KARMA’s Creator Talks About Its Second Generation in 2005

By Lorraine Kay

For the past four years the Karma Workstation containing KARMA technology has been considered a must-have piece of gear for most serious EM musicians. But last month KARMA’s creator, Stephen Kay, was on hand at the NAMM Show 2005 to unveil the new and improved KARMA that Korg has integrated into its new OASYS Open Architecture Synthesis Studio with all the best of the best synthesis engines.

Speaking of the entire machine Kay said, “Right now the OASYS is simply probably the most advanced keyboard available in the world. It’s a new generation of stuff. It’s running on a Pentium 4 fast chip, running a custom Linux based OS system proprietary software that has been optimized for real time.  And it’s completely open architecture so that means that we can add anything to it because its just software. So what Korg is selling with the OASYS is, of course, the hardware system and the software combination.  But the fact that it’s open architecture means that it’s pretty much infinitely expandable.  I know that everybody says that every year – that their products are infinitely expandable but this may be the first time that it’s actually true.”

According to Kay, Korg has gone the extra mile to improve on every product that was already amazing including Karma Worskstation. “The OASYS is so much better. The digital – analog conversion is better.  The frequency response is better. The components are better.  It’s a Cadillac. it’s a BMW. It’s a Mercedes.  Everything else is like a Ford. You can get there in a Ford but it’s faster it’s more fun to get there in a Mercedes.”

            Korg designed OASYS to provide a full set of audio production

tools to the demanding musician, and to reflect the changing nature of today’s music making process. OASYS brings together advanced MIDI sequencing, 16-track audio HD recording, a flexible MIDI control surface, a CD burner, studio quality effects processing, second-generation KARMA technology, along with three of the world’s most powerful synthesizer engines into one single instrument.

            To equal the advances presented by the new product, Korg encouraged Kay to expand the KARMA engine integrated into the OASYS. According to Kay, one big advancement in the OASYS is the expansion and standardization of KARMA. “I developed the KARMA technology, which is an algorithmic note generation technology.  If you have to compare it to anything its like an arpeggiator. But its like if you took four of the best arpeggiators you could find and fed them steroids and injected them with acid and maybe gave them an adrenaline shot at the same time.  Something like that but it’s really not an arpeggiator.  But people need something to compare it to – a lot of people are familiar with arpeggiators. It’s an algorithmic note generation technology. You play chords into it and musical stuff comes out that you can record.  You can manipulate it in real time.  You can randomize it.”

“KARMA is parameter based so whatever it’s going to generate at a particular moment is based on the settings of the parameter,” he continued. “You just change one number and you could change the entire outcome of the bass line.  It might be a completely different rhythm.  It might be a completely different set of pitches that come out.  It is infinitely more variable.”

Since its introduction four years ago, Kay and Korg admit that they have learned a lot of things about the technology and how people want to use it. The outcome of their education was the KARMA version in the OASYS.

Kay explained how the changes in KARMA are improvements “One of the main things that was difficult about the Karma Workstation was that we essentially didn’t set any rules when we created the Generated Effects (GEs) for the programs and combis.  Every single patch is different. And so it is very flexible that way but it is also confusing to try to use because little is the same from patch to patch. So in this version we’ve standardized everything.”

“I created 13 Real Time Control Models, which specify that a particular generated effect is going to be hooked up to the controls in a particular way – so switch one always does the same thing no matter which drum groove or bass line you call up.  So you only have to get familiar with it one time and then you can apply that knowledge quickly to nearly every other patch with the same type of GE. That’s a big usability advance and a major improvement.”

The other major improvement is the fact that in the Karma Workstation when you go into combi mode or sequence mode you had four modules you can work with and one set of real time controls that controlled the whole thing.  It was sort of limited once you got to that four-module level.  But in the OASYS, we’ve now got five layers to the interface. First of all we have a larger control surface so we’ve now got 16 real time controls that go into each KARMA module.” 

“We’ve also got eight scenes on a per module basis. So you set up these 16 real time controls, however you want and that’s a scene. And then you set them up completely different and you store it and that’s a different scene. So for each module there’s 16 real time controls.  You switch to your drum module and all of the controls feed into the drums.  You switch to the bass module – all 16 of the controls on the front panel are now controlling the bass.  You switch to the guitar – they’re all controlling the guitar.  It’s much more powerful because you got individual control over each module and much more intuitive because it’s all standardized.” 

“And then you’ve got a master layer on top of those four layers that says which scene in each of those layers is selected. That makes a whole matrix of 40 scenes all controlled from the master level of the combinations.”

