/s for a raw, 30 fps video; but that’s just the video data. We need to add the overhead of the USB protocol. And even if we manage to stay below 480 Mb/s, we’re dangerously close to it, and the USB chipset in the webcam might not be able to pull it off.

So, how do we get a higher resolution and frame rate?

Compressed formats

Most webcams can use compressed formats as well, and that’s what we need here.

To see the various formats that our webcam can handle, we can use v4l2-ctl --list-formats, which on my built-in webcam, yields the following list:

	[0]: 'YUYV' (YUYV 4:2:2)
	[1]: 'MJPG' (Motion-JPEG, compressed)

My webcam (and all USB webcams I’ve seen so far) can send compressed frames in MJPEG. MJPEG is basically a sequence of JPEG pictures. It is widely supported, it is significantly more efficient than raw pictures, but not as efficient as other formats like H264, for instance. With MJPEG, each frame is an entire, independent frame. More advanced codecs will use interframe prediction and motion compensation, and they will send groups of pictures (GOP in short) consisting of a whole image called an intra frame followed by inter frames that are basically small “diffs” based on that whole image.

Each webcam (and capture device) advertises a full list of resolution, formats, and frame rates that it supports. We can see it with v4l2-ctl --list-formats-ext.

We can tell ffmpeg to use a different format with the -pixel_format flag. That flag requires to use a format code. The format codes don’t quite match what v4l2-ctl tells us. For MJPEG, we should use mjpeg, not MJPG. To see these format codes, we can run ffplay -list_formats all /dev/video0. The pixel formats will be shown at the end:

[video4linux2,...] Raw       :     yuyv422 :           YUYV 4:2:2 : 640x480 ...
[video4linux2,...] Compressed:       mjpeg :          Motion-JPEG : 640x480 ...

The format codes are yuyv422 and mjpeg.

(Note that ffmpeg also shows us the supported resolutions, which is nice; but it doesn’t show the supported frame rates, which is why v4l2-ctl is more useful in that regard.)

On my system, the following command will grab video from the webcam using MJPEG:

ffplay -framerate 30 -pixel_format mjpeg /dev/video0

If you don’t get the full resolution of your webcam, it might be because you used it previously (in another program) at a different resolution. It looks like unless instructed otherwise, the device keeps whatever resolution it had last time. You can change the resolution with the -video_size flag, like this:

ffplay -framerate 30 -pixel_format mjpeg -video_size 1280x720  /dev/video0

You might notice that ffplay doesn’t tell us anymore the bitrate of the video, because MJPEG doesn’t yield a constant bitrate: each frame can have a different size.

MJPEG and OBS Studio

In OBS Studio, the problem will manifest itself quite differently. On the three machines where I tried it, when I add a webcam in OBS, I can set the resolution, frame rate, and a “Video Format”.

The “Video Format” gives me a choice that looks like this:

The first entry corresponds to the raw uncompressed format. The three others (with the (Emulated) annotation) crrespond to formats that are converted on the fly. As it turns out, picking one of the “emulated” formats will configure the webcam to use MJPEG, and convert it to one of these formats.

When I try to use the uncompressed format with a frame rate and resolution that aren’t supported, the video for that webcam freezes. As soon as I switch to a lower frame rate, lower resolution, or to an emulated format, it unfreezes.

So we definitely want to use one of the emulated formats, unless we’re happy with a smaller resolution or lower frame rate, of course.

BGR3, YU12, etc.

When we stream or record video, it will almost always be YUV. However, when it gets displayed on our monitor, it will be RGB. Most video cards can convert YUV to RGB in hardware. With that in mind, it would make sense for OBS Studio to use YUV internally. This would save CPU cycles by avoiding superfluous RGB/YUV conversions, except to display the video preview on screen, which could be hardware-accelerated anyway.

