Implementing MP3 player in C15. Dec '13

Surprised by the lack of English-written articles about MP3 decoding in C, I thought that I should put down a couple of words about that.

First of all, there are many was to read a file. Most modern operating systems have mmap() syscall, which basically maps the file contents to virtual memory space, which means that you can access the file just by reading an address in memory. The kernel transparently fetches a chunk of file from the harddisk and caches it in the physical memory. This makes dozen tasks easier - no need to keep track of buffers and reduces excessive copies in memory thus getting one step closer to zero-copy architecture.

Secondly, there are many libraries for decoding particular audio format. Even for MP3 there are several: LGPL v2.1 licensed libmpg123, GPL v2 licensed libmad and LGPL licensed liblame. Note that libmad is using fixed-point arithmetic which performs several times better on FPU-less ARM processors which suck at floating point arithmetic. You might find an ARM processor in a mobile phone, NAS-box, Cubieboard and in a Raspberry Pi.

Thirdly and finally there are many libraries for audio output. Note that decoder library produces simply PCM-audio samples. In case of Linux based machines one could directly use alsa-lib feed the samples to kernel, which in turn transfers them to the audio chip. Modern distributions intercept ALSA output and hook those applications to the PulseAudio audioserver. PulseAudio allows on-the-fly switching of audio output between headphones, HDMI output or Bluetooth headset and other fancy stuff that you would expect from modern operating system. In that case one might use PulseAudio libraries to feed the PCM samples directly to PulseAudio server. There are of course libraries like libao which build yet another abstraction layer on top of ALSA, PulseAudio and others, but at the moment of writing it seems to be not so well maintained in Ubuntu package management.

So, here goes a sample using libmad and libpulse:

#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <sys/stat.h>
#include <sys/mman.h>
#include <mad.h>
#include <pulse/simple.h>
#include <pulse/error.h>

pa_simple *device = NULL;
int ret = 1;
int error;
struct mad_stream mad_stream;
struct mad_frame mad_frame;
struct mad_synth mad_synth;

void output(struct mad_header const *header, struct mad_pcm *pcm);

int main(int argc, char **argv) {
    // Parse command-line arguments
    if (argc != 2) {
        fprintf(stderr, "Usage: %s [filename.mp3]", argv[0]);
        return 255;

    // Set up PulseAudio 16-bit 44.1kHz stereo output
    static const pa_sample_spec ss = { .format = PA_SAMPLE_S16LE, .rate = 44100, .channels = 2 };
    if (!(device = pa_simple_new(NULL, "MP3 player", PA_STREAM_PLAYBACK, NULL, "playback", &ss, NULL, NULL, &error))) {
        printf("pa_simple_new() failed\n");
        return 255;

    // Initialize MAD library

    // Filename pointer
    char *filename = argv[1];

    // File pointer
    FILE *fp = fopen(filename, "r");
    int fd = fileno(fp);

    // Fetch file size, etc
    struct stat metadata;
    if (fstat(fd, &metadata) >= 0) {
        printf("File size %d bytes\n", (int)metadata.st_size);
    } else {
        printf("Failed to stat %s\n", filename);
        return 254;

    // Let kernel do all the dirty job of buffering etc, map file contents to memory
    char *input_stream = mmap(0, metadata.st_size, PROT_READ, MAP_SHARED, fd, 0);

    // Copy pointer and length to mad_stream struct
    mad_stream_buffer(&mad_stream, input_stream, metadata.st_size);

    // Decode frame and synthesize loop
    while (1) {

        // Decode frame from the stream
        if (mad_frame_decode(&mad_frame, &mad_stream)) {
            if (MAD_RECOVERABLE(mad_stream.error)) {
            } else if (mad_stream.error == MAD_ERROR_BUFLEN) {
            } else {
        // Synthesize PCM data of frame
        mad_synth_frame(&mad_synth, &mad_frame);
        output(&mad_frame.header, &mad_synth.pcm);

    // Close

    // Free MAD structs

    // Close PulseAudio output
    if (device)

    return EXIT_SUCCESS;

// Some helper functions, to be cleaned up in the future
int scale(mad_fixed_t sample) {
     /* round */
     sample += (1L << (MAD_F_FRACBITS - 16));
     /* clip */
     if (sample >= MAD_F_ONE)
         sample = MAD_F_ONE - 1;
     else if (sample < -MAD_F_ONE)
         sample = -MAD_F_ONE;
     /* quantize */
     return sample >> (MAD_F_FRACBITS + 1 - 16);
void output(struct mad_header const *header, struct mad_pcm *pcm) {
    register int nsamples = pcm->length;
    mad_fixed_t const *left_ch = pcm->samples[0], *right_ch = pcm->samples[1];
    static char stream[1152*4];
    if (pcm->channels == 2) {
        while (nsamples--) {
            signed int sample;
            sample = scale(*left_ch++);
            stream[(pcm->length-nsamples)*4 ] = ((sample >> 0) & 0xff);
            stream[(pcm->length-nsamples)*4 +1] = ((sample >> 8) & 0xff);
            sample = scale(*right_ch++);
            stream[(pcm->length-nsamples)*4+2 ] = ((sample >> 0) & 0xff);
            stream[(pcm->length-nsamples)*4 +3] = ((sample >> 8) & 0xff);
        if (pa_simple_write(device, stream, (size_t)1152*4, &error) < 0) {
            fprintf(stderr, "pa_simple_write() failed: %s\n", pa_strerror(error));
    } else {
        printf("Mono not supported!");

You may compile this snippet by linking against the appropriate libraries:

gcc -o player player.c -lpulse -lpulse-simple -lmad -g

On Ubuntu you of course have to first install the dependencies:

sudo apt-get install libpulse-dev libmad0-dev libpulse0 libmad


MP3 libmad zero-copy mmap PulseAudio libao