Cheetah MD8 Digital Drum Machine
With features like stereo, mono and separate outputs for external processing, real-time and step-time programming, MIDI compatibility, and interchangeable drum sounds, the budget-priced MD8 should theoretically cost a lot more than it does. Tony Wride sees if it lives up to expectations.
First unveiled at last year’s British Music Fair, the Cheetah MD8 has been a long time coming. Is it worth the wait? Tony Wride decides...
Digital drum machines have been with us for some time now and the choices open to the prospective buyer are numerous, with their quality being comparable to their price. Most machines use the PCM method of encoding drum sounds and, therefore, are normally restricted to the manufacturer's choice of sounds. The 'big league' companies have produced various machines with fixed sounds, although the likes of the Yamaha RX5 allows you to load in a different drum kit from a fairly expensive ROM cartridge. To overcome the restriction imposed by the 'fixed' sounds, a lot of professional musicians prefer to use sampled drum sounds from machines such as the Akai S900, to give their music individuality. The Akai unit costs around £1900, so if I told you that you could get a drum machine that allowed you to change your drum kit sounds using the 'cheap' tape medium, had a reasonable MIDI capability, four separate outputs, can be linked to an external drum kit, and costs under £139.95, would I get killed in the rush to the local music store? I thought so!
Opening the box revealed the MD8, a power supply, a manual, and what I thought was a cassette tape containing drum patterns. Hang on a minute! The tape label says that it contains 'Voice Data'! A quick flick through the manual to the section entitled Voice Load, and the first line reads: "One of the main advantages of the Cheetah MD8 over its competitors is its ability to load-in extra low cost Voice or Kit cassettes"! Having used several different drum machines, and currently owning a Yamaha RX17, I immediately wanted to find out just how good the voices were and what else this 'budget' drum machine had going for it.
The MD8 lacks the professional finish of the more established manufacturers and has the look of something 'home-made'. The top panel contains 8 drum pads (that's also how many voices you can have), 12 rubberised switches, and a raised 32-character LCD display. A host of mini-jacks (yet another cost saving) for headphones, mono out, the four channel outputs, and tape connection, plus recessed MIDI In and Out sockets (see 'MIDI' section), are to be found at the back and right side of the MD8. On the left side is the connection bus for the Cheetah DPS Electronic Drum Kit. There is no power on/off switch to be seen but the manual tells you to "Always depress the Reset/Protect button while switching power on or off". This button is also located on the back of the unit, and for the small extra cost I would have preferred a normal on/off switch.
I obeyed the advice about switching on, and then set about testing the MD8. To get some idea of the sound quality of the MD8 samples, Song mode was selected and I ran through several of the pre-programmed songs. To my amazement the sound quality was far better than I had expected and the songs provided quite a good demonstration of the MD8's capabilities, particularly the one entitled 'Stereo'. During this fairly modern styled piece, the various drum samples can be heard moving about the stereo field and achieving far more sonically than the initial 'home-made' look of the MD8 suggested. As with all drum machines, a dash of reverb helps improve things no end, but even with the machine playing 'dry' the overall sounds were quite reasonable.
Since one of the most interesting features of the MD8 is its ability to load new voices from tape, this was the next step in my test. Now those of you who own computers, drum machines, sequencers, or even synthesizers, will know that the medium of cassette storage for data can either work quite smoothly or you can waste no end of time trying to save, load, and verify data. Normally, the ease of loading data from tape is directly proportional to the quality of the tape and cassette recorder used. I used a cassette recorder which has given me no trouble at all on various other pieces of computer and musical equipment, but guess what happened when I tried to load voices from the cassettes supplied with the MD8? Yes, I spent nearly two hours trying different level settings etc, etc, before I was able to load in a new set of sounds from the tapes supplied by Cheetah. The quality of their tape must have had something to do with this, since when voices were saved by me on to a good quality cassette and reloaded, I encountered no problems.
The voices/samples already in the machine when you buy it are of a traditional type drum kit (Bass Drum, Snare, Hi & Low Toms, Hi-Hat Closed & Open, and Cymbal) plus handclaps. The total memory capacity of the MD8 for storing samples is 60K (for comparisons, the Yamaha RX17 uses 2 Meg of PCM ROM), and as a result of this limited memory space some of the sounds are a bit short-lived. The restricted memory also raises some other interesting problems when you try and set up a 'kit' using a selection of the samples provided on cassette. The longer the sound, the larger the space in memory it requires (the cymbal, for instance, requires 18K while the claps require a mere 3K), so if you try to use some of the more impressive sounds (if you can get them loaded!!), you can find yourself running out of memory. Having said this, Cheetah list the amount of memory required by each 'sample' on the cassette, so provided you do a quick bit of maths before starting out you shouldn't be greeted with the 'Error FULL' display telling you that there is insufficient memory.
I used some of the sounds from an Electro Kit cassette, tape loading problems prevented me using all the ones I wanted, and these gave me an interesting 'mixed kit' set-up. I particularly liked the Electro Kick Drum sample and was impressed by some of the other sounds which helped me get a close approximation of a Simmons kit.
