Kurzweil's new workstation maintains the company's reputation for solid reliability, and does so at a lower cost than you might expect...
Kurzweil have been in the keyboard workstation game for about as long as anyone, and in the 1980s were frequently at the cutting edge of sampling and sample‑playback technology. In the '90s and noughties, their output included numerous pro‑oriented and often expensive instruments that were equally well suited to live and studio work. Some were available for a surprisingly long time: the various incarnations of the upgradeable K2600 workstation, for example, launched back in the days of SCSI hard drives and floppy disks in 1999.
The spirit of those older keyboards — and some of their specific technologies — lives on in Kurzweil's current line‑up. The three models in the PC3 series are the flagship ROMplers, which Kurzweil slightly confusingly call 'Performance Controllers'. Then, for the less well‑heeled, there's the PC3LE range, of which the subject of this review, the PC3LE7, is the 76-note version.
The PC3LE7 is certainly a smart, physically well‑made keyboard, and looks rather fetching, in blue with various backlit buttons. It's 127cm long, 37cm deep and weighs 17kg, with casework that's largely of metal and end panels with nice cut‑aways that make it easy to pick up. There's a proper IEC (kettle lead) mains input that automatically adjusts to AC voltages from 90‑250Hz. The keyboard itself is by Fatar and has a 'TP/8P76' velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive action, according to the start‑up screen. The whole thing looks ready for a life on the road.
From switching on, the PC3LE7 is ready to go in about 11 seconds. Then, for the most part, you play and program it in one of three modes: Program, Setup and Song.
Program is the most straightforward mode, ideal for simple monotimbral playback and editing of presets. Recall of individual sounds can be done in multiple ways. You can use the alpha wheel or the cursor up/down buttons around it to scroll through a list. The four‑by‑six keypad at far right is printed with sound category names, and by pressing one of those you jump straight to the first sound (or a user‑programmed 'favourite') in that category. Finally, if you know the patch number allocated to a sound, you can type that in after pressing the keypad's Shift key.
Program mode offers a little more than meets the eye, though. While playback from the keyboard is essentially monotimbral, all 16 multitimbral parts are, in fact, active. For one thing, appropriate drum sounds are loaded on MIDI channel 10 every time you select a preset, and can be triggered simultaneously from the front-panel pads. And if you intend to sequence the PC3LE7 externally, perhaps from a computer DAW, it can perfectly easily stay in Program mode, with incoming patch-change messages taking care of sound selection. The Chan/Zone buttons to the left of the 240x64‑pixel LCD display step through the 16 parts/channels sequentially. Meanwhile, the six 'soft' keys beneath the LCD control octave and semitone transposition, call up information about current controller assignments, and send a 'Panic' All Notes Off message on all 16 MIDI channels. Great to have these things so readily available.
Setup mode offers a way to recall more complex combinations of programs. You can freely configure up to 16 separate zones, for the layering of sounds, keyboard splits, or MIDI controller use. If that sounds labour‑intensive, it doesn't, in fact, have to be. For example, if you're jamming in Program mode and need a quick split or layer, a prod of the dedicated Split/Layer button, and a quick answer to some questions that appear in the LCD display will get you where you need to go, and seamlessly switch you into Setup mode in the process. There are also 500 or so ready‑rolled effect types that can be assigned to individual zones, either exclusively or in an aux‑type architecture that all zones can access. There's not enough DSP grunt to have separate effects on all 16 zones — perhaps six to eight is more realistic.
Also in Setup mode, each zone can be equipped with an arpeggiator or earmarked to play back a Riff. A whole bunch of Riffs is provided, covering all sorts of drum and accompaniment patterns. But you can program your own too, in Song mode (of which, more in a moment). Riffs, notes and MIDI commands can further be triggered from the eight front-panel pads if you want to keep the keyboard free for conventional playing. It has to be said, there is deep programmability on offer here, and in Setup mode as a whole, and the arpeggiators and velocity-control possibilities are outstanding. That'll be particularly welcome to keyboardists who play live and want to squeeze the maximum flexibility and performance from a modest rig. You might not look like Keith Emerson, but you won't need a team of roadies either.
