Kurzweil are well known for their high-quality sounds, but less so for affordable hardware in which to house them. Is the new £350 ME1 the answer?
Right from their beginnings in the early '80s, Kurzweil have always done things in their own way. The classic K250 certainly stood out from samplers of the time, while the K2000, 2500, and 2600 have maintained a dignified presence at the top end of the market with their multifarious upgrades and add-ons. For musos on a budget, the 1000 series provided a range of modules with K250 sounds at a relatively affordable price (see my Retrozone article in SOS April 2000), while many players gained access to K2000 piano sounds via the diminutive Micro Piano, a half-rack 'plug in and play' sound module reviewed in SOS April 1994 by Derek Johnson. Despite its name, the Micro Piano also offered some nice organs and strings, making it a fine source of quality sounds, and although it was only monotimbral, it did have generous (for the time) 32-note polyphony. Not surprisingly, it had a lot of fans and sold well over the ensuing years.
Fast forward to 2002 and the Micro Piano is gone, replaced by the new ME1 Micro Ensemble, with sounds derived from Kurzweil's PC2 keyboard. At first sight, the Micro Ensemble looks almost identical to the Micro Piano: it's a half-rack, 32-note polyphonic module, the front panel is similarly minimal, and the data and power/volume pots are the same. Instead of the black casing of its predecessor, the new model has a brushed aluminium finish, and the build quality is sturdy, well up to what we expect from Kurzweil. There are just two buttons for Mode and Bank/Menu selection, and 'Panic' (pressing both buttons at once) will generate an 'All Notes Off' message. Three LEDs cover program, channel and global, and a dot-matrix display shows operating status and parameter settings. Round the back, we find MIDI In and Thru sockets (though there's no MIDI Out), left (mono) and right audio outs, and a headphone jack, which was missing from the Micro Piano. The unit is still powered by an external PSU, though.
What is new is that the Micro Ensemble is fully multitimbral across all 16 channels, and with 256 sounds that cover most musical bases. When you switch on, the dot-matrix display scrolls across reading 'Kurzweil Micro Ensemble' and when the program mode LED lights up and a '1' appears in the display, you're ready to play.
There are two basic ways of setting up the Micro Ensemble: you either do it via MIDI (of which more in a moment), or via the front panel. This latter selection method involves pressing the Mode Select button so that the channel LED is lit, and selecting the channel itself via the data knob. You then press the Mode Select button twice to select Program mode, and use the Bank button and Data knob to select your sound. As you can imagine, setting up the sounds on all 16 channels can take some time, and you aren't particularly gratified to discover the fact that all the settings are lost on power-down, defaulting to Bank A, Program 1!
As already mentioned, the ME1 has 256 sounds, and for the purposes of front-panel sound selection, these are organised into 16 banks of 16, accessed by choosing a bank (from A-P) and then the sound number (1-16) from that bank. When selecting sounds via MIDI, however, the programs are split between just two MIDI banks, 0 and 6, each of 128 sounds. Still more confusingly, all the sounds numbered 1 to 8 in the 16 front-panel selection banks are in MIDI bank 0, while all those from 9 to 16 in banks A to P are in MIDI bank 6, so the division for MIDI banks cuts across sensible sound groupings. To swap from the first MIDI bank to the other, you have to send a MIDI Bank Select controller message (Controller 32, value 6 to select the bank, and then the program number from 1-8). The manual rather glibly suggests simplifying this selection process by setting your sequencer to 'PC2 mode' to access the same name/number/bank assignment as the Kurzweil PC2. This is fine if you have a copy of Cakewalk or Cubase with this feature included, but it does seem rather exclusive if you don't use either of those particular programs.
My review ME1 also had a glitch that left any MIDI-selected sound inaudible after a Bank Select message had been sent until I pressed the two buttons for panic mode. I've let Kurzweil know about this bug, but at the time of going to press, it wasn't clear whether it was restricted to just the review unit, so I suggest you test one in a shop if you're interested.
As explained in the main text below, 16 banks of 16 sounds are available via the front panel. They comprise:
- Bank A: Classical pianos.
- Bank B: Rock pianos and piano pads.
- Bank C: Rhodes and electric-piano sounds.
- Bank D: Wurlitzer and FM pianos.
- Bank E: Electric grands and pads.
- Bank F: Clavinets, harpsichords, accordions, celestes and calliope sounds.
- Bank G: Organs.
- Bank H: Brass and saxes.
- Bank I: Strings.
- Bank J: Vocals.
- Bank K: Synth leads and basses.
- Bank L: Synth pads and textures.
- Bank M: Guitars.
- Bank N: Basses.
- Bank O: Drumkits.
- Bank P: Percussion.