However, I don’t know how OBS Studio works internally. I don’t know if its “native” internal format is RGB or YUV. I didn’t notice any difference in video quality or in CPU usage when switching between BGR3 and YU12, but my tests weren’t very scientific, so feel free to check for yourself.


I experienced random lag issues with OBS Studio, especially after suspend/resume cycles. For instance, one camera would appear to lag behind the others, as if it had a delay of a few tenths of second.

The “fix” is to change the resolution or frame rate. It’s enough to e.g. change from 30 to 15 fps, and then back to 30fps. Somehow it resets the acquisition process.

I recently tried to uncheck the “Use buffering” option in OBS, and it seems to solve the problem (I didn’t experience lag issues since then) without adverse effects.

About USB hubs

If you’re using USB 2 webcams and are experiencing issues, try to connect them directly to your computer. I’ve had issues (at the highest resolutions and frame rates) when connecting multiple webcams to the USB hub on my screen. It seemed like a good idea at first: being able to plug the webcams into the screen simplified wiring. However, the webcams are then sharing the USB bandwidth going from the hub to the computer.

The problems can even appear when the webcam is the only device plugged into the hub. Even worse: I’ve seen one webcam fail when plugged into some ports of my laptop’s docking station, but not others.

It turns out that some ports of that docking station were root ports, while others were actually behind an internal hub. (This is similar to what you get when you buy a 7-port USB hub; it isn’t actually a 7-port hub, but two 4-port hubs, the second one being chained to a port of the firts one.)

Note that using USB 3 hubs or a fancy docking station won’t help you at all, because USB 2 and USB 3 use different data lanes. If you plug some USB 2 webcam (like a Logitech C920s) into a fancy USB 3 hub that has a 10 Gb/s link to your machine, all USB 2 (and USB 1) devices on that hub are going to use the USB 2 data wires going to the computer, and will be limited to 480 Mb/s total.

All these bandwidth constraints may or may not affect you at all. If you’re running a single webcam in MJPEG behind a couple of hubs, you’ll probably be fine. If you are running multiple webcams and/or at full HD or 4K resolutions and/or behind multiple hubs shared with other peripherals (keyboard, mouse, audio interfaces), it’s a different story. If you want to rule out that kind of issue, try connecting the webcam directly to the computer. If your computer has both USB 2 and USB 3 ports, use USB 3 ports (even if the webcam is USB 2) because on some computers, the USB 2 ports are already behind a hub.

USB 3 and USB-C

USB 3 offers much faster speeds. It starts at 5000 Mb/s, so 10x faster than USB 2, woohoo!

Webcams supporting USB 3 shouldn’t be affected by all the bandwidth issues mentioned above. So if you intend to have multiple cameras and super high resolutions, try to get USB 3 stuff. (Note, however, that if your goal is to improve video quality, you should first invest in lights and other equipment, as mentioned in part 2 of this article series.)

“How can I know if my stuff is USB 3?”

USB-C connectors (the rounded ones on modern laptops, phones, etc.) almost always indicate USB 3. (All the USB-C connectors I found on computers and webcams were USB 3. However, some cables have USB-C connectors but are only USB 2. Tricky, I know.)

For USB A connectors (the older rectangular ones), USB 3 is generally indicated by the blue color or by the SuperSpeed logo as shown below.

USB Type-A plugs and jacks

usbtop doesn’t work

While troubleshooting my USB bandwidth problems, I found a tool that seemed promising: usbtop. It shows the current USB bandwidth utilization.

Unfortunately, it made me waste a lot of time, because it showed numbers that were way smaller than reality, leading me to believe that I had a lot of available bandwidth, while my bus was, in fact, almost saturated.

I realized the problem when grabbing raw video output from a webcam. ffplay would give me an exact number which I could very with a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, while usbtop, alas, would show me some much smaller number.

V4L2 is back with a loopback

Let’s leave aside all that USB nonsense for a bit.

Linux makes it super easy to have virtual webcams, thanks to the V4L2 Loopback device. This is a device that looks like a webcam, except that you can also send video to it.

