Philip Meehan fondly remembers his first love — a keyboard with the voice of an angel, the mind of a genius, and the body of a heavyweight boxer in a big black coat. Did you know it was that big when you ordered it?' If I had a pound for every time I heard someone shout that immortal line upon first seeing my gorgeous Kurzweil K250, I would have enough money to buy another one. Mind you, it was big.
With a fully weighted 88‑note keyboard, separate 'pod' power supply and attached Apple Macintosh computer, the Kurzweil K250 nestled in the corner of my flat with all the delicacy and grace of a gorilla in the back of a Reliant Robin. No wonder there was no mention of 'weight: 95lbs' on the specifications page. Even so, however, it was still a lot more compact than a nine-foot Steinway Concert Grand — and that was the point.
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The Kurzweil Music Systems K250 keyboard first appeared in 1984, the progeny of acclaimed software guru (and associate of Bob Moog). At that time, the top end of the music-technology scene was dominated by computer-based systems such as the Fairlight CMI and the NED Synclavier, both of which cost an arm, leg, head and torso and required a lot of typing to operate. The £12,000 K250 took a somewhat different approach: though similar in some respects to its computer-based rivals, it was first and foremost a musical instrument. Unlike most computer music systems, you could simply turn the K250 on, sit down and start playing — it instantly defaulted to preset 1, the glorious 'Kurzweil Grand Piano'. Even today, 14 years later, that sound is still hard to beat for accuracy, delicacy and sheer playability.
The most impressive aspect of the K250, however, is just how far it was ahead of its time. Even the very first K250s came with a built-in computer interface as standard. Though not SCSI (that was to come later) it allowed the keyboard to be linked up to Apple Macintosh computers. A program called MacAttach could be used to save and load samples, setups and sequences.
Kurzweil released several volumes of additional sounds on floppies that could be loaded in via the Mac — much of the same library is still available for the K2000/K2500 today. MacAttach was superseded by QLS, the Kurzweil Quick Load System, and later versions of the K250 could use a QLS function called 'SD Convert' to interface with Digidesign's Sound Designer and Softsynth programs to form a very powerful computer music system. And, believe me, back in the '80s you were nobody if your music rig didn't have a glowing VDU and QWERTY keyboard attached to it. Although its main selling point was undoubtedly its marvellous Grand Piano preset -- and its 'Steinway meets Star Trek' looks — there was much, much more to the K250. Just as with the more recent K2000 and K2500, the inbuilt sounds were simply the starting point for a respectable amount of signal processing that could be used to tailor the sound with great subtlety. 'Timbre Shift' used a combination of detuning and pitch-shift to alter the basic tone of a sound from dark to bright in a way no filter ever could — shift the grand piano down by nine semitones and it sounded exactly like a soft-pedal version, while shifting the strings down by 29 semitones gave you a menacing orchestral backing sound that Trent Reznor would kill for. Kurzweil's filters have always impressed me — although digital, they can close all the way down to silence, much like the analogue filters on ARP and Moog synthesizers.
The bass end of the K250 had to be heard to be believed — putting one next to a DX7 was like comparing a Harley Davidson with a Magimix. Also, the dynamic range of the K250 was a terrifying 105dB, allowing sharp, percussive sounds like vibes and marimba to be played with alarming realism. In fact, many of the basic sounds on the K250 are still strikingly realistic even by today's 24-bit, 96kHz, phase-accurate stereo standards. Yamaha F250 Service Manual. This was due to two things: partly, an advanced sampling process that Kurzweil devised called 'Contoured Sound Modelling', and mostly, a really good ear for great-sounding instruments.
I still find myself ploughing through endless sample CD-ROMs containing beautiful recordings of awful-sounding instruments. As the K250 showed, however, the secret is to get the instruments themselves to sound good, and be played by musicians, rather than simply to rely on good microphones and 24-bit recording. In my opinion, a bad recording of a good performance will always outshine a good recording of a bad performance — that's why James Brown, Lalo Schifrin and Isaac Hayes get sampled a lot and Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman don't.
Kurzweil's combination of beautiful recordings and mainframe computer-based processing blessed the K250 with a ROM sample set unlike anything produced before, or maybe even since. Sure, you can buy a CD-ROM with a 128Mb Steinway sample set on it, and load it into an Akai or an Emu, but, when compared with the K250's humble 512k Kurzweil Grand Piano it just doesn't sound as nice. The K250's sounds are such that people listen to them and say 'that sounds good' rather than 'hey, that's a startlingly realistic-sounding piano sample'. The same goes for the legendary 'Cathedral Choir' preset, as well as others like 'soft tenor sax' and the solo cellos. The K250's ensemble string samples were the same as those used on Kurzweil instruments today, simply because they haven't been bettered. OK, they were mono, but layer them, map them to the left and right outputs, add a touch of built-in chorus and you have the soundtrack to Die Hard at your fingertips. In much the same way as the Fairlight CMI or Synclavier, the Kurzweil K250 had a select following of fans who based their particular 'sound' around it.
Film composers such as Michael Kamen used it excessively to create massive orchestral soundtracks — something at which Kurzweil keyboards still excel — and classic '80s albums such as Talk Talk's Colour Of Spring or Filigree & Shadow by This Mortal Coil used the K250 to such great effect as to almost become demo discs. In much the same way as the Mellotron or Hammond B3, the K250 was an instrument with character — I defy anyone to spot a Roland or Yamaha synth preset in a mix, whereas the K250 simply oozes class, adding an imperceptible something to every track it's used on. In fact, I imagine the reason that nobody has bought out a CD-ROM of K250 samples is simply that Kurzweil are still to this day proudly possessive of their sounds. So what happened to the mighty K250? Well, unlike many of its rivals it managed to do something quite extraordinary — it evolved. Whereas the Fairlight CMI and Synclavier both disappeared, their thunder well and truly stolen by high‑street samplers like the Akai S900 and home computer sequencing software, Kurzweil repackaged the K250's sound ROM into a range of low-cost modules, the 1000 series. 1987 saw the release of the K1000 keyboard (and 1000PX Expander module) which featured a close, but not identical copy of the K250's Grand Piano, with ensemble strings, choir and other sounds in a playback-only form for around £1200.
The remainder of the K250 sample set was loaded into a range of 2U rackmount boxes called the 1000SX String Expander, the 1000GX Guitar Expander and — wait for it — the 1000HX Horn Expander (stop sniggering at the back.). The beautiful 88-note piano keyboard turned up on a range of controller keyboards and 'home piano'-style instruments, while the user-sampling facility took a well-deserved break, disappearing for a while from the Kurzweil product range. This repackaging of company 'assets' using low-cost technology was a bold move for Kurzweil, and whilst undoubtedly successful, the company didn't really hit the big time again until the release of the K2000 in 1992. This and the subsequent K2500 have put Kurzweil back on the map, being arguably the best workstations of their type in the world.
My own K2500 features 128Mb RAM, full digital in/out, a weighted keyboard and a dinky little chain of SCSI devices, but somehow. When I want that piano sound, I still turn to the gorilla in the corner. The K250 may be big, but it sure is beautiful. The K250's user-sampling section, or the Sound Modelling Program as it was called, was extremely powerful in its time, but looks a little primitive today.