Finally, there's Song mode, which is all about the onboard sequencer. Given how far we are into the 21st century already, this strictly MIDI‑only feature might seem like a screaming anachronism. Indeed, while testing it, I was haunted by deja‑vu for the essentially similar sequencers on the Ensoniq ESQ1 and Casio CZ5000 I'd saved up for as a spotty yoof. However, the inclusion of the Song mode is a smart move, I think. If you ever did choose to use it to sequence an entire song (rather than using a computer‑based DAW, for example), it's very capable, offering an array of quantising and editing options. But perhaps its most useful role, as I mentioned, is in sequencing short musical sections and ideas that can be used as transposable accompaniment riffs and drum patterns in Setup mode. I dived in without looking at the manual first and found using it to be straightforward and intuitive.
On the PC3LE7, real‑time control of parameters takes place courtesy of five assignable front-panel knobs and buttons. Nearby Shift buttons switch in alternative 'banks' of parameters, effectively adding another five button assignments, and another 10 knobs. The panel labelling indicates dedicated functions for the KB3 organ sounds: Leslie, Vibrato, Percussion and key‑click switches, plus nine drawbar footages and Swell on the knobs, which can be a bit of a handful with just five knobs. Some synth and effects parameters are there too — Timbre, Mod, Envelope, Effect and Reverb — but in reality everything is completely re‑programmable. What's more, in Setup mode control assignment is painlessly achieved: on a dedicated Controllers page, you use the cursor buttons and alpha wheel to select a parameter to control, hold down the keypad Enter button, and press a button or waggle a knob to make the control association. This can extend to the Arp Enable and Arp Latch buttons above the pitch-bend and modulation wheels too — another nice touch. Furthermore, the PC3LE7's switch and continuous pedal inputs can be assigned to control a variety of parameters, including patch selection and sequencer transport.
Speaking of touch, the Fatar keyboard on the PC3LE7 is notably good. It's not a hammer action and it isn't pretending to be, although it provides a pretty firm and chunky resistance. It's probably about as good an answer as you're ever going to get to the problem of giving an appropriate feel for piano, electric piano, organ and synth playing. There's aftertouch sensitivity, which is useful, although not especially progressive or controllable. Surprisingly few of the preset sounds utilise it, though it's easy enough to enable.
That brings us neatly to sound editing. On the face of it, there's not much available: in Program mode, you simply hit the Edit key and then soft keys give access to basic playback settings (such as bend range), a handful of pre‑determined synth parameters, or effects settings.
However, just before I finished this review, Kurzweil released a v2.0 operating system that allows full access to each Program's VAST synthesis parameters. The OS does have a reasonable stab at making these accessible via the LCD display, even offering some graphical depictions of envelopes and signal routing algorithms, but the overall programming experience feels about the same as for any menu‑driven synth — which is to say, grim. However, I applaud Kurzweil for opening up VAST on the LE versions of the PC3. It'll be much appreciated when more ambitious users need to tweak that little bit deeper.
I've spoken a lot about features, but let's get to the heart of the matter: the sounds. Auditioning all the factory Programs takes a long time, and Kurzweil manage to offer many distinct variations on individual instruments that aren't, apparently, just the same set of samples with different effects slapped on.
Amongst the most impressive (and impressively varied) sounds are many fine brass and wind programs, covering classical, jazz and pop genres. Drum, string, synth and pads sounds are well represented too, and the KB3 organ sounds are believable, organic (sorry!) and vibey. There's a surprising number of good classical organ sounds in there too — more than I've ever encountered on any other workstation or general sound library.
