Breaking Eggs And Making Omelettes

Topics On Multimedia Technology and Reverse Engineering


Reverse Engineering Italian Literature

June 30th, 2014 by Multimedia Mike

Some time ago, Diego “Flameeyes” Pettenò tried his hand at reverse engineering a set of really old CD-ROMs containing even older Italian literature. The goal of this RE endeavor would be to extract the useful literature along with any structural metadata (chapters, etc.) and convert it to a more open format suitable for publication at, e.g., Project Gutenberg or

Unfortunately, the structure of the data thwarted the more simplistic analysis attempts (like inspecting for blocks of textual data). This will require deeper RE techniques. Further frustrating the effort, however, is the fact that the binaries that implement the reading program are written for the now-archaic Windows 3.1 operating system.

In pursuit of this RE goal, I recently thought of a way to glean more intelligence using DOSBox.

Prior Work
There are 6 discs in the full set (distributed along with 6 sequential issues of a print magazine named L’Espresso). Analysis of the contents of the various discs reveals that many of the files are the same on each disc. It was straightforward to identify the set of files which are unique on each disc. This set of files all end with the extension “LZn”, where n = 1..6 depending on the disc number. Further, the root directory of each disc has a file indicating the sequence number (1..6) of the CD. Obviously, these are the interesting targets.

The LZ file extensions stand out to an individual skilled in the art of compression– could it be a variation of the venerable LZ compression? That’s actually unlikely because LZ — also seen as LIZ — stands for Letteratura Italiana Zanichelli (Zanichelli’s Italian Literature).

The Unix ‘file’ command was of limited utility, unable to plausibly identify any of the files.

Progress was stalled.

Saying Hello To An Old Frenemy
I have been showing this screenshot to younger coworkers to see if any of them recognize it:

DOSBox running Window 3.1

Not a single one has seen it before. Senior computer citizen status: Confirmed.

I recently watched an Ancient DOS Games video about Windows 3.1 games. This episode showed Windows 3.1 running under DOSBox. I had heard this was possible but that it took a little work to get running. I had a hunch that someone else had probably already done the hard stuff so I took to the BitTorrent networks and quickly found a download that had the goods ready to go– a directory of Windows 3.1 files that just had to be dropped into a DOSBox directory and they would be ready to run.

Aside: Running OS software procured from a BitTorrent network? Isn’t that an insane security nightmare? I’m not too worried since it effectively runs under a sandboxed virtual machine, courtesy of DOSBox. I suppose there’s the risk of trojan’d OS software infecting binaries that eventually leave the sandbox.

Using DOSBox Like ‘strace’
strace is a tool available on some Unix systems, including Linux, which is able to monitor the system calls that a program makes. In reverse engineering contexts, it can be useful to monitor an opaque, binary program to see the names of the files it opens and how many bytes it reads, and from which locations. I have written examples of this before (wow, almost 10 years ago to the day; now I feel old for the second time in this post).

Here’s the pitch: Make DOSBox perform as strace in order to serve as a platform for reverse engineering Windows 3.1 applications. I formed a mental model about how DOSBox operates — abstracted file system classes with methods for opening and reading files — and then jumped into the source code. Sure enough, the code was exactly as I suspected and a few strategic print statements gave me the data I was looking for.

Eventually, I even took to running DOSBox under the GNU Debugger (GDB). This hasn’t proven especially useful yet, but it has led to an absurd level of nesting:

GDB runs DOSBox runs Windows 3.1

The target application runs under Windows 3.1, which is running under DOSBox, which is running under GDB. This led to a crazy situation in which DOSBox had the mouse focus when a GDB breakpoint was triggered. At this point, DOSBox had all desktop input focus and couldn’t surrender it because it wasn’t running. I had no way to interact with the Linux desktop and had to reboot the computer. The next time, I took care to only use the keyboard to navigate the application and trigger the breakpoint and not allow DOSBox to consume the mouse focus.

