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electronic MUSICIAN

KORG KARMA

By David Battino | August 1, 2001

Click here to access filesreferenced in this article

After unleashing the Triton proX, winner of the 2000 EMEditors' Choice award for keyboard synthesizer, Korg probably couldhave coasted for a few years. The obvious next step would have been toplay the specs game, repackaging the Triton technology with moreoscillators or sample ROM and a snazzy new name.

Instead, Korg tripled the Triton's CPU power but left the provenaudio engine, devoting the additional mojo to a sophisticated MIDIprocessor that redefines how the synth interacts with its player.There's also good news for those who haven't been able to afford aTriton: Korg shaved $750 off of the new instrument's retail price bytrimming some features many musicians won't miss.

The result is a monster of a keyboard called Karma. Playing itreminds me why I got into electronic music: the Karma provides thatmagical combination of instant gratification and enormous potentialthat makes you want to jam until your fingers fall off.

If you've seen the Karma and dismissed it as a mondo arpeggiator ora hip auto-accompaniment keyboard, you're wrong. Arpeggiators simplyspit out sequences of notes, whereas the Karma shapes those notes inreal time to reflect what you're playing, altering tempo, Velocity,filtering, and more. For example, the Karma's Magic Flute Combigenerates trails of pulsating, arpeggiated echoes from each note youplay in the top three octaves of the keyboard. When you change thechord in the bottom two octaves, the flute echoes automaticallytranspose to fit. Flick the joystick, and a percolating guitar arpeggioin the lower region transforms into a strum.

Auto-accompaniment keyboards also alter their prerecorded riffs inresponse to chord changes, though generally just by making simpletranspositions or riff substitutions. The Karma can trigger riffs too,but they can be altered in real time by MIDI or set to evolveautomatically. The latter option makes the Karma similar to algorithmicsoftware such as SoundTrek's Jammer or PG Music'sBand-in-a-Box, except that Karma doesn't make you input chordprogressions first.

KARMA SUTRA

Although it looks reddish in many photos, the Karma is actually anattractive pinkish purple (see Fig. 1). The center section ismade of brushed aluminum, and the end caps are plastic. A plastic doorat the top left pops open to reveal two sockets for Korg's growingrange of EXB-PCM sample-ROM expansion cards ($240 each). The door feelsflimsy, but you probably won't be opening it often. Nonetheless, thedoor makes adding expansion cards easier than with the Triton. Comparedwith the Triton, though, the Karma's back panel is short one pair ofassignable audio outputs (see Fig. 2).

A slot on the underside of the Karma accepts the EXB-MOSS card($600), a physical-modeling synthesizer board derived from the Korg Z1.Except for the KARMA Real-time Controls section (eight knobs and threeswitches that control the MIDI processor), the rest of the knobs andswitches are functionally equivalent to those on the Triton, thoughmore of them have assignable functions. The Karma also includes fourilluminated Chord Trigger buttons.

If you've used Korg workstations in the past dozen years, you'llrecognize the Karma's logical, menu-driven screen layout.Unfortunately, the instrument comes with four densely written manuals,which, in combination with an often cryptic display, make learning touse the Karma slower than necessary. However, Korg posted searchablePDFs of the manuals on its Web site, and the Karma user-group site hasmany helpful tips (see the table “Online Karma”).

The Karma easily loaded the Triton patches and songs I downloadedfrom Korg's Web site and transferred to disk. (In Korg's nomenclature,patches can be one- or two-oscillator Programs or multi-ProgramCombinations [Combis] that contain as many as eight Programs arrangedas splits, layers, or multitimbral sequencer templates.)

Loading Triton patches revealed how much the Karma's real-time MIDIprocessor enhances its sound. All the Triton patches come up with ageneric arpeggiator preset, whereas Karma's versions of the samepatches are complex, dynamic symphonies of sound that twist and evolveunder your fingertips.

TRITON TRUE?

Before I get into the nitty-gritty of what makes the Karma unique,it's important to describe the differences between the new instrumentand its progenitor, the Triton. (See the January 2000 issue or visit www.emusician.comfor a Triton review.) The relative importance of the Karma's missingfeatures versus the power of the new MIDI-processing capabilitiesdepends on your needs as a musician.

Sampling. The Triton offers stereo sampling, and its audioinputs can be used for real-time signal processing. The Karma providesno sampling or sample importing. Because so many music styles depend onsampling, I wish the Karma had a flash RAM slot and could importsamples from a computer.

Outputs. The Triton has six analog outputs to the Karma'sfour. But with the Karma's flexible routing and high-quality effects,two fewer outputs are not that much of a disadvantage. (The effects areidentical to those on the Triton.)

