Jon Bates was out doing his Christmas shopping when he popped into his local branch of BOOTS. What should he see, but CHEETAH's latest Keyboard and MIDI add-on?
CHEETAH hadn't sent him the goodies, so a quick chat to the BOOTS Manager led to a review...
THE MK5 KEYBOARD
For the first time ever, a computer-based firm has stepped out boldly into the territory of the music business. In short CHEETAH, under commission from BOOTS, have
launched what is known in the trade as a 'mother' keyboard. On its own it's as deaf and dumb as a stuffed dodo, but linked via MIDI to either a synth, synth module or
MIDI hardware, it acts as a polyphonic master controller of all and sundry - especially those synths equipped with fiddly little keys. The instruction manual is very
easy to understand with jolly diagrams of the various configurations that can be achieved with the keyboard and various add-ons. I will assume that you have a little
knowledge of MIDI by now as I have been bleating about its virtues for some time (see - you should have been paying attention!)
The MK5 is a five octave keyboard with full-size keys and transmits MIDI codes. Obviously it transmits note on/off, but by selecting the centrally-positioned program
mode button, the top octave takes on various other functions: channel up/down, octave up/down and program up/down - programs here meaning the sound programs banked in
the synths - all 128 of them. A red LED, positioned to the right of the keyboard. flickers ominously whenever a note is played. From this the channel, program, and
octave number are read off. Endless sustain (more correctly, a hold function) is achieved by pressing the mode button before releasing the notes.
The pitch-bend wheel is rather oddly positioned - above the keyboard and parallel to it. I'm not sure that this is a good thing: no other keyboard manufactured since
1971 has done this. It's almost as it it were an afterthought. Another problem is that it only bends half the value which the synth is set to.
As with most products, ciri have had to suffer the problem of how much they can include in the MK5 without raising the price too high. Much of the MIDI protocol is not
here: keyboard split, modulalion wheel, transposition, tuning, provision for sound layering and
velocity sensing are aft absent. A more serious omission is that it does not work in omni mode - transmitting on aft sixteen channels simultaneously. This means that
you are rather stuck when it comes to u&ng two or more modules as you can only address them individually or by re-assigning each synth's receiving MIDI channel.
Perhaps an intelligent add-on box could provide multiple patch (program) memories and far more detailed MIDI data instructions.
(Many thanks to the management and staff of aoors fr Stourtxi€ige, who loaned us their one and only MK5 for the purposes of this rewew. Mass executions have since
taken place gn ctEmiis promotions department asa resu't of their grave oversight.)
The MIDI interface from CHEETAH has still only appeared in prototype form - there is however a MINI interface. This is an extra for the MK5 keyboard, but it is
essential if you have a 128 but no synth. It gives you control over the AY 8912 chip in the 128 which, it must be admitted, was really designed with arcade games in
mind; only giving you a basic square wave. Plugging in the hardware and loading up the Microdrive-compatible software gives you full control over the chip: sound
shaping, pitch shaping, noise mixing and a split keyboard function. The menu appears as pop-up overlays on the screen you are working on and is very easy to work use.
Full marks for the graphic display of the sound/volume shaping section (more properly called an envelope). It gives a pretty good idea of what the sound will be,
although the sustain part of the envelope seems to have a fixed duration. It's also a doddle to work with. Not so the pitch envelope, which is far more complex and
requires you to fill out an eight stage table of up to 24 numbers per sound. Why not simplify things and display it visually?
The 'noise' is optional and can be mixed in with the main sound or heard on its own. It isn't wonderfully clear from the manual, but the pitch bend on/off is really a
non-starter as: a) you'd hardly fiddle around with the pitch bend control if you didn't want to use it so why bother to switch it off and b) doesn't track with the key
scaling - in other words it only bends a fraction of an octave at the bottom end but achieves a full octave of bend at the top.
There is a tremolo option which does a fair job of chopping the sound up, plus a sound file which can contain up to 64 sounds - you get 20 when you purchase the
module. Sounds can be called up from the Spectrum or from the to work with any other MIDI keyboard other than the MK5 (I suspect some mix-up of MIDI codes and flags).
It is however a fascinating and easy tool to use. Watch this space for details of their next load of music modules - it would seem that CHEETAH are becoming very
motivated in this direction.
Both these products are available from most branches of BOOTS. The MK5 will set you back £99.95 complete with power supply, and the MINI interface £29.95.