Cheetah are producing a library of cassettes with numerous samples for the MD8, but I hope that they ensure that the tape quality is better than on the two cassettes supplied with the review machine. I presume that they could produce all sorts of short samples for use with the MD8, and this could make the machine well worth having to MIDI up to an existing drum machine or computer. Certainly I complemented the sounds from my RX17 with those from the MD8 and got some great results!
The MD8 has the capacity to hold 99 programmable patterns and 16 songs. I didn't have time to check this but Cheetah state that a song may consist of up to 255 steps, each of which represents a pattern looped up to 255 times! From what I could see, this represents a fairly healthy storage capacity.
Now I suspect that most of you have used a drum machine of some description before and are used to the normal method of programming a pattern. I normally try to play the pattern manually at first, to practice what I want to achieve in a real-time write mode, then start writing. Well, for some obscure reason, you can't just play the sounds on the MD8 to practice, unless you have it set to run from an external MIDI device or run a blank pattern. There is also no metronome or click facility, but you can 'fill' a pattern with a voice at regular intervals (eg. at the start of the bar or at the start of each beat), and I found that I ended up laying down a pattern of one beat hi-hats to provide the timing reference for my remaining real-time writing. The normal quantising features are available to make sure your realtime pattern remains 'tight', but if you want to accent a particular beat it requires a fair bit of button-pushing.
The reason for this button-pushing is that the MD8 has four separate sound channels, and any of the eight voices can be assigned to be sent out via any combination of these channels, at any point in a pattern. It seems that each of these channels is placed within the stereo field and it is by increasing the number of channels that you assign a particular voice to, that you can achieve an increase in volume. Obviously, if you are using the separate channel out sockets you will not achieve the same results. Another interesting aspect is that because you can change a voice's assignment, you can achieve the amazing stereo effects already mentioned. It does, however, take a bit of time to programme this.
The Step-Time Write mode is in some ways easier to use but still takes a bit of getting used to. In both real-time and step-time modes, all the information is supplied in numerical form and at no point can you see the pattern, a common feature on a lot of other drum machines. Another annoying feature is that the pattern selection menus seem to be set out in almost reverse order, since to select a pattern number you have to press the 'Pattern' button three times, pick a number, then press it a further four times to get you back to real-time write!!
Fortunately, the Song mode is somewhat better organised and follows a more logical progression. One nice feature, not often seen on low priced drum machines, is the ability to name all patterns and songs. In some ways this makes organising a song somewhat easier.
The MIDI implementation on the MD8 is quite good, allowing you to assign Transmit and Receive channels, define a MIDI note for each of the eight voices to transmit or receive, and also act as a MIDI 'brain' for Cheetah's DP5 Drum Kit. The ability to note assign the MD8 opens up several possibilities, since you can have a bass sequence being played by the MD8 linked to a MIDI keyboard. Unfortunately, the MD8 does not respond to velocity via MIDI, so no accents here either.
A System Exclusive mode is included which allows you to transmit or receive Voice, Pattern, or Bulk data over the MIDI line. So if you own a computer, you might be able to avoid some of the hassle associated with tape storage and keep a library of samples on floppy disk for quick loading into the MD8. I could certainly see this being the way that I would use the machine linked to my Atari.
Remember I said earlier to see 'MIDI'? Well, here is the reason. On the review machine supplied, the two MIDI sockets were not centrally located in the holes in the case. This meant that when I tried to connect MIDI leads to the MD8, they would not push fully home - which is not really acceptable. Maybe it was just on the machine that I had, but since the sockets are fixed to the circuit board I suspect that all of the MD8's will be the same.
Tape storage facilities are available for Voice, Pattern, or Bulk data, but I think I've already said enough about tapes! You can also sync the MD8 to tape, provided the code you use is in the conventional 24 pulses per quarter-note format.
At £139.95, the Cheetah MD8 is undoubtedly a 'budget' machine, and I suppose I should look at it in this light rather than expecting the quality normally associated with the better known manufacturers. However, when you can buy a Yamaha RX17 for just over £200 or a Roland TR505 for just under £200, both of which have impressive capabilities in terms of number of voices, ease of programming, MIDI implementation, the final decision comes down to financial constraints and personal choice.
There are a number of things I liked about the MD8, namely: the flexibility of being able to change the 'kit', the ability to name patterns and songs, the reasonable MIDI implementation, the four separate outputs, and the dynamic and panning effects possibilities. If Cheetah improve the physical quality of the sample cassettes and produce a cheap but extensive library of samples, then certainly the MD8 could be a useful addition to an existing set-up or an 'entry-level' machine for those of you starting out.
Equally, there are a number of things that I personally did not like about the MD8. For the sake of a small increase in price, better packaging, better quality tapes, and an on/off switch could have been provided. With a little more attention to detail in the manufacturing process, the problem with the offset MIDI sockets would not have occurred. I also found the software organisation a bit haphazard, particularly in pattern mode, and the routine to create an accent or pan effect long-winded.
I suggest that if you are in the market for a 'budget' drum machine, you go to your nearest dealer and have a listen to the MD8. Try programming a pattern yourself then compare the MD8 with the other, albeit slightly more expensive, drum machines. It will then come down to personal choice.
Price £139.95 inc VAT.
Contact Cheetah Marketing Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Tony Wride
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