Programming digital music with Csound

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And so sound design and composition become natural extensions of bare code. Csound on its own has no graphical interface—it's composed in a generic text editor and then compiled or rendered via the command line. In practice, however, CSound code is more likely to have been created in one of several Csound-specific development environments, including CsoundQT, which now comes prepackaged with CSound installations.

The big advantages in using such a tool are the ease in which GUI elements widgets can be created, step-through debugging , and a great big "play" button ready to render your project at the click of a button accompanied by a "record" button to save the results to a desired audio format.

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This is the "hello, world" of Csound, which, in addition to the usual printed output, features a basic sin-wave test tone. Note the two halves describing first the instrument to be utilized and the information to be performed. It's a bit like object-oriented programming in that the generic form of some structure or set of instructions is created and then instantiated with specific parameters elsewhere.

The generic object declares a string of text, while the instantiated object declares that string of text to be "hello, world. Csound has a deep history, beginning well before even most general-purpose programming languages you know, which partially accounts for its peculiarities.

Chap. 1 Csound tutorial

MUSIC itself was created in at Bell Labs by a 30 year old engineer named Max Mathews and was the earliest program capable of generating digital audio waveforms, for music or any other sound-based application. From MUSIC's birth to the latest Csound release, the MUSIC-N languages all share the same common features: signal-processing or synthesis routines called opcodes or unit generators are combined in different ways to create instruments. The basic idea is that these opcodes pass audio or data signals from one to another, with each successive opcode adding some new processing.

It's text-based audio patching. Instruments, which are collections of opcodes working together, are then called or, properly, instantiated in the "score" section of the program. Like this, text gives birth to sound and that sound is digital music. Beyond Csound, many of the ideas Mathews realized via MUSIC and its children—such as array-based storage of waveform data—remain as hardware and software audio processing standards.

A cool thing about the openness of Csound is in its capability for programming not just music, but music environments: spatialization.

Chapter Contents

Imagine an orchestra of individual speakers, but well beyond: a room full of speakers, with each one offering some distinct but related sound or sounds. Music becomes a place. Expect to see a lot more of this in the near future. Music "hackers" performing shows based entirely on a command line interface.

Chapter 0. Introduction: ChucK programming for artists

It's already much easier than you might imagine to do this on a basic level—as you're reading this, I could write a few lines of code in C to play a simple sin-wave melody. But its potential, the level of low-level control offered by live coding music, could change the entire notion of computer music, or at least the still-pervasive notion of computer music as "pushing a button. In addition, we also explore other methods of single character input and output, and string output. With the ideas presented in this and the previous chapter, we are able to start writing our first straight-line programs.

The methods of controlling and directing the flow of execution of a program are the main topics of this chapter.

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We first look at branching, which can be controlled by logical tests, or by pattern matching. Then we introduce the principle of iteration and the three types of loop constructs available in the C language. With this, we are able to start generating audio waveforms that can be displayed in graphs or played back after a minor conversion step.

This chapter introduces the principles behind the composite data types called arrays.

It discusses their memory layout and how to manipulate them. We then introduce the more advanced topic of memory addresses and pointer variables, showing how they relate to arrays. Finally, strings are presented as a special kind of character array. The chapter concludes by exploring ways of manipulating string variables. In this chapter, functions are introduced as the fundamental organising element in the C language. Topics related to their definition, argument passing, and call semantics are presented first.

This is followed by a discussion of the principle of recursion. The paradigm of modular programming as implemented in C is discussed. The standard C library is introduced, allowing us to develop a sine wave synthesis program. Finally, we develop an ASCII-based terminal plotting function as an example of the ideas presented in the chapter. User-defined types are the main topic of this chapter. We look at how these can be defined via C-language structures and unions. We show how to manipulate these new types, and how they can be treated like other built-in types, through standard variables, arrays, and pointers.

The chapter concludes with a look at bitoriented operations. With most of the C language already covered, this chapter looks at the fundamental principles of dynamic memory allocation and management.


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The main C standard library functions designed to create, expand, and dispose of free-store memory are introduced. We employ these in two basic applications: dynamic arrays and linked lists. This chapter expands our means of input and output by introducing file operations defined by the standard C library.

We first look at formatted text output and then explore the principles of generic binary file access. The chapter concludes with an application example of file IO that is supported by the sound and music computing system Csound. The specific case of soundfile IO is discussed in detail in this chapter. Some principles of digital audio are outlined: sampling, digital-to-analogue and analogue-to-digital conversion, data precision, channels, and basic operations. To complement this discussion, a widely used library for soundfile IO, libsndfile, is introduced.

This chapter discusses the fundamental aspects of realtime audio programming and access to sound devices. Programming examples are offered for each, demonstrating realtime processing in C.

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The MIDI protocol is presented in this chapter as one of the typical ways in which realtime audio instruments can be controlled. This is complemented by a discussion of cross-platform support for realtime MIDI, which is provided by Portmidi or Jack. This chapter discusses one of the fundamental components of computer music instruments, the oscillator. It explores this first from the perspective of a sinusoidal signal generation, discussing the concepts of phase, frequency, and sampling increment, and then introduces the principles of table lookup.


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Alongside this, we deal with the foundations of object-oriented programming, demonstrating how they can be employed to model sound computing components, such as the oscillator. In this chapter we concentrate, on the signal processing side, on the concept of interpolation and how it can be applied to produce better oscillators. We also look at taking these synthesis components apart into its constituent elements, phase generation and table reading.

From a programming perspective, the discussion of different kinds of oscillators allows us to introduce inheritance, and the concept of polymorphism. This chapter discusses envelopes as an important component of computer instruments, which allow the shaping of synthesis and processing parameters over time.

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