RealAudio Cook aka RealOpus

Let’s start with a bit of history since knowing how things developed often helps to understand how they ended up like they are.

There is an organisation previously called CCITT (phone line modem owners might remember it) later renamed to ITU-T. It is known for standardisation and accepting various standards under the same confusing name e.g. PCM and A-law/mu-law quantisation are G.711 recommendation from 1972 while G.711.0 is lossless audio compression scheme from 2009 and G.711.1 is a weird extension from 2008 that splits audio into two bands, compresses low band with A- or mu-law and uses MDCT and vector quantisation on top band.

And there is also a “family” of G.722 speech codecs: basic G.722 that employs splitting audio into subbands and applying ADPCM on them; G.722.1 is a completely different parametric bit allocation, VQ and MDCT codec we discuss later; G.722.2 is a traditional speech codec better known as AMR-WB.

So, what’s the deal with G.722.1? It comes from PictureTel family of Siren codecs (which later served as a base for G.719 too). Also as I mentioned before this codec employs MDCT, vector quantisation and parametric bit allocation. So you decode envelope defined by quantisers, allocate bits to bands depending on those (no, it’s not 1:1 mapping), unpack bands that are coded using vector quantisation dependent on amount of bits and perform MDCT on them. You might be not familiar but this is exactly how certain RealAudio codec works. And I don’t think you can guess its name even if I mention that it was written by Ken Cooke. But you cannot say nothing was changed: RealAudio codec works with different frame sizes (from 32 to 1024 IIRC), it has different codebooks, it has joint stereo mode and finally it has multichannel coding mode based on pairs. In other words, it has evolved from niche speech codec to general purpose audio codec rivalling AAC and it was indeed a codec of choice for RealMedia before they have finally switched to AAC and HE-AAC years later (which was the first time for them using open standard verbatim instead of licensing a proprietary technology or adding their own touches on standards drafts as before—even DNET had special low-bitrate mode).

Now let’s jump to 2012 and VideoLAN Dev Days ’12. I gave a talk there about reverse engineering codecs (of course) and it was a complete failure so that was my first and last public talk but that’s not important. And before me Timothy Terriberry gave an overview of Opus. So I listen how it combines speech and general audio codec (like USAC which you might still not know under its commercial name xHE-AAC)—boring, how speech codec works (it’s Skype SILK codec they dumped to open source at some point and like with Duck TrueMotion VP3 before, Xiph has picked it up and adopted for own purposes)—looks like typical speech codec that I can barely understand how it functions, and then CELT part comes up. CELT is general audio codec developed by Xiph that is essentially what your Opus files will end as (SILK is used only at extremely low bitrates in files produced by the reference encoder—or so I heard from the person implementing a decoder for it). And a couple of months before VDD12 I actually bothered to enter technical details about Cook into MultimediaWiki (here’s edit history if you want to check that)—I should probably RE some codec and write more pages there for the old times’ sake. So Cook design details were still fresh in my mind when I heard about CELT details…

So CELT codes just single channels or stereo pairs—nothing unusual so far, many codecs do that. It also uses MDCT—even more codecs do that. It codes envelope, uses parametric bit allocation and vector quantisation—wait a bit, I definitely heard about this somewhere before (yes, it sounds suspiciously like ITU G.719). Actually I pointed out that to Xiph guys (there was Monty present as well) immediately but it was dismissed as being nothing similar at all (“we transmit band energies instead of relying on quantisers”—right, and quantisers in audio are rarely chosen depending on energy).

Let’s compare the coding stages of two codecs to see how they fail to match up:

  1. CELT transmits band energy—Cook transmits quantisers (that are still highly correlated with band energy) and variable amount of gains to shape output frame in time domain;
  2. CELT transmits innovation (essentially coefficients for MDCT minus some predicted stuff)—Cook transmits MDCT coefficients;
  3. CELT uses transmitted band energy and bits available for innovation after the rest of frame is coded to determine number of bits for each band and mode in which coefficients are coded (aka parametric bit allocation)—Cook uses transmitted quantisers and bits available after the rest of frame is coded to determine number of bits for each band and mode in which coefficients are coded;
  4. CELT uses Perceptual Vector Quantization (based on Pyramid Vector Quantizer—boy, the won’t cause any confusion at all)—Cook uses fixed vector quantisation based on amount of bits allocated to band and static codebook;
  5. CELT estimates pitch gains and pitch period—that is a speech codec stuff that Cook does not have;
  6. CELT uses MDCT to restore the data—Cook does the same.

