Latest in their line of cost-effective gear is Cheetah's MQ8 sequencer. Simon Trask investigates a budget sequencer that incorporates some of the features of the Zyklus MIDI Performance System.
With sophisticated computer-based MIDI sequencing becoming an ever-cheaper option, is there still a place for the dedicated hardware sequencer?
TRUE TO THEIR aim of providing affordable hi-tech gear, with the MQ8 MIDI Sequencer/Performance System, Cheetah have come up with the cheapest option for anyone who wants to get into MIDI sequencing. While there are cheaper computer-based software sequencers which are more sophisticated than the MQ8, once you've added on the cost of the computer (even a 520ST) and monitor, they work out significantly more expensive. There again, a computer such as the ST provides you with access to a wide range of software, both MIDI and non-MIDI. It also has a built-in disk drive, whereas the MQ8 has a tape interface and the (costly) option of remote storage via MIDI SysEx. So are you better off spending an extra £200-250 on the entry-level computer-based option?
THE MQ8 IS an eight-track MIDI sequencer which allows you to record up to 256 sequences (20,000-event memory permitting) and chain them together to create up to 16 songs, each of which can have up to 22 steps. Each of the sequences doesn't consist, as you might imagine, of eight tracks but of a single track. Outside of an MQ8 Song you can specify up to seven sequences as accompaniment sequences to whichever sequence you're currently recording; within a Song you can group up to eight sequences as a Part, and then assign a Part to each Song step (you can create up to ten Parts per Song). To make an analogy with tape, it's like assembling a multitrack tape which has not only been chopped into eight-track segments but also into individual tracks - except that piecing together an MQ8 Song is considerably less fraught with problems.
Cheetah's sequencer allows both real- and steptime recording, with overdubbing and manual and automated punch in/out options for real-time recording, but it isn't "just" a MIDI sequencer. The Performance System bit of its label refers to a range of seven performance effects which allow you to manipulate sequences in real-time - shades of the Zyklus MIDI Performance System.
THE MQ8'S SLIMLINE wedge-shaped casing, reasonably compact dimensions (13.5'x11') and light weight make it eminently portable, though the external power supply weighs about as much again. Centrally situated on the front panel is a 2x16-character backlit LCD, while 20 squidgy rubber buttons provide the operational front-end; while they're not particularly firm, they do seem to be reliable. The bottom row of buttons and two on the next row provide a numeric 'keypad', while other buttons provide Start, Stop, Inc, Dec, Punch In/Out, Left arrow, Right arrow, Edit Sequence, Edit Song and various secondary functions, all labelled on the relevant buttons. I wish Cheetah would stop using dark blue lettering to indicate the secondary functions, as it's hard to read in subdued lighting - how about bright yellow instead?
The rear panel contains two MIDI Ins, MIDI Out and MIDI Thru sockets, Data In and Out minijack sockets, Stop/Start footswitch jack (which can also be used for Punch In/Out from a second footswitch if a stereo jack is plugged in), power on/off switch and power-supply connection.
The parameter structure is based around 53 Edit Levels which are grouped conceptually into five categories: Record functions of individual sequences (00-07), Record functions of all sequences (10-19), Playback functions of individual sequences (20-33), general utility functions affecting the whole sequencer (40-49), and Song functions affecting individual Songs (50-60). Cheetah themselves provide a particularly effective spatial model of this parameter structure in the MQ8's manual, so I'll reproduce it here:
"Imagine all the function levels are floors in a huge building and you are in a lift. The floor number may only be changed when Edit Level is showing in the top line of the display ie. when you are in the lift. Use Inc/Dec or direct number entry on the number keys to move the lift to each floor. When you have arrived at the required floor use the Right arrow key to visit the various rooms (screens) on that floor (Edit Level). Press Edit Seq to exit back to the lift."
What more can I say, except that it's the fastest lift I've ever travelled in? I'll just add that the Left arrow button moves you back towards the lift (but not into it) while onscreen left and right arrows indicate which direction(s) you can move in from any given screen, and the Edit Song button takes you directly to floor 50, the first Song floor (this is getting silly) via a screen which lets you choose the Song you want to edit. If you can imagine a 53-storey building inside the MQ8's slender casing then you've been watching too much Dr Who.
