Future Music DECEMBER 1995 - by Richard Riley


It isn't every day that the godfather of Ambience endorses a PC program. Richard Riley mellows out with Koan Pro and says, 'Let's get metaphysical.'

Brian Eno was so impressed with Koan Pro that he's gone and put his name on the box. But Koan Pro is feisty enough to stand up for itself. Last year's memorable Koan Plus player is now bundled with the full-blown Koan Pro compiler/publisher, and can be used by anyone with a PC and soundcard for composing fractal/ambient works. No sequencing is required: just tell it what to do and let it go.

To understand the principles behind Koan we have to shift our perspective a little. Most Western music tends to sit comfortably within a structure of agreed rules in order to successfully communicate with the Western listener. These rules are of harmony, scale and rhythm, and popular music stays well inside the boundaries that they provide. Imagine a club full of rave-heads suddenly confronted by a track in 9/8 time: get the picture?

If these boundaries are pushed away from what we already know, especially rhythmically and harmonically, then music takes on a transcendental quality. Ambient music lives here. Koan Pro enables you, through a system of buttons and graphical tools, to create your own rules. As you step outside the boundaries, new musical complexities can be performed and recorded with no formal theory required.

Koan Plus 'songs' are created by the software generation of constantly evolving musical textures based on your commands given before the music starts. This means that the process of creating a Koan song can feel more like programming in a high-level language than making music.

Software functions called parameters are used and given values, each having a different effect on your piece of music. There are a hundred and twelve general parameters and ten soundcard-specific parameters in Koan Pro, and each value is adjusted simply by using push buttons and toolbars. By changing these parameters and bending the rules of music for your piece, a new original musical work is created. Next time you play that song the random element comes in to ensure that as long as the song stays within Koan Pro or Koan Plus, then no two performances will be exactly the same.

In essence, you choose a MIDI patch and decide which of five voice types each Koan voice should take. If Rhythm is chosen for a voice then the voice will simply generate notes chosen almost at random (within your selected rhythm constraints), but not play notes that you have picked directly. Likewise, the Ambient voice type will create long tones based on the Ambient rules, not notes played or programmed in. When the piece is set in motion, each voice will create a part for itself based on your rules for its voice type. The trick is to program the rules to your taste. Practice is required but templates and a tutorial are included.

The song is created by Koan Pro alone using a secret software engine called SKME. Once your voice type, patch and parameters are set for each Koan voice, the SKME engine looks forward in time and calculates how the track will evolve, then 'plays' each note to fit within your rules. As the Koan piece can be several hours in length, and as the piece is constantly changing, the main window ignores sequencer conventions. Instead, the parameters that control how the music will evolve are set out for each instrument.

Koan works within Windows restrictions: only sixteen tracks of MIDI info can be processed at one time (although multiple Koan voices can be assigned to MIDI tracks) and, unusually, a single Koan voice can't play a chord. This is because of the complex rules of harmony and doesn't pose a problem. Koan is constantly 'thinking' in chords, just not the usual E, A and D.

Idea follows self-replicating idea in a successful Koan piece. The result could be likened to Richard Dawkins' Blind Watchmaker elaborating on a theme within themes.

With concepts such as these, it's no surprise that Koan Pro has been eagerly accepted by the games industry, for whom the idea of a new piece of music for each game play in understandably irresistible. The effect is to concentrate your consciousness and enhance awareness. Psychoactive music anyone?

If all you want to do is listen to Koan songs then you don't need the full-blown Koan Pro, although you could simply use it as a player. However, Koan Pro is a powerful package with the ability to help you create truly inspirational and possibly commercially successful music. Once created, your songs may be distributed with the Koan Plus player, which is included in the Koan Pro package. So your compositions can be published by you, direct from your PC and even used as a link in your Web page! If you are unwilling to be bound by convention and find yourself trapped by your sequencer, then Koan Pro is recommended as a most mind-expanding experience.


Koan Pro relies heavily on your soundcard and has been written with Creative Labs AWE32 in mind, although other cards such as Gravis' and Roland's are supported. Your piece can also be ported out of the PC via MIDI to any MIDI module, but the soundcard-specific parameters are then not available. Koan also supports Sound Fonts for the AWE32 and Patch banks for the Gravis.


Koan Pro will eat up 5Mb of your hard disk space. You'll also need a high-specification 486DX with at least 4Mb of RAM and a fast processor (66MHz).

If you are already making or listening to music with your computer then you'll probably have this specification. Koan Pro has been tested, and works, running under the Windows 95 environment.