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Synth Design

The sounds you hear in Sonic Pi are all produced by the SuperCollider synthesis engine. These synths and effects have to be defined beforehand in a special kind of binary file called a synthdef. The built in synthdefs are loaded up on boot so they are ready to trigger.

Synthdefs are ultimately compiled from source code into binary files, but there are two main ways you can do this. You can either use the Clojure based library called Overtone, or directly use SuperCollider's own language instead).

Using Overtone to design and compile your synths
Using SuperCollider to design and compile your synths

All of the synthdefs that currently ship with Sonic Pi were designed in Overtone. You can find the existing synth designs in the folder


Please note however, that for new synth designs that are intended to be distributed with Sonic Pi, source code written with Overtone is now considered deprecated and only designs written in SuperCollider language will be accepted. As such, the instructions for using Overtone still work, but if you are considering submitting a new synth design for distribution with Sonic Pi, please create your synth with SuperCollider directly.

Synth design constraints

If you want your synth to work with Sonic Pi's automatic stereo sound infrastructure you need to ensure your synth outputs a stereo signal to an audio bus with an index specified by a synth arg named out_bus.

Additionally, your synth must self-terminate at some point - Sonic Pi will not tidy up zombied synths.

Using Overtone to design and compile your synths

Editing the synthdefs

You'll need the following to be able to compile the synths yourself

  • the latest version of Overtone (git clone
  • leiningen (brew install leiningen)
  • A text editor setup to work with Clojure

After cloning the Overtone repo, cd into the folder and edit the project.clj file to add the Sonic Pi synthdefs folder to the locations it looks in when requiring Clojure files.

  :native-path "native"
  :min-lein-version "2.0.0"
  ;; this is the line to add
  :source-paths  ["src"  "/Users/foo/sonic-pi/etc/synthdefs/designs"]
  ;; make sure the path points to your installation of Sonic Pi

Starting a REPL

cd into the Overtone folder and run

$ lein repl

Make a note of the port number that nREPL starts on

nREPL server started on port 49223 ...

Connecting the editor to the REPL and booting Overtone

If you're using vim and vim-fireplace:

  • open a new terminal window
  • cd back into the Sonic Pi folder
  • Open etc/synthdefs/designs/sonic_pi/synths/core.clj
  • type :Connect then hit enter
  • when prompted, enter the nREPL port number from earlier
  • Visual select the namespace definition and type : followed by Eval then enter

This should start booting Overtone which will take a little while. If there are no errors, your vim is successfully hooked up to Overtone!

If you're using emacs

  • open a new terminal window
  • open emacs and go to the project.clj for Overtone
  • M-x cider-jack-in to connect to the running nREPL
  • Navigate back into the Sonic Pi folder and open etc/synthdefs/designs/sonic_pi/synths/core.clj
  • Evaluate the namespace as you normally would for Clojure in emacs

The synth design file

Taking the example of a basic synth lets have a look at what the bits are doing

  (:use [])
  (:require [sonic-pi.synths.core :as core]))

    (defsynth sonic-pi-recorder
         [out-buf 0 in_bus 0]
         (disk-out out-buf (in in_bus 2))))

    (core/save-synthdef sonic-pi-recorder)))

This is the definition used to define the record functionality in Sonic Pi.

The without-namespace-in-synthdef from sonic-pi.synths.core needs to wrap the defsynth for the synth to follow the correct naming convention.

The core/save-synthdef manages the workflow for saving the compiled synthdef file into the correct folder and also the graphviz design which is used for documentation.

By evaluating the whole form this should cause all the files to be saved to the correct places.

Using SuperCollider to design and compile your synths

Simply define your synth with SuperCollider's built in language, and use the writeDefFile command to store the compiled synthdef into a directory of your choice. You can then dynamically load your synthdefs with the load_synthdefs fn.

         {|freq = 200, amp = 1, out_bus = 0 |
        [freq,freq],0,0.5)*, 0, 5, amp, doneAction: 2))}
).writeDefFile(\"/Users/sam/Desktop/my-synths\") ;

Making the synth available in Sonic Pi

To make the synths available simply call load_synthdefs with the path to the folder containing the synthdefs you've compiled and they'll be immediately available to Sonic Pi via the synth fn.

However, if you want the synths to be visible to the GUI you'll need to add the appropriate metadata to app/server/sonicpi/lib/sonicpi/synths/synthinfo.rb and re-compile the app.

Have fun!

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