Nov 16

The Kurzweil PC361 Performance Controller Synth

INTRODUCTION
The Kurzweil PC361 Performance Controller Synth is the first Kurzweil Synth I have had a chance to get my hands on. The company have been making great Synths since the early 80’s and are well known for their powerful synth engines and Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology (VAST). The PC361 is part of the renowned PC3 series which comprises of; the 88 note PC3, the 76 note PC3X, the 61 note PC361 and the XPro that adds a cabinet and sound system.

There are 64MB of Rom sounds on board this 128 voice Synth and Kurzweil state they have technology that no one else has with their latest custom chip set. Apparently they design their own chips so that they are optimized for Audio with no noticeable latency. These are keyboards with not only great sounds but performance features such as its nine sliders which are there to emulate the controls of a tone-wheel organ and its series of quick access buttons for finding the right sound quickly when playing live.

It certainly did not take me long to draw an initial conclusion about this synth. It is solidly built and fairly heavy (30.86lbs / 14 Kg), looks a little dated, has a great sound but caters more for the past than the present. As I started to play the keyboard at first I was not sure that I liked this new action semi-weighted keyboard which had a very ‘spongy’ feel to it. Upon investigation I noticed a line of felt directly under the keys, running the whole length of the keyboard. It was strange but the more I played it, the better it felt and I think that now that I have used it for a few days, I have decided that it is one of the best keyboards of this type that I have played. This Synth is a Classic keyboard that combines sample-based synthesis with virtual analogue synthesis, a very powerful effects section and a sequencer all together but there is no sampling facility.

BLAST FROM THE PAST
The sounds to me definitely lean toward ‘vintage’ and in fact there is a vintage category button in the quick selection area because Kurzweil have included their Classic Keys ROM in the PC361. You will find many true re-creations of those electromechanical instruments like Mellotrons, Clavs and Electric Pianos. Kurzweil have also built in their VA-1 Virtual Analog Synth engine and combined this with a larger set of VAST filters.

As you go through the preset sounds (850 or so) you will notice sounds for both old classic songs and bands with names such as; Lola Piano, Lord’s B3, Supertramp Wurly, FlydDarkside, Rufus/Marley WAH, FooledAgn Vox, 70’s Stones Horns, Jaco Fretless, Stevie Fuzz, Whiter Shade B3, Doors Vox, Motown Bass, Goldfinger Brass, EvilWomanDeepFuz, StrawberryFlutes, White Satin Splt, Zepelin Solo and Fairlight Pad. There are many more but I think that is enough examples to give you a picture of what this keyboard is about. Kurzweil state that “the PC361 has an enormous collection of stunning sounds combined with comprehensive real-time controller functions including their well known Triple Strike Grand Piano”.

As well as abundant vintage sounds, there is also over 250 Orchestral and String sounds which are very realistic. With all of the Preset Sounds there is an easy  audition feature where every preset is linked to a bank of ‘Riffs’. Kurzweil also state that “you can create absolutely any sound at all on this Synth and the levels of editing are enormous”. This sounds great but trying to get through the editing pages to achieve this is not particularly easy. The screen is a good size (240 x 64 angled, backlit LCD) but there is so much data on each page that it slows down the navigation process. There is a sound editor available and this is by far the best way to carry out your serious editing tasks.

LAYOUT AND CONTROLS
The front panel is laid out well but it is a bit like looking at the Yamaha Motif in that there is a lot to take in. The functions of the buttons and sliders change depending on the selected mode you are in. On the far right is the data entry part where you will see the Alphanumeric Pad, plus and minus buttons, the Alpha Wheel and 8 program and 16 Category buttons.You can select a program by its number if you so wish or use the Alpha Wheel to quickly scroll through all the programs.

