Paul Fishman, who always wanted to be bigger, expands to fit Kurzweil's keyboardless package
Most people on the planet Earth have heard of the Kurzweil 250 keyboard — well, most people that I know. That is not to say that most people can afford it, being a snip at the £15,000 mark for the complete package of keyboard, expanded memory, and sampling. But this still hasn't stopped it from becoming an extremely successful instrument.
It's hard to say exactly when the Kurzweil 250 really appeared as it made various attempts at a whole string of trade fairs, but I suppose it has now been available for consumption for just over a year. But first, for those of you who haven't got one sitting in every room of your house/flat/squat, I think it is necessary to cover some ground on what is a Kurzweil 250, as the Expander bears a stunning resemblance.
A damn fine question, if I may say so myself, and one that us keyboard reviewers have been rightly trained to answer. Well, it's a keyboard. Brilliant! You notice how my observation powers went straight to the point? No messing around. We are talking sampling, but not any old rubbish — this is high class.
For the record,the Kurzweil 250 keyboard actually comes with its own internal factory programme samples which are stored on ROM. These are grouped into various keyboard setups which can be played via the very fine weighted action keyboard. In the standard instrument, there are a total of 30 different voices organised into 40 keyboard setups. The combination of the reproduction of some very convincing samples, and the response and feel of the keyboard is its main selling aspect.
One of the initial tasks of the designers was to conquer the problem of reproducing a grand piano, not only its tonal range, but also its feel. This, if you think about it, is one helluva task — the changes in tone across the keyboard, the dynamic response, and the tonal dynamic response, all add up to a lot of calculations. More to the point, it calls for masses of computer memory. The breakthrough came when the designers developed something called 'Artificial Intelligence.' In all honesty, I haven't got the faintest idea how it works except to say that the computer calculates the waveform differences, depending on how the keyboard is played. That's a crude definition, but then that's me all over. Without the aid of 'Artificial Intelligence' you would need a truck-load of memory to store all the different tonal possibilities.
Well, being a 'Pre-Set Synth' has heavily contributed to the success of this instrument, aside from its technical attributes. Mind you, to define the Kurzweil 250 as a 'Pre-Set Synth' could be construed as a bit of an insult to such a fine instrument, and I am sure its creator, Ray Kurzweil, might respond to my remark with a cursory knee in the groin. To me this seems to be a fairly obvious description to apply to the 250: I'll endeavour to explain before I put my foot well and truly in it. With all the 'top of the league' — (for want of a better expression) — synthesizers/keyboards/computers, you definitely need the aptitude to operate these instruments. There's a lot of technical skill and operational know-how necessary, so therefore people who are good at programming, which I personally consider there are very few, apart from myself — (ego-ego... yawn-yawn... send money...) — are needed to assist producers and keyboard players who may have the musical skill, but couldn't tell if zero crossing points and sampling were technical terms or a form of sexual perversion. This situation has been highlighted even more in recent years with the arrival of the Fairlight, Synclavier, PPG Waveterm and the Emulator II. In fact the EII is a fine example for illustrating this point in connection with the Kurzweil. The EII is the Kurzweil's nearest competitor in price and technical possibilities. But the Kurzweil scores above its competitor for those who can't get to grips with loading floppy discs, manipulating sampled sounds, building a library of sounds and, of course, those that like the natural weighted action keyboard of the Kurzweil.
Most people who use the 250 instantly want to hear the factory sounds and play them with an acoustic feel. Mind you, what the hell a keyboard has to do with playing a string sound is beyond me — do violinists crave to play a piano across their frets? The point is, any old Willy who can hire a Kurzweil can easily find his way around the instrument, and achieve extremely good results. You don't even have to boot the bastard up — it comes ready to rock. The unknowing user can't even wipe out the internal voices or write over the factory keyboard setups as they are all protected, although it is possible to store your own. Do you get the gist of what I mean? It's this psychology that I think has been so important to the success of this keyboard.
As I have vaguely mentioned, the instrument comes 'ready sampled'. You don't even have to go out and put some poor orchestra out of work, the manufacturer has already done it for you. I'm sorry about that. I didn't really mean it. It's what we in the trade call a 'Joke'. They used to be very popular at one time. Anyway, just to put the record straight, there is only one orchestral sound and it's called an orchestra. This doesn't come in Eproms, but consists of large numbers of men and women playing wooden things with bits of gut, and people sticking large bits of metal into their faces while others hit things — bizarre, eh? It'll never catch on, although you have to admit that it is unique. By the way, everybody within this orchestra thing is highly conversant in an ancient language called VAT.
With the basic instrument comes the famed Kurzweil grand piano and strings — (staggeringly similar to the EII samples) — acoustic bass, organ, trumpet, trombone, drum kits, horn, acoustic guitar, etc. These are then organised into preset keyboard setups which, if the user wishes, can be modified and processed, then stored in another memory space as a new setup. These modifications can include any of the following keyboard assignments; modulation controls [which levers & pedals do what], chorus, echo, flanging, envelope, brightness, dynamics, vibrato, MIDI, etc, etc. The Editing possibilities for any sound are tremendously comprehensive. Furthermore, a couple of expansion packages are now available for Kurzweil owners and users:- Sound Block A is a memory expansion with 80 new factory keyboard setups, and 72 new instrument voicings, including Harp, Cathedral Choir, Oboe, Flute, Slap Bass, Chimes, Alternative Drum kits, Tymps, Congas, Marimba, Vibes, Clarinet, etc. All of these are located in memory locations 50 to 135. (Numbers 250 onwards are available for user setups).
