The words Siel and MIDI have gone hand in hand throughout 1984. Trish McGrath looks at what happens when the former puts the latter on a budget personal keyboard.
Of all the domestic keyboards whose MIDI facilities allow them to be linked to other instruments and home computers, Siel's 900 is one of the cheapest.
Following their success in the pro keyboard arena, Siel have turned their attention back to developing a competitive range of home keyboards, and examples of the first, the MK900, are at present filtering into Britain. As well as their range of organs and pro keyboards, Siel also market a MIDI computer interface and a wide range of accompanying software, so it came as no surprise to find that MIDI sockets are there in all their glory on the MK: there's no doubt this interface capability will be a bonus to home computer owners, many of whom, I suspect, will by now have explored their micro's internal sound chip to the full.
Housed in a robust, dark grey plastic case, the MK900 is decorated in Siel's traditional blue and white livery, while the selection buttons are moulded from a peculiar textured plastic, though the horror of these is quickly forgotten once the instrument is in use, because against all expectations, they actually work rather well. Dimensional statistics are 36" x 13" x 4", with a weight of over 15lbs. It's still highly portable, however.
Built-in stereo speakers provide a surprising 6.5W each (enough to drown out the mother-in-law at family get-togethers), and function-wise, the instrument is divided into five main sections, viz Sequencer, Rhythms, Accompaniment, Presets and Special Functions.
The MK900 can produce a different sound at each side of a split point, and this can be programmed to divide the keyboard into 16+45 keys, 24+37 keys, or 32+29 keys. Alternatively, with Program Split switched out, two preset sounds can be layered over the full keyboard range or, for the single-minded, just the one sound can be employed.
And so to the collection of ten preset sounds. Siel have opted for the usual space- and cost-saving policy of providing five pushbuttons with a Select pad to choose between the top and bottom rows. Jazz Organ is bright and cheerful from the mid to top octaves but strangely unmusical in the bass end, while Pipe Organ manages to retain its timbre nicely over the full range. Piano is perhaps the wisest choice for accompaniment chords and, although it's a bit growly and fuzzy in the lowest octave, it's a reasonable approximation of an acoustic piano. Harpsichord tries hard but doesn't really come close to capturing the delicacy of a whole keyboard's worth of Tudor mechanics, while Strings, though nothing special, are nonetheless usable and much improved by the application of some Stereo Chorus (see later). Accordion has an identity crisis or, at least, none of the characteristic sound imparted by the movement of bellows: a slower attack wouldn't go amiss, either. One of my favourites is Trombone - above its traditional acoustic range it offers an uncomplicated synth brass sound, while Clarinet produces a pretty reasonable hollow wind sound within the frequency range of the original instrument. Most home keyboards boast fairly realistic Vibes, but the Siel's version comes closer to a hollow Fender Rhodes impersonation than anything else, and perhaps the less said about Synth the better: if you're familiar with good synth sounds, this is not one of them.
Again, a Select button toggles between two ranges of five switches, and the patterns available are Waltz, Swing, 8 Beats, Country, Bossa, Samba, Rock, Disco, Ballad, and Slow Rock. An individual level control is provided for the section and the adjacent Tempo slider controls the speed not only of the rhythms but also of the Accompaniment section. The usual Start, Stop and Synchro Start facilities are available, as well as an Intro/Break that can be applied at will to any rhythm.
The Manual Drums feature lets you play your own drum pattern from the keyboard: the top five notes of the keyboard are adapted to work as Bass Drum, Snare, Cymbal, Tom and Cancel buttons. The drum voices are placed logically within the stereo image, and the Sequencer action allows any one of your patterns to be stored as a 'Custom Rhythm' for retrieval at any time. In addition, Manual Drums can be introduced to add variation to a preset pattern - though it's all too easy to overlook the fact that you've switched the facility in and finish your blinding solo in a cacophony of electronic percussion.
When the 900's keyboard is in split mode, the Accompaniment section allows the addition of auto-bass, arpeggio, and easy-finger chords. (For the uneducated, this is what makes the Siel a domestic instrument as opposed to a pro one.)
Chords may be executed in either one of three modes. One-Finger-Chords enables major chords to sound merely by the user pressing the tonic note, minor chords by pressing the tonic and a higher note, and a seventh by keying the tonic and two higher notes. (Higher in this instance means notes above the tonic but still left of the split point.) To be honest, this system provides a simpler way of obtaining chords than the usual method of tonic for major, tonic and semitone below for minor, as accuracy is not crucial and chords are more easily identified if the tonic remains the lowest note played.
