Friday, 27 April 2018

Shaping sounds... with good KARMA

One doesn't normally start a music technology-related piece with a (for all the wrong reasons) alleged and memorable expression from a former president... However, KARMA is perhaps one of the most "misunderestimated" technological innovations out there...

Some have asked recently in some synth groups whether KARMA is basically an arpeggiator of sorts. Well, that might be just one ice crystal on the tip of an impressive iceberg... and as KARMA has many modes, generated effects, and quite some depth of parameters, a number of its capabilities are exemplified below with some techie elements, too.

Korg KARMA workstation
KARMA (Kay Algorithmic Realtime Music Architecture, named after its inventor Stephen Kay) has had its debut on the Korg Karma music workstation. Latter has been used by Peter Gabriel, Rick Wakeman, Vangelis, Herbie Hancock, to name just a few...

Subsequently the technology was incorporated in flagship workstations like the Korg M3, OASYS, Kronos, but also as separate software app that can be used with e.g. the Yamaha Motif series synths, too.

Well, while it can be used as an extremely powerful and quite unprecedented generator of musical accompaniments, it has modes (or in proper KARMA terminology, generated effects or GEs) that possess some really dazzling capabilities.

True, it generates MIDI events basically - but  one must not think of MIDI events just in terms of musical notes. KARMA can actually control many aspects of the sound, hence it can actually be a powerful sound design tool, too. It is at its most powerful when integrated closely with the synth, so that coupling between the user interface (think of M3 or Kronos's panel of sliders and switches) and what it controls is tight.

Many of its GEs can create complex musical sequences whilst monitoring what one plays. The myriad parameters, which one can have real-time access to, elevate the resulting melodic and percussive lines far beyond the stereotypical and often robotic arpeggiator outputs. Real-time control of note randomisation, swing, generated pattern complexity etc. can give the resulting sequences a surprisingly human feel.

The fact that vast sets of parameters can be organised into so-called "scenes", and transitions between these can be done instantly while playing, means that user can build up different sections with helpful assistance from KARMA.

This clip shows some examples by Stephen Kay, with KARMA scenes and controls on the Korg M3. Some  subsequent clips are taken from the net, but unashamedly from one's own tracks, too, where at least one knows exactly what was done with KARMA settings and why...

The areas where KARMA really starts to cross into a whole new realm is where its GEs create realistic imitations of how some instruments are played. Hammered dulcimer can be played with stunningly realistic action, as a section of this clip illustrates on the Kronos workstation - and one has fine control over how that hammer action shapes and decorates the resulting sound.

Similarly. KARMA can imitate strumming and specific ways of playing ethnic instruments with typical phrasings - from guitars to sitar. There aren't many things as annoying as a sitar or a koto that sounds like a keyboardist played it on a keyboard with some sitar or koto samples... KARMA's assistance in performing realistic triggering of notes and phrases of even fiendishly difficult instruments can be quite surprising.

However, one is very free to apply such KARMA modes or GEs to eminently different things - try run a "gong roll" effect on the decay parts of a piano sound for instance, stand back and admire what happens - a pulsating ambient texture unfolds.

The harmonic "modes" or GEs are hard to describe until one hears the effects. Not only they create chord structures, but also they can subtly alter and move notes, creating shifting textures. The exemplified section of this track was created with a  modified Korg M3 combi, which uses subtle KARMA movements that slowly shift and decorate the ambient music-like textures.

Often the MIDI events are so rapid and subtle, that they do not actually fully trigger notes - but their effect on patches can be quite interesting. Some of the so-called "pad holder" GEs used with, one can guess, pad-type sounds can really move and blend things, creating interesting sonic textures.

One can unleash KARMA effects on patches that benefit from gated GEs and such, the MIDI control events ending up moving and shifting the sounds in ways that can give countless ideas in sound design, too.

Korg M3 workstation
This clip shows two Korg M3 modules connected together, and a lot of inventive custom programming allowing the improvisation to benefit from touchscreen controls changing parameters, while KARMA is creating the ambient sonic textures.

One, perhaps not every day used, ability of KARMA surfaces when one has the audacity to use a certain mode or GE for something entirely different compared to what it was actually meant to be used for.

Why not use something intended for a piano chord frenzy on a rich choral patch to create some interesting motions and atmospherics? The first section of this track inspired by Cordoba Cathedral is an example of this.

Or why not use gated GE to move some sounds around? Opening part of this track and the main motif uses this to add a lot of animation, as certain patches can react quite pleasingly to the KARMA controls (instead of merely hearing e.g. a panning effect).

KARMA ticking along with different scene settings while one builds up a largely improvised track can result in immediately usable results, for example a track dedicated to the Hubble space telescope has had the percussion and bouncing background patterns entirely created with KARMA scenes, which were set up before the improvisation session started. Clean up the result, add some ambiental intro and outro... and there it is.

Speaking of improvisations, the middle section of this semi-ambiental and new age-ish track was set up with two KARMA modules ticking along and playing calm inter-twined motifs on sitar patches... while improvisation could be layered on top.

Wave sequencing is also an area where the technology can create real time controllable sonic magic, if the synthesizer controlled by KARMA can do wavesequences - as exemplified in this clip . Latter  shows the KARMA software that can be used on a computer, while it controls the connected synth, if latter has no built-in KARMA.

Can KARMA be used to bridge musical traditions several centuries apart? Well, yes, two of its modules with real-time controls provided backdrop and the electronic swells for a track that used a theme by John Dowland (Flow My Tears, 1600) and projected it into the sci-fi atmospherics of a Philip K. Dick-inspired album project.

The eternal discussion can ensure of course: what percentage of human input is at work, and how much is done by the algorithms...

Well, perhaps one is biased after years of interesting idea-triggering KARMA experiments, but the fact is that what makes the technology perhaps so non-obvious is actually its greatest strength: it has myriad, truly myriad, parameters one can set up and control also in real time.

So the human input cannot be ignored in setting up the desired KARMA scenes and the parameters of each. Even custom GEs can be created at will... As any tool, this, too it can be used for mechanical results or something human and creative. The difference is in the user, not the tool...

True, once it is set in motion, it runs along the human player, monitoring what is being played on the keyboard or in the incoming MIDI information set to trigger it. So one can forgive some beliefs that it is "just" a complex accompaniment generator.

However, the delimitation line between the human user and the tech at his fingertips is a very blurry one. Even mere step sequencers and arpeggiators in the right hands (think of Tangerine Dream's or Klaus Schulze's trailblazing and mind bending sequencer jams) can be astonishing creative and performance tools.

KARMA is light years beyond step sequencers and arpeggiators... so with all the philosophical doubts and debates one might have, we cannot consider it a robotic add-on in the creative or performance processes in studio or elsewhere.

Like everything else, it can be used for utter robotics, sure... but one can only blame one's own affinities and imagination if rigid patterns are the only things coaxed out of this technology...

Korg Kronos workstation with latest incarnation of KARMA technology

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