Home > General > PCM Audio | Part 2: What does a PCM stream look like?

PCM Audio | Part 2: What does a PCM stream look like?

January 9th, 2010

In Part 1, we looked at how a PCM stream is described. Once you know all of the parameters for your PCM stream, we can examine the data and put it in memory as useful data.

So, let’s assume we have a file that contains signed 16-bit little endian mono PCM. That means that data in the file is just a collection of 16 bit integers. Each integer represents one sample. So the first 9 samples in the file could be:

+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+
|  500 |  300 | -100 | -20  | -300 |  900 | -200 |  -50 |  250 |      
+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+------+

Each of those integers is stored in the file as 2 bytes (16-bit), so the 9 samples above take up 18 bytes of space. The value of each sample, obviously, can range from -32768 to 32767. If you take those samples and plot them on a graph, you’ll end up with a visualization of the waveform for the audio that you see in your music player.

If we wanted to read that into an array in C, we would do something like this (obviously this is pseudo-code):

FILE *pcmfile
int16_t *pcmdata;
pcmfile = fopen(your pcm data file);
pcmdata = malloc(size of the file);
fread(pcmdata, sizeof(int16_t), size of file / sizeof(int16_t), pcmfile);

Of course, if you’re dealing with large files, you probably shouldn’t read the whole thing into memory. You should buffer the data and read it in chunks at a time.

If you take that data and send it to your sound card, you’ll hear the sample being played. However, the sound card will require you to know the sample rate. If you have an 8kHz stream and tell the sound card to play it at 16kHz, it’s like playing a 33.3 RPM record at 45 RPM. For the younger crowd out there, that means it will be too fast and it’ll be high pitched… think Alvin and the Chipmunks here.

Since this is a description of the waveform, a stream of all zeros would be silence (a flat line if you graphed it).

I haven’t really explained what those samples actually MEAN though… just what they are. It will be incredibly obvious what those samples mean starting in the next post, when we get to the fun stuff: basic audio effects processing (don’t get scared… it’s actually really easy).

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