Can I use the GPIO as a pulse-width modulation output?

If so, how would I go about doing it and how many concurrent, distinct PWM outputs can I have?

  • You probably need to specify which model you're using. They are all slightly different.
    – not2qubit
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 7:00
  • 2
    @user1147688 This question was asked back when there was only one model!
    – berry120
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 16:46

5 Answers 5


As suggested by Alex Chamberlain, the WiringPi library appears to support both hardware PWM output on one or two GPIO pins depending on model, and software PWM on any of the other GPIO pins. Meanwhile the RPIO.PWM library does PWM by DMA on any GPIO pin. Effectively this is a halfway house between hardware and software PWM, providing a 1 µs timing resolution compared to 100 µs with WiringPi's Software PWM[1].

Which of these is suitable for your applications depends on how many PWM outputs you need and what performance you want out of those outputs.

If your application is tolerant of low-timing resolution and high jitter then you could use a software or DMA assisted timing loop. If you want higher precision / lower jitter PWM then you may need hardware assistance.

When might software PWM be suitable?

If you want to flash a bunch of LEDs with different human visible cadences (10's of hertz) with soft real-time response requirements then the software loop could handle as many PWM's as you have GPIO pins.

When might hardware PWM be suitable?

If you want to control a servo motor with hard real-time response requirements then you will need to use hardware PWM. Even then you may have problems ensuring a real-time response for the servo loop which ties encoder input to PWM output.

A stable servo loop needs to read encoders at a regular rate (low jitter), write out revised PWM output values at a regular rate and the latency between these should be fixed (low jitter overall). If you can't do this, then you will have to undertune (soft tune) your motor to prevent it becoming unstable under load. This is hard to do with a multi-tasking operating system without low-level support.

What if I need more hardware PWM outputs?

If you need to run more servo loops than you have hardware PWM outputs, then you are probably going to need to offload them to another device to ensure hard real-time performance, relegating your Raspberry Pi to being a soft real-time supervisor.

One option, would be something like the Adafruit 16-Channel 12-bit PWM/Servo Driver - I²C interface - PCA9685 which would allow you to control 16 PWM outputs with just a few pins of GPIO for the I²C bus. For an example of its use, check out the I²C 16 Channel PWM/Servo Breakout - Working post on the Raspberry Pi forums.

1. Thanks to dm76 for the suggestion, however Auden Young says that RPIO.PWM may no longer work for newer pi models.

  • Can I use the software PWM approach to run DC motors?
    – gideon
    Commented Jun 23, 2013 at 18:12
  • @gideon - Yes, the motor power amplifiers that I have used have all taken PWM as their input.
    – Mark Booth
    Commented Jun 24, 2013 at 8:39
  • 2
    FYI, the RPI library (pythonhosted.org/RPIO/pwm_py.html) seem to have a much better resolution (1us) compared to WiringPi with 100us resolution
    – dm76
    Commented Jan 9, 2014 at 18:18
  • @MarkBooth - No probs. The library is really well written and can be used as drop-in replacement for RPi.GPIO which is very handy if you started a project with the latter and later realised PWM signals were needed...
    – dm76
    Commented Jan 21, 2014 at 10:20
  • RPIO.PWM may no longer work for newer pi models, I think.
    – auden
    Commented Jun 12, 2018 at 23:09

Hardware PWM

Yes, there is one hardware PWM output on the Raspberry Pi, connected to P1-12 (GPIO18). Further, PWM outputs could be added using an I²C or SPI interface; some people have had success with this (forum post).

Example Code

You can use the WiringPi library to control the PWM pin; you could look at the code to avoid including the entire library.

Software PWM

The Raspberry Pi is not suitable for any serious software PWM as Linux is not a real-time operating system.