Interfacing. The Triton has a serial MIDI interface to aMac or PC and the option to install a SCSI port; the Karma has neither.However, without sampling capabilities, the Karma would gain negligiblebenefit from SCSI.

Display. The Triton's touch-sensitive display is 320 by 240pixels, whereas the Karma uses the same 240-by-64 screen as theTriton-Rack. The smaller display is frustratingly cramped and cryptic;some letters are only 3 by 4 pixels. Unlike the Triton-Rack, the Karmahas navigation buttons that are so distant from its data-incrementbuttons that you have to use both hands to make adjustments.

Keyboard. The Triton is available in 88-, 76-, and 61-keyversions (as well as a rack-mount model), but the Karma comes only in a61-key configuration. The Triton's Yamaha action is crisper than theFatar action on the Karma. I thought that would bother me, but I becameused to the Karma keys quickly. However, the Karma's Aftertouch is abit squishy.

Power supply. The Triton's power supply is internal; theKarma has a line lump.

Ribbon. The Triton has a ribbon controller, and the Karmahas a boatload of performance knobs and switches, giving it theadvantage.

Arpeggiators. The Triton has dual polyphonic arpeggiators.The Karma has the vastly more powerful MIDI-processing technologycalled Kay Algorithmic Real-time Music Architecture (KARMA).

GIMME A KAY

Korg licensed KARMA from musician and programmer Stephen Kay, whohas been refining the software for seven years; he's won six patents sofar. Kay is also the creator of some brilliant factory demos for Korgsynths dating back to the O1/W. He developed KARMA to assist in his owncompositions.

At the heart of KARMA are 1,190 Generated Effects (GEs), algorithmsthat transform the notes you play or changes you make to a knob, ajoystick, or another MIDI controller into new musical gestures. Forexample, if you play a three-note chord with the Spanish Gtr C6->Program, you hear it arpeggiated over two octaves. Move one finger to anew note, and depending on the note's Velocity relative to the previousVelocity value, the new arpeggio plays faster or slower, which is quiteexpressive. Release the chord, and the arpeggio slows down and fadesaway.

If you play some notes in the keyboard's top octave (above C6),their pitches are ignored, but each new key press advances the arpeggiopattern by one note. I spent hours playing the Program. While your lefthand grabs simple block chords, your right is free to control timingand Velocity; the result is less thinking and more expression.

The real magic comes when you apply Karma's other controllers to thesound. Each GE has more than 400 parameters, as many as 16 of which aremapped to the Karma's hardware controllers (see Fig. 3). Inthe Spanish Gtr Program, available parameters include Swing Percentage,Note Duration, Note Randomize, and Clock Advance. A Scene button letsyou store two sets of knob-and-switch configurations per Program andflip between them. So far, I've been describing Scene 2 of Spanish Gtr;in Scene 1, Clock Advance is disabled, so playing chords produces astrum rather than an arpeggio. Those control capabilities are inaddition to the familiar Triton knobs for filter cutoff and other soundshaping.

The eight knobs are laid out in two rows of four, but thecorresponding onscreen knobs are laid out in two columns of four. Thatarrangement took some getting used to. On certain GEs, some knobs areconfigured to switch among a small number of values; however, thedisplay doesn't indicate how many values are in the list, which makesit tricky to dial in precise settings. For example, Knob 3 might callup four snare patterns, but you will have to experiment to discoverwhich of them is active at the 12 o'clock position. I wish it werepossible to name the controller assignments myself; during performance,“Dive Bomb Amount” might jog my memory faster than“Bend End %.”

GE BRINGS GOOD THINGS

I mentioned some of what an arpeggio GE can do, but 14 additionalcategories of GEs include Keyboard, Bell/Mallet, Acoustic Mono, Ethnic,Guitar, Bass, Synth, Pad Motion, Sound Effect (SE), Gated, and DrumPattern. Because they're hooked into the synth engine, the GEs cancontrol pitch bend, LFO depth, envelopes, filtering, and more. The ideais to produce idiomatically correct instrumental parts, and generally,the GEs succeed. Adding KARMA to the normally tame Harmonica Programproduces fuzzed-out scoops and tonguing effects. In the Marimba Vel/ATProgram, high Velocities trigger mallet rolls, with Aftertouchcontrolling their tempo and volume.

You can run as many as four GEs in a Combi or song, making the Karmareally come alive. Some Combis are so rhythmically dense that they playthemselves, emulating jazz trios and progressive-rock jams. I mapped afootswitch to toggle KARMA on and off so I could catch my breath. Onother Combis, the accompaniments are more subdued. I happily playedDavid Gilmour esque solos on the New Breed of Gtr Combi while aKARMA-generated drummer improvised a backbeat and tom fills.Incidentally, several Karma factory patches are so loud that theydistort internally. Lowering the volume slider will fix that duringperformance; for a permanent repair, lower the Level slider on thePerformance Edit screen and resave the patch.

