C++ library for Audio Digital Signal Processing
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Q-Logo Audio DSP Library


Q is a cross-platform C++ library for Audio Digital Signal Processing. Aptly named after the "Q factor", a dimensionless parameter that describes the quality of a resonant circuit, the Q DSP Library is designed to be simple and elegant, as the simplicity of its name suggests, and efficient enough to run on small microcontrollers.

Q leverages the power of modern C++ and efficient use of functional programming techniques, especially function composition using fine-grained and reusable function objects (both stateless and stateful), to simplify complex DSP programming tasks without sacrificing readability.

Q is the host of some experimental Music related DSP facilities such as Virtual Pickups (Virtual pickup placement simulator) and Bitstream Autocorrelation (An extremely fast and efficient pitch detection scheme) the author has accumulated over the years as part of research and development, and will continue to evolve to accommodate more facilities necessary for the fulfillment of various Music related projects.

The library is Open Source and released under the very liberal MIT license.

Design and Architecture

The Q library comprises of two layers:

  1. q_lib: The core DSP library, which has no dependencies except the standard c++ library. In the future, it is possible to make use additional libraries, as long as the libraries depended upon are also self-contained. q_lib is a no-frills, lightweight, header-only library.
  2. q_io: Audio and MIDI I/O layer, with very minimal dependencies (portaudio and portmidi) and very loose coupling via thin wrappers that are easy to transplant and port to a host, with or without an operating system, such as an audio plugin or direct to hardware ADC and DAC.


By design, communication to and from the application, including but not limited to parameter control, is done exclusively via MIDI. We will track the development of the forthcoming (as of January 2019) MIDI 2.0, especially extended 16-bit and 32-bit resolution and MIDI Capability Inquiry (MIDI-CI) "Universal System Exclusive" messages.

The architecture intuitively models real-world (hardware) effect processors (and synthesizers) with a) zero or more input channels and one or more output channels, and b) a means for communication and control via MIDI. Such design simplicity is fundamental. There is very clear separation of concerns. There are no graphical user interfaces. There are no direct hardware or software controls. User interface is outside the scope of the library. You deal with that elsewhere, or perhaps not at all.

Such design simplicity makes it easy for applications to be incorporated in any hardware or software host. MIDI is a very simple protocol with a well defined and evolving standard. The ability to use any MIDI controller (again both hardware or software) to control an application is a very powerful and intuitive concept. It is the very concept that gave MIDI widespread appeal and ubiquity to begin with.

This simplified control scheme using MIDI also allows applications to be easily testable in isolation —a very desirable capability not typically found in more complex and monolithic systems.

Setup and Installation

The full Q library (including q_lib and q_io) is cross-platform and is tested to work on the three major operating systems: MacOS, Linux and Windows. The Q core library, q_lib, works on any environment with a modern C++ compiler and the standard C++ library (for example, all 32-bit ARM microcontrollers).

Follow the Setup and Installation guide to get started using the library.


A top-down documentation of the API is currently work in progress. For now, you can peruse the examples and tests, plus the documentation comments in individual header files, as well as the library code itself, to get acquainted with the library. The code should be very readable and easy to follow for intermediate to advanced C++ programmers. There are no esoteric uses of C++ at all apart from the library-wide use of function objects (which is standard practice in C++) as well as function-objects composition. The following tutorials and examples should also be a good starting point.

Hello, World

Here's a quick "Hello, World" example that highlights the simplicity of the Q DSP Library: a delay effects processor.

   // 1: fractional delay
   q::delay _delay{ 350_ms, 44100 };

   // 2: Mix the signal s, and the delayed signal (where s is the incoming sample)
   auto _y = s + _delay();

   // 3: Feed back the result to the delay
   _delay.push(_y * _feedback);

Normally, there will be a processing loop that receives the incoming samples, s. You place 1, the delay constructor, q::delay, before the processing loop and 2 and 3 inside inside the loop.

44100 is the desired sampling rate. _feedback is the amount of feedback desired (anything from 0.0 to less than 1.0, e.g. 0.85). But take note of 350_ms. Here, we take advantage of C++ (from c++11) type safe user-defined literals, instead of the usual float or double which can be unsafe when values from different units (e.g. frequency vs. duration) are mismatched. The Q DSP library makes abundant use of user-defined literals for units such as time, frequency and even sound level (e.g. 24_dB, instead of a unit-less 24 or worse, a non-intuitive, unit-less 15.8 —the gain equivalent of 24_dB). Such constants also make the code very readable, another objective of this library.

Processors such as q::delay are C++ function objects (sometimes called functors) that can be composed to form more complex processors. For example if you want to filter the delayed signal with a low-pass with a 1 kHz cutoff frequency, you apply the q::lowpass filter over the result of the delay:

   q::lowpass _lp{ 1_kHz, 44100 };

then insert the filter where it is needed in the processing loop:

   // 2: Add the signal s, and the delayed, low-pass filtered signal
   auto _y = s + _lp(_delay());

Hello, Universe

Let us move on to a more elaborate example. How about a fully functional, bandwidth limited square wave synthesizer with ADSR envelope that controls an amplifier and a resonant filter and control the note-on and note-off using MIDI? Sounds good? This example is complete and self-contained in one .cpp file, yet still kept as simple as possible to highlight the ease of use.

The full example can be found here: example/square_synth.cpp. After building the program, make sure you have a MIDI keyboard connected before starting the application. At startup, the app will present you with a list of available MIDI hardware and will ask you what you want to use.

