Chordino troubles

On September the 9th, I released a v1.0 build of the Chordino and NNLS Chroma Vamp plugin. This plugin analyses audio recordings of music and calculates some harmonic features, including an estimated chord transcription. When used with Sonic Visualiser, Chordino is potentially very useful for anyone who likes to play along with songs, as well as for research.

Chordino was written by Matthias Mauch, based on his own research. Although I made this 1.0 release, my work on it only really extended as far as fixing some bugs found in earlier releases using the Vamp Plugin Tester.

Unfortunately, with one of those fixes, I broke the plugin. The supposedly more reliable 1.0 update was substantially less accurate at identifying both chord-change boundaries and the chords themselves than any previous version.

I didn’t notice. Nor did Matthias, who had recently left our research group and was busy starting at a new job. One colleague sent me an email saying he had problems with the new release, but I jumped to the completely wrong conclusion that this had something to do with parameter settings having changed since the last release, and suggested he raise it with Matthias.

I only realised what had happened after we submitted the plugin to MIREX evaluation, something we do routinely every year for plugins published by C4DM, when the MIREX task captain Johan Pauwels emailed to ask whether I had expected its scores to drop by 15% from the previous year’s submission (see results pages for 2014, 2015). By that time, the broken plugin had been available for over a month.

This is obviously hugely embarrassing—perhaps the most unambiguous screwup of my whole programming career so far. As the supposed professional software developer of my research group, I took someone else’s working code, broke it, published and promoted the broken version with his name all over it, and then submitted it to a public evaluation, again with his name on it, where its brokenness was finally made pointed out to me, a month later, by someone else. Any regression test, even on only a single audio file, would have shown up the problem immediately. Regression-testing this sort of software can be tricky, but the simplest possible test would have worked here. And a particularly nice irony is provided by the fact that I’ve just come from a four-year project whose aims included trying to improve the way software is tested in academia.

I’ve now published a fixed version of the plugin (v1.1), available for download here. This one has been regression tested against known-good output, and the tests are in the repository for future use. The broken version is actually gone from the download page (though of course it is still tagged in the source repository), to avoid anyone getting the wrong one by accident.

I’m also working on a way to make simple regression tests easier to provide and run, for the other plugins I work on.

That’s all for the “public service announcement” bit of this post; read on only if you’re interested in the details.

What was the change that broke it? Well, it was a change I made after running the plugin through the Vamp Plugin Tester, a sort of automated fuzz-testing tool that helps you find problems with your code. (Again, there’s an irony here. Using this tool is undoubtedly a good practice, as it can show up all sorts of problems that might not be apparent to developers otherwise. Even so, I should have known well how common it is to introduce bugs while fixing things like compiler warnings and static analysis tests.)

The problem I was trying to fix here was that intermediate floating-point divisions sometimes overflowed, resulting in infinity values in the output. This only happened for unusual inputs, so it appeared reasonable to fix it by clamping intermediate values when they appeared to be blowing up out of the expected range. But I set the threshold too low, so that many intermediate values from legitimate inputs were also being mangled. I then also made a stupid typo that made the results a bit worse still (you can see the change in question around line 500 of the file in this diff).

Note that this only broke the output from the Chordino chord estimator, not the other features calculated by NNLS Chroma.

A digression. An ongoing topic of debate in the world of the Research Software Engineer is whether software development resources in academia should be localised within research groups, or centralised.

The localised approach, which my research group has taken with my own position, employs developers directly within a research subject. The centralised approach, typified by the Research Software Development group at UCL, proposes a group of software developers who are loaned or hired out to research groups according to need and availability.

In theory, the localised approach can be simpler to manage and should increase the likelihood of developers being available to help with small pieces of work requiring subject knowledge at short notice. The centralised approach has the advantage that all developers can share the non-subject-specific parts of their workload and knowhow.

I believe that in general a localised approach is useful, and I suspect it is easier to hire developers for a specific research group than to find developers good enough to be able to parachute in to anywhere from a central team.

In a case like this, though, the localised approach makes for quite a lonely situation.

Companies that produce large software products that work do so not because they employ amazing developers but because they have systems in place to support them: code review, unit testing, regression tests, continuous integration, user acceptance tests.

But for me as a lone professional developer in a research group, it’s essentially my responsibility to provide those safety nets as well as to use them. I had some of them in place for most of the code I work on, but there was a big hole for this particular project. I broke the code, and I didn’t notice because I didn’t have the right tests ready. Neither did the researcher who wrote most of this code, but that wasn’t his job. When some software goes out from this group that I have worked on, it’s my responsibility to make sure that the code aspects of it (as opposed to the underlying methods) work correctly. Part of my job has to be to assume that nobody else will be in a position to help.


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