V4L2 Loopback is not part of the vanilla kernel, so you will need to install it. Look for a package named v4l2loopback-dkms or similar; it should take care of compiling the module for you.

I personally load the module with:

modprobe v4l2loopback video_nr=8,9 card_label=EOS1100D,OBS

This creates devices /dev/video8 and /dev/video9. They will show up respectively as EOS1100D and OBS in webcam selection dialogs. (The first one is to use a DSLR as a webcam, the second one is used to get the video output of OBS and pipe it to whatever I need.)

In the examples below, I will assume that /dev/video9 is a V4L2 loopback device. Adapt accordingly.

For instance, here is how to Rickroll your friends or coworkers during a Skype or Zoom call and show them the video clip of Rick Astley instead of your face:

  1. Install YouTube downloader script:
    pip install --user youtube-dl
  2. Download video:
    youtube-dl https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dQw4w9WgXcQ
  3. For convenience, rename it to a shorter filename, e.g.:
    mv *dQw4w9WgXcQ.mkv rickroll.mkv
  4. Decode video and play it through loopback device:
    ffmpeg -re rickroll.mkv -f v4l2 -s 1280x720 /dev/video9
  5. Check that it looks fine:
    ffplay /dev/video9
  6. Go to Jitsi, Skype, Zoom, whatever, and select the virtual webcam (if you loaded the module like I mentioned above, it should show up as “OBS”). Enjoy.

Note that this only gives you video. We’ll talk about audio later.

Also note the -re flag that we used above: it tells ffmpeg to read the input file at “native frame rate”. Without this option, ffmpeg would read our video as fast as it can, resulting in a very accelerated Rick Astley in the output.

One more thing: if you want to play the video in a loop, add -stream_loop -1. You’re welcome.

Good resolutions

You might have noticed in the example above that I resized the video to 720p. Without the -s 1280x720 we would get full HD, 1080p (1920x1080) output. This is mostly fine (in my experience, Zoom supports it) but many web-based video systems (like Jitsi) limit resolutions to 720p and below. If we hadn’t resized the video, our virtual webcam would advertise a picture size of 1920x1080, and Jitsi would filter it out, and our “OBS” virtual webcam wouldn’t show up. (Thanks to the folks at Mozilla who helped me figure that out by the way. They’ve been incredibly helpful!)

Furthermore, the V4L2 Loopback device only supports one resolution at a time, and it won’t switch as long as there is at least one reader or one writer attached to it. Which means that if you mess around a bit (e.g. if you do some tests with 1080p video and open some WebRTC test page) your browser might keep the video device open, and it would be stuck in 1080p. ffmpeg would still send the video in whatever resolution you tell it, but now that would be invalid (and the ffplay test would yield garbled video output, because ffplay would still see a 1080p device). To troubleshoot that kind of issue, you can run fuser -auv /dev/video9 to see which processes are currently using the file, and restarting your browser if necessary.

Sending OBS output to a virtual webcam

If you want to use OBS with regular video conferencing apps, you can use an OBS plugin called obs-v4l2sink. It will add an entry “V4L2 Video Output” to the “Tools” menu in OBS, letting you send OBS video to a V4L2 loopback device. You can then use that loopback device in any app you want.

The resolution limit still applies: if you set up OBS with a resolution of 1080p (or higher), the virtual webcam may not happen in e.g. Jitsi and many other web-based systems. If you plan on using these, change the “canvas size” in OBS to a smaller resolution. (It will also significantly reduce CPU usage, so yay for that!)

Also, note that most video conferencing systems don’t handle 1080p, even when they boast “HD” quality. As explained in part 3 of this series, Zoom will scale down webcam resolution to 720p (or even lower), so sending 1080p output will be completely useless.

This will be very noticeable if you share a browser or terminal window this way. It will appear very pixellated to your viewers, regardless of you’re available network bandwidth and CPU.

