Keyboards rarely offer a waveform library as massive or synthesis options so VAST…
Text: Brad Watts
Kurzweil has a colourful history. For years the company has skirted around the big players – Korg, Roland and Yamaha – with arguably superior synthesis and sampling systems to all three. That superiority and associated sound quality has always come at a hefty price though, with Kurzweil’s original K250 sample playback systems costing in excess of 50 grand! In 1984 these were considered the best piano emulation possible – with none other than Mr Stevie Wonder acting as a design advisor and endorsee. But it wasn’t until the release of the K2000 systems in mid 1990 that Kurzweil finally made inroads into the mainstream (read ‘affordable’) instrument market.
The K2000 was a seminal keyboard, and its development continued through to the 2500 and 2600 systems in years that followed. The machine featured 24-note polyphony and the option to install 64MB of sample RAM, which was two to four times the memory capacity of competing instruments of the time. From the outset, buyers of the K2000 were assured of continued future compatibility – and to this day you can still load K2000 data into the K2500 and 2600 machines. I instantly fell in love with the K2000 (as you can probably deduce) and shelled out around four grand to join the Kurzweil club. Despite the modern proliferation of software samplers and instruments, my K2000R is still in use today. Check out the second-hand market and you’ll notice these machines are rarely parted with.
STILL MAKING CENTS
What was so good about the K2000? Well, for starters the operating system made sense. Volume outputs are represented in decibels, envelopes use seconds and minutes as units of time, rather than a scale of zero to 127, and key tracking that follows a ‘cents per key’ scale. This was nothing like other units from the era – such as the endangered and now largely forgotten tribe of expensive Akai samplers.
Running alongside the K series has been Kurzweil’s answer to control keyboards and piano emulation. The PC series has been a top-shelf option in the world of stage pianos for years – renowned for both piano sounds and the action of its weighted keyboards. The newest addition to this lineage is the PC3x – a veritable powerhouse of synthesis and sample playback. I should point out here that the PC series keyboards are strictly playback units; sampling and user-generated waveform playback is the bastion of the K series only. After seeing the PC3x, however, I’d be tempted to wager there’s a K3000 in the pipeline, since the PC3x synthesis smarts far exceed what’s possible in the K2600.
TWO FAT LADIES
The PC3x combines an 88-note weighted piano keyboard with a variety of Kurzweil synthesis engines and waveform ROMs. The keyboard itself is a joyous piece of work – hardly surprising when you consider Kurzweil’s parent company, Young Chang, has been manufacturing grand pianos since 1956. Our resident ivories aficionado, Heath McCurdy belted out a few numbers for us on the PC3x – AT office favourites like Roll Out the Barrel and the Heel Toe Polka. Heath was mightily impressed with the feel of the keys, and we all had a swell time before retiring to our rooms. Seriously though, the keyboard is lovely. It allows the softest of velocities, and sends channel-based aftertouch into the bargain. Fully weighted and with hammer action, it’s a class act.
The overall size of the unit isn’t too overwhelming. While the PC3x does weigh in at 25kg, it’s not so large that you’ll never want to lug it to a gig – this is a stage piano after all. In fact, it’s relatively compact when you consider the full-length weighted keyboard on offer.
Connections to the unit are reasonably comprehensive, with four balanced analogue outputs along with a coax S/PDIF out. Beside this is a further coax S/PDIF input for clocking the synth to external sources, which is a very thoughtful addition – the PC3x won’t have to operate as the master clock in digital systems. There’s provision for three switch pedals and two continuous control pedals, which begs the question, how many feet have you got? Kurzweil even supplies a proper sustain pedal, which again, is very thoughtful – you can hardly play keys without one, lest you sound like a guitarist playing just the black keys. There’s also provision for Kurzweil’s ribbon controller and an input for a breath control unit. Two knobs allow adjustment of brightness and contrast of the display, followed by MIDI In, Out and Thru, with the Thru able to be switched to act as another MIDI Out. The rear also houses a USB port for connecting to your computer and an xD memory card slot that glows a very conspicuous blue – there will be no mistaking the PC3x on stage with this headlight shining into the audience. The slot accepts xD cards larger than 32GB, which allows you to backup your programs or update the operating system.
