Is Kyma Relevant?

© 2011 Harmony Systems, Inc. All rights reserved.


I've used Symbolic Sounds' Kyma sound design system for nearly a decade, and have faithfully followed it since I ponied up $35 USD in the early 1990's to purchase the user manual so that I could pour over it and construct virtual Kyma patches in my mind. You see then, as now, Kyma is a serious investment of personal capital, both financial and the most precious of all, time. The decision to bring Kyma into your personal studio is not a casual one.

Nearly five years ago I answered a question in my Future Music magazine column that attempted to frame where Kyma fits in the modern computer-centric music and sound production studio. To many casual observers, Kyma seems to overlap a great deal with other, less expensive options. A commonly heard refrain was "why do I need all that expensive hardware when my now powerful personal computer can do as much or more of the same signal processing and synthesis?".

Fast-forward to today and I am still an ardent Kyma supporter, so much so that my company now develops and markets "accessory" products for Kyma users. So admittedly I may not be the most objective evaluator of this music tool I have grown to cherish over the many years. Still I think it appropriate itoday with the abundant computer horse power now available to reexamine the question: "Is Kyma still relevant?".


Myth 1: Kyma is just a bunch of expensive DSP chips

One common misconception is that Kyma is somehow related to plugin DSP products like Universal Audio's family of products, or the now discontinued TC Electronic's PowerCore family. Those products exist for one singular purpose: to offer specialty plugin effects that somehow require the use of DSP processing instead of using "native processing" on the user's computer. When these "DSP cards" were first introduced there was a compelling reason: personal computers lacked sufficient processing muscle to handle the required signal processing calculations these advanced effects required, while still reserving sufficient native CPU power to support necessary digital audio workstation (DAW) functionality like audio playback. Augmenting native CPU horsepower is no longer a needed goal for any DSP hardware add-on. Moore's Law has brought immensely powerful computers into even the most modest personal studio. So if DSP cards are no longer "necessary" for specialty plugins could not the same be said about Kyma?

First Kyma is not "just a DSP effects box". Effects processing is just one of many activities where Kyma excels, something it accomplishes with far fewer restrictions than products like the Universal Audio UAD-2. Proprietary DSP products such as the UAD-2 only offer plugin effects developed or approved by Universal Audio. You, the user, do not have the liberty to locate effects from other sources, or to develop them yourself. Kyma not only affords but encourages you to construct your own effects using the provided building blocks. Or you may acquire them from the larger Kyma community. Work you did previously, which in my case reaches back many years, can be dropped into a new project and even augmented to match new requirements. In a word, Kyma is "open".

Furthermore the utility (and value) of DSP-based effects hinges on their use. If you are not currently using one of the supported effects plugins then all that available DSP horsepower lies fallow. The Kyma's "sound computation engine" DSP processing, on the other hand, readily shifts its role between whatever sound design activities you wish to engage, even if those activities dynamically vary during a live performance!

I do not wish to suggest that Kyma somehow replaces DSP effects products. If you are looking for a particular effect, especially one that mimics a classic bit of studio hardware, then Kyma's flexibility and power has no relevance. What matters is whether that exact effect is available. If it is not then you really do need the Universal Audio (or whatever) product.


Myth 2: Kyma is just an overpriced software modular system

This is by far the most common argument against Kyma's price tag. Products like NI's Reaktor, Cycling '74's Max/MSP, or even the excellent open source (and free) SuperCollider are often put forth as "Kyma equivalents". And for good reason. They (and others like them) offer a modular environment where users can construct their own synthesis and sound processing creations. Robust communities have sprung up around each, offering "consuming" users the opportunity to use many fine creations offered by the "producing" community members.

Products like Reaktor and Max/MSP are perhaps the ultimate manifestation of how far our studio personal computers have evolved. When those software-only solutions first appeared you made the hard choice between running your DAW or running Reaktor. Even a few notes of polyphony on a modest Reaktor synthesizer could bring a CPU to its knees. Computers are so powerful today that Ableton saw fit to build Max/MSP into its Live product (Max-for-Live). Users now casually include Max or Reaktor effects and synthesizers in their day-to-day studio activities.

