After being quiet for a while, Kurzweil are stirring up quite a storm with their latest synth. MT grabbed one for review only to find it had been sold to New Order - consequently, Nick Batzdorf reports from the US.
Kurzweil instrument launches are few and far between - but they're well worth waiting for, as the new K2000 demonstrates.
Kurzweil have, in part, established their reputation as a manufacturer of high-quality, professional instruments. This approach to "quality" is also demonstrated by the fact that their models remain current for far longer than is usual in modern synthesiser marketing - their K250 keyboard, for example, is still a popular choice (with those who can afford it). When Kurzweil do release a new keyboard, then, it's an "event" in its own right. Make no mistake about the new K2000 - it's set to be a major instrument.
The K2000 is a 24-voice, sample-based, multitimbral synthesiser. Its five-octave, velocity, release velocity, and channel aftertouch-sensing keyboard can be programmed to send MIDI data on three overlapping zones, each with its own MIDI channel and control parameters. There's an onboard global multi-effects processor licensed from DigiTech - it's actually the same engine that's in their DSP 256XL.
The unit comes with 8Mb of ROM sounds. If you add sample memory you can load further samples from the onboard DOS format 3.5" disk drive, from a hard disk via the instrument's SCSI port or by using MIDI Sample Dump (more on this later). Space is provided inside the K2000 for an internal hard drive as large as 240Mb. (A stereo sampling option that will include AES/EBU, SPDIF digital ins and outs as well as optical ins will be available in the next few months.) There are four memory slots, so there's space for up to 64Mb of sample memory (you can fill the slots with 1Mb, 4Mb, or 16Mb SIMMS in pairs). This is not to be confused with the battery-backed program and sequencer memory.
I'm delighted to report that the onboard sequencer is rudimentary. It can record real-time, multichannel sequences as played from the K2000's own keyboard or imported via MIDI. It will play MIDI type 0 sequence files (one multichannel track; type 1 files have side-by-side tracks), but it has no editing functions. One of my current frustrations is that you seem to have to buy a sequencer with every piece of equipment - buy a patchbay, get a sequencer thrown in - and this seems to me to be the ideal compromise.
Amongst the buttons, knobs, and sockets is a ten-key pad that's also used to enter ASCII characters, an Alpha wheel, data in/decrement buttons, cursor navigation buttons, a programmable slider, a 240x64 character LCD with adjustable contrast, two programmable footswitch inputs, a control pedal input, a stereo headphone jack... And more, which I'll spare you.
The K2000's system structure is quite straightforward. You start with raw Sample Roots, which are mapped to the keyboard to form a Keymap of samples (or multisamples) that play within a prescribed range of velocities. The Keymap is processed through an Algorithm, which is a series of DSP functions.
A processed Keymap is called a Layer. The K2000 can play up to 24 simultaneous Layers (it's a 24-voice instrument), and the dynamic voice allocation works extremely well. Up to three Layers and an effects program may be assigned to a Program, and up to three Programs form a Setup. Each Program in the Setup can have its own keyboard zone (zones may be overlapped) and MIDI channel. There's also a convenient Access mode in which to store lists of frequently-used Programs and Setups for quick access.
The exception to the three Layer limit is that one channel can be designated as the Drum Channel. Here up to 32 Layers can be independently processed. The idea is that you can give each drum its own EQ, for example - although there's no law saying that this multilayer program has to be used only for drums. Why only one Drum Channel? Because the K2000's CPU has "only" enough power to handle 15 three-Layer Programs and one 32-Layer Program.
This is simply one of the best-sounding instruments I've heard in a very long time. It's clean, bright, and remarkably free of digital noise. It also sounds so warm and rich that the "analogue" sounds (which aren't, of course) are extremely convincing. The factory Minimoog bass preset is a good example of this.
If you're looking for the renowned K250 sounds (which are among the best acoustic instrument samples available), you may be a little disappointed, as the K2000 includes only a handful of them. The good news here is that Kurzweil intend to release them all at some point.
"If you run the signal through a filter, you're using subtractive synthesis; if you add a waveform, you're using additive synthesis; if you use a sampled attack..."
Actually, these are samples taken from the same orchestral instrument recording session that the K250 sounds came from, but they've been reprocessed for the K2000's improved 16-bit resolution. They will be included in the two 8Mb ROM block upgrades that have been announced (you'll also need an additional circuit board to hold the blocks). The instrument has room for a total of three of these blocks, for a total of 24Mb - the block that comes with the instrument, plus the two others. The K250 sounds will also be available individually on disc at some point.
Happily, the renowned Kurzweil grand piano sound is included, and it sounds brighter than it ever did on the K250 or 1000 modules. Other "real" instrument samples include a fabulous flute, good acoustic guitars (both steel and nylon string), a very usable electric jazz guitar (that's processed in various factory programs to sound like a distorted lead, a clean lead, a blues guitar, and so on), electric piano, trombones, electric basses, a string section that doesn't quite measure up to the original, an excellent trumpet, and trombones that are also processed into a convincing orchestral French horn section. Many of the above are velocity crossfaded.
