Saturday, January 13, 2018

Baking sound in supercollider


I want to synthesize gorgeous pad sounds in supercollider. This is possible using additive and/or subtractive synthesis, but it takes a lot of CPU power.


't Is the season to be bakin' fa-la-la-la-laaaaa la-la-la-laaaaa. How about we pre-render the sound into a wavetable and then loop the generated wave table? This moves most of the work to startup time. In the blender 3d program, pre-rendering heavy calculations is known as "baking".

But... won't we lose real-tome creative possibilities then? After all, you cannot modify the partials in a prerendered wavetable anymore?

Well... yes, you will lose some creative possibilities, but we can easily reintroduce some by adding amplitude envelopes, filters and filter envelopes and effects like reverb or phasing and flanging.


One of the more exciting pad generation algorithms no doubt is Paul Nasca Octavian's PadSynth algorithm. It is explained in detail here. I will use it to demonstrate the approach.

In essence it takes as input a basic sound, specified as a set of partials with associated relative volumes. 

It then enriches that spectrum by replacing each of the partials with a fuzzy region containing smeared out partials. This is the equivalent to adding many slightly detuned copies of the original signal, which is how sounds can start to sound a lot warmer. Since human hearing is less sensitive to small frequency differences for high frequencies than for low frequencies, the spreading of partials is made wider in the higher frequency bands than in the lower frequency bands. PadSynth also sets the phases of each of the detuned copies of the signal to random values which helps in reducing undesired comb filtering effects.

PadSynth in supercollider

Supercollider does not come with an implementation of PadSynth, but it is not too difficult to convert the pseudo-code from the detailed explanation into working code. A post by Donald Craig on the supercollider mailing list provides an excellent starting point.

I modified the algorithm a bit as follows: I calculate two different wavetables per octave over 12 octaves (this is probably a bit overkill - feel free to change it). This is an intensive calculation and takes quite a lot of memory. You can certainly reduce this calculation time and required space by reducing how many octaves you want to use, by reducing the number buffers per octave and by reducing the size of the pregenerated wave table (I generate wavetables of around 5 seconds long each).

While playing, the pitch can be chosen by looping over the generated wave tables with a different speed. By varying the speed on-the-fly one can also implement pitch bending or glissando's. All of this is illustrated in the sample code below, in which I will be using supercollider's excellent pattern system to drive a cello-like PadSynth pad. The code can also be found on

Driving the synth from supercollider patterns

Because the synth loops over one of many pre-generated buffers, we'll have to inform the synth about which buffer to use for a given note. For this reason you'll see some calculations being done in the Pbind and Pmono in the sample code. If you decide to generate less buffers per octave, you will also have to adjust these calculations.

More in detail: the parameter \mynote contains a midi note number. This is the note we will want to hear. From that parameter, another parameter \myreference is calculated. This contains another midi note, namely the closest midi note number that was used as a reference to pre-render a wave table: I generate 2 wavetables per octave and each of these wavetables have a reference midi note number. This information is needed in the synth to determine how fast to loop over the buffer. \referencefreq contains the same information but expressed as a frequency in Hz instead of as a midi note number. Remember that I generated two wavetables per octave, for 8 octaves. The parameter \buffer contains the buffer number to use. The buffer being used is the one that was generated with a reference midi note closest to the desired midi note. This information is needed in the synth to know which buffer to loop over. 

The full code is a bit long to paste into this article, so please head over to to get it!
If is down, there's still github as a backup :)