Cheetah MS800 Synth Module
Digital Wave Synthesiser
Cheetah's latest synth had already been axed and revived before the public got a glimpse of it. Simon Trask gets his hands on one of the cheapest, oddest and most intriguing modules on the market.
Cheetah's latest isn't quite what you'd expect of a '90s synth - it's cheap, hardly state-of-the-art and produces odd noises. It could be just what your setup needs.
In recent years, precious few synths have dared enter the twilight zone of pure electronic invention. For the most part, manufacturers have opted to give their instruments broad appeal by using sample-based synthesis and by emphasising familiar, neatly-categorisable instrument sounds drawn from the "real" world. Waldorf's Microwave and Korg's Wavestation are both excellent sources of more abstract, off-the-wall sounds. But neither is cheap. Cheetah's genuinely quirky MS800 Digital Wave synth module at £199.99 is, therefore, to be welcomed. Or is it? Inexpensive it may be, but with cost savings come compromises, and the MS800 makes them in two key areas: sound quality and front-panel accessibility. At the same time, its programming structure at the deepest level is not the easiest to grasp. So have Cheetah come up with an instrument that musicians will want to own?
The 1u-high half-rack MS800 is 15-voice polyphonic, velocity-sensitive, and 16-part multitimbral via MIDI, with dynamic allocation of voices across the parts, MIDI overflow if you run out of voices (so you can hook up two units for 30-voice polyphony, three for 45, and so on), and the ability to sustain sounds over patch changes. It's also fully programmable from the front panel. A good start.
The instrument's rear panel provides MIDI In, Out and Thru connections, Left/mono and Right audio outputs (quarter-inch jacks) and a socket for the power lead (an external power adaptor is supplied).
The power on/off switch is located on the front panel along with a two-digit LED and ten buttons: Channel, Patch, Function, Param, Next Param, Enter, single-step value inc/dec and ten-step value inc/dec.
The top panel, meanwhile, helpfully provides a list of the ten Functions available on the MS800. These are: Patch Edit, Tone Edit, global Velocity on/off, MIDI Overflow on/off, global Pitchbend range (0-24), MIDI SysEx bulk dump Save and Load, MS800 data Reset, Patch Copy and Tone Copy. Like the Microwave and the Wavestation, the MS800 uses digital waveforms as its basic sound material and allows you to combine them into wave sequences in order to create a wider range of sounds; unlike them, it has no filtering.
An MS800 Patch consists of up to 14 Tones, with each Tone being a wave sequence constructed from the 21 waveforms provided; you can create slowly evolving sounds à la Microwave and Wavestation by programming crossfades between successive waveforms in the Tones. The synth provides 50 Patches and 50 Tones in ROM, and another 50 of each in RAM; you can of course program your own Patches and Tones into the RAM locations, and save and load the RAM data via MIDI SysEx as bulk dumps.
The MS800 uses eight-bit companded sample storage and playback, giving it a sound quality somewhere between eight-bit and 12-bit in practice.
The result falls well short of the super-cleanliness we've come to expect from the average Japanese synth these days, but that's not necessarily a bad thing - the MS800's sounds have a digital "grittiness" to them which can be quite appealing in the right musical circumstances. The bass end in particular has a nice bite to it though there's no great depth or fullness - you're not going to get earth-shattering dub bass sounds out of this instrument. Also, although the MS800 is velocity-responsive, it doesn't have a very great dynamic range. It is capable, however, of producing the sort of sounds which you won't find on your sample-based synth as well as some that you may and therein lies its value - as long as the sounds it produces appeal to you. It has a good range of more or less metallic timbres, from delicate chiming sounds to offbeat percussive sounds to a variety of drones, some of which are quite hypnotic and bewitching, some of which have a more raw, industrial quality.
The MS800 is manifestly an instrument which won't appeal to everyone. I can see some people giving it a listen and thinking "awful" and others coming away inspired.
"The MS800 won't appeal to everyone - I can see some people giving it a listen and thinking 'awful' and others coming away inspired."
