|Vol. 39 Issue 3 Reviews||Reviews > Products >|
|KYMA 7: The Search for the Ultimate Sound Creation Instrument|
Kyma 7 can be purchased from the Symbolic Sound Web site at http://kyma.symbolicsound.com. It first requires the purchase of a Pacarana or Paca sound engine and is US$ 249 (with discounts for those upgrading from a registered copy of Kyma X).
Reviewed by Barton McLean
For those younger readers who have been accustomed to take every new technological development in stride, it must be difficult relating to those of us who (in my case, since 1972) have composed on so many new creative toys with such promise, only to have this promise dashed as, like so many shiny new things, their limited capabilities contained the seeds of their ultimate demise. Sound-designing entities such as Moog, Arp, Serge, Electrocomp, Synthi 100, Fairlight CMI, Eventide, Yamaha, Wavemaker, Opcode, Digidesign, Apple’s Logic, MOTU, Serge, all once commanded the attention of the most adventurous electroacoustic composers and sound designers. They are now mostly either bankrupt or considerably muted, consigned to legacy adherents. The other survivors have gone strictly commercial, relying on stock, easily constructed sounds and techniques. I mention these in particular because they are the pathway through which I myself struggled, hoping for more than 40 years to find the instrument that could satisfy my creative needs. In the case of the Synthi 100 from the British company EMS, as director of the electronic studio at Indiana University-South Bend in 1972, Priscilla McLean and I, pioneered the introduction of this instrument in the USA. It had an innovative digital sequencer, and, as Wikipedia states, “The first classical electronic music LP album generated exclusively on the Synthi 100 was released by Composers Recordings, Inc. in 1975. Entitled American Contemporary-Electronic Music (CRI SD 335), it featured full LP side lengths of music by Barton McLean (“Spirals”) and Priscilla McLean (“Dance of Dawn”). Similarly, in 1980, as director of the Electronic Music Center at the University of Texas-Austin, I pioneered the first commercially available sampler in the USA, the Fairlight CMI (with direct waveform drawing on the screen). Out of this came the widely distributed LP on Folkways, Computer Music from the Outside In. In all cases, but particularly with respect to the last two, I made serious investments in time spent with the developers to forge systems that were musically feasible and intuitively accessible. But like so many of us in these early years, my journey was one of discovery, implementation, and then abandonment, as the limits of the particular sound vehicle became ever more apparent.
When the program Max came along, I thought for awhile that the ultimate instrument had been found. It allowed for much flexibility and power in designing one’s own personal instruments. With this software-based platform our electroacoustic duo The McLean Mix toured for a decade, performing many concerts and interactive installations. In fact Max designs are still prominently featured in our McLean Mix concerts, lectures, and installations. But this too became problematic for several reasons. First, it lacked the power to realize large-scale audio processing. It was also rather cumbersome to build instruments, since one had to do this from scratch. Third, it lacked a powerful library of prototype instruments from which one could borrow and build upon (it had plenty of prototypes, but they were at a basic, low level which had to be painstakingly assembled). Fourth, the program’s upgrades sometimes made prior projects obsolete, a major impediment for someone needing a seamless continuity between old and new projects. The program also demanded huge screen resources, and it lacked an adequate and inspirational written technical support system or educational tools. For all its merits, and they are many, I personally still longed for something better.
And so the reader will now appreciate the frustration with which the author was eternally searching for more than 40 years. I began hearing about Kyma at conferences, from colleagues, and online. The lack of processing muscle had always been the Achilles heel of electroacoustic systems. The few dedicated audio processing systems had hard-wired options with relatively little room for creative flexibility. But Kyma had a large, powerful engine called the Pacarana, which had four processors dedicated exclusively to realizing the audio that was organized via the host computer’s Kyma program. Even more revolutionary was the fact that the Pacarana was totally adjustable to whatever kinds of audio instruments one could dream up or find on the host computer’s Kyma program. You want five vocoders? You’ve got them. What about granular synthesis? You’ve got GrainClouds, SampleClouds, Multisampleclouds, in as many configurations and numbers as you want. In fact the Sound Prototypes include a mind-boggling array of just about any kind of synthesis or device you could ask for— additive, FM, granular, subtractive, spectral, aggregate synthesis, every kind of filter, morphing, delay, reverb, phase shifting, etc. One area generates sound files via Fourier, polynomial, or impulse response techniques (which are more accessible in Kyma 7 than they were in Kyma X). Another powerful tool is in the spectral realm, where an ordinary AIFF or WAV sample is converted into 128 or 256 sine waves (or any other waveform you choose) and is thus able to be manipulated in elegant ways such as changing speed independently of pitch and visa versa, or isolating a particular set of harmonics to transform the sound.
