Cheetah MK5V MIDI Master Keyboard
As the world of musical synthesis shrinks ever more into a 19" black box format, where do we find the MIDI master keyboard to persuade these expander modules to give up their sounds? Since the big manufacturers currently seem reluctant to give us soundless MIDI keyboards, is there a small company we can turn to who can supply us with the equipment we need? David Mellor lets the cat out of the bag.
It seems such a long time ago since we first heard about keyboardless synth modules - 'expanders' as they are now popularly known. Now, almost every new synth on the market has a matching black box version, sometimes cheaper, sometimes with extra facilities but always, always a lot smaller and more convenient. How many keyboard synths do you need in your set-up anyway? I have just one. If I could stretch my brain to playing with two hands simultaneously, perhaps a two-keyboard set-up would be worthwhile, but definitely no more. I just don't have the space.
Let's suppose that one keyboard synth is enough, with a couple of expanders for extra sounds. The question is, what advantage would there be in changing to a MIDI master keyboard, which produces no sounds of its own, and expanders only? Well, for me, one advantage might be that I could buy a keyboard which suited me in its playability - touch, velocity scaling etc - and buy expanders which I liked for their sound. At the moment, my keyboard synth produces some nice sounds but it's a devil to play.
It's particular problem is that if you release a key too quickly, then it tends to bounce and give a repeated note. It took me ages to get used to this and I am not happy that I have to live with it. Another problem which would be cured by a MIDI master keyboard is the synth boredom factor. It takes me about a year to get fed up with the sounds of a synth, so I sell it and buy another one. The snag is that after another year the fed-upness has subsided and I wish I could have it back again! I haven't got enough room to store unused keyboard synths, but an expander could lie dormant in my rack until I wanted it again.
Although I could go on trying to justify to myself why I should want a MIDI master keyboard, I think the main reason is that it is just so elegant. The functions of keyboard and sound module are completely physically separate and you can mix and match to your heart's content, without having anxiety attacks such as 'If I change my keyboard synth will I be able to get used to its keyboard?' All we need now is for someone to make one at a reasonable price...
The fat cats of the electronic music industry at the moment are all of the tiger-striped Japanese variety. Both Yamaha and Roland have produced master keyboards; I must admit to being particularly partial to Yamaha's KX88, which has 88 notes (like my piano) and weighted, rather than sprung, keys. I never managed to find enough readies to buy one, unfortunately. If they had brought out a more cost-effective version, then perhaps I would have put in a bit of overtime to be able to get hold of one, but so far the Japanese majors have concentrated on more glamorous items.
While the Japanese neglect the master keyboard market, a small British company - Cheetah Marketing - has taken a lead and designed a range of no less than three MIDI master keyboards at varying prices and with varying levels of facilities. I might add that the prices asked for seem more than reasonable. As long as no design or production corners have been cut, we might find these keyboards entering many a MIDI studio in the near future.
The three MIDI master keyboards produced by Cheetah are targeted at distinct price/performance levels: the MK5II is the junior model with 61 polyphonic keys; the MK5V adds velocity sensitivity; and the MK7VA adds just about everything else you might possibly need, including 85 keys, aftertouch sensitivity and three keyboard split points. The model I had for review was the midrange MK5V.
The Cheetah MK5V has a substantial metal casing, which ought to be able to cope well with life's rough and tumble. I'll try and ignore the external power supply-which manufacturers really ought to learn to put inside the box, out of sight and out of harm's way - and get on to more serious matters. There is only one MIDI socket to worry about, MIDI Out, so there is no possibility of getting your DINs in a twist.
When you first switch on the MK5V, it automatically enters its Program Mode. There are 16 front panel buttons, which can send MIDI program change messages numbered 1 to 64, configured as eight banks of eight programs. A Section pushbutton swaps these for program changes numbers 65 to 128. Pressing the Channel button converts the 16 program change buttons into Channel select buttons. These control which of the 16 MIDI channels the MK5V transmits on. The Octave button allows pitch change up or down one whole octave, so the five octave keyboard range can actually encompass seven octaves.
Although the main 16 buttons cover different functions, the front panel markings are clearly colour-coded and red LEDs guide the user to which function is active. I would have been extremely surprised to find any problems here, and of course there were none. The only minor quibble one - not necessarily I - might have, is that you have to translate between the 8 x 8 bank/patch system and conventional MIDI program change numbers. Roland users will find the system here quite straightforward, others will learn to cope. A look-up table is provided in the manual until you get the hang of things.
The MK5V has all the other essentials of life which are, if you didn't know, a pitch bend wheel, a modulation wheel and a footswitch socket (for sustain). The pitch wheel is sprung, the modulation wheel unsprung, which is exactly the way I like to have it. The footswitch socket is wired for use with Casio, Ensoniq and Korg switches. I had to rewire my Roland type to make it work. The difference is that the former are normally-closed, pressing the switch opens the contacts. The latter is normally-open. My footswitch came from a High Street electrical shop and can be wired either way, so a quick solder job left me with no problems. And while I'm talking footswitches, I should mention that there is an additional footswitch socket at the back of the MK5V to allow sequential program changes. Each press on the switch will advance the MIDI program number message by one. Useful for setting up a program sequence for live work.
That polishes off the functions. There isn't really a lot to it, and that's the point. The MK5V is an inexpensive product which has the essential functions of a MIDI master keyboard and no more. The other products in the range will let you get into the act at a price/performance level that suits you. As long as it works, then this review will conclude with a large OK.
Well, does it work? Of course it does! Very well too. I tested it with the full force of my Steinway Grand-trained fingers and it didn't flinch. It is also capable of responding to the gentlest of stroking at the lower range of MIDI velocities. Unlike my current keyboard, only the most vicious of key flicks produced a repeated note effect, which should not even come close to being a problem in normal use.
The only slight quibble was that I found it difficult to produce loud chords evenly, one note always tended to be higher in level than the others. Perhaps this is a fault of my playing technique that would be cured with more practice on this particular keyboard. On expanders with key velocity scaling, the degree of sensitivity would be user-controllable anyway.
Personally, my hope is that these products from Cheetah will be the first of many such MIDI master keyboards. I can't predict whether they will be at such reasonable prices, but I'm sure it's the start of a trend. Cheetah themselves are developing a product range which includes synth expander modules, so the scene is set for action. If you haven't so far considered a separate MIDI master keyboard because of price considerations, those considerations no longer apply. The master keyboard is now a viable proposition.
Prices Cheetah MK5II, £199.95; MK5V, £274.95; MK7VA, £399.95, all VAT inclusive.
Contact Cheetah Marketing Ltd, (Contact Details)
Review by David Mellor
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