TO RECORD A sequence in real-time, select Edit Level 00. Stepping through the various screens at this level using the arrow buttons allows you to select the sequence and set the sequence length (either a fixed length from 1-255 bars, or open-ended - whenever you decide to press the Stop button), the record start bar (anywhere within the defined sequence length, or the maximum possible length if you've selected open-ended) and the record mode. You get a choice of four possible record modes: overwrite, build, punch in/out and preset punch in/out. Overwrite is the standard recording mode, while build allows you to overdub a new part on each pass through the sequence in drum machine-style (except that the MQ8 stops at the end of each pass rather than loops continuously). If you've selected punch in/out then you can drop in and out live using the Punch In/Out button, while preset punch in/out uses punch-in and punch-out 'tabs' that you can position anywhere within a sequence in step-time mode, leaving your hands free for playing.
Once you've finished recording a sequence, you have to step back through several screens to the Test Play Solo screen before you can listen back to it. Once you've come up with something you're happy with, you need to go to Record and Accompany (Edit Level 2). where you can assign the sequence to any of tracks 2-8 and select a new sequence to record in track one. When you've recorded your new sequence while listening to the accompanying sequence, you can assign it to another of the accompanying tracks and go on to record further sequences in the same way, until you have all eight tracks filled. You can use overwrite, build, punch in/out and Manual and preset punch in/out options as per Record (Edit Level 1). Test Play Solo and Test Play Ensemble screens on this Level allow you to play back the current sequence (track one) by itself or along with the sequences in the other tracks.
"Vector Chord is like the one-finger play function on home keyboards, except that you can create any chord with however many notes you like."
The MQ8 offers a number of record options: filtering out various types of MIDI data at the record stage, changing MIDI channels after recording (this re-routes channels rather than sequences, so two sequences on the same MIDI channel can't subsequently be routed to different MIDI channels), specifying recording of velocity to be as played or a fixed value, and setting internal or external sync, metronome on/off and a time signature for the sequence. The metronome beep is played through an internal speaker, but is also routed through the Data Out socket so that it can be put through external amplification.
You can begin recording either after a one-bar metronome count-in, immediately (as soon as you press Start) or with the first note played (after pressing Start). Record Soft Thru can be set to All Off, As Record Filter or All On, while Soft Thru Channel allows real-time changing of MIDI channels during record and play (allowing an instrument which transmits on a fixed MIDI channel to control instruments receiving on any one of the 16 MIDI channels).
The MQ8 offers you both pre-quantise (in fact, as-you-record) and post-quantise options, with values ranging from whole note to 1/48th note including triplets; the MQ8's maximum record resolution is a relatively low 1/96th note, which is MIDI clock resolution. On a positive note, you're given the option to undo the result of post-quantisation (before leaving the post-quantise Level) if you don't like what you hear.
Other editing functions allow you to copy/merge sequences (preserving their MIDI channel settings if required), tag one sequence onto the end of another (or itself), copy a whole Song into a single sequence, and delete a sequence. You can also call up a set of default sequence-record settings (such as 16 bars, 4/4 time, overwrite mode, one-bar count-in).
Cheetah haven't forgotten step-time entry and editing. There are two step-time screens, normal and MIDI Expert, which you can alternate between at any time using the "8" button. The normal screen tells you in plain English what the current event type is, what MIDI channel it's on and what the actual data is. But what if you want to know whereabouts in the sequence you are? Rip to the MIDI Expert screen and the MQ8 tells you, in bar-and-clock format (no beat), together with the values in hexadecimal of the current MIDI status byte and data byte(s) for anyone who wants to read the raw data. Trouble is, because this screen is deemed to be the "computer-level" screen, the bar count begins from zero instead of the more natural (for musicians, anyway) one, so you have to mentally add one to the count all the time.