New Intelligence
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Posted in Reverse Engineering | 15 Comments »

Playing With Emscripten and ASM.js

February 28th, 2014 by Multimedia Mike

The last 5 years or so have provided a tremendous amount of hype about the capabilities of JavaScript. I think it really kicked off when Google announced their Chrome web browser in September, 2008 along with its V8 JS engine. This seemed to spark an arms race in JS engine performance along with much hyperbole that eventually all software could, would, and/or should be written in straight JavaScript for maximum portability and future-proofing, perhaps aided by Emscripten, a tool which magically transforms C and C++ code into JS. The latest round of rhetoric comes courtesy of something called asm.js which purports to narrow the gap between JS and native code performance.

I haven’t been a believer, to express it charitably. But I wanted to be certain, so I set out to devise my own experiment to test modern JS performance.

Up Front Summary
I was extremely surprised that my experiment demonstrated JS performance FAR beyond my expectations. There might be something to these claims of magnficent JS speed in numerical applications. Basically, here were my thoughts during the process:

  • There’s no way that JavaScript can come anywhere close to C performance for a numerically intensive operation; a simple experiment should demonstrate this.
  • Here’s a straightforward C program to perform a simple yet numerically intensive operation.
  • Let’s compile the C program on gcc and get some baseline performance numbers.
  • Let’s use Emscripten to convert the C program to JavaScript and run it under Chrome.
  • Ha! Pitiful JS performance, just as I expected!
  • Try the same program under Firefox, since Firefox is supposed to have some crazy optimization for asm.js code, allegedly emitted by Emscripten.
  • LOL! Firefox performs even worse than Chrome!
  • Wait a minute… the Emscripten documentation mentioned using optimization levels for generating higher performance JS, so try ‘-O1′.
  • Umm… wow: Chrome’s performance increased dramatically! What about Firefox? Not only is Firefox faster than Chrome, it’s faster than the gcc-generated code!
  • As my faith in C is suddenly shaken to its core, I remembered to compile the gcc version with an explicit optimization level. The native C version pulled ahead of Firefox again, but the Firefox code is still close.
  • Aha! This is just desktop– but what about mobile? One of the leading arguments for converting everything to pure JavaScript is that such programs will magically run perfectly in mobile browsers. So I wager that this is where the experiment will fall over.
  • I proceed to try the same converted program on a variety of mobile platforms.
  • The mobile platforms perform rather admirably as well.
  • I am surprised.

The Experiment
I wanted to run a simple yet numerically-intensive and relevant benchmark, and something I am familiar with. I settled on JPEG image decoding. Again, I wanted to keep this simple, ideally in a single file because I didn’t know how hard it might be to deal with Emscripten. I found NanoJPEG, which is a straightforward JPEG decoder contained in a single C file.
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Posted in General | 7 Comments »

Long Overdue MediaWiki Upgrade

February 4th, 2014 by Multimedia Mike

What do I do? What I do? This library book is 42 years overdue!
I admit that it’s mine, yet I can’t pay the fine,
Should I turn it in or should I hide it again?
What do I do? What do I do?

I internalized the forgoing paean to the perils of procrastination by Shel Silverstein in my formative years. It’s probably why I’ve never paid a single cent in late fees in my entire life.

However, I have been woefully negligent as the steward of the MediaWiki software that drives the world famous MultimediaWiki, the internet’s central repository of obscure technical knowledge related to multimedia. It is currently running of version 1.6 software. The latest version is 1.22.

The Story So Far
According to my records, I first set up the wiki late in 2005. I don’t know which MediaWiki release I was using at the time. I probably conducted a few upgrades in the early days, but that went by the wayside perhaps in 2007. My web host stopped allowing shell access and the MediaWiki upgrade process pretty much requires running a PHP script from a command line. Upgrade time came around and I put off the project. Weeks turned into months turned into years until, according to some notes, the wiki abruptly stopped working in July, 2011. Suddenly, there were PHP errors about “Namespace” being a reserved word.

