Cheetah Master Series 7P
As synth and sampler expanders become more popular, the demand for an affordable master keyboard increases. Simon Trask puts Cheetah's latest - and best test.
Live and in the MIDI studio, a capable MIDI controller keyboard is becoming increasingly important - appropriately, Cheetah's latest is also their best offering to date.
THERE'S NO DOUBT that Cheetah have done their bit to push the concept of the MIDI controller keyboard. While other companies have (mostly) concentrated on the professional end of the scale, Cheetah have consistently produced affordable controllers, realising that not everyone wants 88-note weighted keyboards and extensive MIDI control facilities - for a lot of budding musicians, a nice cheap MIDI keyboard to plug into that nice cheap MIDI expander will do nicely, thank you.
But with the Master Series 7P, Cheetah have finally moved upmarket - and the price tag has moved upwards of £500 in the process. If you haven't been over-enamoured of Cheetah's controller keyboards in the past, maybe now is the time to think again. For instance, there's the 7P's 88-note weighted keyboard. Manufacturers typically plump for what can loosely be described as either a synth feel or a piano feel on their controller keyboards, even producing synth and piano versions of the same controller. To my mind, for many of the sounds available to hi-tech keyboard players these days, a synth-style keyboard action is more appropriate. Yet I also find myself longing for a more substantial keyboard feel than many synths provide. For the 7P Cheetah have come up with a keyboard which represents an ideal balance of synth and piano feels. In fact, having played a wide selection of acoustic pianos at the BMF recently, I can only conclude that the so-called piano-action keyboards employed by companies like Roland and Akai are, by today's standards, greatly over-exaggerated versions of the real thlng. In truth, the 7P's keyboard is closer to a real piano action, though necessarily without the particular response generated by a mechanical action.
So what's the keyboard like? Well, the keys have a shallow-ish travel, while the weighted action means that your fingers have to work harder than on a typical synth keyboard, but not excessively so. To any keyboard players reared on an acoustic piano and worried about losing their touch through playing a synth keyboard, the 7P should be an attractive proposition. On the other hand, there's perhaps a danger that synth players reared on light- action keyboards will find the resistance of the 7P's keys a little too much for their liking.
The 7P's keyboard can generate both attack and release velocity, with programmable response curves, but not aftertouch. However, Cheetah have thoughtfully allowed aftertouch to be transmitted from wheel three and/or a footpedal, the latter proving to be a particularly effective alternative.
There are three wheel controllers to the left of the keyboard, the furthest left of which is centre-sprung for pitchbend control. In fact, these are the same type of wheels as are to be found on Ensoniq's new VFX synth, though on the review-model 7P the pitchbend wheel was sprung a little more stiffly (a bit too much more for my liking) while the other two wheels offered slightly less resistance than their VFX counterparts. The default assignments of the wheels on power-up are pitchbend, modulation and volume respectively, but you can assign them to any controller value or to other functions.
The 7P's control panel is similar in appearance to those of previous Cheetah controller keyboards. However, while the 7P is undeniably the company's most sophisticated controller to date, it's also the easiest to use. How can this be? Well, it's all down to good design. The 7P brings its functions to the surface as much as possible, which means a maximum of two functions per button (shifted and unshifted). Once you've sussed out the principles on which the 7P operates, you can move around its parameters with the minimum of fuss. The four- character LED display is a necessary compromise to keep the price down, but, aside from the annoyance of not being able to name patches, it does a good job of displaying the necessary information at any given moment.
In addition to one MIDI In, one MIDI Thru and four individually-addressable MIDI Out sockets, the 7P's rear panel provides two footswitch jacks and one footpedal jack (both programmable), and a 9vDC power connection. Like previous Cheetah controller keyboards, the 7P comes with an external power supply unit, and lacks an on/off switch. External power supplies often mean easy-to-accidentally-disconnect power supplies, but on the 7P Cheetah have opted for a firm three-pin DIN connection. However, if you find that the keyboard doesn't power up when you plug in the lead, try again: there are two ways the connection can be made.
Incidentally, the 7P I reviewed was running version 1.1 software, but by the time you read this the 7Ps in the shops should be running version 1.3, or even version 1.4. And Cheetah promise that the only two bugs I came across during the review (involving MIDI patch number and note reception) will have been fixed by then.
