Kurzweil K1200 Professional
New UK distribution and a new synth bring the Kurzweil name back into the pages of MT. Simon Trask rediscovers Kurzweil quality and playability with their K1200.
It's been too long since Kurzweil enjoyed a visible profile on the hi-tech scene, but finally they're back with a particularly fine keyboard: the K1200.
During the '80S, Kurzweil built a reputation for themselves as purveyors of professional instruments to professional musicians at professional prices. Partly because the company's sample-based instruments oozed quality and class, partly because the company never attempted to cater for the budget end of the market, the Kurzweil name came to signify prestige and exclusivity.
But with the storm clouds of economic recession gathering in the late-'80s, the company should have been capitalising on their greatest asset - their samples, by diversifying downmarket with an affordable sample replay module. Instead they remained aloof, and it was left to another American company, E-mu Systems, to show how it should be done when they moved downmarket in 1989 with the £899 rackmount Proteus/1 sample replay unit. In fact, Kurzweil had pioneered the concept of the sample replay module in 1987 with their 1000 Series expanders, but typically they were neither "downmarket" nor "affordable" and failed to capture the wider instrument-buying public's imagination.
While E-mu enjoyed success with the Proteus, Kurzweil struggled financially, and started discussions to find a suitable buyer for the company. In April 1990 they filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the Kurzweil name, technology, and distribution and business rights were bought by South Korean piano manufacturers Young Chang Akki.
It seemed as if the Sequential/Yamaha scenario was playing itself out again. However, unlike Yamaha, Young Chang didn't let a much-valued name go to the wall, nor a valuable design team slip through their corporate fingers. Not only did the Kurzweil name survive intact - albeit as "a product line of Young Chang America Inc" - but the South Korean company established the Young Chang Research & Development Institute in Waltham MA, USA (Kurzweil's old home) for the design and development of further Kurzweil products, and put in place there a 14-strong R&D team consisting mainly of people who had been with Kurzweil from the beginning.
As a result of the change of ownership, UK distribution of Kurzweil products has passed to Acrobat Music, who, as well as being existing distributors of Young Chang's Fenix range of guitars, are also a sister company of The Piano Warehouse, who have been distributing the Korean company's acoustic pianos for the past ten years. Whether Kurzweil equipment will now be better marketed and distributed in the UK than it has been in the past remains to be seen. We can but hope so, especially as Kurzweil (or should that be Young Chang?) could have a killer of an instrument on their hands with the forthcoming K2000 synth.
It also remains to be seen whether more affordable instruments will emerge under the Kurzweil banner. For the moment the emphasis appears to be on continuity, on not rocking the boat. The K2000 is the result of several years of development by Kurzweil's engineers - while with an expected asking price of around £2500 it's hardly going to dent Kurzweil's reputation for producing expensive instruments.
Continuity is also apparent in the first Kurzweil instruments to be launched since the Young Chang take-over. The K1200 and Pro76 keyboards and the Pro 1 expander are basically improved versions of Kurzweil's K1000 keyboard and PX1000 expander. In fact, owners of the older instruments can buy software/sample upgrades which effectively transform the K1000 into a Pro76 and the PX1000 into a Pro 1.
The K1200, Pro76 and Pro 1 share the same samples and the same spec, with the exception that the K1200 has 48K of RAM for storing user Programs and other data while the Pro76 and Pro 1 both have 24K. Aside from this difference, the only consideration in choosing between the three (apart from the small matter of money) is whether you want an 88-note or a 76-note keyboard instrument or a 19" rack-mount expander (incidentally, weighing in at 65lbs, 55lbs and 16lbs respectively). Of course, for this review I couldn't pass up the opportunity to get my hands on an 88-note keyboard, so the K1200 it was.