The important point here is that these are all ready-made prototypes that do not have to be painstakingly constructed. Using a building metaphor, the bricks have already been shaped into structures that have been pre-assigned appropriate doors, windows, and functions. All are easily accessible. In terms of building a sound from scratch, Max often requires significant time and effort to merely get to the point where Kyma already is with its huge collection of sound templates and examples. For example, I have assembled over 1000 Sounds (Kyma calls all sources for audio Sounds) during the past three years. Each of these Sounds could be compared to, say, a complete Yamaha TX 81Z (except that it would have infinite capabilities due to being customer designed) or any other hardware synthesizer, sampler, or processor. Imagine having literally thousands of these at your fingertips, and you will get an idea about what Kyma can do. Every kind of electroacoustic technique or instrument that I have ever seen is accessible through the huge inventory of ready-made instruments, which can then be combined with controllers added to achieve higher orders of sophistication. And so, the basic engine driving Kyma is the combination of a very sophisticated yet user-friendly computer interface communicating seamlessly with the Pacarana, which does the heavy lifting. I think I may have found my ultimate sound creation vehicle.
Since reviews and comprehensive summaries of the existing Kyma X system are so readily available via Google and the Symbolic Sound web site, I shall only briefly make some personal comments, saving the bulk of this article for the groundbreaking upgrade (really a new program) that is called Kyma 7. (Some of the earlier reviews mention the Capybara. Since then, Symbolic Sound has replaced the Capybara sound engine with the Pacarana, which boasts more power at less cost and lacks a MIDI interface.) A particularly comprehensive review of the old Kyma X worth reading was published in Electronic Musician, accessible from the Symbolic Sound web site. Assuming the reader has browsed one or more of these references, below are some general reflections on Kyma.
If I were to pick one outstanding Kyma feature above all others, it is its seamless integration of sounds or instruments with their placement vehicles in time (in Kyma, called Timeline and Multigrid). We have all experienced the frustration of working with Logic, MOTU, or other sequencer, only to realize that a particular sound being controlled sorely needs more editing. Traditionally one must break off the thread of continuity to open up the MIDI instrument’s software and make the changes without readily being able to hear this in connection to the whole sequence. This forced alternation between two or more software systems, or between a software language and a hardware device, is damaging to the extent that it disrupts the creative flow. In Kyma, there is really no distinction between a Sound and its placement in time. The individual Sound is actually part of the Timeline, and to edit it is a simple matter of opening it up from that Timeline (or Multigrid, which is explained later on), making the edit, closing the edit window, and resuming the work. It’s all one seamless process.
The second best feature is the sweet spot between having the highest level software language possible, consistent with the greatest variety and flexibility in producing sounds, processors, and controls. In my opinion, no other software design has come close to achieving this balance. Many companies have very high levels of software design, even higher than Kyma’s, but they come at a steep price, in that their hardware or software products and functions are fatally limited. I don’t know of any other sound engine that can simultaneous produce high-quality morphing, elegant sequencing, broad processing, frequency modulation, granular synthesis, Fourier transform, or other synthesis methods under complete control of all the parameters, including an infinite variety of controls (random, array, counter, logic, etc.). All these controls are easily accessible in a Timeline with a keyframe type control over each parameter as it progresses over time. Kyma achieves the kind of flexibility and breadth heretofore only available from lower-level languages like Csound, but without the tedium.
