Kurzweil Forte Stage Piano
Review by: Jason D. Buchwald
|Features Usability Documentation & Product Support Price Other Comments
Contact Info Overall Rating—Product Summary
A few years ago, we were impressed by the Kurzweil PC3LE8 (see the review here) and felt like the company was back in good form.
Kurzweil has continued to evolve, and as with any of the keyboards that came before the Forte series, the single biggest reason to buy a Kurzweil is the sound. For overall versatility and sonic quality, you won’t be disappointed here, as the Forte sounds fantastic.
Combining familiar Kurzweil sounds with new piano sounds, updated organ emulations, and updated features such as 16GB of flash memory, a larger display than the one we experienced on the PC3LE8 (and now color, too!), 128 voice polyphony, an 88-key, fully weighted keyboard, software editors for computers and tablets… Kurzweil has certainly built a tank of a synth here (literally, too, as it weighs 48 pounds). But is it worth your $4,000 investment? Let’s take a look and find out!
We will start with some of the nuts and bolts, from Kurzweil themselves:
88 weighted keys with velocity and aftertouch
Starting from the left of the keyboard are dedicated Transpose, Tap Tempo, and Variation buttons, as well as the pitch bend and modulation wheels. When in KB3 (organ) mode, the modulation wheel also controls the amount of distortion.
The Variation button is a MIDI controller (default MIDI CC#29) that is programmed in most Programs to modify the sound, such as blending in a pad sound, changing the effects, or some other variation suited to real-time changes. For KB3 programs, the Variation button controls the rotary speaker speed, switching between fast and slow.
In the Master section of the synth, you’ll find dedicated controls for EQ. When the Master EQ On/Off button is On (indicated by an LED), the rotary knobs can change the high, middle and low frequencies of the audio. The high and low EQs are shelving-type filters, and the midrange has a sweepable frequency range centered around approximately 1.4 kHz. A cool feature is that in this section there is also a dedicated compressor control knob and button.
The Forte includes nine sliders and a real-time control section. The sliders are assigned to control different sound parameters and effects for each Program. In Multi mode, Sliders A-D default to controlling volume for Zones 1-4. The sliders can also send MIDI continuous controller values to external MIDI equipment. Each slider has a visual LED ladder that indicates its current setting when a new Program or Multi is selected. This is very useful on dark stages where it’s hard to see the position of a black slider on a black keyboard chassis!
This is a handy diagram to keep around, as the text above the sliders seen in this diagram are not printed on the actual keyboard itself. [Editor’s Note: Anyone remember the days when synths included tips/shortcuts/guides on plastic cards to keep handy near your live rig?] Of note, labels on the forte in white refer to non-KB3 (organ) sounds; those printed in blue refer to KB3 sounds. Therefore, depending on what sound you are using, the same slider/button will control a different parameter.
If you select a KB3 Program (an organ sound), the nine sliders act like tonewheel organ drawbars. The labeling in blue below the sliders applies to the KB3 Programs, indicating the drawbar registers that are modified by the slider. For KB3 Programs, the sliders operate in a similar way to an actual Hammond organ, i.e. pulling the slider towards you increases the drawbar amount.
There are also several buttons above the nine sliders. The left-most buttons in this section are the Zone/Mute buttons.
Zones are the independent regions of the keyboard that make up a Multi, similar to Korg’s Combi concept. Pressing a Zone button will mute or unmute the Zone; you can have up to four zones. An active/unmuted Zone button has a lit green LED, while the LED of an inactive/muted Zone is not lit.
In Program mode, the Zone buttons can be used as additional switches to control parameters of a Program. They are identified in the Program PARAMS page as zone switches. When active in Program mode, the button will have an illuminated, red LED (so you know that it actually controls something in a given program). A nice feature is that when any of the buttons are pressed, text appears on the screen showing you what the parameter is you are adjusting, and this behavior also applies when sliders are moved. The type is a bit small, however. There seems to be plenty of room on the screen to make the font a little larger—this would be a welcome change.
To the right of the Zone buttons are the five Assignable Switches buttons. In Program mode, the five switch buttons are pre-assigned to change the sound in different ways. Factory programs generally use these switches to enable effects. Switch assignments can also be changed in Program Edit mode. In Multi mode, you can assign the switch buttons to control program and effects parameters, or send MIDI CC messages to external equipment. The switch button LEDs illuminate red when a switch is active.
The zone and switch buttons also double as KB3 (organ) control buttons, indicated by the blue type printed below the buttons, as seen below:
To the right of this, essentially the center of the Forte, is the LCD screen and six associated soft keys. These buttons are assigned to whatever parameter happens to labeled at the bottom of the screen at the time.
