Accessing buffer~ Objects in Max5

One thing that has always been a bit tricky, and perhaps a bit under-documented, has been writing good code for accessing the contents of a buffer~ object in Max.  What has made the situation a bit more confusing is that the API has changed slowly over a number of versions of Max to make the system more robust and easier to use.  This is certainly true of Max 5, and the most recent version of the Max 5 Software Developer Kit makes these new facilities available.

I’ll be showing the favored way to access buffer~ objects for Max 5 in the context of a real object: tap.buffer.peak~ from Tap.Tools.  I’ll show how it should be done now, and in some places I’ll show how it was done in the past for reference.

Getting a Pointer

The first thing we need to do is get a pointer to the buffer~ bound to a given name.  If you know that there is a buffer~ object with the name “foo” then you could simply do this:

t_symbol* s = gensym("foo");
t_buffer* b = s->s_thing;

However, there are some problems here.  What if “foo” is the name of a table and not a buffer~?  What if there is a buffer~ named foo in the patcher, but when the patcher is loaded the buffer~ is instantiated after your object.  What if you execute the above code and then the user delete’s the buffer~ from their patch?  These are a few of the scenarios that happen regularly.

A new header in Max 5 includes a facility for eleganty handling these scenarios:

#include "ext_globalsymbol.h"

Having included that header, you can now implement a ‘set’ method for your buffer~-accessing object like so:

// Set Buffer Method
void peak_set(t_peak *x, t_symbol *s)
	if(s != x->sym){
		x->buf = (t_buffer*)globalsymbol_reference((t_object*)x, s->s_name, "buffer~");
			globalsymbol_dereference((t_object*)x, x->sym->s_name, "buffer~");
		x->sym = s;
		x->changed = true;

By calling globalsymbol_reference(), we will bind to the named buffer~ when it gets created or otherwise we will attach to an existing buffer.  And when I say attached, I mean it.  Internally this function calls object_attach() and our object, in this case tap.buffer.peak~, will receive notifications from the buffer~ object.  To respond to these notifications we need to setup a message binding:

class_addmethod(c, (method)peak_notify,		"notify",		A_CANT,	0);

And then we need to implement the notify method:

t_max_err peak_notify(t_peak *x, t_symbol *s, t_symbol *msg, void *sender, void *data)
	if (msg == ps_globalsymbol_binding)
		x->buf = (t_buffer*)x->sym->s_thing;
	else if (msg == ps_globalsymbol_unbinding)
		x->buf = NULL;
	else if (msg == ps_buffer_modified)
		x->changed = true;

	return MAX_ERR_NONE;

As you may have deduced, the notify method is called any time a buffer~ is bound to the symbol we specified, unbound from the symbol, or any time the contents of the buffer~ are modified.  For example, this is how the waveform~ object in MSP knows to update its display when the buffer~ contents change.

Accessing the Contents

Now that you have a pointer to a buffer~ object (the t_buffer*), you want to access the contents.  Having the pointer to the buffer~ is not enough, because if you simply start reading or writing to the buffer’s b_samples member you will not be guaranteed of thread-safety, meaning that all matter of subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) problems may ensue at the most inopportune moment.

In Max 4 you might have used code that looked like the following before and after you accessed a buffer~’s contents:

    saveinuse = b->b_inuse;
    b->b_inuse = true;

    // access buffer contents here

    b->b_inuse = saveinuse;
    object_method((t_object*)b, gensym("dirty"));

The problem is that the above code is not entirely up to the task.  There’s a new sheriff in town, and in Max 5 the above code will be rewritten as:

    // access buffer contents here

This is truly threadsafe.  And as a bonus you no longer need to call the dirty method on the buffer to tell that it changed.

Here is the code from tap.buffer.peak~ that access the buffer~’s contents to find the hottest sample in the buffer:

	t_buffer	*b = x->buf;		// Our Buffer
	float		*tab;		        // Will point to our buffer's values
	long		i, chan;
	double		current_samp = 0.0;	// current sample value

	if (!x->buf->b_valid) {

	tab = b->b_samples;			// point tab to our sample values
	for(chan=0; chan < b->b_nchans; chan++){
		for(i=0; i < b->b_frames; i++){
			if(fabs(tab[(chan * b->b_nchans) + i]) > current_samp){
				current_samp = fabs(tab[(chan * b->b_nchans) + i]);
				x->index = (chan * b->b_nchans) + i;


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