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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Kurzweil PC88

Performance Controller Keyboard


Reviews : Keyboard

Kurzweil's new master keyboard combines the features of a MIDI controller with the sounds and feel of a 88-note digital piano. TIM JAMES tickles the ivories...

I had a deprived childhood. While my contemporaries were out skateboarding or setting fire to cars, I spent hours locked away in a music room with a piano, several volumes of Little Tunes for Tiny Fingers, and an angry teacher who rapped me across the knuckles with a ruler whenever I made a mistake.

Of course, 10 years of piano lessons later, I now have an advantage over many of my fellow musicians -- I can play. For a trained pianist, however, sitting down in front of your average synth is a bit of a shock. Five-octaves' worth of springy plastic switches is hardly a substitute for the luxurious feel of solid wood, hammer action, and weighted keys. So I was excited when I discovered that Kurzweil, purveyors of such remarkable products as the K250, K2000 and the recent (but pricey) MicroPiano, were putting the finishing touches to a new controller aimed specifically at pianists-turned-hi-tech. Not only did this new keyboard promise Kurzweil's classy feel and presentation, it would also boast built-in sounds. Too good to be true? Let's find out!




Straight out of the box the PC88 is a impressive beast. Although its width and depth are about the same as any average synth, its additional length (nearly six feet from end to end) makes it an imposing machine, though Kurzweil still reckon that it's lightweight. After carrying it out of the van and up the stairs to my studio, I beg to differ!

Reaching round to the back of the PC88 to plug it in reveals its first (and, as I subsequently discovered, only) negative point -- an external power adapter. 'Wall warts' are a well-known reviewer pet hate, but add to this the fact that the power adapter supplied with the review machine didn't work, and you can imagine my frustration. Having finally got the PC88 up and running, I surveyed its design and construction...

The expansive top panel is well designed and far from crowded. Data entry is via a keypad and/or alpha wheel, and real-time control is available in the form of four definable sliders and three buttons. Two wheels (normally pitch-bend and modulation) are positioned to the left of the keyboard, though the sheer length of the keyboard means that this is quite a reach. Additional control is available through two footswitches (one is supplied), and up to four continuous controller pedals.

The PC88's wheels and sliders are taken straight from the K2000. Sadly, the LCD is not. That said, I found no problem with the two-line display, and it's certainly easier to read under stage lights!




Using the PC88 is a cinch. Although the review model (a beta-test prototype) came with a photocopy of the manual (still in draft form), I needed to refer to it half a dozen times at most. If you do need to use the manual, you'll find it helpful and friendly. There's even a section entitled 'For people who never read manuals' which, of course, I didn't read!

There are two main modes of operation: Internal Voices and MIDI Setups. The latter is for layering internal or external sounds and setting up zones and keyboard splits. The former allows instant gratification -- plug in, switch on and play...




The PC88 offers 16 sound 'groups', with four variations in each, making 64 sounds in all. The first eight of these are acoustic pianos, ranging from Classical Piano through to brighter instruments suitable for stage use. Coming from Kurzweil, you'd expect the piano sounds to be good, and they are -- in fact I'd say that these are the finest piano sounds I have heard on any instrument. In common with the Micro Piano, you can choose between 'beat tuned', for solo work (see box on beat tuning), or 'ensemble' tuning, which works better in a mix. This is a subtle but sophisticated feature which is very welcome, and demonstrates the attention to detail which puts the PC88 ahead of the competition. I was hard pressed to find the subtle timbral changes which commonly occur at the borders of sample ranges. On a real piano, the timbre changes at various stages along the keyboard anyway (lower notes have just one string, whereas the highest notes have three) and some of the sample ranges on the PC88 have been chosen to correspond with these natural changes. In all then, a piano sound of the highest calibre.

A range of electric pianos is provided: delicate, soft Rhodes, though DX7-type FM, to the electric grand pianos we used to hear in the '70s. Bearing in mind that all of these electric instruments were originally designed to emulate the acoustic piano, it seems ironic that we should be offered so many types of piano sounds nowadays. Still, with sounds of this quality, I'm not complaining.

Though the PC88 is a piano-centred instrument, the additional sounds provided are also superb in quality and range. Emu's Proformance modules offer vibes and bass, Roland's pianos and modules tend towards classical sounds such as organs and harpsichord, but the PC88 provides all of these, as well as strings, classical guitar, and acoustic and electric bass.

