Thursday, 29 January 2015

Using Azure Application Diagnostics with ASP.NET Web Pages

Although I've built a couple of sites with ASP.NET MVC, I like the simplicity of ASP.NET Web Pages. It allows me to start with a completely empty project and only add code I've written and understand (interestingly this seems to be the philosophy behind the vNext version of ASP.NET). The downside is that every now and then I run into things that would be easy to do with ASP.NET MVC, but finding how to accomplish them with Web Pages is tricky.

Azure Diagnostics

Windows Azure WebSites offers a nice feature to turn on "application diagnostics". This allows you to write your own custom error logs using System.Diagnostics.Trace. It's super easy to configure - simply go to the control panel for your website in the Azure portal, and chose where you want these logs stored. You can choose any combination of file system, table storage and blob storage, and you can set different logging levels for each one.


Once you've done this, in theory you should just be able to write messages using the Trace class and see them appear in the places you’ve configured. If you choose blob storage, for example, you get a CSV file with the trace messages for a particular day.



Using it with ASP.NET Web Pages

However, if you try this with ASP.NET Web Pages, you simply won’t see anything at all in your logs. However, thanks to StackOverflow, I found out how to enable application tracing. Basically the TRACE flag needs to be set on the compiler this can in the web.config file. For a .NET 4.5 application, you need the following:

        <compiler language="c#;cs;csharp" 
                  type="Microsoft.CSharp.CSharpCodeProvider, System, Version=2.0.3600.0, Culture=neutral, PublicKeyToken=b77a5c561934e089" 
                  warningLevel="1" /> 

Once you’ve done this, re-deploy your web.config and as if by magic all your trace statements will make it through to the configured destinations. This allows you to easily log anything from both within Razor views as well as from within any C# files you have in your App_Code folder.

Anyway, hope this post is useful to someone as it had me tearing my hair out for an evening trying to figure out why it wasn’t working.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Minimum Deliverable Product

Many years ago, I came up with an idea for a simple software application that I could sell online. Basically, an open source app I created for modifying your voice in Skype became incredibly popular and had millions of downloads, and it struck me that I could probably sell a "Pro" version with some additional features.

Of course what actually happened was that the code for the "Pro" version stagnated for years as my enthusiasm for this project came in fits and starts, and I couldn't make up my mind exactly how I wanted to build the thing, and wasn't even sure anyone would buy it. So the idea was going nowhere.

Getting Motivated

But about a year ago I started listening to the entreprogrammers podcast, and it inspired me to resurrect this idea. The only trouble was, would I be able to find the time to actually complete the thing, given that I was already spending a lot of my free time making courses for Pluralsight?

I soon realised that if I were to ever get something out the door I would need to pick a realistic and achievable feature set for the first version, and focus exclusively on completing that. In other words I needed to stop trying to make the perfect app, and create what's known as a "Minimum Viable Product".

Minimum Feature Set

For my application there were three main features I wanted to deliver:

  1. You can change your voice in a Skype conversation
  2. You can play back pre-recorded sounds for the other person to hear
  3. You can record your Skype conversations

For each of these features, I decided on what the bare minimum capabilities were that I would be happy launching with. For example, I wanted several cool voice effects, but I didn't really need the effects parameters to be adjustable. I wanted the ability to replay sounds, but I didn't really need looping and repositioning within those sounds for version 1. And I wanted to offer recording to MP3, but for version 1, recording to WAV would probably suffice.

By deciding on a minimum feature set for my application, I finally had an achievable goal and was able to focus on getting the job done.

Minimum Lovable Product

I've heard some criticism of the "minimum viable product" concept from people saying that what you really need to create is a "minimum lovable product". In other words, if your application is too stripped down and basic, you may find that no one is willing to buy it, and your potential customers go off in search of alternative solutions. So while I did go for a fairly basic feature set, I did attempt to ensure that I had just enough in each of my three key features to offer customers something genuinely fun and useful.

Minimum Deliverable Product

Unfortunately though, completing the minimum viable feature set of my application was the easy part. There is a whole host of additional stuff that needs to be done just to sell a single piece of software. I needed an installer, a logo, a website, a domain name, some help documentation and tutorials, an email address to handle sales and support enquiries, a way of selling the software that complies with the new and arcane EU VAT rules, a way of refunding people, a way of generating software licenses, and a way to handle errors gracefully within the application.

