Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Streaming and playing fixed-length MP3s using the iPhone SDK

The Problem

Lately, I've been doing a fair amount of coding using Objective-C and the iPhone SDK. Once I got used to the language I really started to like it. The more I used the SDK the more impressed I became with how much I could do with it. However, when a customer of ours at Episodic needed an iPhone App that could play a list of MP3s (RSS Feed to be exact) with "iPod-like" functionality, I was surprised to find that this is not something I can do with the embedded Quicktime Player.  In fact, you can't even just hook into the MPMoviePlayerController.  For example, there is no way to know when one songs ends so that I can start the next song since the MPMoviePlayerPlaybackDidFinishNotification notification is fired when the song ends or the user hits the done button.  So after a lot of searching I came across Matt Gallagher's great post "Revisiting an old post: Streaming and playing an MP3 stream".

Modifying the AudioStreamer Class to Play Fixed-Length MP3s

So Matt's post got me part of the way there.  It at least gave me an understanding of the tools I would need to use to accomplish my task.  The main difference between what he had and what I needed is that he was playing an MP3 stream and I wanted to play MP3 files.  The first change I made was I added a new constructor to the AudioStreamer class.  This allowed me to initialized the class with a URL to a file on the file system (I'll talk about how to get the file on your file system later).

- (id)initWithFileURL:(NSURL *)aURL {
[self initWithURL:aURL];
fixedLength = YES;
return self;

This constructor sets a flag to indicate that we are streaming fixed-length MP3s.  I then key off this flag in the openFileStream method.

if (fixedLength) {
stream = CFReadStreamCreateWithFile(
kCFAllocatorDefault, (CFURLRef)url);
} else {
CFHTTPMessageRef message = CFHTTPMessageCreateRequest(
NULL, (CFStringRef)@"GET", (CFURLRef)url,

stream = CFReadStreamCreateForHTTPRequest(NULL, message);

The above code simply creates the stream from the file system instead of a remote file. Because the result is still a CFReadStreamRef object the rest of the class mostly remains unchanged.

Downloading the MP3

In my controller I just need to download the MP3 file to a location on the file system.  This can be done very easily by using a combination of NSURLConnection and NSFileHandle.

audioFile = [[NSFileHandle
fileHandleForWritingAtPath:downloadFileName] retain];
NSURLRequest *downloadRequest = [NSURLRequest
download = [[NSURLConnection alloc]
initWithRequest:downloadRequest delegate:self];

This code creates the file to write the data to and creates the connection to fetch the data.  I know just need to handle the data.

- (void)connection:(NSURLConnection *)connection
didReceiveData:(NSData *)data {
// Append the data to the file on the file system
[audioFile writeData:data];
downloadedLength += [data length];

// When we get enough of the file, then just start playing.
if (!streamer && downloadedLength > 

NSLog(@"start playback for %@", downloadFileName);
[self initAndStartStreamer];

The above code is the NSURLConnection delegate method for receiving the data and writing the data to the file. Once I have "enough" of the MP3 I can start playing it by create the streamer and passing it the URL to our audioFile.

NEW: Handling EOF

One bug that I ran into since my initial post is that if I actually put this on my phone and went outside, away from my wireless network, the song would sometimes end early.  What was happening is that the AudioStreamer was playing the file faster than it was being downloaded.  The AudioStreamer would hit the EOF and then stop.  To prevent this case I added some "throttling" to the playback loop that checks if we are too close to the end of the file and changes the state to buffering until we have enough to continue. The following code is in startInternal.

// Flag to indicate that we have gotten too close to the EOF
// before the entire file has downloaded so we need throttle
// the playback.
BOOL isThrottling = NO;{

// Process the run loop until playback is finished or failed.
BOOL isRunning = YES;
// If we are playing a fixed-length MP3 make sure we are 

// not too close to the end of the file. This prevents us
// from hitting the end of the file before it is fully 
// downloaded. Very useful when not on 3G since the song 
// may be played faster than it is downloaded.
if (!fixedLength || self.fileDownloadComplete ||
self.fileDownloadCurrentSize > (fileDownloadBytesRead +
(kAQBufSize * kNumAQBufs))) {

isRunning = [[NSRunLoop currentRunLoop

  [NSDate dateWithTimeIntervalSinceNow:0.25]];

if (isThrottling) {
isThrottling = NO;
AudioQueueStart(audioQueue, NULL);
self.state = AS_PLAYING;

// If there are no queued buffers, we need to check here 

// since the handleBufferCompleteForQueue:buffer: should 
// not change the state(may not enter the synchronized 
// section).
if (buffersUsed == 0 && self.state == AS_PLAYING)
self.state = AS_BUFFERING;
} else if (!isThrottling && self.state == AS_PLAYING) {
NSLog(@"Throttle because we are too close to EOF.");

self.state = AS_BUFFERING;

isThrottling = YES;

// Sleep for a few seconds
[NSThread sleepForTimeInterval:3.0];

} while (isRunning && ![self runLoopShouldExit]);


I was unable to figure out a way to allow for seeking. This would also provide a way for playback to pick up where it left off when the connection during the download phase.  If anyone has ideas on how to support this I would love to hear about it.


This is still far from ideal and it really seems like this is something that should be a lot easier to do within the SDK.  In the meantime, hopefully this is helpful to others.

You can download my source code here.