A number of the front-panel buttons take on alternative functions: for instance, the Inc and Dec step you forward and backward through the events, while the Start and Stop buttons become Event Insert and Delete. Events are transmitted over MIDI as you step through them, so that, for instance, notes are played and patch changes are sent. In addition to virtually every type of MIDI data you could possibly want (including SysEx, Song Select and Tune Request) you can insert a tempo change at any point (which doesn't mean you can have different tempos going at the same time in a Song). Individual events can be switched on or off (indicated in the top left-hand corner of the screen by a diamond or a north-south arrow respectively), and you can change the MIDI channel of any event. The MQ8 forces you to work in a very literal and cumbersome way, specifying the position of a MIDI event not by an absolute bar/clock position but by time differences between successive MIDI events (so that, for instance, instead of entering an absolute note length and leaving the sequencer to sort out the note off, you have to enter a note off for every note on, and define its position not in absolute terms but by calculating how many MIDI clocks the note duration is. This gets even more tricky when other events intervene, plus if you reduce the time between two events then you have to increase the time after;the second event, otherwise all subsequent events are shifted. A Time Split function eases the process of inserting an event by allowing you to specify the number of clocks between the preceding event and the new event, then working out for you the requisite number of clocks between the new event and the succeeding event. In case you hadn't gathered, step-time editing on the MQ8 isn't the most enjoyable of pastimes. It could have been easier, but to be fair there's no way a 2x16-character LCD can compete with the monitor-sized graphic approaches of today's computer-based sequencers.
THE MQ8 OFFERS a choice of seven performance effects: Arpeggio, Vector Chord, Vector Arpeggio, True Echo, Fixed Echo, Embellish and Embellish Repeat. These are performance effects because they allow real-time triggering of sequences during playback of a Song.
Each sequence can be assigned one effect (or alternatively set to normal play) together with values for several associated parameters; consequently, when you put a Song together you can have more than one effect in use at the same time. Conveniently, you can try live triggering of a sequence from the screen on which you select the effect, allowing you to select which effect you want quickly and before you go anywhere near Song mode.
There are three ways in which an effected sequence can be controlled. Sound Always means that the sequence will loop continuously from the moment Start is pressed (and so will automatically be synced to the other sequences in the Song), Note On means that it will loop continuously when triggered by a note on the keyboard, and Sound Gated means that the sequence will only play while the trigger note is held down. With Arpeggio, Vector Chord and Vector Arpeggio you can choose which method you want, while for the other effects the method is preset.
"Cheetah have crammed an impressive number of advanced features into their MQ8 sequencer - especially considering its budget price tag."
All the effects play back a sequence at a transposition which is determined by the trigger note's distance from a root note (the note from which the sequence will be played back at original pitch), which you can program for each sequence. You can also choose a fixed transposition value for a sequence (to a maximum of ±99 semitones in semitone steps), set a trigger delay of any value up to 255 MIDI clocks (just over two-and-a-half bars), specify the range of notes which will trigger the sequence (outside this range, the keyboard will play normally) and choose whether the sequence's notes will play back at their recorded velocities or proportionally to the velocity of each trigger note (allowing dynamic control over the sequence).
Arpeggio loops a sequence continuously from the first-received trigger note (or Start), transposing notes accordingly at the current point in the sequence whenever a new trigger note is received. If you've selected Sound Gated mode, the sequence will effectively "play silently" whenever no trigger note is active, resuming at the current position in the sequence when a new trigger note is received.
Vector Chord plays all the notes in the sequence as one chord directly the trigger note is received (or after a delay, of course, if you've set a trigger delay); as you play different trigger notes the chord will be transposed accordingly. In effect it's like the one-finger play function you find on a number of home keyboards, with the difference that you can create whatever chord you like, with however many notes you like (limited, of course, by the MQ8's playback polyphony of 16 notes, and polyphony of the instrument playing the chords). Additionally you can use 'modifier keys" to activate alternative sequences - different chords. Basically, you set a modifier span of up to eight consecutive semitones anywhere on the keyboard (at the bottom end is a good idea), and program a different chord for each of up to eight consecutive sequences, starting from the sequence for which the effect is being programmed. Each trigger note within the modifier span will now trigger the relevant chord (if the span is C-G. C could play a major 9th, C sharp a diminished 7th, D a minor 9th... through to a dominant 13th flattened 9th on G). With Modifier Latch set to on, each chord will continue to play (depending on the envelope of the sound being used) until another modifier key is pressed. With Modifier Delay set to on, the MQ8 waits until the end of the current MIDI event before switching to a different sequence, so as to avoid possible "glitches".
