Over the past six or seven years, Peavey have gradually moved further and further into the hi-tech music market, and are now able to offer a comprehensive range of DPM synths, sampling front ends and sample playback modules that can form the basis for a pretty powerful sound-making system. It seems somehow logical that they should introduce a dedicated controller keyboard, and with the DPM C8, this is exactly what they've done. The C8 is a serious first try for a controller: a wooden, weighted 88-note keyboard ("chosen after extensive consultation with performing and studio musicians") is mounted in an imposing and highly polished case (available in sophisticated black or sports-car red). By imposing, I mean large and heavy (reportedly over 80lbs); you may need a pair of burly roadies to assist in getting it to gigs. Perhaps American rock keyboard types work out more than their British counterparts.
Allied to the high-quality, velocity and channel pressure sensitive keyboard are some high quality MIDI control options. The C8 offers 64 patches, each of which can contain up to eight fully programmable Ranges (Peavey-speak for what you and I might call zones). Each Range can be note or velocity split, layered or transposed, and can transmit its own program change; Ranges can be sent to one, all, or any combination of four independent MIDI Outputs. Peavey provide 17 preset velocity curves, although the user can scale velocity and define negative and positive offsets, so you can choose a velocity curve and customise it to an extent. The keyboard also has merging MIDI Ins; this is handy since it allows external controllers (MIDI guitars or horns, for example) to take on the attributes of the current patch, and allows external synths to send data to the C8. The C8 has a 128k SysEx buffer -- you could fill it up with synth patches and save it to the built-in MS DOS compatible disk drive. There's even an area of operating system that allows you to remotely control sequencers, with Start, Stop and Continue soft keys, tempo control and the ability to use a MIDI Song Select command when you call up a patch. Other good MIDI stuff includes a MIDI Input filter and a MIDI Input monitor.
Apart from the split and layering functions, the C8 also provides a comprehensive selection of controllers -- three wheels, four sliders and four buttons -- each of which can be assigned to transmit various MIDI data on a per-patch basis. A sprung, centre-detented pitch bend wheel is joined by two mod wheels to the left of the machine, and all three can be assigned to controllers 01 to 120, channel pressure or pitch bend (although wheel 2 on my machine didn't appear to have pitch bend as an option); the manual states that wheel 3 is centre-detented, but this wasn't actually the case on the review C8, though detenting would have made wheel 3's factory preset assignment of pan control a little more valid. Polarity of these wheels (and the sliders that are described in a moment) can be reversed if that's useful to you -- in which case you'd move a wheel or slider up for a decrement in controller value.
The four assignable sliders can be assigned to MIDI controllers 01 to 120, and each slider has an associated button. You can assign these buttons to function as momentary or toggle switches (they function for as long as they're held or switch between two states); they can be used as mutes, can instantly provide maximum or minimum slider values or can be assigned to MIDI controllers 01 to 119.
Finally on the control front, there are two dual footswitch sockets at the rear (for a total of four footswitches) and two fully assignable CV-type foot controller sockets; foot controllers connected here can be assigned to MIDI controllers in a similar way to the front panel sliders. Two footswitches are preset to stepping up or down through a chain of patches (the C8 has two programmable patch chains); the other two are assignable in a similar way to the front panel buttons.
Programming the C8 is via a large, informative liquid crystal display, underneath which are five soft keys, whose function changes depending on where you are in the operating system. Four cursor navigation keys (in the now-familiar cross pattern) move from parameter to parameter on an editing page, and one of the four sliders comes preset as a data slider for parameter value changes; increment and decrement buttons are also available. A 10-digit keypad is used for selecting one of the C8's 64 patches.
If you don't like the idea of programming your keyboard with buttons, then plug a mouse or trackball into the RS232 socket at the rear; I wasn't able to try this (the only mouse I had available had the wrong sex of connector), but apparently any Microsoft-type two or three button mouse will work; clicking on the left button selects a parameter, continuing to hold the left button and moving the mouse changes the parameter value, while the right button offers an Exit function.
After the shock of the weight and size of the C8, another surprise greets the unwary musician when powering up the C8 for the first time: the visage of Hartley Peavey (the boss) appears momentarily on the display. Vanity or friendliness? Discuss.
