Kurzweil MIDIBoard MIDI Controller

pic of midiboard
pic of midiboard

Last Update 09-29-2013

Piano Action
Polyphonic Aftertouch
Firmware version 3.0
Yamaha Breath Controller CV converter They Don't Make 'em Like They Used To A 2nd MIDIBoard for Road
Shallow keydip

The MIDIBoard is one of the finest MIDI controllers ever built.  I bought mine brand new in 1989 and it has never failed me on stage or in the studio.  The MB is a pre-Young Chang product of the original Kurzweil Music, released in 1987.  It had a comprehensive implementation of the MIDI specification at the time, although it does not implement 14-bit NRPNs as the last OS (v3.0) was released before the MIDI organization added NRPNs to the MIDI spec.  When Young Chang acquired Kurzweil Music in 1990, the MIDIBoard was not carried over in their product line and production ceased.

The following description adheres to latest firmware v3.0.

MIDIBoards can recall 99 setups with eight MIDI instruments per setup, which can be layered or split in three zones.  178 MIDI instruments can be defined (older firmware is limited to 89 MIDI instruments).  Each MIDI instrument has 48 parameters (older OSes have fewer parameters) that define the instrument - MIDI channel, program #, transpose, split zone 1/2/3 (with assignable split points), aftertouch, slider assignments, pedal assignments, etc.  You also have any of ten MIDI strings you can define as instruments, which requires hexadecimal codes to represent the MIDI message (not for the novice).  MIDI strings are handy for configuring FX devices or sending bank change messages, when you do not require the depth of parameters in a MIDI instrument.

Programming the MIDIBoard requires the user manual for reference, as the only interface provided is an eight LED display and an array of buttons.  If you're auditioning a MB or giving it a first run, read the manual first or you will get confused if you play with the buttons.  The user manual will guide you through, and it doesn't take long to get the hang of programming.  The best approach is to build a "skeleton" instrument or setup that you can make a copy of and manipulate those parameters.  A pdf of the user manual has been seen on the internet, google for it (it is too large for my webspace).

A setup can have user-defined split points and programmed values for attack velocity, release velocity, touch, pressure sensitivity, retrigger threshold, and arpeggiator parameters.  You can change attack/release/touch/pressure/retrigger at any time with the slidepots.  Yes, the MB can generate MIDI note off messages with release velocity, although some sequencers will not record release velocity.  But what is "retrigger threshold"?  When combined with pressure aftertouch (retrigger is off with the slidepot all the way up), you can send multiple MIDI note messages for that note by varying the pressure with your fingers.  This feature, unique to the MB, allows you to emulate rapid events like snare rolls or cymbal rolls.  It is especially effective for cymbal rolls - with the right pressure/retrigger settings, you can very accurately simulate a cymbal roll and fade it in and out.

The arpeggiator is quite full featured, although I haven't much use for them.  The arp is capable of syncing to external MIDI clock with clock divisions, clock bpm can be set by either assignable slidepot or CV pedal, or to a fixed bpm (40-999 bpm).  Curiously, the MB does not generate a MIDI clock at its MIDI output port - a sad omission that would have made it a complete MIDI controller as I did have occasion I could have used the arpeggiator as a master clock source for sequences.  The arpeggiator can be active in any split zone or the entire keyboard, and there are quite a variety of latching, play order, and note shift options.  It's been years since I experimented with the arpeggiator so my discussion is rather limited (apologies).

Two assignable slidepots, two assignable return-to-center wheels, and two assignable CV pedal inputs provide real-time MIDI controllers.  Pressure aftertouch is available in channel or key mode (described in detail below).  The wheels can have different MIDI CCs in each direction from center.  Four assignable switches and a dual footpedal switch round out the user controls.  The assignable switches can be configured as momentary or toggle on/off.  The on/off values of the switches and the footpedal switch can be values other than 0 and 127.  I tend to assign one of the switches to a preset volume, while another is assigned to soft pedal - soft pedal, while rarely implemented, is optimal for changing a MIDI instrument from rhythm volume to solo volume.  Sending a MIDI volume message affects all voices on the channel on reception, which isn't ideal having held chords suddenly change volume.  Soft pedal MIDI messages do not affect current notes - only succeeding MIDI notes are played at different volume.  Soft pedal is much more useful for toggling between rhythm and solo volume, but it is rarely implemented.

