Review: Kurzweil Music Systems PC3x (Bonus Material)

Acoustic piano sounds have always been the cornerstones of Kurzweil keyboards. The PC3 delivers more variety here than ever before. Factory program 1, Standard Grand, is a layer-for-layer
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THE FACTORY TOUR

Acoustic piano sounds have always been the cornerstones of Kurzweil keyboards. The PC3 delivers more variety here than ever before. Factory program 1, Standard Grand, is a layer-for-layer, parameter-for-parameter replica of the traditional Kurzweil piano taken straight from the K2600. I really like the slightly brighter/clearer sound of Studio Grand and the synthesis used in RubensteinSWcomp to replicate the sympathetic vibrations of a real piano. The B slider controls the volume of the harmonics, allowing you to exaggerate the effect. Pressing the SW button toggles compression. A wonderful surprise was finding not one but two distinctly different-sounding upright piano programs in Ken Burns Upright and SMiLE/Rocky Raccoon; even though these are based on grand piano keymaps, the excellent V.A.S.T. programming wouldn''t let you know it. Of course, we get the obligatory Coldplay modern-upright/synth layer and a good number of jazz and blues pianos.

Moving on to electric pianos, there are plenty of familiar K2600 programs and song-specific material. At a whopping 30 layers, Beaten in Rhodes delivers a gorgeous classic stereo tremolo sound that creatively utilizes, of all things, a filtered tambourine roll to add a subtle but tasty hint of speaker rattle. Similarly, soloing layer 30 in Gilpin''s Suitcase reveals how V.A.S.T. is being used to imitate Wurlie-like harmonics when you really whack a key hard. Kurzweil veterans should love what''s been done with Duke''s Dyno Rhodes, Floyd''s Darkside/Wah, Supertramp Wurl, UK Pop CP70, and, one of my personal favorites, the smooth and subdued Woodstock Clunker—good for those serene Joni Mitchell moments. On all of the above, the G and H sliders control distortion and warmth while slider I (the last one) handles reverb wet/dry.

There are also a number of beautiful FM-style pianos, including Classic DX Rhodes and TX Stack 1. Spread elsewhere throughout the hundreds of presets, you''ll find such angelic piano-hybrid layers as Piano Acoustic Guitar Strings and the inspiring Ivory Harp. If you can dream it, it''s probably here or easily created!

A raft of acoustic guitar programs exist, including the instantly recognizable Kurzweil signatures Boutique Six Str, Boutique 12 Str, and Real Nylon. I find these a bit bland and dated, reminiscent of the K2000. The electric guitars (both rhythm and lead) are much more respectable, with the effects working nicely. Burning TubesMW and Rockin'' Lead provide the shredder-type lead sounds that K-series users have been requesting for years. There''s authentic feedback on the mod wheel, and the lowest octaves have scrapes and mutes. I''ve always loved Kurzweil electric bass programs because they''re ballsy but not artificially rotund, and they fit into a mix with minimum fuss. All of the P-bass and E-bass keymap variants on the PC3 are expressive and highly playable, but the Flea/Bootsy finger/slap combo is awesome, featuring very realistic Velocity switching with your right hand and slap “muting” below C2 with your left. The few upright and fretless sounds are quite musical and will do in a pinch, although they are not as realistic as the other basses.

Rounding out the first 256 preset locations is an assortment of conventional keyboard fare and contemporary stuff ranging from Supasticious Clav to Timbaland-style hip-hop leads and phat synth basses to acid-jazz-style flutes with classic Tull-style “tongued” attack on hard Velocities and vibrato speed controlled with key pressure. There are several power-pop horns and big-band-style brass sections, but frankly, these are probably the PC3''s weakest point. I found that staccato playing was almost a must in order to pull off anything halfway convincing on brass. Big L.A./NY/Nashville string sections, orchestral movie pads (Vienna Octaves and the Fairlight-esque Phase Shimmer are two standouts), and ooh-aah and doo-wop choirs all delight.

There are a couple of dozen drum kits ranging from studio to stadium rock, pop, jazz, urban, and dance. One program, Analog Machine, is dedicated entirely to TR-808/909 type sounds. I found a lot of crossover between kits, especially the acoustic ones, as they mainly draw from the same two or three drum keymaps. With only a percussion keymap or two layered on top of the more urban kits for variety, V.A.S.T. is left to do all the “genre bending” with filtering and synthesis. While this can be a cool approach, it doesn''t change the fact that the PC3 is severely underserved by contemporary drum sounds, which really must start at the sample level. Despite blatant references to artists such as Outkast, Jay Z, Snoop Dogg, Beastie Boys, and Maroon 5 in the program names, these kits are best suited for General MIDI–style arrangements and quick idea-jotting sequencing. I wouldn''t consider them for serious production duties.