Well, once you've got the C8 up and running, it's time to give the keys a bash -- and what an experience. Peavey have provided a keyboard with the most piano-like touch yet. It's a shame that MIDI doesn't provide enough resolution to get the most out of it. It's also a shame that the C8 is so bulky, since the serious musos (the ones with real pianos in their domiciles/studios) are going to be the very people who would like to take it on the road; add a flight case, and the pair of burly roadies I mentioned in my intro may not be enough. Anyway, no pain, no gain. However, for stationary use (studios, residencies and so on), this should cause no problem -- and the C8 is definitely more portable than the average acoustic upright!
We just happened to have a GEM S2R synth module in the office, and it seemed the perfect candidate for a little multitimbral, multilayered self-indulgence. Not only is the keyboard great to play, but all the splitting/layering options work well: velocity splits with tymps at the bottom of the keyboard, velocity switched piano and strings somewhere around the middle, with a further layer of choirs and octave brass coming in towards the top of the keyboard when playing particularly forcefully was no problem at all. The C8 also proved to be quick and easy to set up and customise; the manual (by Craig Anderton) helped here. It's generally clear and helpful, although there are a couple of statements that don't tally with the performance of the machine (ie. the centre-detented wheel 3 mentioned earlier), and a little more explanation here and there might have helped.
Piano action aside, there are a couple of small negative points. It is possible to mute and unmute different Ranges while playing, without permanently altering a patch. However, this involves pressing the appropriate soft key under the LCD, followed by the number matching the Range you want to mute -- definitely a two-handed job. How much easier if eight dedicated mute buttons had been provided instead; some way of being able to use the keypad as mute buttons with one hand while playing would be a good compromise. Another small problem is that the MIDI monitor is placed before the input filter, so if you're looking at a data stream that includes MIDI clocks or active sensing, your display fills up very quickly with generally uninformative data. Another missed opportunity is that it's not possible to assign any of the four front-panel buttons to remotely control a sequencer. However, these sort of problems exist entirely in software, and could easily be sorted out in future software revisions. Peavey have been great at keeping their other hi-tech products up to date, so let's hope they follow suit here.
Physically, the C8 seems reasonably able to stand up to the abuse offered by those with piano technique and the associated muscles. However, one small aberration did occur: early on in the review, a loud report issued from the C8. I had a quick look, and noticed that a key was sinking fast and proved to be no longer functioning. I learned later that the glue holding a hammer on had given way, a rare problem, but one that we could do without. If anything can be done to avert this aberrant behaviour in future, then I hope Peavey take care of it.
Any review of a MIDI controller keyboard returns one to the main question: Why? Why should a musician part with a significant slice of a couple of grand for a keyboard that is completely mute and weighs as much as an Edwardian sideboard (and is about as portable)? The answer is that elusive quality: feel. And it is the feel and smart MIDI spec of the C8 that go a long way towards mitigating the problem of bulk and, to a certain extent, price. The C8 should be first on the list for the many keyboard players who relish the thought of playing synths and samplers from a real piano keyboard -- this is about as close as you'll get at the moment.
Actually, now is a good time to be looking for a controller keyboard: never has there been such a choice of quality products. You can spend less money (Commander's C80, reviewed SOS June 1993, at about £1200, and Fatar's Studio 90 Plus, reviewed SOS August 1993, at a mere £700, for example) and get slightly different or curtailed facilities (the C80 is built into a flightcase, and the Studio 90 Plus has a stripped down MIDI spec), but you can't complain about choice. Look at the C8 as the Rolls Royce of controller keyboards and you won't be too far off the mark.
88-note, wooden, weighted, velocity and channel pressure sensitive keyboard.
64 patches, eight fully variable zones per patch.
Three assignable wheels, four assignable sliders and four assignable buttons.
Serial port for mouse connection.
MS-DOS compatible disk drive for patch and SysEx storage.
Large LCD display.
Four independent MIDI Outs, two merging MIDI Ins.
Two CV pedal inputs, two dual footswitch inputs.
Easy to use, powerful MIDI master keyboard functions.
Disk drive offers basic SysEx librarian facilities.
Size and weight a bit of a drag.
Pricey for some.
Considering that this is a 'keyboardist's keyboard', it's a shame that the size of the instrument may put the odd solo or small group performer off Peavey's great instrument. It's a winner, but, oy! my back!
£ DPM C8 £1799 inc VAT.
A Peavey Electronics (UK) Ltd, Hatton House, Hunters Road, Weldon Industrial Estate, Corby, Northants NN17 5JE.
T 0536 205520.
F 0536 269029.