None of this diminishes Kyma. The similarities between Max/MSP, Reaktor, and Kyma are only skin deep. Sure, all use a "patching" analogy to assemble signal processing or synthesis devices. But each has its own, deeply ingrained personality that inevitably influences your creative workflow and what you create.

Reaktor follows in the footsteps of classic modular synthesizers. Workflow is by and large one of creating a synthesizer or effect from various "primitive" elements and then using the result in a manner little different than one uses any synthesizer or effect. In other words it's a two part workflow: during the first your role is that of the instrument creator; during the second your role is that of the instrument player. As it turns out, few Reaktor users venture much in the first part of the workflow. Instead they leverage the work of a few who assemble Reaktor creations and use them in the second part of the workflow.

Max/MSP has its roots in traditional computer music technology. Its spiritual ancestor is the "Music N" family of computer music languages pioneered by such renowned contributors as Max Mathews (hence the derivation of the name "Max"). Kyma too shares this important heritage but the manifestation is quite different.

In this regard Max/MSP and Kyma are far closer in workflow than Reaktor, but there are very important differences in their respective "languages". Max/MSP treats "sound" and "processing" as two distinct elements. You create Max/MSP "patches" to "generate" sound, and/or to process sound. You can combine previously created processing or generator elements to create new processing or generating elements but the results are still distinctly processing or generating.

Kyma, on the other hand, has a single unifying construct: the sound. Everything you construct in Kyma is a sound, whether it is a simple sample player with a specific sample loaded, or an elaborate network of effects processors knitted together. These derived sounds become the building blocks for future sounds. Once created you no longer need worry about how they were made; you just use them.

All of these "modular" approaches offer some degree of this kind of reusability but with Kyma it's a deeper part of the entire system. Symbolic Sound suggests this is an "object oriented" way of generating and manipulating sound. Everything in Kyma is a "sound object" of equal stature, whether it is a "primitive" construct or one assembled with hundreds of other sounds objects. Kyma's workflow exudes this object central philosophy. Indeed one of the many benefits of Kyma's workflow is that over time you assemble a personal collection of sound objects, which in effect means Kyma becomes your personalized tool.

Reaktor, Max/MSP, and Kyma all have a vibrant role in my personal studio. Each brings something new to the table, be it a different workflow, a more expedient path to a particular result, or the vitality of each's user community and shared libraries.


Myth 3: Kyma's "DSP box" is just an expensive dongle

One often heard comment is that Symbolic Sound could release a software only version of Kyma. The implication is that selling it as a complete hardware and software system is somehow a business decision and not necessary for the viability of the Kyma system. I believe this argument is flawed in a number of ways.

Does a typical personal computer today offer the same DSP capability offered by Symbolic Sound's entry level Paca sound engine? Perhaps. But in a way it is the wrong question. The real question should be "Can I fully use the Kyma workflow along side my typical DAW workflow on my studio computer?". Unfortunately the answer to that question is "probably not", at least without some creativity dampening work-arounds.

It's not easy or particularly insightful to compare the computation capabilities of a typical personal computer processor to a DSP processor. The software environments constructed on top of each are very different. Personal computers use operating systems that are tailored for typical personal computer tasks. Symbolic Sound's Pacarana and Paca DSP sound engines use a custom operating system appropriate for sample-by-sample real time processing. At some point these differences become so pervasive that the resulting workflow is altered.

Kyma running its signal processing on the same CPU as your DAW may require you to approach your composition and sound design differently. It's unclear whether today's "merchant" DAWs like ProTools, Logic, Ableton and so on can co-exist within the same computer if Kyma was also running all its signal processing activities native. It's difficult enough today to run two DAWs simultaneously on the same computer without issues.

Likewise Kyma's workflow itself may become altered, as well as impact the very nature of its low-level signal flow. Can the "Kyma experience" translate from an environment where sample-by-sample computation and signal flow is replaced by one where samples are grouped into blocks and those blocks then processed? These are not small changes!