When it comes to animated synth pads, the Karma is a behemoth. Dialup the /\Gods Bathtub/\ Combi, walk your fingers up and down the ChordTrigger buttons, and you'll see what I mean. No synth since theWavestation has caught my ear that way. The Wavestation stood out in amix often too much because of its percolating textures, but the Karmamakes sounds that evolve timbrally and harmonically.

You might wonder what one-finger chord buttons are doing on aprofessional synth. The four Chord Triggers have some surprisinglyuseful applications. Each button can store a chord with as many aseight notes. You can enter the notes all at once or individually, whichmeans that you can capture spread-out harmonies that would beimpossible to play otherwise.

Korg provided appropriate chords for most Programs and Combis, whichmakes auditioning sounds a snap. Many preset chords feature lusciousharmonies. Whenever I found one, I called up the Note Activity screen,revealing the chord's name and the notes for an instant music-theorylesson (see Fig. 4).

The Chord Triggers are also handy for soloing, firing off difficultchord progressions, and preserving interesting harmonies you stumbleacross while improvising. By pressing the Latch button, you can free upyour left hand to operate the knobs and joystick while your right handwails.

BEYOND SEQUENCING

While playing the Karma, I repeatedly happened upon fortunate sonicaccidents, not to mention licks no human could play. Luckily, thebuilt-in 16-track sequencer makes capturing and developing such momentsreasonably convenient. You can copy a Combi to a song with four clicks,setting up eight tracks with the proper sounds and effects. (Strangely,copying a single Program to a song requires dozens of keystrokes.) Whenyou punch Record, the sequencer memorizes the notes and control datathat you and KARMA generate. Even spiraling harp glissandi show up inthe event list as editable notes.

Recording multiple GEs (such as a drum pattern, guitar strum, andbass line to accompany your soloing) requires you to arm multipletracks. There's a hidden danger, though, because enabling theMultitrack Recording mode arms all 16 tracks. The Karma's sequencerthen divides its available memory by 16 and then again by 2 to allowfor the Undo buffer. In this case, the 200,000 available MIDI eventsare suddenly reduced to just 6,250 per track. Because KARMA generatesso much MIDI data, you can easily max out the memory after 32 bars orso. If that happens, everything you've played since you last hit theRecord button is erased without warning. Even though previouslyrecorded data remains intact, the threat of unexpectedly losing a takein progress is a major annoyance. I wish that the sequencer displayed areal-time memory meter and saved recordings in progress.

The work-around is to determine which tracks need to record data andthen disable the rest. A slicker method is to turn the Local Controlparameter off and loop the Karma's MIDI output through an externalsequencer. The returning MIDI data then triggers the KARMA effects, andonly the notes you play and Control Changes (CC) you make are recordedin the external sequencer. To capture the whole shebang in the externalsequencer for detailed editing, leave the Local Control parameteron.

You can do some fairly deep editing in Karma's sequencer, which isidentical to the Triton's (with a less informative screen). You cantranspose pitch and scale the Velocities of ranges of notes (a handyfeature for remapping drum parts), quantize with variable intensity(though not with swing), create CC ramps, and more. A Pattern featureallows you to record single-track performances and quickly insert themat different sections in the song; Korg supplies 150 preset Patterns.The innovative Real-time Pattern Play/Recording (RPPR) feature lets youtrigger Patterns from the keyboard as a sequence plays.

THE BEST IS YET TO KARMA

After devoting seven years to KARMA, Stephen Kay isn't about to giveup. He and Korg are discussing the possibility of releasing softwarethat will let Karma users create new GEs. (The synth has memory tostore more GEs, but it will require an OS update to load them.)

Kay also hopes to release a standalone software version of KARMA(see Fig. 5), though it's hard to imagine how it willintegrate as tightly with a generic MIDI setup as with the Karmakeyboard. “It helps to have a flexible system like the Tritonsound engine, in which many things, such as the filter settings andvarious parameters of the insert effects, are controllable viaMIDI,” Kay says. “It also helps having an internationalteam of programmers spending more than a year creating all the GEs andCombis.”

I suggested that a standalone version might be tighter if itincluded a software synth or ran on Korg's OASYS sound card, and Kaywas receptive. “I have many plans for KARMA,” he says.“I'm already working on new features.”

Keep your eye on Korg's Web site for downloadable Karma OS updates.Users of Karma OS 1.0.2 or earlier should grab the latest version(currently 1.0.4), which fixes a sustain-pedal issue that eats uppolyphony. Updating the OS is easy; just download three files, transferthem to three floppy disks, and feed the disks to the Karmasequentially.

