Possibly the most requested review in recent years, Cheetah's MD16 drum machine is finally here and ready for inspection. Simon Trask gives it a good beating.
Cheetah's long-awaited 16-bit drum machine has finally made it to the marketplace - but in the face of stiff competition, has it got what it takes?
NO-ONE CAN ACCUSE Cheetah of rushing their latest drum machine - the MD16 appeared in an early form at the 1989 BMF. Had it been released a year ago, it would have been able to sail along clear streams. As it is, the MD16's release at present is only serving to stir up already muddy commercial waters, for the budget market at which it's aimed also has the Boss DR550, the Akai XR10 and - perhaps most significantly - the Alesis SR16 to choose from.
But while its budget price may place it in the company of the above machines, the MD16's conceptual approach and programming sophistication have more in common with Roland's R8 Rhythm Composer. Given that the MD16's origins lie in a time when the R8 was newly-crowned king of the drum machines, perhaps this shouldn't be surprising. However, in these times of careful budgeting, most musicians will be considering the MD16 alongside the SR16 (reviewed in last month's MT) on the basis that they cost the same amount of money. The fact that conceptually they reflect different priorities on the part of their designers - programming detail and sophistication on the MD16, operational immediacy and spontaneity on the SR16 - only serves to make the choice more interesting.
THE MD16 COMES in a cheap-looking plastic casing measuring 15" x 11" x 2" (rear), with a flat top panel (5" deep) and a shallow-sloping front panel, and as such looks unnecessarily large next to Alesis' dinky SR16 - in fact, the latter can sit quite comfortably on the MD16's top panel. At 3lbs Cheetah's new drum machine is a lightweight, though the SR16 weighs in at an even more modest 1.5lbs.
Good news is that, unlike the SR16, Cheetah's new drum machine has a backlit LCD (2 x 16-character). Front-panel buttons are not surprisingly of the rubber variety, but have a reasonably firm response and trigger reliably. Absent is a dedicated volume controller - instead a software function allows you to select between four volume levels.
The 16 closely-spaced circular rubber playing pads, each measuring ¾" across, need to be hit centrally and accurately to trigger their sounds, and are velocity-responsive. In fact, the MD16's velocity responsiveness via the pads and MIDI for both performance and recording purposes is far more satisfying than the SR16's.
Operationally the MD16 is a little on the fiddly side but reasonably accessible. Due to the sheer number of parameters (142), it takes a while to familiarise yourself with where they are, what they do and how they interact, but once you've developed that familiarity and once the button-pushing - of which there's a lot - becomes automatic you can move around the machine fairly quickly.
The MD16's rear panel is packed with connections. Along with the power input socket (the drum machine comes with an external power supply) there are MIDI In, Out and Thru sockets, tape in and tape out 3.5mm sockets (for tape storage and tape sync - with sequence position recorded along with the tape sync signal), a 3.5mm footswitch input socket, an expansion socket for further sounds on ROM cartridges, a stereo ¼" jack socket which outputs the stereo audio mix - software-switchable to a mono mix - to a mixer or to headphones, and four stereo ¼" jack sockets which provide eight individual monophonic outs. Because Cheetah had to resort to stereo sockets in order to fit all the audio outputs they wanted, you'll have to invest in a few stereo-to-two-mono convertors in order to take advantage of them.
Realising that the MD16's casing may not be to everyone's taste, Cheetah have produced an alternative 1U-high, 19" rack-mount version (the MD16R), which utilises a more "professional" metal casing. This has all the software features and hardware connections of the MD16 while providing two footswitch inputs to the MD16's one and 16 on/off buttons as opposed to the MD16's 16 velocity-sensitive pads.
THE MD16 HAS 41 16-bit, 44kHz drum and percussion samples stored in 1Mb of internal memory, while the rear-panel expansion port allows access to up to 192 more samples. It looks as if Cheetah are going to opt for a single ROM cartridge which will plug directly into the expansion port and provide all the extra samples. At the time of writing, the selection of samples has yet to be finalised, as has the price, but according to Cheetah we can expect to see a wide range of both traditional and more off-the-wall percussion sounds included.
