KYMA 7 and a Search for the Ultimate Sound Creation Instrument

by Barton McLean


For those younger readers who have been accustomed to take every new technological development in stride it must be hard to relate 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 sound design 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 commanding the attention of the most adventurous electroacoustic composers and sound designers, 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, always hoping for 40 + years to find the instrument that could satisfy my creative needs. In the case of the EMS Corp. Synthi 100, as director of the electronic studio at Indiana University-South bend in 1972, we pioneered the introduction of this instrument in the USA with its 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. Called "American Contemporary-Electronic Music" (CRI SD 335), it featured full LP side lengths of music from 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 (also with direct waveform drawing on the screen).  Out of this came the widely distributed LP on Folkways, “Computer Music for  the Outside In.” In all cases, but particularly in the last two, I made serious investments in time spent with the developers in forging systems that were musically feasible and intuitively creative. 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 MAX/MSP came along, I thought for awhile that the ultimate instrument had been found, in the way that it allowed for such flexibility and power in designing one’s own personal instruments, and with this software-based platform our electroacoustic duo The McLean Mix toured for a decade, performing concerts and interactive installations. In fact MAX/MSP designs are still prominently evident in our McLean Mix concerts, lectures, and installations.  But this too became burdensome for several reasons:  it lacked the power to realize large-scale audio processing; it was rather cumbersome to build instruments since one had to do it from scratch; it lacked a powerful library of prototype instruments from which one could could borrow and build (it had plenty of prototypes, but they were at a basic low level of bricks which had to be painstakingly assembled);  its upgrades sometimes made prior projects obsolete, a major impediment for someone needing a seamless continuity between old and new projects; and it lacked an adequate and inspirational written technical support system and educational tools. For all its merits, and they are many, I personally still longed for something better. 


And so the reader can hopefully appreciate the frustration with which I was eternally searching for 40 + years.  I began hearing about Kyma at this conference, from that colleague, and online.  The lack of processing muscle had always been the achilles heel of electraoustic systems. What dedicated audio processing there was consisted of basically hard-wired choices with relatively little creative flexibility. But Kyma had this mega powerful  engine called the Pacarana which had 4 processors dedicated exclusively to realizing the audio that was organized via the host computer’s Kyma program.  Even more revolutionary was the fact that this 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 5 vocoders — you’ve got ‘em.  How about granular synthesis?  You’ve got grain clouds, sample clouds, multisampleclouds, and as many 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 hugely more accessible in Kyma 7 than they were in Kyma X). One extremely powerful tool is in the spectral realm, where an ordinary .aiff or .wav sample is converted into 128 or 256 sine waves (or other waveforms as 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 is that these are all ready made prototypes, ready to go, and do not have to be painstakingly built up.  The bricks have already been shaped into structures which have been given appropriate doors and windows and functions.  All are easily accessible.  To just give you an idea of what I’m talking about—I have to date (been doing this for 3 years now) assembled over 1000 Sounds (Kyma calls everything a Sound. Each of my 1000 + “Sounds” could be compared to, say, a complete Yamaha TX 81Z (except that it would have infinite capabilities of being customer designed) or any other hard synthesizer or sampler or processor.  Imagine having literally thousands of these at your fingertips at will.  Every conceivable kind of electroacoustic technique or instrument that I have ever seen is accessible through the huge inventory of readymade instruments, which can then be combined with controllers added to achieve ever higher orders of sophistication.  And so, the basic engine driving Kyma is the combination of a really sophisticated and user friendly computer interface communicating seamlessly with the Pacarana, which does the heavy lifting.  I think I may have found my Ultimate Sound Creation Instrument.


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 which 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 worth reading is from Electronic Musician.  Assuming the reader has browsed one or more of these references, here are some general reflections on Kyma.  