Among the many percussion samples are ambient and dry drums (some of the toms sound a little roto-tom like to my ears), as well as some perky congas and other Latin percussion sounds.
In addition to the samples proper, the K2000 houses a number of attack transients (chiff, brass attack, wood bar attack, conga attack), short multisamples (wood bars, solo strings, and muted guitars), and single-cycle waveforms.
Many of the factory sounds are designed to show off the instrument's versatility, rather than to be musically useful. Included among the demonstration sounds is a setup called 'Sell Your Old Gear' - well, you can't blame them for trying. The musically useful sounds include a full range of analogue-style synth sounds to various Indian Raga instruments (a very convincing sitar that's derived from the steel string guitar samples, tablas derived from the conga samples...). There are also 17 global alternative tuning presets, for those of you so inclined.
Will the presets sell the instrument, like they did on the K250 and 1000 series? I'm not sure, but it doesn't take much imagination to see that with a little bit of work you can make this thing sound just about any way you want it to. The situation is further diffused by the fact that the K2000 has already gained considerable third-party support. This includes synth sounds from Sound Source Unlimited and a series of samples from Stratus Sounds in the States (which may or may not find their way over here).
VAST stands for Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology, and it's an extremely flexible and logical way to program and process sounds. Each block in the signal path has a number of available DSP functions (you choose one by scrolling down a list), and the horizontal arrows show the signal path. Some algorithms have two outputs, and each one can be routed to a separate stereo pair. This is where things start to get interesting. For example, let's say that you have selected a parametric EQ block. You can program the amount that the EQ will vary at different notes and velocities, and then you assign two different control sources to vary different EQ parameters by a prescribed amount. The list of control sources is long and comprehensive; it includes the gamut of MIDI controllers, three programmable envelopes, two LFOs, two ASRs (simplified envelopes), a square wave synchronised to the K2000's internal MIDI clock or an external one, and four Functions.
The idea behind the Function control sources is that you take the values of two other control sources and run them through one of 50 equations, starting with A+B and getting much, much more complicated. This sounds intimidating but all you really have to do is scroll through the list and see what happens. By using Functions, you can get interesting movement into the sounds, and control that movement in real time.
The list of DSP functions available includes a comprehensive filter and EQ selection, pan position, added waveforms (one use for these is to get very fat synth sounds; another used on one of the presets is an aftertouch-triggered sine wave that simulates guitar feedback), and several non-linear functions. The latter include a high frequency stimulator, distortion and others that can emulate FM synthesis. There's no question that this is an instrument worth sinking your teeth into. The EQ is calibrated by both frequency and note name - a great tool if you want to learn the audible effects of each frequency band.
"Because of the versatility and phenomenal sound quality of the K2000, I can't think of any single instrument that I'd rather have in my studio at the moment."
The K2000 has buttons for muting Layers in a Program, which is helpful when you're working on just one of them. Unfortunately, it's difficult to tell what's going on when you're working on a Drum Channel Program - you have to dig deep to find information about the current layer (other than its number), and there's no layer solo button. Kurzweil are aware of the problem and it's offset somewhat by the fact that Opcode have announced that there is soon to be a K2000 editor module for their Galaxy program. This isn't to say that the instrument screams for a computer-based editor. On the contrary, one of its great strengths is how easy it is to get around.
The K2000 uses the DOS storage format with its rather archaic eight-character file name limit - hardly practical for cataloging a decent library of sounds. Kurzweil tell me that they're working with Passport Designs to make the Alchemy sample editing program speak to the K2000 over SCSI, and on the ability to dump individual samples over SCSI. This sounds like the solution.
Kurzweil claim that VAST is like having the complete history of synthesis in one machine. If you run the signal through a filter, you're using traditional subtractive synthesis. If you add a waveform, you're using additive synthesis. If you use a sampled attack transient with a synthesised tail, you're using LA or maybe AFM synthesis. And so on.
What VAST really means, though, is that it can create pretty much any kind of synth sound you've heard. On top of this you should consider that the K2000 is (or will soon be) a sampler. I find myself equally amazed at how versatile the synthesiser is, and how simple it can be to program. Want a filter sweep? Dial up a sawtooth wave, run it through a filter (you can try a number of different types), assign the filter's control to, say, aftertouch - and you've done it.
This section of the K2000 isn't really finished yet. Kurzweil acknowledge this and intend to have it ready when the sampling option becomes available. You will then be able to tune samples, set their relative levels, define start and end points, and specify an alternative start point.
