Elements

The most important object in GStreamer for the application programmer is the GstElement object. An element is the basic building block for a media pipeline. All the different high-level components you will use are derived from GstElement. Every decoder, encoder, demuxer, video or audio output is in fact a GstElement

What are elements?

For the application programmer, elements are best visualized as black boxes. On the one end, you might put something in, the element does something with it and something else comes out at the other side. For a decoder element, for example, you'd put in encoded data, and the element would output decoded data. In the next chapter (see Pads and capabilities), you will learn more about data input and output in elements, and how you can set that up in your application.

Source elements

Source elements generate data for use by a pipeline, for example reading from disk or from a sound card. Visualisation of a source element shows how we will visualise a source element. We always draw a source pad to the right of the element.

Visualisation of a source element

Source elements do not accept data, they only generate data. You can see this in the figure because it only has a source pad (on the right). A source pad can only generate data.

Filters, convertors, demuxers, muxers and codecs

Filters and filter-like elements have both input and outputs pads. They operate on data that they receive on their input (sink) pads, and will provide data on their output (source) pads. Examples of such elements are a volume element (filter), a video scaler (convertor), an Ogg demuxer or a Vorbis decoder.

Filter-like elements can have any number of source or sink pads. A video demuxer, for example, would have one sink pad and several (1-N) source pads, one for each elementary stream contained in the container format. Decoders, on the other hand, will only have one source and sink pads.

Visualisation of a filter element

Visualisation of a filter element shows how we will visualise a filter-like element. This specific element has one source and one sink element. Sink pads, receiving input data, are depicted at the left of the element; source pads are still on the right.

Visualisation of a filter element with more than one output pad

Visualisation of a filter element with more than one output pad shows another filter-like element, this one having more than one output (source) pad. An example of one such element could, for example, be an Ogg demuxer for an Ogg stream containing both audio and video. One source pad will contain the elementary video stream, another will contain the elementary audio stream. Demuxers will generally fire signals when a new pad is created. The application programmer can then handle the new elementary stream in the signal handler.

Sink elements

Sink elements are end points in a media pipeline. They accept data but do not produce anything. Disk writing, soundcard playback, and video output would all be implemented by sink elements. Visualisation of a sink element shows a sink element.

Visualisation of a sink element

Creating a GstElement

The simplest way to create an element is to use gst_element_factory_make (). This function takes a factory name and an element name for the newly created element. The name of the element is something you can use later on to look up the element in a bin, for example. The name will also be used in debug output. You can pass NULL as the name argument to get a unique, default name.

When you don't need the element anymore, you need to unref it using gst_object_unref (). This decreases the reference count for the element by 1. An element has a refcount of 1 when it gets created. An element gets destroyed completely when the refcount is decreased to 0.

The following example [1] shows how to create an element named source from the element factory named fakesrc. It checks if the creation succeeded. After checking, it unrefs the element.

#include <gst/gst.h>

int
main (int   argc,
      char *argv[])
{
  GstElement *element;

  /* init GStreamer */
  gst_init (&argc, &argv);

  /* create element */
  element = gst_element_factory_make ("fakesrc", "source");
  if (!element) {
    g_print ("Failed to create element of type 'fakesrc'\n");
    return -1;
  }

  gst_object_unref (GST_OBJECT (element));

  return 0;
}

gst_element_factory_make is actually a shorthand for a combination of two functions. A GstElement object is created from a factory. To create the element, you have to get access to a GstElementFactory object using a unique factory name. This is done with gst_element_factory_find ().

The following code fragment is used to get a factory that can be used to create the fakesrc element, a fake data source. The function gst_element_factory_create () will use the element factory to create an element with the given name.

#include <gst/gst.h>

int
main (int   argc,
      char *argv[])
{
  GstElementFactory *factory;
  GstElement * element;

  /* init GStreamer */
  gst_init (&argc, &argv);

  /* create element, method #2 */
  factory = gst_element_factory_find ("fakesrc");
  if (!factory) {
    g_print ("Failed to find factory of type 'fakesrc'\n");
    return -1;
  }
  element = gst_element_factory_create (factory, "source");
  if (!element) {
    g_print ("Failed to create element, even though its factory exists!\n");
    return -1;
  }

  gst_object_unref (GST_OBJECT (element));

  return 0;
}

Using an element as a GObject

A GstElement can have several properties which are implemented using standard GObject properties. The usual GObject methods to query, set and get property values and GParamSpecs are therefore supported.

