On paper, it had everything going for it -- excellent sounds, an unbelievably competitive price tag, and a staggeringly comprehensive programming system that enabled anyone with an ounce of rhythmic sensibility to squeeze out those creative juices until the pips squeaked. In short, the Cheetah MD16 was the best drum machine ever produced for its price. With a couple of pints inside me, I'd even argue that it was the best produced for any price (yes, I'm that sad). But Fate, cruel mistress that she is, has allowed the MD16 to be buried in the sands of time.
If you've never clapped eyes on one, or even heard of it before, don't worry, you're in the majority. Maybe it was just too cheap -- so it was never taken seriously. Maybe it was too flexible -- and therefore thought to be too complicated. Maybe, even, it was too British. After all, it wasn't too long ago that 'Built in Blighty' was generally perceived to stand for erratic quality control and an inability to last much beyond the statutory guarantee. Certainly, the MD16 looked a bit rough and ready when set alongside the slicker, more rounded products from the land of the rising yen. But, even though the looks couldn't kill, the internal gubbins should have been enough to ensure the MD16 a place in the canon of mass murderers.
But before learning about the MD16 from one who's proud to have owned two, let's check out its family background. This can be traced back to granddaddy SpecDrum, a software program for the Sinclair Spectrum. (This was back in the mid-1980s, the days when Cheetah were known a lot for their computer joysticks and a bit for their MIDI controller keyboards.) The program revolved round a grid-based programming system and involved loading in the drum samples off tape. It was actually pretty nifty, although, with the days of the Spectrum already passed, it was never going to generate a mass following. In 1988, Cheetah hit the market with a hardware derivative -- the MD8.
This unprepossessing unit, looking somewhat like a brick with one frog eye, was a bit of monster in its own quiet way, with a list of features that simply knocked the spots off anything else in the price range. Weighing in at a measly £149.99, the MD8 offered such luxuries as programmable tempo changes and dynamics, a comprehensive MIDI spec, and four individual outs plus additional mono and stereo sockets, as well as the ability to sync to tape. Cheetah also produced an inexpensive interface which allowed the sounds to be played via drum pads (including Cheetah's own budget electronic kit) and also act as a trigger to a MIDI interface. Admittedly, the complement of a mere eight voices and 4-part polyphony might seem a little laughable to a modern world currently awash with ROM and RAM, but the MD8 at least enabled the loading of new samples into its 60K memory. These came on cassette, as the SpecDrum's had -- although, if you possessed the appropriate gear, you could save and subsequently reload them in something akin to MIDI sample dump format, which at least overcame the problem of corrupted tapes. (Backups? What backups?)
The sounds themselves were pure grit. The crash and ride cymbals cut off with an abruptness that bordered on impertinence, though today's trip-hoppers would probably see this casual disregard for realism as a major selling point. The electro kit (one of the optional voice tapes) was blessed with truly stonking kick, snare and tom, and these pounded their way through many of my demos at the time. Listening back, I'm surprised at how keenly they cut through the mix without the aid of FX processing, EQ treatment or safety net.
The only problem was that the MD8 was a pig to program. This, plus its ugly frogling looks, did it no favours as it vied for the punter's pound among all the other gear on the music store shelves. Despite the fact that the MD8 was a veritable bargain, I'd be surprised if it ever sold in large numbers. But it was an interesting precursor of what was to come.
And what did come was the MD16, an altogether slicker-looking cat which was first sighted at the Frankfurt Music Fair in Spring 1990. With a price tag of £299, it certainly carried on Cheetah's tradition of affordability. However, the world and his wife seemed to be producing budget drum machines like crazy at this point: when the MD16 finally emerged, it was up against stiff competition from the likes of the Alesis HR16 and Roland R5. Aside from the desktop model, Cheetah produced two rack-mounting versions, codenamed MD16R and MD16RP. The P in the latter model denoted a doubling of the unit's case to 2U size, an increase of £100 on the price... oh, and the addition of eight extra sockets on the front panel to accommodate trigger inputs from electronic pads, microphones or tape signals.
All the Cheetah machines boasted 16-bit 44kHz samples at a time when 16-bit sounds sampled at 44kHz were rare enough on budget equipment to be something to boast about. The 41 basic sounds comprised five kick drums, six snares, five toms, four hi-hats, three cymbals, 17 percussion sounds (including such oddities as temple blocks, tabla and acid flick) and a very much in-yer-face sampled slap-guitar bass. The recording quality is excellent, while character-wise there's a punchiness and presence about most of the sounds which means that they lend themselves quite naturally to dance and electronic music -- as is demonstrated by the generous helping of demo programs, which includes some ground-shaking dance, techno and hip-hop beats. Cheetah machines would have appeared disappointing when set head-to-head against machines like the Alesis SR16, though, because none of them had any ambience recorded as part of the sample. Remember that big gated snares were still in vogue at this time and decent budget reverbs were not quite falling out of cornflakes packets as they do now. So if creating an instant Phil Collins sound-alike was your heart's desire, the Cheetah would have been regarded as somewhat thin and balding. [I feel there's a joke in there somewhere -- Ed.]
Like the MD8, the MD16 had extra sound sets available -- but this time they were housed in sturdy cartridges which plugged into the back of the main machine via an RS232 interface. I'm not sure how many cartridges were ever produced, but among my collection are one containing a more than passable set of TR808/909 samples plus electro drum and cymbal samples and a useful analogue-style bass sound; another with a feast of extra kicks and snares; and a third with a range of African and Latin hand-held and tuned percussion sounds (including a set of conga sounds -- probably the worst omission from the standard set). Again, the quality across the board is excellent -- you'd be hard put to find a duff one among them.