It turned out that it was these tasks rather than the core feature set that were preventing me from completing the project. So I decided I needed to take the "minimum viable product" approach with each of them too.

What's the "minimum viable website"? I created something very simple (and ugly) in bootstrap and ASP.NET web-pages. A few basic help pages, and the ability to install and buy were all that was really needed. It doesn't look pretty but I can improve it gradually or even hire a designer at a later date.

What's the "minimum viable installer"? I opted for ClickOnce, since it's quick to make an installer and easy to keep customers updated with new features. Even that turned into a bigger task than I wanted as the hassle I went through to purchase a code signing certificate was much greater than I anticipated.

What's the "minimum viable licensing mechanism"? Here I may have made a mistake. I opted for portable.licensing,which itself is great, but that meant I had to create an automated license creation and emailing system. Maybe I should have just decided not to worry about pirating, and save myself time by not using licenses.

What's the "minimum viable checkout"? Well a "buy now" PayPal button was my plan, but thanks to the new EU laws on VAT collection I needed a complicated system of verifying the locations of my customers and charging them the correct VAT. So I decided to find a company who would collect and report VAT for me. After a false start with Digital River's MyCommerce, who disabled my account and refused to respond to any emails, I found whose customer support was much better, and offered straightforward integration for my own license generation code (turns out I could have used their built-in license generation capabilities but I was too far down the road with my own by this point).

Keeping Motivated

So actually going from a working prototype to a deliverable product is quite a journey. I realised that if I was ever going to complete the task, I'd need a way to motivate myself. So what I did was put an advert in my open source software for the "Pro" version. It would simply tell users that if they wanted to record their calls they could upgrade. The advert took them to a "coming soon" page hosted on my blog, where they could register their interest to be notified when the pro version was released, and they could purchase a pre-order license for a discounted price.

My email list grew quite rapidly - I collected 1400 email addresses in just over a year. And I had six people pre-order the product for $30 (actually seven pre-orders, but one wanted a refund when he realised it wasn't released yet). The very fact that I had some customers who had paid for the product helped motivate me to actually complete the task.

Going Live

So finally, years later than I should have done it, I went live with my site a couple of days ago. I've still got to email all the people who registered pre-order interest, and offer them a discount. I'm not sure what my "conversion rate" will be, but with 1,400 emails I'm hoping at least a few people will buy a license.

Obviously going live is only the beginning. There are lots of tweaks and enhancements to my app and website that I deliberately held off doing, just so I could get my first version out of the door. But that's the point of the minimum viable product. Just get something released, and then you can gauge how much further time and effort to invest, depending on whether there is actually any interest.

At the time of writing I'm still waiting for my first customer from the new site (it's early days yet, but I suspect my marketing and sales ineptitude isn't helping). But if you have a use for a Skype Voice Changer or a Skype call recorder, then why not try it out? And if you'd like to be my first customer, then I'm offering readers of my blog a 25% discount. Just use the SOUNDCODE coupon code when you purchase.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Porting WCF Service Contracts to F#

One of my goals this year is to get better at F#, by using it more, so I decided to port a simple WCF service over to F#. In this post, I will demonstrate how to port data and operation contracts over from C# to F#. Let’s start by looking at the service contract we will be porting (simplified for the purposes of this post):

public interface IRetrieval
    ChunkResponse GetChunk(ChunkRequest request);

    VersionInfoResponse GetVersionInfo(VersionInfoRequest request);

public class VersionInfoResponse
    public string Version { get; set; }

public class VersionInfoRequest

public class ChunkResponse
    public byte[] Data { get; set; }

    public bool IsEndOfFile { get; set; }

public class ChunkRequest
    public string FileName { get; set; }

    public long Offset { get; set; }

    public int BytesRequested { get; set; }

public class RetrievalServiceFault
    public RetrievalServiceFault(string message)
        this.Message = message;

    public string Message { get; private set; }


First, we need to know how to put attributes on things in F#. The syntax is similar to C#, just with an extra set of angle brackets (one of the few cases where C# is more compact than F#):


That’s easy, but what about the FaultContract attribute we have on each operation? That takes a type as a parameter. Well F# also has a typeof function, and you put the type name in angle brackets like so:



