15. Using Csound for Sonification

David Rossiter


In recent years a new field of research has evolved. Called 'sonification', it involves the expression of data with some form of acoustical representation. Studies to date have shown that there is considerable potential for the perception of data sets when they are appropriately expressed in this way. However, researchers have used a very wide variety of sound generation devices, often of limited flexibility and complete incompatibility with each other.

Csound is a remarkable tool for sonification scientists. It has a large array of very powerful and highly flexible sound synthesis and morphing commands. It is public domain, and so valuable research fund money does not need to be used to purchase it. Csound has been ported to just about every single computer platform. There are a wide variety of public domain instruments which may be used. It is actively used by hundreds of researchers across the world in closely related and interlinked fields of research such as acoustics, psychoacoustics, and computer music. It may therefore be regarded as something of a standard, as much as one may exist across such a wide and diverse scope. This chapter considers issues relating to how a sonification program can best employ Csound.

Previous Sonification Approaches

Many notable researchers have contributed to the field of sonification and illustrated the great potential for data sonification, particularly when combined with some form of visual representation of the data. Of note in this context are the proceedings of the bi-annual conferences on Auditory Display (i.e., Kramer, 1994), which contain a variety of quality contributions. The most frequently cited reference in the field is the paper by Scaletti & Craig (1991), in which the authors describe their experiments with a number of sonification methods, with the intention of enhancing a series of pre-existing visualization sequences of physical phenomena.

Investigators use a wide variety of sound generation devices ranging from MIDI devices to dedicated hardware devices. For example, Scaletti & Craig (1991) utilized the Capybara multiple DSP system, Jackson & Francioni (1991) and Sonnewald et al. (1990) employed MIDI equipment, and Travera (1994) employed the Convolvotron spatial audio hardware. It is proposed that the Csound system may more effectively be adopted as a common base for researchers in the field to share ideas and techniques, perhaps building on the observations presented here.

Sonification Instrument Design

With regards to sonification, instruments may fall under the following classifications, or may be written such that they use techniques from more than one domain.

Parameters popularly manipulated for sonification include fundamental frequency, amplitude, timing parameters and envelope parameters such as attack, sustain, decay and release. Other parameters may be implemented according to the intention of the designer. There may be parameters unique to the design of a particular instrument. Different mathematical relationships may be used in the mapping. The two predominant mappings are linear and logarithmic. Techniques derived from the large body of scientific research concerning the phenomenon of sound and acoustics (i.e. Helmholtz, 1877; Bregman, 1990) stretching back to the 19th Century and before may be adopted and extended for sonification.

The exact ways in which different forms of data may be best mapped to sound parameters is the subject of much investigation by sonification researchers and is in itself outside the scope of this chapter. The reader is referred to the references listed at the end, many of which offer valuable insights and examples of sonification mappings. For example, Bregman (pg 291, 1990) states two strong heuristic aural-visual associations; changes of visual intensity with changes in amplitude of sound, and changes of vertical position in space with changes of pitch. He highlights the intuity of processing 2D diagrams with aural representations employing time along the x axis and frequency along the y axis.

Once generated, instrument note events may be further processed for greater effect, such as reverberation or filtering. For example, by using spatialization techniques it is possible to give the acoustical impression that each sonification event is positioned at some point in three dimensional space. This technique was used by the author for a system for the sonification of 3D medical images (Rossiter & Ng, 1996a).

Designing Csound Instruments For Sonification

Sonification is typically concerned with the usage of one or more different instruments in the experimental expression of a data set. A number of different parameters, parameter ranges, and modes of parameter mapping may be explored in order to seek effective expressions of the data set under investigation.

In designing a Csound sonification instrument in this context, a balance needs to be made between generalization and specificity. An instrument may be designed with a unique set of parameters particular to a sonification experiment. However, this individuality may be at the cost of the ability to easily re-use that instrument in future experiments. By agreeing on a standard array of p-fields and their meaning, a portfolio of sonification instruments can then be built from which a selection may be made for exploratory use without the requirement for re-writing the instrument. Although this may not be appropriate in the context of every sonification instrument, it should be implemented to as great an extent as is possible. Each data parameter being sonified should be expressed as one of the p-fields being presented to a Csound instrument. If that particular p-field is not implemented in that instrument, the instrument should simply ignore the parameter (Csound will operate normally even if a p-field is presented to an instrument but is not referenced by that instrument). The instrument should not use that p-field for another purpose.

For example, a sonification researcher may adopt part or all of the selection shown in table 1 as the base case 'standard' for his/her system.