There are more demo applications in the example directory. After this quick tutorial, free to explore.

The Synth

Here's the actual synthesizer with the processing loop:

   struct my_square_synth : q::audio_stream
      my_square_synth(q::envelope::config env_cfg)
       : audio_stream(0, 2)
       , env(env_cfg, this->sampling_rate())
       , filter(0.5, 0.8)

      void process(out_channels const& out)
         auto left = out[0];
         auto right = out[1];
         for (auto frame : out.frames())
            // Generate the ADSR envelope
            auto env_ = env();

            // Set the filter frequency

            // Synthesize the square wave
            auto val = q::square(phase++);

            // Apply the envelope (amplifier and filter) with soft clip
            val = clip(filter(val) * env_);

            // Output
            right[frame] = left[frame] = val;

      q::phase_iterator phase;            // The phase iterator
      q::envelope       env;              // The envelope
      q::reso_filter    filter;           // The resonant filter
      q::soft_clip      clip;             // Soft clip

Our synth is a subclass of q::audio_stream sets up buffers for the input and output audio streams and presents those to our processing loop (the process function above). Here, in this example, we setup an audio stream with no inputs and two (stereo) outputs: audio_stream(0, 2).

The Oscillator

Behind the scenes, there's a lot going on here, actually. But you will notice that emphasis is given to making the library very readable, easy to understand and follow by breaking down complex tasks into smaller manageable tasks and using function composition at progressively higher levels, while maintaining simplicity and clarity of intent.

The synthesizer above is composed of smaller building blocks: fine grained C++ function objects. For example, here's the square wave oscillator (bandwidth limited using poly_blep). For now, we will skim over details such as phase, phase_iterator, and and this thing called poly blep. The important point, exemplified here, is that we want to keep our building blocks as simple and minimal as possible. One will notice that our square_synth class does not even have state.

   struct square_synth
      constexpr float operator()(phase p, phase dt) const
         constexpr auto middle = phase::max() / 2;
         auto r = p < middle ? 1.0f : -1.0f;

         // Correct rising discontinuity
         r += poly_blep(p, dt);

         // Correct falling discontinuity
         r -= poly_blep(p + middle, dt);

         return r;

      constexpr float operator()(phase_iterator i) const
         return (*this)(i._phase, i._incr);

   constexpr auto square = square_synth{};

The modern C++ savvy programmer will immediately notice the use of constexpr, applied judiciously all throughout the library. Such modern c++ facilities allow the compiler to generate extremely efficient code, even those that are generated at compile time. That means, for this example, that one can build an oscillator at compile time if needed, perhaps with constant wavetable results stored in read-only memory.

Processing MIDI

The midi_processor takes care of MIDI events. Your application will have its own MIDI processor that deals with MIDI events that you are interested in. For this simple example, we simply want to process note-on and note-off events. On note-on events, our MIDI processor sets my_square_synth's note frequency and triggers its envelope for attack. On note-off events, our MIDI processor initiates the envelope's release.

   struct my_midi_processor : midi::processor
      using midi::processor::operator();

      my_midi_processor(my_square_synth& synth)
       : _synth(synth)

      void operator()(midi::note_on msg, std::size_t time)
         _key = msg.key();
         auto freq = midi::note_frequency(_key);
         _synth.phase.set(freq, _synth.sampling_rate());
         _synth.env.trigger(float(msg.velocity()) / 128);

      void operator()(midi::note_off msg, std::size_t time)
         if (msg.key() == _key)

      std::uint8_t      _key;
      my_square_synth&  _synth;

The Main Function

In the main function, we instantiate my_square_synth and my_midi_processor. The synth constructor, in case you haven't noticed yet, requires an envelope configuration (envelope::config). Here, we provide our configuration. Take note that in this example, the envelope parameters are constant, for the sake of simplicity, but you can definitely have these controllable by the user by writing your own MIDI processor that deals with MIDI control change messages.

Again, take note of the abundant use of user-defined literals for units such as duration (e.g. 100_ms) and level (e.g. -12_dB).

   auto env_cfg = q::envelope::config
      100_ms      // attack rate
    , 1_s         // decay rate
    , -12_dB      // sustain level
    , 5_s         // sustain rate
    , 1_s         // release rate

   my_square_synth synth{ env_cfg };

Then, we create my_midi_processor, giving it a reference to my_square_synth. We'll also need a midi_input_stream that receives the actual incoming MIDI messages from the chosen hardware.

   q::midi_input_stream stream;
   my_midi_processor proc{ synth };

Now we're all set. We start the synth and enter a loop that exits when the user presses ctrl-c (in which case the running flag becomes false). In the loop, we give our MIDI processor a chance to process incoming MIDI events as they arrive from the MIDI stream:

   while (running)

About the Author

Joel got into electronics and programming in the 80s because almost everything in music, his first love, is becoming electronic and digital. Since then, he builds his own guitars, effect boxes and synths. He enjoys playing distortion-laden rock guitar, composes and produces his own music in his home studio.

Joel de Guzman is the principal architect and engineer at Cycfi Research and a consultant at Ciere Consulting. He is a software engineer specializing in advanced C++ and an advocate of Open Source. He has authored a number of highly successful Open Source projects such as Boost.Spirit, Boost.Phoenix and Boost.Fusion. These libraries are all part of the Boost Libraries, a well respected, peer-reviewed, Open Source, collaborative development effort.

Copyright (c) 2014-2019 Joel de Guzman. All rights reserved. Distributed under the MIT License