Digital Drum Machine
Competition is fierce in the budget drum machine arena. Nicholas Rowland takes a look at the British answer to the Japanese and American machines that have been in the limelight recently.
If Alesis have cornered the market in budget reverb, there is serious competition in the budget drum machine arena. Is the Cheetah MD8 the machine to own?
CALLING ANY PIECE of equipment "entry level" is something of a two-sided compliment in the world of hi-tech instruments nowadays. However close those inevitably scaled-down facilities come to the top of the range model you've really set your heart on, there's always that feeling of compromise, of second best. Entry level has that subtle implication of "making do" until time and circumstance allow you to throw away childish things, invest in some decent equipment and get on with the serious business.
Many budget machines seem designed to work this way. They do certain things very well and other things not at all. So that when you've exhausted their capabilities in one direction, you're left with the choice to upgrade or remain restricted forever.
However, I foresee many years of pleasure in store for future owners of Cheetah's budget drum machine, the MD8. On paper at least, it deftly kicks the notion of "entry level" into the fifth dimension, boasting a list of features which in view of the asking price is... absurd. I mean, I'm prepared to believe that for £149.95 I'll be getting my hands on a machine with eight digitally sampled voices, with the option of loading others from an expanding library available on cassette. I'll willingly accept that for that price I'll be able to program these into 99 patterns (in real or step time) and thence into 16 songs, all with control over quantisation, time signatures and programmable tempo to boot. As for having four separate outs along with a mono and stereo socket, don't they all have them nowadays? Well, all right, not all of them.
But when the first page of the manual tells me that along with all this, I'm being given an extensive implementation of MIDI, including saving and loading voice, pattern and song data via MIDI, MIDI sync in and out plus the ability for individual voices to trigger and be triggered over MIDI plus sync to tape, my credulity is beginning to get just a little on the elastic side. And as for the fact I'll be able to plug in a cheap interface then play the MD8's voices from pads (even programming rhythms in real time if I wish) and in addition use the MD8 as a trigger-to-MIDI interface to further access the sounds of other drum machines, samplers or what have you, I'm checking that April 1st has been and gone.
Yet this is exactly what Cheetah's new drum cub offers. No wonder my initial reaction was "OK, but what's the catch?".
Admittedly the bricklike physical appearance of the MD8 is hardly going to impress disciples of the Raymond Loewy school of design aestheticism. But for many (me included) the price tag is all the beauty the machine needs. Certainly it satisfies all functional requirements: it's sturdy, the front panel is laid out in a fairly logical manner and the all-important LCD is easy to read when sitting down.
Time to plug in the 9V DC adaptor supplied and exercise the ghost in the machine.
THE MD8 COMES already loaded with eight "conventional" kit sounds: bass, snare, high and low acoustic toms, open and closed hi-hats, crash cymbal and claps. These are also to be found on the accompanying data cassette along with two more: a ride cymbal and cowbell. Included with the review model (though the rest of you will have to pay a little extra) was a cassette containing an Electro Kit: bass, high, mid and low electronic toms and "electronic hi-hat". Of course, this is the first of what Cheetah expect to be a comprehensive library of percussion sounds and judging by the history of their SpecDrum package, I'll hazard a guess that Latin and "African" kits will be next on the list.
Individual sounds can be loaded from each voice cassette and then assigned to any of the eight trigger buttons, thereby enabling you to create kits tailored to your own devious requirements. The only constraint here is the machine's memory which can hold up to 60K of sounds - adequate but not over-generous - which precludes certain sound combinations. The list on the cassette casing tells you how much memory each sample requires (a kick, hi-hat and clap each require 3K while a crash or a ride cymbal requires 18K), so you're able to do your sums before you start loading. Get them wrong and you'll be presented with an "error FULL!!" message, in which case you'll have to delete some existing samples to make room.
As with all data cassette operations, the loading process is slow and tedious, though apart from caffeine poisoning from putting the kettle on once too often, I experienced no other difficulties (though it's as well to make a backup tape copy). Of course, if you've got somewhere to dump sounds as MIDI data - a program such as GenPatch or a suitable sequencer (like the MC500) - then life becomes a little easier.
In terms of sound quality, it would be too much to hope that the MD8 be the best sounding drum machine in the cosmos: cookies just don't crumble that way. That said, I was quite impressed by the sounds overall, particularly considering the low sample rate and narrow bandwidth. Some of the sounds are excellent: claps, cowbell and in particular the electro kit (despite quite a fair amount of background noise on the toms) which is very Simmons circa 1984 and becoming a very hip drum sound. However, crash and ride cymbals are harsh and cut off rather abruptly, while acoustic kick and snare definitely benefit from a little tweaking of the EQ knobs if you want them to deliver that extra punch.
