27 Nov

Auditory woes

My son recently had an interesting issue on his computer. He had recently switched out graphics cards (very proud of him!) and in the process there were some driver issues. Even though he went from Nvidia to Nvidia, there were bluescreens and it took a few reboots for him to get back to the desktop of Windows 11. Graphics worked fine, the card was detected, and the correct driver was loaded. Case closed, right? No.

Suddenly he had no audio. And it wasn’t a case of someone hitting the mute key by accident, or choosing the wrong output device – there was simply no audio. No audio devices even. Big ol’ x on the speaker in the system tray.

Running the audio troubleshooter (I’ve really taken to liking the windows troubleshooters for the simple problems!), we got the first (and what would turn out to be the only one needed) clue: “Some audio services are not responding”. What was even more troubling was that the troubleshooter was unable to fix it, i.e., start the service. So we head to windows services.

The windows audio service was not running. But could the troubleshooter have messed up so badly that it just didn’t try starting it? Turns out it tried. A manual start was also unsuccesful, as we got an access denied error. We ran around for about an hour trying various things, but I should have realized from the get-go that the issue is the service, and not for instance a driver. I had my son try a usb sound card, which should bypass any issues with a built in audio chip (as it is completely standalone, and uses a different driver), but even that thing was silent! But again, the two clues of “no audio devices at all” and “issues with the service” should have been my key indicators.

So the service would not start. Why? Open up the service properties and see on the log on tab that it was trying to run the service under the Local Service user (a windows built-in user which isn’t used by any user), but this was getting access denied.

Note that everything is greyed out because I took this as a non-admin user, who cannot change these settings.

So, I tried switching over to running it as SYSTEM, which is an much higher privilege level and I thought this would definitely be enough. Some services run as system by default, other as Local Service or even Network Service.

After this the service started, and it detected all audio outputs and inputs hooked up to the system. But still no sound! So, I went down the driver-rabbit-hole, which was a wild goose (rabbit?) chase. Even upgraded the bios, which wasn’t a bad idea overall since it was running a fairly old version, but it had nothing to do with our issue.

Eventually I did some googling and found that in some cases, the Local Service account can break, or get lost from the administrators group, and permissions can be restored on the (admin)command line using:

net localgroup Administrators /add localservice

After a reboot I was able to change the windows audio service back to running as Local Service. After a service restart, audio instantly started playing and the issue was solved.

Lesson learned: If you have audio issues, and you have an indication that the issue is the service, start by checking if the service is running, and under what user. If it’s not running as local service, or it’s not working, fix the user in an admin command prompt and try it again. System will not work (at least under windows 11 in this particular case), probably because the system user isn’t designed to run that particular service. I figured a “higher” privilege would solve the issue, but it did not. Which is sort of a good thing – there’s a time and place for the system user. Usually it’s like going after a fly with an RPG, and it could introduce security vulnerabilities if it is used where it doesn’t belong.

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