Kurzweil Mark 5
Just how close can technology come to matching a real concert pianoforte? Only one man can address this question: the maestro himself, Simon Trask
Instruments come and instruments go but the abiding appeal of the piano is undiminished. The Steinway... the Bosendorfer... the Kurzweil?
Take an assortment of typically classy Kurzweil samples, add a pinch of commercial acumen from South Korean acoustic piano manufacturers Young Chang Akki, stir the ingredients together and let the resulting mixture mature... What do you get? A rather tasty piano concoction, that's what.
In the great cocktail bar of keyboard design, it was perhaps inevitable that Kurzweil - whose very reputation was founded on the quality of their sampled grand piano sound - should produce a digital piano or three once they'd been absorbed into the Young Chang empire. And so it is that we now have before us the first of three digital pianos to be introduced during the course of the year bearing the Kurzweil name.
At £2599.99, the Mark 5 is the least expensive of the three. The Mark 10 and Mark 15 will add more sounds, an auto-accompaniment section (on a Kurzweil instrument? Ye Gods!), and a more powerful amplification system (see Incoming Data, MT March '93, for more details). The Mark 15 will even come in a grand piano-style casing, for those who like their digital pianos to really look the business.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the Mark 5 is its very stylish appearance. Once you start to prod at it, it also becomes clear that it's as solid as a rock - no wobbling around on one of those tacky MFI-style DIY stands for this beast. Then, naturally, you try to lift it. Big mistake. This is the sort of instrument you push rather than lift. What, I can't help wondering, would Laurel and Hardy have made of it?
Next step: try out the keyboard. Of course it's 88-note, weighted action and velocity-responsive; as is often the case with digital pianos, it's not responsive to aftertouch, but the Mark 5's sounds can respond to channel aftertouch via MIDI. I can only describe the keyboard action as 'flabby' - the keys drop rather too suddenly, leading to a jarring encounter of fingerpad with key bed, then they snap back up so quickly that they 'jitter' as they come to rest. Not my ideal keyboard, I have to say, though you may feel differently ('feel' being the operative word here).
The Mark 5 gives you a choice of seven velocity response curves, allowing you to tailor the way in which the sounds respond to keyboard velocity; these consist of three levels of Easiness, three of Hardness, and one Medium! Incidentally, the piano has one of those sliding keyboard covers which recesses into the body of the instrument, plus a 'free floating' music rack which consists of a heavy base into which you slot a 'back plate' at an angle comfortable for score reading. This rack can be sat atop the piano casing at any position you want.
Symptomatic of the amount of care and thought which has gone into developing this instrument are the demo songs. Once you've pressed the Demo button, you can listen to examples of a variety of music styles featuring a number of the Mark 5's sounds by pressing selected white keys on the keyboard. Not only this, but you can hear individual demos of all the single and split sounds on the piano by pressing the relevant sound selection buttons.
The Mark 5 comes with what is, in digital piano terms, a very healthy complement of sounds. To begin with, in its Sound Select section there are nine Sounds and nine Variations (one Variation for each Sound). In the number one slot, inevitably, is the Grand Piano - in fact, a newly-sampled grand piano for the new digital piano range. The sound is stereo panned across the keyboard to reflect the actual sound origin, and Kurzweil have also used stretched tuning, copying the way in which an acoustic piano is tuned.
What can be said about this Sound? It captures the Grand quality well (no mere upright, this), the lower range has the right degree of grandeur about it, the top range captures the hammer sound and ambience well - though the upper middle range is a touch thin.
There are detectable transitions from one multisample to another - more so in the lower half of the keyboard - but they're subtle enough for most performance purposes. Overall, this particular voice won't replace a Bosendorfer grand in my dreams, but it's one of the better sampled grand pianos available.
Bright Piano offers, well, a brighter, more 'cutting' version of the Grand Piano, while Modern Piano is an 'electric grand' sound consisting of acoustic piano and the hard strike of the Electric Piano, slightly chorussed. Both these Sounds are suitable for more contemporary rock, pop and dance settings. Ragtime Piano is, of course, the familiar honky-tonk, ideal for the bar-room knees-up or those classic Scott Joplin rags.
Both Electric Pianos shift from the classic, delicate, 'tine-y' sound to a much harder, overdriven sound in response to velocity changes. Electric Piano 1, however, crossfades the two sounds, while Electric Piano 2 switches between them. The latter also features built-in tremolo and stereo chorus, giving it a classic rich, swirling quality which is complemented perfectly by the natural warmth which is part of the 'Kurzweil sound'.
If I have a complaint here, it's that you can't get the overdriven sound to 'break up' in the classic Fender Rhodes manner. In fact, a gutsy, spiky electric piano sound wouldn't have gone amiss to compliment the general prettiness quotient - but I suspect most buyers will be happy with just the prettiness.
The two Harpsichord Sounds do a fairly good job of being harpsichords - though to my mind they don't quite capture the full detail of the real thing. The Jazz Organ scores well on the funky key clicks and general mellowness, but could have been a bit fuller, while the Rock Organ could have done with being more grungy. Though this probably comes down to personal taste. Both organ sounds have a subtle rotating speaker effect built into them - which becomes a decidedly over-the-top rotating speaker effect if you depress the soft pedal. In fact, this pedal takes on various sound modification functions when used on Sounds other than the acoustic pianos.