At the highest level of operation - namely assigning Patches to the 16 MIDI channels - the MS800 is very easy to use. You press the Channel button and use the inc/dec buttons to move up and down through MIDI channels 1-16, and press the Patch button and use the inc/dec buttons to move up and down through the Patches (0-99; 0 = no sound/channel off). Patches can also be selected remotely via MIDI using patch change commands, and the MS800 is able to respond to sustain pedal on/off on each channel.
The MS800's ten high-level Functions are accessed, logically enough, by pressing the front-panel Function button and using the inc/dec buttons to scroll through numbers 1-10. To enter each Function, you press the Enter button. With most of the Functions, once you've pressed Enter you use the inc/dec buttons to select a value for the parameter and then - the standard way of exiting Functions - press the Enter button again, at which point the MS800's two-digit LED displays 00.
Patch and Tone editing require an extra step, in that once you've selected the relevant Function you then have to select a parameter within that Function, after which you go on to the value-setting stage. To set values for more than one parameter without leaving the Function mode, you either press the Param button to take you back to the parameter-number stage and then use the inc/dec buttons to select the relevant parameter number and press Enter to take you to its value, or move directly to the value of the next parameter up by pressing the Next Param button. However, you may well want to exit the Function mode while editing (particularly at Tone level) because as soon as you press the Function button the MS800 mutes all notes and won't make another sound until you press Enter on a parameter value to take you to the 00 display. Only the MS800's price can justify such a shortcoming and even then it's hard to excuse. It certainly doesn't put the MS800 (or Cheetah) in a very good light. However, you can move in and out of Function mode very quickly and it could be argued that this helps you to familiarise yourself with the editing process.
As you might imagine, none of this is a lot of fun. Frequent reference to the manual is essential, and even then using the MS800 beyond the basic Patch selection level can be confusing to begin with. More helpfully, the synth does display dots in its LED next to the left, right or both digits to help you orientate yourself - for instance, in Patch and Tone edit modes a left dot means the number is a parameter while a right dot means it's a parameter value. Still, I have to wonder how many people will have the time, patience or inclination to really get into an instrument which provides such a non-intuitive user interface.
Patch parameter 0 allows you to set the number of Tones to be used in the Patch, from 1-14; of course, the more Tones you use the less notes you have to play with. Just so life doesn't get too easy, the maximum number of Tones usable within a RAM Patch isn't the same for all Patches. For instance, RAM Patches 51-54 can have 14 Tones maximum, Patches 61-70 five Tones maximum, and Patches 81-99 a mere two. One advantage of this odd arrangement is that you can start by editing one of the two-Tone Patches and then progress to Patches containing larger numbers of Tones as you become more confident.
Parameters programmable for each Tone used within a Patch are: Output Number (1 or 2), Detune, Velocity Response Curve (0-4, one of which is a negative response curve, allowing you to create velocity crossfades between Tones), Volume (0-99), Transpose (±49) and Tone number (1-99). Obviously the more Tones you have in a Patch, the more parameters there are, because the above parameters are duplicated for each Tone added - the maximum is 85. The Parameter Matrix list on page 19 of the manual is essential reading whenever you use more than one Tone, as it shows you at a glance which parameter number you need to call up in order to edit a parameter for a particular Tone (number 71 to edit the tranpose value for the 12th Tone in the Patch, for examples). In fact, Cheetah could usefully have printed this list on the MS800's top panel along with the Function list.
Although tone layering at the Patch level provides many sonic possibilities, if you want to get the most out of the MS800 you have to edit at the Tone level. You're also forced to edit at the Tone level if you want to change the attack and/or release times applied to Tones, because these are Tone rather than Patch parameters. If you want to use the same Tone in two or more settings which require different envelopes, you'll need to Copy the Tone and give each version different attack and release settings. However, you can't copy any Tone to any RAM Tone location, because, as with the Patches, not all Tone numbers can have the same number of parameters - for instance, Tones 1-10 can each have up to 60 parameters (the maximum number allowable), while Tones 31-50 can have only 20.
Partly because of the general obfuscation of the synth's user interface and partly because it's difficult to know what some parameters represent without referring to other parameters which come before them, Tone editing can be really confusing. If you change the wrong parameter to the wrong value, which isn't too difficult to do when you're not too sure what you're doing in the first place, you can mess up the whole Tone, or perhaps end up with hung notes. If this happens, the silencing effect of selecting Function mode turns out to be a blessing.
