Review: Kurzweil Music Systems PC3x

A PERFORMANCE KEYBOARD THAT PULLS OUT ALL THE STOPSBONUS MATERIALThe Factory Tour, V.A.S.T. Improvements
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For much of the past two decades, the core of Kurzweil's amazing V.A.S.T. (Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology) synthesis architecture remained essentially unchanged except for a few noteworthy additions. But with the new PC3 keyboard synth, the company introduces Dynamic V.A.S.T., which picks up where the venerable K series left off and goes considerably further, while expanding on the live-performance features of the popular PC series.

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FIG. 1: Kurzweil''s keyboard synth and controller features an 88-key weighted action, outstanding sounds, and an improved version of the company''s awesome V.A.S.T. programming architecture.

The PC3 is available in two models that differ only in their keyboard actions: the PC3x ($3,630; see Fig. 1) features an 88-note weighted action, and the PC3 ($2,830) has a 76-note semiweighted action. (A model with a 61-key synth action should be shipping by the time you read this. Its price has not been announced.) The synths provide 128 voices of polyphony and are 16-part multitimbral. Powered by Kurzweil's newest custom chip set, the PC3 comes loaded with 64 MB of sample ROM — small by today's standards, but Kurzweil's programmers are masters at stretching sample memory. The 800-plus factory programs include the company's acclaimed Stereo Triple Strike Piano, Orchestral and Contemporary sound blocks, Classic Keys, and new Strings.

The PC3 also introduces a completely overhauled KB3 Tone Wheel Organ Simulator, which offers improved real-time controls. To top it off, Kurzweil has resurrected the VA-1 Virtual Analog Synthesizer, which it had previously shown but never released.

Box Full of Ivory

Although the PC3x isn't the heaviest piece of gear, at 54 pounds, it is hefty. The all-metal chassis is rugged and beautifully sculpted, with smooth curves and a slightly effervescent, deep cobalt-blue paint job that appears black under dim lighting.

The Fatar TP40L fully weighted hammer-action keyboard is the lead-free successor to the TP10 MDF, which was used in the PC2 and K2600. This new assembly features Velocity and Aftertouch sensitivity and a quick-release spring, providing an ideal balance for playing both piano parts and synth/organ parts. I'm not a fan of the slippery, high-polished plastic keys found on most digital keyboards; the slightly “flat” finish of the PC3 keys felt a lot more elegant, reminding me of a glorious old grand piano with real ebony and ivory. The new action feels solid and wonderfully realistic.

The angled, graphic, backlit LCD is a major improvement over the PC2's dual-line display. The streamlined page layouts and intelligent soft-button choices on the PC3 convey only the information you need, when you need it. To the right of the display is a block of 24 buttons that allow you to select favorite sounds by program or category — great for one-touch retrieval during performance.

Conveniently situated to the left of the panel are nine sliders (increased from four on the PC2) for real-time parameter editing in Program mode and for tonewheel-organ drawbar emulation in KB3 mode. The unused space on the far right is perfect for a tabletop sound module or a mouse pad.

The PC3 provides plenty of pedal and switch inputs, as well as a Yamaha-style breath-controller input and a modular telephone-style jack for Kurzweil's proprietary Super Ribbon Controller ($59.95). Two internal sockets accept 64 MB and 128 MB sound-expansion ROMs. The USB port enables MIDI transmission, firmware updates, and connection to a PC or Mac. Currently the computer connection is for loading and saving program and song files, but it will soon work with a cross-platform PC3 editor-librarian by Soundtower, which should be available by the time you read this.

My review unit arrived with OS 1.0 installed and a very incomplete, preliminary hard-copy manual. I immediately upgraded to OS version 1.21.9030 from the Kurzweil Web site — it took less than 20 seconds to install and reboot — and proceeded to download a very thorough, 308-page PDF user guide. The internal power supply is selectable between 120 and 240 VAC. A metal piano-style, KFP-1 sustain pedal is included.

Be the Architect

Unlike many hardware-synth architectures, V.A.S.T. lets you build sounds from a combination of internal samples and waveform generators, and then modify those sources using a wide range of low-level DSP functions. These can be anything from oscillator blocks to freely assignable filter blocks, signal shapers, mixers, and so on. The functions you choose, and their arrangement into algorithms, essentially define the type of synthesis.

Programs in the PC3 can have up to 32 layers, each with programmable Velocity switching and note range. The DSP functions within a layer's algorithm can be independently controlled by a variety of sources, including LFOs, an ASR envelope generator, 7-stage EGs, a set of unique programmable Boolean logic/math functions (FUNs), and any MIDI control message. The entire concept descends from the K2000 but has been greatly improved. (Explore the differences in the online bonus material “V.A.S.T. Improvements” at emusician.com/online_exclusive/kurzweil_pc3x_bonus_material.)

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FIG. 2: In addition to its audio, MIDI, and sync ports, the PC3x has plenty of controller inputs, including ports for three switch pedals, two continuous controller pedals, a breath controller, and Kurzweil''s optional Super Ribbon Controller.

The new Dynamic V.A.S.T. lets you “wire” your own algorithms beyond the 56 that ship from the factory. A new Cascade mode lets you route any layer of a program into the DSP of any other layer for truly complex results. However, I sorely miss the K series' sampling features and RAM for importing prerecorded samples.

