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Sound woes

I keep having problems with sound on my system that i just dont know how to describe any more. If there is a way to say whats going on, i want to know this, so i can get help better, and figure out myself how to keep things working. I dont want to do any thing fancy, i just want sound to *work*!

Right now on my Debian unstable system, i run Pulseaudio (for good USB audio support). Recently many things have stopped working. I can watch YouTube videos with sound, and click on MP3s and hear them, both from within FireFox. But when I open up another browser at the same time, that gets no sound. If I try to play an MP3 or a movie on my filesystem, i get no sound, whether i use Audacious or mplayer or totem or anything else. Most of the time there are no useful debug messags, but mplayer gives this:

[AO SDL] Samplerate: 44100Hz Channels: Stereo Format s16le
ALSA lib pcm_dmix.c:1008:(snd_pcm_dmix_open) unable to open slave
[AO SDL] Unable to open audio: No available audio device
Failed to initialize audio driver 'sdl'
Could not open/initialize audio device -> no sound.

 If I go to System -> Preferences -> Sound, where it is configured to use the PulseAudio Sound Server for all output, i dont see what elese i can adjust--clicking on any of the "Test" buttons gives me no sound.

This is getting beyond frustrating as the only thing i want to do is listen to stuff on my computer, thats it, im not trying to network audio to a bunc hof devices. 

Are there steps i can take to try to narrow this down when it happens? Usually things fail all together but the fact that im getting sound from some apps but not others makes it really hard to figure out what do look at.




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