The Classic Keys bank, on the other hand, rocks. The Mellotron strings, choir, and flute are meticulously crafted, including modern inspired layers, such as the spot-on MobyTurntblTron. RMI''s Harmonic Synth is also well represented, as are the ARP String Ensemble and PPG Wave. Some of the “vintage layers” programs that utilize all these classic synths together are wonderfully nostalgic, not to mention being master classes in V.A.S.T programming.

The 256-plus programs that overflow the Orchestra and Strings banks (numbers 385 through 640) are, without a doubt, the pièces de résistance. The section strings, winds, and orchestral percussion programs are breathtaking, as are the solo instruments and ensemble programs, which feature virtually every combination and articulation you can imagine. There are far too many programs to break down, but they''re all winners. Impeccable!

The KB3 emulations are the best they''ve ever been, thanks to the software overhaul. The presets are focused mainly on sounds used by live players, and the effects chains have grown in size to incorporate further processing for an even more authentic sound. I like the decision to make the sustain pedal the default Leslie-speed switch on all KB3 programs. There are four new dual-manual setups (starting at program 90) that use a V.A.S.T. organ on the left half of the keyboard and a KB3 on the right, both with Leslie switching on the sustain pedal.

Programs utilizing the VA-1 engine are bountiful—you get more than 100—but they are scattered somewhat haphazardly across the banks. These presets mainly address analog classics, such as Big Old Jupiter, Prophet V Sync Lead, and Mini Pulse 4Pole, with some paying perhaps too much attention to signature synth parts from heavily tread cover songs (think “Jump” and “The Final Countdown”). The programs aimed at soundtrack, techno, and trance aren''t nearly as creative as they could and should be; hopefully, future banks will be released by Kurzweil or third-party developers that explore the terrain more deeply. Combined with V.A.S.T, the VA-1 engine is huge, and a savvy programmer could easily go toe-to-toe with the Viruses and Blofelds of the world.

V.A.S.T. IMPROVEMENTS

The PC3 has a far more advanced synth engine than its closest genetic precursor, the K2600. Boasting almost three times the polyphony and many times the processing power, its implementation of V.A.S.T. has been greatly expanded.

The PC3 allows up to 32 program layers, compared with a maximum of 3 layers per program on the original K2000 and 4 layers on the PC1 and PC2. With the new Cascade mode, you can route any layer into the DSP of any other layer, and it''s much easier to use than Triple mode on the K2600.

The number of available algorithms has increased to 28 (plus their Cascade-mode equivalents), and Dynamic V.A.S.T. lets you create and store your own algorithms with literally thousands of unique possibilities. The K series did not allow for user-defined algorithms.

You now get four “boxes''” worth of DSP per algorithm, each with its own assignable parameters. You can decide how many inputs and outputs each box has, and you can select parallel or serial configuration.

The PC3 has several new filters and DSP types that were not present in the K, such as the Moog-style 4-pole resonant filter with feedback, 3-pole All-Pass filter, Quantizer, and so on. It''s a very long list. The parameter allowances for many of the DSP types have been expanded, too. On the PC3, you can have two 2-pole filters in series within one algorithm—for example, each with full modulation capabilities over frequency and resonance. The K2600 would allow a second filter but provide control over only the frequency, not resonance, in the same scenario.

Whereas the K series had only DSP-generated waves (saw, square, PWM) that aliased terribly, the PC3 provides the antialiasing oscillators of the VA-1, Kurzweil''s virtual analog synth. These let you transition smoothly from one waveform into another in real time, without resorting to crossfades. You can have up to two of these “good” oscillators per voice or up to four of the older K2600 types.

The effects section has 16 units of KDFX processing, taken from the KSP8 studio processor, and 2 stereo aux buses, should you need them. Just shy of 500 presets, this is by far the most comprehensive assortment of effects and algorithms I''ve seen in any keyboard. In addition, there is a huge master compressor/EQ section on the output of the instrument.

Many aspects of the OS have also been improved on. Soft buttons throughout the system have been optimized for minimal tabbing and screen jockeying, enabling quicker edits and navigation. The Song mode, in particular, is much more intuitive. The inclusion of a new Info screen addresses one of the biggest shortcomings of the K series: making visible all current real-time physical-controller assignments at the touch of a soft button.

New in version 1.20 is the handy Drum Remap function, found on the Master page. Any Kurzweil kit can now be remapped to conform to the standard GM drum mapping. In addition, a bunch of new Velocity maps simulate the physical behavior of several Fatar keyboards, going beyond the typical Velocity curves. An upcoming OS release is slated to have some really cool features like new step patterns in the Arpeggiator (and Setups that use them) and seamless program and effects switching. Bring it on!