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TuneYard is a lightweight gem providing a Sonic Pi remote, and letting you embed snippets like their provided examples inside any arbitrary Ruby code. My intention is to use this to power an upcoming Iron Yard class project that I’m particularly excited about, but let me know if you have something else in mind; I’d love to support more general use.

Big shout outs to Sam Aaron for developing Sonic Pi and Overtone, all the Sonic Pi contributors for all their work, and tUnE-yArDs for the naming inspiration and development soundtrack.


As mentioned last time, I’m taking a bottom-up approach with my next Ruby class. Brit1 and I have been batting around concepts for a large project focusing on understanding controllers, and came up with one that I can’t wait to try out. The rough idea is to have students pair off and create a script-instrument to play a server-song.

There are a few things that I find really exciting about this project:

  • Controllers are really hard to practice with in isolation, since we often think of them as the glue that connects models and views. If we rule out rendering views, what can we do? Well, we can make sound.
  • I’ve been listening to some John Luther Adams lately, and will be working on a piece with a nod to The Place Where You Go to Listen, changing sounds based on data pulled from external APIs.
  • Sonic Pi is an amazing project, and I’m hugely excited about the work they’re doing on the educational front. I’d love to be able to contribute to that effort.
  • It helps dispel that pernicious “Ruby is only good for Rails” mindset.
  • It’s just cool.

Exploring Sonic Pi - An After Action Report

I was completely unfamiliar with the internals of Sonic Pi before starting on this (other than having used SuperCollider and Overtone a bit in the past). What follows was my process in exploring it. It almost certainly isn’t the smartest. Get at me with how you’d do better.

Where Are We?

I started off by doing a standard OSX install of Sonic Pi from dmg, which installs everything to /Applications/Sonic

/Applications/Sonic ⊩ tree -L 2
├── Contents
│   ├── Frameworks
│   ├── Info.plist
│   ├── MacOS
│   ├── PkgInfo
│   ├── PlugIns
│   └── Resources
├── app
│   └── server
├── etc
│   ├── doc
│   ├── examples
│   ├── samples
│   └── synthdefs
└── server -> app/server

A little poking through the app directory and I landed pretty quickly on a few items of interest: the library code in server/sonicpi and the scripts in server/bin - especially server/bin/sonic-pi-server.rb, which looked to be a potential entry point.

sonic-pi-server.rb appears to spin up an OSC server. Fortunately, I was somewhat familiar with those after an abortive attempt at getting scruby up to date 2. So my rough game plan at the moment is: verify that this code is actually what’s running, then try to reverse engineer the OSC messages, and write my own client to produce similar messages. That plan didn’t really hold up, but it was a reasonable place to start.

Inspect What You Expect

First things first: we need some way of inspecting code in-flight. Were this a standard command-line app, I’d pry liberally, but since this is a standalone application, it’s trickier. remote-pry might be an option, but I’m not really sure how the bundled Ruby interacts with rbenv or where to install it, so let’s start with something more basic: logging. Again, I have no idea where a puts would end up (if anywhere), but can rig up something:

# In app/server/bin/sonic-pi-server.rb
def _log text"/tmp/log", "a") { |f| f.puts text }
_log "Here. We. Go."
_log "Program name: #{$PROGRAM_NAME}"
_log "Path: #{__FILE__}"

Now we can tail -f /tmp/log and start up the Sonic Pi app and see:

Here. We. Go.
Program name: /Applications/Sonic
Path: /Applications/Sonic

So, confirmed: the app runs this script directly.

Aside: at some point, I realized that ~/.sonic-pi/log was a thing and started tailing that as well, which was helpful but not essential.


Next up, let’s see what messages we’re passing:

def osc_server.dispatch_message msg
  _log "osc_server got message: #{msg.address} / #{msg.to_a}"
  super msg
def gui.send_raw msg
  _log "gui send_raw: #{msg}"
  super msg

Aside: did you realize you could define methods on individual instances this way? (Hint: think about the def self.stuff class method pattern.)

