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Siel MK900

splittable MIDI from Italy

A LOT OF HARD graft and adventurous design has come out of the Siel factory in the past year. They've had to overcome two common prejudices — that only Americans and Japanese can make good, microprocessor-based polysynths, and that the Italians are best at ice-cream and organs.

The Siel Opera 6 synth and Expander assisted the defeat of those biases, and the more recent composing software clinched the deal. The Opera 6 was perhaps pricey but a worthy opponent for Roland and Korg.

After they've made such headway the MK900 would seem to be a confused step forwards. It's a return to the home-organ, auto-accompaniment, built-in drum machine recipe that Siel's strong polysynth presence has thus far managed to shake off. Yet at the same time it features a MIDI trick not presently found on the popular round of Polys — the ability to assign different channels to left and right sides of the stereo keyboard, therefore controlling two other machines from one synth.

Not that Siel are likely to make the MK900 the fleet leader in their new armada of keyboards to be expected next year. Still, it's an oddity.

In fact the 900 offers intriguing peculiarities everywhere. Firstly it's incredibly light for a full sized, five octave keyboard, weighing just over 15lbs. Much of that must be thanks to the all-plastic construction though it leaves the keys themselves feeling thin, flimsy and unprepared for the vicious world of live performance. The case forms its own carrying handle which adds to the eminent portability. Perhaps a clip-on cover to shield the keys while you're carting it around would boost your confidence.

Strange buttons, too, sort of soft, ribbed, rubbery oblongs that almost squirm under the fingers. The MK900 is powered by a remote 12VDC converter which again contributes to the lightness of the synth itself. There are 3in speakers beneath the left and right extremes of the sloped, grey control panel and they supply undistorted monitoring at a healthy 12 watts of volume — a little low on bass as to be expected from cones this size. Two separate phono output sockets at the rear give you outside amping possibilities and the jack headphone socket will cut out the built-in speakers.

From here on I'm sorry to say that matters slink towards the ordinary. The MK900 has 10 orchestral preset sounds, each eight note polyphonic, but offers no way of editing them. They can be doubled retaining eight notes — piano on top of clarinet, etc — or superimposed on themselves then detuned for a thicker effect. But the voices themselves are dull — dated pipe organs, buzzy harpsichords, flat pianos and so on. The stereo chorus and detune can lift their performance but we stopped being happy with these sorts of noises two or three years ago.

The 10-rhythm drum machine exhibits a similar lack of realism with a set of biff/baff toms and cymbals that lead us unerringly back to the home organ business.

Bass lines and arpeggios back up a single-fingered chord accompaniment system, and all three are limited and staid compared with the complexities of latter day Casios, Technics and JVC contraptions. Major, minor and seventh, that's all you get along with a few uninspiring vamping options from the drum machine.

The remaining feature as yet unmentioned (Siel would probably say uncriticised) is the sequencer. This momentarily promises but finally disappoints. Though you can record a chord sequence, listen to it and overdub a real time solo or bass line, the entire arrangement is tied to the MK900's drum machine and the backing chords have to be culled from the single finger auto-watsit. The sequence information can be sent down the MIDI line but you can only get those major, minor and seventh configurations. It will take up to 50 chord changes and 280 monophonic notes or pauses. Only one sequence can be stored, the memory can't be split up, though there is battery backup once the power's off.

You've control over the bass, arpeggio, rhythm and master volumes (though the master exerts no influence over the strength of the two phono outlets).

The idea of the splittable and MIDI assignable keyboard is nice enough but there are only three possible split points — you can't define any others — and anyone in the position to need that degree of control over their other synths is going to be expecting far more in terms of sound.

Viewed as a rival to programmable polys, however cheap, the MK900 is marked down. Against similar do-it-with-one-finger machines from Casio, Yamaha, JVC, etc, it runs better, barring the dodgy drums. There are features to give you more sound with less effort such as the counter melody function which adds 'safe' harmonies to your right hand mono lines.

And there is one market to which it might appeal. There are plenty of musicians beginning to get interested in computers but there are also lots of computer owners starting to investigate music. The MIDI sockets, splittable sounds and layering meet many of their needs where the aforementioned budget synths might not. Growth from the other end of the business, maybe, but we'll wait for the next range of pro Siels.

SIEL MK900: £449

Also featuring gear in this article

Previous Article in this issue

Korg MIDI Sync Box

Next article in this issue

Beyond E Major

One Two Testing - Copyright: IPC Magazines Ltd, Northern & Shell Ltd.


One Two Testing - Jan 1985

Gear in this article:

Keyboard > Siel > MK 900

Review by Paul Colbert

Previous article in this issue:

> Korg MIDI Sync Box

Next article in this issue:

> Beyond E Major

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