An obvious “oversight” and frequent topic of conversation about Kyma is the absence of a MIDI note-oriented sequencer, where MIDI values can control sound events in a traditional sequencer configuration using tracks. Although Kyma’s Timeline contains many of these functions, it does lack the ability to articulate notes in this traditional sense. This originally was puzzling to me, especially since a part of my whole orientation had been to compose works that could be seen in terms of individual sound events being controlled and unfolding over time via the MIDI sequencer. But as I delved deeper into making and controlling sounds in Kyma, I began to realize that one does not need a traditional sequencer. In fact moving away from notes and toward sounds was for me very healthy and invigorating.
Of course one can use processors and controllers in the Timeline, to broadly tweak one’s sound, and articulate individual notes in a sequencer-like manner. In Kyma one can use Prototypes, modify them or easily construct them from scratch, controlling values for every parameter, limited only by one’s imagination and Kyma skills. If one is still dependent on a traditional sequencer environment, Kyma can be controlled externally via traditional MIDI, as well as a host of live performance devices such as the Kyma Control for the iPad, Wacom Tablet, Continuum Fingerboard, or Osculator. Probably the reason why the Pacarana does not have its own MIDI interface is that so many of these external devices do have them, and communicate with the Pacarana via Firewire or USB. This considerably lowers the Pacarana cost.
Another attractive aspect about Kyma is its superb audio quality, thanks not only to the 24-bit resolution and high-quality frequency response and dynamic range, but also to the way Symbolic Sound has designed the software. More than any other similar system, Kyma is as glitch-free as I have ever experienced. Consistently, I hear the elegance by which they have eliminated potential grunges, clicks, and distortions. Simply put, it just sounds beautiful. Another legendary given about Kyma is the steep learning curve. Although Kyma allows for instant gratification and a gradual and reasonable path toward increased competence, the user does have to realize that there is a price to pay for all this good stuff, and the price is that one has to learn at least the basic operating language, or what they call “Capytalk.” Learning the language is the key to unlocking Kyma’s creative power. This language is not difficult, and in fact there are plenty of prototypes and Capytalk expressions that can be appropriated and placed into one’s own Sound, without knowing exactly how everything works in the expression. In fact, I do this all the time. As I gradually develop a deeper understanding of the Capytalk language, on a parallel course I develop an intuitive sense of where the interesting expressions are located in existing models, and shamelessly use them.
As an electroacoustic composer interested in creating fixed compositions, I realized that my relationship with Kyma would be long term. Consequently I decided to devote one year to first learning Kyma, mostly via its delightful, quirky, and sometimes maddening tutorial called “Kyma X Revealed.” Following this, I opened every single one of the hundreds of Prototypes and Sounds in Kyma’s extensive Sound Library, trying to figure out how each one worked, gradually copying those that I found compositionally interesting, and began modifying them. After about one and a half years I attained an intermediate level using Kyma, especially with regard to modifying sounds and expressions from existing Sounds, and had created a personal library of over 1000 Sounds. In Kyma, a “Sound” is considered anything that defines a Sound object, including a comprehensive shell, pointers to samples, all control expressions, vehicles for articulations, etc., all taken together being the equivalent of a whole synthesizer, sampler, or processor in its own right. About this point in time the McLean Mix received a commission for a video depiction of artist life in our small town of Petersburgh, New York. Collaborating with my wife Priscilla, who created the video, I composed a three-movement piece using Kyma Timeline and a group of local musicians called “Peter’s People.” This being my Kyma premiere, I did not employ many advanced techniques. This piece can be heard online at the New Music USA online library at http://library.newmusicusa.org/library/composition.aspx?CompositionID=350118
y latest, more “serious” Kyma composition is called “!metaSinfonica,” and it can also be found on the NewMusicUSA library page. Then, around 1 January 2015, Symbolic Sound asked me to be one of their beta testers for the new Kyma 7 upgrade. What follows is the result of some intensive work with the new program. After performing the user-friendly download procedure and following the step-by-step instructions, I was up and running. Kyma 7 is not a routine upgrade but a brand-new program with its own set of samples, Prototypes, Sound Library---in short, a full set of features completely independent of Kyma X, which can exist on the same computer as Kyma 7. In fact, I find myself occasionally alternating between the two programs (but not opened simultaneously). The caveat is that, once a Kyma X file is opened in Kyma 7, the software automatically upgrades it, rendering it inoperable in Kyma X if it is then saved (otherwise it’s safe). Even if one opens just one Sound from a Kyma X soundfile that contains many Sounds, every Sound in that Soundfile will be thus rendered forever inaccessible to Kyma X, if it is saved. The good news is that, in my explorations, virtually every Kyma X Sound can be opened and continued in Kyma 7, including Sound files and Timelines. Kyma 7 is completely forward (but not backward) compatible in all aspects. Since Sound and Timeline files take such little memory, it is a small matter to make a copy of all your files created in Kyma X and place this folder into the Kyma 7 folder, so that these files can be opened and used in Kyma 7 without compromising the original Kyma X files. And there’s more good news. The memory-hungry Kyma X samples do not need to be copied and pasted, thus they can be left in the Kyma X folder where they can be accessed in turn by either program.