While I finally laid out a plan to upgrade the wiki after all these years, I eventually found that the problem had been caused when my webhost upgraded from PHP 5.2 -> 5.3. I also learned of a small number of code changes that caused the problem to go away, thus kicking the can down the road once more.

Then a new problem showed up last week. I think it might be related to a new version of PHP again. This time, a few other things on my site broke, and I learned that my webhost now allows me to select a PHP version to use (with the version then set to “auto”, which didn’t yield much information). Rolling back to an earlier version of PHP might have solved the problem easily.

But NO! I made the determination that this goes no further. I want this wiki upgraded.

The Arduous Upgrade Path
There are 2 general upgrade paths I can think of:
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Posted in General | 4 Comments »

Chrome’s New Audio Notifier

January 29th, 2014 by Multimedia Mike

Version 32 of Google’s Chrome web browser introduced this nifty feature:

Chrome audio notifier icon

When a browser tab has an element that is producing audio, the browser’s tab shows the above audio notification icon to inform the user. I have seen that people have a few questions about this, specifically:

  1. How does this feature work?
  2. Why wasn’t this done sooner?
  3. Are other browsers going to follow suit?

Short answers: 1) Chrome offers a new plugin API that the Flash Player is now using, as are Chrome’s internal media playing facilities; 2) this feature was contingent on the new plugin infrastructure mentioned in the previous answer; 3) other browsers would require the same infrastructure support.

Longer answers follow…

Plugin History
Plugins were originally based on the Netscape Plugin API. This was developed in the early 1990s in order to support embedding PDFs into the Netscape web browser. The NPAPI does things like providing graphics contexts for drawing and input processing, and mediate network requests through the browser’s network facilities.

What NPAPI doesn’t do is handle audio. In the early-mid 1990s, audio support was not a widespread consideration in the consumer PC arena. Due to the lack of audio API support, if a plugin wanted to play audio, it had to go outside of the plugin framework.

NPAPI plugin model

There are a few downsides to this approach:

So that last item hopefully answers the question of why it has been so difficult for NPAPI-supporting browsers to implement what seems like it would be simple functionality, like implementing a per-tab audio notifier.

Plugin Future
Since Google released Chrome in an effort to facilitate advancements on the client side of the internet, they have made numerous efforts to modernize various legacy aspects of web technology. These efforts include the SPDY protocol, Native Client, WebM/WebP, and something call the Pepper Plugin API (PPAPI). This is a more modern take on the classic plugin architecture to supplant the aging NPAPI:

PPAPI plugin model

Right away, we see that the job of the plugin writer is greatly simplified. Where was this API years ago when I was writing my API jungle piece?

The Linux version of Chrome was apparently the first version that packaged the Pepper version of the Flash Player (doing so fixed an obnoxious bug in the Linux Flash Player interaction with GTK). Now, it looks like Windows and Mac have followed suit. Digging into the Chrome directory on a Windows 7 installation:


This directory exists for version 31 as well, which is still hanging around my system.

So, to re-iterate: Chrome has a new plugin API that plugins use to access the audio API. Chrome knows when the API is accessed and that allows the browser to display the audio notifier on a tab.

Other Browsers
What about other browsers? “Mozilla is not interested in or working on Pepper at this time. See the Chrome Pepper pages.”

Posted in General | 6 Comments »

Overthinking My Search Engine Problem

December 30th, 2013 by Multimedia Mike

I wrote a search engine for my Game Music Appreciation website, because the site would have been significantly less valuable without it (and I would eventually realize that the search feature is probably the most valuable part of this endeavor). I came up with a search solution that was a bit sketchy, but worked… until it didn’t. I thought of a fix but still searched for more robust and modern solutions (where ‘modern’ is defined as something that doesn’t require compiling a C program into a static CGI script and hoping that it works on a server I can’t debug on).

Finally, I realized that I was overthinking the problem– did you know that a bunch of relational database management systems (RDBMSs) support full text search (FTS)? Okay, maybe you did, but I didn’t know this.