The PC3 offers more than twice the effects-processing power of the old KDFX engine — even more than Kurzweil's acclaimed KSP8 studio-effects module. Programs have access to a maximum of 16 insert effects units and 2 aux sends, which can be placed pre- or postinsert. Effects can be chained together in series or distributed among the PC3's 16 multitimbral channels. A global Master FX section provides a 3-band compressor and 5-band parametric EQ that can be applied globally to the signal at the main outputs.

Natural Born Player

This is one of those rare keyboards that make me want to sit and play for hours. Every preset is extremely musical and sits very well in a mix. As a serious gigging musician, I'd buy the unit for its pianos alone. The acoustic pianos are more natural sounding and timbrally balanced than those in any other keyboard I've played. Intelligent programming in V.A.S.T. results in synthesized string resonance (when the damper pedal is depressed) and sustain and key-off sample triggering comparable to top software pianos. Though the samples are small and looped, they're still the best I've found in a hardware synth. The sounds respond to the keyboard beautifully thanks to sample/zone mapping and Velocity scaling in the samples that are much better than in previous Kurzweil instruments.

You'll find every shape and form of electric piano, and Kurzweil includes tons of hybrid programs with synth layers and alternate states that you can activate by pressing the programmable switch located above the mod wheel. The Classic Keys bank is a highlight, with some of the strongest renditions of mellotrons, RMIs, Farfisas, and Clavs you'll find. Of course, you also get the expected guitars, basses, drums, and other meat-and-potatoes sounds.

Orchestral sounds are by far the PC3's strong suit. Over 300 presets provide breathtaking solo and section strings, ranging from intimate chamber ensembles to lush symphonic and movie pits, lively horns, flute and woodwinds, choirs, and a bevy of brilliant orchestral percussion programs. No other keyboard synth can touch these orchestral sounds. For an in-depth look at the presets, check out the online bonus material “The Factory Tour.”

The VA-1 engine is a monster. Because it's completely integrated within V.A.S.T., you can pass its signals through any of the standard DSP filter or modulation blocks, and you can daisy-chain VA-1 layers with the conventional V.A.S.T. layers in Cascade mode. This is incredibly powerful. The oscillators are truly gorgeous, especially the fluid new Supersaw and Hard Sync Saw algorithms from the latest OS update.

Another spectacular feature is the enhanced KB3 mode. Rather than using layers or algorithms, a bank of 96 oscillators (2 per voice) is dedicated to tonewheel emulation. Having all nine drawbars and the mod wheel is pure luxury compared with the PC2. Buttons above each slider control effects such as Leslie, vibrato, chorus, and percussion. I like how Kurzweil tweaked the Leslie ramp-up times and added some cool tricks with gain staging and distortion. The sound designers even took into account the way older organs start to sound different as their capacitors begin to leak, including a parameter that lets you vary the amount of grunge.

Songwriting Partners

In Setup mode, the PC3 allows you to become a one-man band. You can have up to 16 zones, each assigned to any range of the keyboard (overlapping or split). Each zone can have its own program, arpeggiator, MIDI channel, and MIDI- and physical-controller assignments. Every zone can also have its own Riff, which is a completely independent phrase, such as a simple drum groove or walking bass line, that you can snag from any sequencer track.

The onboard 16-track sequencer is fairly straightforward; the basics are easy to grasp without reading the manual. You're given a fairly typical set of track-edit commands, and each function has a set of parameters that control how the function operates and on what region of the selected tracks. Real-time input quantizing is a new addition in the recent OS release, allowing for quantized loop recording. It's a welcome feature, but I'd like to see step recording as well.

Any of the song's tracks can be defined as Drum Tracks so that their note events do not get transposed when a transposition is applied to the song. I like how you can maximize effects DSP: if there's a program with a particular effect or chain that you want to share between programs on other tracks, you can assign it to an Aux FX channel that the others can tap into. MIDI data on each track can be assigned to any combination of local, MIDI, or USB MIDI destinations. The PC3's compatibility with Type 0 and 1 Standard MIDI Files also makes the instrument ideal for playing back elaborate MIDI sequences created in a software DAW.

All You Need

I cannot think of a more thorough and better-implemented performance keyboard than the PC3x. The sounds are rich, expressive, and natural. Learning to become an expert V.A.S.T. programmer is difficult, but maneuvering around the instrument for typical live tasks couldn't be simpler. Quick Access mode puts you one button away from whatever sound or preprogrammed setup of splits/layers you need, and there are numerous other shortcuts and button combinations. The user definability of every real-time control is beyond that of any other hardware synth.

Best of all, the PC3x is an honest-to-goodness synthesizer at heart. The VA-1 marriage with V.A.S.T. is brilliant, and you get an overwhelming number of usable preset sounds. Whether your interests are classical, pop, rock, jazz, or urban, the PC3x will become the centerpiece of your composition duties and the star of your stage performance. It's a beautifully crafted instrument that's a pure joy to play.

Jason Scott Alexander is a regular contributor to Mix and Remix magazines and runs a mix/production facility in Canada's capital, Ottawa.

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