Sculptor: A Real Time Phase Vocoder

Sculptor is a set of audio tools for Linux that manipulates spectra in real time and provides continuous audio output.
Choosing a GUI

Writing Sculptor was supposed to be an exercise in efficient signal processing rather than sophisticated GUI design. The GUI library eventually selected was xview, which is a rather aged library, although dynamic and static versions are still available for Red Hat's 5.0 release based on glibc2, so it is not quite dead yet. The reason for this choice was primarily because I was familiar with it. The principal requirements of the application, a few simple menus, sliders and the detection of mouse events over a performance canvas are satisfied by practically any widget set from the oldest Athena to the latest GTK+, so the wide availability of the library in an open form is of more concern than its technical sophistication. Linux Journal has already published an article (see Resources) demonstrating the use of xview and the ease with which simple applications can be constructed using variable-argument-list calls.

When the prism application is invoked by the name xprism, the xview GUI is enabled. Most of the data flow in xprism is mono-directional: the GUI process produces control data, and the synthesiser consumes it producing audio samples. However, when the specification for xprism was conceived, it became evident that asynchronous flow in the opposite direction was needed.

When xprism runs, the following sequence of events takes place:

  • The analysis file is opened and the size of memory required to contain the spectra is calculated. An additional allowance is made for spectral workspace. As in interactive mode, a mouse action might be responsible for setting the synthesiser parameters rather than relying on simply incrementing through the spectrograph automatically.

  • The shared control block (see Listing 2) is set up with appropriate initial values.

  • The whole spectral file is read into the shared-memory block.

  • The process forks a child responsible for audio resynthesis.

  • The parent xview widget hierarchy is intialised and the spectrograph drawn.

  • The parent informs the child it may generate audio samples by setting the xv_ready field in the shared control block.

  • The parent and the child run concurrently, using the shared memory area for data transfer (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Data Flow in the Shared Memory Block.

This process is fine for simple gestural control, but as it stands, there is no feedback from the synthesiser process about whence in the spectrogram the resynthesiser is taking its data. Refer to the screenshot of the application running in Figure 3, and it is obvious that two fundamentally different ways of getting sound out of the program are present.

  1. The user can select a playback speed from the speed slider, in which case the rate of advance through the spectrogram is under control of the resynthesis process. It is necessary to update the green line when the resynthesis source is moved automatically by the resynthesiser, and of course this happens asynchronously with the GUI events. The solution is to arrange for the resynthesiser to signal the parent when an update is required.

  2. The user can click or drag on the spectrogram, in which case the spectrum to be resynthesised is under control of the parent controlling process. There is no problem in positioning the green line on the spectrogram canvas: it is simply dictated by the position parameter from the serviced mouse-motion event.

Figure 3. Application Screenshot

Using Signals in xview Clients

Sending a signal from the child process is easily achieved, but there may be unfortunate consequences. The application is continually sending commands to the X-server, and in principle, a signal might occur during the process of client-server communication. This is dangerous only in that the signal initiates X-server commands (in order to draw the green line), so some method of making X protocol requests atomic has to be employed.

Fortunately, the necessary methods are provided by the xview package. An xview client is not supposed to perform certain operations. One of these is servicing interrupts received directly by the signal method, and another is using sleep to suspend itself. Both potentially interfere with the proper operation of client-server communication. If the client wants to use interrupts, it must register itself as a signal acceptor as follows:

notify_set_signal_func(frame, update_frame_posn,

This call appears at the end of the initialiser for the xview data structures and associates the service routine for the signal SIGUSR1 with the servicing function update_frame_posn. The frame argument is the parent frame of the application, and NOTIFY_SYNC indicates that servicing of the interrupt should be delayed until pending X-protocol exchanges are complete.