Table 1:

Fundamental Parameters
Envelope Parameters
Filtering Parameters
P1 - Instrument number P6 - Attack time P10 - Low pass (cutoff freq)
P2 - Start time P7 - Decay time P11 - High pass (cutoff freq)
P3 - Duration P8 - Sustain time P12 - Band pass (center freq)
P4 - Fundamental frequency P9 - Release time  
P5 - Amplitude    

All p-fields beyond the determined standard configuration (p-fields 13 and higher in the example above) may then be employed as required by individual instruments. The list of further effects and techniques which may be applied within an instrument are dependent only on the skill and particular design intentions of the sonification instrument creator. Examples include distortion, flanging, pitch shifting, chorusing, filtering, the inclusion of sound file playing, and many more.

A simple design for experimental representation of data based on beat frequencies is shown in listing 1. An example score file is shown in listing 2. In this example, the researcher has determined that the p-field arrangement shown in table 1 for p-fields 1 to 9 will be implemented within each sonification instrument, but that subsequent fields are instrument dependent. And so, for example, although p-fields 10 to 12 in this instance contain filtering data which is not processed by the particular instrument shown, the data should remain presented to the instrument so that in the event that any alternative instrument is employed which recognizes the p-fields, the effects are implemented. This provides a compromise between instrument individuality and common functionality. In this way a range of different instruments may be rapidly employed for sonification studies as appropriate, with no score changes required apart from to the instrument number (p-field 1).

 Listing 1:
; File 'beat.orc'
; This is an example sonification instrument expressing the
; beat frequency phenomenon. Two sine waves are generated
; and the listener perceives a beat frequency equal to the
; difference between the two frequencies.
; Created by David Rossiter.

; This particular set of header information
; is designed for speed.

sr = 8000
kr = 800
ksmps = 10
nchnls = 1

instr 1

; Create instrument-dependent implementation of
; Attack Decay Sustain Release waveform shaping

k1 linseg 0, p6*p3, 1, p7*p3, 0.8, p8*p3, 0.8, p9*p3, 0

aosc1 oscil 10000, 100, 1 ; oscillate at frequency 1
aosc2 oscil 10000, 100+p4, 1 ; oscillate at frequency 2

out (aosc1+aosc2) *p5 *k1 ; combine both signals
; with amp and waveshaping


Listing 2:
; File 'beat.sco'
; This is the score file for the 'beat.orc' sonification instrument.
; Created by David Rossiter.

f1 0 256 10 1 ; Create a sine wave table

; Parameter fields are as described in main text.
; In this example, attack, decay, sustain and release are
; all expressed as fractions of the time period, and amplitude
; is a multiplier within the range 0 to 1.
; Start Dur Freq Amp Att Dec  Sus Rel  Low High Band
i1  0    2   10   1  0.1 0.05 0.6 0.25 80  1500 400

Interfacing A Sonification Program With Csound

It is possible to create score files containing data to be sonified 'by hand', using a text editor. However, data intended for sonification is typically obtained in some automated method, resulting in a stream of data. This data is then presented to the sonification engine, after any required formatting. The techniques for employing Csound as the sonification engine are discussed in the following sections.

Extending Csound Code

There are several different approaches towards using Csound for Sonification. One is to extend the Csound program to incorporate a sonification stage. This stage would generate the data for sonification and pass it internally to the normal Csound analysis and sound generation mechanisms. This option involves examining, extending, and re-compiling the Csound source code so that the sonification data input and analysis section is embodied within the Csound code itself. This is certainly possible, but requires a high proficiency in programming and a knowledge of the internal operation of Csound. Note also that as soon as the Csound source code is altered there is a danger that the program in its entirety will not compile on other platforms as a consequence of the changes. For these reasons, this approach to using Csound as a sonification engine is not recommended. For such a project, the reader is encouraged to study the relevant sections elsewhere within this volume. A better approach is to place the sonification data extraction and processing procedures into a separate program which calls Csound for sonification synthesis tasks as required. Related techniques are discussed in the following sections.

Approaches to Sonification Program Control

In designing a sonification system which uses Csound as the output engine, there are a number of questions to be addressed. Will the sonification program

These aspects are discussed in the following sections.

Creation of Files

As described elsewhere in this volume, Csound relies on two files to operate, the 'orchestra' file, which contains the instrument(s), and the 'score' file, which contains the information needed to drive the instrument(s) such as pitch-duration data. Both these files are traditionally created 'by hand' through the use of any text editor. In the context of sonification a separate program is often used to generate or access the data intended for sonification. This program needs to format the data in an appropriate score format before passing it to Csound.

For example, in listing 3 a C program is shown which generates both an orchestra file, called 'scale.orc', and a score file, called 'scale.sco'. The program then instructs Csound to use these files to synthesize the sound sequence. Although the examples in this chapter use the C language, the same general technique could be used for programs written in other languages.