For me, the keyboard instrument sounds are only OK. The LE7 lacks a 'flagship' piano, and while its 'Standard Grand' will satisfy 95 percent of gigging requirements, it loses out to more sophisticated competition in its velocity response finesse and decay‑phase believability. Among the many electric pianos, there are dozens of Rhodes and Wurli, and some that would no doubt drop effortlessly into a mix, but none with the dynamism to really satisfy an expert player.
Overall, it's an extremely broad and flexible sound palette. It loses out to the good software sound libraries in terms of realism, of course, but then so do most stage pianos and workstations, as soon as you begin to compare orchestral instruments, guitars and so on. Synth devotees should realise, too, that it's neither an old‑school analogue clone or a Virus. However, I'd be entirely confident relying solely on the PC3LE7 in a theatre pit, say, or gigging with it for all kinds of pop and rock. Also, the fact that its programs aren't all dripping in reverb and delay, and none play an entire song when you hit one note, makes them all the more useful and effective in a practical situation.
Added to this, the PC3LE7 is deeply programmable. You can get it to do what you want pretty easily, without constantly running into limitations and operating system annoyances, even if your needs are more unusual. Most aspects of operation have clearly been thought through and make sense in practical use. The one main exception to this is the less‑than‑desirable use of 'referenced' Programs in Setups. You know the sort of thing — edit a Program and any Setup that includes it changes too, without warning. Never good, and in these days of 32GB USB drives on your key ring, possibly unforgivable.
Ultimately, life with the PC3LE7 would be pretty good. It's a mature and sorted product that will appeal to many different kinds of keyboardists. For those in the market for a do‑anything, value‑for‑money workstation, it deserves to be right at the top of the shortlist. It mightn't be a highly‑strung thoroughbred, but it's a hell of a workhorse.
The most obvious alternative to the PC3LE7 is Korg's M50 workstation. It lacks aftertouch and isn't as ruggedly built, but it arguably has better synth‑sound credentials, a dedicated Mac & PC editor application, and nifty DAW integration. Most dedicated stage keyboards like the Roland Juno Stage have no sequencer, and nothing like the multi‑zone programmability, but their relative simplicity and direct appeal might suit some better.
What all the incarnations of the PC3 have in common is the use of the so‑called VAST synthesis engine (a fancy name for fairly conventional replay of ROM waveforms through a variable synth and effects architecture). There's also a KB3 sound generator for Hammond organ sounds, and anti‑aliased VA oscillators that promise convincing analogue synth emulation. Together they contribute to around 1000 editable presets. Sixteen-part multitimbral operation allows for split/layer Setups, and is also integral to the use of the onboard multitrack MIDI sequencer. Conventional five-pin DIN MIDI sockets are joined by USB MIDI, and there's an additional USB socket for plugging in 'thumb' drives.
The essential ways in which the PC3LE7 differs from its more expensive counterpart can be summed up like this:
Quick Access is yet another operation mode, and its purpose is to allow you to assemble groups of 10 sounds ready for instant recall via the embedded numerical keypad buttons. It's meant for live use, no doubt, putting a small, uncomplicated selection of sounds up front and, to a certain extent, 'locking out' deeper editing complexity. The fact that no distinction is made between Programs and Setups is a smart move. Also, there's absolutely no delay when switching sounds — in fact, if you switch while notes are being held, those notes are not interrupted, and the very next note press will play the newly recalled preset. Details like these can make all the difference in some situations.
I encountered two problems during testing. First, I couldn't get the PC3LE7 to recognise any of the three different FAT32‑formatted USB drives I own, ranging in size from 512MB to 16GB. Their LEDs didn't light, so they were apparently not being powered. Second, various real‑time controller editing actions caused the PC3LE7 to go inexplicably silent after I'd installed the v2.0 operating system. Perhaps the former was a specific hardware fault, and hopefully the latter can be addressed in an OS update.
I should also mention the OS update procedure. It's far from tricky, but it's by far the most convoluted I've come across, necessitating instructions broken down into about 25 steps and repeated power‑cycling of the keyboard. Hopefully it's something that owners won't need to do too often!