Sunday, February 06, 2005


What is SuperCollider?

According to

SuperCollider is a state of the art, realtime sound synthesis server as well as an interpreted Object Oriented language which is based on Smalltalk but with C language family syntax. The language functions as a network client to the sound synthesis server.

SC was written by James McCartney over a period of many years. It is now an open source GPL'd project maintained and developed by James and a few others.

Which is to say that SuperCollider is a tool to help you use your computer to make sounds. It’s free and open source. That means that you can look at how SuperCollider was written and modify it, share it with other people and use it any way you want.

SuperCollider has a steeper learning curve than some other music programs like MAX, but it is more flexible and more powerful. This book is written for people who have not programmed before. If you can use your computer to do things like edit a document and surf the web, you can learn to program.

What Can You Do With It?

  1. Digital synthesis
    Supercollider can make any sound that can be created by DSP.
  2. FX processing
    SC can do delays, filters, etc and can tweak a line-in or a pre-existing sound file in any way that you can think to program
  3. Algorithmic composition
    Supercollider can generate sounds and play them, and it can also generate MIDI files that can be opened by Finale, Sibelius or other notation software and arranged for real instruments

Two Applications for the Price of One

SuperCollider is actually two applications. One application is an interpreter: an application designed to execute your Object Oriented programs written in the SuperCollider language.

The other program is an extremely fast and efficient sound synthesizer, which makes all the sound. This program is called a server. It can run from within the interpreter or as a separate process. An internal server (one run within SuperCollider) has a small speed advantage over a separate process. Also, there are some things that can only be run from an internal server, such as an oscilloscope plug in which lets you view the waveforms produced by the server. However, if you crash the server, the interpreter will also crash and vice versa.

A server run as a separate process is called the localhost server. Because the process is separate, there is a stability advantage because a server crash does not also crash your interpreter or vice versa. You can run a server on a separate computer, if you’d like and even communicate with it via Rendezvous. The interpreter client and audio server communicate via a network protocol called OSC. The interpreter sends OSC messages to the server based on your programs and the server sends messages back, based on what it’s doing.

About this book

Explanatory text looks like all the text we have seen so far.

Code examples look like this.

Vocabulary words are in bold and are usually followed by a definition. They can also be found in the glossary.

Key points are summarized at the end of every section in a bulleted list.

The first part of this book is about the interpreter and the programming language it uses. The second part of this book is about the server and sound design.

Getting Started

First, you need a copy of SuperCollider 3, otherwise known as SC3. You can download it from SC3 exists for Mac OSX, Windows and Linux. The Mac version is the most developed and the most stable and the version referred to by this book. However, aside from the appearance and the key-shortcuts, the Windows and Linux versions should be virtually the same.

There are some websites designed to help SuperCollider users, including the SC home page at, the SWIKI at, and the Electronic Life SC Forum at

Using SuperCollider

Once you have downloaded SuperCollider and installed it, double click on the icon. Three windows should open on your screen. A big text window called "Untitled" should print out some information and there should be two smaller windows below it called "localhost server" and "internal server." If there is an error in the Untitled window, the two server windows will not open. Try downloading a different build of SuperCollider or running it on a different machine.

The Untitled window is where text output goes. The other two windows control two different versions of the audio Server. The examples in this document use the localhost server. If you want to hear audio, you must boot the audio server, which you can do by pressing the "Boot" button. When you press the “Boot” button on the audio server, the interpreter starts up the server application. When the server is finished booting, it sends an OSC message to the interpreter saying that it booted. Then the interpreter changes the color of the word “localhost” to red and the “Boot” button changes to say “Quit.” You can also boot a server from within a program, as we will see shortly.

To run code, you highlight it with the mouse and then press the Enter key, NOT the return key. (The enter key may be located next to your arrows or in your number pad.) To stop code that is running, hit apple-period.

To get help, hit apple-shift-?. To get help on a specific topic, for instance on Synth, highlight the word Synth and hit apple-shift-?.

Your First Program

Open a new window, which you can do under the File menu or by typing apple-n.

Boot the localhost server. You can do this from within the interpreter. To do this, type in the new window:


Highlight the code you just typed with the mouse and then press the enter key. Then, after the server finishes booting, type:

Highlight the code you just typed with the mouse and then press the enter key. You should hear a single short A. If you do not hear a sound, make sure that you can hear other sounds from computer and the volume is turned up. Make sure the localhost server is booted (and not the internal server). If you are still having trouble, try downloading a different build of SuperCollider or asking somebody knowledgeable for help.

Chapter Summary

  • SuperCollider is a free tool for making music that can do DSP and algorithmic composition.
  • SuperCollider is a synthesis server and an interpreter than can run together or separately.
  • You must run a server (either internal, localhost or on another computer) to hear sound.
  • Highlight code and press enter to execute it.
  • Press apple-period to stop execution
  • Press apple-question to get help


Jen Savage said...

These will probably seem like dumb questions, so I apologize.

Supercollider can make any sound that can be created by DSP.What is DSP?

Highlight the code you just typed with the mouse and then press the enter key. Then, after the server finishes bootingHow do you know the server booted? I totally did this and nothing happened...

Les said...

no, these are good questions

DSP = digital signal processing

you can tell a server has booted when some stuff prints out to the Untitled window:

booting 57110
a Server
Number of Devices: 1
0 : "Built-in Audio"

"Built-in Audio" Input Device
Streams: 1
0 channels 2

"Built-in Audio" Output Device
Streams: 1
0 channels 2

SC_AudioDriver: numSamples=512, sampleRate=44100.000000
start UseSeparateIO?: 0
PublishPortToRendezvous 0 57110
SuperCollider 3 server ready..
notification is on