But enough of the I/O, it’s what’s under the bonnet that really makes the PC3x a synthesis monster. Kurzweil has included in the PC3x its V.A.S.T. (Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology) synthesis capabilities along with a host of other improvements. The company has dubbed this version ‘Dynamic V.A.S.T.’ since you can actually edit the internal algorithms. For the uninitiated, V.A.S.T. is comprised of a set of DSP algorithms that can be controlled via things like envelopes, LFOs, and algebraic formulas (known as ‘FUNS’ in Kurzweil’s terminology). Route a waveform through these algorithms to gain access to filtering, waveshaping, pulse width etc, then modulate accordingly.
Unlike previous systems, the PC3x allows the editing of these algorithm setups. You can wire them together in whatever combination you like – that’s on top of the 129 that come in the O.S. If that weren’t enough of an expansion of V.A.S.T.’s capabilities, you can now route any layer of a program through the DSP of other layers of a program – similar to the ‘Triple Mode’ of the K2600 but without the three layer limit. Now you can intertwine the DSP functions over the entire 32 layers available in a program. Underlying these colossal DSP options and incredible modulation facilities is a polyphony count of 128 notes. The onboard waveform library is massive, with Kurzweil’s triple strike piano set and a revamped orchestral ROM and a dedicated String Section ROM. The Classic Keys ROM section is fantastic with super realistic electric pianos and Mellotron samples.
STACKS ON THE MILL
On top of this, Kurzweil includes its KB3 Mode tonewheel organ emulation – all controllable via the nine 60mm sliders. Added to the usual array of Hammond waveforms are sample sets from Vox and Farfisa combo organs, for that extra cheesy ‘ice-hockey’ style organ effort, and if that’s not enough, the revamped KDFX section offers new and improved Leslie programs. The KDFX block has more than twice the grunt of previous KDFX units. The 16 insert effects can be chained together or distributed amongst the 16 multitimbral parts of the PC3x. The sequencer section has also been upgraded with a resolution of 1536 PPQ and the ability to chase controller messages. Add 16 separate arpeggiators and you’ve got a whole lot of replay options.
So while the PC3x has all your keyboard, orchestral and day-to-day sounds very well catered for, you’d imagine that’s where the highlights end – that the PC3x is a keyboard for ‘real’ instrument emulation only. Not so. Included in this synthesis powerhouse is a resurrection of Kurzweil’s VA-1 virtual analogue synthesizer. The VA-1 was a monster analogue modelling beast, first shown off at the 2004 NAMM show. The VA-1 was littered with real-time control knobs and dedicated controllers. The unit promised plenty to the tweak hungry dance crowd but unfortunately it never made it into production. Apparently only two were ever built. But finally the VA-1’s here – or at least some of its software has been recovered from the lab. Hidden in the bowels of the PC3x, the VA-1’s engines are capable of some positively searing analogue emulations. The ‘power-shaped’ anti-aliasing oscillators sound smooth yet still give you some very solid analogue crunch. These oscillators are available as a sound source within V.A.S.T. programs and offer an entirely separate palette of waveform generation for die-hard analogue emulation.
TAKE A BOW KURZY
I’d imagine readers will simply assume I have a soft spot for Kurzweil products after reading all this, and you know what, they’d be absolutely correct. There are a few reasons for my reverence for these machines. Firstly, the sheer power of the V.A.S.T. system is second to none – rarely does a synth manufacturer offer the wealth of modulation and sound generation possibilities that Kurzweil has presented here. Secondly, there’s the sensible operating system using real-world measurements and parameters, plus Kurzweil continues to develop this same mode of operation. Move between any Kurzweil instruments and you’ll be able to edit each one of them having already learned the modus operandi. Lastly, and this is the clincher, the Kurzweil sounds phenomenal. I’ve already mentioned I fell in love with the K2000 over a decade ago. The PC3x has rekindled that affection – it just sounds incredible. If you’re after the Lamborghini of stage pianos, look no further than the PC3x.