Kurzweil PC2X

Kurzweil has always been well known for its fine electronic musical instruments. For example, the PC88 (reviewed in the December 1994 issue of EM) has

Kurzweil has always been well known for its fine electronic musical instruments. For example, the PC88 (reviewed in the December 1994 issue of EM) has enjoyed its status as a top-notch master keyboard controller since its introduction. In fact, EM editor Steve Oppenheimer used one to lay down the keyboard and bass parts on an album that I recorded with my wife in 1997.

Of course, technology marches inexorably onward, and the PC88 has now been succeeded by the new PC2, which improves on its excellent predecessor by a factor of two in many respects. For starters, it's available in two flavors: the PC2 has 76 semiweighted keys, whereas the PC2x sports 88 fully weighted keys. Of course, both keyboards are sensitive to Velocity and Channel Aftertouch. I reviewed the PC2x; but because the two models differ only in the number of keys and the keyboard action that they offer, I will use the more general term PC2 to discuss them both.

SIGHTThe PC2 embodies Kurzweil's new industrial design-most buttons and controls are located within blue- gray regions on an otherwise dark-purple front panel (see Fig. 1). Of course, a pitch-bend wheel and modulation wheel lie to the left of the keys, and two assignable buttons reside just above the wheels.

To the right of the master-volume fader is the Zone Select and Assignable Controllers region, which includes four zone-select buttons, four sliders, a Solo button, an EQ button, and three more assignable buttons. All of these controls serve different functions depending on what you need to do, and they default to certain tasks as indicated by labels of different colors. For example, three of the sliders boost or cut the low, mid, and high bands in EQ mode, and they are labeled Low, Mid, and High in white. In addition, all four act as drawbar controls in KB3 Organ mode (which I'll discuss shortly), for which they are labeled in orange.

The display is a 2-line-by-20-character LCD, which seems very skimpy in an instrument at this level. Two cursor-navigation buttons are located just below the display. Buttons that provide direct access to zone, sound, and system parameters, as well as to the Compare, Copy, and Store functions, lie to the right of the display.

Programs can be selected from one of four banks: Internal, User, and two user-installable expansion banks, all four of which are accessible by dedicated buttons. Each bank holds 128 Programs, which are organized by instrument type into 16 groups of eight sounds each; these groups can also be selected with dedicated buttons. One nice feature in this regard is the ability to set the instrument to return to any given Program in a group when you press that group's button-very convenient. The Sound Select buttons are joined by some System Setup buttons that provide access to the internal voices, MIDI setups, and KB3 mode.

To the right of the Sound/Setup Select region is the Effects and Reverb section, which provides access to two multi-effects processors. At the far right of the front panel is the Data Entry section, which includes increment/decrement buttons, an alpha wheel, and a 10-key alphanumeric pad with Clear, Enter, and Cancel buttons.

The back panel (see Fig. 2) includes the power switch and a receptacle for the power cord, which is of the lump-in-the-line variety (presumably to keep the power supply out of the instrument itself). The three MIDI ports are In, Out, and a selectable Out/Thru. There are two balanced analog audio outputs on 11/44-inch TRS jacks and a digital audio output on an RCA jack. This output can be set to send AES/EBU or S/PDIF data at 48 kHz with a selectable resolution of 16, 18, 20, or 24 bits. Controller inputs can accommodate three footswitches, two continuous footpedals, a breath controller, and a Kurzweil ribbon controller. A 11/44-inch stereo headphone jack rounds out the back panel.

SOUNDThe PC2 provides a generous 64 voices of polyphony-twice as many as a stock PC88. (The PC88MX with the VGM General MIDI option provides 64 voices.) In addition, the PC2's polyphony can be expanded to 128 voices with the XP Expanded Polyphony Option (price TBA).

A stock PC2 includes 16 MB of waveform ROM; two optional, user-installable ROM expansion boards (price TBA) add another 16 MB each. All ROM blocks (internal and expansion) also hold 128 Programs apiece, which is twice the capacity of the PC88. A battery-backed user RAM bank holds up to 128 user Programs, a feature which was not available in the PC88.