Alternatively  you can use the Program and Category buttons (in conjunction with the Bank Buttons on the left) to select by category. The 16 categories are:- Piano 1 and 2, E Piano 1 and 2, Pop Keys, Clavier, Organ, Brass, Strings, Voices, Synths, Pads, Guitar, Bass Drum and Percussion. Each of these 16 categories has 8 sounds each for a total of 128 sounds in each bank.

In the center around the LCD you will find the navigation section, the channel banks to choose channel ,the cursor section to select different parameters, an exit button and the soft buttons that will change their appearance depending on which mode you are in. Just to the left of this you have the mode section to select from eight major operating modes. On the far left is the Real-Time control section with the nine sliders and the bank select buttons. The LEDs on the PC3361 are useful to quickly show you where you are and as you scroll through you will notice that the lights go through 8 variations of a particular category.

Around the back there certainly is enough connectivity available with three foot-switch jacks, two pedal jacks, MIDI, digital outputs, plus two pairs of balanced stereo outputs not forgetting that your sounds and settings can be saved to an  XD memory card or USB. The MIDI connection is very good with the usual IN, THRU and OUT but there is the addition of a switch to select as to whether the THRU is a MIDI THRU or a second MIDI OUT. This is one of those little gems I would like to see on every Synth.

MODES
There are eight operating modes that you can go into, Program, Setup, Quick Access, Effects, Midi, Master, Song and Storage so lets familiarise ourselves with these modes.

Program Mode
This mode allows you to select and play programs and also modify them with the Program Editor. There are two different types of program – VAST programs and KB3 programs.

Vast programs have at least 1 layer but can  be up to 32 layers. Each of these layers contain a number of samples. The Samples are assigned to a Keymap which provides different sounds to be assigned to different parts of the keyboard and with varying velocities. This keymap is then processed through one of the 59 algorithms available and forms a layer and then you can have 32 of these layers. This obviously provides an enormous facility for sound creation.

KB3 programs are very different and do not have any layers but just have a set of oscillators that emulate that classic tone-wheel organ sound like the Hammond B3. There is a blue LED that will light when you select a KB3 program.

Setup Mode
Setup Mode allows you to set up the PC361 as a MIDI controller or create keyboard splits and layers. The splits can divide the keyboard range into 16 different zones.You might want to think of Setup Mode as a Combination mode but it is much more than this as it provides many setup options for each of the zones and determines what information is sent to Sound engine. Really this is what MIDI information is transmitted and to a large extent you could use this section for sound design. There are also Octave tabs here to transpose up or down two octaves and a Panic option to turn off all arpeggiators and riffs.What is really good about the Setup mode is the effects are multi-timbral so you can have more than one sound and use different effects on each.

Quick Access Mode
This mode allows you to store programs and setups for quick access. Kurzweil have setup the keyboard with several quick access preset banks that are organised into useful sound groups. Each bank contains 10 memory slots where you can store your programs or setups.

Effects Mode
There is definitely a very powerful effects processor on-board the PC361. There are three types of effects – Insert effects, Auxiliary effects and Global Master EQ and compression. Each of the effects presets are based on an effect algorithm from the Kurzweil KSP8 effects processor. There are 149 Reverbs, 50Delays, 24 Chorus effects, 25 Flangers, 20 Phasers, 9 tremelo/Panner/Spatials, 20 Rotary Speaker effects, 50 Chorus Combis and 46 Flange Combis. I must say that this is quite a package to provide you with endless possibilities. So whilst this Synth in terms of its presets provides you with time travel back to the sounds of the seventies, there are enough sound editing facilities especially in the effects section to create sounds for 2011.

MIDI Mode
This mode is here to configure how the PC361 interacts with other Midi instruments and to configure for multi-timbral sequencing. Here you will see three pages – Transmit, Receive and Channels. On the Channels page you can assign a program to each channel and enable or disable each channel’s response to three MIDI control messages: Program Change, Volume and Pan.