“So, when you think about it, the Karma Workstation had 10 real time controls and two scenes and you could make a lot of music with that. The OASYS has essentially 80 real time controls feeding into KARMA and 40 scenes in one combi.  It’s like 5 – 10 times the power of the implementation of KARMA that’s in the Karma Workstation.”

Already the new advantages of the new KARMA version seemed like a lot but Kay was not finished as he described another important upgrade. “Another thing that is new in this version is a feature called KARMA Wave Sequencing.  Standard wave sequencing as introduced by KORG and the WaveStation is also part of the OASYS. But  KARMA Wave Sequencing is a little different take on that.  Inside a keyboard like this there’s a bunch of waveforms – piano waveforms, bass waveforms, and drum waveforms – the things that make the sounds.  Wave sequencing allows you to sequence and switch between the wave forms.”

According to Kay, with KARMA Wave Sequencing, “you play a chord and KARMA is generating notes.  But you add KARMA Wave Sequencing on that and each note of that phrase can be a different waveform.  So the first note could be a bass, the second note could be a flute, the third note could be trumpet, and the fourth note could be a cymbal.  It’s very whacky and very cool.”

“And probably the other main new feature in KARMA for the OASYS is what we call note remapping and that basically is a huge table that comes at the end of KARMA’s note generation like a 128 by 128 grid. It allows you to map any incoming note to a different outgoing note or remove it completely.

Let’s say you’ve got a drum groove playing a snare and a high hat.  You can take the high hat and remap it to the ride cymbal.  You can take the snare and remap it to a side stick and you’ve created a variation on the groove – and this can be turned on and off in real time.” 

“We’ve supplied a number of global note map tables that do things like that to drum grooves.  They make variations on your original groove.  They switch the kicks and the snares around so you get different kicks and snares.  They remove the snare and substitute a tambourine, which is a popular variation.  Things like that.”

“And then there’s also a custom note table in each combination.  You can set it up anyway you want.  Remap the drums. Let’s say you call up a drum groove and you love it – it’s the coolest thing you’ve heard except the programmer put this one stupid sound in there, that’s just going “yip”, “Yip” every two beats.  You can just go right in and remove that sucker.  You figure out that it’s an Eb5 and you take the Eb5 and set it to remove. Or you remap it to a cabasa or something non-offensive – very useful.”

“You can also apply note maps to melodic things because you can keyboard track the note map. Let’s say you play a chord on KARMA and you like the bass line that’s being generated.  But you play a major seventh and you don’t like the fact that there’s a major seventh note in the bass line.  You would prefer if it stuck on the root.  So you can go in and remap all of the major sevenths to the root.  And whatever goes in will just come out with the root instead of the major seventh.  So that’s also very useful.

Of course KARMA isn’t doing all the work in the OASYS. KARMA is just one powerful facet of a multi-faceted machine. Built around Korg’s new flagship PCM-based engine OASYS is designed to deliver a level of realism, fidelity and sound quality that is a new milestone for a professional musical instrument. It contains three complete synthesis engine algorithms: the HD-1 High Definition PCM synth fueled by 616 MB of uncompressed wave ROM that exceeds CD audio quality plus two EXi Expansion Instruments – the AL-1 Analog Modeling Synth and the CX-3 Modeled Tone wheel Organ.

Korg’s Combination (Combi) structure – introduced nearly 20 years ago in the M-1 – has been expanded, now allowing up to 16 programs to be split and layered across the keyboard. In addition to providing more sound elements, this means that Combis can be set up and saved as complete 16-part MIDI sequencing templates for use with an external sequencer and computer DAWs. Now users can freely combine programs from the HD-1, AL-1 and CX-3 engines to create new textures, or to zone, layer and velocity-switch multiple sound in a single keyboard set-up. The enhanced OASYS Combi mode now offers a powerful Tone Adjust feature, providing real-time control over 33 parameters of each timbre, so each of the 16 sounds can be edited in context without affecting the original programs. And with up to 172 voices to work with, OASYS has more than enough horsepower to cover all the bases.

For technology to be beneficial, it must remain accessible. Highlighted by a 10.4” color Touch View display, the front panel features a vast array of assignable control elements – pads, sliders, joysticks, knobs, ribbon, etc… all designed to provide effortless fingertip control. And while OASYS is a world unto itself, it can still play nice with others. The back panel offers a wealth of analog and digital inputs and outputs, including USB 2.0.

            Truly the Cadillac of keyboard workstations to date, the only thing that needs to be added is the imagination and creativity of the user. The advancements of the KARMA technology alone open the door for recordings and performances never before possible. The OASYS should be available in the next couple of months and can be ordered on-line or through retailers selling pro-equipment.