Cheetah's new drum machine has the potential to offer a far greater variety of sounds than Alesis' SR16. And before we go any further, it's worth clarifying that while the SR16 may allow you to select from 233 sounds, the actual number of samples is fewer than that. This is because a number of the sounds are differently-pitched versions of an individual sample (as in the various hi/mid/lo tom, percussion, bass and snare sounds) while others are reversed samples and others are internally-reverbed versions of dry samples. Providing preset "versions" of samples accords well with the SR16's philosophy of immediacy and accessibility, however. The MD16, on the other hand, allows you to do your own pitching and reversing of samples (though it has no reverb capability), and all in all offers more possibilities than does the SR16 for creating new sounds out of existing ones - while the ROM cartridge, when it arrives, will further extend the MD16's vocabulary of sounds.
Cheetah's new drum machine offers you 'Gated' (tight boom with hiss), Hip (woody thud), 'Slap' (wet), 'Thump' (clicking thud) and 'Electro' (snappy booming thud - not the 808) bass drums, together with 'Killer' (sort of a gated dustbin crash), 'Acoustic' (snappy rattle with body), 'Fusion' (bright and meaty), 'Ska' (light and snappy), House (yes, 909) and 'Up' (as in Cameo's 'Word Up') snares. The Percussion category offers a well-chosen, versatile collection of sounds: 'Cowbell', 'Electro Bell' (808), 'Acid Flick' (Kraftwerk-type filter cutoff 'blip'), 'Sidestick', 'Temple Block', 'Claves', 'Castanet', 'Snap', 'Tambourine', 'Shaker', 'Cabasa', Tabla', 'High Bongo', 'Agogo', 'Samba Whistle', 'Claps' (not 808) and 'Timbale'. Also provided are 'Electro', 'Hi', 'Mid', 'Low' and 'Deep' toms (snappy and thudding on 'Electro', rich and vibrant with plenty of body on the others - the last two sound like the same sample, though), 'Closed', 'Mid', 'Open' and 'Pedal Closed' hi-hats and 'Crash', 'Ride' and 'Splash' cymbals. There's also one clipped, throaty bass guitar sample. Overall the MD16 is a bright-sounding drum machine, with a penetrating top end which lets the high-frequency samples really cut through. The percussion samples work particularly effectively, boding well for the ROM cartridge.
The MD16's Voice parameters allow you to program per pad, at each of four pad "levels", the sample number (currently off or 1-41), tuning (+1 octave in semitone steps if Chromatic Tuning is enabled, +1/-6 octaves in fine-tune steps if it's disabled), reverse sample play on/off, pan position (0-15, with 0 instructing the MD16 to vary the pan position according to which of the drum machine's eight voices is being used), volume envelope (1-8), fixed volume response on/off, volume level (1-31), velocity curve (1-8), voice output (1-8), the number of voices the Voice can use (1-8), and a MIDI transmit/receive note number (0-127). The MD16 is a modest eight-voice polyphonic, with voice output being routed to the main stereo out and/or the individual mono outs. Where a Voice has been assigned more than one voice (ouch), successive pad hits for that Voice rotate around the relevant mono outs (three voices beginning from output four would rotate around 4, 5, 6).
"The MD16 lacks the immediacy of the SR16, but I wouldn't consider that a criticism - the MD16's strengths lie in its sophistication and flexibility."
Also included among the Voice parameters are what Cheetah call "humanising" parameters: randomise sample start point, randomise pitch and human level. These allow the sample start point and/or the pitch of the sample to be varied per pad hit, with the human level parameter determining the degree of variation (from subtle to extreme). Human Levels 1-5 link the variations directly to the volume of each pad hit, and so aren't actually random. Levels 6-10 add or subtract a random amount from the volume amount of each pad hit, and then link the variations to the resulting volume amounts, while levels 11-15 randomise sample start point, pitch and volume separately.