Mono Aftertouch is flexible in that any MIDI CC can be assigned to monoAT, as well as mod wheel or pitch bend up or down.

Although three split zones might sound limited today, it is actually practical enough with an 88 key controller.  The only omission I would've liked is 14-bit NRPNs, but I can live without them.  But even today the MIDIBoard is a powerful MIDI controller.  I used to use mine onstage to automatically change patches, volume, FX, and other parameters for each song.  It required some elbow grease, but once the songs were programmed it was a breeze to automate sounds for each song.  top

Two reasons why the MIDIBoard is popular among owners are its action and its polyphonic aftertouch.  The keys are solid wood and are good long length with the fulcrum pins at approximately the same point of a real piano.  And the mass of the keys helps to make aftertouch very controllable.  There were two different keysets for the wood action depending on where the MB was made.  If the rear panel badge says "Made in USA" then it has the Baldwin keyset.  If it says "Made in Japan", then you're in luck.  Hal Chamberlin, the designer of the MB, tells me that Hammond-Suzuki (yes, the Hammond clonewheel makers!!!) built the wooden keyset for the japanese models.  The H-S keysets feel wonderful, the closest to a real piano I have experienced.  To date I have yet to find a controller whose action feels as good as the H-S equipped MB.  I have played other MBs with the Baldwin keyset, it feels looser and lighter than the H-S but it is still a good action for piano players. top

Polyphonic aftertouch... the biggest feature of the MIDIBoard.  Few MIDI synths respond to polyAT, and the MB is one of the few controllers to feature it.  But once you experienced polyAT, you'll wonder how you worked without it.  Channel aftertouch (aka monophonic aftertouch) only generates a single aftertouch message per midi channel, no matter how many keys are pressed.  MonoAT is often used as a substitute for the mod wheel to impart vibrato.  Key aftertouch (aka polyphonic aftertouch) generates an aftertouch message per key.  Each individual key has separate polyAT controls.  This is best exploited to modulate volume or timbre of voices.  Strings and choirs are great voices for polyAT, as you can fade in/out individual notes just by varying the pressure in your fingers.  You get very realistic swells when using this technique.  Pads and other synth voices benefit greatly when polyAT is routed to filter cutoff, so you can make each note brighter or duller by varying the pressure in your fingers.

But be warned - polyAT can generate very dense MIDI traffic that can overwhelm MIDI devices.  Some MIDI sequencers will not record polyAT messages.  One of my early experiments with the MB was with my Memorymoog.  When polyAT (inadvertantly left on) overwhelmed that poor Z80 processor in the Memorymoog, it sent it into never-never land (the only time I ever had this happen) and upon cycling power on the Memorymoog, I discovered that several patches had been overwritten because the MIDI buffer stack in the MM had overflowed and thus spilled over into patch memory.  Ouch!

PolyAT fell out of favor until the arrival of softsynths, primarily the Arturia CS-80V.  This softsynth is a software emulation (rather good one too, I played with it at a NAMM show) of the famed Yamaha CS-80 of the late 1970s, an analog polysynth which also featured polyAT.  The CS-80V will respond to MIDI polyAT, but customers found that there were no MIDI controllers in production that generated polyAT!  GEM and Ensoniq made keyboards with polyAT, but they were not 88 key weighted action controllers.  Suddenly MIDIBoards were back in demand, as CS-80V users wanted them for their polyAT features. top

Firmware v3.0 is the last and best OS and can be identified by the 48 instrument parameters on the front panel label (older OS have fewer parameters), and when the MB boots up "M I D I B d 3 0" appears briefly on the display.  Many older MIDIBoards have been updated to v3.0 and it is common to find panel overlays over the old panel legends.  No new firmware has been released since 1989 and Kurzweil under Young-Chang no longer supports the MIDIBoard.