The K1200's 88-NOTE keyboard is sensitive to attack and release velocity and channel aftertouch, while the instrument can also respond to polyphonic aftertouch via MIDI. The weighted action lends the keyboard a feeling of substance without labouring the point, while the key release is neither sluggish nor bouncy but just comfortable. The key travel is a little too shallow to allow you to really dig into the keys, but not so shallow that you feel like you're skimming across the surface of the keyboard when you play. Personally I found it very satisfying to play, and I could happily settle for it as my main keyboard. If your idea of an ideal keyboard is one which manages to steer a middle ground between the "cream puff" lightness of many 61-note synth-style keyboards and the exaggerated "weightiness" which some manufacturers seem to think constitutes a piano-style keyboard action, then you could well find yourself feeling the same way.
No prizes for guessing that the K1200 is a sample-based instrument. At its heart are 152 Soundfiles (multisamples and waveforms) stored in 6Mb of ROM, offering a broad-based collection of sounds covering all the standard instrumental categories as well as more abstract sounds courtesy of the waveforms.
"In one List you could have Programs ordered by instrument group, in another you could have the Programs for your live set, and in a third you could group sounds to conform to General MIDI."
The K1200 can store up to 256 Programs, each of which can consist of up to four Layers. A Layer in turn consists of a Soundfile, various software-patchable audio and control-signal Modules for processing the Soundfile (but no filters), and various parameters providing overall control of the Layer. As each Layer can be given its own independent note-range, you can create keyboard multisplit/layer/overlap textures within a Program using up to four different sounds. Dynamic crossfading and switching between Layers and switching in and out of Layers are also possible, using a wide range of control sources.
For instance, you could set up an acoustic bass/acoustic piano split, layer a ride cymbal on the bass, and layer strings on the piano but program the strings Layer to be triggered only by notes with velocities above, say, 100. That's a fairly straightforward example; you can be a lot more sophisticated in the way you combine Layers, if you want - if you're prepared to delve into the parameters that the instrument provides for this purpose.
The K1200 can be cycled round Omni, Poly and Multi MIDI response modes by successive presses of the front-panel Mode button in Play mode. In Omni mode it responds to notes received on all 16 MIDI channels and plays the currently-displayed Program. In Poly mode it responds only to notes received on the currently-selected MIDI channel in the display, and plays the Program assigned to that channel. In Multi mode it can respond on all 16 MIDI channels at once, with each channel's notes playing a different Program. If there are any MIDI channels you don't want the K1200 to respond on, you can simply switch them out.
Selecting a channel using the front-panel Channel Up/Down buttons when in Multi mode automatically calls its Program onto the keyboard, as in the other modes. Anything you then play on the keyboard is automatically transmitted on the relevant MIDI channel, making it easy to flick through the channels and record multiple parts into a MIDI sequencer on their relevant channels.
The K1200 dynamically assigns its 24-voice polyphony across the active MIDI channels. However, you can program a polyphonic limit and select any one of four channel-stealing algorithms for each Program if you want some control over how voices are allocated. As always, it's worth bearing in mind the practical limitations imposed by an instrument's polyphony when you start thinking what you can do with 16-part multitimbrality and four-Layer Programs. Obviously, if you're playing six-note chords using a four-Layer Program, the K1200 isn't going to be very multitimbral.
One welcome feature of the K1200 is its ability to hold sounds over Program changes; selecting a piano Program while sustaining a strings Program doesn't cut short the strings. Also, you can go in and out of Edit mode without interrupting active notes, which is more than can be said for some keyboards. While we're on the subject of laudable features, it's good to see parameter values which bear direct relation to what they're about - Hertz for pitch, decibels for volume, seconds and fractions of seconds for time.
Programmable Receive Velocity and Receive Pressure maps allow you to define different response curves for both keyboard and incoming MIDI performance. Making use of what are known as Bin Banks, you can switch between different responses at any time, to suit a different sound or a different slaved MIDI instrument.
