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2022 Feb 16

Faust: a mud ball with a pearl in it

For those who do not know, Faust is a domain-specific language (DSL) for developing audio digital signal processors. It is a functional programming language developed by GRAME, a French research institution, since about 2002. The Faust compiler, and the majority of accessory code, is written in C++, although the compiler also targets other languages.

I’ve been using Faust for about two years. I found it a pretty easy language to learn, given that I was already comfortable with functional programming. The five block diagram operators still seem a bit magical, but I get by.

I have enjoyed writing DSP code in Faust because of the straightforward syntax. A main reason anybody wants to use a DSL is to focus on a particular aspect of their software. In the case of audio processors, signal processing is the main aspect, and Faust does a brilliant job of bringing it into focus.

Of course, audio processors don’t just process signals; they also deal with their environment through audio, user, and system interfaces. Faust doesn’t directly handle these aspects, although it has… ideas about them.

The Faust project is marketed to who might be called “music hackers”; musicians and/or programmers who write DSP but not environment-interfacing code. (I guess “DSP engineer” doesn’t sound cool enough.) Faust brings these users value by providing not just a DSP language compiler, but also high-quality libraries authored by people who know their stuff, tools that make development accessible and interactive, and a wide range of target platforms supported through scripts. Faust is a playground for music hackers.

I am both a DSP engineer and a system programmer, so it was only a matter of time before I began to work with Faust seriously. I’m also an amateur programming language designer who has worked on functional programming languages, so Faust offers me many things to reflect on. But before we get to all of that, I want to discuss what Faust calls an “architecture file”.

I find the term “architecture” unfortunate. I understand why the term was adopted; it’s the conceptual negation of DSP, and for Faust, → DSP ← is the center of the universe. But not all potential Faust users care only about DSP. Some of them also work with audio, user, and system interfaces, and the term “architecture” does not serve them.

DSP is simple: nothing but a transformation applied to a data stream. It need have no concept of anything more than floating-point arithmetic. This is the part of Faust I find most sound and useful. It truly fulfills its role as a DSL; it distills the essence of signal processing problems into a small set of primitives.

The music hacker playground is not well anchored to this elegant core.

Faust is not, and has never been, a pure signal processing DSL. From the beginning, it has always provided special syntax for GUI primitives. Yes, the “DSP” language has ideas about user interfaces, because it is a language for music hackers, not for DSP engineers.

But of course, the Faust compiler doesn’t own these GUI primitives. It doesn’t tie you, the music hacker, to Qt or JavaScript or GTK or Cocoa. It merely translates them into calls that the architecture has to implement. You pick the architecture, it’ll handle the GUI libraries for you.

I understand. There can’t be a playground without supporting a wide range of platforms. And as far as I can tell, Faust has passed up ways to attract contributors who work at this level. There isn’t enough documentation on writing architecture files, on the interfaces and contracts that the Faust compiler delegates to architectures.

This seems to assume that all architectures will be maintained under the Faust project, rather than viewing architecture authors as users. Perhaps earlier, the project expected to encapsulate the architecture-DSP interface.

It was not to be. Faust architectures are not equal in their support of primitives.

Another way that Faust was originally marketed was as a language for writing plugins. I think that’s fitting; Faust isn’t really a DSP language but an audio plugin language that happens to have a really cool functional DSP core.

I like the core, I don’t think the rest of it works for my situation. And I think this is a case of being too specialized. There’s no reason Faust has to make my use case hard; in principle, it’s possible to make a pure DSP language that can be optionally extended for writing plugins. I don’t see why both use cases can’t be accommodated.

I’m one of the users that finds myself on both sides, and I still think Faust’s core syntax provides value. The problem I face is the empty pretense of a UI contract, assumptions about what kind of memory allocation I will use and about how I want to integrate the compiled DSP with my project. This layer has been neglected, and users at this level have been ignored.

I have nothing against building the music hacker’s playground. I just want it to be built out of parts that are also useful to me.

There are no third-party Faust implementations. I asked. The response was, “What would be the point?” I felt I had evoked a defensive response, and decided not to pry much further.

There’s an opportunity to serve the niche of DSP languages better. Faust originated as a research project and seems not entirely aware that its goals differ significantly from that of a production-grade product.

A production-grade DSP language wouldn’t have ideas about audio, user, and system interfaces. It wouldn’t pretend to enforce contracts that it has to delegate to somebody else. It would be compatible with whatever kind of memory allocation the application needs. It would generate idiomatic code for the target language. It would restrict itself to a minimal core of well-designed, critical features and adhere to a formal specification that promotes standardization. It would exhibit good version control discipline with useful commit messages and terse diffs. It would document all interfaces, both programmatic and linguistic. It would make people feel welcome by setting clear expectations of participants' conduct. It would support other open source projects by choosing them as solutions for its own needs. And it would support simple, interactive development tools that do not require network access to function.

I don’t doubt that if such a project existed, it would provide great benefit to many people.


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© 2022 Karl Schultheisz — Lancaster, PA, USA