IS IT CHEATING?

I've heard the Karma described as “a beer commercial in abox.” I've also seen some discussions online about Karma leadingto the “death of musicianship.” I've come to believe theopposite is true. Yes, it is easy to get impressive-sounding resultsright away, but unless you make some effort, they'll start to soundstale pretty quickly. The Karma is meant to be played. You need to divein and wield those knobs to bring out its (and your) truepersonality.

I have read hundreds of posts from Karma owners, doubters, andcravers. Some have rejected the Karma because it doesn't have Tritonfeatures such as sampling and an internal power supply or because theydidn't grasp that KARMA is far more than a fancy arpeggiator. Thehappiest ones seem to be those who just let KARMA wash over them,building on its collaborative suggestions. One enthusiast wrote,“It's as if I had another musician to jam with who came up withsome cool, original ideas.”

Admittedly, the Karma has a few problems. As a workstation, it comesup a bit short; you'll need to add a computer or hard-disk recorder tocreate productions with vocals or instrumental overdubs. When I ran theKarma in tandem with my sampler, it added a whole new dimension ofrealism and character. However, if you have even basic keyboard skills,if you've been frustrated by the obstacles you need to overcome torecord your ideas, or if you don't mind getting a platter of new ideasdelivered every time you punch up a preset, the Karma is worth a closelisten.

I predict that thousands of open-minded musicians will be scoopingup Karmas. If you make the effort to master KARMA's real-timecontrollers, you'll be rewarded with an evocative yet personalsound.


By the time you read this, David Battino should be puttingthe finishing touches on EM's 2002 Desktop Music ProductionGuide, which storms the beaches on October 4.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

Korg
Karma
keyboard workstation
$2,250

FEATURES

4.0

SOUND QUALITY

4.5

EASE OF USE

3.5

VALUE

5.0

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Excellent, dynamic sounds. Astonishing interactivity.Expandable.

CONS: Cramped, confusing display. Exceeding sequencer'smemory limit erases data. Dense manuals. No digital-audio output.

Manufacturer

Korg USA
tel. (516) 333-9100
e-mail product_support@korgusa.com
Web www.korg.com

KARMA 'N GET IT

For exclusive Karma demos and royalty-free samples produced by KARMAcreator Stephen Kay, click on EM Links at the top of thisarticle.

Karma Specifications
Polyphony

62-note in single-oscillator mode; 31-note in double-oscillatormode

Multitimbral Parts

16

ROM/User RAM Programs

256 (GM2)/640 (768 with EXB-MOSS option installed)

ROM/User RAM Combis

0/768

Drum Kits

64

Sound ROM

32 MB (425 multisamples + 413 drum samples)

Filters

4-pole resonant lowpass; 2-pole combination lowpass/highpass

Effects Processing

(5) insert effects (102 types); (2) master effects (89 types); (1)stereo master 3-band EQ

MIDI Effects

(1,190) KARMA GEs, expandable

Sequencer

(16) tracks; (200,000) events; (200) songs; (150) preset/(100) userPatterns per song; 192 ppqn resolution; RPPR function

Keyboard

61-key; transmits Velocity, Channel Pressure

Controllers

(4) dual-function knobs; (2) switches; (1) joystick; (1) slider; (8)KARMA knobs; (2) KARMA buttons; (4) Chord Triggers; (1) Scene 1/2button; (1) Latch button; (1) Tempo knob

Audio Outputs

(4) ¼" unbalanced TS; (1) ¼" stereo headphone

Additional Ports

MIDI In, Out, Thru; (1) damper pedal; (1) assignable footswitch; (1)assignable footpedal

Storage

3.5" floppy drive

Dimensions

43.3" (L) × 4.7" (H) × 12.6" (D)

Weight

22 lbs.

Online Karma

Here are some of the best places to experience the Karma onthe Web.

TITLE

URL

FEATURES

Karma Discussion Grouphttp://groups.yahoo.com/group/korgkarma

Lively Karma forum with tutorials by Stephen Kay.

Karma Flash Demowww.korg.de/karma/index.html

Music clips; Karma close-ups from Korg Germany.

Karma Labwww.karma-lab.com

Stephen Kay's site, bursting with MP3s and background details.

Karma Radiowww.mp3.com/stations/karmaradio

Streaming and downloadable music by Karma Discussion Groupmembers.

Korg USAwww.korg.com

Streaming video; downloadable software, MP3s, and manuals.

Tritonhavenwww.tritonhaven.com

Triton resources, including Karma-compatible patches.

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