Problem Statement
My goal is to enable users to search the metadata (title, composer, copyright, other tags) attached to various games. To do this, I want to index a series of contrived documents that describe the metadata. 2 examples of these contrived documents, interesting because both of these games have very different titles depending on region, something the search engine needs to account for:

system: Nintendo NES
game: Snoopy's Silly Sports Spectacular
author: None; copyright: 1988 Kemco; dumped by: None
additional tags: Donald Duck.nsf Donald Duck

system: Super Nintendo
game: Arcana
author: Jun Ishikawa, Hirokazu Ando; copyright: 1992 HAL Laboratory; dumped by: Datschge
additional tags: card.rsn.gamemusic Card Master Cardmaster

The index needs to map these documents to various pieces of game music and the search solution needs to efficiently search these documents and find the various game music entries that match a user’s request.

Now that I’ve been looking at it for long enough, I’m able to express the problem surprisingly succinctly. If I had understood that much originally, this probably would have been simpler.

First Solution & Breakage
My original solution was based on SWISH-E. The CGI script was a C program that statically linked the SWISH-E library into a binary that miraculously ran on my web provider. At least, it ran until it decided to stop working a month ago when I added a new feature unrelated to search. It was a very bizarre problem, the details of which would probably bore you to tears. But if you care, the details are all there in the Stack Overflow question I asked on the matter.

While no one could think of a direct answer to the problem, I eventually thought of a roundabout fix. The problem seemed to pertain to the static linking. Since I couldn’t count on the relevant SWISH-E library to be on my host’s system, I uploaded the shared library to the same directory as the CGI script and used dlopen()/dlsym() to fetch the functions I needed. It worked again, but I didn’t know for how long.

Searching For A Hosted Solution
I know that anything is possible in this day and age; while my web host is fairly limited, there are lots of solutions for things like this and you can deploy any technology you want, and for reasonable prices. I figured that there must be a hosted solution out there.

I have long wanted a compelling reason to really dive into Amazon Web Services (AWS) and this sounded like a good opportunity. After all, my script works well enough; if I could just find a simple Linux box out there where I could install the SWISH-E library and compile the CGI script, I should be good to go. AWS has a free tier and I started investigating this approach. But it seems like a rabbit hole with a lot of moving pieces necessary for such a simple task.

I had heard that AWS had something in this area. Sure enough, it’s called CloudSearch. However, I’m somewhat discouraged by the fact that it would cost me around $75 per month to run the smallest type of search instance which is at the core of the service.

Finally, I came to another platform called Heroku. It’s supposed to be super-scalable while having a free tier for hobbyists. I started investigating FTS on Heroku and found this article which recommends using the FTS capabilities of their standard hosted PostgreSQL solution. However, the free tier of Postgres hosting only allows for 10,000 rows of data. Right now, my database has about 5400 rows. I expect it to easily overflow the 10,000 limit as soon as I incorporate the C64 SID music corpus.

However, this Postgres approach planted a seed.

RDBMS Revelation
I have 2 RDBMSs available on my hosting plan– MySQL and SQLite (the former is a separate service while SQLite is built into PHP). I quickly learned that both have FTS capabilities. Since I like using SQLite so much, I elected to leverage its FTS functionality. And it’s just this simple:

CREATE VIRTUAL TABLE gamemusic_metadata_fts USING fts3
( content TEXT, game_id INT, title TEXT );

SELECT id, title FROM gamemusic_metadata_fts WHERE content MATCH "arcana";

The ‘content’ column gets the metadata pseudo-documents. The SQL gets wrapped up in a little PHP so that it queries this small database and turns the result into JSON. The script is then ready as a drop-in replacement for the previous script.

Posted in General | 5 Comments »

Adding AY Files To The Game Music Website

November 30th, 2013 by Multimedia Mike

For the first time since I launched the site in the summer of last year, I finally added support for new systems for my Game Music Appreciation site: A set of chiptune music files which bear the file extension AY. These files come from games that were on the ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC computer systems.

