Welcome to the second entry of my studio blog about synths that I use regularly. When you review and create tutorials for gear, there's always a bit of a revolving door factor. But you find yourself coming back to some things for your own use again and again, out of familiarity or just generally resonating to the way they work. I'm in a blessed position for which I'm very grateful: I get to try stuff out at length, and if it's not merely a positive review but a personal keeper, I can send the manufacturer a check. (This has mainly to do with the fact that it makes more sense for a manufacturer to sell something outright that to re-process an item back into inventory that now has to be sold at a discount because it's technically used. To avoid conflict of interest, that possibility is not discussed until the review is written, fact-checked, and published.) To be clear, this is not intended as a full review, just a rumination on why I use what I use.
Such a synth is the Kurzweil Forte 7, and my studio and gig rigs have always included at least one Kurzweil since 1995, when I spent part of a student loan on my first K2000. It was designed to be very upgrade-able, and by adding ROMs and the sampling option I got it up to about the specs of the K2VX - the most tricked-out K2000-series at the time. I was masochistic enough to carry around a giant K2600 for a time (though just the 76-key version), which later got swapped for a K2661 paired with a Yamaha Motif ES7 -- in fact, I still have both of these.
All of Kurzwei's best technology and sound design is currently realized in the Forte 7, which is billed as a "stage piano" in what I think must be an intentional understatement. In terms of the recentness of the sample ROM, the newest sounds in the machine cover acoustic pianos, many variations of Rhodes and Wurly EPs, and Clavinets. The KB3 drawbar organ emulation mode is present, as is a realistic rotary simulation. I'm a notorious Hammond-head, and this is not the best "clonewheel" emulation I've ever played, but it's certainly good enough to make me think twice about carrying a dedicated organ to live gigs.
A fully but not too heavily weighted keyboard, at 76 (or 73 keys), sits dead center in my comfort zone in terms of both playing and carrying it around. I'm not a purist enough of a pianist to insist on 88 keys, and for comping on other sounds, I like it non-fatiguing. The Forte 7 delivers on all these counts.
What people don't realize about the Forte, though, is that it's a full-on, deeply capable PCM and virtual analog synthesizer. Kurzweil's own marketing doesn't get loud enough about this, in my opinion. Since K2000 days, Kurzweil has talked about VAST: variable architecture synthesis technology. It's tantamount to a virtual modular synth without the patch cables. Each sound program (and I'm talking about a single program) can have up to 32 layers, each of which is governed by a VAST algorithm.
Really, that algorithm is a series of DSP blocks and routing. You can change the whole algorithm or individual blocks within it, and these cover such things as what's initially serving as your tone source or "oscillator" for that layer, what kind of filtering is going on, and a mind-bending array of options for modulating this with that, including mathematical functions that Kurzweil programming geeks call FUNs. Geek number one was Dave Weiser (no longer with the company), who just may be the best in the industry at programming vintage electro-mechanical keyboard and analog synth sounds.
The original intent here was to be able to get as much flexibility as possible out of the sample ROM constraints of the '90s -- and it worked so well that Kurzweils began to be associated with a sonic signature sought out by pros.Not that you're necessarily going to need to, but you dig deep into VAST and there's a level of brainiac thinking going here on par with the Synclavier. In fact, it's more sophisticated in some ways, because the cost-no-object Synclavier had the option of just throwing more wave memory, additive oscillators, and voices at the problem.
All of the VAST stuff is in the Forte 7, and when you apply it to the generous wave ROM of today, things get even more interesting. Especially for analog sounds, thanks to something called KVA mode. Sure, you could start with a PCM sample of a sawtooth wave and get a perfectly nice honky brass patch, but KVA repurposes one of the Forte's main DSP chips to do analog modeling, resulting in very smooth waveforms as raw materials. If you like, it can also set up a simplified signal path for the most common types of subtractive sound design, and you can even download layovers for this to print and put over the sliders.
For the real history buffs, it's worth mentioning that KVA mode began as a stand-alone synthesizer that saw the NAMM show floor but never got to market: the VA-1, which I'm making the subject of its own "Synderlla Stories" column. With three oscillators per voice and up to 16 voices, it was to be the most powerful VA machine of the early 2000s. Virtual analog isn't as much a part of our conversation today, as the likes of Dave Smith are giving us, oh, 16 voices of real analog for under two grand. But to this day, I don't think that takes anything away from the excellence of the KVA + VAST sound engine, nor from the fact that the Forte basically has an entire what-the-VA-1-was-supposed-to-be hiding out inside.
If there's anything not to like about the Forte, it's again the just-okay drawbar organ mode, and perhaps the fact that a lot of the orchestral and other "legacy" sounds (not the KVA engine) are based on some pretty old wave data that was originally recorded at 12 bits and 32 kHz. IN many cases, though, the string sections that come out of the thing sound uncannily good ... still.
There's no onboard multi-track sequencer, though there are "riff" provisions for adding, arpeggios, drum beats, and other musical phrases to your performance, with up to 16 apeggiators per program. I guess I'd also like to see assignable knobs accompanying the faders, but MIDI control and programmability is so extensive that the Forte could easily be the master controller in a studio where you're dealing with a lot of "dumb" tone sources such as old-school sound modules.
At the end of the day, I'm surprised that the Forte isn't more widely perceived as an aspiring Nord Stage killer. Nothing against Nord -- they make great stuff and their immense popularity speaks for itself -- but the Forte is clearly out to do everything a Nord can do and more. It does so in a package that on the surface presents itself more like a traditional ROMpler or workstation, and that may explain why it doesn't have more hip factor. For my money (and yup, I bought it) though, I'll quote Tower of Power: Sometimes hipness is what it ain't.