With that message logging in place, and after an app restart, we can poke around the GUI and see what messages are fired. Really, we want to figure out what happens when we click “play”, since that’s what we want to be able to replecate (but with our own Ruby injected). There are some /load-buffer and /exit calls, but the magic looks to be /save-and-run-buffer:

osc_server got message: /save-and-run-buffer / ["workspace_one", "use_arg_checks true #__nosave__ set by Qt GUI user preferences.\nuse_debug true #__nosave__ set by Qt GUI user preferences.\nloop do\n  sample :perc_bell, rate: (rrand 0.125, 1.5)\n  sleep rrand(0.1, 2)\nend", "Workspace 1"]

That’s certainly the “song” that I’m composing in the GUI, along with some other information, so we’ll investigate there further.

Aside: as best I can tell, the gui.send_raw calls are just to feed results back to the GUI. We can support that guess by commenting it out and noticing that the in-GUI log doesn’t update any more.

Eval’ing Buffers - A Closer Look

Digging into the /save-and-run-buffer handler, it looks like the magic is in

sp.__spider_eval code, {workspace: workspace}

where code is the code in the window buffer (plus the use_arg_checks and use_debug lines), and workspace is the workspace name (a string), as we can confirm by log_ing. So maybe there’s a more direct approach here: rather than using OSC to pass messages, maybe we can __spider_eval things ourselves.

Looking over the definition of sp, it looks like we should be able to extract the business logic to something like:

class Player < SonicPi::Spider
  include SonicPi::SpiderAPI
  include SonicPi::Mods::Sound

p = "localhost", 4556,, 5,
sleep 1 # just being defensive about race conditions
p.__spider_eval %{
use_arg_checks true #__nosave__ set by Qt GUI user preferences.
use_debug true #__nosave__ set by Qt GUI user preferences.
loop do
  sample :perc_bell, rate: (rrand 0.125, 1.5)
  sleep rrand(0.1, 2)
}, workspace: 'Workspace 1'
sleep 2

If we include that near the top of the server script, we get a couple pleasant chimes every time Sonic Pi boots (and an unresponsive UI because sleeps, but hey, it’s a start).

Sure enough, once we figure out how to require the referenced internal Sonic Pi libraries, we should be able to extract all this to an external script. Take a peek at the gem implementation if you’re curious about that bit.

The Perils of Eval

So, we’ve got good progress (boops!), but we’ve got eval problems.

First off, we’re calling __spider_eval with a literal string, which isn’t terribly user friendly. That’s an easy enough fix using sourcify and some string munging.

The more confounding problem is that - unless we rewrite the Sonic Pi internals (which I have neither the clout nor wisdom to do) - we’re going to call eval(code, nil) somewhere deep inside of __spider_eval (in app/server/sonicpi/lib/sonicpi/spider.rb) and such an eval won’t close over variables. So … what can we do?

Warning: gross hack ahead. We want to be able to locate variables and functions that are in scope when the song block is defined, but they aren’t present when we eval on our Player instance. So, let’s “define” them on the player.

Metaprogramming is like violence: if it doesn’t solve your problem, you aren’t using enough of it.

class Player
  def run &block
    @_outer_block = block.binding
    __spider_eval block.to_source(strip_enclosure: true), workspace: __FILE__

  def method_missing name, *args
    if @_outer_binding.local_variable_defined? name
      @_outer_binding.local_variable_get name
      @_outer_binding.send name, *args

It’s certainly not perfect (instance variables, for instance), but it’s Good Enough™ for an afternoon hack - and is at least fairly simple and short.


The finished (well, not finished finished, but useable) product is available on RubyGems and Github. I’ll be building on it in class and pushing improvements as I do. Let me know if you’re using this for a project; I’d love to get some idea of what to support, and to have an excuse to dig into Sonic Pi further and extract out a gem properly down the road.

1) My dear friend and colleague, who can be found on the internet, the Twitter, and teaching Rails at the Iron Yard in Atlanta.

2) The original scruby looks pretty solid, if a bit heavy on global state and metaprogramming. Ultimately, I decided leveraging and contributing to Sonic Pi would be a better use of time.

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James Dabbs



James Dabbs

Hustle bones comin' out my math

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