ZX Spectrum   Amstrad CPC

Right now, there are over 650 ZX Spectrum games in the site while there are all of 20 Amstrad CPC games. The latter system seems a bit short-changed, but I read that a lot of Amstrad games were straight ports from the Spectrum anyway since the systems possessed assorted similarities. This might help explain the discrepancy.

The AY corpus has always been low hanging fruit due to the fact that the site already supports the format courtesy of the game-music-emu backend. The thing that blocked me was that I didn’t know much about these systems. I knew that there were 2 systems (and possibly more) that shared the same chiptune format. Apparently, these machines were big in Europe (I was only vaguely aware of them before I started this project).

Both the Spectrum and the Amstrad used Zilog Z-80 CPUs for computing and created music using a General Instruments synthesizer chip designated AY-3-8912, hence the chiptune file extension AY. This has 3 channels similar to the C64 SID chip. Additionally, there’s a fourth channel that game music emu calls “beeper” (and which Wikipedia describes as “one channel with 10 octaves”). Per my listening, it seems similar to the old PC speaker/honker. The metadata for a lot of the songs will specify either (AY) or (Beeper).

Wrangling Metadata
Large collections of AY files are easy to find; as is typical for pure chiptunes, the files are incredibly small.

As usual, the hardest part of the whole process was munging metadata. There seems to be 2 slightly different conventions for AY metadata, likely from 2 different people doing the bulk of the work and releasing the fruits of their labor into the wild. After I recognized the subtle differences between the 2 formats, it was straightforward to craft a tool to perform most of the work, leaving only a minimum of cleanup effort required afterwards.

(As an aside, I think this process is called extract – transform – load, or ETL. Sounds fancy and complicated, yet it’s technically one of the first computer programming tasks I was ever paid to perform.)

Collateral Damage
While pushing this feature, I managed to break the site’s search engine. The search solution I developed was always sketchy (involving compiling a C program as a static binary CGI script and trusting it to run on the server). I will probably need to find a better approach, preferably sooner than later.

Posted in General | 5 Comments »

Xbox Sphinx Protocol

October 20th, 2013 by Multimedia Mike

I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of trying to read the Xbox DVD drive from Linux. Honestly, I’m trying to remember why I even care at this point. Perhaps it’s just my metagame of trying to understand how games and related technologies operate. In my last post of the matter, I determined that it is possible to hook an Xbox drive up to a PC using a standard 40-pin IDE interface and read data sectors. However, I learned that just because the Xbox optical drive is reading an Xbox disc, that doesn’t mean it’s just going to read the sectors in response to a host request.

Oh goodness, no. The drive is going to make the host work for those sectors.

To help understand the concept of locked/unlocked sectors on an Xbox disc, I offer this simplistic diagram:

Xbox locked disc diagram

Any DVD drive (including the Xbox drive) is free to read those first 6992 sectors (about 14 MB of data) which just contain a short DVD video asking the user to insert the disc into a proper Xbox console. Reading the remaining sectors involves performing a sequence of SCSI commands that I have taken to calling the “Sphinx Protocol” for reasons I will explain later in this post.

Doing a little Googling after my last post on the matter produced this site hosting deep, technical Xbox information. It even has a page about exactly what I am trying to achieve: Use an Xbox DVD Drive in Your PC. The page provides a tool named dvdunlocker written by “The Specialist” to perform the necessary unlocking. The archive includes a compiled Windows binary as well as its source code. The source code is written in Delphi Pascal and leverages Windows SCSI APIs. Still, it is well commented and provides a roadmap, which I will try to describe in this post.

Sphinx Protocol
Here is a rough flowchart of the steps that are (probably) involved in the unlocking of those remaining sectors. I reverse engineered this based on the Pascal tool described in the previous section. Disclaimer: at the time of this writing, I haven’t tested all of the steps due to some Linux kernel problems, described later.