But let's set aside these arguments and look more at the "big picture". Kyma today represents nearly three decades of continuous development by Symbolic Sound. When you acquire, then use Kyma, you are leveraging every bit of previous work, its heritage. This is one of the key benefits of Kyma ownership - you share in its constant progression of organic growth. Its value to you as a user is the history of this software, its current state, and where Symbolic Sound takes it while you are an owner. So when you look at the value of Kyma it's really not about the hardware DSP processor; that is merely a means to the end of using the Kyma system. And there is where the true value lies. So in a sense the DSP processor is simply an enabler, one that provides a consistent experience across time (as Kyma advances), and space (regardless of your current host computer). Kyma is equally happy running on a low-spec notebook as it is on a multicore tower personal computer. Even as your computer and OS change over time Kyma will continue to run past sounds as well as your future ones.

This degree of "platform independence" should not be readily dismissed. We have all run into the situation where a DAW project with numerous plugins runs on one computer but not another. Unfortunate souls have even encountered this on the same computer from session to session. Kyma's "computational engine" helps to isolate you from such uncertainties. The positive impact this delivers whether in the studio or on stage is great.

Regardless if Symbolic Sound did choose to transform Kyma into one that "ran native" it would come at the expense of their focusing on that transition instead of continuing to develop their wonderful algorithm and other system enhancements (like the introduction of OSC in early 2010). I know where I would rather they invest their time and energy!

When it is all said and done there are tremendous advantages to the existing Kyma architecture. A sound you used yesterday will work identically today, regardless of what other activities you currently have running on your computer, or how many tracks and plugins are currently in your DAW project. It works the same whether you run Pro Tools, Logic Pro, Ableton Live, or even Reason & Record. It works reliably in the studio and on stage, with your modest laptop computer or your enormously powerful 12 core desktop. It's what allows you to milk additional years out of your host computer, and why some users are able to successfully use Kyma on eight year old computers!


Need a 'Kyma Command Central' App to cut your costs and improve your productivity? Check out the Delora KymaConnect app


But is Kyma for me?

Kyma is a unique environment for sound design, synthesis, and composition. You can approximate aspects of it by assembling numerous other tools but in the end the workflow and "feel" of using Kyma will be different. Furthermore Kyma itself is quite malleable, adjusting to each user's personality and needs, provided the user is willing to invest themselves.

If what you seek is a bountiful collection of plugin effects or synthesizers then your needs may be better met through other means like software instruments or even something like Reaktor. This does not mean Kyma incapable of such - it is more than capable. It's just that Reaktor, and its library, provide more numerous finished effects and synthesizers ready for use. Kyma comes preloaded with thousands of Kyma sounds, many of which are wondrous effects and synthesizers. But these are more starting points for your own explorations, whereas something like Reaktor offers more final destinations.

Or if you seek an enormous library of polished synthesizer sounds (patches) and samples, then look elsewhere. There are plenty of outstanding sound libraries available for modest investment. Kyma includes quite a few novel and interesting sounds that can be used "as is" but again they are best seen as a place to start a journey. Kyma's workflow begs you to begin such exploration and even the newest user can manipulate Kyma's "virtual control surface" from their computer screen or a controller like Delora's vM2, vKA, vKiP or Symbolic Sound's own Kyma Controller to fashion exhilarating new sounds. These can be saved to be used another day as either a finished sound or a component in some new creation of your choosing.

You see Kyma is less a product or tool and more a way of working, a sound alchemist's lifestyle so to speak. Acquiring Kyma and then using its included sounds (and others from the community) is a legitimate and fruitful course, but it only scratches the surface. The full benefit comes only after many months of use, practice, and study. The journey though is exciting and you never realize all the work you are investing. The longer you use Kyma the more it becomes your personal sound design workstation. In the end neither the monetary investment, nor whether it uses proprietary hardware and software matter. What matters is that Symbolic Sound has created for you a rich sonic world to explore and make your own.