When accessed via MIDI, the sounds are instead organised into two banks of 128 sounds, accessed via MIDI Controller 0 and 32 messages with a second value of 0 or 6 to access the bank. The manual is completely unhelpful here, presuming that you have a 'PC2' mode on your sequencer. Note that the two banks of sounds split the different front-panel categories, so Pianos 1-8 will be in MIDI bank 0, while 9-16 are located in MIDI bank 6.
There are nine settings here, with a default 0 setting which turns any effects off. The settings are:
- 1: 'Room and Chorus' — short decay, soft reverb plus chorus.
- 2: 'Bright Room and Chorus' — a brighter reverb than 1.
- 3: 'Stage & Chorus' — medium decay, soft reverb plus chorus.
- 4: Bright Stage and Chorus — a brighter reverb than 3.
- 5: 'Hall & Chorus' — long decay, soft reverb plus chorus.
- 6: 'Bright Hall & Chorus' — a brighter reverb than 5.
- 7: 'Large Hall & Chorus' — maximum decay, soft reverb plus chorus.
- 8: 'Large Bright Hall & Chorus' — a brighter reverb than 7.
- 9: 'Deep Space' — a combination of reverb and echo.
Global mode is where parameters that affect all MIDI channels at the same time are controlled. Accessed via the menu button in this mode, we have Transpose (up or down an octave), Tune (up or down a semitone, divided into cents), Effects Type (up to nine types of reverb & chorus, plus the superb 'Deep Space' setting first seen on the Micro Piano — see the box above for a full listing), Chorus and Reverb Levels (settings of 0 to 99); and Demo Songs (an ensemble track showing the capabilities of the unit in its full multitimbral glory, and two solo piano tracks, the second of which is a rendition of Debussy's 'Girl with the Flaxen Hair' which shows off the piano sound admirably.
When it comes to the ME1 and MIDI, there's good and bad news. The manual is horribly short on key details to the point where you're left on your own to discover just what controls what. The MIDI implementation chart explains that the ME1 responds to the full key range of C0-C8, and channel aftertouch and pitch-bend are available (although intriguingly enough, the pitch-bend won't work on sounds if the sustain pedal is used to hold a chord). The ME1 also responds to many generic MIDI controllers, such as those for mod wheel and breath controller, but irritatingly, the effects of these vary considerably from patch to patch, and yet are not explained in the manual. Also, you'll need a decently equipped MIDI controller or a sequencer to route data sliders to some of the more esoteric controller numbers.
The functions controlled by more commonly used controller numbers are also accessible from the front panel of the ME1, including volume, expression, and pan, as well as reverb and chorus levels, but due to the minimalist user interface, it's a rather long-winded proposition, with lots of button-pressing and knob-twiddling, so these parameters are hardly suitable for on-the-fly adjustment in the middle of a live performance. Another potential source of problems is that there seems to be no way of switching off unwanted MIDI channels if you want to use the Micro Ensemble together with another multitimbral unit. Or at least, if there is, the manual doesn't tell you, nor could I find one.
These criticisms aside, what is the ME1 like to play? Well, fortunately, sounds are what the Micro Ensemble is all about; it offers a fine range suitable for most types of music, and you'll find that the basic quality is well up to Kurzweil's past standards. The main points of note are the piano sounds; there's a new triple-strike acoustic piano sound for added realism and response, and the Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos have been sampled in stereo. The attention to detail really shows; for example, one of the acoustic pianos has just the right level of hammer clunk, and many of the Rhodes and Wurlitzer pianos have a space and depth to them that made them sound, to me, even better than the originals. Some of electric piano sounds gradually distort as you play them louder, implying that care has been taken when velocity switching the samples, and this is also apparent on the basses, which offer (for example) velocity-switched slap and pull sounds on the same note.
The organs, however, are rather polite. You won't find the KB3 organ sounds from the Kurzweil PC2 here, so there are no gut-wrenching Emersonian tones on tap. What you get is a reasonable range of organ sounds that will blend nicely in any mix, but most lack the swirl of a Leslie cabinet. The brasses, though, sound big and meaty, and also use velocity switching to add realism, although there's not much in the way of vibrato available from the mod wheel, and the trombones, in particular, suffer here if you're hoping to recreate the big-band sounds of yore.
I compared the ME1's strings to those of my Kurzweil 1000-series modules, and found them very useable— they're warm and synthy in texture, and lack some of the brightness heard on earlier Kurzweil products. One or two of the string sounds suffer from abrupt envelopes, where the sound decays too much after the attack, but as a string player myself, I'm being picky here.
There are many good sounds to play with and explore, but here is a selection of my personal favourites.
