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-*- outline -*-
* Pro Audio with GStreamer
This file attempts to document usage of GStreamer for so-called "pro
audio"[0]. Two audiences are considered: programmers that are
considering GStreamer for their pro-audio app, and GStreamer developers
interested in which parts of GStreamer pro-audio uses.
[0] I actually don't like this term, because it's elitist. Of course
other audio applications are not inferior, but they are different.
I'll stick with the term out of established practice.
** What GStreamer Offers the Pro Audio Developer
Choosing GStreamer for your application gives you lots of things for
*** A high penetration into POSIX desktops
GStreamer is included with Gnome, so you'll find it already installed on
an increasing number of desktops. It makes it easier for a user to
install your app. However, you still have to check for individual
plugins that you depend on.
*** An extremely flexible signal flow graph
You have elements, connection points, different kinds of processing
functions, schedulers, etc. You can subclass just about everything, or
replace whole subsystems as you need to.
All of this you would have to implement somehow. The downside is, of
course, that it's extremely flexible. The graph isn't run by clock-tick
-- the delays are carried out by the timekeeping element (if any), when
execution reaches it. It's cooperative, rather than dictator-style like
Jack. If all problems have been worked out, etc, it runs smoothly, but
one poorly coded element can stall the graph.
Restricting graph operation to clock-ticks and using buses instead, like
SuperCollider 3, would introduce many simplifications to scheduling and
such, I would think. However, you'd still have to implement your
signal-flow infrastructure from scratch if you decided to go it alone.
I might revise the above paragraph, though. I like GStreamer's level of
flexibility a bit too much :)
*** A wide variety of existing plugins
This includes inputs like ALSA, OSS, sndfile, etc, as well as their
corresponding sinks (outputs). Then there are the network transports.
And the sound servers (including Jack). LADSPA plugins for free. Some
DSP things, but admittedly not too much -- this is an area for future
*** Generic plugin behavior
Of course you still have to know some specifics about the plugins you
use (which properties they have, for example), but in general elements
of a "pipeline" (signal flow graph -- and no, it doesn't have to look
like a pipe) are replaceable. Your user can choose between ALSA or OSS
or even ESD (shudder), and it's simple to implement.
*** Easy threads
Adding threads to your signal flowgraph does takes some thought, but
once you've decided how to set things up it's reasonably easy.
Unfortunately realtime threads aren't implemented yet, but that should
be an easy project, knock on wood.
*** Other Stuff
GStreamer is big these days. I wouldn't say bloated, but there are a lot
of subsystems relating to "media" that just aren't applicable to
processing float data. There's a whole system (called "caps") that deals
with negotiating common formats between elements, when all pro audio has
to deal with is sample-rate and the number of frames per buffer. There's
a typefinding and pipeline autoplugging subsystem. There's "tags", like
from ID3 tags.
You might find uses for these things, and thankfully these uses blur the
lines between "pro" and "consumer" audio. To an extent, these features
complicate GStreamer programming. But mostly they stay out of your way
-- besides caps, they only bother you when you ask them to :-)
** Pro Audio for GStreamer Programmers
Pro audio is a restricted, almost purely mathematical domain. There's
not that much to worry about. Each channel is separate from the rest
(never interleaved). All data is in float format, and native byte order.
The sample rate is typically the same in the whole system. Same with the
number of frames in a buffer.
So it's simple, but it's different from "normal" audio processing (a
whole mess of variables to synchronise and convert between, interleaved
data, codecs, etc). But it's sufficiently different that in the past
we've had discussions every 8 months or so about why things are
implemented in such-and-such a way, and why don't we change them, and so
on. So this part of the document is aimed at GStreamer developer's as a
kind of documentation for the whole float-caps space.
*** The Format
Pro audio deals with floats. I'm not really worried about doubles --
although LADSPA carefully #define's LADSPA_Sample so you can override
it, everything's in float.
There are two variables to be concerned about. One is sample rate, which
is pretty obvious. The not-so-obvious one is buffer-frames, specifying
the number of frames that will come in a buffer. If a buffer has fewer
frames, that indicates EOS is coming on the next pull. This property is
an optimization to allow easy chaining of buffers in multi-pad elements,
as well as to prevent deadlocks in circular pipelines, and to comply
with systems like Jack that operate on clock ticks.
*** Channels
One variable that is not in pro-audio is the number of channels in a
stream. Streams are always mono. All DSP algorithms expect to receive
mono data. Multichannel processing is done via multiple inputs. This is
the complicated part of pro audio for GStreamer, because it means lots
of multi-pad elements, and complicated pipelines, which is a pain to
code for (if you're not coding it in Scheme, of course ;). So yes, it's
kindof a pain, but it is a flexibility that's necessary.
*** Stability
DSP routines written years back still work, because all you need to use
them is to -lm. GStreamer is a step towards DLL hell. And audio
developers are a funny bunch. Look at Paul Davis's Ardour CVS, for
instance. He has a local copy of every library ever coded, ever. No
If our platform is to remain attractive to this group, we need to start
to stabilize the way GStreamer works. Of course API and ABI change,
we're young. But outside of media-related work, the core is pretty
stable. When we move to change things after 0.8, changes should be well
That's all pretty normal, but there is one special consideration. DSP
involves lots of custom plugins, maintained outside the GStreamer tree.
So just because you grep the tree and don't find an instance of X
function or whatever, it doesn't necessarily mean the feature/behaviour
is unused. This will be increasingly true for other GStreamer users in
the future, but it's true now for DSP. I'm talking about me now ;)
OK, enough rambling. Hope this clarifies things a bit.
Andy Wingo, 24 Jan 2004.