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Advanced Recording Format Specification (2.1)

#-*- mode: org -*-

The Advanced Recording Format (ARF) is for storing electrophysiological, acoustic, and behavioral data along with associated metadata and derived quantities in a hierarchical structure. ARF is based on the HDF5 format, allowing files to be accessed on a wide range of operating systems and architectures.

  • Editor: Dan Meliza <dan at>
  • State: released


Copyright (c) 2010-2013 C Daniel Meliza.

This Specification is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation; either version 3 of the License, or (at your option) any later version.

This Specification is distributed in the hope that it will be useful, but WITHOUT ANY WARRANTY; without even the implied warranty of MERCHANTABILITY or FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE. See the GNU General Public License for more details.

You should have received a copy of the GNU General Public License along with this program; if not, see

Change Process

This Specification is a free and open standard[1] and is governed by the Digital Standards Organization’s Consensus-Oriented Specification System (COSS)[2].

Version numbering from 2.0 on must be semantic ( Changes that maintain backwards compatibility (i.e., that do not change or remove any required fields and attributes) result in increments to the minor version. Changes that break backwards compatibility must receive new major version numbers. Changes that significantly alter the goals of the specification must result in a new identifier, preferably with a reference to the version of this document at the time of the fork.


The key words “MUST”, “MUST NOT”, “REQUIRED”, “SHALL”, “SHALL NOT”, “SHOULD”, “SHOULD NOT”, “RECOMMENDED”, “MAY”, and “OPTIONAL” in this document are to be interpreted as described in RFC 2119[3].

Goals and conceptual framework

The goal of ARF is to provide an open, unified, flexible, and portable format for storing time-varying data, along with sufficient metadata to reconstruct the conditions of how the data were recorded for many decades in the future.

Time-varying data can be represented in two ways [4]:

time series
A quantitative physical property of a system (e.g., sound pressure or voltage) measured as a function of time. In digital computers, time series data are always sampled at discrete moments in time, usually at fixed intervals. The sampling rate of the data is the number of times per second the value is sampled.
point process
A sequence of events taking place at discrete times. In a simple point process, events are defined only by the times of occurrence. In a marked point process, additional information is associated with the events.

Bioacoustic, electrophysiological, and behavioral data can all be represented in this framework. Some examples:

  • an acoustic recording is a time series of the sound pressure level detected by a microphone
  • an extracellular neural recording is a time series of the voltage measured by an electrode
  • a spike train is an unmarked point process defined by the times of the action potentials. A spike train could also be marked by the waveforms of the spikes.
  • stimuli presentations are a marked point process, with times indicating the onsets and offsets and marks indicating the identity of the presented stimulus
  • a series of behavioral events can be represented by a point process, optionally marked by measurable features of the event (location, intensity, etc)

Clearly all these types of data can be represented in computers as arrays. The challenge is to organize and annotate the data in such a way that it can

  1. be unambiguously identified,
  2. be aligned with data from different sources,
  3. support a broad range of experimental designs, and
  4. be accessed with generic and widely available software

A major design goal of ARF is to be minimal. Only the attributes and structural specifications needed to ensure that any type of data can be stored are included. The rest is up to the user. This goal sets ARF apart from many similar projects that attempt to explicitly deal with many use cases or that are specialized for one or a few applications.


ARF files shall be in the HDF5 format, version 1.8 or later. HDF5 is critical to providing flexibility and portability. It is available on multiple platforms and supports automatic conversion of data types, allowing transparent access of data across many architectures. HDF5 files support hierarchical organization of datasets and metadata attributes. ARF specifies the layout used to store data within this framework, while allowing the user to add metadata specific to an application.


An entry is defined as an abstract grouping of zero or more datasets that all share a common start time. Each entry shall be represented by an HDF5 group. The group shall contain all the data objects associated with that entry, stored as HDF5 datasets, and all the metadata associated with the entry, stored as HDF5 attributes. The following attributes are required:

The start time of the entry. This attribute shall consist of a two-element array with the first element indicating the number of seconds since January 1, 1970 UTC, and the second element indicating the rest of the elapsed time, in microseconds. Must have at least 64-bit integer precision.
A universally unique ID for the entry (see RFC 4122). Must be stored as a 128-bit integer or a 36-byte H5T_STRING with CTYPE of H5T_C_S1. The latter is preferred as 128-bit integers are not supported on many platforms.

In addition, the following optional attributes are defined. They do not need to be present in the group if not applicable, but if they are present they must have a datatype with class H5T_STRING and CTYPE of H5T_C_S1. Encoding must be ASCII or UTF-8 and match the value of CSET.

Indicates the name or ID of the animal.
Indicates the name or ID of the experimenter.
Comment field indicating the treatment, stimulus, or any other user-specified data.
The URI of an external database where uuid can be looked up.


A dataset is defined as a concrete time series or point process. Multiple datasets may be stored in an entry, and may be unequal in length or have different timebases.

A timebase is defined by two quantities (with units), one of which is optional under some circumstances. The required quantity is the offset of the data. All time values in a dataset are relative to this time. The default offset of a dataset is the timestamp of the entry. Individual datasets may have their own offsets, which are calculated relative to the entry timestamp.

The second quantity in a timebase is the sampling rate, which allows discrete times to be converted to real times. It is required if the data are sampled (as in a time series) or if time values in a point process are in units of samples. Only point proceses with real-valued units of time may omit the sampling rate.

Real-valued times must be in units of seconds. Discrete-valued times must be in units of samples.

Each channel of data in an entry shall be represented by a separate HDF5 dataset. The format of each dataset depends on the type of data it stores.

Sampled data

Sampled data shall be stored as an N-dimensional array of scalar values corresponding to the measurement at each sampling interval. The first dimension of the array must correspond to time. The significance of additional dimensions is unspecified. The sampling_rate attribute is required.