  • 1
    Question, what is the definition or an example of serious software PWM? And what are "real time operating systems" and is there ever any chance of getting one on a Pi Commented Aug 17, 2012 at 23:37
  • @AnthonyBlake Well, you can probably control the brightness of a light using software PWM, but I suspect a motor will stall. There's no need to do software PWM though, hardware is simpler and more effective. Real time operating systems will be better explained by Google; they guarentee certain things about how long and often software is run. Commented Aug 18, 2012 at 7:13
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    @AnthonyBlake A "Real-Time OS" (RTOS) is an operating system that gives you a guarantee on the upper time limit of execution. Like saying to the program "Yes, you will have some execution time in 33ms (give or take 2ms tolerance) to flip that GPIO pin bit to give your step motor a signal in the exact time window when he needs it. And you can rely on that!" There's a RT Linux out there. Don't know if it's been ported to the RPi (yet).
    – orithena
    Commented Dec 26, 2012 at 20:48
  • Sorry Alex, I didn't intentionally steal another part of your answer, but I've just noticed that we came to the same forum post via different routes.
    – Mark Booth
    Commented Jun 25, 2013 at 21:50
  • 2
    Newer models with 40 pins have a second hardware PWM connected to GPIO19 (pin 35).
    – Kevin
    Commented Apr 3, 2016 at 4:10

Recent Pis have two hardware PWM channels. In addition hardware timed PWM pulses may be independently generated on all the GPIO connected to the 40 pin expansion header.

In practice this means there are two highly accurate PWM channels and all the other GPIOs may have Arduino style PWM (800 Hz, 0 off - 255 fully on).

E.g. servoblaster and my pigpio, etc.

  • Nice answer! How can I use those two HW PWMs? I need to control 2 servos, I know you say servoblaster and pigpio are OK for that, but I just wonder about the HW PWM, because I can not find anything about them... are there some docs for it out there? I have an RPi 2 V1.1 for tests.
    – Kozuch
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 22:52
  • 1
    C, Python, pigs command line.
    – joan
    Commented Feb 26, 2016 at 23:00
  • 2
    Heavy CPU load shouldn't make a difference. Heavy network load can make a difference to gpioServo especially if sampling at 1MHz rather than the default 200kHz. The frequency is 50 (Hz), the range of duty cycles will be 0 - 1000000 (mapped to the true underlying value of 0 - 5000000). 1 ms is 1 ms in 20 ms so a dutycycle of 5% so 50000, 1.5ms->7.5%->75000, 2ms->10%->100000.
    – joan
    Commented Feb 27, 2016 at 9:00
  • 1
    Page 102 of BCM2835 ARM Peripherals shows the various modes that the GPIO can be assigned. Look on-line for which GPIO are led out to the various Pi model expansion headers.
    – joan
    Commented Apr 16, 2016 at 19:23
  • 1
    @user1147688 PLLD (500MHz) is used as the core PWM clock. Because of the way "it" works the PWM core frequency is 250 MHz. To be able to switch on and off (pretty essential for PWM) the maximum is 125 MHz. You could double the figures by using PLLC (1000 MHz) but that PLL varies with the core clock speed.
    – joan
    Commented Apr 17, 2016 at 10:02

Not quite a real-time OS, but RISC OS for Raspberry Pi is cooperative multitasking, so you can easily run an application that has 100% CPU so you can manage your timings much better. Just don't expect to do anything else but your own code.

  • I read somewhere that there is a hardware limit as to the switching frequency of an output pin, too. I think it was around 20 MHz. So don't expect to be able to pull of 300 MHz PWM or anything of that sort, even with 100% CPU usage. Commented Jun 18, 2014 at 7:42
  • @Wallacoloo: What applications require 300 MHz PWM? Commented Jun 20, 2015 at 15:27
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    @PeterMortensen: Well I don't know how radio transmitters and such generate their signals, but some might do it with PWM. PiFM does that at 100 MHz. That seems to contradict my comment though, so I wonder if maybe the pin can still be commanded at that frequency, but it's just that the pin capacitance attenuates such signals, so that a 100 MHz square-wave might actually oscillate from e.g. (1.0 V, 2.3 V) instead of the full (0 V, 3.3 V) range. Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 3:41

I have found this library (pi-blaster) which claims to be "extremely efficient: does not use the CPU and gives very stable pulses."

I've not tested it yet, but will update as soon as I do (probably today)

  • I've been trying this but so far no luck. So far as I can tell it doesn't actually switch the hardware?
    – MrMowgli
    Commented Apr 28, 2017 at 0:56
  • 1
    Just want to bump this. Pi-blaster has worked for me where these other answers did not.
    – Seph Reed
    Commented Aug 7, 2017 at 21:07

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