Cheetah MD16R & MD16RP
Repackaging a powerful and popular drum machine as a rackmount and adding drum triggers is sure to attract more interest to it. Nigel Lord explores the new Cheetah MD16.
No sooner than it had appeared on the market, Cheetah's MD16 had its generous complement of 233 onboard sounds uprated to over 700. Now it's acquired trigger inputs too.
With the Frankfurt music fair currently preparing to lure the music biz to Germany with its annual offerings - technical, liquid (and sexual) - we're reminded that it's time once again to make way for a whole slew of new gear and sift it into broad categories of bad, good and significant. Of course, the expression, "significant" and its most common adjunct, "new equipment" has become something of a cliché in recent years and is usually pretty difficult to quantify. How significant is significant? And exactly who is it significant for?
The Cheetah MD16 is a case in point.
In the course of his review (see MT, March '91), Simon Trask gave it the general thumbs up and even went so far as to compare it with the Roland R-series Rhythm Composers. My review for MT's sister magazine, Rhythm, however, had me reaching for the thesaurus in search of superlatives and claiming it to be - you've guessed it - a significant advance in beatbox technology. Twelve months on, I'd stand by that appraisal, particularly in view of the price, which was (and still is) an unbelievable £299 including VAT. The recent release of two new versions of the machine simply gives me the opportunity to re-state my case.
The MD16R and the MD16RP, as their suffixes might suggest, are rackmounted versions of the original machine with certain changes and additions - and in the case of the RP version, a facility for directly connecting up to eight drum pads. Detailing these differences, however, probably won't mean a great deal if you didn't read Simon's original review and know nothing of the MD16. So, here's a brief (well, as brief as I can make it) outline of the facilities you can expect to find on all three machines.
Sounds - lots of 'em. Though the original MD16 contained only 41 voices (only?), this was quickly increased to 700 sounds to bring it in line with the rack versions released some time later. It's important, however, to note the use of the word sounds here, since all the machines still have the same complement of 41 onboard voices (samples) to draw on but make use of some pretty extensive voice editing facilities to produce a number of different versions of these and store them in memory. Obviously, some don't represent too radical a departure from the original voices, but many do and all are extremely useable.
If the time does come when you feel you've exhausted the onboard sonic capabilities of the MD16, you can always opt for one of Cheetah's range of ROM cartridges, each containing over 200 different samples - and, I'm reliably informed, due off the production line any time now. If they're anything like the original sounds, there won't be much to complain about; the range manages to be, in equal measures, articulate and quite bold (if I might borrow a couple of words from the hi-fi press). Included are five kicks, six snares, five toms, four hi-hats, three cymbals, a wide complement of Latin sounds, oddities such as temple block and tablas, and contemporary voices such as 'Acid Flick' and an extremely punchy bass guitar.
All samples are 16-bit (sampled at 48kHz) and whether onboard or accessed via ROM, may be assigned to any of the 16 pads (or switches in the case of the R and RP models), played from within any pattern and subjected to any of the machine's voice editing parameters. They are tuneable from +1 down to -6 octaves in a 1-127 step range, or chromatically (for melodic and tuned voices) over a +1 octave range in semitone steps. Sound length is programmable, as is the volume envelope, velocity curve, direction of play (forward or reverse) and output assignment to a stereo mix or any one of eight outputs wired to four stereo jacks on the rear panel.
Pan position can also be programmed and with additional features such as Auto Pan, Roll Pan and Opposite Pan, sounds may be subjected to a range of special effects such as movement to a new pan position within the stereo image for successive notes of an instrument line within a pattern.
As mentioned a moment ago, the 16 touch-sensitive pads on the MD16 are replaced by switches on the R and RP models, but remain velocity controlled via MIDI. The internal architecture of the machines is such that the pads (or switches) have four Levels - each comprising some 16 different sounds. Additionally, you can switch to an auxiliary complement of pad setups (using the Voice function key) which, if my arithmetic is sound, gives you the equivalent of 128 pads to work from at any one time. The first three Levels allow the programming of single sounds, while the fourth is able to support up to three sounds per pad (or switch). This goes a long way to compensate for the frustration of having over 700 internal sounds and only 16 pads (switches) with which to program them.
Using the Chromatic Pad function, you can instantly spread a sound from any pad across the other 15 to provide you with a form of ersatz keyboard with which to play melodic or tuned percussion sounds. Of the eight pad velocity curves available (via MIDI on the R and RP), four are linear with varying degrees of slope, one is exponential, and three are reverse linear (the harder you hit, the quieter the sound). Similarly, there are eight different Volume Envelopes to choose from and these again offer a wide variety of effects including fade in/fade out and reverse envelopes, as well as more conventional attack/decay programs.
Straddling the sound editing and rhythm editing aspects of the MD16's performance, the "Human" control parameters really help make this a formidable range of machines. Here, you have the ability to soften the attack of a sound or shorten it at lower volumes, detune the pitch at higher volumes or program volume-dependent tunings over a two-octave range. You can also link the start point of a sound to the volume with which it is played or randomise any of these parameters, if you prefer, to introduce an element of chance into your programming.
Time randomisation and displacement effects are also well represented; in addition to those features you might expect - such as swing-time programming - you'll also find more esoteric functions such as negative swing, which moves the second note of any pair towards the first rather than away from it. Cycle randomise, as its name suggests, controls the displacement of notes in a cyclic manner. Alternatively, you may opt for completely random control over time shifting, but still maintain overall control of the maximum amount of shift away from the beat which is allowed to occur.
If, by contrast, it's accuracy you're looking for, the MD16 has a quantise function which resolves down to the standard - though no less impressive for that - 1/192 of a note, and this may be applied during recording (Pre-quantisation), which is permanent - or after (Post-quantisation), which isn't.