Some of you might say: “Hah! Even if it matches at some stages actual coefficient coding is completely different!! And you forgot that CELT uses range coder too.” Well, I didn’t say those two formats were exactly the same, just that their design is very similar. To quote the immortal words from Bell, Cleary and Witten paper on text compression, the progress in data compression is mostly defined by larger amounts of RAM available (and CPU cycles available). So back in the day hardly any audio codec could afford range coder (invented in 1979) except for some slow lossless audio coders. Similarly PVQ was proposed by Thomas Fischer in 1986 but wasn’t employed because it was significantly costlier than some fixed codebook vector quantisation. So while CELT is undeniably more advanced than Cook, the main gains are from using methods that do the same thing more effectively (at expense of RAM and/or CPU) instead of coming up with significantly different scheme. An obligatory car analogy: claiming that modern internal combustion engine car is completely new invention compared to Ford Model T or FIAT 124 because they have more bells and whistleselectronics even while principal scheme remains the same—while radically new car would be an electric one with no transmission or gearbox and engines in each wheel (let’s forget such scheme is very old too—electric cars of such design roamed Moon in 1970s).

So overall, Opus is almost synonymous with CELT and CELT has a lot of common in design with Cook (but greatly improved) so this allows Cook to be called RealOpus or Opus of its era.

BTW when implementing the decoder for this format in Rust I’ve encountered a problem: the table for 6-bit stereo coupling was never tested because its definition is wrong (some code definitions repeating with the same bit lengths) and looks like the first half of it got corrupted. Just compare for yourselves.

libavcodec version (lengths array added for the reference):

static const uint16_t ccpl_huffcodes6[63] = {

static const uint8_t ccpl_huffbits6[63] = {

NihAV corrected version (extracted from the reference of course):

const COOK_CPL_6BITS_CODES: &[u16; 63] = &[
    0xFFFE, 0x7FFE, 0x3FFC, 0x1FFC, 0x0FFC, 0x07F6, 0x07F7, 0x07F8,
    0x07F9, 0x03F2, 0x03F3, 0x03F4, 0x03F5, 0x01F0, 0x01F1, 0x01F2,
    0x01F3, 0x01F4, 0x00F0, 0x00F1, 0x00F2, 0x00F3, 0x0070, 0x0071,
    0x0072, 0x0073, 0x0034, 0x0035, 0x0016, 0x0017, 0x0004, 0x0000,
    0x000A, 0x0018, 0x0019, 0x0036, 0x0037, 0x0074, 0x0075, 0x0076,
    0x0077, 0x00F4, 0x00F5, 0x00F6, 0x00F7, 0x01F5, 0x01F6, 0x01F7,
    0x01F8, 0x03F6, 0x03F7, 0x03F8, 0x03F9, 0x03FA, 0x07FA, 0x07FB,
    0x07FC, 0x07FD, 0x0FFD, 0x1FFD, 0x3FFD, 0x3FFE, 0xFFFF

5 Responses to “RealAudio Cook aka RealOpus”

  1. Paul says:

    So you have sample(s) of cook that do not decode correctly with lavc?

  2. Luca Barbato says:

    Nice comparison (and thanks for the table ^^)

  3. Kostya says:

    @Paul No, it’s just due to different design libavcodec uses those sets only when it’s needed and NihAV being written in Rust prefers to initialise all codebooks at once. Hence my surprise that the decoder failing at the init stage because of wrong codes definition.

  4. Michael says:

    >So while CELT is undeniably more advanced than Cook, the main gains are from using methods that do the same thing more effectively (at expense of RAM and/or CPU) instead of coming up with significantly different scheme.

    I spent some time optimizing Cook for Rockbox and then some more for Opus, and while Opus is definitely more complex than Cook, it is not an especially complex codec.

    Some comparisons of CPU frequency needed for real time decode on ARM9E:

    cook_stereo_96.ra: 24.48 MHz
    opus_128k.opus: 36.26MHz
    lame_096.mp3: 19.75MHz
    vorbis_096.ogg: 20.04MHz

    Even these numbers are misleading though, since Opus runs its MDCT in pure c, while everything else runs highly optimized ASM transforms (only written for power of 2 transform sizes). I think if I ever had time to finish the Opus non-power-of 2 transform for ARMv5, I’d probably get Opus down to at least 28-30 MHz, maybe lower.

  5. Kostya says:

    Thanks for the benchmarks. Also I suspect Opus is a bit more asymmetrical than others (i.e. encoding/decoding time ratio) because of PVQ search (Vorbis encoders seem to use static codebooks to deal with such complexity) but I might be wrong.

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