Kurzweil PC3LE Synth Workstation

May 3, 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.

 

Keyboard Action

For playing acoustic piano sounds, I like a weighted action as much as anyone, and the 88-key PC3LE8 uses the same one as the PC3K I reviewed back in January 2011. It’s non-fatiguing and has a quick key return that makes it manageable for organ and synth leads. However, if I’m covering lots of different sounds in a band all night, I actually prefer a semi-weighted action, but one with large, piano-shaped keys. My review unit was a PC3LE7, and that’s exactly what it has—a Fatar model TP9 to be precise. I was happy to find textured black keys, though in my opinion all actions of this type should rough up the white keys as well, because your fingers get slick when you’re playing all night. 

My personal and perhaps uninformed opinion is that synths that cost $1,500 or more should have aftertouch. The PC3LE line does, and there’s a nice, squishy amount of travel to it that makes it easy to bring modulation in gradually or even hold it at something less than full depth.


Drum Pads

It’s cool that you don’t need to go into multitimbral mode (called “Setup” on Kurzweil instruments) for the PC3LE’s eight velocity-sensitive pads to play a different sound than the keyboard does. At the single program level, you can choose which program the pads play as well as which keyboard note equivalent each pad triggers (ideal for mapping your favorite eight hits from a drum kit), saving the whole configuration per patch. This lets you lay down a groove without diverting the black-and-whites from their melodic duties, but the pads aren’t limited to drum sounds.

In Setup mode, the pads do more still. Tricks you can assign independently per pad include playing single notes or programmable chords (of up to eight notes) from any sound or part in your Setup, triggering the PC3LE’s Riffs (percussive or melodic phrases) on a one-shot or latched basis (press the pad once to start the riff and again to stop it), or sending a latched or momentary MIDI continuous controller message of your choice like the PC3LE’s assignable buttons do. This last behavior is implemented in quite a few factory Setups to bring in an additional layer in a given keyboard zone, or to mute one zone while unmuting another, effectively changing the sound that key zone plays. 

Unlike Program mode, Setup mode doesn’t have an obvious Pads edit page; instead, each pad is treated as its own controller (alongside the wheels, knobs, and buttons) with its own parameters on the Ctrls page. Here, I found that “reverse engineering” the factory Setups was every bit as useful as reading the manual for figuring out what the pads did and how to do similar things in my own Setups. Put in the time, and the pads offer incredibly deep possibilities for performance.

 
 The PC3LE has a port for USB memory and drives, and we like the balanced outputs and having a physical knob to adjust the display contrast.

Other Features

Things that will be familiar to Kurzweil users include the full-featured 16-track sequencer, which is essentially unchanged from the PC3 and PC3K, and the Quick Access mode. This lets you put single programs and Setups alike side by side in a “telephone keypad” matrix of ten to a screen, selecting them directly with buttons 1 through 0 on the numeric keypad. The button-to-screen visual correspondence is slightly muddled on the PC3LE, due to it combining numeric and category selection duties on the same 24-button grid—the full PC3 has a separate numeric keypad. This is no big deal once you get used to it, and for me, setting up multiple Quick Access banks that correspond to my set lists is still the way to use any Kurzweil synth in live performance.

Whether you’re in Program, Setup, or Quick Access mode, changing sounds doesn’t cut off previous held notes, a virtue I file under “there ought to be a law.” Unlike on the PC3 or PC3K, you do hear a “bump” in the sound if the new patch uses different effects. 

Riffs, which debuted in the PC3, represent Kurzweil’s approach to incorporating “played” musical phrases into realtime performance or MIDI recording. You get the whole enchilada here, with any zone in a Setup being able to play a Riff, one-shot or continuous play, automatic transposition to follow your root changes (or not), and options for what beat or bar the Riff will snap to when triggered in a larger musical context. You can place Riffs into a sequence in Song mode, or use the sequencer to create your own, which you’d then trigger from a key or drum pad in a Setup. Separate from Riffs is a more traditional (but deep and pattern-rich) arpeggiator.


Conclusions

If the PC3K can be thought of as “the new K2600” in terms of what it does and who it serves, the PC3LE is the new K2000: It hits an important portability and pricing sweet spot for most working keyboard players—there’s a world of psychological difference between “under two grand” and “two or three.” However, the PC3LE gives you much more of what the PC3K does than any K2000 ever borrowed from its bigger-but-younger K series brother. We don’t need a Kurzweil history lesson to frame its value, though: High-quality samples, organ and analog modeling, a deep synthesis engine, expert programming of same, a great action with aftertouch, and a decent amount of physical controls make this a mid-market instrument that sounds and handles like a high-end one.


PROS

Huge selection of realistic, soulful, gig-ready sounds. Special strength in vintage keys and synth categories. Great feeling drum pads with flexible functions. Keyboard senses aftertouch. 

CONS

Polyphony of 64 voices seems stingy, as many less expensive gig- keyboards offer 128. Effects editing is quite limited.

Bottom Line

Killer sounds, multiple synthesis methods, a great key action, and other high-end features make the PC3LE a singular bang-for-buck sweet spot.

61 keys: $1,695 list | $1,495 street

76 keys: $1,995 list | $1,795 street

88 keys: $2,395 list | $2,195 street

kurzweil.com

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