Ten favorites buttons give you instant access to the sounds you most commonly use. Of particular interest, the latest OS update allows sixteen banks of ten favorites each, making it even easier to call up the sound(s) you need for your gig without scrolling through everything in the keyboard.
Moving to the right, you’ll find a large alpha dial to scroll through values quickly and a keypad. Besides alphanumeric text entry, the keypad also serves as a preset category finder. This is a welcome concept, first made popular on the many iterations of the Roland XP series.
The ports in the rear of the Forte include MIDI In/Out/Thru, two pair of stereo outs, an input jack for connecting an iPod, etc., for playing along with back tracks, and two USB ports. Wisely, the headphone jack is on the front of the keyboard below the left cheek block, as opposed to around the back.
You may have noticed that we didn’t mention sampling nor an arpeggiator. The Forte does neither of those things, remaining focused on straightforward playing of the on-board sound library, which is too bad, since some of the synth sounds would sound great if there were an arpeggiator or Karma-like manipulation available.
The fully-weighted keyboard felt a bit stiff compared with other similar instruments, but it certainly fell into the pro keyboard category. It grew on us more after using it a bit, but we thought the action could have been a little more “springy.” As always, this is a matter of taste, so definitely get your hands on one if you can before committing.
Between the time we first received the Forte and got around to focusing on its review, the OS needed to be upgraded to the most recent version. This was a very easy process. We simply downloaded the file onto a USB stick from our computer, plugged the stick into a USB port on the Forte, and imported the file.
The Forte itself was easy to navigate. Press a category; you’re there. Dedicated buttons under the screen for splits and layers made this quick and easy to do, which we could then save to the Favorites keys.
We liked how easy it was to take a piano sound, press the layer button, and instantly throw some strings underneath. For live performance, the Forte is a fast-moving vehicle with an interface that lets you make changes quickly.
Speaking of quick, the Flashplay feature is basically 16GB of flash memory that hold sample data in memory even without power. This makes startup time for this sample-based workstation less than 30 seconds, and changing sounds is also instantaneous. A great feature we liked was that if we held notes and selected a new preset, the “old” sound continued to play until we lifted our hand(s) from the keyboard or sustain pedal.
Speaking of sounds, you get up to sixteen part, multi-timbral behavior here. The Forte uses Multis as their term for multiple sounds (again, like Korg Combis). A Multi has four zones, and each zone can play up to four sounds.
The LCD is a decent size, full color, and graphics accompany text wherever applicable (i.e., a picture of a horn if it is a brass sound). While this made for nice eye candy, we would have preferred larger type for some of the parameter values being displayed.
We downloaded the Forte editor, and it installed easily on our Apple Macbook Pro laptop. It enabled deeper sound editing, particular with regard to effect assignments. And we especially liked the graphics for the organ sounds which use drawbars. There are graphics for most functions, and this editor was definitely a nicer implementation compared with many other vendors’ editor applications, which are often more rudimentary in their implementation. Even better, there’s a release of the editor planned for the iPad as well.
Overall, we were pretty happy with the Forte’s interface. It was easy to navigate, and for most things, no trips to the reference manual were needed. As far as setting up the Forte as a MIDI controller, however, going beyond a simple master/slave connection with a MIDI cable was a bit challenging (and we admit, we got a little spoiled by our just-reviewed Physis MIDI controller). To assign MIDI Bank Select changes (essential for sending program changes to modern keyboards with multiple banks of sounds), Kurzweil describes the following in the manual:
“The MIDI Bank parameter determines the MIDI Bank change message that the currently selected Zone sends when the Multi is loaded. You can set this parameter to a MIDI Bank change message from 0 to 16383.
When using the Forte as a MIDI controller, sending a MIDI Bank change message (along with a MIDI Program change message) when a Multi is loaded ensures that the Program loaded on the other sound modules in your MIDI chain is the Program that you want.
Sadly, this advice is inaccurate, as you must send MSB and LSB messages to properly select banks of sounds in most keyboards. As described in the documentation and subsequently tested, we found when we tried to control our trusty Roland XV-5080 sound module, switching across banks of presets didn’t work accurately without the ability to enter MSB and LSB values directly. Oddly, we noticed MSB and LSB values (set to zero) on the “Global MIDI State” page, but we were not able to change their values, so it’s hard to figure out exactly what Kurzweil is attempting to do in this regard.
Once we brought this up to Kurzweil, we were told the following:
“With the Forte, you can set the Bank Select mode pursuant to however the device you are working with wants to receive its bank MSB/LSB, 32-only, 0-only, 0/32, etc. When using MSB/LSB format, one must use the following to calculate things:
So it does appear that via a formula, you can use the MSB/LSB format for MIDI Bank Select changes. It’s not the most straightforward approach—nor easy to find in the documentation, but at least it is possible.