As mentioned earlier, the Programs in each bank are organized into 16 instrumental groups of eight sounds each. These groups are Piano 1 and 2, E. Piano 1 and 2, Pop Keys, Clavier, Organ, Brass, Strings, Voices, Synths, Pads, Guitar, Bass, Drums, and Percussion. (Actually, these groups apply only to the internal ROM bank; the user bank can have any type of sound in any location, and the ROM expansion banks have different types of sounds.)

Unlike Programs in the PC88, these Programs can be edited and saved in the user bank, although the editing capabilities are relatively rudimentary. Rather than a full-blown synth, Kurzweil wanted to create a preset instrument that you could tweak, and I think the PC2 strikes a fine balance in this regard. Each Program consists of up to four Layers, and each Layer is based on one or two Keymaps (one for mono Programs, two for stereo Programs), which determine the waveform assignment. Of course, multiple, simultaneous Layers reduce the effective polyphony.

Some of the piano Keymaps are limited to certain Velocity ranges, which allows different waveforms to be played in these ranges. These Keymaps are assembled into piano Programs whose sound varies appropriately at different Velocities, which is wonderful. There are even a few single Keymaps with different piano waveforms in different Velocity ranges, which provides a multi-Velocity piano Program without taking up multiple Layers. Either way, this makes for a much more realistic and expressive sound than most sampled pianos can produce.

The Program editor provides access to three groups of parameters for each Layer. In the Timbre section, you can select Keymaps and specify key range, relative volume, several initial controller values, and a few DSP parameters. In fact, each Program can include one or two DSP filters, which can be 2-pole lowpass or highpass with 48 dB resonance; bandpass; notch; shaper; or distortion. Both filters must be of the same type, and some take up both slots with one filter. The Envelope section lets you specify the attack, decay, and release, and the LFO section lets you adjust the rate and waveform of two LFOs as well as the low and high rates of the rotary speaker emulator.

The PC2 includes Kurzweil's KB3 Drawbar Organ mode, which was first introduced in version 2.52 of the K2500 operating system. This mode models the behavior of a tonewheel organ such as the Hammond B-3. The four sliders become drawbars that control the level of sine waves at different frequencies relative to the fundamental. Up to nine sine waves can be used to create an organ sound; the Solo button toggles the sliders between two groups of four, and the mod wheel controls the ninth sine wave.

KB3 mode includes everything needed to accurately emulate a Hammond/ Leslie setup, including percussion, key click, chorus, vibrato, tube-amp distortion, and rotary speaker simulation with programmable speed control that ramps up and down in a realistic manner. All of these parameters are accessed for editing by pressing any of the three Sound Parameter buttons while in KB3 mode. There are 16 KB3 Programs in ROM, and another 128 can be stored in user RAM.

The PC2 includes two multi-effects processors-FX-A and FX-B (see Fig. 3). These processors are equivalent to those found in the KDFX for the K2500 and the new K2600. FX-A provides 163 presets based on 56 algorithms, including reverbs, delays, choruses, flangers, phasers, tremolos, panners, filters, distortion effects, rotary speakers, compressors, enhancers, waveform shapers, and many different combinations. FX-B offers 30 reverbs that are also available in FX-A. Each effect provides four editable parameters; that seems a bit skimpy, but it's probably enough for most applications.

TOUCHThe "feel" of a keyboard's action is vital to the success of a master controller, and Kurzweil has been working with Fatar on its keyboard mechanisms for eight years. The PC2x uses Fatar's latest weighted keyboard, which is more rugged than that of the PC88. Obviously, pianists will want to use the weighted PC2x; organists will probably prefer the 76-note semiweighted PC2.

I'm not a piano player, so I invited my friend Nina Goldin over to tickle the weighted "ivories" of the PC2x. Goldin is an excellent piano player who owns a K2500XS, so I knew that she was eminently qualified to evaluate this instrument's action. In addition, we listened to the internal Programs to hear if they "touched" us, as all good sounds should.

Goldin's initial comment was, "It has a nice feel to it." She said that the PC2x felt different than a PC88, with more give than the older model. It was a bit floppier and not quite as smooth or even as the PC88, but it was very easy to play. Goldin also said that the PC2x felt a bit different from her K2500X, which ostensibly has the same mechanism; I chalked this up to individual variations.