However, if you want to send 1080p output to Zoom and retain HD quality, you can do it by using the “window or desktop sharing” feature of Zoom. When you share a window or desktop, Zoom switches encoding settings to give you an outstanding picture quality, at the expense of the frame rate.

You can try that by telling OBS to preview the video stream in a window of that size (or a screen of that resolution), then use the “share desktop” feature of Zoom to share that window or screen.

Note that if you want to use that desktop sharing trick, you don’t need the V4L2 Video Ouput plugin, nor the V4L2 Loopback module.

Sending OBS output to a virtual webcam (or to a screen and then capturing that screen) is also a good way to grab that output and then do whatever you want with it. I use GPU acceleration to encode simultaneously 4 different bitrates, send them all to a broadcast server, and save the highest one to disk, for instance. (More on that later.)

Using a DSLR or a phone as a webcam

Now that we familiarized ourselves with V4L2 Loopback, let’s see something more useful that we can do with it.

We’ll see how to use a DSLR as a webcam, and how to use a phone as a webcam.

Using a DSLR as a webcam

I already mentioned this in part 2 of this series. The advantage of using a DSLR as a webcam is that it should have a better sensor, and most importantly, better lenses. If you have a good DSLR but with a basic lens, there is a good chance that it won’t be better than a decent webcam. For instance, I tried with a Canon EOS1100D, known as the Rebel T3 in the US or the Kiss X50 in Japan; and the image was actually worse than with my Logitech webcams. But don’t let that discourage you, especially if you have a good lens kit!

One way to use a DSLR as a webcam is to use the HDMI output, and an HDMI capture device. I already cover that in part 2 of this series, so I will talk about another method here.

Many DSLRs support a “Live View” feature that can be accessed over USB using a fairly standard protocol. This “Live View” feature essentially gives a stream of JPEG pictures … so basically a MJPEG video stream.

To see if your DSLR supports it, connect it over USB and run gphoto2 --abilities. If the output includes “Live View”, it will probably work. Otherwise, it probably won’t.

On the cameras supporting it, all we have to do is:

gphoto2 --stdout --capture-movie \
| ffmpeg -i - -vcodec rawvideo -pix_fmt yuv420p -threads 0 -f v4l2 /dev/video8

And now we can use /dev/video8 in any application expecting a webcam.

The gPhoto remote page has some details, and a long list of cameras indicating if they are supported or not.

Note that the Live View typically has a much lower resolution than the camera. On the EOS 1100D, it was about 720p, so about 1 megapixel; much less than the 12 MP that this camera is capable of.

Using a phone as a webcam

You can also use a phone (or tablet) as a webcam. Here are a few reasons (or excuses) to do that:

In this example, we’re going to use an Android app. I’m pretty sure that similar apps exist on Apple devices, but you’ll have to find them on your own.

The app is IP Webcam. Install it, start it, then at the bottom of the main menu, tap “Start server”. It will show a camera view and a connection URL looking like “IPV4:”.

You can go to that URL and click on “Video renderer: Browser” to check that everything is fine.

The next step is to check with our favorite swiss-army knife if it can read that video stream:


This should display the video coming from the phone. You might notice that the video starts lagging, and that the lag increases. This is because the app is probably sending at 30 fps, but ffplay thinks this is 25 fps, so it plays a bit slower than it should, and it “gets late”.

One way to address that is to force the frame rate:

ffplay -f mjpeg -framerate 30

Another way is to force immediate presentation of frames as they show up:

ffplay -vf setpts=0

(The PTS is the “presentation timestamp”, which tells to the player when the frame should be displayed. This can be manipulated to achieve slow-motion or accelerated playback. Here, we set it to zero, which apparently has the effect of telling ffplay “omg dude you’re late, you were SO supposed to display that frame, like, forever ago, so do it now and we won’t tell anyone about it!”)