At first glace, the program’s screen graphics are much more refined and visually interesting than Kyma X. Virtually every part of the program has been significantly changed, both visually and functionally. The Inspiration window (new) automatically opens with eight broad categories for the user to explore. As you move the mouse over these categories, a different ethereal ghost-like Sound emanates from each category, providing one of many such delights as one progresses through the program. Although there is no exact equivalent to the 420-page Kyma X tutorial magnum opus “Kyma X Revealed!” which guided novices and experts alike through the labyrinthine pathways of Kyma, there resides what I think may be something even better. First, there are elegant and informative video tutorials describing every facet of Kyma 7, with extremely high production values. There is a concerted effort here to progress more logically from the simple to the complex (sometimes in Kyma X the help areas were more frustrating than helpful). Many new areas of help have been added, such as the amazing Capytalk Reference area, wherein you click on a Capytalk message (such as “gateWhen”), which opens a full and readable description.
But the most useful part of the help areas is that they are followed by many Sound examples that contain the given message in different usages, followed by similar examples from the Kyma Sound Library. If you don’t completely understand the reasoning behind a message, Kyma gives you enough information and examples that you can copy and paste into a Sound that has similar functions. In other words, you really don’t need to understand every aspect of Capytalk in order to use it effectively. You just need to have an intuitive sense of where the messages and expressions are located and in what contexts to use them.
The first six categories in the inspiration Window, opened at startup, are the key to all the new features. The first category, Getting Started, includes some simple hints to immediately produce sound and explore the Sound Libraries. It includes an inspirational Vimeo video entitled “Sons de jour,” which describes a new feature that daily, randomly selects Sounds from the Prototypes or Library windows and invites you to play them by pointing the mouse, clicking to select the Sound, and pressing the space bar to play. This is a great exploration tool. The accompanying User Guide is a simple, nine-page introduction to getting around with Kyma 7. This guide, a big improvement, is a model of clarity.
The second category is called Searching. It contains another video and user guide showing how to search for Sounds. The Sound Browser, a successful Kyma X feature, has a new look and includes more powerful search features. Although the user guide is a bit confusing and unfocused, the basic functionality of the Browser is so well designed that one should have little trouble figuring it out. This feature is essential to survival as you accumulate more and more Sounds, samples, Multigrids, and Timelines, and it can be set up so as to browse through both your Kyma 7 and your Kyma X folders.
File Editors and Galleries is another category. The Wave Editor in Kyma X was already pretty good. One could copy and paste samples, trim and configure simple fade ins and fade outs, normalize, and generate waveforms. But the Wave Editor in Kyma 7 alone, in my opinion, would be worth the cost of the upgrade. The sample edit area improvements are many, and include a full-featured box to select modes, modifications, looping, and playback areas, all elegantly depicted in a visually attractive shell. Particularly notable is a feature that automatically selects points where the sample could be cut without any clicks or glitches. The waveform generators, which were primitive in Kyma X, have been drastically upgraded so that they can be made with Fourier, polynomial, impulse response tools. But this is just the beginning. One can take any sample and produce a Gallery of many distinct Sounds from it, using criteria set up beforehand. Each Sound is accessible and playable, and able to be saved. Kyma uses random algorithms to supply hundreds of compatible Sounds, and places them in your Browser for further exploration. Utilizing the Grid (a special instance of the Multigrid, to be explained below) each newly created Sound is randomly sent to a processor and then to a reverb unit, providing a complete sonic gestalt. All this is automatic, depending on criteria set up beforehand. No Capytalk knowledge is necessary unless one wishes to modify the Sound. The video for this area is truly stunning and inspirational.