Listing 3:
/* This program creates an orchestra file and a score file to generate
/* an ascending chromatic scale. The Csound program is then invoked
/* to generate the sequence. Created by David Rossiter.
#include "stdio.h"

#define orc_filename "scale.orc"
#define sco_filename "scale.sco"

void create_orc_file()
FILE *fp;
if ((fp=fopen(orc_filename,"w"))==NULL) {
printf("Sorry, I am unable to open %s\n",orc_filename);
else {
fprintf(fp," sr=8000\n kr=800\n ksmps=10\n nchnls=1\n \n");
fprintf(fp,"instr 1\n");
fprintf(fp," asig oscil 10000, p4, 1\n");
fprintf(fp," out asig\n");

void create_sco_file()
FILE *fp;
float note_start=0.0, note_duration=0.5;
long pitch_start=50, pitch_end=150;
long pitch;

if ((fp=fopen(sco_filename,"w"))==NULL) {
printf("Sorry, I am unable to open %s\n",sco_filename);
else {
fprintf(fp,"f1 0 256 10 1\n");

for (pitch=pitch_start;pitch<pitch_end;pitch++) {
fprintf(fp,"i1 %f %f %ld\n", note_start, note_duration, pitch);


main(argc, argv)
short argc; char **argv;
char system_string[100];


sprintf(system_string, "csound %s %s", orc_filename, sco_filename);

Real-time Sonification

The modern speed of computer systems has brought real-time Csound into everyday use. Accordingly, a sonification process may enjoy a level of real-time expression, in the form of both real-time input to and real-time output from Csound. For example, a sonification program may be constantly expressing data derived from system analyses of process behavior. This data may be derived and converted by the sonification program for real-time presentation to Csound, which generates the output synthesis as soon as the input information is received.

In the following sections the techniques for real-time input and output are described. 

1) Initializing Real-time Output

The syntax for invocation of Csound in real-time output mode is, unfortunately, inconsistent across computer platforms. This is partly a reflection of the different varieties and capabilities of audio hardware used by computer systems. The most common forms of syntax required to invoke Csound for real-time output are '-o /dev/audio' and '-o devaudio'. For example, for a SunSparc platform running the Sun Unix operating system, real-time output would be achieved by

csound -u -o /dev/audio scale.orc scale.sco

For a Silicon Graphics platform running their particular form of Unix, real-time output is achieved by

csound -o devaudio scale.orc scale.sco

This may also be the appropriate syntax for real-time output on a Linux system. Alternatively the use of '-o dac' may be required instead (this depends on the Csound release). The latter option also applies to the Microsoft Windows 95 platform.

It is also likely to be appropriate to include the '-h' parameter in the Csound parameter list. This instructs Csound not to output the sound information header. The header is a short piece of informative data required at the start of a soundfile, which if used together with the '-o' real-time output option is sent as audio data directly to the speaker and subsequently perceived as an uncomfortable audio glitch. 

2) Presenting Real-time Input

Real-time input control of Csound requires more care than real-time output, but it is a straightforward task if the procedure is correctly followed.

The procedure is as follows.

1. Create the Csound orchestra file in the normal way.

2. Create a score file which contains the instruction f0 3600 . When Csound processes this instruction, one consequence is that it waits for 3600 seconds (one hour) during which it will process score events which are presented to it in the manner described below. In the examples that follow, this score file is called 'pause.sco'.

3. Invoke Csound such that it expects score information to be presented via standard input. This is indicated by the command line option '-L stdin'. (If Csound is invoked with this parameter just by typing its name on the command line in the common way, score events can be simply typed one by one by the user, and each score line is then sent to Csound as soon as the Enter key is pressed. A sonification program can use this capability of Csound to present score events to Csound as and when required).

4. After step 3 has been executed, score events can subsequently be sent to Csound through the connection. If these score events have a start time (p-field 2) of zero then Csound will synthesize the event as soon as it receives it. In the event that a start time greater than zero is used, Csound will wait for the specified length of time after receiving the event before synthesizing it. Function table declarations that would usually be within the score file are also be presented to Csound in the same way.

In listing 4 there is an example program which illustrates the real-time input techniques described. 