"The result falls well short of the super-cleanliness we've come to expect from the average Japanese synth, but that's not necessarily a bad thing."
The best way to keep track of what's what is to note down your parameter settings together with what function each parameter has. Unfortunately, Cheetah don't provide blank Patch and Tone charts in the manual for you to photocopy, nor do they provide charts giving the settings for the factory-programmed ROM and RAM Patches and Tones to help you find your way around them.
Basically, Tone editing allows you to specify a sequence of waveforms together with crossfade times (1-99 60ths of a second) between consecutive waveforms. Parameter zero lets you set an initial volume for the Tone, which is set as an attenuation or gain level. Parameters one and three are both reserved for future expansion, while parameter two allows you to set a parameter number to go to on note release. The trouble is that you don't know what it should be until you've programmed the rest of the Tone which comes before the release stage.
Parameter four lets you set the initial waveform. From here on, things start to get a bit more complicated. If you set parameter five to a value of zero, it assumes a Goto Next Waveform function, in which case the next two parameters let you specify respectively the next waveform and the crossfade time to it from the current waveform. If you set parameter five to a value of one, it assumes a Goto Parameter function and the next parameter lets you specify which parameter to go to. You'd normally use this to loop back to an earlier waveform, allowing the MS800 to cycle round a series of waveforms until the note is released.
A third option is to set parameter five to a value of two, in which case it assumes a volume change function and the next two parameters allow you to specify the volume step size (1-49 represent an attenuation, 50-99 represent a gain) and the duration of each step (1-99 60ths of a second); these two parameters allow you to create a wide variety of volume changes, from instantaneous to slow, smooth to coarse steps, and even to create clicking effects which can be used rhythmically. Obviously, the volume changes themselves can be used for rhythmic purposes.
If you set to parameter five to zero or two, parameter eight becomes the next point at which you select Goto Next Waveform, Goto Parameter or Volume Change; if you set it to one, parameter seven takes on that role. You carry on building up the Tone in this way, leaving room to set four Note Release parameters, starting with the parameter number set in parameter two. To create a fade-out on release, these must be the three-Volume Change parameters plus a final End Of Tone parameter (which must always be set to 99).
All in all, there's a lot of scope for creating interesting evolving and rhythmic timbral textures, but I'm not at all sure that many people are going to be prepared to put in the effort needed.
The MS800 is not an instrument which is going to appeal to everyone, but in a way that's no bad thing. In fact, Cheetah are to be congratulated for going with something different - we need instrument manufacturers to go out on a limb more often. However, I wonder if their propensity for sacrificing front-panel accessibility in pursuit of a budget price tag, while at the same time trying to cram in as much programmability as possible hasn't got the better of them in this instance. To be fair to Cheetah, the MS800 has had a long gestation period (it was originally intended to be a digital counterpart to their MS6 analogue expander, before problems with the original designers saw it put on ice for a while) and so it can't be taken to reflect their current design thinking or the level of technology they're currently working with. In fact, it's unlikely that the company will produce an MS800 again, which could be a good thing or not, depending on your point of view.
So is the MS800 worth even a relatively modest £200? Personally I have to give it a qualified thumbs up; it only really makes the grade on the basis of its price and the fact that it's offering something different from the pack. As most people aren't going to be bothered with editing the MS800 at the Tone level, Cheetah would do well to make further banks of Patches and Tones available on disk as SysEx dumps. As (almost) always, you get what you pay for. What you could do is use the MS800 purely as a source of sounds for a sampler, and do all your filtering and so on within the sampler.
The MS800 doesn't have that super-clear, super-dynamic sound quality which is almost taken for granted on today's synths, though you could construe that as a strength rather than a weakness. In fact, a touch of digital grittiness suits the sort of sounds that it produces. I would say the MS800's sounds are best suited to ambient, industrial and techno applications, and are probably best used as an additional sound colouring rather than to carry the main body of the music. Don't expect too much from it, use it for its strengths and the MS800 could be a worthwhile addition to any setup. You certainly can't knock the price...
Price £199.99 Including VAT.
More from Cheetah International Ltd, (Contact Details).
Review by Simon Trask
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