AudioKit Tutorial: Getting Started

Learn the basic physics of sound and computer audio on a fun and gentle journey and experiment with sound synthesis and sampling in this AudioKit Tutorial. By Colin Eberhardt.

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Special thanks to Aurelius Prochazka, the AudioKit project lead, for reviewing and updating this tutorial.

iOS devices provide rich multimedia experiences to users with vivid visual, audio and haptic interfaces. Despite the broad range of capabilities on offer, as developers we tend to focus almost exclusively on the visual design of our apps and neglect the audio side of the user experience.

AudioKit is a comprehensive audio framework built by audio designers, programmers and musicians for iOS. Under the hood, AudioKit is a mixture of Swift, Objective-C, C++ and C, interfacing with Apple’s Audio Unit API. All of this fantastic (and quite complex) technology is wrapped up in a super-friendly Swift API that you can use directly within Xcode Playgrounds!

This AudioKit tutorial doesn’t attempt to teach you all there is to know about AudioKit. Instead, you’ll be taken on a fun and gentle journey through the framework via the history of sound synthesis and computer audio. Along the way, you’ll learn the basic physics of sound, and how early synthesizers such as the Hammond Organ work. You’ll eventually arrive at the modern day where sampling and mixing dominate.

So pour yourself a coffee, pull up a chair and get ready for the journey!

Getting Started

As of AudioKit 3.6, setting up AudioKit within a playground has been made much easier. Download and unzip the starter playground here.

Admittedly, the first step on your journey isn’t all that exciting. There’s some basic plumbing required in order to use AudioKit within a playground.

Open the AudioKitPlaygrounds.xcodeproj file in Xcode . Click the + button in the bottom left-hand corner of the Navigator view. Select the New Playground… option, name it Journey, and save it in the Playgrounds folder the other playground files are stored in.

Your newly added playground will compile and execute, and look like the following:

AudioKit Tutorial - GeneratedPlayground

Replace the Xcode-generated code with the following:

import AudioKitPlaygrounds
import AudioKit

let oscillator = AKOscillator()

AudioKit.output = oscillator



This project will fail unless you build the project at least once using Product / Build, or ⌘-B.  Once built, run the playground again and you’ll hear your playground emit 10 seconds of a beeping sound. You can use the Play/Stop button at the bottom left of the playground window within the Debug Area to stop or repeat the playground.

Note: If the playground fails to execute, and you see errors in the Debug Area, try restarting Xcode. Unfortunately, using playgrounds in combination with frameworks can be a little error-prone and unpredictable. :[

Oscillators and the Physics of Sound

Humans have been making music from physical objects — through hitting, plucking and strumming them in various ways — for thousands of years. Many of our traditional instruments, such as drums and guitars, have been around for centuries. The first recorded use of an electronic instrument, or at least the first time electronic circuitry was used to make sound, was in 1874 by Elisha Gray who worked in the field of telecommunication. Elisha discovered the oscillator, the most basic of sound synthesizers, which is where your exploration will begins.

Right click your playground, select New Playground Page, and create a new page named Oscillators.

Replace the generated code with the following:

import AudioKitPlaygrounds
import AudioKit
import PlaygroundSupport

// 1. Create an oscillator
let oscillator = AKOscillator()

// 2. Start the AudioKit 'engine'
AudioKit.output = oscillator

// 3. Start the oscillator

PlaygroundPage.current.needsIndefiniteExecution = true

The playground will emit a never-ending beep — how, er, lovely. You can press Stop if you like.

This is much the same as your test playground that you created in the previous step, but this time you are going to dig into the details.

Considering each point in turn:

  1. This creates an AudioKit oscillator, which subclasses AKNode. Nodes form the main building blocks of your audio pipeline.
  2. This associates your final output node, which is in your case your only node, with the AudioKit engine. This engine is similar to a physics or game engine: You must start it and keep it running in order to execute your audio pipeline.
  3. Finally, this starts the oscillator, which causes it to emit a sound wave.

An oscillator creates a repeating, or periodic signal that continues indefinitely. In this playground, the AKOscillator produces a sine wave. This digital sine wave is processed by AudioKit, which directs the output to your computer’s speakers or headphones, which physically oscillate with the exact same sine wave. This sound is transmitted to your ears by compression waves in the air around you, which is how you can hear that annoyingly sharp sound!


There are two parameters that determine what the oscillator sounds like: its amplitude, which is the height of the sine wave and determines how loud it is, and its frequency, which determines the pitch.

Within your playground, add the following after the line where you created the AKOscillator:

oscillator.frequency = 300
oscillator.amplitude = 0.5

Listen closely, and you’ll hear the sound is now half as loud and much lower in pitch. The frequency, measured in hertz (or cycles per second), determines the pitch of the note. The amplitude, with a scale from 0 to 1, gives the volume.

Elisha Gray was unfortunately beaten to the patent office by Alexander Graham Bell, narrowly missing out on going down in history as the inventor of the telephone. However, his accidental discovery of the oscillator did result in the very first patent for an electronic musical instrument.

AudioKit Tutorial GrayPatent

Many years later, Léon Theremin invented a slightly strange musical instrument that is still used today. With the eponymous theremin, you can change the frequency of an electronic oscillator by waving your hand above the instrument. If you have no idea what this instrument sound like, I’d recommend listening to Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys; you can’t miss the distinctive theremin sound in that track!

You can simulate this effect by adding the following code to the end of your playground:

oscillator.rampTime = 0.2
oscillator.frequency = 500
AKPlaygroundLoop(every: 0.5) {
  oscillator.frequency =
    oscillator.frequency == 500 ? 100 : 500

The rampTime property allows the oscillator to transition smoothly between property values (e.g. frequency or amplitude). AKPlaygroundLoop is a useful little utility provided by AudioKit for periodically executing code in playgrounds. In this case, you are simply switching the oscillator frequency from 500Hz to 100Hz every 0.5 seconds.

You just built your very own theremin!

Simple oscillators can create musical notes, but are not terribly pleasing to the ear. There are a number of other factors that give physical instruments, such as the piano, their distinctive sound. In the next few sections you’ll explore how these are constructed.

Colin Eberhardt


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