Vector Arpeggio is the same as Arpeggio, except that it allows you to use modifier keys as per Vector Chord (only in this case playing a sequence of notes rather than a chord).
The above three effects only respond to one note at a time, but the remaining four effects can all respond to multiple notes, allowing not only any type of chord to be built up on single notes but also complex rhythms to be built out of a single sequence. True Echo and Fixed Echo both play a sequence through once for each trigger note, at the transposition of that note relative to the root note you've programmed; the only difference between them is that Fixed Echo plays the sequence notes using their original durations, whereas True plays them with the duration of the trigger note.
Finally, Embellish plays a sequence through once for each trigger note, while Embellish Repeat plays the sequence continuously (in both cases with relevant transpositions), but only for as long as the trigger note is held down; for Embellish, this means that a trigger note held down for longer than the sequence lasts won't have any effect on it.
Each sequence can be given its own playback MIDI channel and a separate trigger MIDI channel, allowing different sequences to be triggered independently within a Song by different musicians (you can use the MQ8's two MIDI Ins as a means of hooking two musicians to the sequencer). Alternatively you can use an already recorded track as a trigger source for an effected sequence which is running parallel to it; to do this, you need to route the MQ8's MIDI output back to one of its Ins (either via the Thru socket on one of your expanders or on a MIDI Thru box) and select the controlling track's MIDI channel as the trigger channel for the effected sequence - at the same time ensuring that Song Soft Thru is switched off, otherwise you'll get MIDI feedback. You can use the same track to control more than one effected sequence at the same (assigned to different tracks but with the same trigger channel), or use different tracks to control different effected sequences at the same time (different tracks, different trigger channels). You can also control another effected sequence live from your main keyboard, which is of course plugged into the MQ8's other MIDI In. And of course, when you've found a good sequence of notes for controlling an effected sequence, you can go into Record, or Record and Accompany, and record it as a non-effected sequence which can then be incorporated into the Song.
THE FIRST THING you need to do when creating a Song is prepare a Part. This means assigning up to eight sequences to the MQ8's eight tracks. You can create up to ten such groupings of sequences for each Song. The next stage is preparing a Song Step, which involves not only assigning a Part to a Step but also deciding how many bars it should play for, how many times it should repeat (up to 255), whether any of the eight tracks should be muted, and whether the Step should be transposed (unfortunately, as you can't remove specific tracks from transposition, you run into problems if any of the tracks are drum tracks, as transposing these means that your bass drum could end up as a cowbell and your snare drum as a tambourine - or nothing at all).
The ability to mute tracks per Song Step effectively increases the number of Parts at your disposal; for instance, in one Step all tracks except the drum track could be muted, then in the next Step you could use the same Part but unmute the bass and guitar tracks.
"In fact, the MQ8 might make a worthwhile addition to an existing sequencing setup, purely on the basis of the performance functions."
The Step length takes precedence over the length of any individual sequences, so that sequences longer than the Step length will be cut short while those that are shorter than the Step length will simply stop playing. This gives you such advantages as being able to introduce a bar's rest into a Song by setting the relevant Step length to one bar longer than its constituent Sequences, or use only the first four bars of a Part in one Step but the full number of bars in another Step. On the other hand, you can't combine, say, four occurrences of a four-bar sequence with one occurrence of a 16-bar sequence: instead you have to tag the four-bar sequence to itself three times to create two 16-bar sequences, which means creating extra data.
You can also switch a Step off, in which case the Song will pass over it when playing, or set it to Stop, which will cause the Song to stop playing when it reaches that Step. Additionally you can specify internal or external timing control, and a global time signature for the Song which determines the number of beats per bar and therefore the actual length of each Song Step. The options available are 2/4, 4/4, 3/4, 6/8 (as either two or six beats per bar), 12/8 (four beats per bar), 5/4 and 2/2.
You can turn MIDI Song Select receive on/off, and program a MIDI Song Select command to be sent out each time the Song is selected (for instance, to call up a chain of rhythm patterns programmed on a drum machine - if the drum machine implements MIDI Song Select, of course). You can also program an initial patch change for each of the 16 MIDI channels, so that the MQ8 will automatically select the sounds you want for the beginning of a Song; in addition, the channels not being used for playing back sequence data could be assigned to call up effects on your MIDI'd signal processors. Last but not least, the MQ8 allows you to recall a set of default Song settings.