Now we need to know how to declare an interface in F#. There seems to be no special syntax other than to declare a type containing only abstract members. For each method, we need to provide the name, the annotated parameter list, and the type it returns. The syntax looks a little odd to C# developers at first as we are used to the return type coming at the beginning rather than the end of the method signature. It takes the form abstract MethodName : ParameterName : ParameterType –> MethodReturnType. Here’s our example

type IRetrieval =
    abstract GetChunk : request : ChunkRequest -> ChunkResponse

    abstract GetVersionInfo : request : VersionInfoRequest -> VersionInfoResponse


Data Contracts

The final piece of the puzzle is to implement the four objects that are passed as the input and output to the methods on our interface. One of the challenges is that the properties need public getters and setters, and F# likes to make properties immutable. There are a few ways of achieving this in F#, but the simplest one for this purpose seems to be to use an F# record with the mutable keyword like so:

type VersionInfoResponse =
    { [<DataMember>] mutable Version : string }

Empty Classes

The VersionInfoRequest class had me stumped for a while, as it contains no members at all (probably a bad design choice in C#), but I eventually stumbled on a way to implement this in F#:

type VersionInfoRequest() = 

Longs and Byte Arrays

The final challenge for me was learning how to declare the types of C# long and byte[] types. In F# these turn into int64 and array<byte> respectively. Other types, such as bool, int and string, are unchanged from C#:

type ChunkResponse =
    {   [<DataMember>] mutable Data : array<byte>;
        [<DataMember>] mutable IsEndOfFile : bool;

type ChunkRequest =
    {   [<DataMember>] mutable FileName : string;
        [<DataMember>] mutable Offset : int64;
        [<DataMember>] mutable BytesRequested : int;


I’ll hopefully find some time soon to do a follow-up post showing how to configure the WCF client and server in F#.

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Mixing and Looping with NAudio

On a recent episode of .NET Rocks (LINK), Carl Franklin mentioned that he had used NAudio to create an application to mix together audio loops, as part of his “Music to Code By” Kickstarter. He had four loops, for drums, bass, and guitar, and the application allows the volumes to be adjusted individually. He made a code sample of his application available for download here.


This is quite simple to set up with NAudio. To perform the looping part, Carl made use of a LoopStream (using a technique I describe here). The key to looping is simply in the Read method, to read from your source, and if you reach the end (your source returns 0 or fewer samples than requested), reposition to the start and keep reading. This means you have a WaveStream that will never end.

Here's the code for a LoopStream that a WaveFileReader can be passed into:

/// <summary>
/// Stream for looping playback
/// </summary>
public class LoopStream : WaveStream
    WaveStream sourceStream;

    /// <summary>
    /// Creates a new Loop stream
    /// </summary>
    /// <param name="sourceStream">The stream to read from. Note: the Read method of this stream should return 0 when it reaches the end
    /// or else we will not loop to the start again.</param>
    public LoopStream(WaveStream sourceStream)
        this.sourceStream = sourceStream;
        this.EnableLooping = true;

    /// <summary>
    /// Use this to turn looping on or off
    /// </summary>
    public bool EnableLooping { get; set; }

    /// <summary>
    /// Return source stream's wave format
    /// </summary>
    public override WaveFormat WaveFormat
        get { return sourceStream.WaveFormat; }

    /// <summary>
    /// LoopStream simply returns
    /// </summary>
    public override long Length
        get { return sourceStream.Length; }

    /// <summary>
    /// LoopStream simply passes on positioning to source stream
    /// </summary>
    public override long Position
        get { return sourceStream.Position; }
        set { sourceStream.Position = value; }

    public override int Read(byte[] buffer, int offset, int count)
        int totalBytesRead = 0;

        while (totalBytesRead < count)
            int bytesRead = sourceStream.Read(buffer, offset + totalBytesRead, count - totalBytesRead);
            if (bytesRead == 0)
                if (sourceStream.Position == 0 || !EnableLooping)
                    // something wrong with the source stream
                // loop
                sourceStream.Position = 0;
            totalBytesRead += bytesRead;
        return totalBytesRead;

For mixing, the approach Carl took was simply to create four instances of DirectSoundOut and start them playing together. To allow adjusting the volumes of each channel he passed each LoopStream into a WaveChannel32, which converts to 32 bit floating point, and has a Volume property (1.0 is full volume). To ensure that the four parts remained in sync, when you deselect a part, it doesn't actually stop it playing - instead it sets its volume to 0.