Help is not a screen display telling you what to do if the answer isn't in E&MM, but it does enable you to play the most common chords using, again, the tonic and a specific interval. And just in case you want to play chords in the traditional manner, there's a Free button that allows you to do just that.
Memory freezes the chord selected while Rhythmic modulates the notes to the left of the split point in time to the rhythm pattern in play. Automatic Bass can be added at this point, and all that's needed once you've organised all this is the melody line. Unless, of course, you want to add an automatic arpeggio of the chord composed... The Bass drone can also be introduced left of the split point (with 'Rhythmic' off), in which case it applies itself to the lowest note played.
Finally, Left to Mono introduces the preset sound selected to the left of the split point to a monophonic melody line (or at least the top note keyed in the right-hand section) and this goes no small way towards beefing up the sound.
Other Special Functions include a Counter Melody of one or three voices (it takes its information from the chord selected left of the split point - use with care); Sustain which alters the release time to a non-variable length and reduces a run of notes to something of an aural blur; Detune, which generates a slight detune between left-and right-hand voices so as to create a worthwhile ensemble effect; and Stereo Chorus, which is really quite wonderful and forms a welcome enhancement for most of the preset sounds. Finally, Transpose allows the keyboard's tuning to be transposed (well, what did you expect - Ed) by up to 12 semitones.
One criticism I'd make of the whole accompaniment section relates to the volume of the accompanying chords. Although individual level sliders are provided for the Rhythm Section, Bass, Arpeggio and, of course, the keyboard as a whole, it's left to the Balance slider to regulate the relative volumes of the left-hand and right-hand portions of the keyboard (ie. between the chords and the melody). Sadly, on the review model the volume of the Left voices didn't vary at all, even when the slider was placed fully to the right, though everything went fine the other way around. What this means is that to mix the chords satisfactorily, the Rhythm and Bass sliders need maximum volume - which tends to drown out the melody... Shame.
No home keyboard would be complete these days without some way of memorising an accompaniment or arrangement, and Siel have provided a Sequencer section to do just that. The sequencer can record in any one of three modes: Chords (it can memorise up to 50 of them, though one proviso is that they must be recorded in One Finger Chord mode, so only major, minor and seventh chords can be considered), Solo (up to 280 notes of melody or bass line), and Custom Rhythm (which can store your own rhythm pattern and loop it continuously).
Selecting a preset rhythm with a similar time signature (effectively a choice of either 2/4, 3/4, 4/4 or 12/8) sets that of the metronome, and pressing Start sets both the metronome and the recording in motion. The drum pattern can be built up in stages or in one take, and pressing Start (which doubles as Stop, incidentally), commits the pattern to memory as Custom Rhythm for recall at any time. Recording can be stopped by the Intro/Break button (instead of Start/Stop) in which case the sequence will loop indefinitely.
Apart from the aforementioned MIDI In and Out (there's no Thru), the usual array of sockets are provided on the rear panel - stereo phones, stereo phono outputs, volume pedal, 12V DC and the Power on/off switch.
With Program Split off, the MK900 receives and transmits on MIDI Channel 0 (Channel 1 if the manufacturer counts in the more usual 1-16 manner - why can't everybody agree on this?), and the resident DX7 chatted away nicely to it. With the Siel split into two sections, notes played to the left of the split point communicate on Channel 0, while those to the right send and receive on Channel 1 (in reality, Channel 2). These Channel numbers are unfortunately not variable, but chords composed with the aid of the One-Finger-Chord or Help options, as well as Counter Melodies, can be transmitted via MIDI to the slave keyboard.
To be honest, I think Siel are playing a bit safe with the MK900. Its features aren't particularly inspiring, while the quality of the preset sounds and percussion voices is no more than average. I find it hard to believe that all the possible advancements in personal keyboard design have been explored - so why haven't Siel explored a couple, as opposed to accepting the common denominator imposed by the other major manufacturers? The inclusion of MIDI is highly laudable, but I doubt if the MK900 will be used as either a master (it's not touch-sensitive and its MIDI channel assignment is not user-variable), or as a slave keyboard or expander unit (simply because the preset sounds don't make the grade).
I'd like to say that the MK900 is a truly great machine, as well as not mention the Demo Song of 'When the Saints Go Marching In' - but I can't. Gain solace, nonetheless, in the fact that this is Siel's first attempt at a home MIDI keyboard, and as such is not a complete disaster. The company have at least earned themselves another stab at what should prove a highly profitable market.
RRP of the MK900 is £449 including VAT.
Further information from Siel UK, (Contact Details).
Review by Trish McGrath
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