Kurzweil PC3LE Synth Workstation
By Stephen Fortner
Fri, 3 May 2013
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If you’re looking for one keyboard to make every sound you might ever need at a gig, and you’re looking at anything other than a company’s highest-end model, you’re going to expect some compromises. Kurzweil’s PC3LE surprised me with how few such compromises it makes. The ones it does make are largely ones you won’t hear in the course of playing with a band, and the sound quality and variety are on par with the company’s pricier offerings. The PC3LE has been around for a little while now, and perhaps not received as much buzz as this or that sexier or more specialized synth. That’s a shame, because it’s a major “sleeper” value that does almost everything very, very well. Let’s investigate.


Overview

What are you giving up compared to the full blown PC3 family? Let’s start with my surprise at what you’re not giving up. To do this, we’ll need a quick Kurzweil primer: The PC3 and PC3K are multiple-sound-engine synths whose sonic raw materials include PCM samples, tonewheel organ modeling (KB3 mode), and modeled analog (KVA) waveforms. Underlying all this is Kurzweil’s signature Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology (VAST) engine.

As quickly as I can explain it, VAST lets you pick from a number of signal chains (called algorithms), plug different processors (filters, envelopes, waveshapers, and much more) into blocks along those chains, modulate nearly anything with nearly anything else, and even shape the behavior of that modulation using a Hawking-worthy roster of mathematical functions. In effect, it was the first readily available “virtual modular synth,” with an early version implemented in the K2000 as early as 1991.

Point being, the PC3LE has all the PCM sounds, all the analog and KB3 organ modeling, and access to almost all the same VAST parameters as the PC3 and PC3K—where I might expect that a “lite” version such as this would go PCM-only. Notable differences are 64-voice polyphony instead of 128, effects being limited to one insert and one aux send per program (though you get presets with mulit-effects chains), and a total of 10 “units” of DSP (processing power) where the PC3 has 16. This means you’ll be able to stack fewer parts in a multitimbral Setup before running out of polyphony, and fewer of those parts will be able to have effects. Speaking of polyphony, 64 voices seems light in an era when some less expensive keyboards boast 128, but Kurzweil’s voice allocation algorithm has always been one of the smartest in the business when it comes to masking any stealing that may be going on. Polyphony wasn’t a problem on any live gig where I used the PC3LE, but in the studio, it wasn’t difficult to create Setups that maxed it out fairly quickly.

One more thing: You’re limited to the factory ROM samples; unlike on the PC3K, you can’t load your own samples for use as the “oscillators” in a program.

If you’re programming-minded, VAST is still one of the deepest synthesis engines out there. If you’re more about playing great sounds at the gig and realtime tweaking, 

the PC3LE takes VAST out of your way: VAST parameters now live under their own button in program edit mode, and you no longer have to dig into them to change (for example) which knob adjusts the filter cutoff. This is now done on a “Params” page where you scroll to a parameter in a simple list, hold the Enter button on the keypad, and operate the knob or button that you want to control it. To make something show up on the Params page that’s not already there, you do need to dip into the VAST section, though. The fairly basic effects parameters that can be edited also show up on the Params page. When you’re playing sounds and not in edit mode, the main display shows a pop-up every time you touch a controller that’s been assigned to something, telling you what it does in plain language. 

 

Sounds

Electromechanical keyboards such as Rhodes, Wurly, Clavinet, Pianet, CP electric grand, Mellotron, and RMI Electra-Piano are a particularly strong suit of the PC3LE. Here as on other Kurzweils, many are named to suggest classic songs that used the original instruments. These are still some of the most soulful, vibey, and realistic vintage keys you’ll find in a hardware synth. A single sound program in the PC3LE can have as many as 32 layers, stacked and switched via velocity, controllers, and the myriad of if-then reasoning VAST can use to create modulations. Rhodes programs take special advantage of this, and for my money, rival what any plug-in can do in terms of detail and nuance.

Kurzweil’s time-tested triple-strike grand still holds up well onstage. There’s an organic quality to it, and a propensity for cutting through the band without relying on exaggerated treble and metallic sounding harmonics to do so. Heck, Billy Joel was still using a Kurzweil PC2X in his grand piano shell on his last tour with Elton John. (Sir Elton played a real Yamaha grand, of course.) Critically listening in the studio, though, this sample is showing its age. Still, on cover band gigs, I reach for the “NYC Jazz Grand” and “Pop Power Piano” programs, and don’t feel deprived for piano at all.

Most of the organs come courtesy of KB3 programs, which take over the VAST engine to model tonewheels, drawbar control, overdrive, vibrato/chorus, harmonic percussion, a Leslie effect . . . really everything you’d find in a dedicated clone. Compared to a good current clone, these sounds aren’t going to blow you away out of the box (largely because the clones have improved so much since KB3 first appeared), but KB3 has a lot of parameters under the hood and can get dramatically better if you experiment. As-is, the sounds are still good enough to make you consider whether you really need to take that extra clone to a gig where there’s tight stage space, load-in time, or pay.

Analog-style pads, leads, comps, basses, and other synth sounds are excellent throughout, as are programs meant to evoke digital synths like the PPG Wave or Roland D-50. While the KVA waveforms are the star of the show, the filters and other VAST processors are so good that plenty of utterly convincing synth programs begin with the “regular” sampled waveforms. The sheer variety of sounds is almost overwhelming.

Orchestral sounds are just as plentiful and lifelike. Their realism is actually surprising when compared to more recently sourced samples in other keyboards. There’s a raw quality to many of them, especially string sections, that I really like having on my palette next to the more “polished to a high shine” approach of, say, Roland’s SuperNatural sounds in the new Jupiters. That said, the latter have the edge when it comes to realtime articulation switching.

I put the PC3LE next to a 61-key PC3K I have on loan to review Kurzweil’s upcoming Kore64 sound expansion (this is not available for the PC3LE) and compared identical programs and Setups to see if I could hear any differences in sound quality. Verdict: The PC3LE sounds just as good.

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