Movement within the stereo image can be produced using several Voice pan parameters. When enabled, Opposite Pan shifts the Voice to the opposite side of the stereo image from its programmed pan position (useful if applied to selected pad hits), while Roll Pan allows successive pad hits for a Voice to "roll" the sound across the stereo image (useful for, say, tom rolls) and Auto Pan allows a Voice to be panned across the stereo image as it plays.
Other Auto parameters are Auto Pitch (for pitch sweeps) and Auto Reverse (forward/backward or backward/forward sample playback, depending on whether the Reverse playback parameter is enabled). Envelope length, Auto Pan rate and direction, Roll Pan rate and direction and Auto Pitch shift amount and direction are programmed as global parameters per Pattern. You can program two sets of values, A and B, and assign one or other set to each pad.
THE FOUR PAD "levels" mentioned earlier are effectively four 16-pad "kits". These can be cycled around at any time by holding down the Shift button and successively pressing the Accent/Level button. In addition you can program an Auxiliary set of four levels and switch between the two sets (from the front panel or using MIDI controller #70), giving you access to 128 pad assignments in all. However, there's a price to be paid here: if you want to define the Auxilliary set you must be prepared to lose around 3% of the Pattern and Song memory.
When you record a pad hit into a Pattern, its Voice parameter settings are stored in a lookup table in memory. Each time a pad hit with new parameter settings is recorded, these settings are added to the lookup table, while the data recorded for each individual pad hit includes a pointer to the relevant parameter settings in the table. In this way each pad hit can "memorise" its Voice parameter settings without the need for those settings to be stored with every hit - neat memory economy.
Several things follow from this. For a start, when you edit the Voice parameters for a pad, you aren't affecting hits already recorded from that pad - effectively you're creating a new Voice. Secondly, the more Voices you have, the larger the lookup table will be. Thirdly, you can't delete a pad hit during real-time record unless its Voice parameter settings are assigned to a pad (in which case you can hold down the Shift button together with the relevant pad at the relevant place(s) in the Pattern). If they're not, you need to go into step-time record/edit mode and delete recorded pad hits individually.
Pad levels 1-3 allow you to assign one sample at a time to each pad, while level four allows you to assign up to three samples per pad, each with its own Voice parameters, and crossfade between them using different velocity curves for each sample.
The Chromatic Pad function provides an easy way of setting up a pitched sound on the pads for recording tunes or riffs. With it enabled, you can select any pad and its sound will be spread across the 16 pads at its pad level in semitone intervals. Deselect the function and the pads revert to their programmed settings.
Pad levels three and four can each be programmed with their own Echo effect. This is a software-generated effect which is created "live" using the MD16's own voices. For each pad level you can program the number of pads to be effected, the repeat rate, the number of repeats (1-16) and a fade amount (-8/+8, allowing fade-outs or fade-ins). If you use fading Echoes in conjunction with the Voice parameter Randomise Pitch, you can get the echoes to rise or fall in pitch.
Usefully, the Echo repeat rate is measured in MIDI clocks, so the echo is automatically synced to the current tempo. Thirty-two rates are provided, ranging from 1-120 MIDI clocks and allowing for both straight and triplet timings. Of course, with a fast repeat rate set you can use the Echo effect to play rolls and flams from single pad hits. On a related note, so to speak, with the Pad Fill function turned on you can record a series of pad hits into a Pattern at the selected quantisation rate by holding the relevant pad(s) down - useful for anything from hi-hat 16ths to snare rolls.
"With 254 Pattern and 254 Song memories to its name, the MD16 must surely qualify for a place in the Guinness Book of Records."
Pad level three also allows you to trigger up to 16 Patterns - one from each of its pads. There are two triggering modes: Queue-Trigger and Retrigger. The former allows you to spontaneously drop in a Pattern during Song or Pattern play. This could be a traditional drum fill or a Pattern which drops out the bass and snare parts.
The MD16 plays the drop-in Pattern once before continuing with the Song or Pattern it was previously playing. However, by triggering it again before it stops playing you can get it to play more than once.