Other editors include the Tau Editor, Spectrum Editor, and Sound Editor. I have not personally done much with the very elegant Tau concept, and so don’t feel qualified to comment on it, except that, as expected, it has a fine user guide and video tutorial. I have found the spectrum editor to be invaluable. It is possible to take a sample and easily convert it into an Oscillator Bank or Sum of Sines (or other spectrum file) having 128 or 256 sine waves, thus rendering it accessible to modification, say, by treating pitch independently of rhythm, or modifying certain harmonics from a sample. I have used this feature considerably.
The Sound Editor is really the heart of Kyma. It is where you develop a new Sound or modify an existing one. Everything you do in Kyma involves a Sound in some way or other, and all Sounds follow the same basic protocols. Sound in Kyma is a combination of source (sample or waveform), basic controls (frequency, trigger/gate, loop, start/end index, envelope), processing (filter, vocoder, spectrum modifiers, resonators, delays, reverb, pitch shifting, etc.), mixing, output controls (panning, level), and may contain many other entities as well. Initially, there is a vast Library of Sounds to deal with. But unlike Kyma X, here the Library is much better organized. Each category is defined by function, rather than, haphazardly, by the date of its release. Every Sound has been redone and optimized. New categories, such as “Teaching Demonstrations” have been added. In addition to the Sound Library, there is another vast resource of Sound Prototypes from which to draw. These are fixed and cannot be altered, but can be copied and edited. Attractively, most of the Prototypes are associated with a complete Sound pathway, so that when one opens a prototype one can immediately hear it in context.
Although the basic functionality of the Sounds is the same as Kyma X (a reason why Sounds from Kyma X are compatible), a big improvement resides in the peripherals and their help features. The Parameter Sidebar displays the various parameter fields more efficiently, and the fields are more easily opened to show the complete expression. The Parameter Assistant mimics the services of a tutor at your disposal, in that when clicking on a parameter field (and then the “i” button) a huge collection is displayed of expressions that can be used in that particular field, by simply dragging the expression into the field. There is also a mammoth Capytalk message reference in the form of a pull-down menu, with many examples and directions for each message. In terms of the Sound’s Virtual Control Surface, brought forward every time a Sound is activated, there is a completely new, smooth look. At any time during play it is now possible to activate an Oscilloscope or Spectrum Analyzer to look at at what’s happening in the Sound. The icing on this ‘cake’ is a feature just added to the Prototypes. Kyma X users may have occasionally been flummoxed by the function of a particular Prototype Sound, especially those that only had sparse information about how to use it apart from its specific example. Not any more. When you click on a Prototype Sound and pull down the “Examples” menu, a dedicated Search window appears with all of the Galleries of Sounds containing the usage of that Prototype, not only in the Prototype area but also in all the Libraries (including those the user has created). What is missing from Kyma 7 is the tutorial approach of the massive “Kyma X Revealed” manual, but with all of these guides, plus a 200-page user guide that serves as another reference, I will not miss it. Although I will miss Kyma creator Carla Scaletti’s sense of humor that peeks out of “Revealed” every so often.