MIDIBoards with older OS could be upgraded to v3.0 but the upgrade may not be as simple as copying OS EPROMs.  MBs had three versions of the logic boards (located at the rear of the chassis), and if your MB contains the first version of the board (about 12 inches long) then a daughterboard is required along with the v3.0 ROM upgrade.  There is no known source for these daughterboards as they are long out of production.  If your MB has the long logic board then no daughterboard is needed, only the EPROMs.

Users may be curious of the dual MIDI output jacks.  The same MIDI data is transmitted out both jacks.  The logic board does contain the hardware for the MIDIBoard to have independent MIDI outputs, but it was never implemented in firmware.  I am an embedded software developer, so when I encountered Hal Chamberlin at a NAMM show I asked since the MIDIBoard is now long out of production, could I have the source code so I could implement updated MIDI features and those separate output ports?  To my surprise, Hal graciously emailed me the source code to OS v3.0.  I do not have the time or tools to monkey with that code, but maybe someday.

Back when I bought the MIDIBoard brand new, I opted for a pair of Morley control pedals that were designed for the controller - the model number on the badge is KRZ-WL.  They are good quality controllers although Morley hasn't made them in years - nothing made today is as rugged as these good old METAL assemblies.  Here's some pics of them.  The ATTACK switch actually selects a linear sweep (A) or pseudo-exponential sweep (B), and the MINIMUM VOLUME pot sets the minimum CC value with the pedal all the way back.

pic of pedals
pic of pedals

The MIDIBoard doesn't have an input to accept a Yamaha breath controller but the user manual does have a schematic on how to build an adapter that works with the assignable CV pedal input.  I have built this converter and it works.  If you're going to use the MIDIBoard to orchestra MIDI scores, this is a really good controller to have for authentic wind instrument simulation.

Today's MIDI controllers are not as rugged or full featured by comparision, and their actions are inferior to the H-S keybed on the MB.  Sadly in today's competitive market, customers got too price conscious and the product offerings had been compromised as a result.  Although the MIDIBoard does not support 14-bit NRPNs, third party controllers are available for that; it is not necessary for me to have every feature in my MIDI controller.  In the meantime, the MIDIBoard will continue to serve me as my favorite MIDI controller. top

Good weighted action MIDI controllers were made back in the late 1980s.  But not today.  I have auditioned a lot of controllers and have yet to find one that feels as good as the MIDIBoard - modern weighted action controllers simply do not have the feel and inertia of a wood piano action.  They don't have the sophisicated features of the MB, are marketed towards the home recording musician, and are simply not rugged enough for touring.  The lack of good MIDI controllers is a common topic for discussion forums these days.

When I had joined a southern rock weekend band playing piano, EPs, Hammond, and 3rd guitar I needed a good MIDI controller as I had a lot of sound configurations to automate between songs.  By then my MIDIBoard was firmly rooted in my studio, so I opted for a 2nd "road" MIDIBoard to form my keyboard offsite rig.

The "road" MIDIBoard went through some restoration.  This unit had obvious damage signs of a fall from a blunt object and the slidepots got broken.  The slidepots were no longer available on the market and no suitable replacement could be found.  I got around this in two ways: the five slidepots that configure attack velocity, aftertouch sensitivity, etc could be "hard coded" into a MB setup.  As for the slide A and slider B controls, I decided to route them to footpedal controls.  I was also interested in minimizing setup/breakdown time by consolidating multiple footswitches and sweep pedals.  My Moog Polypedal hadn't seen much use as I no longer used it with the Polymoog so I decided it would be the perfect footpedal solution, as everything I needed was in one unit and it could eliminate multiple cables with a single multicore cable.  Being a heavy road-rugged unit, it also doesn't slip away from your feet like individual pedals do.

Another problem with this "road" unit was the keydip - it was too shallow.  I really wanted the feel of my 1st MIDIBoard.  After some investigation I uncovered that the source of the difference was the pedestal on which the hammer sensors were attached.  The only solution was to insert shims to raise the sensors a little higher and it worked great.  The shims have to be nonconductive, so the best solution was polymer.  I measured the required thickness of the shim and found the stock at my local hardware store, where they could cut the polymer into the strips I needed.

I really am spoiled by the MIDIBoard.  More than once I had encouraged Hal Chamberlin to reissue a product like the MIDIBoard as he still worked at Kurzweil.  Hasn't happened yet.

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