Despite the shortcomings of certain individual samples, they all worked well together in the mix. They all have a very definite character too. And while that character may be a little on the rough and ready side when compared to other budget "digital" machines (like the Roland digital Dr Rhythms and TR505 or Yamaha RX21 and RX17), personally I preferred it that way. Of course, for music which expects its drum sounds to be mean and moody - hip-hop, house or electro for example - the MD8 blends in perfectly.
AS I'VE ALREADY mentioned, patterns can be written in real or step time. Rather than, as with most drum machines, dialling up a pattern number first, programming from scratch usually takes place in a separate memory buffer. If you want to keep them, the results have then to be filed within the machine's 99 pattern locations. Existing patterns can also be called up into the programming buffer memory, modified, then refiled. A nice feature here is that all patterns can be given a five character name: useful if your memory cells are suffering from a hard day's night.
In both step and real time, bar lengths and time signatures can be programmed. Since the maximum number of total beats in a pattern can't exceed 16, you're limited to such combinations as four bars of 4/4, three bars of 5/4, one bar of 9/4, and so on.
"Sounds: The only constraint is the machine's memory which can hold up to 60K of sounds which precludes certain sound combinations."
Quantisation (Time Correction in Cheetahspeak) can be set from 1/8, through 1/12, 1/16, 1/24, 1/32 and 1/48, to 1/96. On the appropriate screen this is actually shown in terms of number of steps per beat (so a quantisation of 1/16 is shown as a value of 4) which can prove a little confusing at first.
The Fill Screen allows you to insert any number of drum voices at regularly-spaced intervals: at the start of each bar or on each whole, half, third or quarter beat. Apart from quickly filling in hi-hat patterns, this facility is essential for creating a metronome guide for real-time programming, since there is no separate click as such. In default mode, voice number 5 (the hi-hat on virgin machines) is set to trigger on every beat when programming in real time, but this is lost as soon as you change the time signature. If you don't want the click to become part of the pattern, you then have to erase that particular voice before storing it.
Incidentally, unless you go to the trouble of programming one in, there's normally no click accent at the beginning of each bar or whole pattern, so you might find that your brilliant drum pattern doesn't actually commence where you thought it did. Happily, the MD8 allows you to choose a more suitable start point by advancing or retarding the whole pattern by one or more steps (the size of a step being determined by the quantise value).
Mention of accents brings me to one of the more complicated aspects of the MD8: voice assign. Basically, it goes like this. Any voice can be assigned to any number of four separate "channels", though whereas Cheetah say assign, I suppose "record" might be a better description. The best way to think of it is to imagine four completely separate tracks running alongside each other onto which any voice can be recorded.
At the most basic level, you assign individual voices to a channel according to which of the four Channel Outputs you want them to pass through for subsequent connection to an external mixer, effects and EQ. The MD8's default assignments are set up for precisely this use. But if you want to program dynamics and accents, you'll find this same facility works in a slightly different way. For example, to accent the first of two snare beats, you assign the snare to one channel and program two beats, then reset the pattern, assign the snare to another channel and program a single beat to coincide with the first. Voilà, you have your accent, because you've got two voices on beat one.
If you wish, you can assign the same voice across all four channels and thereby have four levels of dynamic at your disposal. Note though that when voices share a channel, only one can be triggered at once. The canny ones amongst you may have now deduced that since there are four tracks, four is also the maximum number of different voices you can have assigned to a different channel at any one time.
By plugging in a pair of headphones you discover that while two of the tracks are in the centre of the stereo image, the others are each panned left and right. Hence it's possible to create some pretty natty effects like stereo tom rolls. One of the demo songs already programmed into the machine demonstrates just what stereo wizardry can be achieved.
Without going into it too deeply, I have to stress that it does take a fair amount of button pushing to get the best out of these aspects of the MD8. And if you tend to favour dense patterns with a lot of different voices, and you want a wide range of dynamics as well as being able to use the individual audio outputs, you'll find yourself involved in some pretty detailed forward planning.
A SONG CAN consist of up to 255 "steps", a step being up to 255 loops of a single Pattern. That represents a considerable amount of available song memory, though I should imagine you'd run out of memory before your 16 Songs are up. Still, as with patterns there's always the option of saving Song data to tape or as a MIDI data dump.
