Colin Cat takes a look at Amstrad's first and possibly last home keyboard
Colin Cat turns on to Amstrad/Fidelity's first music keyboard and turns off again pretty sharpish
The CKX100 is Amstrad's launch into the arena of keyboards and synthesised music, a world dominated by the Japanese giants, Taiwanese clones and the few surviving Western big boys (mainly in the States). Why it has taken Alan Sugar's tribe of marketing and technical whizzes so long to latch onto the music scene is not clear. But it is obvious which end of the market they intend to attack with the CKX100 - the bottom.
It retails at £129.99 - that's £130 in old money. Amstrad has coupled its name with the Fidelity tag it purchased rather curiously last year. The combination is presumably supposed to reassure both computer users and music lovers that this keyboard means business. The title computerphonic keyboard is impressively emblazoned on the box as a further indication of the instrument's data handling capabilities. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I hardly know where to start.
The price of this sausage puts it in direct competition with the established (but ever changing) ranges of Casio and Yamaha budget gear-stuff with PCM sampling and sequencers capable of astounding feats of memory. This is a tough market to break into. So how does the CKX100 shape up?
There are ten different sounds to choose from, a task which is not difficult since only the organ is any good. The rest include electric piano, brass, strings and guitar - none of which bear any relation to their names.
Now I know this is generally the case in budget keyboards, but the situation has been improving in recent years and Yamaha in particular has been very imaginative in its choice of voice titling (check out the PSS keyboards). As a market entry product, one might have hoped Amstrad would have been a little stylish, or thoughtful or innovative. If this is custom chip design, bring back ADSR I say.
There are vibrato and sustain keys but both are too severe to be of much use. There is no facility for pitchbend or proper modulation.
The rhythm sounds are atrocious, they make a VL-tone appear versatile. Bass drum, snare and hi-hat are the only sounds in the majority of rhythms and they're rotten sounds at that. If you select a drum fill (silencing the accompaniment) you may be lucky enough to hit on three frequencies of "toms" but don't invite the neighbours round. Although there are 28 beats to choose from, the lack of available sounds limits the variety drastically.
With each rhythm is an auto-accompaniment, the chords of which can be selected by a single key down the left end of the keyboard a la Casio. If you want a minor key however, or a seventh, or a minor seventh, you play extra notes to the left of that single key. To the left? Are you crazy? So I play an Em chord and get a B7 accompaniment. Thanks guys. I've come across more stupid systems (on a Kawai home keyboard I think it was) but this is pretty silly.
The line out is a mono jack socket for which Amstrad can be congratulated, about time these pesky phono plugs were taught who's boss. However, amplifying the output shows its faults, although after a chorus and a bit of EQ it sounded respectable enough.
Digressing for a moment, now would be a good time to tell you about the tape you get with the CKX100, a demonstration tape to help you get started. It's presented by a clear-speaking individual who obviously had his sense of fun removed at birth - he is also a soundalike for the announcer of the ever-topical Protect and Survive nuclear alert instructions. Perhaps this is a calculated joke by Amstrad, certainly my entire household was rolling on the floor clutching their stomachs by the end of the tape. Such handy hints as "if you haven't inserted any batteries yet, now is a good time to do it" would seem to indicate that the tape - if not the whole keyboard itself - is aimed at the technologically braindead.
It is perhaps unfair to have left Playright mode until now, since it is obviously the basis on which Amstrad/Fidelity hopes to sell the CKX-100. Playright mode is a software system that corrects any incorrect notes you play and brings them into harmony with the accompaniment. As the tape announcer puts it - "the Playright mode is automatically selected. Don't worry about which keys to play."
In case you're thinking that this is some form of quantisation, spotting the occasional slip and bringing it into line, think again. Playright mode totally reallocates the keys in a way that I find frankly hard to understand. It succeeded in transforming my perfect rendition of Rhapsody In Blue into a barely recognisable Three Blind Mice.
The diagram here shows how the Playright correction system totally reallocates the keys for a Gminor chord and a Cmajor chord, simple examples one would think. Black notes always produce the same note as the white notes below them. Can you spot the logic in this system? Answers on a postcard please.
Although the Playright system ensures you cannot play a wrong note, it also makes it virtually impossible to play the right notes either. One of the demo tunes is I Can't Give You Anything, a 70s disco hit by a band that I refuse to admit to remembering. The demo version plays the vocal melody. Using Playright mode you will find that it is actually impossible to play the correct melody yourself as the notes get reallocated with every chord change. Total chaos and an utterly unusable system.
Having said that, I should qualify the statement as coming from someone who likes to have some control over my instrument. I say this because when I foolishly left the CKX100 in my living room and departed to make a phone call, I returned to find the rest of my household (musical incompetents without exception) gathered around the keyboard giggling like the bunch of baboons they so closely resemble. So perhaps this is what the public has been waiting for. God help us.
Should you get bored with the onboard demo sounds (not difficult) there is the facility to load into the custom data slot from tape. The braindead tape presenter would have you believe that this is only possible from an Amstrad/Fidelity stereo system with a data socket. Now you and I know that any old tape deck will do but I can see kiddies on their birthdays bursting into tears because they think they can't load in the demo custom data. Actually they aren't missing much but it's a shame to spoil their fun while it lasts.
There is also a record function to store any sequence of rhythms, chords and melodies that you care to throw at it. The memory fills after about two and a half minutes. You can store this to tape using standard save and verify commands.
The MIDI spec came as a bit of a surprise. No MIDI IN signals but a highly versatile MIDI OUT. Any of the accompaniments produces no less than eight separate monophonic channels of MIDI output, which can be fed to a multitimbral expander or sequencer to produce a very powerful sound, thank you very much. This is a well designed bit of work and the Far Eastern chaps could do well to see how it is arranged.
Overall then, this keyboard is not too impressive. You might reasonably have assumed that Amstrad's premier entrant to the music arena would be computerphonic, radical and powerful. As it turns out this is merely an acronym for the product. It is of little use to those who can play, and for those who cannot it is likely to prevent them ever learning. Perhaps the best thing that can be said is that the CKX100 makes a better present for an 11 year old than a box of Transformers. But Yamaha and Casio are better still.
Product: Amstrad/Fidelity CKX100 Computerphonic Keyboard
Supplier: High Street shops or Amstrad Address: (Contact Details)
Review by Colin Cat
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!