Perhaps more interesting is Retrigger mode, because, instead of acting as a "supplement" for a Song or Pattern which is already playing, it allows you to create a rhythm track live from a predefined collection of up to 16 Patterns. Patterns are played at the currently-defined tempo, and you can set a Pattern repeat amount of 1-8 or continuous. With Continuous selected, a triggered Pattern continues to play until you hit one of the other pads, at which time the new Pattern starts playing immediately. This approach has its advantages for some uses, but I'd like to see another option whereby the active Pattern plays through to its end before the new Pattern comes in.
As each pad on each level can be assigned its own MIDI note number (0-127), you can trigger your 16 assigned Patterns via MIDI from a keyboard or a MIDI percussion controller. Where you're triggering Voices rather than Patterns, MIDI input to the MD16 can be used to trigger more than one Voice at a time by assigning from 2-8 pads to the same MIDI note.
CHEETAH HAVE INCLUDED a number of parameters on the MD16 which allow you to play around with the timing of recorded pad hits - an important aspect of humanising the drum machine. For a start, you can change the feel of a Pattern by sliding, say, a snare part forward or backward in time in 96ppqn steps (the MD16's maximum resolution). Once you've selected a recorded pad hit in step-time edit/record mode and set the amount of time slide, the MD16 gives you the option of sliding all pad hits with the same sample or all pad hits with the same set of Voice parameter values - the latter allowing you to slide only selected hits in your snare part.
Time-sliding allows you to do much more than subtly push or delay parts against one another. You can independently "rotate" different instrumental parts around a Pattern, creating new rhythms in the process. What happens is that pad hits which are slid a number of steps beyond the Pattern end "reappear" the same number of steps in from the Pattern beginning.
Swing timing on the MD16 can be applied as you record or live on playback. A swing depth range of ±8 offers a good variety of swing feels, with negative depth values moving the second note of a pair towards rather than away from the first. Swing works in conjunction with the Timing Quantise parameter, with quantisations ranging from 1/96 to 1/6 (for example, you can "swing" a triplet quantisation).
Timing randomisation is another significant feature of the MD16. Every recorded pad hit can have timing randomisation turned on or off. If on, the timing of the hit is randomised live on playback within a ± range centred on its recorded position. This range is specified globally via, surprise surprise, the Timing Randomise parameter, which allows you to select one of ten values ranging from a 1/384th note to a 1/16th note - subtlety is not necessarily the intention here.
Cyclic Randomise is a repeating effect which causes timing on playback to shift from ahead of recorded pad-hit positions to behind them - within the range specified by the Timing Randomise parameter - over a user-specified number of beats. Whether the change takes place gradually or not depends on the number of beats and on how many pad hits have timing randomisation enabled.
WITH 254 PATTERN and 254 Song memories to its name, the MD16 must surely qualify for a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Whether you could actually record - or would want to record - so many Patterns and Songs is another matter. As a guide to memory capacity, a Pattern consisting of 64 pad hits and ten different Voices takes up 1% of the memory, according to the MD16's % Free Memory display, so if all your Patterns had this number of hits and Voices you'd be able to record up to 100 Patterns. Of course, they won't and you won't. It's worth bearing in mind as you get into fine-tuning the Voice parameters of individual recorded pad hits (and thus create a lot more Voices), that storing Voice parameters is more memory-intensive than storing pad hits themselves. There again, all the sophistication is there to be made the most of. It's worth mentioning that the MD16's memory can be dumped not only to tape but also via MIDI SysEx to a remote storage device.
"Opposite Pan shifts a Voice to the opposite side of the stereo image while Auto Pan allows it to be panned across the stereo image as it plays."
A Pattern can be from 1-682 beats long, which gives you the flexibility to record extended performances lasting several minutes (memory allowing, of course) as well as the more usual pattern-based rhythm sequences.
There are three real-time recording modes: Cycle Mix, Cycle Overwrite and Tape. Cycle Mix is the familiar drum machine-style looped recording mode, while Overwrite is an intriguing variation: if you record a Pattern and then leave it to loop twice, any pad hits after that will delete the existing Pattern and initiate recording of a new Pattern - effectively it's a quick way of deleting a Pattern you've just recorded but aren't happy with.