The Solo Grand Piano elicited an immediate "Very, very nice!" I liked most of the other acoustic pianos, many of which use multi-Velocity Keymaps. Some of the electric pianos were good in the midrange but a bit thin on top; two notable exceptions were Dyno My E Pno and Big Red Wurly, both of which sounded big and fat throughout their entire range. Goldin really liked some of the clavinet sounds, saying they sounded just like her real clav.

I thought that it might be a bit difficult to play organ sounds on a weighted keyboard, but according to Goldin it wasn't a struggle. Many of the organ sounds were excellent, and the KB3 elements (such as the rotating speaker simulator) worked very well. However, Goldin said that the preset organ sounds were a bit too clean overall-not enough grunge. Of course, you can always turn up the distortion if desired. On a different note, I especially liked the Pipe Organ.

Goldin liked the brass and saxophone Programs quite a bit; but being a brass player myself, I found them wanting (as all sampled brass instruments are in my opinion). The strings, on the other hand, sounded absolutely fabulous. "The strings are some of the nicest I've heard," Goldin said. "They're a pleasure to play, and they don't feel synthetic. Kurzweil did an incredible job on the strings; every sound is tasteful and musical." I agree completely.

The vocal Programs are derived from the samples that Take 6 did for Kurzweil, and they also sound great. I like most of the synth sounds very much, and the guitars and basses are similarly excellent. In the drum department, most of the sounds are exceptional, and the percussion sounds are quite good, although the vibes are pretty thin.

The overall sound of the PC2 is crystal clear and clean. Most sounds cut through with no trouble and would make a fine addition to any studio or stage.

CONTROLOf course, no master keyboard controller would be worth much without extensive MIDI capabilities, and the PC2 delivers. The instrument can be divided into four layered, split, or overlapping zones, and each can send on a separate MIDI channel. A four-zone construct is called a Setup. There are 32 Setups in the internal ROM, and each of the ROM expansions includes 32 more. The user bank can hold up to 128 Setups-twice as many as the PC88.

All controllers can be assigned to different functions in each zone, and all sorts of initial controller values (including Bank Select and Program Change) can be sent when each Setup is selected. Of course, you can assign any Program to any zone, and you can layer or switch between zones using Velocity.

One very nice feature is called AutoSplit; it lets you create a complete Setup with very few button presses. This function offers one user-defined default split point, so you are limited to creating Setups with one or two layered Programs on one side of the split point and one or two layered Programs on the other side. However, this process is much easier than creating a similar Setup in the Setup editor.

The PC2 includes a sophisticated arpeggiator that produces rhythmic melodic patterns when a group of notes is played on the keyboard or enters the instrument via MIDI. There are many parameters, which determine the zones that are affected, the upper and lower limits of notes to be played, the order in which the notes are played, how the arpeggios are latched (turned on and off), the rhythmic values and durations that are used, how notes are shifted up or down in pitch after each cycle, and how Velocity and Aftertouch affect the result. The arpeggiator can sync to its own internal clock or external MIDI Clock messages, and it can also send and respond to System Real Time Start and Stop commands.

Of course, the PC2 is fully capable of SysEx dumps and loads-a good thing, because there is no other offline storage (no floppy drive, hard drive, SCSI port, or memory card). Interestingly, the PC2 is 16-part multitimbral when responding to incoming MIDI data-very cool. Finally, it sends and recognizes all Control Change messages, just as it should.

STOPFor those who want a sophisticated master keyboard controller, the Kurzweil PC2 is hard to beat, especially when you have your choice of a 76-note semiweighted or 88-note fully weighted keyboard. It's the most expensive instrument of its kind that's currently available, but it offers a wealth of great sounds to tweak, a host of useful MIDI capabilities, and many other features that put it at the front of the pack. And, like many Kurzweil instruments, its operating software is stored in Flash ROM, which means that it can be updated to avoid obsolescence for a long time to come. All you need to do is try one and see if it touches you.

EM technical editor Scott Wilkinson is glad to be back on board as a senior member of the editorial team.