The Timeline is the main vehicle for horizontal placement and control of Sounds over time into a graphic box, superficially resembling the traditional MIDI graphic sequencer with tracks, keyframe controls, routing, playback in a set timeframe, etc. What’s different about Kyma is that the track boxes depicting the Sounds are not instructions for playing notes (as in a MIDI sequencer) or depictions of audio files (as in Pro Tools). Rather, they are instructions for activating whatever Sounds are present vertically at the cursor point. This requires some hands-on experience. But in the three years of composing with Kyma, I have never once longed to be able to play a MIDI note, because the other options for richness of sound control in Kyma are so powerful. The Kyma 7 Timeline is perhaps the area most resembling the old Kyma Timeline. Even here there are many improvements to be found. Foremost is the improved layer menu where a Sound’s parameters can be made live and played or its parameters recorded. In Kyma X when the Timeline became long and complex, the layer menu became overloaded with hundreds of Sounds and Sound layers from which one had to choose the one Sound being worked on. Now, these layers have been thankfully stripped and the relevant Sound is easily accessed. Another new feature is called “embedding.” When Sounds are combined (such as in a mixer) in a Timeline or Multigrid, the Virtual Control Surface shows each Sound separately in its own distinct box. This embedding can be turned on and off at will, and one can seamlessly click between them. Other improvements include the automation menu, now with twice the number of options, and the much faster Timeline compilation, resulting in less time used between loading and playing Sounds. Enhanced time editing is also new. You can divide time, or insert time, and the Sounds and control-functions automatically slide to the right, or left, of the cut or insertion.
Perhaps the most innovative and startling new feature, in the Multigrid, is the vertical equivalent of the horizontal Timeline. Both use the same Sounds, but whereas Sounds in the Timeline progress predictably over time, with time-varying parameters that are set and editable, the Sounds in the Multigrid exist together, and can be played simultaneously. As the user guides states: “Imagine a Timeline with multiple tracks, submixes, and multiple Sounds in each track. In your mind’s eye, rotate the Timeline clockwise by 90 degrees and imagine that, instead of proceeding from Sound to Sound linearly in time, you can jump to any Sound at any time (whether it is a source or an effect), with no interruption in the audio signal: that gives you the basic idea of the Multigrid. A Multigrid can contain multiple Tracks that play simultaneously (through a Mixer). Each Track can contain multiple Sounds, that play one at a time, whenever you select one of them (with optional crossfading from one to the next). Like the Timeline, each Track can be routed to one or more submixes, and each Track can take an audio input of any number channels (either a live input or a submix).”
As a composer who often uses texture and timbre as prime constituents, I have found the Multigrid to be powerful enough that it has, in effect, changed the way I hear and think about music. The ability to quickly introduce and change Sounds that interact with each other, affords the possibility of creating a new kind of composition: a Multigrid composition where there is no one correct path toward realization, but rather where all options are constantly open for exploration and control in a live situation. It is also a profound laboratory where one can experiment in order to find Sounds that work, or don’t work, together. Additionally, when one finds a particularly good Sound combination, there is a Sound extraction mode where, instantaneously, this combination can be converted into a traditional Kyma Sound, with all of its parameters and routing controls intact, to be used in a Timeline. This capability is truly magical and unprecedented.
But there is more, much more. Upon playing the Multigrid, one has an elegant Virtual Control Surface that displays all of the Sounds, plus a mixer and a grid control that allows the selection of Sounds and fades, as well as algorithmic control that, if so chosen, can alternate between Sounds in a given track at time intervals specified by the user. Speaking of the Virtual Control Surface, at all times during playback, each track’s Sound displays its own preset, which can be opened, expanded, and tweaked during playback. At the top of the Virtual Control Surface is a series of buttons that instantly select various display modes. Like the Timeline, each Sound in the Multigrid, when the Multigrid is saved, becomes the property of the Multigrid and not the original Sound file, and can be opened and edited apart from its original, just like any other Sound.
This illustrates another, perhaps the most relevant feature of Kyma 7, namely, total integration. By this I mean the compatibility of Sounds between all platforms including Kyma X and Kyma 7 (forward compatibility only), as well as the fact that Timeline and Multigrid share the same protocols for editing and realization of the Sound. There is also the total integration of Sound editing and help areas, available in several areas including the inspiring new video tutorials, user guide, parameter field help, and Capytalk reference. And finally there is the integration of the Kyma X Sound Library folders, which had been somewhat unfocused in their topics but have now been transformed into a totally logical set of folders integrated as to specific function.
I have heard it said, jokingly, that you have to be a little crazy to be a part of the Kyma world. There may be some truth to that, but as for purchasing Kyma 7, you would have to be crazy not to.