Now we can shove that video stream into our virtual webcam like this:

ffmpeg -i -pix_fmt yuv420p -f v4l2 /dev/video9

We don’t need to meddle with the PTS here, because by default, ffmpeg tries to read+convert+write frames as fast as it can, without any concern for their supposed play speed. You might see in the output that it’s operating at “1.2x” because it computes that it’s processing 30 frames per second on a 25 frames per second video stream. Whatever.

Using a phone as a webcam in OBS

With the technique described above, your phone is now a webcam (technically, a V4L2 device) that can be used with any Linux application, including OBS.

But there is another way to use the phone as a webcam, specifically with OBS. The app on the phone is exposing an MJPEG stream that can be shown in a browser. OBS can use a browser as a source. So you can display a browser in OBS, and in that browser, open the camera stream.

You need to install the OBS “linuxbrowser” plugin. (I’ve generally seen it packaged separately.) Then, in OBS, add a source of type “Linux Browser”. Change the URL to be (adapt to your phone’s IP address, of course) and you should be set.

I don’t know if this approach is better or worse than going through ffmpeg and V4L2 loopback. While ffmpeg and V4L2 loopback involve a few more steps, it’s likely that their code is a bit more optimized than the one in the OBS Linux Browser; but that’s just a completely unsupported guess from me. Try them and see what works best for you!

All hands on the Stream Deck

Getting the Stream Deck to work on Linux was easy. There is a Stream Deck UI project that just works.

However, getting the Stream Deck to play nice with OBS Studio was a different story. The Steam Deck UI can be configured to generate key strokes, and OBS Studio can be configured to use keyboard shortcuts. However, for unknown reasons, on my machine, OBS doesn’t seem to recognize the key strokes generated by the Steam Deck UI.

To work around the issue, I use obs-websocket, a plugin to allow OBS to be controlled through WebSockets. Then I use obs-websocket-py, a Python client library to interface with that plugin; and a little custom script called owc to invoke that library from the command line. Then I set up the Stream Deck UI to execute that script with the right arguments.

I also use the leglight library and another small custom script called elgatoctl to control my Elgato Key Light from the command line (and, by extension, from the Stream Deck).


When using OBS, you have at least two options for audio: route it through OBS, or bypass OBS entirely. “Routing audio through OBS” means adding some “Audio Capture” device in our OBS sources. “Bypassing OBS” means that we do not add any audio device in OBS, and use a separate tool to deal with audio.

If we stream or record directly from OBS, we must route audio through OBS, so that the RTMP stream or the recorded file includes audio.

Routing the audio through OBS is useful if you have e.g. a waiting music, or if you want to mute the mic when switching to specific scenes (like a “Let’s take a break, we’ll be right back” scene).

Each time you add an audio source in OBS, you can switch that source between three modes:

(You can find these modes by right-clicking on the audio source in the “Audio Mixer” section, and selecting “Advanced Audio Properties”.)

“Monitor” means that OBS will play that audio input back to you. This can be useful if you have an audio source playing some background music, for instance. You would then select “Monitor and Output” so that the music goes to the RTMP stream and so that you can hear it locally.

Be careful if you use simultaneously “Monitor”, speakers, and an active mic input: the monitored audio input would play through the speakers and be picked up by the mic.

This whole “Monitor/Output” situation becomes even more confusing when you add PulseAudio to the mix (no pun intended). PulseAudio lets you remap application sounds to different outputs, so that you could e.g. play that song on your speakers but hear that Zoom call on your Bluetooth headset. Each monitored channel shows up separately in PulseAudio. The computer that I use for streaming has 3 audio interfaces and a virtual one. Troubleshooting the whole audio pipeline often turns into a wild goose chase.

Since I don’t really need anything fancy on the audio side (I just stream my voice), it is easier to directly route audio inputs to the system that I use for conferencing or streaming, rather than go through OBS. My mic is plugged into a small USB interface that has a very distinctive name (ATR2USB), so I just pick that one in e.g. Jitsi or Zoom; and when streaming with ffmpeg, I set up ffmpeg to directly grab audio from that interface.


