Tag Archives: ebml

Extended Binary Markup Language

Parsing EBML

Around ten years ago I posted a description of an EBML/Matroska parser I wrote in Python (which we still use in Exaile), but it doesn’t contain any explanation of the EBML parsing process. Well, recently I was asked, so here it is: a presentation detailing how to parse an EBML file.

PDF presentation (or read on to see the image exports of the slides)

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EBML/Matroska parser for Python

This post explains a Python EBML parser that I wrote. (EBML is Matroska‘s binary “markup language”.) It is implemented as a single-file library and is available under a free software licence.


I’ve been working to implement Matroska (mka, mkv, webm) tag-reading support in Exaile. Mutagen—the tag library that we use—currently doesn’t have this feature, so I looked elsewhere.


Previously, I had a working solution using hachoir-metadata, but it doesn’t really make sense to depend on another large tagging library when we’re already using Mutagen. To make matters worse, I accidentally deleted the branch during our recent Bazaar upgrade problem.

I started shopping around for other possible solutions and found videoparser, which seemed quite nice and compact. It’s still a different library, though, and it doesn’t seem to be packaged in Debian.

I was considering just using it anyway for yet another temporary hack when I chanced on MatroskaParser.pm, a Perl library written by “Omion (on HA)”. It’s only 816 lines of Perl; discounting the README and the Matroska elements table, we’re looking at less than 450.


I decided to translate MatroskaParser.pm into Python. Despite the horror stories out there about Perl, this particular code is written in a style that is extremely readable if you’re somewhat familiar with the language.

Well, I’ve finished the porting: 250 lines of EBML parser written in Python. Parts of MatroskaParser.pm that are not relevant—mainly the validity checker and the Block parser—have been removed, and the output data structure has been simplified. The next job is to actually extract tags out of the structure.

Matroska tags

Matroska tags are quite different from MP3 and Vorbis tags, in that they’re not just a flat list of key-value pairs. Consider the following snippet.

[{'SimpleTag': [{'TagName': ['TITLE'],
                 'TagString': ['Light + Shade']},
                {'TagName': ['ARTIST'],
                 'TagString': ['Mike Oldfield']}],
  'Targets': [{'TargetTypevalue': [50]}]},
 {'SimpleTag': [{'TagName': ['TITLE'],
                 'TagString': ['Surfing']}],
  'Targets': [{'TargetTypevalue': [30]}]}]

There are two types of tags in this example. The first (target type: 50) explains the album (title: Light + Shade, artist: Mike Oldfield), while the second (target type: 30) explains the track (title: Surfing). Translating this structure into tags that Exaile can understand is not hard, just needs a bit of planning.

By the way, notice that Matroska makes implementing album artists / compilation albums very intuitive: you can have an artist tag at album level, and another at track level. There are even other levels specified. As a further example, because Light + Shade consists of two CDs labelled Light and Shade respectively, you could use them as the titles at level 40 (between album and track); however, this is not common practice.

Another tricky part is getting the track length out of the structure. Under /Segment/Info, you’ll find something like

[{'Duration': [14821615.0],
  'TimecodeScale': [22674]}]

At first I randomly assumed that the duration was specified in seconds, and got around 171 days as output, which is obviously wrong. Apparently you need to apply this formula to get the length in seconds:

Length = Duration * TimecodeScale / 10^9

Note that TimecodeScale may be omitted; it is one of the few important elements with default values (1,000,000 in its case).


The code is now available in Exaile’s repository. It’s licensed under GPL 2+ with the standard Exaile exception, although I will consider relicensing it if there is interest.

Notice that the last 100-or-so lines make up the Matroska tagging part. Depending on your needs, you may need to expand the list of elements based on the Matroska specification. There are also 40 lines of code that subclasses the parser to use GIO to read the files; you may want to remove this chunk of code if it’s not relevant to you.


Matroska read-only tag support will be in Exaile 0.3.2. Maybe one day I’ll add write support and integrate the whole thing into Mutagen, but don’t count on it. If anyone wants to do it, I’m more than happy to help.

What about WebM?

Funny how I made this post shortly before WebM was announced. Coincidence? Yes, unfortunately; I’m not as cool as the Mozilla and Opera people, who were let in on Google’s secret.

At this point, the WebM container is mostly just a subset of Matroska (the only incompatibility I’ve noticed is the change in doctype, from matroska to webm). As far as I know, they use the exact same EBML structure for tags, so there’s no reason Exaile or this code shouldn’t be able to read tags from a WebM file.