Every GstElement inherits at least one property from its parent GstObject: the "name" property. This is the name you provide to the functions gst_element_factory_make () or gst_element_factory_create (). You can get and set this property using the functions gst_object_set_name and gst_object_get_name or use the GObject property mechanism as shown below.

#include <gst/gst.h>

int
main (int   argc,
      char *argv[])
{
  GstElement *element;
  gchar *name;

  /* init GStreamer */
  gst_init (&argc, &argv);

  /* create element */
  element = gst_element_factory_make ("fakesrc", "source");

  /* get name */
  g_object_get (G_OBJECT (element), "name", &name, NULL);
  g_print ("The name of the element is '%s'.\n", name);
  g_free (name);

  gst_object_unref (GST_OBJECT (element));

  return 0;
}

Most plugins provide additional properties to provide more information about their configuration or to configure the element. gst-inspect is a useful tool to query the properties of a particular element, it will also use property introspection to give a short explanation about the function of the property and about the parameter types and ranges it supports. See gst-inspect in the appendix for details about gst-inspect.

For more information about GObject properties we recommend you read the GObject manual and an introduction to The Glib Object system.

A GstElement also provides various GObject signals that can be used as a flexible callback mechanism. Here, too, you can use gst-inspect to see which signals a specific element supports. Together, signals and properties are the most basic way in which elements and applications interact.

More about element factories

In the previous section, we briefly introduced the GstElementFactory object already as a way to create instances of an element. Element factories, however, are much more than just that. Element factories are the basic types retrieved from the GStreamer registry, they describe all plugins and elements that GStreamer can create. This means that element factories are useful for automated element instancing, such as what autopluggers do, and for creating lists of available elements.

Getting information about an element using a factory

Tools like gst-inspect will provide some generic information about an element, such as the person that wrote the plugin, a descriptive name (and a shortname), a rank and a category. The category can be used to get the type of the element that can be created using this element factory. Examples of categories include Codec/Decoder/Video (video decoder), Codec/Encoder/Video (video encoder), Source/Video (a video generator), Sink/Video (a video output), and all these exist for audio as well, of course. Then, there's also Codec/Demuxer and Codec/Muxer and a whole lot more. gst-inspect will give a list of all factories, and gst-inspect <factory-name> will list all of the above information, and a lot more.

#include <gst/gst.h>

int
main (int   argc,
      char *argv[])
{
  GstElementFactory *factory;

  /* init GStreamer */
  gst_init (&argc, &argv);

  /* get factory */
  factory = gst_element_factory_find ("fakesrc");
  if (!factory) {
    g_print ("You don't have the 'fakesrc' element installed!\n");
    return -1;
  }

  /* display information */
  g_print ("The '%s' element is a member of the category %s.\n"
           "Description: %s\n",
           gst_plugin_feature_get_name (GST_PLUGIN_FEATURE (factory)),
           gst_element_factory_get_metadata (factory, GST_ELEMENT_METADATA_KLASS),
           gst_element_factory_get_metadata (factory, GST_ELEMENT_METADATA_DESCRIPTION));

  return 0;
}

You can use gst_registry_pool_feature_list (GST_TYPE_ELEMENT_FACTORY) to get a list of all the element factories that GStreamer knows about.

Finding out what pads an element can contain

Perhaps the most powerful feature of element factories is that they contain a full description of the pads that the element can generate, and the capabilities of those pads (in layman words: what types of media can stream over those pads), without actually having to load those plugins into memory. This can be used to provide a codec selection list for encoders, or it can be used for autoplugging purposes for media players. All current GStreamer-based media players and autopluggers work this way. We'll look closer at these features as we learn about GstPad and GstCaps in the next chapter: Pads and capabilities

Linking elements

By linking a source element with zero or more filter-like elements and finally a sink element, you set up a media pipeline. Data will flow through the elements. This is the basic concept of media handling in GStreamer.