The organs are top class, ranging from full-bodied, gut-wrenching distorted Leslie, through to delicate jazz organs and even a classical pipe organ. I recognised the acoustic guitar and bass sounds from the K2000. A few loops and buzzes are detectable in the bass sounds, and, like their K2000 equivalents, they give out halfway up the keyboard (though they are bass sounds, after all). However, all are quite usable, and a number are layered with a ride cymbal for those annoying 'Hamlet advert' type jazz trios!

The strings, again, are ex-K2000. They have an impressive richness and depth, and respond well to the touch of the keyboard. My favourite, 'Stereo Strings' (actually in the 'Synth Pad' group), is particularly haunting.

I was amazed when I first heard the PC88's in-built demo. Instead of the expected Chopin Prelude or Beethoven Sonata, I was treated to a Keith Emerson-style display of keyboard fireworks, focusing on a great many of the additional sounds -- not just the pianos.
Polyphony for the internal sounds is 32 notes, which is adequate, if not over-generous. You're not likely to experience note-stealing unless you layer lots of sounds. The internal sounds can also be treated by the internal effects processor. This is fairly basic and offers Reverb ('Bright' or 'Dull' -- sorry, 'Warm'), Chorus, and Delay. Although not very flexible, the effects are of reasonable quality and work well with the internal sounds. You probably wouldn't use them if you had access to a decent multi-effects unit, but they're there if you need them.




The keyboard action is superb. I'm told (off the record) that it's the same as Peavey's DPM C8 keyboard (reviewed enthusiastically in May 94's SOS) and at this summer's British Music Fair I was able to compare one against the other. They felt identical, and were both infinitely superior to any other keyboard I could find at the show. A few days later, I did come across a £60,000 Bosendorfer Grand Piano which may have had the edge, but not by much...




There are 128 'Setups' available, arranged in groups of 16. Each Setup can have up to four zones, which can transmit on separate MIDI channels, or access the internal sounds. Unfortunately, there is only one MIDI Out socket -- I found this a bit limiting and would have like a couple more. MIDI Data from a sequencer or external controller can be merged with the keyboard, but, again, as there is only one MIDI In, it would have to be one or the other.

Each zone can have a separate program, key range, velocity curve and transpose characteristic. The really clever stuff happens when the enormous list of controller functions is brought into play. The four sliders and buttons can be assigned to any MIDI Controller message, as can the footswitches and pedals. Each controller can be assigned to more than one zone, so that, for example, a slider could be used to 'crossfade' from one zone to another. One of the zones is always current -- its info is displayed on the LCD and the parameters can be altered. A slight quirk with the zone buttons caught me out a few times. In order to mute a zone, it is necessary to push its button twice -- once to make it the current zone, and again to mute it. But if it already is the current zone, pressing twice turns the zone off and back on again. Not exactly intuitive!




Kurzweil have always been good at making piano-based instruments. When I first discovered the company back in the early 1980s, their K250 was often spoken of in the same way as the Fairlight CMI and the Synclavier series, and Kurzweil products still carry a high level of respect, particularly in the UK, where (because of higher prices) they have always been more exclusive than in the US.

And although there can't be many keyboard players who are unaware of the K2000 flagship synth, many people are surprised to discover that the company also make a range of electronic pianos (the Mk5 and Mk10) which sell steadily alongside Clavinovas and traditional acoustic pianos in home keyboard shops up and down the country. Add to this the fact that Kurzweil are now owned by Young Chang, one of the world's biggest makers of acoustic pianos, and you begin to realise the kind of skill and expertise that must have gone into the PC88.

This is a mighty fine instrument, and it rewards the effort made learning to play it. If you make your music by wiggling a mouse around, then this is probably not the instrument for you. But if you have any keyboard technique at all, then the PC88 will enhance and nurture it. During the two and a half weeks I had this keyboard, I found myself playing things I would never have imagined before, and even my old synth modules seemed to come alive with the extra feel and response offered by the PC88.

You've probably gathered by now that I like the PC88; I do, for two reasons. One -- it's a great instrument; but two -- I can really play it. So all those years of suffering were not wasted. With this machine I'm dangerous -- watch out, world! 

Published in SOS January 1995

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