Synderella Stories is our column about underdog synths that were under-appreciated for their time and/or are not now remembered with the fondness they might really deserve. In this installment, that's the case because the Kurzweil VA-1 virtual analog synth, first demo'ed publicly in 2004, never made it to market. I know because I was writing the instruction manual at the time the project was shelved -- in spite of the instrument attracting huge buzz at trade shows such as NAMM and Musikmesse, and generally being one of the most anticipated new synths of the early to mid-2000s.
A search of forum posts and vintage synth sites shows little information but more than a little misinformation. As someone who was there and working closely with Kurzweil's stateside engineers (and the owner of one of a handful of prototypes left in existence) I'd like to take a little time to talk about the synth itself, its incredible sound and power, and the real story of why it never saw light outside of a convention center floor.
In the late '90s and early 2000s, knobs were finally making a comeback after the digital user interface desert of the previous decade. The real-analog renaissance -- marked by the introduction of Dave Smith's Evolver and Bob Moog's Voyager -- hadn't begun in full yet, though. If you didn't own vintage synths, and wanted polyphony and lots of real-time controls at anything like an affordable price. virtual analog was the name of the game.
The first Nord Lead (1994) is widely recognized as having kicked off this category, and other notable (and still desirable) entrants included the Waldorf Q, Korg Z1 (which also did a fair amount of cool physical modeling stuff), and Yamaha AN-1X. In the early 2000s, Kurzweil -- whose K2600 already enjoyed the reputation of Rolls-Royce of keyboard workstations -- decided to up the ante and embark on an argument-ending ultimate virtual analog synth based on their then-new proprietary DSP chip, nicknamed CLARA.
I should mention that the VA-1 was entirely the brainchild of Kurzweil's stateside think tank, the Young Chang Research and Development Institute (YCRDI). Located just outside of Boston in a region often called the Silicon Valley of the East Coast, they continue to work on cool stuff I can't tell you about yet. But that's another article.
The VA-1 was to be a 16-voice polyphonic synth with three oscillators per voice and four-part multi-timbral capability. Its oscillators were modeled and in their final form were supposed to be able to morph from one waveform to another. In addition to the oscillators, the mix in a sound program could include two DSP processors (these provided such functions as sample-and-hold and ring modulation), noise, and external audio -- for a total of seven sound sources. FM and hard sync were also supported.
Dual filters could be arranged in series or parallel, and covered all the expected types as well as both 12dB and 24dB-per-octave slopes. (Two-pole and four-pole by another name.)
The modulation matrix was really something special, with up to six sources (three of them assignable) per destination. You selected a destination, usually right on the nearly one-knob-per-function panel, then chose the sources you wanted to modulate it. The process was very quick and intuitive. In addition to the wheels and joystick, sources could include the three LFOs, two ADSR envelopes, and two ASR envelopes.
Effects were based on the high-end KSP-8 rack mount unit, which at the time was earning a place next to the likes of Eventide and Lexicon for its sound quality. On top of this, there was a 48-band vocoder, not one but two XLR combo jacks for audio input, 24-bit optical digital out, and “roll bars” on the back to protect plugged-in cables in the event the synth was tilted rearwards. YCRDI was really going for a fully pro, no-holds-barred, synth nerd's dream at a price point between two and three grand.
You can surf the web and get more specs still, but that doesn’t capture what captivated me and just about anyone who got to hear one in person: The analog authenticity and sound quality were off the charts, and would be so even by today’s higher standards — in my opinion even standing up next to the excellent real analog polysynths available now. The VA-1 was particularly excellent at Oberheim-like sounds, but its palette was very broad. The only thing I recall us not talking about at the time was wavetable synthesis, but the DSP power to do so was there and that could well have been part of a firmware update.
Even with about half the functions working, which was the case with my prototype as the firmware was a work in progress, the thing sounded completely killer and still does.
So what happened? As I was about halfway into writing chapter 4 of the manual and pleased with the positive feedback I was getting from the mothership, I got a panicked call from the head of the engineering team. “Stephen, we love what you’re doing,” he said. “But stop all work on the manual. We’ll make sure you get paid for what you’ve already done.” (Props: They did.)
I’ve read online speculation that perhaps Kurzweil saw the writing on the wall with real analog coming back (given the success of the Evolver and Voyager) and decided not to do a dedicated VA but rather incorporate the technology into their next series of workstations. The latter did eventually happen (keep reading) but not for that reason.
South Korean piano maker Samick, known for inexpensive acoustic and digital pianos, bought Kurzweil’s parent company Young Chang in 2004, or rather they tried to. Samick was interested only in exploiting CLARA and other tech developed at YCRDI for the home digital piano market, and would have killed a lot more than the VA-1 had the buyout proceeded. During the worst of it, engineers came to work to find offices locked, files removed, and computers gutted and thrown on the floor in a pile. Of course there was a “red wedding” of layoffs. Some had the foresight to safeguard their most important work offsite — work that eventually directly figured in to current Kurzweil pro keyboards.
In September 2004, the South Korean government disallowed the buyout, citing anti-monopoly statutes. This left Young Chang with the hope of finding less rapacious overlords, but also bankrupt. Miraculously, YCRDI kept the lights on and a skeleton crew of engineers kept their gigs and forged ahead. But just about every pro keyboardist I knew was freaking out that Kurzweil would soon be no more.
Fortunately, this was not to happen, as in spring 2006 Hyundai Development Company acquired Young Chang. (Not the car company per se; HDC is the ultimate parent of the car company but also of a bunch of other things in heavy industry and shipping.) While their largesse hardly compared to Prince Charming’s, they did prove committed to pro keyboard development, and the brain trust at YCRDI began to rebuild. By 2007, Kurzweil was showing their first new workstation in years: the PC3.
By then, market conditions had shifted and it was indeed too late for the VA-1 as a stand-alone instrument. But its story is truly the Cinderella story of the company, which went from glory to destitution under a “wicked stepmother," then rose again. The VA-1 lives on as the KVA analog modeling mode in the PC3, PC3K, and Forte instruments.
My VA-1 prototype? I still have it, though it’s currently more pumpkin than coach. This is because of the incomplete firmware, not any defect. MIDI isn’t working, some of the knobs adjust their parameters very slowly, and so forth. But the core sound that turned heads is all there, and I plan to get it running as smoothly as I can for you and post what will surely be the first video demo in over a decade. For now, check out one of the only videos on the searchable web, of sound design wizard Dave Weiser demonstrating one at Musikmesse 2004, courtesy of synth blogger Matrixsynth. Yes, just like its subject, it's gone sideways.