- A1: 'Stereo Grand' — a vintage mellow piano sound that is rich, warm and responsive.
- B14: 'Organic Piano' — a smooth piano sound layered with vocal 'ooh's an octave lower.
- C6: 'Dyno E. Pno' — a particularly nice stereo chorus Rhodes.
- D3: 'Brkfst In Korea' — instant Supertramp. Superb!
- E12: 'Air Society' — a breathy pad with filter sweeps. Very effective.
- E15: 'Alien Salt Mine' — wind noise and what sound like bowed bell textures producing Wavestation-like loops.
- G8: 'Pipe Organ' — a warm and woody church organ.
- H1: 'Big Brass' — meaty and powerful brass in octaves.
- H6: 'Bari/Tenor Sect' — rich and honky, with the tenors velocity-switched to get brighter with volume. Very realistic.
- J3, 4, & 5: 'Baa', 'Doo', and 'Daa' — classic and famous Take 6 vocal sounds.
- K10: 'Sunspot Lead' — a Jan Hammer overdriven Minimoog lead sound. Excellent.
- L13: 'Etherial Strings' — a synth pad with a notch filter sweep controllable from the mod wheel.
- L14: 'Free Res Aah Notch' — another Wavestation-like pad, with stereo filter sweeps.
There are even some vocal sounds from the sample stable of famous vocal group Take 6, although the first two vocal patches ('Ooh><Aah' and 'Doo><Daa') require the use of a controller message to switch between the two vowel sounds... and the manual doesn't tell you which one, nor did my investigations to find it bear fruit.
The synth leads and pads are a mixed bunch, from nice Moog emulations to pads that exhibit almost Wavestation-like movement, and could be excellent for soundtracks and ambient material. The guitar and bass sounds are particularly realistic, with the 12-string mapped to the correct octaves below the B string, and unisons thereafter, while the lead sounds are nicely grungy. I thought the synth basses usable for a wide range of styles including dance, but you'll search in vain for any truly thunderous Moog Taurus-like patches.
The drums are excellent throughout. Kurzweil don't stick to the GM standard of mapping, but this has allowed the use of some creative ideas, like the way three adjacent notes trigger the same sound. This makes drum and cymbal rolls easier to program in real time, and thereby more realistic. Many of the drum kits and percussion sounds can be altered via the mod wheel, which controls pitch, envelope or sustain depending on the patch, and you can have hard or soft mallet attacks for the marimbas.
In fact, this use of the mod wheel is not limited to percussion — many of the ME1's sounds make use of it to add a variety of effects, from the expected (and rather oversubtle) vibrato to filter sweeps, stereo chorus and tremolo. Some sounds are even programmed so that the mod wheel applies octave pitch-bends to certain of the layers that make up the sound, or so that the wheel controls the balance of the different layers in the patch. This careful programming greatly increases the number of available sounds — it's just a shame that although the sound engine is capable of such finesse, the end user doesn't seem to have been given access to it; at least, not if the documentation is anything to go by!
Mentioning the layers used in some sounds brings me to my final point, which is that the available polyphony of 32 notes is soon eaten up by sounds of this type. While the Micro Ensemble is fully capable of playing a complete arrangement, you have to go carefully if you select big pad sounds with three or more layers, which could be a problem if you're of the 'kitchen sink' persuasion in your arrangements (I know I am). One other feature inherited from the Micro Piano allows you to sustain a sound, change patches, and play the new sound without cutting off the previous one, and although this is handy, it also makes it easy to run out of polyphony in some situations.
So, how do I sum up how I feel about the Micro Ensemble? Despite all my whinges, this is a great-sounding budget module, with a vast range of very high-quality sounds that will add to anyone's setup. The sounds exhibit no detectable artifacts, and for the performer the range of nuances and subtleties are second to none. The main problem is the manual, which seriously needs a rewrite to include, at the very least, the range of controllable parameters.
If this were done, you could get even more mileage out of what is, in the final analysis, a first-class unit at an unbeatable price — and it's £250 less than the Micro Piano from eight years ago, for heaven's sake! If you've lusted after Kurzweil sounds, but thought that they were beyond your reach, the Micro Ensemble might be the answer to your prayers.
- Fabulous sound quality.
- Compact size.
- Very competitively priced.
- Manual lacks many important details.
- Though the ME1 responds to many generic MIDI controllers, their effect on sounds is not documented.
- Settings disappear on power-down.
- No MIDI Out to store settings.
- No way of switching off unwanted/unused MIDI channels.
A flawed masterpiece; it's unbeatable value, and on its sounds alone, it's a must-have unit, but the unhelpful manual and MIDI implementation means you're on a voyage of discovery as to what it can do. It's capable of far more than at first sight.