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Page 2: Waldorf Kyra

Virtual Analogue Synthesizer By Gordon Reid
Published June 2020


A Kyra patch offers three contour generators. These are described as ADSRs, but in fact all three sport an additional Slope parameter that allows the Sustain phase to rise or fall while held. This isn't the same as a five-stage contour, but can be very useful when emulating percussive sounds or when programming sforzando for brass instruments. Contours 2 and 3 also have a parameter called Bass Delay that very slightly offsets their initiation to overcome what might otherwise be a problem caused by some of the underlying DSP. I never encountered the problem so I didn't need the solution, but it's nice to know that someone had thought about it. To say that the contours are fast is an understatement, and I always found myself slowing the attack and release phases a tad to avoid transient artifacts. The resolutions of the A, D and R times are a touch coarse but, to be fair, I didn't encounter any problems here either.

There are also three programmable LFOs per patch. Each offers 128 waveforms and each can be synchronised to MIDI Clock. You can program them monophonically (per patch, free-running) or polyphonically (per note, either key-sync'ed or with random phase). Furthermore, LFOs 1 and 2 offer delay, Dual antiphase (the free-running monophonic LFO is shifted by 180 degrees on the second layer in a 'Dual' patch) and Dual quadrature (the free-running monophonic LFO is shifted by 90 degrees on the second layer) options. Programmable start phases will also be added on the next firmware revision. You can modulate one LFO using any other (including itself) to extend the number of waveforms even further and, in addition to their hard-wired destinations, all three are available as sources in the modulation matrix. Unfortunately, their frequency ranges are a little narrow; a minimum frequency of 0.1Hz is too fast for very slow sweeps, while the recently updated maximum frequency of 51.2Hz is too slow to permit audio-frequency modulation of the filter and amplifier. Since the audio oscillators can't be used as modulators, there's no way to overcome this.

The modulation matrix itself offers just six slots, each with one source and three destinations. You have a choice of 34 sources (many of which are MIDI CCs and other controllers) plus 82 destinations. Unfortunately, there's no controller column in the matrix, nor can you cascade slots, so you can't ask this to do to something to that by an amount that's being determined by the other. However, you can direct multiple sources to a single destination as well as one source to multiple destinations. If you replicate one of the Kyra's hard-wired modulation paths, the two amounts are summed.

Second Thoughts

When you're ready to start programming the Kyra, you'll discover that there's much about it that's far from intuitive. This is also when you'll discover that the current version of the manual has errors. Some of these appear to be because it hasn't kept up with software updates, but others were wrong from the start. It would also be easier to understand the Kyra if a full block diagram was included. But my biggest complaint with it is that in places it's written like a brochure rather than a manual. Waldorf have undertaken to update this.

Consequently, it took me some time to work out the architecture of the Kyra and to learn how to navigate it. Some things — such as finding some of the amplifier parameters in the filter section — just took time to get used to. Some, such as the choices of which parameters had knobs and which were only accessible through the menus, were noticeably odd. Other things were more significant. For example, the Kyra uses potentiometers, so the knobs' positions are meaningless when you load a new Patch. Touching a knob will therefore cause the selected parameter value to jump instantaneously to the knob's physical position, not always with pleasing results.

The Shift Lock button is another oddity. This allows you to access all of the control panel's secondary functions without pressing Shift each time that you want one, but it's easy to forget that it's switched on and I found myself swearing when I thought that I had adjusted one thing only to find that I had modified another. But even when you've gotten to grips with all of this, programming can be frustrating, because you can only change knob-less parameter values using the + and buttons; there's no dial, nor even a data value fader. It takes nine seconds to scroll through the longest value list, so the Kyra clearly needs a software editor.

Two other aspects of the Kyra's programming system also caused me problems. Firstly, when you're editing a Multi, the big name in the centre of the screen is the name of the Patch in the selected Part, not that of the Multi itself, which I found confusing. Secondly, I found to my cost on several occasions that saving a Multi doesn't save any of the Patches that you've edited within it so, if you then jump to another Multi (whether intentionally or accidentally) all of your changes are lost. This is far from unique to the Kyra but, because there's no Patch mode, it's much easier to make a mistake.

The Kyra's front panel measures 440 x 305 mm.The Kyra's front panel measures 440 x 305 mm.

Some Sounds

Eschewing all of its esoteric synthesis capabilities, the first patch that I created on the Kyra used just a single OG, square contours for both the filter and amplifier stages, and no effects. This should be the easiest sound for a synthesizer to create but, every time that I released a key, I obtained a series of impulses after the wanted sound ended. This had to be a bug, so I downloaded the latest firmware (at the time, v1.74) and this eliminated it. Having done so, I moved on to programming a selection of simple organ sounds. This was progressing well until I tried to defeat velocity sensitivity. I searched for the mechanism for a long time because it never occurred to me that this wasn't possible. I discussed it with the chaps at Waldorf and, by the time that you read this, a new per-patch velocity scaling parameter (which includes 'off') will have been added. However, there's no plan at this stage to add a choice of velocity curves.

I then switched tack and attempted to create the acoustic and electric pianos that the manual promised. I found that I could create some typical VA e-piano sounds, but acoustic pianos are (as I had expected) way out of reach. I then tried to program some orchestral sounds, but with only occasional success. For example, when I tried to imitate a solo trumpet, I heard a strange artifact as the filter opened, and I was unable to obtain conventional delayed vibrato because the Delay parameter determines the length of a ramp up to full amplitude rather than delaying the onset of the effect. I wasn't a fan of the Kyra's solo synth patches, either, especially since monophonic portamento is only implemented in legato and 'equal time' modes. On the other hand, I liked some of the Waves that allowed me to create FM-type sounds without invoking FM, and I enjoyed imitating LA synthesis by using one Part to create an initial attack and a second to create a sustain phase. I also found that applying FM and ring modulation to some of the more unusual Waves could create strange and interesting timbres, although I could never get the sync to exhibit that anguished tear that can be so wonderful on other synths.

Ultimately, I think that the real strength of the Kyra lies in its ability to layer Parts to generate rich ensembles, huge pads, and weird panoramic floaty things as well as synthesized percussion and rhythmic textures using its multiple arpeggiators (see 'Arpeggiators' box). Just be careful to keep track of the polyphony. OG Dual Mode uses two voices per note so it halves the Kyra's maximum polyphony to 64 notes. If you use this mode across eight layers, the maximum drops to just eight notes.

I really want the Kyra to be fabulous, so I'm going to hope that Waldorf will continue to develop it and turn it into the instrument that I hoped it would be.

While discovering all of this, I encountered two other oddities. The first concerned the contours' responses to repeated notes. As one would hope, the Attack phase of a repeated note picks up from the current Release level, which is good because it avoids the nasty sucking sound that afflicted low-cost synths in the late '70s and early '80s. However, instead of holes there were sometimes clicks when I played repeated notes. These were a consequence of playing the repeated note at a different velocity to the previous; although the algorithm thought that it was picking up the contour at the right point, there was a discontinuity if the second note was quieter or louder than the first. But perhaps my greatest frustration with the Kyra occurred when I tried to insert Patches into Parts in a Multi and transpose them to obtain the layers that I wanted. On other synths, the transpose parameter acts as a virtual CV, shifting everything that's connected to it. On the Kyra it's merely an OG pitch transposer, so your filter tracking parameters and other attributes are not shifted and the timbre of the sound changes. This means that, if you need to transpose a split or a layer, you need to reprogram the sound and then save the result as another Patch. I can't ask SOS to print what I think of this.