Feedback on [P1386R2] std::audio

Draft Proposal,

This version:
ISO/IEC JTC1/SC22/WG21 14882: Programming Language — C++

1. Abstract

We have gathered input from a variety of folks involved in audio at Apple, and here is our joint, considered position regarding the std::audio proposal in [P1386R2].

Audio is important to the Apple ecosystem. The type system and determinism of C++ lends itself well to the audio software domain. In the proposal we like the formalization of data types and algorithms that are common in the audio domain. However, we are concerned about the audio device interfaces and requiring C++ systems to have a specific implementation.

2. Audio Device Interfaces

Creating a good interface between software and audio hardware is something that on the surface seems straight-forward, but on a practical system is challenging to implement correctly. The design in [P1386R2] does not address several important areas.

2.1. Real-time Device Timing Constraints

Software systems that interface with audio hardware requires very special consideration because of the nature of real-time systems and hard deadlines. Audio hardware is particularly challenging because incorrect implementations can cause unpredictable performance problems or worse, may damage audio reproduction hardware. This can arise when audio data is not returned to the system in time. The outcome of such an event usually an audible glitch due to the introduction of a gap of silence into the audio stream, potentially producing dramatic waveform discontinuities that can damage speaker cones.

In the paper’s design proposal, the audio::device runs by repeatedly calling a user supplied callback with request for more audio data (or on recording audio, buffers that contain audio data). The implied contract is that the callback needs to complete execution within the time period represented by the audio. In order to do so "no operations that could possibly block for an indeterminate length of time". However, what this is does not have a clear definition, nor are the consequence of violating this requirement. Incorporating the SG1 work on forward progress guarantees may improve this proposal. The SG1 work on signal safe handlers may be relevant example of addressing this sort of topic as well.

If the committee was to attempt to standardize the audio::device callback constraint, we would quickly find this challenging. Would any atomic operation be considered a "blocking operation"? Memory reads can often cause paging or disk reads, so would reading any variable be considered a "blocking operation"?

Beyond the challenge of defining what operations are allowable within the callback, what would be the result of violating the callback? If violation of this time constraint results in Undefined Behavior, would it not be incorrect of any implementation that could detect you would make a blocking call and "optimize" away the operation?

2.2. Audio Routing and Policies

Audio data routing is a challenging area for any program that implements audio. Modern systems have many different audio destinations and sources, from built-in speakers and microphones, to plug and play devices that may be added or removed at any time during a program’s lifetime. Audio is a "shared" resource on the system, so coordinating several different programs' access to hardware and what the policy should be (mixing, interrupting, blocking) is necessary. Access to audio hardware is also a very sensitive privacy topic -- software that has unconstrained access to microphones can be a serious concern for modern systems.

An audio interface design that does not take into consideration audio routing and policies will not be an interface upon which large scale portable systems can be created. A C++ developer who uses a simplified interface will likely constantly hit questions like "where did my audio go" or "why can’t I hear anything" without being able to determine what the issue is. Security and privacy policies that strengthen implementations over time may break existing C++ implementations, or worse, may constrain systems from making changes in policies.

Many audio devices can dynamically become unavailable while in use or newly available at any time. The paper provides an API for iterating available audio devices at a point in time as well as notifications for availability changes, but does not specify the behaviors resulting from dynamic availability changes to an already created or running device. What happens to a client with an open session to a device that becomes unavailable? What is the meaning of a "default device" in a system where the underlying device fulfilling that role may change dynamically? If a client creates a session with the default device and the "default" role changes to a different underlying device during the client session, what happens?

The latest revision includes comments about audio sessions, policies, and focus on mobile platforms concludes that such "use cases" are "highly platform-specific" and "therefore out of scope for this proposal". On iOS and watchOS, this does not describe "use cases", it describes the platform. There is no use case for audio on iOS that does not contend with audio sessions, policies, and focus. Does the proposal therefore contend that iOS support is out of scope? This contradicts the stated goal to offer cross-platform audio functionality for hardware including phones.

It is indeed difficult to reconcile the current API with the audio system of a mobile platform like iOS. What is an audio_device or audio_device_list on iOS? iOS is a platform that does not provide APIs for clients to view anything about what audio devices may or may not be available. However excluding such platforms opens an enormous hole in a cross-platform library intended for standardization.

2.3. Audio Formats

Platform-level support for spatial audio formats with associated positional metadata, and potentially other encoded formats, should be taken into consideration. The current revision of the proposal explicitly declines to provide support for such functionality. We do wish for the domain to continue to be considered, however, as any design should not preclude or obstruct the use of such functionality offered by an operating system.

2.4. Audio Device

The audio_device::set_buffer_size_frames API contains critical ambiguities. Is this a request to change the buffer size merely as the client’s format via a hardware driver abstraction layer (independent of actual hardware state, potentially involving re-blocking)? Or is this a request to change physical hardware buffer sizes of a device? If the latter, what happens in a multi-client / shared-access scenario? This issue requires consideration about whether this API wishes to support only one category of the functionality or both, and then requires further specification to make those design choices explicit.