Master Mode
On the first page of this mode it allows you to globally set parameters such as Tune, Transpose, Buttons Mode, Drum remap, Digital Output, Aux Out, Tempo, Clock Source, Digital Output Volume and FX Mode. On the second page you can globally adjust keyboard behavior such as velocity, key action and Intonation.

Song Mode
If you want to get your song ideas down quickly then you can use the new on-board sequencer with a high resolution of 960 pulses per quarter (PPQ). This should be plenty to get all those quick grace notes and little nuances in for the finer detail of your work. There are quite a few quantize options as well to tighten everything and also a large range of editing options which now include options such as swing, event editing, global ‘set song length’ and controller scaling. Song Mode then allows you to play your songs stored in the PC361’s memory. You can also record multi-timbrally via MIDI or you can load standard MIDI files.

Song Mode has a few pages as you would expect. From the MAIN Page you can record, playback, make song and track selection, edit the tracks channel, program, volume and pan settings. On the BIG Page, you get a bigger font to see clearly the current time or location of the play-head of the sequencer in a bar as well as loop information which include start and end points.There is a MIXER Page displays in groups of  8 tracks, information on the preset sound used, Pan and Volume settings. The METRO Page is there for all the settings relating to the Metronome. The FILTER Page is there for you to specify what events are ignored during recording and playback. The MISC Page has 5 parameters – Control Chase, Quantize, Grid Resolution, Swing, Release Quantization and Key Wait. The STATS Page is an information only page for information like – the maximum number of notes in memory, the total number of notes being used, the number of notes that are free etc. The COMMON Page is for editing parameters that are common to all tracks – like Tempo, Time Signature, FX Track and Drum Track. The TRACK Page has the following edit functions – Erase, Copy, Bounce, Insert, Delete, Quantize, Shift, Transpose, Grab, Change and Remap. Lastly the EVENT Page displays
every type of recorded MIDI event.

Storage Mode
With this mode you can use flash XD cards to load, save, backup and copy files using a very familiar MS-DOS file-path looking facility. The Storage Mode Page has Store, Load, Utilities, Format and USB drive tabs to select further pages and the manual does a good job of explaining the options available.

ACCESSORIES AND OPTIONAL EXTRAS

The PC361 comes with a large manual and I would recommend that you do go through this to get the best out of this Synth. There is also a Sustain pedal provided, a power cable and a USB cable. As Optional extras you can have up to 3 pedals attached, either Switch Pedals or Continuous Controller Pedals. There is a 3.5mm jack socket labeled ‘Breath’ that accepts a standard breath controller and you can also add a Kurzweil Ribbon Controller. There are also two internal expansion slots  but, as yet, there is nothing been made by Kurzweil.

CONCLUSION
Well this Synth really puts you in a difficult position in terms of weighing up its pros and cons against the competition. I think you would need to decide on your priorities and needs. First of all if you need sampling or sample playback, then the PC361 is probably not the best Synth for you. If this is not the case then what you have here is a very playable instrument with a truly great sound. You have lovely piano and classic vintage keyboard sounds and the orchestral sounds are just superb – very realistic sounding. The effects possibilities are awesome (especially now that you have multi-timbral effects in Setup mode), and the amount of controls, faders and sheer depth of this instrument make it very suitable as a MIDI controller. On top of this you have improvements on their powerful Synth Engine and Variable Architecture Synthesis Technology and not forgetting analog synthesis by building in the VA-1 Virtual Analog Synth. Against this there are no modern controllers like X/Y pads or joysticks, the LCD display doesn’t make editing easy, but you could use the PC editor. The cost is a little high but then you are getting a great sound by way of Kurzweil’s own designer-chips.

5 Responses

  1. breguet Says:

    In it something is. Earlier I thought differently, thanks for an explanation.

  2. breguet Says:

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  5. Peter Says:

    Hi Tony,

    Loved the review. Have you had a chance to install OS 2.0? Apparently, there are major upgrades sonically (especially the KB3 mode) and otherwise.

    Thanks for the review!

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