Both these modes require you to preset the Pattern length before recording. Tape record mode, on the other hand, allows you to record a pattern without presetting its length. You can also use this mode to extend a Pattern which has already been recorded in one of the Cycle modes.
Quantisation can range from 1/192 to 1/4 including triplet values, or be turned off, and is applied as you record. Pad Quantise, however, can be applied on playback.
Patterns can be recorded not only from the MD16's pads but also from a MIDI source. The MT review model, running v1.01 software, wouldn't record via MIDI properly, but this has apparently subsequently been fixed in v1.02 software. The only other bug I came across, which arose from switching pad levels while a Song was playing, will, I am assured, be fixed in v1.03 software - which should be in the shops by the time you read this.
All the MD16's parameters can be edited while a Pattern is playing or recording, or while a Song is playing. The MD16 can also play a Pattern while you're recording it from scratch or editing it in step time, which is extremely useful. Step-time mode allows you to edit the Voice parameters of individual pad hits, all hits with the same set of parameter values or all hits with the same sample assigned. You can also alter the timing position of each hit and delete individual hits. A Pattern can be stepped through in either direction using the Up/Down buttons, moving either from pad hit to pad hit or by a selected quantisation amount. The LCD window displays the current position in bar:beat:clock format together with the sample or other Voice parameter for the selected pad hit and an event number which helps to clarify how many hits exist at the current position. New events can be entered by hitting the relevant pad(s) at the appropriate positions in the Pattern.
An unusual but welcome function at the "macro" level of pattern manipulation is Pattern Merge, which allows you to merge a source Pattern into a destination Pattern. One possible way you could approach this would be to build up a library of bass 'n' snare patterns and a library of percussion breaks, and experiment with the combinatorial possibilities. You can optionally specify a timing offset for the merge, to clock resolution, which allows you to place a shorter pattern anywhere within a longer pattern, or to append one pattern to another (with or without a gap in between the two patterns).
MD16 Songs are constructed in the traditional fashion of chaining Patterns together. Unlike the SR16, the MD16 doesn't allow you to do this in real time. Each step can be assigned one Pattern and a repeat value from 1-255. You can also program a tempo track for each Song. This consists of a Start tempo and subsequent tempo settings recorded at bar:beat positions. Included with each tempo setting is a bar:beat position and a Rate parameter. If the rate is zero, the tempo changes at the specified position. However, if the rate is a non-zero value then the position becomes the point at which the tempo starts to change to the specified tempo, with the rate defining how long it takes to change. A gold star for this one, I think.
The MD16 allows you to link up to 20 Songs in a single Chain and to program a pause between each Song. Zero delay is a special case, in that the MD16 waits for the footswitch, Start/Stop button or incoming MIDI Start command before playing the next Song in the Chain.
MUSICIANS WANTING A straightforward programming system and who aren't really interested in the sort of sonic and rhythmic weirdness the MD16 makes possible will probably be inclined towards Alesis' SR16. Cheetah's new drum machine lacks the immediacy and easy understandability of the SR16, but I wouldn't consider that a criticism. Each machine has its own strengths, and the MD16's lie in its sophistication and flexibility. Sound quality-wise they're quite evenly matched, though my overall impression is of the MD16 sounding brighter and sharper and the SR16 having more balls at the bass end and a more polished sound.
If you're into the aforementioned weirdness, time spent familiarising yourself with the MD16 (while doing your best to ignore its casing, which really doesn't do justice to it) will be time very well spent.
On facilities alone the MD16 should be serious competition for the Roland R-series, but I suspect that while Cheetah products don't have the professional look and feel which engenders confidence and says "take me seriously", many musicians will turn to Roland first. Which is a shame, because in so many other respects the MD16 is the biz.
Price MD16, £299.95; MD16R £349.95. Both prices include VAT.
More from Cheetah International Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask
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