Event data

Event data may be stored in one of two formats. Simple event data should be stored in a 1D array, with each element in the array indicating the time of the event relative to the start of the dataset. Event datasets can be distinguished from 1D sampled datasets because the units attribute must be “samples” or “s”.

Complex event data must be stored as arrays with a compound datatype (i.e., with multiple fields). Only one field is required, start, which indicates the time of the event and can be any numerical type.

Spike waveforms and features extracted from raw data should be stored in complex event datasets, with the start field indicating the time of the spike and additional array or scalar fields storing the waveforms and features.

A special case of event data are intervals, which are defined by a start and stop time. In previous versions of the specification, intervals were considered a separate data type, with two additional required fields, name (a string) and stop (a time). This format is permitted in version 2.0, but intervals may also be stored as separate start and stop events.

Dataset attributes

All datasets must have the following attributes.

A string giving the units of the channel data, which should be in SI notation. May be an empty string for sampled data if units are not known. Event data must have units of “samples” (for a discrete timebase) or “s” (for a continuous timebase); sampled data must not use these units. For complex event data, this attribute must be an array, with each element of the array indicating the units of the associated field in the data.
Indicates the source of data in the entry. Must have at least unsigned integer precision great enough to include all the values defined in Datatypes.

The following attribute is only required for datasets with a discrete timebase:

A nonzero number indicating the sampling rate of the data, in samples per second (Hz). Required for all datasets with a sampled timebase. May be any numerical datatype.

The following attributes are optional:

Indicates the start time of the dataset relative to the start of the entry, defined by the timebase of the dataset. For discrete timebases, the units must be in samples; for continuous timebases, the units must be the same as the units of the dataset. If this attribute is missing, the offset shall be assumed to be zero.
A universally unique ID for the dataset (see RFC 4122). Multiple datasets in different entries of the same file may have the same uuid, indicating that they were obtained from the same source and experimental conditions. Must be stored as a 128-bit integer or a 36-byte H5T_STRING with CTYPE of H5T_C_S1. The latter is preferred as 128-bit integers are not supported on many platforms.


The datatype attribute is an integer code indicating the type of data in a channel. This field is purely advisory: it specifies how the data should be interpreted but does not imply any contract as to the dataspace or storage type of the dataset. The following values are defined:

0UNDEFINEDundefined or unknown
2EXTRAC_HPextracellular, high-pass (single-unit or multi-unit)
3EXTRAC_LFextracellular, local-field
4EXTRAC_EEGextracellular, EEG
5INTRAC_CCintracellular, current-clamp
6INTRAC_VCintracellular, voltage-clamp
23EXTRAC_RAWextracellular, wide-band
1000EVENTgeneric event times
1001SPIKETspike event times
1002BEHAVETbehavioral event times
2000INTERVALgeneric intervals
2001STIMIstimulus presentation intervals
2002COMPONENTLcomponent (e.g. motif) labels

Values below 1000 are reserved for sampled data types.

General structural rules

Top-level datasets

ARF files may have datasets in the root group. These must not associated with any entry, but may be used to store structured data or metadata for the entire file. For example, data recording software may keep a log of events. There are no requirements for the datatype, dataspace, or attributes of these datasets.

Multiple linkages

Datasets must not be linked to more than one entry, as this would make the time of the data undefined. Entries must not be multiply linked to the root HDF5 group. Entries may contain other entries, but their contents are not considered part of the ARF data hierarchy.

Extensions to the format

The above specification is a required minimum for a file to be in ARF format. Additional attributes, groups, and datasets may be added, but must not conflict with any attributes specified above. Because optional attributes may be forwards incompatible with later versions due to namespace collision, their names should be prefixed with the name of the application (e.g. ‘jill_sample_count’).

Changes from previous versions

version 2.1

An optional “uuid” attribute was added to the dataset specification. This allows channels to be unambiguously identified as data sources for subsequent analysis steps.

version 2.0

The required “recid” attribute was dropped because it was unsuitable for an open standard, and because it depended on an external database for uniqueness. Instead, a “uuid” attribute was required.

Event data was defined to include both “simple” and “complex” events. Interval data became a special case of complex event data. This was to allow data collection programs to store more information about events, without forcing them to use the strictly defined data type for intervals. The definition of a distinct interval data type was dropped unceremoniously. Software reading the INTERVAL, STIMI, and COMPONENTL should check for the existence of a ‘stop’ field.

The times for event data were no longer required to be in units of seconds, and the format was not required to be double-precision floating point. The sampling_rate attribute was required for event datasets where the units are in samples.

Root-level datasets were explicitly allowed.

Semantic versioning was introduced.

To upgrade a file from version 1.1, add a uuid attribute to all entries, and a sampling_rate attribute to all event datasets that have units of samples.

version 1.1

Catalogs were removed at the top level and in entries. The objects themselves now carry all the metadata once in the catalog as attributes.

Multichannel datasets were deprecated in favor of multiple single-channel datasets. Channels should only be grouped into single datasets when the data are really inseparable (e.g. left and right channels). This greatly improved read performance, at some expense in file size.

Entry groups were deprecated; datasets that start at different times but need to be grouped together can be given an offset value indicating the interval between the entry start time and the start of the data.

The attributes required by pytables were deprecated. Some interfaces may continue to store them, but they were no longer required.


  • [1] “Definition of a Free and Open Standard” -
  • [2] “Consensus Oriented Specification System” -
  • [3] “Key words for use in RFCs to Indicate Requirement Levels” -
  • [4] Brillinger, D. (1994) Time Series, Point Processes, and Hybrids. The Canadian Journal of Statistics. doi:10.2307/3315583