In After Effects, you don't get real time audio playback by hitting the spacebar.
In fact, the Spacebar doesn't give you real time anything
To play back audio in real time, you need to press the dot (.) in the numeric keypad, or go to Composition > Preview and choose one of the audio preview options.
To have visual content and audio playing back in real time, you need to build a RAM preview first. Press the 0 key in the numeric keypad, or go to Composition > Preview > RAM preview. AE will start processing the timeline and show a green progress bar. When it covered the part you want to preview, interrupt it by pressing any key and it will start playing.
so i am gonna have to create my graphic then ram preview to see if it syncs.
even if its not real time, is there a way of inching the TL so that you can hear particular elements to sync to? or is that all waveform marking?
Use the marker method Todd was referring to. It works reasonably well. Anotehr method would be the use of expressions such as illustrated in Dan Ebberts' tutorial. You could e.g. apply the code to a simple solid that flashes on and off and allows you to visually verify cues. Similarly, tools like Trapcode Soundkeys added to a dummy helper layer can make things easier, reitehr directly by using their keyframing or just as a visual guide.