Siel of Quality
Does Siel's MIDI MK900 enhance the portable keyboard market?
Siel's MIDI MK900 portable keyboard gets Richard Walmsley's seal of approval.
It has been said that Alexei Sayle's curious mental state is traceable to the point in his childhood when he was subjected to the unremitting overspill of his next-door neighbour's home organ. Frankly I can well believe it. I've always been suspicious of instruments (and people) who try to do everything for you, and I have retained a slightly snobbish aversion to the instruments developed by some portable keyboard manufacturers, which combine home organ type facilities with features normally found on synths and sequencers. However my interest in this type of instrument was recently kindled when I saw Heaven 17 on The Tube, demonstrating how they use the Casio 7000 as a compositional tool and extolling its virtues. Thus it is, philistine that I am, that I was quite pleased to be able to test SIEL's £449 first home keyboard the MIDI equipped MK-900, a new competitor for the market pioneered by Casio, to see what it could offer me.
The Siel MK-900 is a preset polyphonic keyboard, with a preset accompaniment section, split keyboard, a sequencer section offering real time sequencing of accompaniments and drum rhythms and, very importantly, the chance to interface independently with two other synth units via MIDI. The functions, which are switched on and off with rather odd feeling bungy buttons, are clearly laid out in a long row close to the five octave keyboard, and the general layout of the instrument makes for ease of control.
Of the ten preset sounds, the vibes, synth and jazz organ were most useful, with the most impressive sound being the top octaves of the piano with the stereo chorus and sustain on. Apart from this ail the presets were at least functional and could stand up to protracted listening.
The preset voice can either be used in combination, giving fatter sounds, or separately — one in the left hand, one in the right. This is achieved with the keyboard in split mode, and the split can be programmed to one of three positions on the keyboard. Other voice related functions not mentioned above are a detune button which supposedly gives a sort of ensemble effect, but in fact is better for honky-tonk type sounds, and a left to mono button which, with the keyboard in split mode, enables you to beef up the leading voice with the preset sound you are using in the left hand.
The accompaniment section has ten preset rhythms, ranging from old time waltz to quite funky disco and rock. In addition there is a fill button which gives you an appropriate one bar fill, and a manual drums function which allocates bass drum, snare, cymbal and tomtom sounds to the four highest keys, so that you can play your own fills over the drum sounds already going on. The snare sound thus obtained is quite excellent — the sort of thing that tends to end up inside an AMS — but although the other sounds are okay the gimmick soon wears thin because the manual sounds cannot cut through the other drum sounds.
On the harmony side, this section offers One Finger Chords (major, minor, dominant seventh) and 'Help' chords — a system designed to put more complex chords within the reach of the beginner. The first system, whilst being limited, was easily comprehendible and useful, but the second system, for all its ingenuity, was unable to produce a minor seventh chord and that, I'm afraid, was indictment enough for me. The bass, arpeggio and rhythm buttons combine with the drum parts to give appropriate basslines, arpeggio and funky chord accompaniments. Block harmonies in the right hand are possible using the counter melodies function, and are very useful for getting thick, layered solo voice sounds. The accompaniment section is further made flexible by individual faders for bass, rhythm and arpeggios.
The sequencer section offers real time sequencing of rhythm, melodic and chordal patterns. Although such functions are extremely unusual, not to say unique, in an instrument of this price, they are as you might expect somewhat limited. The bass or solo sequencer has a capacity of only 250 notes, the chord sequencer, 50 chords, and there is only room for a one bar drum pattern. Having said all this, I did have a lot of fun using this section, partly because I'm not into complex musical structures, but also because having sequenced a whole bass, rhythm and harmony accompaniment the rhythm, bass and arpeggio buttons and faders mentioned earlier can provide further variation whilst playing.
On its own the MK-900 is, for its price, quite a flexible and versatile instrument. However, with their eyes fixed firmly on the future and in the knowledge that preset sounds always leave something to be desired, Siel have equipped this instrument with MIDI, making it one of the cheapest MIDI units on the market.
In its basic mode, ie without split keyboard, the MK-900 can control another synth unit in unison with its own preset voices being played manually, whilst the preset or sequenced drum parts go out independently on the keyboard's own outputs. It is with the keyboard in split mode that the MK-900's MIDI interfacing capabilities really come to life, for you are now able to control two other MIDI units (or two sets of units) independently. In this mode, all the data assigned to the left part of the keyboard goes out on MIDI channel 0, whilst all the data from the top goes out on MIDI channel 1. Which channel controls which slave instrument is therefore determined by switching one to Channel 0 and the other to channel 1.
A good deal of the preset accompaniment data, and all harmonic and melodic sequenced data go out on the MIDI channels, thus the possibilities for orchestrating the sounds between three units are quite varied. For instance, without resorting to any sequenced or preset accompaniments you can send actual played notes, one finger or 'Help' chords on channel 0, and these can also be arpeggiated on the slave instrument. Then on channel 1 you can send out played notes and, if you like, beef them up a bit with 1 or 3 counter melodies (block chords). The controlling voices and the drum sounds would go through the MK-900's built in speakers or through an amp, but further changes in sound distribution are made possible by the fact that the faders on the MK-900 work independently of the MIDI channels.
If you want to put sequenced or preset accompaniments through the MIDI channels, chords can go through onto the slave instrument channel 0, leaving one hand free to alter the sounds on the three instruments you are controlling while actually playing. Meanwhile, on channel 1 you can have a sequenced solo or rhythmic voice (a funky, guitar type riff for instance) and add other voices or chords as well. The funky riff (or whatever) can then be embellished using the counter melodies function, and further voices still can be added manually enabling you to achieve a rhythm section sounding like something out of Earth, Wind and Fire. All the controlling voices can either go out on the MK-900's speakers with the drums, or be muted on the faders.
The biggest fault I found with the MIDI allocation is that it does not seem to be possible to get the bass voice to go out on either of the MIDI channels. Lamentable as this is, it is made worse by the fact that there is only one bass sound and it's rather marshmallowy! I was also disappointed at not being able to get the rhythm function to come through on MIDI, since I found this function far more useful than the arpeggiator.
All in all a very wide variation of sound combinations should be possible using one or more other MIDI equipped units. Real time sequencing really does make a difference as far as the time taken setting up riffs etc is concerned. I tested it with a Korg EX 800 at Tiger Music in Brighton and within minutes of plugging in people were jamming along. It should, for this reason, be a useful instrument for rehearsing or performing in a situation where the emphasis is on jamming or improvising, rather than on intricate sequence structures.
In spite of my prejudices I actually did find the MK-900 a fun instrument, and I would say that if you are a beginner looking for a low priced keyboard that will be able to grow with you, it would be worth checking this keyboard out.