Moving to the programming system proper, the MD16s can be programmed in both real and step time - with realtime recording carried out either in Tape or Cycle modes. As you've probably gathered, writing a pattern in Tape mode is rather like recording it on a continuous length of tape, where at 120bpm, you have a maximum recording time of just under six minutes. Cycle mode, on the other hand, allows you to cycle round a particular pattern in the conventional way and either add notes to it on each pass or overwrite an existing pattern with new note entries.
A total of 254 patterns may be held onboard and combined into a total of 254 songs of up 127 steps - each step comprising a pattern or an instruction to repeat a pattern. Additionally, songs may be assembled into chains of 20 for purposes of live performance. Between these, pre-programmed delays may be inserted to provide you with the necessary pause between songs. Alternatively, you can simply use the start/stop key or a footswitch connected via a jack on the rear panel.
Two programmable Echo banks may be assigned to each pad if required and, as these have adjustable repeat rate, decay rate and number of repeats, it's possible to program anything from a brief flam to a full, decaying echo of up to 2.5 seconds (at 120bpm). Link this function to the Pitch programming parameters and you can combine echo repeats with increasing, decreasing or random pitch changes. Using the Chromatic pad function, you can also extend this to adding tuned echoes to each of the pads which are themselves tuned to different pitches.
"Whatever your choice - MD16, MD16R or MD16RP - these are not machines that will soon be outgrown, either technically or creatively."
Another feature of potentially huge creative importance is that of being able to trigger complete patterns from any of the pads rather than simply individual sounds. It is all carried out within Level three and works by setting a threshold pad level above which any selected pattern will be triggered. Patterns may be programmed to repeat up to eight times for a single pad hit, or play continuously until you select a new pattern or return to the song.
In this mode, patterns change the moment you hit the pad, so you have to watch your timing. But it is also possible to cue up a pattern to automatically follow the one currently playing - provided you hit the pad before it's ended. Thus, with a series of patterns which you know to be rhythmically compatible, you can actually improvise a drum track live.
In addition to SysEx dumps (transmit and receive) the MD16 range is capable of storing and loading its entire memory contents via tape. The miniature jacks used for this may also be pressed into service for generating and reading the MD's internal Tape Sync code. As these things go, this is a fairly intelligent system and remains functional at tape speeds of up to ±50% variance from the original. It is unaffected by noise-reduction circuitry and is virtually impervious to dropouts as it simply reads the next song position and re-syncs itself. Needless to say, MIDI sync is also an option - the MD16 supports song position pointers - and you can also program delays to compensate for lock-up delays on other MIDI devices.
In addition to the Tape jacks and output sockets, connection hardware on the MD16 includes the ROM expansion slot, MIDI In, Out and Thru ports and the supply socket for connection to an external 9V adaptor. There's also a footswitch jack on the MD16 and two on the MD16R and RP models. Far from simply providing you with a means of stopping and starting playback, however, these are programmable switches which may be set to control any of seven different parameters including re-triggering the next pattern, swapping pad assignments and adding accents.
To accommodate the eight extra inputs for the drum pads (and/or piezo bugs), the MD16RP is given the benefit of 2U of rack space rather than one and sensibly, it has the sockets mounted along the front panel. Somewhat less convenient, however, is the fact that no LED indicators have been included to facilitate setting up or make it easier to see at a glance which channel is being triggered each time a drum pad is hit.
It is, of course, possible to set up the gain and threshold levels for each drum pad and its assignment to any of the unit's internal pads (with all the possibilities that entails). The extra parameters this involves are contained within an additional menu accessed by pressing Shift/Tempo buttons on the front panel.
Though it's probably fair to say the RP would be of primary interest to drummers and percussionists, it could, nevertheless, prove a viable option for all programmers who regularly enter data in real time. No matter what your skills as a rhythmist, playing a set of pads - and the RP is compatible with virtually any - is always going to tie easier than tapping switches or rubber buttons.
If the prospect of shelling out for a set of drum pads doesn't appeal, you could always try using cheap piezo bugs taped to any objects that take your fancy. Obviously, more rigid surfaces will not exhibit an ideal playing response, but used simply as a means of entering notes (they can be edited subsequently), the setup should still give worthwhile results for anyone who finds it difficult to relate to rhythm as a button-pushing exercise - and there must be many.
Whatever your choice - MD16, MD16R or MD16RP - these are not machines that will soon be outgrown, either technically or creatively. That said, the programming system they share is by no means easy to get to know. On top of this, there's a lot of button pushing to do and not many buttons to do it with. Rather like the proverbial onion, layer upon layer has to be peeled away before you could be said to know it thoroughly.
But as devices for generating rhythm they have no equal at this price at the present time. The potentially staggering complexity of the patterns it is possible to write is equalled only by how natural each can be made to feel. Entering notes on the correct beat of the bar is only the first step...
It's also gratifying to see sound editing given such a high profile on what are, after all, budget machines. As I've so often pointed out in my On the Beat series, rhythms often become (or are required to be) instrument specific. And having some means of varying the basic palette of sounds you have at your disposal can only be of help in these circumstances.
My sole reservation regarding the original machine - its rather flimsy case - has proved to be quite groundless. I've been using one for more than 12 months now and it has suffered no ill effects. Still, if durability is a pre-requisite (in a commercial studio or on stage), there is now the option of the rack mounted/steel cased models to choose from.
Finally, I can't think of a rhythmically useful function that could be included on a machine at this price that hasn't been included on the MD16. For once, there is no ideological or financial incompatibility about buying a British hi-tech instrument.
Price £299 including VAT
More from Cheetah International Ltd, (Contact Details).
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Review by Nigel Lord
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