Visualisation of three linked elements

By linking these three elements, we have created a very simple chain of elements. The effect of this will be that the output of the source element (“element1”) will be used as input for the filter-like element (“element2”). The filter-like element will do something with the data and send the result to the final sink element (“element3”).

Imagine the above graph as a simple Ogg/Vorbis audio decoder. The source is a disk source which reads the file from disc. The second element is a Ogg/Vorbis audio decoder. The sink element is your soundcard, playing back the decoded audio data. We will use this simple graph to construct an Ogg/Vorbis player later in this manual.

In code, the above graph is written like this:

#include <gst/gst.h>

int
main (int   argc,
      char *argv[])
{
  GstElement *pipeline;
  GstElement *source, *filter, *sink;

  /* init */
  gst_init (&argc, &argv);

  /* create pipeline */
  pipeline = gst_pipeline_new ("my-pipeline");

  /* create elements */
  source = gst_element_factory_make ("fakesrc", "source");
  filter = gst_element_factory_make ("identity", "filter");
  sink = gst_element_factory_make ("fakesink", "sink");

  /* must add elements to pipeline before linking them */
  gst_bin_add_many (GST_BIN (pipeline), source, filter, sink, NULL);

  /* link */
  if (!gst_element_link_many (source, filter, sink, NULL)) {
    g_warning ("Failed to link elements!");
  }

[..]

}

For more specific behaviour, there are also the functions gst_element_link () and gst_element_link_pads (). You can also obtain references to individual pads and link those using various gst_pad_link_* () functions. See the API references for more details.

Important: you must add elements to a bin or pipeline before linking them, since adding an element to a bin will disconnect any already existing links. Also, you cannot directly link elements that are not in the same bin or pipeline; if you want to link elements or pads at different hierarchy levels, you will need to use ghost pads (more about ghost pads later, see Ghost pads

Element States

After being created, an element will not actually perform any actions yet. You need to change elements state to make it do something. GStreamer knows four element states, each with a very specific meaning. Those four states are:

  • GST_STATE_NULL: this is the default state. No resources are allocated in this state, so, transitioning to it will free all resources. The element must be in this state when its refcount reaches 0 and it is freed.

  • GST_STATE_READY: in the ready state, an element has allocated all of its global resources, that is, resources that can be kept within streams. You can think about opening devices, allocating buffers and so on. However, the stream is not opened in this state, so the stream positions is automatically zero. If a stream was previously opened, it should be closed in this state, and position, properties and such should be reset.

  • GST_STATE_PAUSED: in this state, an element has opened the stream, but is not actively processing it. An element is allowed to modify a stream's position, read and process data and such to prepare for playback as soon as state is changed to PLAYING, but it is not allowed to play the data which would make the clock run. In summary, PAUSED is the same as PLAYING but without a running clock.

    Elements going into the PAUSED state should prepare themselves for moving over to the PLAYING state as soon as possible. Video or audio outputs would, for example, wait for data to arrive and queue it so they can play it right after the state change. Also, video sinks can already play the first frame (since this does not affect the clock yet). Autopluggers could use this same state transition to already plug together a pipeline. Most other elements, such as codecs or filters, do not need to explicitly do anything in this state, however.

  • GST_STATE_PLAYING: in the PLAYING state, an element does exactly the same as in the PAUSED state, except that the clock now runs.

You can change the state of an element using the function gst_element_set_state (). If you set an element to another state, GStreamer will internally traverse all intermediate states. So if you set an element from NULL to PLAYING, GStreamer will internally set the element to READY and PAUSED in between.

When moved to GST_STATE_PLAYING, pipelines will process data automatically. They do not need to be iterated in any form. Internally, GStreamer will start threads that take this task on to them. GStreamer will also take care of switching messages from the pipeline's thread into the application's own thread, by using a GstBus. See Bus for details.

When you set a bin or pipeline to a certain target state, it will usually propagate the state change to all elements within the bin or pipeline automatically, so it's usually only necessary to set the state of the top-level pipeline to start up the pipeline or shut it down. However, when adding elements dynamically to an already-running pipeline, e.g. from within a "pad-added" signal callback, you need to set it to the desired target state yourself using gst_element_set_state () or gst_element_sync_state_with_parent ().

  1. The code for this example is automatically extracted from the documentation and built under tests/examples/manual in the GStreamer tarball.

The results of the search are