One thing that seemed promising was to use a virtual ALSA loopback device. ALSA is a popular API to access audio input/output on Linux. While many applications nowadays use PulseAudio or JACK to access audio interfaces, PulseAudio and JACK themselves generally use ALSA to communicate with the hardware. ALSA is to audio what V4L2 is to video: they’re both low-level interfaces to access respectively audio and video input/output devices.

As you can guess from the title of this subsection, there is an ALSA loop device, and it can be used similarly to the V4L2 loop device.

For instance, we can configure OBS to send its audio to an ALSA loop device, and then use this loop device as a virtual mic in another application.

At least in theory.

In practice, if PulseAudio gets involved, good luck, have fun.

The following command will load the ALSA loopback device:

modprobe snd-aloop index=9 id=Loopback pcm_substreams=1

index=9 means that the loopback device will be ALSA device “card 9”. Again, I pick a number high enough to avoid any conflicts with my existing audio interfaces.

id=Loopback will be the name of the card.

pcm_substreams indicates how many streams you want that card to have. This is in case you want to have multiple cards with multiple streams each. I might be wrong, but I think that this does not correspond to the number of channels. pcm_substreams=1 seems to give you a stereo channel. More research needed here.

After loading the loopback device, you can check that it appears by listing input and output devices:

arecord -l
aplay -l

Since many webcams include microphones, the list of capture devices can get quite large:

$ arecord -l
**** List of CAPTURE Hardware Devices ****
card 0: PCH [HDA Intel PCH], device 0: ALC298 Analog [ALC298 Analog]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 1: C920 [HD Pro Webcam C920], device 0: USB Audio [USB Audio]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 3: StreamCam [Logitech StreamCam], device 0: USB Audio [USB Audio]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 4: ATR2USB_1 [ATR2USB], device 0: USB Audio [USB Audio]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 9: Loopback [Loopback], device 0: Loopback PCM [Loopback PCM]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0
card 9: Loopback [Loopback], device 1: Loopback PCM [Loopback PCM]
  Subdevices: 1/1
  Subdevice #0: subdevice #0

The name of our device shows up correctly here, but PulseAudio doesn’t use it, and the ALSA loopback device shows up as “Built-In Audio”. Unfortunately, this is exactly the same name as the actual built-in audio interface, so good luck when trying to distinguish them.

But the trickiest part is that we have one card with two devices, each device sending to (and receiving from) the other one. In my setup above, if I send audio to ALSA device hw:9,0 I will be able to read it from hw:9,1, and vice versa.

By default, however, most (if not all) ALSA applications will use the first device (device 0) of a given card. If you want the ALSA loopback device to work for you, you need to either explicitly write to device 1, or read from device 1. Basically, you need to decide if you want to make your life more complicated on the sender (playing audio) side, or the receiver (recording audio) side.

In my case, if I want to record or stream audio with ffmpeg, it is very easy to tell ffmpeg to read from hw:9,1, so here is what I do:

  1. Rename the audio interface in PulseAudio, so that it shows up in all applications as “Loopback”:
    pacmd 'update-sink-proplist alsa_output.platform-snd_aloop.0.analog-stereo device.description="Loopback"'
  2. Open e.g. pavucontrol, find OBS in the “Playback” tab, and assign it to the “Loopback” output.
  3. Test audio playback with ffplay -f alsa hw:9,1, or use it as an input source in ffmpeg with -f alsa -i hw:9,1.

If you want to be able to use the loop device as an input in Jitsi, Zoom, or whatever, you can try the following additional steps:

  1. Manually add the hw:9,1 audio source in PulseAudio:
    pactl load-module module-alsa-source device=hw:9,1
  2. Rename it to “Loopback”:
    pacmd 'update-source-proplist alsa_input.hw_9_1 device.description="Loopback"'

Now you should see a “Loopback” option along your mics and other audio inputs.

