Stephen Kay
Keyboard Wizard
by Gary Eskow

New York Giants football fans know Westfield, N.J., to be the home of benched quarterback Dave Brown. Westfield, which boasts street after street of turn-of-the-century masterpiece single-family homes, perennially pops up on lists of America's most desirable communities. That's where designer/singer/engineer/software developer Stephen Kay makes his home, and his living.

Back in the late '80s, before the synth/sampler/jingle equation came to mean squashed budgets and little room for inventiveness, sound design had not yet split off from the art of composing a solid hook. Music houses were on the prowl for technical wizards who could also compose, but few engineers had the commanding keyboard technique and composing skills to balance out their button-twirling abilities. Kay does it all, as I found when I called on him at his home studio, which is built in a refurbished church.

Kay became part of the project studio phenomenon early. In 1986, he bet the whole roll on a Fairlight Series III sampling system. The next year found him in Minneapolis turning out a library of mainly orchestral sounds for the Sound Genesis library. This experience recording and editing a high-quality set of samples became the foundation for his burgeoning career. Also during this period, Kay turned out compositions under his own company, Technisound. Among his hits were the main themes to NBC's 1989 coverage of Wimbledon and the French Open.

In 1990, Kay began working with Korg Inc., as a consultant. He provided programming, sampling and wave editing for inclusion in the 01/W, X5DR, I Series and Trinity synths. He also composed demos for all of these units, many of which were praised in product reviews.

When Mix stopped in on Kay, he was working on a software program he calls KARMA (Kay Algorithmic Real-time Music Architecture). "When I was asked to create demo sequences for Korg products, part of my job was simply to blow people away with the sounds themselves and what could be done with them," Kay says. "One of the problems I'd come across revolved around the limitations of trying to execute a convincing guitar strum, for example. That's difficult to reproduce from a keyboard. Because I'm fascinated with these challenges, and because Korg was asking for something different, I'd spend hours and hours figuring out how to get the most realistic-sounding guitar strumming effect or harp glisses."

During our interview, Kay demo'd a beta version of KARMA. He called up a harp sound and played a chord on the keyboard. Out came a cascade of harmonically correct notes. Sounds like an arpeggiator, right? Well, to a point, but KARMA is actually far more advanced than its early ancestor.

KARMA gives the user control over a maximum of six generation modules, all of which contribute to the overall effect. The harp gliss offers an insight into what users will ultimately be tapping. "Most arpeggiated harp glisses end up sounding lame because they don't take into consideration the fact that a harpist will begin the right hand gliss before the left hand completes its stroke. KARMA allows you to control exactly when the second hand comes in, the direction of the strumming, and with a controller set to modulate tempo, say, you can speed up or slow down the gliss in real time."

While working on Korg's I Series--he received two patents for his work--Kay started programming in Opcode's MAX language. "Five years ago, I hadn't written a line of code. MAX, which lets non-programmers write MIDI programs, eased me into things. I now use C for all of my work on KARMA, but MAX was indispensable to me."

The only regret this multithreat musician has is that the demands of turning out product for manufacturers like Korg, combined with his work bringing KARMA to market (he targets early '98 for both the software version and a stand-alone unit aimed at non-professionals who want to jam with MIDI files) leave little time for composing and recording his own material. But you can check in with Kay and his work on KARMA by e-mailing him at

Gary Eskow is a freelance musician, producer and writer based in New Jersey.

These materials copyright ©1998 by Intertec Publishing