This approach to synchronization works surprisingly well, but it is not actually guaranteed to keep the four parts synchronized. Over time, they could drift. So a better approach is to use a single output device, and feed each of the four WaveChannels into a mixer. Here’s an example block diagram showing a modified signal chain with two inputs feeding into a single mixer:


----------   ----------   -----------
| Wave   |   | Loop   |   | Wave    |
| File   |-->| Stream |-->| Channel |---
| Reader |   |        |   | 32      |  |   ------------
----------   ----------   -----------  --->| Mixing   |
                                           | Wave     |
----------   ----------   -----------  --->| Provider |
| Wave   |   | Loop   |   | Wave    |  |   | 32       |
| File   |-->| Stream |-->| Channel |---   ------------
| Reader |   |        |   | 32      |
----------   ----------   -----------

NAudio has a number of options available for mixing. The best is probably MixingSampleProvider, but for Carl's project, it was easier to use MixingWaveProvider32, since he's not making use of the ISampleProvider interface. This allows you to mix together any WaveProviders that are already in 32 bit floating point format.

MixingWaveProvider32 requires that you specify its inputs up front. So here, we could connect each of our inputs, and then start playing. With this simple change, Carl's mixing application is now guaranteed to not go out of sync. This is the recommended way to mix multiple sounds with NAudio.

Here's the code that sets up the mixer (Carl has a class called WavePlayer encapsulating the WaveFileReader, LoopStream and WaveChannel32, allowing you to access the WaveChannel32 with the Channel property):

foreach (string file in files)
    Clips.Add(new WavePlayer(file));                    
var mixer = new MixingWaveProvider32(Clips.Select(c => c.Channel));

You can download my modified version of Carl's application here.

The only caveat is that mixers require all their inputs to be in the same format. For this application, this isn’t a problem, but if you want to mix together sounds of arbitrary formats, you'd need to convert them all to a common format. This is something I cover in my NAudio Pluralsight course if you’re interested in finding out more about how to do this.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

ClickOnce Deployment Fundamentals

I'm delighted to announce that my sixth Pluralsight course, ClickOnce Deployment Fundamentals is now live. In it I go through all the options available for customising your ClickOnce deployment, as well as how to handle updates, the capabilities of the deployment API, and what gets stored where on the disk. I also have modules covering some of the more advanced parts of ClickOnce such as handling pre-requisites with the bootstrapper, signing your deployment, and using the MAGE tool.

Why ClickOnce?

You may be surprised that I'm doing a course on ClickOnce, since it is now a fairly old and oft-maligned technology. As I explain in the course, it's not the right choice for all installers, but for simple .NET applications, it may actually prove to be the simplest solution for keeping your application automatically up to date. I go through some of the pros and cons in the course, as well as pointing out a few alternatives you might want to consider.

Some ClickOnce Resources

I've tried to give a fairly comprehensive coverage of ClickOnce capabilities in the course, but you can't cover everything, so here's some of what I consider to be the most helpful resources if you are planning to use it yourself.

  • RobinDotNet Robin is one of the few genuine ClickOnce experts out there on the web, and she has provided several really helpful articles, including things like how you can host your ClickOnce deployments in Azure blob storage.
  • MSDN - MSDN may not be the most thrilling documentation to read, but don't overlook it when it comes to ClickOnce, as it is really the only comprehensive source of information you’ll find. Have a look here and here for some useful material.
  • Smart Client Deployment book by Brian Noyes. This really is the best book out there on ClickOnce. Don’t be put off by the fact that it is fairly old now. ClickOnce hasn’t changed an awful lot though, so pretty much everything in the book is still relevant.
  • Finally here’s a video that discusses re-signing with MAGE, which shows how to work around a nasty gotcha when re-signing if you are using .deploy file extensions (which you probably are if deploying via the web).

More to Come on Signing…

I’m also hoping to follow this up with another post about the process of signing your ClickOnce applications. I actually attempted to buy my own code signing certificate which I wanted to use in my demos in this course, but it has proved surprisingly difficult to complete the purchase of my certificate (certainly a story for a future blog post), so for the course I just used a self-generated certificate. As soon as I finally get the real deal, I’ll post showing what difference it makes to the warnings you receive during installation when your app is signed by a certificate issued by a trusted Certificate Authority.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Effective Debugging with Divide and Conquer

I frequently get support requests for NAudio from people who complain that their audio doesn’t sound right. Can I have a look at their code and see what they are doing wrong?

Frequently the code they post contains multiple steps. Audio is recorded, processed, encoded with a codec, sent over the network, received over the network, decoded with a codec, processed some more, and then played.