The two Pipe Organ Sounds are excellent. Although the manual claims the first Sound is "a cathedral organ with all the stops drawn", it doesn't have the thundering majesty of a cathedral organ in full flight. Nevertheless, it's still a very effective sound - aided by the default reverb, which provides a natural-sounding ambience. The second Pipe Organ is a very atmospheric 'flute-y' sound, perfect for hushed, sombre occasions - funeral services, for instance!
The Acoustic (steel-strung rather than nylon) and 12-string Guitars sparkle nicely, and avoid the thinness which all too often characterises guitar samples. The Choirs are quite magnificent: silky-smooth, shimmering, full of vitality - and a touch hyper-real. The Cathedral Choir, floating on a sea of reverb, is pure heavenly ambience. The strings?
Well, we're talking string sections here. Both Fast and Slow Strings are trebly and rather grainy, but still very effective ensemble string sounds. The Fast Strings show off the well-captured (if slightly overdone) string attack to good effect, while the upper range of the Slow Strings evinces a wonderful panoramic, glacial quality.
The Mark 5 also has a Left Split section containing three Bass Sounds, a Bass/Ride layer Sound, a Drumkit consisting of 12 drum and percussion sounds (assigned to 25 keys), and a Custom Sound location. When you select one of these Sounds, it's automatically assigned to the left-hand section of the keyboard, up to and including a programmable splitpoint while the chosen Sound/Variation, which normally spreads across the entire keyboard, is confined to the right-hand section above the splitpoint. However, the Custom location lets you use any right-hand Sound in the left-hand section if you want. All three basses have the characteristic Kurzweil warmth and body about them. The Electric Bass also has a hard edge to it, with velocity switching allowing you to indulge in a spot of (taut and funky) slapped bass. The Synth Bass, on the other hand, is more of a rich splurge of sound.
I have a feeling that I've heard a better Acoustic Bass sample from Kurzweil before, on the K1200; the Mark 5's doesn't quite 'breathe' enough for my liking, but having said that it's still better than many other sampled offerings.
The Acoustic Bass & Ride is a perennial Kurzweil favourite, great for those walking basslines and swinging ride cymbal rhythms, but I miss the snare drum of the Jazz Quartet preset on the company's K2000 synth, which you can throw in to great effect on offbeats using an extra touch of velocity.
The Mark 5 also lets you layer any two Sounds/Variations by pressing and holding down one Sound button and then pressing another. Sounds in a layer can be balanced by repeatedly pressing the second Sound's button. A Layer can be used across the whole keyboard or in conjunction with a split. The Grand Piano loses its stretch tuning when it's layered with another Sound. For the sake of concord, the Strings and Choir Sounds are also varied slightly when layered with another Sound. A quick word on polyphony here: the Mark 5 has 32 voices, but you should bear in mind that around half of the Sounds use two voices, bringing you down to 16-note polyphony - while, of course, layering two-voice Sounds further reduces the note polyphony.
Kurzweil call their piano an Ensemble Grand, which is a fair description, because its Sounds can be used in ensemble via MIDI. The Mark 5 can respond 8-part multitimbrally via MIDI, receiving on channels 1-8; the first four can be assigned splits and layers, the remaining four only single Sounds. The piano can transmit on any individual MIDI channel, and, importantly if you're using it with a sequencer and one or more modules, it also lets you turn Local on/off.
This feature is one of a number which can only be accessed by holding down the front-panel MIDI button and pressing an appropriate key on the keyboard. Trouble is, you'd never know this from the piano's front panel (although page 16 of the manual reveals all). Speaking of which, the Mark 5's manual is really something else. The glossy front cover with its attractive colour photo of the piano suggests one of those 100 Greatest Romantic Hits For Piano books you'd buy from Music Sales (or not, as the case may be).
In fact, it's been produced by American music publishers Hal Leonard and includes easy-play piano scores of songs like 'Eleanor Rigby' and 'Some Enchanted Evening' - and it just happens to be more akin to the sort of book you buy to get the clearly-written, musician-friendly explanations, practical examples and helpful hints usually sadly lacking in manuals. The start of a new trend? I'm not so sure... but it would be nice to think so!
So what can be said about the Mark 5 in conclusion?
Well, it looks good, it feels solid and reliable and it's easy to get to grips with on the basic level of selecting and combining Sounds. The keyboard is... well, not ideal in my book, but you might think otherwise. The headphone output is a little lacking in punch and volume, and the amplification system, despite its overall 80-watt rating, wasn't loud enough for my liking.
The Sounds, however, definitely display a superior sonic quality, despite my earlier quibbles. They're also a pretty varied selection (for a digital piano, anyway). The piano's multitimbral capability in conjunction with this sonic variety stands it in good stead for sequencing applications. All in all it's a well-conceived instrument with a reassuring attention to detail which is characteristic of Kurzweil.
In fact, the company have fired a strong opening shot across the bows of the more established digital piano manufacturers with the Mark 5. A heady brew indeed.
Price: £2599.99 inc.
More from: Washburn (UK) Ltd (Contact Details)
Review by Simon Trask
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