THE 7P HAS up to 90 RAM Performance Memories and a further ten (90-99) permanently stored in ROM. Each Memory can store parameters governing up to eight keyboard zones, with each zone in turn consisting of up to four layers (or Notes, to use Cheetah's terminology).
The ROM Memories have been pre-programmed by Cheetah to demonstrate the 7P's capabilities, with full listings of the parameter settings for each Memory printed at the back of the 54-page manual for further convenience. The ROM memories have been designed to run on one expander plugged into any one of the 7P's four MIDI Outs and receiving on MIDI channel 1. While this means they won't give you the full picture of how you can organise sounds on the keyboard, you can always copy them into the RAM Performance Memories and play around with the MIDI channel and 0utput Port settings. In fact, individual RAM Memories can't be used until you have either programmed them yourself or copied in an existing Memory. Unusually but quite sensibly, the 7P only saves data for the zones which are assigned to the keyboard, so the fewer zones you use the less memory you use. If for some reason you wanted every Performance Memory to consist of eight zones, you'd be able to store around 56 Memories, but with an average spread of zones you can save the full number. And once you've filled the memory, or if you just want to make a backup, you can transfer the entire memory between the 7P and external storage via MIDI SysEx.
The method of assigning zones to the keyboard is straightforward enough. Each zone's range is defined as the distance between its own top key and the top key of the preceding zone. Therefore, to assign only one zone to the keyboard, select the top-key parameter of zone one and set it to 88 (the top key of the 7P's 88-note range), while to assign two zones to the keyboard, with a split at middle C, set the top key of zone one to 39 and the top key of zone two to 88.
This approach has the virtue of simplicity (though it would be even simpler if you could enter top-key values by playing the actual keys as opposed to entering numbers from the keypad), but it does mean that you can't layer zones. Fortunately you don't need to, as the four Notes per zone that I mentioned earlier allow you to layer up to four different sounds on four different MIDI channels. This approach is ideal for using multitimbral expanders in conjunction with the 7P, as it provides an easy means of layering sounds on a single instrument. Notes can be turned on or off individually, so it's an easy matter to program one Performance Memory with four Notes and another with only one Note.
"While the 7P is undeniably Cheetah's most sophisticated controller, it's also the easiest to use - it's all down to good design."
Of course, with four independently-addressable MIDI Outs you can also layer up to four sounds across four different instruments without using the Notes - or, heaven forbid, 16 different sounds with the Notes. In fact, with up to four multitimbral expanders, each hanging off different Outs but assigned to the same range of MIDI channels, you can create a wide range of keyboard textures just by changing the zone top-key assignments and the Note MIDI channel and MIDI Output assignments.
The 7P also allows you to play chords of up to four notes (or Notes) on each key. Individual Notes can be given their own transposition value of between +63/-64 semitones in semitone steps, so you've got quite a choice of chord voicings. If you assign all four Notes in a zone to the same MIDI channel, the complete chord will be played by one sound, but, as you'll have gathered by now, you can also play each note of the chord with a different sound. Transposition also allows you to thicken up sounds by octave-doubling and by detuning (playing two or more detuned versions of a sound on different MIDI channels).
Now, what else would you like to be able to do with up to four sounds and/or pitches per key? How about controlling which sound and/or pitch you play on the basis of velocity? The 7P allows you to assign separate attack and release velocity response curves to each Note per zone, plus sensitivity values which further modify the response (on a scale of 0-127, with 64 as the unmodified curve response). The 7P provides you with a choice of 16 curves. Curves 8-14 are the inverse of curves 1-7, allowing you to create velocity crossfades, while curve zero generates fixed velocity. Finally, if you assign dynamic velocity control to wheel controller three and select curve 15 for a Note, you can control the velocity not from the keyboard but from the position of wheel three. Strange but true.
However, while this degree of control is welcome, I'd still have liked to see velocity windowing implemented as a straightforward means of switching between several Notes on the basis of velocity. Incidentally, if you want to assign the same curve and sensitivity values (and other Note parameters) to all Notes, you can do this quickly by selecting zone zero, which is effectively global edit mode: any edits you make in zone zero will be applied to all zones.
Crucially, each Note can also be assigned a MIDI patch number which will be transmitted whenever the Performance Memory is selected. In this way you can predefine the configuration of sounds you want for each Performance Memory. However, there's no ready means of controlling the volume level of each sound, so balancing one sound against another will need to be done on the instruments themselves.