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Posted in DRM, xbox | 7 Comments »

Interfacing to an Xbox Optical Drive

September 30th, 2013 by Multimedia Mike

The next generation Xbox is going to hit the streets soon. But for some reason, I’m still interested in the previous generation’s unit (i.e., the original Xbox). Specifically, I’ve always wondered if it’s possible to use the original Xbox’s optical drive in order to read Xbox discs from Linux. I was never curious enough to actually buy an Xbox just to find out but I eventually came across a cast-off console on a recycle pile.

I have long known that the Xbox has what appears to be a more or less standard optical drive with a 40-pin IDE connector. The only difference is the power adapter which I surmise is probably the easiest way to turn a bit of standardized hardware into a bit of proprietary hardware. The IDE and power connectors look like this:

Xbox optical drive connections

Thus, I wanted to try opening an Xbox and plugging the optical drive into a regular PC, albeit one that supports IDE cables, and allow the Xbox to supply power to the drive. Do you still have hardware laying around that has 40-pin IDE connectors? I guess my Mac Mini PPC fits the bill, but I’ll be darned if I’m going to pry that thing open again. I have another IDE-capable machine buried in my closet, last called into service when I needed a computer with a native RS-232 port 3 years ago. The ordeal surrounding making this old computer useful right now can be another post entirely.

Here’s what the monstrosity looks like thanks to characteristically short IDE cable lengths:

Xbox optical drive connected directly to PC

Click for larger image


  1. Turn on Xbox first
  2. Turn on PC

Doing these things in the opposite order won’t work since the kernel really wants to see the drive when booting up. Inspecting the 'dmesg' log afterward reveals interesting items:

hdd: host max PIO5 wanted PIO255(auto-tune) selected PIO4
hdd: UDMA/33 mode selected
hdd: ATAPI DVD-ROM drive, 128kB Cache

Why is that interesting? When is the last time to saw disk devices prefixed by ‘hd’ rather than ‘sd’? Blast from the past. Oh, and the optical drive’s vendor string clearly indicates that this is an Xbox drive saying ‘hi!’.

Time To Read
When I first studied an Xbox disc in a normal optical drive, I noticed that I was able to read 6992 2048-byte sectors — about 14 MB of data — as reported by the disc table of contents (TOC). This is just enough data to play a standard DVD video animation that kindly instructs the viewer to please use a proper Xbox. At this point, I estimated that there must be something special about Xbox optical drive firmware that knows how to read alternate information on these discs and access further sectors.

I ran my TOC query tool with an Xbox Magazine demo disc in the optical drive and it reported substantially more than 6992 sectors, enough to account for more than 2 GB of data. That’s promising. I then tried running 'dd' against the device and it was able to read… about 14 MB, an exact quantity of bytes that, when divided by 2048 bytes/sector, yields 6992 sectors.

Future (Past?) Work
Assuming Google is your primary window into the broader internet, the world is beginning to lose its memory of things pertaining to the original Xbox (Microsoft’s naming scheme certainly doesn’t help searches). What I’m saying is that it can be difficult to find information about this stuff now. However, I was able to learn that a host needs to perform a sort of cryptographic handshake with the drive at the SCSI level before it is allowed to access the forbidden areas of the disc. I think. I’m still investigating this and will hopefully post more soon.

Posted in xbox | 8 Comments »

Game Music Appreciation, One Year Later

July 31st, 2013 by Multimedia Mike

I released my game music website last year about this time. It was a good start and had potential to grow in a lot of directions. But I’m a bit disappointed that I haven’t evolved it as quickly as I would like to. I have made a few improvements, like adjusting the play lengths of many metadata-less songs and revising the original atrocious design of the website using something called Twitter Bootstrap (and, wow, once you know what Bootstrap is, you start noticing it everywhere on the modern web). However, here are a few of the challenges that have slowed me down over the year:

Problems With Native Client – Build System
The technology which enables this project — Google’s Native Client (NaCl) — can be troublesome. One of my key frustrations with the environment is that every single revision of the NaCl SDK seems to adopt a completely new build system layout. If you want to port your NaCl project forward to newer revisions, you have to spend time wrapping your head around whatever the favored build system is. When I first investigated NaCl, I think it was using vanilla GNU Make. Then it switched to SCons. Then I forgot about NaCl for about a year and when I came back, the SDK had reverted back to GNU Make. While that has been consistent, the layout of the SDK sometimes changes and a different example Makefile shows the way.