The Sound Modelling Program enables the user to do his own sampling and manipulate the sample in all the usual ways, truncating, looping, crossfades. Although the basic instrument is a sampling keyboard, without this update you cannot sample any of your own sounds. Unfortunately, even with this update you can't mess around with internal sounds, eg experimenting with different looping points.
The quality of samples captured using the sound modelling program is, at best, excellent. Using the maximum sampling rate of 50 kHz allows about 12 seconds of any sound or sounds to be recorded, which means they will play back at 25 kHz — full bandwidth — say no more! To give you some sort of relativity to this, the Emulator II only goes up to 12½kHz. Now whether it is really that essential to have full bandwidth quality as opposed to available sampling time is a matter of taste and economics. Some very fine quality sounds come out of the EII, and I should also mention that the Fairlight's frequency response is considerably lower. Happily it is possible to vary the Kurzweil's sampling rate. The next rate down from the maximum 50 kHz is 25kHz, which gives you approximately 25 seconds of time. (This is about the same rate as the EII which has a maximum of 17½ seconds of available memory.) If you do use the 50kHz sampling rate of the Kurzweil you can only play two semitones up from the original sound. This is because the computer can't calculate anything higher than its maximum ratio. Transposing down is, of course, no problem.
A standard feature is the sequencer which is 12-track polyphonic, with a storage capacity of 7,900 notes. The software includes:- sequence editing, individual track editing and volume control, looping, quantization on playback — (an interesting feature) — step editing of individual notes, external synchronization, and, saving the best for last, simultaneous access to all onboard sounds. This is a great advantage as, normally, a limited amount of sounds can be used. To say this sequencer is comprehensive would be honest!
Mac—Attach is a reference to the Kurzweil optional extra allowing the keyboard to be linked to an Apple Macintosh computer for the purpose of offline storage — (better known to you and me as 'having a dump'). This computer link-up enables editing of soundfiles, and saves keyboard and instrument set-ups and sequences. The only problem is that you've just got to happen to have an Apple Macintosh lying around the house, otherwise it will cost you another two grand to buy one. Don't get me wrong, the combination creates a very powerful tool. The Mac is one of the best computers to work with as it is so bleedin' friendly. In America — (you must have heard of it) — the Mac is regarded as a sort of high class Commodore 64. A lot of executives have them sitting on their desks — not that they know how to use them, but let's face it, the world has never been the same since 'Space Invaders'. Because the Mac is such a good computer, other instrument manufacturers have opted for using it. There is now a sound designer program for the Emulator II and the Mac that is definitely worth checking out, but more of that another time.
Without the use of the Mac-Attach program it is impossible to off-load information from the Kurzweil as it has no internal disk drive or cassette interface. Come on lads, just a measly little 3¼" disk drive wouldn't be considered going over the top. Although there is a reliable battery back-up, it seems somewhat radical not to have provided some sort of storage. So if you're interested in the sampling program then you have got have the Mac-Attach program, and, of course, the Mac. Nice package. Should provide a good few boxes to unpack.
Take it from the top, Ray! Well some of you may have thought that I'd forgotten about the Expander, but let me put it like this — if you sawed off the keyboard of the Kurzweil 250 you would have... surprise, surprise... the Kurzweil Expander. How do they do it? It's amazing what a lick of paint can do. It is in fact the guts (to coin a phrase) of the 250, having exactly the same amount of voices (12), and editing facilities. For those of the extravagant nature, the combination of Kurzweil 250 and Expander doubles the voices you can play at the same time, and also the sequencer tracks and available memory.
Like all Expanders — (this being the only one that I know of specifically for sampling) — they are designed to be controlled via MIDI, so it is actually played from another keyboard, or by sequencing. So this instrument is for musicians who have already got some sort of MIDI keyboard sequencer — (harmonica?) — and want the excellent quality and response of the 250, but don't need another keyboard. You may well ask: 'What are Kurzweil doing with all those sawn-off keyboards? Well, coming your way shortly... you guessed it... the 'Kurzweil MIDIboard.'
Musicians are going through a psychological barrier thanks to MIDI. Having to deal with instruments that don't necessarily come with keyboards can be a bit much for them to take in. I suppose it's a matter of getting used to not having to be surrounded by loads of black and white keys. But with a price tag of £8,000 plus VAT for the Kurzweil Expander, it is seriously undercutting the 250 and will obviously lure many a musician.
I am told that the Expander is being sold ready equipped with the 'Sound Block A' memory expansion and sampling program, and Syco, who are the U.K. distributors, will be giving away a free Mac with any orders of ten or more — but don't quote me on that.
The other important thing to remember is that the Expander is a helluva lot lighter than the 250 keyboard, so just think what you'd save on hospital bills.
The Kurzweil Expander is a handy thing to take on a picnic and I would not feel offended if somebody would like to give me one.
Review by Paul Fishman