You can also assign a MIDI Song number to each Performance Memory; this will be transmitted on all four Outs when the Memory is selected. If your sequencer and drum machine can store multiple songs and respond to the MIDI Song Select message, you can tie a song in with a particular 7P Performance Memory. After you've selected the Memory and the song, you can start the song playing by pressing the 7P's Start/Stop button. No prizes for guessing that this sends a MIDI Start command; pressing the button again Stops the song, while pressing the Shift and Start/Stop buttons Continues the song. You can also globally define the tempo of your song from the 7P (in the range 40-24Obpm), as it transmits MIDI clocks. Alternatively you can set the 7P to RECeive rather than GENerate MIDI clocks, in which case it will wait for MIDI clocks before doing anything. But what possible use could a controller keyboard have for incoming MIDI clocks? Stay tuned.
Once you've programmed a series of Performance Memories you can either step through them sequentially by setting one of the footswitches to increment the Memory number on each press, or create a Performance Memory Chain of up to 32 steps and program the footswitch to increment through the steps. The Chain method has the obvious advantage that you don't need to bother what order the Memories are in when you program them. However, it's a pity there isn't a footswitch input dedicated to incrementing the Memories and the Chain steps. As it is, you have to ensure that every relevant Memory has one of the footswitches assigned to one or other increment functions as required, otherwise you could reach a Memory and find that your footswitch is incrementing no more, which could be very embarrassing in company.
The 7P has six physical controllers: three wheels, two footswitches and a footpedal. You can set the polarity of each controller (including the wheels), allowing you to use any manufacturers' footswitches and footpedals. Each controller can be assigned to transmit values for any one of MIDI controllers 0-127, programmable per Performance Memory. Alternative functions vary from controller to controller: controller one, for instance, can transmit pitchbend, while controllers three and four (wheel and footpedal) can each transmit velocity or aftertouch or control the MIDI clock rate, while controllers seven and eight (the footswitches) can each select pitchbend up or down or aftertouch enable/disable, or increment Memory, Chain or MIDI patch.
Each controller can transmit on up to four MIDI channels and to a separate Output Port configuration for each channel - or Destination, as it's known. Each Destination of each controller can be given its own sensitivity on a scale of 0-127: 64 equals full 0-127 range, 32 equals 0-64, and 127 equals 0-127 in half the travel. The 7P reads the value of each controller when you power up or select a new Performance Memory, and transmits to each Destination the assigned controller code (if any) and a value based on the actual value referenced to the sensitivity. In this way you can, for instance, send four different MIDI volume values from a single controller (wheel three is normally volume), which gives you a limited means of balancing sounds.
THE 7P'S FACILITIES include two MIDI-generated effects: arpeggio and echo (a third, delay, is merely echo without the initial notes sounding). These are programmable per zone within a Performance Memory, with one effect active at a time per zone. Arpeggio direction can be up, down, up/down, down/up or random, and can move through the initial Note or all Notes of each key within a zone.
Additionally, you can program effect rate (1-254), arpeggio note length (1-254), the number of echo repeats (1-32) and a constant velocity fade on successive echo repeats (+63/-64).
"You can sync the 7P's arpeggio and echo effects to a sequencer or drum machine, which makes it practical to record the results into a sequencer."
This is where the 7P's ability to send and receive MIDI clocks really comes into its own, because you can sync the 7P's arpeggio and echo effects to a sequencer or a drum machine, which in turn makes it practical to record the results into a sequencer. Of course, if you want the 7P's output to be in time with the sequencer then you must play the initial notes in time, but there again you can also create interesting syncopations by deliberately playing off the beat - the 7P merely makes sure that its notes are aligned to the nearest MIDI clock. However, things get even more interesting when you realise that the arpeggio and echo rates for each zone are set as multiples of MIDI clocks (1-254). Multiples of six thus give you regular note values (24 MIDI clocks equal a quarter note), but by, for instance, choosing a rate of 24 in one zone and 25 in another, you can create a phasing effect as arpeggiated and echoed notes progressively move out of time with one another.
This can get very interesting with Dual mode selected. This mode internally feeds the notes of each odd-numbered zone into the adjacent even-numbered zone, where they become source notes for that zone's effect. In this way you can route the notes of an odd-numbered zone through two effects, so that arpeggiated notes can be echoed, echoed notes can be arpeggiated, arpeggiated notes can be arpeggiated, or echoed notes can be echoed. The results can be surprising, and it's best not to be too analytical about what's going on -just experiment. It's also worth experimenting with how long you hold down the initial notes, as this controls how many notes are arpeggiated - an interesting new keyboard technique.