If I were to pick one Kyma feature above all others, it is its seamless integration of Sounds/instruments with their placement vehicles in time (in Kyma, called Timeline and Multigrid).  We have all experienced the frustration of working with a Logic or MOTU or other sequencer, only to realize that a particular Sound being controlled needs more editing.  Traditionally one must break off the  thread of continuity to open up the MIDI instrument’s software and make the change 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 interrupts the creative flow.  In Kyma, there is really no distinction between a Sound and its placement vehicle 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 -- more later on this Kyma 7 innovation), making the edit, closing the edit window, and resuming the work.  It’s all one seamless process. 

My second best feature is the sweet spot between (1) having the highest level software language possible consistent with (2) the greatest variety and flexibility in producing Sounds, processors, and controls.  In my opinion, no other software designer 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/software products and functions are fatally limited.  For example, I don’t know of any other high level Sound engine that can simultaneous produce highest quality morphing, elegant sequencing, broad processing, Fm, granular, fourier transform or other synthesis (for example) all under complete control of all the parameters, including an infinite variety of random, array, counter, logic, etc. controls, all easily accessible in a timeline with a keyframe type control over each parameter as it progresses over time. In other words, you have the ease of a very high level software you can nonetheless manipulate with the flexibility of virtually any device or parameter that you can imagine.  Kyma achieves the kind of flexibility and breadth heretofore only available on a lower level language like cSound without the tedium.  


An obvious “oversight” and frequent topic of conversation about Kyma is the absence of a MIDI note-oriented sequencer, where MIDI notes can control Sound events in a traditional sequence configuration with tracks, etc.  Although Kyma has its timeline which produces 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 and 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 the timeline to structure broad gobs of Sound, processors and controllers in the timeline, as I continue to do, with the driving force in articulating individual notes becoming instead all the various types of sequencers (you can use the prototypes, modify them or easily dream up your own via the use of simple “expressions”) which actually become empty vessels from which one can pour all sorts of controlling activities for every parameter, only limited by one’s imagination and Kyma skills.  If one is still dependent on the traditional sequencer, then 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 that 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.


Other Kyma legends abound, such as its superb audio quality, not only in the 24 bit resolution, frequency response, dynamic range, and virtually any other measurement, but also in the way Symbolic Sound has designed the software.  More than any other similar system, Kyma is as glitch free as I have ever seen.  Over and over I hear the elegance by which they have eliminated potential grunges, clicks, and distortions.  It just Sounds beautiful to work with.  Another legendary given is the steep learning curve.  Although Kyma allows 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 of what they call “Capytalk.”  Learning the language is the key to infinite creative power.  This language is not difficult, and in fact there are plenty of prototype and other examples where one can just lift a Capytalk expression and place it in one’s own Sound without exactly knowing how everything in the expression works.  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 a street smart intuitive sense of where the interesting expressions are in existing models, and shamelessly use them. 


Personally, as an electroacoustic composer creating fixed compositions, I realized when I began Kyma that it would be a long term relationship.  Consequently I decided to devote one year to first learning Kyma, mostly via its delightful, quirky, and sometimes maddening tutorial called “Kyma X Revealed,” and then opening up every single one of the hundreds of prototypes and Sounds in its extensive Sound library and trying to figure out what made them tick, gradually copying those that I found compositionally interesting and modifying them.  After c. 1 1/2 years I had a pretty good intermediate skill of getting around in Kyma, especially in modifying Sounds and expressions from existing Sounds, and had created a personal library of over 1000 Sounds (in Kyma, a “Sound” is 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).   At that point we received a commission for a video depiction of artist life in our small town of Petersburgh, NY, and so I composed a 3 movement piece in a timeline using local musicians called “Peter’s People.”  Being my Kyma premiere, I did not go that far out in using the more advanced techniques.  This can be heard here (this takes you to the NewMusicUSA online library.  Click “search,” and enter “Barton McLean Peter's People”).  The YouTube video from which it is derived can be seen and heard here.  My latest, more “serious” Kyma composition is called !metaSinfonica, also found on the NewMusicUSA Library page. 

And then, around the first of January, 2015, Symbolic Sound asked me to be one of their beta testers for their brand new Kyma 7 upgrade.  What follows is the result of some intensive work with the new program. 

Continued:  What’s New in Kyma 7


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