Similar concerns that we raised with audio_device::set_sample_rate have been partially addressed in the latest revision to the proposal. However it is difficult to envision a workable API for clients where "it is unspecified whether this will cause other clients of the same device to also observe a sample rate change". There is no description of what could be entailed by an unexpected sample rate change for another client. And how does this reconcile with the specification of audio_device::set_sample_rate as not changing hardware sample rate but rather resampling where necessary? Why would one client’s resampling affect others clients' sample rates? This seems to indicate that anyone using this std::audio_device may have unspecified changes to sample rate occurring in an unspecified manner at unpredictable times due to another client’s usage of std::audio_device. With those ambiguities, how can developers realistically be expected to rely on this library for stable audio functionality?

What is a client to do when audio_device::stop returns false? What actionable information does that convey?

2.5. Portability

The proposal leaves us with some broader questions about the goal of being a portable abstraction. We have concern with the proposal’s mixed approach to fundamental audio system inconsistencies such as callback-based audio rendering APIs (e.g. [CoreAudio] on macOS) vs polling (e.g. WASAPI on Windows). Those are the only two platforms addressed in the proposal and the sample code shows them handled entirely differently.

The same goes for the optional availability of audio hardware timestamps, which are important on some platforms but nonexistence on others. Additionally the proposed timestamp representation lacks information upon which some macOS software relies. The key thing about timestamps is to be super-clear on which timeline they are measured. [CoreAudio] provides timestamps as a combination of host time (mach_absolute_time(), a counter of ticks on a hardware-specific timebase), a sample counter, and a rate scalar indicating the ratio between the nominal sample rate of the device and the actually observed sample rate as measured against host time. A precise host time is needed to synchronize against other media and/or user interactions. An absolute sample time is needed in order to remain against "overloads" (failures of the system to meet its I/O deadlines). A rate scalar is needed in situations where devices run at rates that diverge significantly from their nominal rates, in order to maintain accuracy in conversions between host and sample time.

Is the proposed API failing to be a general and portable interface? Does it leak too much of the underlying platform specifics?

3. What we should standardize

While interfacing with Audio devices and hardware has a set of challenges described above, dealing with audio data in C++ is something that could greatly benefit from standardization.

3.1. Audio Data

Audio data is frequently transported between systems in a variety of compressed formats that are contained in a plethora of audio transport files and streams (MPEG, etc). However, as the authors of [P1386R2] point out, within a program audio data is almost universally represented as arrays of PCM data values. Having a standardized way to represent this audio would be of great benefit.

We recognize that revision 2 of the proposal has more fully addressed PCM audio representation, though some concerns remain. Device audio channel counts alone provide no way to make meaning of those channels without audio channel layout descriptions. Neglecting to tackle 24-bit integer sample formats leaves open a critical hole. More generally, the standard should be able to express audio formats in full generality, not just the native formats commonly used in application API, but also the other formats seen in hardware and audio files, ranging in esotericism from non-native-endian 16-bit, 24-bit, 24-bit encoded in 32-bit, etc. It may be worth considering whether the C++ type system even captures other integer PCM sample types fully enough given the variety of representations of fixed-point formats.

Encoded audio formats are very common and important, such as compressed formats like AAC and spatial audio formats, and they remain entirely unaddressed by the proposal.

3.2. Algorithms

Audio signal processing has a number of common algorithms that would benefit greatly from standardization. Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of algorithms that we would recommend pursuing:

It should be noted that these algorithms may be constructed by existing STL algorithms like transform with specialized lambda functions.

4. Conclusion

We think it is worth exploring the underlying audio data types, containers, and basic algorithms more. These are the foundations of any audio software, whether dealing with audio hardware or not, and building stronger fundamentals in these areas would strengthen this proposal as well as providing value beyond it. For example, as off-line algorithms that process audio data are becoming in more demand, having a solid foundation of types to manipulate this data is essential.

The audio device side of the world, on the other hand, is very complicated. If we were to standardize an audio device interface, we would want to ensure that the implementation has audio routing and policies as a first principle design. This would likely complicate the design, and perhaps not provide the simple interface desired by the authors. But this may tell us that standardizing a simple design for audio is not recommended -- audio I/O is not simple on modern machines. We recognize that experimentation is part of any TS, but we would hope to see a fuller offering of fundamental audio types and algorithms as the foundation of this proposal.


Informative References

Apple Inc. Core Audio Overview. 2017-10-30. URL: https://developer.apple.com/library/archive/documentation/MusicAudio/Conceptual/CoreAudioOverview/Introduction/Introduction.html
Guy Somberg; Guy Davidson; Timur Doumler. A Standard Audio API for C++: Motivation, Scope, and Basic Design. 2019. URL: http://wg21.link/P1386R2