Kurzweil Forte first look

July 18, 2014
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I just got to visit Young Chang Research and Development in Waltham, Massachusetts, a town just northwest along route 128 from Boston--a corridor often referred to as the Silicon Valley of the East Coast. This is where Kurzweil's U.S. engineering team develops products, and their marketing arm had told me the Boston boys had a very-close-to-final prototype of the new Forte stage piano to show me. So I grabbed my trusty Zoom Q4 video camera, hopped in a rental car, and made the three-hour drive from where I'd been visiting friends and family in Vermont. First to see a new and highly-anticipated stage keyboard? Yes, please!
 
Having been a Kurzweil user since buying my first K2000 in 1994, I came away duly impressed. What follows is absolutely not a full review, but Kurzweil will be sending me one of the first units off the production line, which I'm looking forward to reviewing personally.
 
The first thing to know is that this is a completely different (and superior) animal compared to the Artis stage piano we reviewed in the March 2014 issue, which as the reviewer noted, amounted to a PC3K8 with a new piano sample and user interface. Owing to my writer-guy video skills, what I shot was informal and won't be premiering at Sundance anytime soon, but I hope it's informative. Keep reading below the video player for the bullet points of the Forte's highlights. If you can't see the videos on your mobile device, CLICK HERE for our YouTube mirror.
 
 
Highlights:
 
16GB of Flash memory for sample storage:  Kurzweil calls this "FlashPlay" technology, and this quantity of memory currently outclasses, by a comfortable margin, any hardware pro keyboard instrument on the market. Currently it's for storing factory sounds only, but engineer John Richmond told me that they're currently examining ways to open it up to importing user samples (the Forte does not do user sampling itself, however), and that the potential to expand it beyond 16GB exists.
 
The sounds that are in that sample memory: What's brand new in the Forte are the acoustic piano, electric piano, and Clavinet sounds. The premier piano sound has eight seamless velocity layers and new sampling sessions were conducted on a nine-foot Hamburg Steinway. The secondary piano is a seven-foot Yamaha C7, also eight-way dynamic. Rhodes and Wurly EPs were sampled both through miked amps and directly, and along with the Clavinets, feature eight layers of dynamics as well. I've used the term "leapfrog" to refer to a significant jump in sound quality before, and relative to other hardware keyboards currently on the market, this is one of the longest jumps I've heard yet. The pianos are warm and simply spectacular, the EPs are full of vintage attitude, and the Clavinets feature variations that reflect the multiple pickup positions you can select on the real thing.
 
KB3 mode, which retasks some of the Forte's DSP power to do a modeled, fully polyphonic Hammond B-3 and Leslie emulation, is present and to my ears sounds like Kurzweil's best yet. 
 
What sounds aren't new? Just about everything else is based on legacy samples, though most programs have been revoiced, that is, tweaked at the parameter level to take maximum advantage of the Forte's increased DSP power, better D/A converters, and so on. Virtual analog sounds are top-notch, as they're based on modeled waveforms and filters originally developed for Kurzweil's VA-1 synthesizer, a true unicorn of the synth world. I'll go so far as to say they sound more "analog" than a Nord or a Virus, and you'd have to have some really golden ears to put on a blindfold and differentiate them from any current analog poly-synth.
 
Though not based on new sampling sessions, things like orchestral strings and brass drip with character and playability. 
 
Controller assignment: In most sound programs, all eight sliders (and the buttons above them) are fully implemented. They're usually mapped to the stuff you'd most want to tweak in live performance, such as filter cutoff and resonance, envelope attack and release, and so on. Useful info screens for each program or multi tell you what each slider does.
 
Ease of splitting and layering: Though the Forte is fully 16-part multitimbral if accessed via MIDI, its OS currently supports four-way multis, with any combination of splits and layers you could want. Thanks to the new and spacious color display, what zone the controls are affecting and what the key ranges are is always up front and obvious. I'd say Kurzweil took a cue from the Roland RD-800 here, but they've been working on the Forte long enough that it's clear this isn't a copying of how anyone else's keyboard works.
 
Underlying DSP technology: The custom DSP chip that does the audio heavy lifting in current Kurzweil instruments is nicknamed MARA. Where a PC3K has two MARA chips, the Forte has three. Two are devoted to sounds and polyphony (enabling, for example, the layering of a KB3 program with "regular" programs without any glitches or polyphony robbing) and one is tasked to effects processing. I have yet to try to hit the ceiling of the Forte's capabilities (be assured that I will when it comes time for the full review), but it's hard to imagine that happening in any real-world gigging scenario. Horsepower-wise, this is an extremely robust system.
 
What it isn't: The Forte is not a workstation, as there's no onboard sequencer--only pre-programmed demo riffs. Nor would we call it a full-blown synthesizer. Under the hood, it certainly is making use of Kurzweil's time-tested VAST sound engine, but the user doesn't have access to program-level parameters such as oscillator waveforms, the ability to change processors in a VAST algorithm, and the like. Pressing the "Edit" button accesses controller assignments, effects, and other things geared towards live performance. Again, parameters that make the most difference to your sound (filter, envelope, effects sends, etc.) are pre-assigned to sliders and therefore are accessible, and a nifty touch is that if you're playing around with the sliders and arrive at a variation on a factory sound that you really like, you can simply tap "Save" twice to save a user program with those new controller entry values.
 
Our initial take: This is a categorically high-end and professional stage piano-slash-all around live performance keyboard, with a planned MAP price to match: $3,995. That price seems very high if you just say the words "stage piano" to yourself, but I think that description doesn't actually do the Forte justice. It's closer in concept to a Nord Stage 2 than anything else, and the 88-key weighted version of the Stage 2 streets for almost $1,000 more--a price that people gladly pay. Granted, the Forte presents a user interface that's more stage piano-like and generic than the Nord, but what it's really doing--lots of piano and vintage keys sounds with real-time controls, virtual analog synthesis, and B-3 organ emulation, all splittable and layerable with one another--makes it more like the Stage than anything else. I've yet to do a head-to-head between the two for sound authenticity and quality, but my initial impression is that the Forte is indeed competitive, and likely better in the acoustic piano category. Plus, I think that "generic" interface, where you zone and select sounds in a familiar "multi" paradigm--could work in the Forte's favor among pro and semi-pro gigging keyboardists.

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