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Understanding QMK's Code

This document attempts to explain how the QMK firmware works from a very high level. It assumes you understand basic programming concepts but does not (except where needed to demonstrate) assume familiarity with C. It assumes that you have a basic understanding of the following documents:


You can think of QMK as no different from any other computer program. It is started and performs its tasks, but this program never finishes. Like other C programs, the entry point is the main() function. For QMK, the main() function is found in quantum/main.c.

If you browse through the main() function you'll find that it starts by initializing any hardware that has been configured (including USB to the host). The most common platform for QMK is lufa, which runs on AVR processors such as the atmega32u4. When compiled for that platform, it will invoke for example platform_setup() in platforms/avr/platform.c and protocol_setup() in tmk_core/protocol/lufa/lufa.c. It will use other implementations when compiled for other platforms like chibios and vusb. At first glance, it can look like a lot of functionality but most of the time the code will be disabled by #defines.

The main() function will then start the core part of the program with a while (true). This is The Main Loop.

The Main Loop

This section of code is called "The Main Loop" because it's responsible for looping over the same set of instructions forever, without ever reaching the end. This is where QMK dispatches out to the functions responsible for making the keyboard do everything it is supposed to do.

The main loop will call protocol_task(), which in turn will call keyboard_task() in quantum/keyboard.c. This is where all the keyboard specific functionality is dispatched, and it is responsible for detecting changes in the matrix and turning status LEDs on and off.

Within keyboard_task() you'll find code to handle:

  • Matrix Scanning
  • Mouse Handling
  • Keyboard status LEDs (Caps Lock, Num Lock, Scroll Lock)

Matrix Scanning

Matrix scanning is the core function of a keyboard firmware. It is the process of detecting which keys are currently pressed, and your keyboard runs this function many times a second. It's no exaggeration to say that 99% of your firmware's CPU time is spent on matrix scanning.

While there are different strategies for doing the actual matrix detection, they are out of scope for this document. It is sufficient to treat matrix scanning as a black box, you ask for the matrix's current state and get back a datastructure that looks like this:


That datastructure is a direct representation of the matrix for a 5 row by 4 column numpad. When a key is pressed that key's position within the matrix will be returned as 1 instead of 0.

Matrix Scanning runs many times per second. The exact rate varies but typically it runs at least 10 times per second to avoid perceptible lag.

Matrix to Physical Layout Map

Once we know the state of every switch on our keyboard we have to map that to a keycode. In QMK this is done by making use of C macros to allow us to separate the definition of the physical layout from the definition of keycodes.

At the keyboard level we define a C macro (typically named LAYOUT()) which maps our keyboard's matrix to physical keys. Sometimes the matrix does not have a switch in every location, and we can use this macro to pre-populate those with KC_NO, making the keymap definition easier to work with. Here's an example LAYOUT() macro for a numpad:

#define LAYOUT( \
    k00, k01, k02, k03, \
    k10, k11, k12, k13, \
    k20, k21, k22, \
    k30, k31, k32, k33, \
    k40,      k42 \
) { \
    { k00, k01,   k02, k03   }, \
    { k10, k11,   k12, k13   }, \
    { k20, k21,   k22, KC_NO }, \
    { k30, k31,   k32, k33   }, \
    { k40, KC_NO, k42, KC_NO } \

Notice how the second block of our LAYOUT() macro matches the Matrix Scanning array above? This macro is what will map the matrix scanning array to keycodes. However, if you look at a 17 key numpad you'll notice that it has 3 places where the matrix could have a switch but doesn't, due to larger keys. We have populated those spaces with KC_NO so that our keymap definition doesn't have to.

You can also use this macro to handle unusual matrix layouts, for example the Alice. Explaining that is outside the scope of this document.

Keycode Assignment

At the keymap level we make use of our LAYOUT() macro above to map keycodes to physical locations to matrix locations. It looks like this:

const uint16_t PROGMEM keymaps[][MATRIX_ROWS][MATRIX_COLS] = {
    [0] = LAYOUT(
        KC_P7,   KC_P8,   KC_P9,   KC_PPLS,
        KC_P4,   KC_P5,   KC_P6,
        KC_P1,   KC_P2,   KC_P3,   KC_PENT,
        KC_P0,            KC_PDOT

Notice how all of these arguments match up with the first half of the LAYOUT() macro from the last section? This is how we take a keycode and map it to our Matrix Scan from earlier.

State Change Detection

The matrix scanning described above tells us the state of the matrix at a given moment, but your computer only wants to know about changes, it doesn't care about the current state. QMK stores the results from the last matrix scan and compares the results from this matrix to determine when a key has been pressed or released.

Let's look at an example. We'll hop into the middle of a keyboard scanning loop to find that our previous scan looks like this:


And when our current scan completes it will look like this:


Comparing against our keymap we can see that the pressed key is KC_NUM. From here we dispatch to the process_record set of functions.

Process Record

The process_record() function itself is deceptively simple, but hidden within is a gateway to overriding functionality at various levels of QMK. The chain of events is listed below, using cluecard whenever we need to look at the keyboard/keymap level functions. Depending on options set in or elsewhere, only a subset of the functions below will be included in final firmware.

At any step during this chain of events a function (such as process_record_kb()) can return false to halt all further processing.

After this is called, post_process_record() is called, which can be used to handle additional cleanup that needs to be run after the keycode is normally handled.