It doesn't even bother me that the instrument only uses one loop (a sustain loop). Most of the time, you don't need to have the sample play to the end after it stops looping. What does bother me is that it doesn't recognise release loop points dumped via MIDI - which in effect means that loops aren't transferred.
This would seem to me to be a serious oversight for an instrument of the K2Q00's level. On the sunny side, it's great that the K2000 can be used while it's receiving a MIDI sample dump.
One very useful feature is that the K2000 can read Akai S1000 disks. This means that it already has an extensive library, right? Inevitably there's a catch, but it's not that the K2000 won't recognise S1000 sample loops - it's keyboard mappings that aren't recognised. C'est la vie.
I hadn't heard the DigiTech DSP 256XL before testing the K2000, so the synth's effects section was a revelation to me. I like the sound of the reverb algorithms. It's full, rich and warm and is free of the "fizz" at the tail end that's characteristic of cheap reverb.
"You can use the effects unit to process external instruments - so it could be said that you're also getting a DigiTech DSP 256XL processor into the bargain."
Although you're offered a choice of about 26 combinations of effects, the processor appears to offer four stages of effect: parametric or graphic EQ; double delay (for flanging, chorus, and other delay-based effects); reverb (forward, reverse, or gated) or up to four-tap delay or delay-based effects; and a mixer - to combine the previous effects.
There are some combinations that aren't included (such as EQ + chorus + reverb + mixer), presumably because of the processor's limitations. Of course, not all of the combinations use all four stages. Also note that these combinations of stages are only basic building blocks - they're all completely programmable. In fact, the unit comes with 47 preset effects programs.
You can only wonder how good the effects would sound if they were fed digitally from the K2000, rather than going through an internal D/A conversion. When the digital outs become available with the sampling option, they'll include the output from the effects processor - which means that the signal will go through yet another A/D conversion. If I've lost you, don't worry - an explanation will follow.
The K2000's stereo output pair may include that of the onboard effects processor. You can bypass the effects on either channel, and if you want you can pan sounds hard right or left. By doing this, though, you'll be giving up all the panning options of the K2000. One of my favorite features (also included on the 1000 series modules) is auto pan, where notes are spread across the stereo spectrum according to their pitch.
There are also two stereo pairs of individual outputs that come before the effects processor in the chain. Sticking a plug into either pair breaks a "normal" connection to the mix outputs. But if you use a stereo plug, you can use the tip as an output and the ring as an effects return.
What's interesting is that the signal coming into the return can also be processed through the effects processor. This means a couple of things. Firstly, there's an internal digital-to-analogue conversion before the signal goes into the effects unit (I told you we'd get to this). Secondly, you can use the effects unit to process external instruments - so it could be said that you're also getting a DigiTech DSP 256XL processor into the bargain.
However, if you want to effect the K2000 sounds and an external input, you've got problems. You've broken the normal connection to the effects processor so the internal K2000 signal is interrupted. There are a couple of solutions. In a studio, you'll probably want to have all the outputs from the K2000 wired to a patchbay, with each of the individual pair's sends normalled back to its returns (so the signal flows back in to the effects processor and the mix outputs).
If you want to use the K2000's effects section to process external sounds along with the K2000 voices, there is a solution: run individual K2000 outputs into your mixer, send them and the external sounds through one of your effects sends, and route the effects send to one of the returns to the K2000. If you don't have enough mixer inputs available (or if you have no reason to use the K2000's individual outputs), you'll need to use a "split lead" to route the K2000 outputs and the effects send back into the K2000. (You'll also need to put a 2K/0.25W resistor in-line with each signal.) This obviously isn't the way the system was designed to be used - the idea is just that in situations where extra mixer inputs are unavailable, you might want to mix the whole thing down to two outputs. Kurzweil chose to do things this way simply in the interest of keeping the costs down.
The K2000's keyboard is quite playable but, given the personal nature of keyboard feel, I'd say that it has room for improvement. I'm happy to say that the MIDI implementation is complete down to the last detail. Lots of nice features are included such as the ability to turn off program changes, have simultaneous transmission on three channels, programmable velocity response and transmission curves, hardware buttons to instantly transpose up or down by octaves, easily programmable sliders and foot pedals, and much more. In short, the K2000 makes a good MIDI controller.
The manual is not just good - it's great. OK, there are some "typos" but this is only the first version. The author did an excellent job of covering all the details of an extremely complicated instrument.
As this is only V1.0 of the software the minor frustrations I do have with the machine are likely to be addressed - in future updates as the feedback reaches Kurzweil. Even so, because of the versatility and phenomenal sound quality of the K2000, I can't think of any single instrument that I'd rather have in my studio at the moment and I'll tell you why. The K2000 doesn't have "a sound" - instead it's genuinely capable of sounding like an awful lot of other instruments or none of them. For me it's a brilliant synthesiser that's only a couple of inches away from being an instrument for the ages.
Price £2699.99 including VAT.
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Review by Nick Batzdorf
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