Cheetah MK5 Controller Keyboard
Chris Jenkins looks at a master keyboard of a very different kind, from the people who brought you drum machine and sampling add-ons for home computers.
CHEETAH'S MK5 IS the latest in a long line of home computer peripherals which far exceed the power and quality of rival products. In this particular case, Cheetah have broken through into the serious music market with a stylish and economical MIDI master keyboard.
You may have read about Cheetah's new Spectrum Sound Sampler (reviewed last month) and forthcoming Spectrum MIDI interface. But the MK5 is a quantum leap ahead of these admittedly excellent budget products, providing many MIDI control functions. With the optional Spectrum mini (not MIDI) interface, you can also play the sound chip of a Spectrum 128K or Plus 2.
High Street chain Boots originally asked Cheetah to produce a dumb keyboard just to play the Spectrum's AY-3-8910 sound chip. But the hardware Cheetah actually came up with could justify a place in practically any MIDI'd home studio.
The MK5 is a full-size, five-octave MIDI controller keyboard with a tough, stylish all-metal case. The keyboard bit is made in Italy and is similar in quality and feel to that of many good non-velocity-responsive synths.
Controls and connections are cut to a bare minimum, mainly for reasons of economy. At the rear are the power connector for the 9V transformer supplied with the keyboard, and the standard five-pin DIN MIDI Out Above the keys are a sprung horizontally-mounted pitch-bend wheel, a program/play selector switch, four LEDs indicating the current control option, and a large, bright three- segment LED display.
Where, you might ask, are all the other controls? Well, like the OSCar monosynth, the MK5 has many of its control options hidden on the music keys themselves. Once you've plugged in your synth modules and powered up, pressing the Program/Play button puts you into Program mode. You can then use the top octave of keys to select MIDI Channel 1-16, octave plus or minus one, and program number 1-128. As you hold down the control keys, the appropriate LED lights up. The display keeps incrementing or decrementing as long as you hold down the key, but you can't "wrap around", from 128 to 1 for instance. The last control key, Transmit, sends the new patch number to your synth when pressed. The Program/Play button also serves as a Hold control; any keys held down when you press the button sustain indefinitely (according to your synth's sound program). All other keys are disabled in Control mode; pressing Program/Play again returns you to Play mode.
Cheetah's small but perfectly formed handbook suggests several possible uses for the MK5. For synths with a miniature keyboard, such as the Yamaha DX100 or Casio CZ101, it provides a longer and more playable master keyboard.
If the lack of velocity sensitivity doesn't bother you - you might have a non-velocity-responsive synth module such as a Korg EX800 - then the MK5 represents a good way of creating a complete synth at a bargain price.
Alternatively, you may just want a controller to program drum machines, or a movable keyboard to make life easier in small studios.
The MK5's final application lies in conjunction with the optional mini-interface and software package. This little black box plugs into your Sinclair Spectrum 128K or Plus 2, and has a trailing lead terminating in a MIDI plug for the MK5.
The software - which can be transferred to microdrive if you wish - allows you to program, edit and play sounds on the Spectrum's sound chip, using the MK5 keyboard. The software looks sophisticated, using a system of windows and menus to control all the functions.
Up to 64 sound patches can be stored in the Spectrum's memory simultaneously. Three voices can be played at once, with an optional split-point two octaves from the bottom of the keyboard. The software allows you to define a seven-stage ADSR, pitch envelope, repeat delay and rate, noise mix, tremolo speed, depth and delay, and pitch-bend wheel on/off. Sound settings can then be saved to tape or microdrive. From the File menu, selecting the Main Menu option clears the screen of all the overlayed windows.
The mini interface and software are great fun if your ambition stretches no further than making tinny noises, but it won't be of much use to serious musicians.
The MK5 keyboard, on the other hand, is a marvel of design and economy which should sell very well. Alternatives like the Yamaha KX5 feature velocity-sensitivity, modulation controls and easier patch selection, but not a full-size, five-octave keyboard.
Other master keyboards start at around £300, and many people would prefer to spend that money on a complete synth, or at least a voice module.
With further items such as the Spectrum MIDI interface on the way, the Cheetah MK5 could become the centre of a limited but still impressive budget music system. I didn't want to send it back.
Price MK5, £99.95; mini interface and software, £29.95
Preview by Chris Jenkins
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