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Master race

Kurzweil PC88

Article from The Mix, October 1994

Master keyboard with sounds

The master keyboard has never gained the universal acceptance that many predicted, but that may change with the introduction of Kurzweil's new PC88 Performance Controller. Chris Kempster finds out that a heady cocktail is made by mixing the famous Kurzweil sample library with a sophisticated MIDI controller...

Two things came to mind when I first heard about Kurzweil's PC88 Performance Controller. First; mother keyboards have never really caught on to the extent that many predicted, and that's largely due to the fact that most people don't want to pay for a keyboard that makes no noise on its own, no matter how sophisticated its controller features may be. But manufacturers have persisted in producing 'dummy' keyboards (and perhaps sometines treating their customers like dummies loo), expecting them to pay a fortune for the privilege of a piano-action keyboard and a few performance controllers.

Second; while many acknowledge that Kurzweil samples are among the most musical and warm-sounding samples around, they've never been quite able to package their library in a way that appeals to the average musician. The 1000 series of modules could have cleaned up if the concept had been slightly different - instead the Proteus got it right first time and has reaped the rewards ever since. And the K250, though a brilliant instrument, was always too expensive for 95% of the market.

But things have looked up since Young Chang took charge of the company. The K2000 was universally acknowledged as a superbly innovative synth and sampler, while the Mk 5 and Mk 10 pianos put the famed Kurzweil piano sound into the living room. Similarly, the MicroPiano is the most cost-effective (and most compact) way of accessing those gorgeous Kurzweil samples so far. And so to the PC88 - it sounds too good to be true, but have Kurzweil finally solved the great master keyboard dilemma?


The PC88 is a full size keyboard (88 notes) with a weighted action. Straight from the factory it comes with 64 voices in ROM, taken from the Kurzweil sample library, and polyphony is 32 notes. Built-in digital effects include reverb and chorus, and there's also a sophisticated arpeggiator. Its MIDI controller facilities include two programmable wheels, four sliders, three buttons, and jacks for two foots witches and four continuous control pedals - velocity and pressure (aftertouch) curves can also be adjusted. Although it's called a performance controller, the PC88 is also a multi-timbral sound source, with 16 parts being available.

Sounds pretty impressive so far, but it doesn't end there. With the addition of a MEC expansion board (stands for Memory Expansion Card, presumably), the number of sounds is dramatically increased. There are actually nearly 400 extra sounds on the MEC board, configured in three groups. The first is a General MIDI soundset, with 128 timbres, from brass and strings to pianos and drums. The second is 'Expansion Sounds' which are available when not in General MIDI mode - this expands the number of voices when sequencing. The third group is called '64-note poly'. This section includes duplicates of several of the sounds in the 'Internal' group, such as piano and guitar, so that they can be played with 64 voice polyphony. The polyphony of the MEC expander is 32 notes overall, so in effect the PC88 becomes 64-note polyphonic when the board is fitted.

Hearing voices

The simplest mode of operation is 'Internal Voices', which is where one sound only is played across the keyboard. There are 64 timbres available, and these are mainly performance-type sounds that a keyboardist would need for gigging. The PC88 defaults to Internal Voices mode on power-up, so you then just need to press one of sixteen buttons to select the type of sound you want (which are labelled as Classical Piano, Stage Piano, Strings, Acoustic guitar etc), and then press either the 'Previous Group' or 'Next Group' buttons to get derivations of each sound.

Obviously a big reason for getting a Kurzweil is for their legendary piano sounds, and there's no shortage of choice on the PC88. The classical pianos are rich and mellow, and are well-suited to solo playing. For a more cutting sound, the stage pianos are the answer, providing brighter sounds with a presence that'll cut through when playing with an ensemble.

The electric pianos provide the two most-used sounds in that category - both the original Rhodes sound and the vibey DX7 version that is still popular. What surprised me 'though, were the electric grands, which were superbly crunchy and dynamic. Instead of the usual weedy impressions of Yamaha CP70s and the like, these presets sound more like a bright acoustic - but with an electric tinge. Very playable.

The rest of the internal sounds are of a uniformly-high standard, with the exception of the acoustic guitars, which are pretty dire. The strings are warm and rich, the clavs are fruity and funky, and the basses provide a good mixture of acoustics and electrics.

Organs are split into two groups, rock and jazz, with the modulation wheel being utilised on most presets to control the rotary speaker effect. In fact, many of the internal voices make use of the in-built performance controllers to affect the sound in some way. The mod wheel, the sliders, buttons and footpedals are all utilised to give the performer control over the sounds in real-time.

MIDI controller

The big selling point about the PC88 is that it combines great sounds with a sophisticated MIDI controller, but to be successful it needs to be able to mix it with the opposition in the latter department. 'MIDI Setups' is the mode you need to be in, and once there you can specify four 'zones' across the keyboard. What this means is that you can have four different sounds on the keyboard at once, each with their own range (layered or overlapping if you want), and with each transmitting on a different MIDI channel. If you just want to control an external source, you turn 'local' to off, or you can have a mixture of the internal and external sounds. As well as voice and MIDI channel, each zone can have its own velocity characteristics, transposition, and definitions for each physical controller.

Any controller - wheel, slider, button or pedal - can perform a different function in each of the four zones, so assigning a slider to control volume in one zone doesn't mean all the sliders will control the volumes of their respective zones.
Using these features you can achieve some nice tricks. For example, setting a pedal to control panning for two synths, but moving in opposite directions, will result in the two sounds moving past each other in the stereo field.

Being able to use one set of physical controllers to control parameters on the four internal sounds and/or external sound sources on four MIDI channels makes the PC88 a very powerful instrument. There are 32 MIDI setups with a standard PC88 (64 with the MEC board), and your own customised setups can be stored over the pre-programmed setups that come with the instrument.

