Kurzweil PC3LE Series Review

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FIG. 1: Kurzweil''s PC3LE controllers (such as the PC3LE7) are lower-cost, preset-playback versions of the PC3 Series.

Kurzweil''s new PC3LE line of performance controller keyboards use the same Dynamic Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology (VAST) sound engine as its PC3 line of controllers, but with a slimmed-down feature set and a markedly lower price point. The PC3LE Series removes user programming from the equation, but offers a whopping 800-plus factory sounds from which to choose, plus a bevy of controller knobs and switches to alter your sound in real time. There are even some goodies absent from the PC3, such as eight touch-sensitive drum pads. The series includes the PC3LE8 (88-key fully weighted keyboard); the PC3LE7 (the 76 semiweighted key version shown in Fig. 1); and the PC3LE6 with 61 semiweighted keys.

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FIG. 2: All models in the PC3LE Series have a digital audio output and two USB ports.

As expected with Kurzweil products, the PC3LE is constructed sturdily, with its metal case and thick plastic end blocks ready to absorb the abuse of a busy gigging schedule. All corners are rounded and the controls are low-slung, giving a sleek, high-tech appearance that also minimizes potential damage. The color scheme is primarily dark blue-gray with lighter gray and blue highlights, which looks elegant and is great for keeping the audience''s eyes on the performer. Weighing in at 37.5 pounds, the PC3LE7 is not the lightest or most compact controller out there, but it is manageable.

The I/O on all models includes a ¼-inch headphone jack, balanced TRS analog audio outs, and an RCA S/PDIF digital output. MIDI In/Out/Thru jacks are standard, as are two USB ports (one for transferring programs using a thumb drive; the other for direct MIDI interfacing to a computer). There are two ¼-inch footswitch inputs and a ¼-inch expression pedal input. A removable IEC cable supplies AC power (see Fig. 2).

The PC3LE is always in one of six modes. Program mode is for selecting/playing a single sound. Setup mode turns the PC3LE into a 16-channel, multitimbral performance instrument and MIDI controller. You can layer and split the keyboard 16 ways, each with individual channel and control assignments. Arpeggiations and Riffs (mini-sequences generated in the onboard sequencer) can be assigned to Setups, which is good for creating one-man-band-style performances.

Song mode brings up the PC3LE''s 16-track sequencer. This perfectly capable device can be used to quickly record ideas while in the moment, or to create more finished instrumental productions. The PC3LE comes loaded with a wide variety of mini-sequences in many different styles, which are perfect for grooving over and developing ideas (see Web Clip 1).

A Quick Access mode groups up to 10 programs or setups in a single window. They can be selected by the press of a single button or by using the cursor controls. Quick Access banks can be used to group many sounds of a particular type together for fast auditioning, or to assemble all sounds to be used in a particular song or set in one place. Finally, the Master and Storage modes specify global settings and handle data transfers to a computer or USB drive, respectively.

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FIG. 3: PC3LE''s user controls include a 24-button bank of category controls, eight drum pads, and five user-configurable control knobs.

Most information is imparted by way of a 240x64 LCD. Navigation is via six soft buttons below the display, as well as a jog wheel, cursor buttons, and “±” buttons. The PC3LE does have a number of purpose-built buttons to streamline the menu process that a keyboard of this complexity requires. A bank of 24 category buttons lets users filter hundreds of available sounds down to the particular type that is sought-after. These buttons serve a double duty, allowing for alphanumeric input (see Fig. 3).

PC3LE keyboards have the requisite pitch and mod wheels, as well as a series of assignable switches and knobs designed for real-time manipulation of sound and mappable to the parameters provided for each particular sound. I''d like to see far more parameters available for control, but perhaps this limiting of the feature set distinguishes between the PC3LE and PC3. In any case, the five knobs work in concert with a Shift key to quickly switch between 15 different possible controls. The five switches can act as 10 controls the same way.

Sound is everything, of course, and in this area the PC3LE does not disappoint. The 800-plus factory patches offer something for everyone. The acoustic piano is rich and full, the Rhodes has a juicy bit of grit, and the synth pads are luscious with great variety. All the expected categories of sound are here, including guitars, electric and synth basses, drums and percussion, orchestral, voices, and mallets. I was delighted to hear quite serviceable Mellotron strings and flutes.

The organ sounds make use of Kurzweil''s proprietary KB3 organ-modeling engine, and it is here that the PC3LE''s control surface really shines. The drawbars, percussion, chorus/vibrato, key click, and, of course, Leslie rotating speaker speed are all mapped to the control knobs and switches, and can be tweaked in real time.

The PC3LE also employs Kurzweil''s virtual analog oscillator (KVA) modeling technology. The modeling really makes a difference, giving girth and authenticity to these old-school-type sounds (see Web Clip 2).

The PC3LE has a deep arpeggiator, with dozens of patterns and fine user control (see Web Clip 3). You can assign note velocity to various patterns or to a controller, and specify duration, beat divisio, play order, and various limits. Each zone in a setup can have its own arpeggiation, so theoretically, you could have 16 separate arpeggiators mapped across the keyboard and triggering at once.

The PC3LE has a powerful effects engine, allowing as many as 10 effects (or less, depending on the complexity of the effects algorithms) at once. These effects are studio quality, and can be distributed between two global effects and up to 10 program insert effects. There are more than 500 different effects, of every conceivable variety. Certain effects presets are chains of multiple effects, while others are single effects. Like the programs, the effects are not editable, but there are so many from which to choose that you won''t run out of options any time soon.

Kurzweil has a long history of delivering impressive keyboards, and the PC3LE Series belongs right in that lineage. The Dynamic VAST and KB3 organ engines deliver excellent sound quality, and the sheer number of sounds and features would give any keyboard player plenty of room to explore for some time to come. I''m a big fan of all the real-time controls, as well as the incredibly flexible Setup mode and the built-in arpeggiator and sequencer. Experienced synthesists could quickly find themselves wishing to tweak the sounds more than they can with this keyboard, but that''s what the PC3 Series is for. If you are more interested in performance than programming, really like Kurzweil''s sounds and user interface, and want to spend quite a bit less than what it costs to buy a PC3, then have a serious look at the PC3LE Series.

Composer/audio engineer Nick Peck lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the audio director of a videogame company.

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Click on the Product Summary box above to view the Kurzweil PC3LE Series product page.