Now if the audio doesn’t sound right, there’s clearly a problem somewhere, but how can we pinpoint where exactly? It is possible that a code review might reveal the problem, but often you’ll actually need to debug to get to the bottom of a problem like this.

The Number One Debugging Principle

Perhaps the most basic and foundational skill you need to learn if you are ever to debug effectively is to “divide and conquer”. If you have thousands of lines of code in which the bug might be hiding, going through each one line by line would take too long.

What you need to do is divide your code in half. Is the bug in the first half or the second? Once you’ve identified which half contains the problem, do the same again, and before long you’ll have narrowed down exactly where the problem lies. It’s a very simple and effective technique, and yet all too often overlooked.

Divide and Conquer Debugging in Practice

To illustrate this technique, let’s take the audio example I mentioned earlier. Where’s the problem? Well lets start by eliminating the network code. Instead of sending audio out over the network, write it to a WAV file. Then play that WAV file in Windows Media Player. If it sounds fine, then the problem isn’t in the first half of our system. With one quick test, we’ve narrowed down the problem to the decode and playback side of things.

Now we could test half of the remainder of the code by playing back from a pre-recorded file instead of from the network. If that sounds OK then its something in the code that receives over the network and decodes audio. So we can very quickly zero in on the problem area.

The point is simple, you don’t need to restrict yourself to looking at the output of the entire system to troubleshoot a problem. Look at the state at intermediate points to find out where things are going wrong. And often you don’t need to run through all the code. Can you pass data just through a small part of your logic, to see if the problem resides there?

Learn it and Use it

If you learn the art of divide and conquer, you’ll not only be great at debugging, but it will improve the way you write your code in the first place. Because as I’ve argued before on this blog, divide and conquer is perhaps the most essential skill for a programmer to have.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Extending WPF Control Templates with Attached Properties

One of the great things about WPF is that you can completely customise everything about the way a control looks. Most of the time then, creating a custom style is more than sufficient to get your controls looking just how you want them? But what if you need your control to change its appearance based on some criteria. At this point, I’d usually be tempted to create my own custom control. But that isn’t actually always necessary.

For example, I recently wanted to create a peak LED button in an audio application that was monitoring sound levels. The button would show the peak decibel level, and when the sound went above a certain threshold, would go red. To acknowledge the clipping, you could click the button and the it would revert to its default colour. So my button needed a boolean property that would indicate is clipped or not.


But how can you add a property to a class without inheriting it? Well in WPF, you can make use of attached properties. You’ve already used them if you’ve set Grid.Row for a control in your XAML. The control itself has no Grid.Row property, but you can associate a grid row value with that control, which enables it to be positioned correctly within the grid.

So we need an attached property that stores whether a peak has been detected or not. Attached properties are similar to dependency properties if you’ve ever created those before. I can never remember how to write them from scratch, but if you have an example handy, you can copy it. You need to inherit from DependencyObject, to register a static DependencyProperty, and to provide static getter and setter methods. Here’s the one I created:

public class PeakHelper : DependencyObject
    public static readonly DependencyProperty IsPeakProperty = DependencyProperty.RegisterAttached(
        "IsPeak", typeof (bool), typeof (PeakHelper), new PropertyMetadata(false));

    public static void SetIsPeak(DependencyObject target, Boolean value)
        target.SetValue(IsPeakProperty, value);

    public static bool GetIsPeak(DependencyObject target)
        return (bool)target.GetValue(IsPeakProperty);

Now we have our attached property, we can use it in our button template. The regular button template is simply a ContentPresenter inside a Border, and then we use a Trigger to set the border’s background and border colours when our attached property is true. Obviously this is a very simplistic button template otherwise, with no triggers for mouse-over, pressed, or disabled.

<ControlTemplate TargetType="Button" x:Key="PeakButtonControlTemplate" >
    <Border x:Name="PeakBorder" BorderBrush="Gray" 
            BorderThickness="2" Background="LightGray">
        <ContentPresenter HorizontalAlignment="Center">
        <Trigger Property="local:PeakHelper.IsPeak"


And that’s all there is to it. We can now use regular MVVM to set the IsPeak attached property to true, which will turn our button red:

<Button Margin="4" 
    Template="{StaticResource PeakButtonControlTemplate}" 
    Content="{Binding MaxVolume}"  
    local:PeakHelper.IsPeak="{Binding IsPeak}" 
    Command="{Binding PeakReset}" 
    Width="40" Height="20" />