Song editing covers the usual options: select, edit and delete. You can only select patterns that "exist" so for periods of silence you have to create blank patterns in memory first. Not unreasonable, I suppose. The MD8 will memorise tempo settings as part of the Song data, although no tempo changes through it. Tempo values can be anywhere between 48 and 244bpm although, curiously, for values above about 90bpm, you can only go up in steps of two, three or four bpm.
A further screen allows you turn on the Auto Repeat, Store, Erase or Copy the final song. As with Patterns, Songs can be given names and this time you're given six characters to play with.
By the way, it is possible to manually trigger extra voices while the song is running, either by prodding the buttons or with the pad interface. (This applies to pattern play too.) Remember though, that the rules governing voices/channels still apply. Strangely, if there's any dispute, the manually-played voice has priority.
"Triggering: The MD8 can be used as a trigger-to-MIDI interface with triggers coming from the voice buttons or the optional plug-in pad interface."
THE THIRD MENU is entitled MIDI, although here the screens give you access to other functions as well, in particular the various Tape Load and Save options.
Send and Receive MIDI channel numbers are separately programmable for the machine as a whole. MIDI note numbers are assignable to each voice button, though on the LCD these are actually expressed in terms of notes (C1-G9 rather than 24-127). However, the samples will only be triggered when the Sync Status is set to Note and the Stop/Start button is pressed. So what you can't do is to run a pattern then trigger further voices over MIDI. Incidentally, the MD8 definitely does not respond to MIDI dynamics in whatever mode you happen to be in.
The other Sync options available include MIDI, Tape and Pad. Set to MIDI the machine will generate and recognise MIDI clock and note data while in Play mode, but only generate MIDI clock information in Record mode. This at least gives you the option of running a sequencer or another drum machine in sync while programming patterns.
Tape sets the MD8 to both generate and respond to a tape sync code of 24ppqn. Since it can also generate MIDI clock information at the same time, you'll be able to use the machine as a tape-sync/MIDI interface for a sequencer-based system.
If this were not enough, the Pad option effectively turns the MD8 into a trigger-to-MIDI interface, the triggers coming from either the voice buttons on the front panel or the optional plug-in pad interface. Outgoing MIDI channel and note information is programmable as above. This makes the machine an especially flexible tool for the drummer who might want access to the sounds of other drum machines, samplers or synth modules. Note that what the MD8 doesn't permit here is the triggering of its own internal voices at the same time.
BY ANYBODY'S STANDARDS, the MD8 is a remarkable machine, not least because it seems to satisfy so many demands at once. It represents excellent value for money for the impecunious muso looking for a cheap stand-alone drum machine, yet it has the ability to fit neatly into much more comprehensive MIDI systems, as an extra sound source, as a way of sequencing drum samples from other sources, even as just a cheap tape sync-to-MIDI converter.
Live (as opposed to dead) drummers will love it too. With the inexpensive pad interface (and Cheetah's own kit of pads) it makes the starting point for a complete electronic kit. Purists might find the dynamics fairly limited, but for certain sounds this is by no means a problem, so at the very least, I can see the MD8 proving popular as an add-on to an acoustic kit loaded with obviously electronic sounds. There are also the MD8's abilities as a MIDI trigger, which means that there'll probably be a place for it somewhere in your setup.
Of course, there are drawbacks. I've already mentioned the limitations of some of the sounds, the laborious method of loading new voices and the limited memory available for storing sounds.
I have to add to this that the programming on the MD8 is actually extremely difficult to get to grips with, especially if you haven't had much experience with drum machines before. It's certainly not one of those machines which you can suss out with a cursory glance at the front panel. Even the manual, the last rather than the first resort, proved a little sketchy on important details. If I'd only had a couple of hours to play with this machine (as I would have as a punter in a shop - if I was lucky) my conclusions might well have been adversely influenced by lack of time and patience. As it was, it took several days to become totally familiar with the MD8's rather unusual programming architecture.
These observations shouldn't detract from the fact that comprehensive facilities at a modest cost are on offer here, even though they might occasionally be hidden behind the odd cryptic abbreviation on screen.
By anybody's standards, the MD8 is a remarkable machine, proving that the words "budget" and "entry level" don't have to mean closed-ended and inflexible.
Prices Cheetah MD8 £149.95; Kit tapes £9.99 each; Pad interface £39.95; DP5 drum kit £159.95. All prices are inclusive of VAT.
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Review by Nicholas Rowland
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