The very latest version of the API has required me to really overhaul the Makefile and to truly understand the zen of Makefile programming. I’m even starting to grasp the relationship it has to functional programming.

Problems With Native Client – API Versions and Chrome Bugs
I built the original Salty Game Music Player when NaCl API version 16 was current. By the time I published the v16 version, v19 was available. I made the effort to port forward (a few APIs had superfically changed, nothing too dramatic). However, when I would experiment with this new player, I would see intermittent problems on my Windows 7 desktop. Because of this, I was hesitant to make a new player release.

Around the end of May, I started getting bug reports from site users that their Chrome browsers weren’t allowing them to activate the Salty Game Music Player — the upshot was that they couldn’t play music unless they manually flipped a setting in their browser configuration. It turns out that Chrome 27 introduced a bug that caused this problem. Not only that, but my player was one of only 2 known NaCl apps that used the problematic feature (the other was developed by the Google engineer who entered the bug).

After feeling negligent for a long while about not doing anything to fix the bug, I made a concerted and creative effort to work around the bug and pushed out a new version of the player (based on API v25). My effort didn’t work and I had to roll it back somewhat (but still using the new player binaries). The bug was something that I couldn’t work around. However, at about the same time that I was attempting to do this, Google was rolling out Chrome 28 which fixed the bug, rendering my worry and effort moot.

Problems With Native Client – Still Not In The Clear
I felt reasonably secure about releasing the updated player since I couldn’t make my aforementioned problem occur on my Windows 7 setup anymore. I actually have a written test plan for this player, believe it or not. However, I quickly started receiving new bug reports from Windows users. Mostly, these are Windows 8 users. The player basically doesn’t work at all for them now. One user reports the problem on Windows 7 (and another on Windows 2008 Server, I think). But I can’t see it.

I have a theory about what might be going wrong, but of course I’ll need to test it, and determine how to fix it.

Database Difficulties
The player is only half of the site; the other half is the organization of music files. Working on this project has repeatedly reminded me of my fundamental lack of skill concerning databases. I have a ‘production’ database– now I’m afraid to do anything with it for fear of messing it up. It’s an an SQLite3 database, so it’s easy to make backups and to create a copy in order to test and debug a new script. Still, I feel like I’m missing an entire career path worth of database best practices.

There is also the matter of ongoing database maintenance. There are graphical frontends for SQLite3 which make casual updates easier and obviate the need for anything more sophisticated (like a custom web app). However, I have a slightly more complicated database entry task that I fear will require, well, a custom web app in order to smoothly process hundreds, if not thousands of new song files (which have quirks which prohibit the easy mass processing I have been able to get away with so far).

Going Forward
I remain hopeful that I’ll gradually overcome these difficulties. I still love this project and I have received nothing but positive feedback over the past year (modulo the assorted recommendations that I port the entire player to pure JavaScript).

You would think I would learn a lesson about building anything on top of a Google platform in the future, especially Native Client. Despite all this, I have another NaCl project planned.

Posted in General | 1 Comment »

Managing Music Playback Channels

June 29th, 2013 by Multimedia Mike

My Game Music Appreciation site allows users to interact with old video game music by toggling various channels, as long as the underlying synthesizer engine supports it.

5 NES voices

Users often find their way to the Nintendo DS section pretty quickly. This is when they notice an obnoxious quirk with the channel toggling feature: specifically, one channel doesn’t seem to map to a particular instrument or track.

When it comes to computer music playback methodologies, I have long observed that there are 2 general strategies: Fixed channel and dynamic channel allocation.