The three buttons labelled A, B and C underneath the LCD allow you to call three different sets of Program, map and/or table assignments onto the 0-9 numeric buttons. For instance, if a song requires you to change to and fro between several Programs, simply group them together in one of the Bin Banks by assigning them to some of the numeric buttons, and then you can call them up with single button-presses. Similarly, you could assign a combination of Programs, velocity and pressure maps and intonation tables to another Bin Bank, allowing you to quickly switch between different tunings and velocity responses for different Programs. If three Bin Banks aren't enough, you can create several Bin Maps, each of which consists of three Banks, and call different Maps onto the buttons by pressing buttons 0 and 1 at the same time and then tapping in the relevant Map number.
The K1200 comes programmed with 17 Intonation tables including Just Harmonic, Werkmeister, Arabic, Bali/Java and Pythagorean w/aug4th along with, of course, Equal Temperament. You can create your own tunings by editing the tables; the pitch of each chromatic note within a master octave can be altered within the range ±1200 cents, to single-cent resolution. Another parameter allows you to define a reference note for the table, so that you can play in any key with your selected tuning.
"To begin with, using the front panel is rather confusing and long-winded but after a while you realise that the front-panel organisation is actually fairly clear."
A MIDIscope mode, selectable at any time by pressing the Play/Edit, Channel Up and Channel Down buttons simultaneously, allows you to see in the LCD the (interpreted) data being generated by the K1200's keyboard or received via MIDI. It's both easy to follow and very useful.
When you Save a Program into memory, you have to assign it to a Program ID number (0-255). Then to be able to play the Program, you have to assign its ID number to a Program entry in one of ten Program Lists. When you select a Program from the front panel or via MIDI, you're selecting the entry in the current Program List; that entry (Program 10, say) may have Program ID number 254 tagged to it. If that was a Program called 'Down&Out', Program entry ten would read 'Down&Out'.
The idea is that you can order your Programs in up to ten different ways. For instance, in one List you could have Programs ordered by instrument group (in fact, the K1200 comes programmed with such a List), in another you could have all the Programs for your live set ordered as you need to call them up, and in a third you could group sounds to conform to the General MIDI spec, so that the right types of instrument will automatically be called up by a GM-compatible song disk. If you select Extended Program Change mode on the K1200, MIDI patch changes 100-109 select any one of the ten Lists while patch changes 0-99 select the Program entries within the currently-selected List. What happened to MIDI Bank Select, then?
Finally, Performance Setups allow you to program three independent keyboard zones, each of which can have its own Program and MIDI channel assignments; with each Program having up to four Layers, you can actually have 12 different sounds on the keyboard at once, organised in all sorts of split/layer/overlap configurations. Setups can be assigned to the Bin Banks, so you can quickly switch between completely different complex keyboard configurations and MIDI routings.
The K1200 Has a minimalist front-panel layout, to say the least. There's a 2 x 16-character LCD with a rather pleasant soft green backlighting, a Volume slider, a Data slider which on our review model refused to have any effect on anything, the aforementioned A, B, C and numeric buttons, and an upper row of ten buttons which have different functions (clearly labelled) depending on whether the K1200 is in Play or Edit mode. To begin with it's all rather confusing and long-winded, especially as there are so many parameters to scroll through. After a while you realise that Kurzweil have made good use of the buttons, and that the front-panel organisation is actually fairly clear. They've also provided various helpful shortcuts, such as being able to step through selected parameters or values by pressing the relevant pairs of buttons simultaneously. But all the good organisation in the world can't make up for the fact that the K1200's front-panel layout is constricting for such a sophisticated instrument and makes life more difficult than it should - especially when it comes to editing and patching together the various software Modules. Surely Kurzweil could have been more generous on an instrument of this price.
The rear panel is similarly minimalist: MIDI In, Out and Thru, L and R stereo audio outputs and two globally-programmable footswitch/pedal inputs. On the subject of programmable controllers, the pitch and mod wheels can also be globally programmed to take on a variety of functions. The mod wheel also has a centre detent, and can be programmed with different up/down functions.
