John Renwick guides us through the Cheetah Series of keyboards
John Renwick takes a look at the Cheetah Series of Keyboards. The Cheetah Master Series keyboards.
A couple of years ago it became obvious that if you wanted more than one synthesizer, there were great savings to be made, both in terms of space and cash, by having only one keyboard, and a number of keyboardless MIDI sound modules. The inevitable consequence was that most of the major manufacturers also tried to sell keyboards without synths, dumb "master" or "mother" keyboards which could become the centre of your entire studio system. The idea was a total flop.
There were two main reasons; firstly, the controller keyboards were too expensive, and musicians were unwilling to shell out that much money for something which didn't even make a sound; secondly, the facilities offered by the keyboards didn't match those available in the modules.
Recently, though, the master keyboard market has pulled itself together, and there are now powerful keyboards available from Roland, Elka, Akai and others. If you are on a budget, though, the best choice has always been Cheetah. With no-frills models like the MK-5V and MK-7VA, the company has cornered the low end of the market. Now it looks as if their sights are set on the high end too, with the launch of the Master Series 5-V and 7-P. This series outperforms practically anything else on the market, and at half the price, so any minor criticisms I might voice aren't to be taken too seriously!
The electronics of the 5-V and 7-P are identical, the differences lie in the keyboard itself, so we'll concentrate on the more expensive 7-P. The 5-V has a five-octave plastic unweighted keyboard, ideal for players brought up on relatively unresponsive, clicky synth keys. The 7-P, though, has a magnificent 88-note A-C keyboard with a lightly-weighted action which will endear it to "proper" piano- players, though it's not so heavy that it will be difficult for synth players to master.
If you've never had the luxury of playing a seven-octave weighted keyboard, you don't know what you've missed. At £699 - around half the price of its nearest rival - the 7-P would be worth it for that alone. But it's packed with features which make it irresistible to anyone with a stack of synth modules.
To get the main niggle out of the way first, although the Master series keyboards are fully velocity-sensitive (for both attack and release), they don't respond to aftertouch - pressing the key down harder after playing it. Cheetah's argument goes like this; one, this makes the Master cheaper; two, a lot of synths like the Roland D-110 don't respond to aftertouch anyway; three, many players find that once they start to play vigorously, unwanted aftertouch effects spoil their performance; four, you can achieve the same effect with a footpedal anyway. Ho-hum.
The Master features a good selection of controllers, including on the left of the keyboard a sprung pitchbend wheel, unsprung modulation wheel, unsprung volume wheel, and the footpedal socket on the back, which allows you to use an expression pedal such as the Roland EV-5, normally set to generate channel aftertouch data. The functions of all these controllers, and several front-panel buttons, can be redefined in many ways, and the functions stored as part of a patch.
Around the back you'll find sockets for the external power supply, MIDI IN, THRU, and no fewer than four MIDI OUTs - a luxury which may well save you the considerable expense of a MIDI THRU box. There are also sockets for footswitches controlling sustain and program advance.
The Master has no fewer than 100 patch memories, 10 of which are preprogrammed demos of its facilities, while the remaining 90 can be programmed by the user. To select a patch you press the Patch button from the Mode section; enter a two-digit number using the numeric keypad; then press the Enter button.
Each Master patch memory can store an astounding number of patch parameters. Since you only have a four-character LED display and a number of multi-purpose function buttons to guide you, programming patches can be a long process, so you wouldn't want to do anything spontaneous in a live situation. Plan the set-ups you need well ahead, and work through the clear manual programming them all in.
Each program can record data on several different levels, Global, Zone, Note and so on. In Global mode you can assign any MIDI Song number from 0-127 to a patch, so that it is transmitted to external devices such as sequencers and drum machines when you select the patch. You can also program a chain of up to 32 patches, and step through them in series, using a footpedal or other controller, or make the Master respond to patch changes from an external device, on any MIDI channel.
One of the most impressive features of the Master is that each patch has eight independent playing zones, more than any other mother keyboard on the market. Obviously this is of more real use on the longer 7-P.
Once you press the Zone button, you can step through the Zones altering the parameters for each one. You can a set the highest note for each zone, and it will automatically take its low note from the highest zone of the previous one. It's strange that zones can't be made to overlap, although there are other ways of layering more than one synth sound.
Each Zone can play up to four notes, activate Notes 2, 3 or 4 and you can assign separate parameters for each one in Note Edit mode. These include any MIDI channel, any MIDI output port, transposition plus or minus 64 semitones, keyboard sensitivity from 0 to 127 and synth patch number from 0 to 127, or OFF.
As if this weren't enough to play with, each Note can also be assigned any of the 15 velocity response curves available. The designers have stuck to a selection of useful response curves, not bothering with dozens of useless gimmicky settings. You could, for instance, choose a curve which makes the synth play gradually louder as you play harder, or jump suddenly from one level to a higher one, or play quieter as you play harder. As you can imagine, by combining different synth voices using different velocity curves, you can create some marvellous velocity-crossfading effects.
But the Master isn't finished there! Each Zone can also be programmed with any one of a number of MIDI effects, including Arpeggio, and eight-note polyphonic Echo and Delay (which is really just Echo with the first note silent). Each effect can have its own level, rate and note length, and the arpeggiator features UP, DOWN, UP/DOWN, DOWN/UP and RANDOM settings. You can even choose whether the arpeggiator works only up and down the keyboard, or up and down through the stacks of Notes, creating some very strange effects. For even more complex effects, in Dual mode the note output of one Zone can be fed into the Effect section of the next, so arpeggios, echoes and delays can be combined. A HOLD function allows you to lock the arpeggio in each zone, though since it requires several fingers to access the functions, it's hard to see how you do this while you're holding down fistfuls of keys.
By setting the global tempo parameter to REC you can clock the effects rate from an external source, or by setting it to GEN, make the Master clock external MIDI sequencers or drum machines. Buttons on the front panel transmit MIDI START/STOP/CONTINUE messages, while the speed is set by the overall tempo setting, the value keys, or, most usefully, by a continuous controller, so you can for instance alter the speed of external devices with Control Wheel 3. Control wheels and buttons can also be redefined to give each zone a different response to pitchbend, to increment patches, to switch local control on and off, and so on.
Just when you thought the Master had run out of gimmicks, you discover the Input Edit functions. These allow you to take incoming MIDI data, say from another keyboard, to route it through the Effects section of any Zone and to output it on any MIDI channel through any output port. In this way someone using another controller - say a guitar synth - can use all the facilities of the Master without even having to touch the keys!
If you don't mind the lack of keyboard aftertouch response, the Cheetah Master Series 5-V and 7-P are far and away the best buys on the mother keyboard market. Even if you do mind, at £699 for a seven-octave weighted keyboard with eight playing zones and a powerful effects section, it might be worth living with.
Product: Cheetah Master Series 5-V/7-P keyboards
Price: 5-V £299/7-P £699
Supplier: Cheetah Marketing, (Contact Details)
Gear in this article:
Review by John Renwick