Fixed Channel Approach
One of my primary sources of computer-based entertainment used to be watching music. Sure I listened to it as well. But for things like Amiga MOD files and related tracker formats, there was a rich ecosystem of fun music playback programs that visualized the music. There exist music visualization modes in various music players these days (such as iTunes and Windows Media Player), but those largely just show you a single wave form. These files were real time syntheses based on multiple audio channels and usually showed some form of analysis for each channel. My personal favorite was Cubic Player:

Open Cubic Player -- oscilloscopes

Most of these players supported the concept of masking individual channels. In doing so, the user could isolate, study, and enjoy different components of the song. For many 4-channel Amiga MOD files, I observed that the common arrangement was to use the 4 channels for beat (percussion track), bass line, chords, and melody. Thus, it was easy to just listen to, e.g., the bass line in isolation.

MODs and similar formats specified precisely which digital audio sample to play at what time and on which specific audio channel. To view the internals of one of these formats, one gets the impression that they contain an extremely computer-centric view of music.

Dynamic Channel Allocation Algorithm
MODs et al. enjoyed a lot of popularity, but the standard for computer music is MIDI. While MOD and friends took a computer-centric view of music, MIDI takes, well, a music-centric view of music.

There are MIDI visualization programs as well. The one that came with my Gravis Ultrasound was called PLAYMIDI.EXE. It looked like this…

Gravis Ultrasound PLAYMIDI.EXE application

… and it confused me. There are 16 distinct channels being visualized but some channels are shown playing multiple notes. When I dug into the technical details, I learned that MIDI just specifies what notes need to be played, at what times and frequencies and using which instrument samples, and it was the MIDI playback program’s job to make it happen.

Thus, if a MIDI file specifies that track 1 should play a C major chord consisting of notes C, E, and G, it would transmit events “key-on C; delta time 0; key-on E; delta time 0; key-on G; delta time …; [other commands]“. If the playback program has access to multiple channels (say, up to 32, in the case of the GUS), the intuitive approach would be to maintain a pool of all available channels. Then, when it’s time to process the “key-on C” event, fetch the first available channel from the pool, mark it as in-use, play C on the channel, and return that channel to the pool when either the sample runs its course or the corresponding “key-off C” event is encountered in the MIDI command stream.

About That Game Music
Circling back around to my game music website, numerous supported systems use the fixed channel approach for playback while others use dynamic channel allocation approach, including evey Nintendo DS game I have so far analyzed.

Which approach is better? As in many technical matters, there are trade-offs either way. For many systems, the fixed channel approach is necessary because for many older audio synthesis systems, different channels had very specific purposes. The 8-bit NES had 5 channels: 2 square wave generators (used musically for melody/treble), 1 triangle wave generator (usually used for bass line), a noise generator (subverted for all manner of percussive sounds), and a limited digital channel (was sometimes assigned richer percussive sounds). Dynamic channel allocation wouldn’t work here.

But the dynamic approach works great on hardware with 16 digital channels available like, for example, the Nintendo DS. Digital channels are very general-purpose. What about the SNES, with its 8 digital channels? Either approach could work. In practice, most games used a fixed channel approach: Games might use 4-6 channels for music while reserving the remainder for various in-game sound effects. Some notable exceptions to this pattern were David Wise’s compositions for Rare’s SNES games (think Battletoads and the various Donkey Kong Country titles). These clearly use some dynamic channel approach since masking all but one channel will give you a variety of instrument sounds.

There! That took a long time to explain but I find it fascinating for some reason. I need to distill it down to far fewer words because I want to make it a FAQ on my website for “Why can’t I isolate specific tracks for Nintendo DS games?”

Actually, perhaps I should remove the ability to toggle Nintendo DS channels in the first place. Here’s a funny tale of needless work: I found the Vio2sf engine for synthesizing Nintendo DS music and incorporated it into the program. It didn’t support toggling of individual channels so I figured out a way to add that feature to the engine. And then I noticed that most Nintendo DS games render that feature moot. After I released the webapp, I learned that I was out of date on the Vio2sf engine. The final insult was that the latest version already supports channel toggling. So I did the work for nothing. But then again, since I want to remove that feature from the UI, doubly so.

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