There are two important points to be made about the overall sound character of the K1200. Digital instruments are frequently criticised for lacking warmth, but the K1200's sound has a wonderfully warm quality to it. It also has a lovely deep, rich, powerful bass end which works very well for the various basses and a number of the waveforms - not least the bog-standard sine wave, which seriously booms at the bass end. Bass sounds are among my favourites on the K1200, in particular, acoustic bass, which has a lovely warm, rounded quality to it and a sense of realism which almost convinces you that you're actually plucking the strings yourself.
The Soundfiles fall into the following categories: Acoustic Piano, Electric Piano, Acoustic Guitar, Acoustic Bass, Electric Bass, Electric Guitar, Drum Kit, Percussion, Synth Clavs, Percussive Synths, Lead Synths, Synth Bells, Synth Brass, Trumpets, Tenor Saxes, Synth Strings, Orchestral Strings, Pop Strings, Harp, Marimba, Vibes, Choir, Woodwinds, Organs and Synth Pads, together with various noises and a creditable number and variety of waveforms, ranging from standard synth favourites in several variations through to more digital, spiky metallic waveforms. Not all the instrumental categories are well represented and not all the samples are strong (saxophones, for instance, are disappointing on both counts). But on the whole the K1200's Soundfiles are impressive, and up to the standard that musicians have come to expect from Kurzweil, with a real vibrancy and presence to them. There are plenty of mellow and bright, soft- and hard-struck variations on samples (notably acoustic and electric pianos and vibes), which can be used very effectively in conjunction with Layering, crossfading and velocity splitting to create dynamic changes in timbre - particularly useful when you consider that there's no filtering on the K1200.
"Musically, the K1200 is an extremely responsive and extremely expressive instrument - I now know that there are 88, not seven, steps to heaven."
Also, timbral changes are built into some of the Soundfiles, with attack velocity automatically switching between different samples of the same instrument.
Turning to the Programs, the standard Grand Piano is very classy, as you'd expect from a company who founded their reputation on the quality of their K250 acoustic piano sound. Also included are a brighter, more cutting acoustic piano, 'Hardstrike Piano', a suitably emotive 'Ballad Piano' and a jangly 'Honky Tonk'. Electric pianos include delicate, tinkling DX-type tones, rich, shimmering tones and hard-edged, fuzzy Rhodes-type tones. Wonderful stuff. There are plenty of punchy, tight basses, a 'Warm Organ' which really is warm (I'll take your word for it - Tg), some nicely grungy electric guitars, warm and chunky vibes, mellow breathy flutes, a lively and diverse collection of drum and percussion samples characterised by clarity and presence, plenty of string and choir pads, and some wonderfully evocative sounds which show what can be done with imaginative programming on the 1200.
For each layer within a Program you can select either Compiled or Modular effects. The former are effects which have been created by Kurzweil using the Modules, the idea being that you take advantage of the Modules without having to jump in and get your hands dirty programming them. There are 12 Compiled effects: Vibrato, Delay Vibrato, Tremolo, Delay Tremolo, Leslie, Chorus 2, Tremolo 2, Vibrato/Chorus 2, Phaser 2, Leslie 2, Chorus 3 and Echo 3 (the numbers indicating how many Layers are used to create the effect). You also get a selection of programmable parameters with each effect - rate, depth, ramp and trigger for the Leslie effect. Again, these "shield" you from the actual underlying parameters of the Modules.
The best way to get into Modular programming is to select one of the Compiled effects then change to Modular effects, as you can then go in and look at the actual parameter settings which create the Compiled effect. Modules consist of two LFOs, two ASRs, two Mixers, two Inverter/Negators, Amplitude Envelope, Envelope 2, Envelope Control, Pitch Control and Amp Control per Layer, plus two global LFOs and two global ASRs per Program. All Modules except the Amplitude Envelope and Envelope 2 have one or two programmable trigger inputs, allowing all manner of patching between Modules. It's basically a very traditional analogue synthesis model, but implemented in software. For instance, you can have ASR1 modulating the rate of LFO1 and the depth of the Pitch Control and/or Amp Control, while LFO1 modulates the rate of the Pitch Control and/or Amp Control. In this way you can create anything from subtle to extreme changes in the rate of LFO modulation. And with a choice of 22 waveshapes for the LFO you can do a lot of playing around with the "shape" of the modulation.
