WebAudio Basics

by Peter N. Wood

Next Step 1: Canvas Basics
Last Updated: 8 Jan, 2018

WebAudio API is a handy way to generate audio and play audio files using JavaScript. It's a few years old now, and pretty well-implemented on the web; the only notable exceptions are Safari, which requires a vendor prefix, and Internet Explorer, which doesn't work at all (no surprises there). Check out caniuse.com for a comprehensive compatibility list.

I've learned about how WebAudio from a variety of articles on the web, some of which are a little outdated. I'd like to share what I've learned as a series of tutorials and keep it reasonably up to date. I'll include links to the excellent Mozilla Development Network (MDN) documentation, and several articles I found useful. I'm going to start here under the assumption that you, the reader, have a working knowledge of JavaScript and the developer's console in your favorite browser, but no experience with WebAudio. We're starting from square one.

We start with a new AudioContext object. We only need to instantiate one: it provides us with methods get the data and generate the nodes we need to do everything from creating an oscillator to playing audio through your device's speakers, headphone jack, or what have you. It isn't enough to just call the AudioContext constructor: first, we have to account for lazy Safari and incapable Internet Explorer. There are different ways to handle this, but whatever way we go, we have to fall back on webkitAudioContext for Safari and account for the total absense of the API.

var audio;

if (typeof AudioContext !== 'undefined') {
  audio = new AudioContext;
else if (typeof webkitAudioContext !== 'undefined') {
  audio = new webkitAudioContext;

I typically include WebAudio as part of a game or some other application where it's not strictly required, so I like to allow the audio context to be null quietly. If you're application requires audio, inform your user in a polite, non-invasive way; try to avoid a clunky alert() popup if you can. Also, be aware that some versions of Safari will throw an error if you try to instantiate AudioContext; I found a few articles that used an approach similar to the following, but that will invariably cause issues for some Safari users.

// Don't do it this way
var audio = new AudioContext || new webkitAudioContext;

Next, we're going to create some audio nodes. WebAudio uses the AudioNode object as a base class to build more specific nodes; that gives them several methods, properties, and events in common, but the connect method is all we need right now. We'll start with an oscillator node. An oscillator is the easiest way to generate sound; it simply wavers or “oscillates” at a particular frequency, which your speakers imitate, thus generating a tone.

In WebAudio, we create an oscillator node, connect it to the audio context's output audio.destination, and start the node. WebAudio includes its own timing system, in lieu of the often misused setTimeout. The currentTime property is a number in seconds, and it's important we use it as our starting point, otherwise the stop call might occur before the oscillator starts. Also, if we pass no value to start, the oscillator will start as soon as the method is called.

I recommend you turn down your volume if you try this, especially if you wear headphones. The WebAudio oscillator is pretty loud.

var oscillator = audio.createOscillator();
// AudioContext gives us the device's audio output

// Schedule stopping the oscillator
oscillator.stop(audio.currentTime + 0.1);

Play Tone
By default, the oscillator generates a sine wave at 440 Hz, concert A above middle C. We can change the oscillator's wave with it's type property, which is a string: sine, triangle, square, or sawtooth. Try the different waves and hear what they sound like.

The oscillator's frequency property is an AudioParam object. All AudioParam objects have a value and a few methods to alter that value. We're going to start with setValueAtTime. It takes two parameters, the new value, and the time, in seconds, when to change to that value. Let's make our oscillator use a sawtooth wave at 220 Hz.

oscillator.type = 'sawtooth';
oscillator.frequency.setValueAtTime(220, audio.currentTime);

Play Tone
You'll notice the sawtooth wave is even louder than the default sine wave. Let's do something about this high volume. We can pass our oscillator through a GainNode and reduce it's gain value to lower the volume. Instead of connecting the oscillator straight to the device output, we connect it to the GainNode, and connect that to the output. Note that the GainNode has a gain AudioParam whose value we need to change.

var oscillator = audio.createOscillator();
var gain = audio.createGain();
gain.gain.setValueAtTime(0.1, audio.currentTime);


oscillator.stop(audio.currentTime + 1);

Play Tone
Now the oscillator is much quieter. Gain ranges from 0 to 1, where 0 generates no sound. You'll notice that every time we stop an oscillator, and sometimes when we start one, we get an awkward click sound. We can avoid the click if we start the oscillator at zero gain, quickly ramp the gain to whatever value we need, and then back to zero before we stop. Luckily, we have linearRampToValueAtTime and exponentialRampToValueAtTime to help us. The exponential ramp is more pleasing to the ear, but it can't ramp to zero because it uses the target value as a divisor (can't divide by zero). For the quick changes we need to remove the clicks, linearRampToValueAtTime will do just fine. It's important to note that the ramp methods will only work if the setValueAtTime was previously called on that AudioParam; it establishes when the ramp will start, while the ramp functions can only set when the ramp will end.

// Start gain at 0 and ramp 0.1 over 10 milliseconds
gain.gain.setValueAtTime(0, audio.currentTime);
gain.gain.linearRampToValueAtTime(0.1, audio.currentTime + 0.01);
// Ramp back to zero starting 10ms before the oscillator stops
gain.gain.setValueAtTime(0.1, audio.currentTime + 0.99);
gain.gain.linearRampToValueAtTime(0, audio.currentTime + 1);

oscillator.stop(audio.currentTime + 1);

Play Tone
There you are! Try playing around with the four wave types, the ramp functions, and playing multiple oscillators at once. Check out the links below for more info on WebAudio, as well as some cool tricks you can use. I'll be writing another tutorial soon!

— Peter N. Wood

Next Step 1: Canvas Basics


MDN WebAudio API documentation
Blog on Audio Synthesis in WebAudio by Chris Lowis
Generating Noise with WebAudio from noisehack.com