THERE ARE TWO ways of storing the MQ8's sequence data: to cassette tape, or to a remote storage device via MIDI SysEx. Like Alesis' MMT8 and Yamaha's cheaper QXs, the MQ8 forgoes an onboard disk drive in favour of a budget price tag. Fortunately, the contents of the sequencer's memory are preserved through power-down, so you can at least avoid saving data until you've used up all the memory (the standard practice of making backups notwithstanding). In this respect the MQ8 is better than the early generation of home computers, which not only relied on cassette-tape storage but lost their memory contents when switched off. Speaking as someone who had to contend with cassette-based data storage on such early computers, I have a particular aversion to it - and it seems a trifle odd that, whereas these days no computer manufacturer in their right mind would bring out a new computer which relied on tape rather than disk storage, Cheetah and Alesis have done just this with their sequencers.
Still, at least a cassette recorder has the virtue of being cheap. The MQ8 and my Elftone Compucorder with Automatic Level Control, which cost me just under £12, worked reliably together once I'd turned the Elftone's playback volume level up high. Still, it takes four-and-a-half minutes to save the MQ8's entire memory to tape and another four-and-a-half minutes to verify what you've just saved (always a good idea, which is why a Verify routine is included on the MQ8). Good storage practice, whether you're using disk or tape, dictates that you should make a backup copy of each file, so that's another 9-10 minutes taken up. Then, if you decide that you want to fill a tape with files, you also have to fast forward and rewind the tape to find the start of each file (keeping a record of start points indicated on a tape counter is essential here). Not a lot of fun, but maybe some inconvenience is a small price to pay for a budget introduction to sequencing. There again, cassette tape as a storage medium doesn't necessarily work out any cheaper than 3.5" floppies these days.
MIDI SysEx data transfer gives you the option of using an external "universal" SysEx storage device such as Alesis' Data Disk (reviewed last month), Yamaha's MDF1 (2.8" Quick Disk) or Korg's new DF1 (3.5" floppies). But you need to be careful here, as a bulk dump of the MQ8's entire memory may overflow the data buffer on such devices. Unlike Alesis MMT8 sequencer, the MQ8 also allows you to save and load individual sequences, but only bulk transfer allows you to store all of the MQ8's data. Here you'll be safe with the Data Disk, as it saves incoming data directly to disk and therefore is restricted only by its 800Kbyte disk storage capacity, whereas the others are limited by internal buffer size (60K on the MDF1, 62K on the DF1). Transferring the MQ8's entire memory via MIDI takes a more reasonable 70 seconds, while disk is an inherently more convenient storage medium than tape.
A combined setup of MQ8 and Data Disk would set you back all but £650, which rather knocks the "budget sequencer" ideal on the head. At this sort of price you can consider Kawai's 32-track Q80 (£595) and Yamaha's eight-track QX5 FD (£599), both of which have built-in 3.5" disk drives. The Q80 sets aside 64K of memory for sending and receiving multiple SysEx data files, which should be adequate for bulk data dumps from synths and effects devices. On the other hand, having the MQ8 and a device which is dedicated to the task of SysEx storage, ie. the Data Disk, might make for a good combination for live work.
THE MQ8 ISN'T the most immediate or intuitive of sequencers, nor what I'd call the friendliest introduction to sequencing for the newcomer. Yet once you start to familiarise yourself with the way it works, and learn how to navigate your way around its "multi-storey" structure, it becomes clear that the MQ8 has been well thought through overall. Cheetah have managed to cram an impressive number of features into the sequencer considering its budget price - you certainly don't get the impression that you're being short-changed. The performance functions make an intriguing and (for the experimentally inclined) versatile addition to the sequencing side; in fact, the MQ8 might make a worthwhile addition to an existing sequencing setup, purely on the basis of these functions.
If you're piecing together a MIDI setup on a budget, and you feel that the extra money the computer-based alternative would cost could better be used on another item of gear such as a synth, drum machine or reverb, then the MQ8 is ideal. If you feel that you can afford to investigate the computer-based alternative, check out Gajits Music Software's new Sequencer One running on a 520ST and see which approach you prefer.
Price £249.95 including VAT
Review by Simon Trask
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