Configuring PulseAudio to automatically load this module and renaming audio inputs and outputs is left as an exercise for the reader.


If you have a NVIDIA GPU in your streaming machine, it can be advantageous to use it to leverage hardware-accelarated encoding (NVENC). In theory, this is great, because NVIDIA GPUs are very efficient with that. In practice, proprietary drivers get involved, and it’s a tire fire, especially when using multiple monitors. (The monitors have nothing to do with hardware encoding; but proprietary drivers mess things up pretty quickly in that regard.)

Disclaimer: it took me a while to find a combination of drivers, options, video modes, etc. that would work and be stable and not randomly screw everything up when rebooting or when suspending and resuming. At one point, it took me 20 minutes of rebooting, connecting/disconnecting screens, trying various tools (between e.g. xrandr and the NVIDIA control panel) until I got all my screens working properly, because the procedure that I had used successfully multiple times before just didn’t work anymore. My overall impression is that while the NVIDIA hardware is pretty impressive, the software is at the other end of the spectrum. That being said, if you’re not afraid of wrestling with proprietary drivers and dealing with a lot of nonsense, let’s see what we can do.

Handling multiple monitors

When streaming, I use at least one external monitor, preferably two (in addition to the internal monitor of the laptop that I’m using). The laptop is a ThinkPad P51 with a docking station. Both monitors are connected to the docking station over DisplayPort.

On Linux, the usual way to deal with multi-monitor setups is to use the RandR extension (unless you use Wayland, but I’m going to leave that aside). There is a command-line utility xrandr, a crude but effective GUI called arandr, and you can use a tool like autorandr to automatically switch modes when screens are connected and disconnected.

This works alright when using the NVIDIA open source drivers (nouveau), but in my experience, that doesn’t work very well when using the proprietary drivers. It looks like the proprietary drivers try to implement the RandR extension, but will fail randomly. At some point, I almost had found a particular xrandr command line that would work after booting the machine, and another one that would work when resuming after suspend - most of the time.

The most reliable method involves using nvidia-settings in CLI mode to set NVIDIA MetaModes. MetaModes are NVIDIA’s proprietary way to handle multiple monitors.

This is what I’m using to scale the internal 4K LCD to 1080p, and add one external monitor above the LCD, and another one to the right:

LCD="DPY-4: nvidia-auto-select @1920x1080 +0+1080 {ViewPortIn=1920x1080, ViewPortOut=3840x2160+0+0, $TRANSFORM, ResamplingMethod=Bilinear}"
RIGHT="DPY-0: nvidia-auto-select @1920x1080 +1920+0 {ViewPortIn=1920x1080, ViewPortOut=1920x1080+0+0}" 
TOP="DPY-1: nvidia-auto-select @1920x1080 +0+0 {ViewPortIn=1920x1080, ViewPortOut=1920x1080+0+0}"
nvidia-settings --assign CurrentMetaMode="$LCD, $TOP, $RIGHT"

This seems to work in a deterministic way. I think I had to restart the X session once because one screen didn’t come up, but otherwise this has been robust enough for my needs.


After installing the proprietary drivers, make sure that you also have libnvidia-encode.so on your system. Then, if you already know how to use ffmpeg, all you have to do is replace -c:v libx264 with -c:v h264_nvenc and you’re pretty much set.

