A brief look at Sonarc

Recently The Mike asked if I can look at this format. In case you didn’t know, The Multimedia Mike is one of the under-appreciated founders of opensource multimedia, involved both in reverse engineering codecs and maintaining infrastructure for about two decades (for example this particular blog has been here for fifteen years thanks to him and his maintenance efforts). So of course I had to look at it even if out of sheer respect.

Sonarc is probably the first known lossless audio codec as the copyright mentions year 1992 as the first date (Shorten and VocPack appeared in 1993). Spoiler: it turned out to be closer to Shorten in design.

This was harder to RE because it was larger (decompressor was three to four times larger than VocPack) and the original was written in Borland Pascal with all the peculiarities it brings. By those peculiarities I mean mostly Pascal strings. Well, the code for manipulating them is annoying to parse but not too bad, the main problem is that they are put in the same segment with code right before the function that uses it and that confuses Ghidra which for some reason selects the segment with standard library routines for them instead (and uninitialised variables are not assigned to any segment at all). The write() implementation is also no fun.

Side note: back in the day Turbo Pascal was probably the best programming language for DOS and back in school at least two my schoolmates were doing crazy things with it (and Delphi later) which I couldn’t (and I was writing in C as I still do today). Yet somehow the popularity of the language vanished and I haven’t heard anything about them becoming famous programmers (neither did I but they had better chances). And the only modern project written in Pascal that I’m aware of is Hedgewars.

Anyway, let’s talk about the format itself. Sonarc can compress raw PCM, .voc and .wav into either its own format or into .wav and it supports both 8- and 16-bit audio.

From what I saw it uses the same approach: optionally applying the LPC filter and coding the residues. Residues can be coded with two different approaches: old one for 8-bit audio and new one for 8- and 16-bit audio. Old 8-bit audio coding uses one of eight different static Huffman codebooks or can code residues as raw bytes (and I can’t remember that many other codecs doing the same except for MLP and DT$-HD Lossless probably because why compress audio in that case). New 8-/16-bit coding still uses fixed codebooks but in a different fashion: now they simply code the number of bits for the residue. It does not look like the data is split into segments but I may be wrong (I/O is still not the easiest thing to get around there).

Overall it’s not a bad codec for its time and e.g. FLAC has not come that far away from it in concepts (except that it uses Rice codes and has independent frames plus partitioning inside individual frame for better compression). I hope though there are no older lossless audio codecs out there to be discovered (CCITT G.711 infinite-law with its fixed 1:1 compression does not count).

2 Responses to “A brief look at Sonarc”

  1. Aw, shucks, you’re embarrassing me. 🙂

    But it’s true that I still strive to maintain the infrastructure. Just late night, I upgraded the MediaWiki software behind the MultimediaWiki.

  2. Kostya says:

    What do you know, the infrastructure works most of the time (save for an accidental slashdotting or registrar mishap). And it’s still the only wiki I contribute to (and sometimes read as well).

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