You can also set up an accompaniment for yourself by turning on Hold for, say, zones one and two, which will cause the Dual mode effected output to loop indefinitely. If you've turned off effects for zone three you can solo in that zone over an accompaniment pattern that you've set to loop in zones one and two. Great stuff. Of course, the ingenuity of the result depends not only on the notes and the effect parameter values you choose, but also on what those notes are playing. For instance, they could be triggering all manner of samples, even sampled rhythms. By enabling multiple effected zones (Dual or otherwise) on the keyboard and assigning different repeat rates for each zone, then experimenting with Hold on various combinations of zones, the possibilities are literally endless.
If you set the 7P to Expand mode, any notes received via the controller's MIDI In port (whether from another instrument or a sequencer) will be treated as if they were being played on the keyboard in zone one or, if Dual mode is selected, zones one and two. You can even set the top key of zone one to zero, effectively removing it from the keyboard, and incoming notes will still be routed through all its parameters. In this way you could be playing zones three and four as a split on the keyboard, while the output of another instrument is routed through zone one, merged with your playing, and then sent out to expanders and recorded into a sequencer hanging off the 7P.
I CAN'T FINISH this review without discussing the practicality of using a controller keyboard with four MIDI Outs in a sequencing setup. Basically, there's no question that multiple individually-addressable MIDI Outs are a distinct advantage where sequencing isn't involved, especially with today's multitimbral expanders. But if you want to use a sequencer and still slave your expanders off the controller rather than the sequencer, then you need to route the output of the sequencer back to the input of the controller. If you do that, then you need to make sure that the input isn't routed back to the sequencer when you're recording. On the 7P you can define an Output Port configuration specially for the MIDI Input data, so you can switch out the sequencer Output; Roland's A50 and A80 don't even allow you to get this far.
But can the sequenced output replay the same combination of sounds that you originally played on the keyboard? If you're using two or three instruments, each on a different Out and each set to receive on different MIDI channel(s), then yes. But if you're using two or three multitimbral MIDI instruments, each on a different Out and all receiving on the same MIDI channels, no - unless you can define Output assignments for each of MIDI channels 1-16, which you can't do on the 7P or any other controller. And what if you originally routed different Notes to the same MIDI channel(s) on different 7P Outs? Enough, enough! Without getting any further into detailed discussion on the subject, let's just say that there are limits to the keyboard textures that you can recreate when using a sequencer playing back via the controller, while if you're slaving your expanders directly off multiple outputs on the sequencer, you can at least (re)create any texture you want by fine-tuning track assignments. Ultimately the success of multiple outs on controller keyboards depends on the sophistication of the textures you want to create.
THE 7P IS easily Cheetah's best controller keyboard to date. And in many respects it's more sophisticated than anything else on the market which makes its price all the more remarkable. £700 may be expensive when measured against other Cheetah products, but measured against the competition the 7P still qualifies for the budget category. Its very sophistication means that you need to take time to familiarise yourself with it, but once you've done that it's straightforward enough to use.
Along with its degree of control sophistication, the 7P's weighted keyboard takes it into a different league to previous Cheetah controllers. It's their first professional-quality keyboard, and, as I've said, it exhibits a very successful balance of synth-and-piano-style feel, where other controllers plump for one or the other and usually over-exaggerate on the piano feel. I would certainly be very comfortable with it as my main controller, from both the keyboard and the control perspectives. Also, the 7P proved to be very reliable during the couple or so weeks I had it.
If £700 is still too much for you to find, but you're attracted to the 7P's control facilities and don't mind compromising on the keyboard, the Master Series 5V represents amazing value at £300 (or £299.95, as Cheetah will insist on having it). For this money you get a 61-note plastic unweighted keyboard but the same facilities as the 7P.
Any company that concentrates on the budget end of the market to the exclusion of all else, as Cheetah have done in the past, run the risk of not being taken seriously if they subsequently try to move upmarket too. Cheetah are taking that important step forward and running that risk. If you're on the lookout for a controller keyboard, you'll be the one missing out if you overlook the 7P.
Price £699.95 including VAT