Listing 4:
/* This piece of code opens a pipe to Csound. Score events are
/* then passed to Csound through the pipe. If Csound is invoked
/* in real-time output mode, the program can send score events as
/* and when required to Csound for immediate synthesis.
/* Created by David Rossiter.
FILE *csound_pointer;
char pipe_string[200];

/* It is assumed that pause.sco already exists as described in the
/* main text. Alternatively, the sonification program could create it.
/* Prepare the string for use in the pipe creation process */
sprintf(pipe_string, "csound -s -L stdin instruments.orc pause.sco");

/* Create pipe to Csound for writing score events */
csound_pointer=popen(pipe_string, "w");

if ( csound_pointer==NULL ) { /* System failed to create the pipe */
fprintf(stderr, "Pipe link to Csound has failed\n");
} else {
/* Now regular score instructions can be sent as and */
/* when required. Arbitrary examples follow. */
fprintf( csound_pointer, "f1 0 256 10 1\n"); /* A table... */
fprintf( csound_pointer, "i1 0 20 100\n"); /* A sound event... */
/* ...this can continue as required... */

/* The following line may be required at regular */
/* intervals, or possibly after each 'fprintf' */
fflush( csound_pointer ); /* This forces out any buffered */
/* items in the system pipe */

By adding the appropriate real-time output parameter flags discussed in the last section, output as well as input could be conducted in real-time. For example, on a Silicon Graphics platform the invocation

csound -s -L stdin -o devaudio instruments.orc pause.sco

will enable real-time input control in the manner described previously, with the synthesized sound being generated in real-time.

Handling Multiple Instruments

A sonification program employing Csound as the audio synthesis engine typically requires the use of a select few instruments from possibly a very large selection. The problem of how to arrange a portfolio of sonification instruments from which a select few may be used is worth addressing. One approach is to write an enormous Csound orchestra file which includes all the many instruments that may be of use. However, this approach would place a large demand on memory resources, as all the various instruments would be compiled by Csound and stored in memory regardless of whether or not they are actually used during the sonification task. If memory demands are excessive then the sonification will either fail completely or undergo a massive decrease in speed, in the region of 100-1000 times slower, due to page swapping by the operating system. There are also memory cache considerations which imply that if Csound uses a relatively smaller amount of memory resources it may run notably faster than would otherwise be the case. Furthermore, the delay when Csound is first invoked is proportional to the number of instruments.

To counter these drawbacks, an advanced approach may be adopted as follows. The technique requires the sonification program taking only the Csound instruments of interest from the selection available, and concatenating these into a single orchestra file for use in the subsequent sonification task. The name of the newly created orc file is passed to Csound via the command line in the normal way. This method, used by the author for a sonification system for arbitrary linear data streams (Rossiter & Ng, 1996b), ensures there is only the necessary demand on memory and computation power. However, a number of points need to be considered.

1. For logistical aid, ensure all the Csound instruments which may be selected for use by the sonification program are each listed in their own separate orc files prior to the start of the process. They may also have associated score files containing any function table definitions they require.

2. Instruments need to use a standard arrangement of p-field mappings exists, as discussed previously.

3. The list of required instruments for the sonification process needs to be established by the sonification program. Each of the associated sco files containing function table declarations are loaded from file, and given a new, unique table number.

4. The list of required instruments for the sonification process is established by the sonification program. Each instrument is then copied from it's original orc file and placed into the compilation orc file due to be subsequently used by Csound. During the copying, the orc files need to be modified so that each instrument is guaranteed a unique instrument number, and each reference to a table is adjusted so that it refers to the new table reference number assigned in step 3.

5. The table declarations, using their new function table numbers, then need to be presented to Csound in the same method that score events are presented. For example, in the context of real-time control of Csound by the sonification program, the tables need to be passed through the pipe.

Performance Tuning

It is advisable to tune the sonification task for the best speed/quality trade-off. For example, a relatively lower processor workload can be achieved by changing the number of channels to mono format (that is, ensure the orc file has the line 'nchnls = 1' at the top), in addition to ensuring the 'sr=...', 'kr=...' and corresponding 'ksmps' lines in the orchestra file accommodate the lowest sampling rate value that works. Please refer to other parts of this volume for further guidance on how a Csound performance may be most effectively 'tuned'.


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Travera, L.F. (1994) Three dimensional sound for data presentation in a virtual reality environment. Unpublished MSc thesis in Computer Science. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

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Helmholtz, H. (1877) On the sensations of tone as a physiological basis for the theory of music. 2nd edition (1885) republished by Dover: New York, 1954

Bregman, A.S. (1990) Auditory scene analysis: the perceptual organization of sound. MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass.

Rossiter, D., & Ng, W.Y. (1996a) A system for the complementary visualization of 3D volume images using 2D and 3D binaurally processed sonification representations. The Proceedings of IEEE Visualization '96, pp 351-354.

Rossiter, D., & Ng, W.Y. (1996b) A system for the musical investigation and expression of levels of self-similarity in an arbitrary data stream. The Proceedings of the 1996 International Computer Music Conference, pp. 282-284