Explaining the intricacies of H264 codecs, with profiles, tuning, bit rates, etc. would be beyond the scope of this article; but just for reference, here is the ffmpeg command line that I’m using:

ffmpeg \
  -thread_queue_size 1024 -f alsa -ac 2 -i hw:4,0 \
  -thread_queue_size 1024 -f v4l2 -frame_size 1920x1080 -framerate 30 -i /dev/video9 \
  -c:a aac \
  -map 0:a:0 -ac:a:0 1 -b:a:0 128k \
  -map 0:a:0 -ac:a:1 1 -b:a:1 64k \
  -map 0:a:0 -ac:a:2 1 -b:a:2 48k \
  -c:v h264_nvenc -preset ll -profile:v baseline -rc cbr_ld_hq \
  -filter_complex format=yuv420p,split=2[s1][30fps];[s1]fps=fps=15[15fps];[30fps]split=2[30fps1][30fps2];[15fps]split=2[15fps1][15fps2] \
  -map [30fps1] -b:v:0 3800k -maxrate:v:0 3800k -bufsize:v:0 3800k -g 30 \
  -map [30fps2] -b:v:1 1800k -maxrate:v:1 1800k -bufsize:v:1 1800k -g 30 \
  -map [15fps1] -b:v:2 900k -maxrate:v:2 900k -bufsize:v:2 900k -g 30 \
  -map [15fps2] -b:v:3 400k -maxrate:v:3 400k -bufsize:v:3 400k -g 30 \
  -f tee -flags +global_header \

(Sorry about these two very long lines; in practice, I build them one piece at a time using a script.)

This will:

The encoder is tuned here for low latency: it’s using the Constrained Baseline Profile to disable B-frames. The two highest bit rates have 30 frames per second and a 1-second GOP size. The two lowest bit rates are reduced to 15 frames per second and use a 2-second GOP size. (This means higher latency when using HLS streaming, but significantly improves quality.)

You can view GPU usage the nvidia-smi CLI tool.

On the other machine on my LAN (, this is how I receive the stream and “feed” it into a virtual webcam for use with Jitsi, Zoom, etc. as well as an ALSA loop device as described above:

ffmpeg -f mpegts -i udp:// \
  -f v4l2 -s 1280x720 /dev/video9 \
  -f alsa -ac 2 -ar 44100 hw:9,1

(The -ac 2 lets us go back to stereo channels, and -ar 44100 resamples to 44.1 KHz, which may or may not be necessary, but ffmpeg does a much better job than PulseAudio when it comes to resampling audio.)

NVIDIA patch

One last thing about NVENC: NVIDIA artificially limits the number of streams that you can encode in parallel. For instance, with my GPU, I could get 3 streams, but when I added the 4th one, I got an error message similar to OpenEncodeSessionEx failed: out of memory (10).

However, nvidia-smi said that I still had lots of available memory (I had about 800 MB GPU memory used over 4 GB).

Surprisingly, according to the NVENC support matrix, my GPU (a Quadro M2200 / GM206) is supposed to be “unrestricted”. I suppose that the detection code is broken, or that the information on the NVIDIA website is invalid.

Still, since this is just a software restriction, you can remove it by using nvidia-patch, which will patch your NVIDIA drivers to remove the limitation.

(If you’re nervous about running nvidia-patch as root, you can easily confirm for yourself that it’s only touching the NVIDIA .so files, and it’s not replacing them with new versions, but actually patching the binary code with sed. While it’s not technically impossible that this would result in turning your GPU into a pumpkin, it’s probably okay-ish.)


I run all the things described above in Docker containers. This gives me a way to move the whole setup (including the OBS plugins, which need to be compiled) to another machine relatively easily.

There are many tricks involved, and I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone, except if you already have experience running desktop applications in containers.

The Dockerfiles and the Compose file that I use is available on my obs-docker repository on GitHub.

Wrapping up

There are many quirks and tweaks involved to get a good streaming setup up and running with Linux. I don’t know if things are easier on other systems. It’s generally easier to get started on a Mac or Windows system; but customization is also harder (or downright impossible).

For instance, hardware encdoding on a Mac seems pretty random. Windows obviously has first-class support for NVIDIA GPUs, but if you want to encode multiple bit rates at the same time like I do, you probably have to break out ffmpeg anyway.

If you’re exploring the possibilities of streaming content from Linux, I hope that this article could give you some useful information!

This work by Jérôme Petazzoni is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.