Working with the zones couldn't be simpler. Four buttons reside above the sliders, each with a multicoloured LED which indicates the current status of each zone. When a zone is inactive, the button remains unlit - an active zone is lit green. Zones can be muted and soloed like a mixing desk, with orange LEDs showing a muted zone, and a red one when a zone is soloed. Soloing a zone also means that its parameters are shown on the LCD screen, and you can now make changes to the zone parameters of MIDI transmit, program, key range, transpose, velocity and controllers.

In the MIDI transmit section, you set the channel that you wish to transmit on, and select between local, MIDI, or local + MIDI control. If you just want to use the PC88 as a 'dummy' keyboard, turn local to off, and you'll just hear the sound modules/synths that you're connected up to.

Skipping over 'program' (which lets you choose sounds, and transmit program changes etc), 'key range' and 'transpose', we come to the 'velocity' and 'controller' parameters. Velocity curves can be set for each of the four zones, and this affects both local sounds and sources via MIDI. A variety of both curved and straight-line responses are available for use, and unlike a normal master keyboard where you have a bunch of response curves to suit most situations, you can set a curve on the PC88 for each and every sound you use. This is nowhere more important than when 'velocity switching', where you can use four different sounds with a different setting each, to get some excellent results.

Backpanel reveals two MIDI outs, but only stereo audio outputs. Nice to see a LCD contrast adjuster, and a bevy of inputs for continuous controller pedals.

"The PC88 is almost everything I had hoped it might be - Kurzweil have produced a keyboard that is equally at home on the stage or in the studio."


With its range of voices, high polyphony and 16-part multitimbral capability, the PC88 is certainly not restricted to being a master/performance keyboard. When it's beefed up with the MEC expander, the PC88 has around 400 sounds with 64-note polyphony - and that makes it perfect for sequencing. The simplest way to use it with a sequencer is to turn local control off, and use the sequencer's 'thru' and 'channelize' functions to route outgoing MIDI information. This cuts out any confusion such as doubled notes. The PC88 can receive data on up to 16 MIDI channels at one time, and the way you set it up is exactly as you would on a Proteus - in other words, dead simple. Pressing 'MIDI Receive' lets you access the two parameters, 'channel on/off and 'program', and you then just have to allocate a sound to each MIDI channel. And that's it!

This way of handling multitimbral operation is undoubtedly the simplest method around, and Kurzweil have obviously looked about to see what other makers have done. However, those who have worked with Roland synths/workstations might expect to find memories for storing multitimbral setups, in which the 16 parts can be allocated sounds, panning, effects and so on. Using the machine without the manual, these same people might think that the MIDI Setups are in fact, multitimbral setups - which couldn't be further from the truth.


This keyboard is almost everything I had hoped it might be. Kurzweil have managed to produce a master keyboard that is equally at home in the studio or on stage. The combination of weighted keys, superb internal sounds, and performance parameters makes it perfect for gigging keyboardists, who want instant access to often-used sounds, plus the ability to control other modules and keyboards (apparently Kurzweil have already taken a load of orders from pro players). But don't think that the PC88 is only fit for playing live. With the optional MEC board fitted, it provides a large range of quality sounds, high polyphony and 16-part multi-timbrality, and could easily form the basis of a sophisticated MIDI setup. In fact, with a sequencer, it's a complete MIDI workstation in its own right.

There are only a couple of niggles I could pull the PC88 up for - firstly, the naming of the MIDI Setups, which might confuse people into thinking that they're multi-timbral setups. Also, there might have been some brass sounds included in the internal sounds section. Other than that, it's pretty damn good. It's a measure of the sheer depth and versatility of the instrument that I haven't even touched on the arpeggiator or the effects processor, and could easily spend another thousand words talking about the controller possibilities. Suffice to say, this is definitely an instrument worth checking out, for performers, composers, and studios who want the best combination of keyboard controller and sound source that's currently available. At the moment, there's nothing quite like it out there. Now I can't wait to hear what the MEC expansion board does for this already-impressive instrument. Rest assured that we'll bring you news of it, just as soon as it's available.

The essentials...

Price inc VAT: £1,899

More from: Washburn UK, (Contact Details)

Internal sounds

Each of the following types of sound have four variations.

Classical piano Stage piano
Classic Electric piano Digital electric piano
Electric grand Piano & strings
Strings Harpsichord
Acoustic guitar Clavichord
Rock organ Jazz organ
Vibes Acoustic bass
Electric bass Synth pad


Navigating the PC88's front panel.

This is where much of the action takes place. All the internal voices can be called up here, as can the MIDI Setups. All the parameters relating to the four zones are changeable via the Zone Parameters set of buttons.

The four zone sliders can each be programmed to control different function, while the coloured LEDs show the current status of each zone.

Reverb, delay and chorus are available in the effects section of the PC88. Data entry is achieved using the alpha wheel and alpha-numeric keypad.

Features at a glance...

88 key, weighted keyboard
32-note polyphony (64-note with MEC expansion card)
64 internal sounds (over 400 with MEC)
16-part multitimbral
4 programmable sliders, 4 continuous controller pedal inputs
Stereo multi-effects with 48 combinations
Stereo outputs

Previous Article in this issue

Beam me up Scotty

Next article in this issue

Lite relief

Publisher: The Mix - Music Maker Publications (UK), Future Publishing.

The current copyright owner/s of this content may differ from the originally published copyright notice.
More details on copyright ownership...


The Mix - Oct 1994

Donated by: Colin Potter

Coverdisc: Chris Needham, James Perrett

Control Room

Gear in this article:

Keyboard - MIDI/Master > Kurzweil > PC88

Review by Chris Kempster

Previous article in this issue:

> Beam me up Scotty

Next article in this issue:

> Lite relief

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