At 48 pounds, you'll need a very sturdy gig bag or hard case. Kurzweil just introduced a 76-key version. The Forte 7 weighs just under 42 pounds, which makes a significant difference you can feel if you're moving your own gear around.
The single biggest reason to buy a Kurzweil is the sound. We loved the sound of the PC3 series, and that wasn’t even the flagship series! Once again, the Kurzweil team has not disappointed.
Like the PC3, many of the presets have names reflective of what song and/or artist they are derived from (i.e., Moby’s Mellotron, SupaStevie, ZEP Clav, and one of our favorites, Videokilledradio, clearly the Yamaha CP70 featured in the Buggles classic). In fact, Kurzweil states that many of the Forte’s sounds are taken from “the best of the PC3.”
The acoustic pianos specifically are perhaps one of Kurzweil’s biggest upgrades in the Forte compared with their previous keyboards. Overall sound quality/realism may be even better on the Rhodes and Wurlis, but these were already great to begin with in previous generations, so the pianos represent the greater leap forward.
Newly sampled “9 foot German” and “7 foot Japanese” pianos were used, and presets include many variations for pop, jazz, and rock applications. Rich bass in the bottom and sparkle at the high end were all there, and there was good midrange presence throughout the range. Brighter and darker variations are included, and parameters are tweakable if you wish to change the coloration. The Forte includes three inputs for piano pedals (separate from the two continuous controller pedal inputs), and they each accept both a single switch or half-damper pedal.
The organ sounds are very good, too, and having the sliders double as drawbars is great to dial in precisely the tone you seek. The LED ladders for sliders light from top to bottom to emulate drawbar positioning—a very nice detail.
While there are synth sounds represented (i.e., a sawtooth synth sound to get you that classic “Jump” sound), the Forte won’t replace your analog synth—though it makes a great compliment. The sounds that are present are good, and Kurzweil states these are taken from the VA-1 synthesizer (a classic virtual analog synth that never came to market, though its technology has been utilized in other Kurzweil keyboards). Kurzweil also let us know that VAST editing is going to arrive shortly in a software update!
The sliders serve double duty on non-organ sounds to change values on other parameters. For example, slider C on a synth sound typically controls the attack envelope, a common parameter of the typical ADSR envelope (though buttons and sliders are user definable however you desire). We also appreciated how the guitar presets assigned the modulation control to the wah effect—which worked pretty convincingly! Having said that, we would also have to say that the guitars were probably the weakest of the presets, but then, guitar sounds are hard to play convincingly from keyboards unless you’re using virtual strum-like instrument on a computer.
Unfortunately, the “alternate,” non-organ parameters are not printed onto the chassis, so you will have to remember which slider controls which feature. It certainly helps that once you move a slider, the parameter name and current value is displayed on the screen, but most of us would rather know what we are controlling before changing it. Note: in Program mode, you can press the Edit soft button and look at the controller assignments on the Parameters page. A useful feature for sure, but not as direct as we would prefer.
Slider assignments aside, there are solid lead sounds and synth sounds, some that are conveniently obvious as to their origin given those reference patch names (we thoroughly enjoyed the sound, Cars Sine Lead).
While it would be unfair to say there are no percolating, atmospheric sounds, there’s not a lot of these compared, to say, a typical Roland or Korg synth, which have an abundance of these. We would have preferred more of these types of sounds in lieu of so many drum kit sounds.
Video courtesy of Soundria.com
Documentation and Product Support
The PDF manual is clear and concise, has many diagrams to help get you around, and offers useful examples. The Forte also includes a printed Getting Started guide that will probably be enough for most people. There is some basic info on the website.
The Kurzweil Forte (MSRP $5,295) sells for just under $4,000 street. This is a bit of a tough call. First and foremost, this is a stage piano with a nice feeling, fully-weighted keyboard and great acoustic and electromechanical piano sounds. Are you getting other great sounds? Absolutely. A good user interface? Yes, assuming external synth control isn’t a top priority. However, for $3,995, the price is a bit steep. Certainly, this is a serious keyboard for a pro player, and it calls for a serious bank account.
For approximately $500 less, you can purchase the 76-key Forte 7, which also features a fully weighted keyboard, but gives you a slightly more compact and lighter weight option without losing any features.
You could make the argument that other stage pianos or high-end workstations command premium prices, so purchasing the Forte will just come down to matching your particular feature requirements with a given instrument. Assuming its feature set matches your needs, this is certainly a keyboard you will enjoy having at the heart of your rig.
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