Keyboard has
soul of a musician

by Tom Moon


Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA)
August 7, 2001
Section: FEATURES MAGAZINE
Edition: CITY-D
Page: D01
Memo:On Music

At first, nobody listened to Stephen Kay's ideas for making synthesizer music sound looser and more organic.

He'd go to music trade shows, chat up equipment manufacturers, set up demonstrations of his software in hotel rooms. When he got people to pay attention at all, the response was less than enthusiastic.

"People weren't exactly blown away by it," Kay says, recalling the early '90s, when he began to develop the technology at the heart of a radical new keyboard, the Korg Karma, which reached the market in January (2001). "It was in a rudimentary state. At that time it was nowhere near what I was going for in my head."

The indifference didn't deter Kay, a keyboardist who, when he wasn't gigging around New York in his progressive-rock band, made extra money by programming instrument "voices" for synthesizer manufacturers. He continued to work on his KARMA software, which stands for Kay Algorithmic Realtime Music Architecture, on his own. He taught himself computer programming. Investigated research into artificial intelligence.

For seven years, he ate and slept anything that might help him program a particular kind of soul into his new machine. "I became obsessed," Kay, 45, says of the intricate details that went into the instrument's hundreds of drum patterns and string glissandos.

"In the middle of it, I turned 40 and realized I wasn't going to get the record deal I thought I was going to get. Things took off when I decided to stop chasing the dream and apply what I'd learned [as a keyboardist]."

In the long quest to refine his technology, Kay - who now licenses his technology to Korg - had no institutional support. "I was financing my life and the development of KARMA on 10 or 12 Visa cards." He had trouble explaining the approach to corporate types, but by 1998, when the project got "really good," KARMA began to explain itself.

Kay's basic idea was simple: Working from a musician's perspective rather than an engineer's, he built a keyboard with ideas and atmospheres that could change, even a little bit, as they went along.

"Most keyboards, even the expensive ones, you hit a key and that's what you get. The groove or the sound doesn't go anywhere. I was hoping to create something more human, something that could move around, that you could control. I wanted an instrument to generate stuff I wouldn't think of myself."

The Karma - which allows the user to create elaborate environments (celestial tinkling, foreboding techno) as well as the sound of individual instruments - may be the most important innovation in synthesizers since the Yamaha DX-7 came along in 1983. Rather than deliver exactly what you expect, the exotic-looking maroon keyboard, which retails for $2250, offers a range of possibilities. With the twist of a knob, a simple chord can become a babbling cascade of notes that loop endlessly. A locked-down funk pulse can morph, ever so gradually, into a loose go-go-style swing. Watching musicians explore the Karma, you can practically see the lightbulbs illuminate over their heads: at last, a keyboard that allows the user to shape the specifics of a sound, down to the tiny details such as how often the high-hat cymbal is hit.

Philadelphia native Michael Sembello, the songwriter and producer whose hits include "Maniac," says the degree of control is one of the things that charmed him about the Karma. "I haven't been this excited about a musical instrument since I tried to learn the sitar in the '70s."

Sembello, who recently returned to Radnor after years in Los Angeles, says he's using the Karma's guitar sounds on projects for NBC Sports and other clients. "The programming of it is so deep: All you need is some idea of where you want to go musically, and from there it throws all kinds of options at you."

The Karma has been embraced by a variety of musicians - techno artists, jingle writers, film-score composers. Even Phil Collins has one. Korg won't release sales figures, but if the rave reviews in keyboard magazines and postings on Internet bulletin boards are any indication, Kay has a hit.

And unlike other inventors, he's not walking away from it: Kay is actively helping musicians use and understand the Karma. He answers questions on a Yahoo user's group about the instrument and maintains a Web site (www.karma-lab.com), with an extensive set of frequently asked questions, to augment Korg's product support.

Kay says he spends two hours a day responding to queries, and though that may change as he immerses himself in his next project - a home-computer version of KARMA - he has come to regard the Internet as the best way to spread the word about his creation.

"When I first went onto the site, there was so much misinformation, it was clear that people just didn't understand the keyboard. A lot of guys in my position think they're too busy, or there's a scare factor of getting involved with people. I'm using it as research: I'm curious about what actual people who are buying the keyboard are discovering. And that's cool, because there's a lot to discover inside it. I certainly haven't exhausted it yet."

Copyright (c) 2001 The Philadelphia Inquirer. All rights reserved.