Another useful modulation chain involves routing attack velocity to the attack control input of the Envelope Control and release velocity to the release control input. As the Envelope Generator is effectively hardwired to both the Amplitude Envelope and Envelope 2, you can control the attack and release times from velocity.
The K1200 has an extensive list of control sources which can be assigned to the trigger inputs of the Modules. As well as MIDI controllers 0-31 and 64-95 (opening up the possibility of pretty extensive dynamic control in conjunction with a MIDI sequencer), control sources include attack and release velocity, channel and polyphonic aftertouch, key number, local and global LFO output and phase, local and global ASR output, mixer and inverter outputs, amplitude envelope, two velocity triggers ("on" when velocity reaches a certain point), and even sample playback rate. "On" can be used to turn something on or to hold a parameter at its maximum value, while Off can be used to turn something off or hold a parameter at its minimum value.
It's possible to simulate echo quite convincingly by carefully-programmed LFO modulation of the Amp Control module, while reverb can be simulated by setting up an extra release segment in the Amplitude Envelope (which can have up to seven attack and seven release segments), dropping the release level to around 40% fairly quickly, and then letting the final release stage fade out from there. The result can be surprisingly convincing, though obviously it's not as flexible as real reverb processing. The advantage of creating pseudo delay and reverb effects using the K1200's Modules is that each Level within each Program can have its own settings, if need be, and obviously when you use Programs multitimbrally they keep their own processing.
Other parameters which can be programmed per Layer include volume, transposition, detune, delay, pan position, touch sensitivity on/off, sustain pedal on/off, sostenuto pedal on/off, freeze pedal on/off, volume control on/off, soft range (amount of damping or boosting in response to the Soft pedal), dynamic range and bend range (from a quarter tone to a rather modest minor third each way, in quarter tone increments).
The K1200 allows you to control your keyboard textures dynamically, courtesy of the parameters Layer Enable and Layer Enable Sense. For instance, if you've got a bass/piano split and you want to double the piano with a brass sound on selected chords, you assign the brass sound to Layer 3 across the same note range as the piano, then assign, say, the sostenuto pedal as a control source for Layer 3's Layer Enable parameter. All you have to do now is depress the sostenuto pedal whenever you want to play piano and brass, and the brass sound switches in; release the pedal and you're back to piano only. If you only want the brass to come in on chordal stabs, choose VTrig 1 or 2 as your control source and set a fairly high velocity "trip" point. Then the brass sound will only come in when you play a note whose velocity exceeds that point. If you want to switch between two different Layers, select the same Layer Enable control source for both Layers and set the Layer Enable Sense parameter to Norm for one Layer and Rvrs for the other; that way, selecting one Layer automatically deselects the other. Thankfully, deselecting a Layer doesn't cut short any active notes which are playing its Soundfile; rather, they are left to play for their performed duration.
With the K1200, Kurzweil have produced an instrument which is solidly professional in both sound and feel. Its 88-note weighted keyboard is a pleasure to play, its samples and waveforms present a versatile and well-rounded collection of instrumental and abstract sounds, and the Programs it comes with are eminently playable in a variety of musical contexts. It's not a workstation, it doesn't have onboard digital effects processing, it doesn't have filtering, its user interface isn't particularly user-friendly - but none of that prevents it from being one of the most deeply satisfying hi-tech instruments I've reviewed in a long while. Why? Because it sounds absolutely wonderful - that warmth, that deep, rich bass end - and musically it's an extremely responsive and extremely expressive instrument. I now know that there are 88, not seven, steps to heaven.
Prices K1200, £1899; Pro 76, £1786; Pro 1, £1529. All prices Include VAT.
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