Comparison of audio synthesis environments

Comparison of audio synthesis environments

Software audio synthesis environments typically consist of an audio programming language (which may be graphical) and a user environment to design/run the language in. Although many of these environments are comparable in their abilities to produce high-quality audio, their differences and specialties are what draw users to a particular platform. This article compares noteworthy audio synthesis environments, and enumerates basic issues associated with their use.


Subjective comparisons

Audio synthesis environments comprise a wide and varying range of software and hardware configurations. Even different versions of the same environment can differ dramatically. Because of this broad variability, certain aspects of different systems cannot be directly compared. Moreover, some levels of comparison are either very difficult to objectively quantify, or depend purely on personal preference.

Some of the commonly considered subjective attributes for comparison include:

  • Usability (how difficult is it for beginners to generate some kind of meaningful output)
  • Learnability (how steep the learning curve is for new, average, and advancing users)
  • Sound "quality" (which environment produces the most subjectively appealing sound)
  • Creative flow (in what ways does the environment affect the creative process - e.g. guiding the user in certain directions)

These attributes can vary strongly depending on the tasks used for evaluation.

Some other common comparisons include:

  • Audio performance (issues such as throughput, latency, concurrency, etc.)
  • System performance (issues such as buggyness or stability)
  • Support and community (who uses the system and who provides help, advice, training and tutorials)
  • System capabilities (what is possible and what is not possible [regardless of effort] with the system)
  • Interoperability (how well does the system integrate with other systems from different vendors)

Building blocks of sound and sound "quality"

Audio software often has a slightly different "sound" when compared against others. This is because there are different ways to implement the basic building blocks (such as sinewaves, pink noise, or FFT) which result in slightly different aural characteristics. Although people can of course prefer one system's "sound" over another, perhaps the best output can be determined by using sophisticated audio analyzers in combination with the listener's ears. The idea of this would be to arrive at what most would agree is as "pure" a sound as possible.

User interface

The interface to an audio system often has a significant influence on the creative flow of the user, not because of what is possible (the stable/mature systems listed here are fully featured enough to be able to achieve an enormous range of sonic/compositional objectives), but because of what is made easy and what is made difficult. This is again very difficult to boil down to a brief comparative statement. One issue may be which interface metaphors are used (e.g. boxes-and-wires, documents, flow graphs, hardware mixing desks).


Name Creator Primary Purpose(s) First release date Most recent update Cost License Main user interface type Development status
ChucK Ge Wang and Perry Cook Realtime synthesis, live coding, pedagogy, acoustic research, algorithmic composition 2004 v1.2.1.3, Oct 2009 Free GPL Document Immature (32bit-only)
Csound Barry Vercoe Realtime performance, sound synthesis, algorithmic composition, acoustic research 1986 v5.12, September 2010 Free LGPL Document, graphical for realtime Mature
Impromptu Andrew Sorensen Live coding, algorithmic composition, hardware control, realtime synthesis, 2d/3d graphics programming 2006 v2.5, October 2010 Free Proprietary Document Stable
Max/MSP Miller Puckette Realtime audio + video synthesis, hardware control mid-1980s v5.1.7, December 2010 $699.00 Proprietary Graphical Mature
nsound Nick Hilton Realtime synthesis, offline audio rendering, algorithmic composition, acoustic research 2003 0.7.3, December 7, 2009 Free GPL Document Mature
Pure Data Miller Puckette Realtime synthesis, hardware control, acoustic research 1990s v0.43, March 29, 2011 Free BSD-like Graphical Stable
Reaktor Native Instruments Realtime synthesis, hardware control, GUI design 1996 5.6.1, Sept. 2011 $399 Proprietary Graphical Mature
SuperCollider James McCartney Realtime synthesis, live coding, algorithmic composition, acoustic research, all-purpose programming language March 1996 v3.4, July 2010 Free GPL Document Mature
sfront John Lazzaro MPEG-4/SA implementation, Realtime synthesis, algorithmic composition, structured Web audio. 1997 0.96, 1/12/10 Free BSD-like Document Stable
Usine Olivier Sens Audio manipulation, live coding, algorithmic composition 2006 v5.20, June 2010 Free/120€ Proprietary Graphical Mature

Programming language features

Name Textual/graphical Object-oriented Type system
ChucK Textual Yes Static
Csound Textual/Graphical (FLTK) No
Impromptu Mostly textual - Dynamic & static
Max/MSP Graphical No
nsound Textual Yes Dynamic
Pure Data Graphical No
Reaktor Graphical No
SuperCollider Textual/Graphical (Cocoa/Swing/Qt) Yes Dynamic
MPEG-4/SA Textual No No
Usine Graphical Yes (scripts) Dynamic

Data interface methods

Interfaces between the language environment and other software or hardware (not user interfaces).

Name Shell scripting MIDI OSC HID VST Audio Units Other
In Out In Out In Out As host As unit
ChucK Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
Csound Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes binding from Haskell (hCsound)
Impromptu Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Bidirectional Scheme to Objective-C bridge
Max/MSP Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
nsound Yes Yes No No No No No No No No C++ API, Python API
Pure Data Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No No bindings for Python, Lua, Java, GStreamer
Reaktor Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes
SuperCollider Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes No Yes LADSPA Host, scsynth can be controlled by OSC messages (Python, Scala, Ruby etc.)
sfront Yes Yes No No No MPEG-4/SA language implementation.
Usine Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Multi-touch


Name Operating system(s) Source code language(s) Programming (plugin) API language(s) Other technical features
ChucK Mac OS X, Linux, Windows C++ Unified timing mechanism (no separation between audio-rate and control-rate), command-line access
Common Music Mac OS X, Linux, Windows Scheme, C++ Scheme, SAL command-line access
Csound Mac OS X, Linux, Windows C, C++ C; also Python, Java, Lisp, Lua, Tcl, C++ IDE (QuteCsound), multitrack interface (blue); several analysis/resynthesis facilities; can compute double-precision audio; Python algorithmic composition library
Impromptu Mac OS X C, C++, Objective-C, Scheme C, C++, Objective-C, Scheme Native access to most OS X APIs including Core Image, Quartz, Quicktime and OpenGL. Impromptu also includes its own statically typed (inferencing) systems language for heavy numeric processing - OpenGL, RT AudioDSP etc..
Max/MSP Mac OS X, Windows C, Objective-C C, Java, JavaScript, also Python and Ruby via externals
nsound Mac OS X, Linux, Windows C++ C++, Python Real-Time Dynamic Digital Filters
Pure Data Mac OS X, Linux, Windows, iPod C C, C++, FAUST, Haskell, Java, Lua, Python, Q, Ruby, Scheme, others
Reaktor Mac OS X, Windows
SuperCollider Mac OS X, Linux, Windows, FreeBSD C, C++, Objective-C C++ Client-server architecture; client and server can be used independently, command-line access
sfront Linux, Windows(via cygwin) C++ Conforming MPEG-4/SA implementation.
Usine Windows Delphi C++

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