Good as the MD16's sounds are in their native form, one area where this machine really scores is in its extensive sound-shaping abilities. Voices can be tuned over a +1 to -6 octave range, or chromatically over a ±1 octave range in semitone steps. A chromatic function allows you to spread a sound across 16 buttons to create an ersatz keyboard for playing tuned percussion or bass lines. Also programmable is the direction of play (forward or reverse, or indeed forward followed by reverse), sound length, velocity curve, volume envelope, and pan position. These facilities enable you to create a huge range of variations using the basic samples, though in practice you can only ever have 128 edited versions of the sound in memory at the one time, organised in two banks of 64 sounds, arranged in four levels. Still, when was the last time you ever needed more than 128 sounds in a drum pattern? The MD16 also allows 32 of these to be multiple sounds, with up to three samples assigned to the same key. These can be programmed so that you hear different mixes of the sounds according to MIDI velocity (or physical velocity if you're programming the desktop version of the MD16, since this has pressure-sensitive pads).
Tuning, sample length, attack and start point can all be made velocity-dependent, the philosophy behind this being that by carefully tweaking each parameter, you can recreate the subtle nuances and minor imperfections that are characteristic of real live drummers playing real live acoustic instruments. However, it's much more fun to switch these values to random (the equivalent of turning all the knobs up to 11), then sit back and enjoy the show. It's certainly one way of avoiding hi-hat lines that sound like the tick-tocking of your grandfather's clock. You can use the MD16's auto pan features here too, setting up instruments to automatically pan across the stereo spectrum during a roll (great for those drum 'n' bass machine-gun snare and hi-hat effects) or ping-pong every other beat.
Also meat and drink to any creative rhythmist are the programmable echo banks which can be assigned to any pad. These aren't FX units, but more akin to the MIDI delay facilities you find on sequencers such as Cubase. The number of repeats, and repeat and decay rates, are separately programmable for each unit, making it possible to create anything from short flams to huge, rolling echoes. Even more excitingly, you can link the echoes to the pitch-programming parameters to create echo repeats with increasing, decreasing or random pitch changes. Scary stuff!
As for the pattern programming side of this wondrous beast -- I'll be honest. My MD16R is integrated into a Cubase-driven MIDI studio, so I don't have much cause to program the patterns from the front panel. But let me assure anyone interested in using the MD16 as a stand-alone drum machine that they won't find it wanting in any department. Real or step time in pattern or continuous 'tape' mode? You got it. Programmable tempo? You got it! Humanisation, randomisation, pre- and post-quantisation, post-quantisation? Got it, got it, got it, GOT IT! And, memory permitting, the 254 patterns can be combined into 254 songs with 127 steps in each. Songs can be assembled into chains of 20 for live performances and the Cheetah even has the decency to insert pauses for the inter-song swig of beer. Oh, yeah -- and it syncs to tape too, generating its own code and acting as a MIDI-sync converter to boot.
So what's the catch? Why isn't this machine a legend in its own swing time? Why have you never even heard of the MD16? Well, in many respects, the MD16 collapses under the sheer weight of its own cleverness. The number of functions and sub-functions on offer is not matched by a corresponding number of buttons with which to access them. With each menu generally consisting of a minimum of 12 parameters (and some running to 20 or so), navigating your way through the programming system is a pain in the proverbial. And matters are not helped by a manual which makes War And Peace look like The Famous Five Have a Very Boring Day. While, to give credit where credit's due, it does explain the mechanics of the unit in great detail, it doesn't describe the principles behind them, making it difficult for a novice user to get a real sense of just what a stick of creative dynamite this machine could be. As one reviewer remarked at the time, getting to know the MD16 was like peeling back the layers of an onion. Each time you stripped back one layer, there was another waiting to be discovered. And I'm sure that many potential and even actual users felt that peeling this particular onion wasn't worth the tears.
The problem was that there were never really enough owners to spread the word. Like most modest enterprises, Cheetah lacked the resources to really sell the MD16's features through an appropriate all-singing, all-dancing marketing campaign. Despite their 'Affordable Excellence' copy line, the rather dull black-and-white ads which were occasionally seen in the technical music press simply reinforced the view that because Cheetah products were cheap, ergo they must be nasty. In retrospect, affordable excellence was much nearer the truth.
The MD16 has a stereo/headphones output plus eight individual outs, physically configured as four stereo jack sockets. The bad news is that these outputs are monophonic (the MD16 has 8-note polyphony), so playing a new sound through the same output will cut the first one off if it's still playing. If you want to avoid this, sounds can programmed to automatically use the next output available... Fine, although this limits your ability to isolate sounds for individual EQ treatment at the mixing desk. Be prepared for considerable head-scratching when you're devising the most appropriate sound, voice, and output configuration for the job in hand.
Convinced enough to want to make this shoulda-been-a-classic part of your collection? Secondhand examples of the MD16 in any of its three forms should be fairly easy to come by, particularly as, when Cheetah went bust, several dealers sold off the last models at knock-down prices. There's nothing like the prospect of a bargain to tempt people to take a flyer on what they would otherwise regard as a bit of a risky investment. Expect to pay £100-£125 for the desktop or standard rackmount version, unless there are some extra sound modules on offer. The MD16RP is worth £25-£50 more, as its eight trigger inputs make it an supremely useful piece of gear to have around in a project studio. It also represents an excellent buy for wannabe electronic percussionists.
Despite criticisms of its somewhat flimsy case when it first appeared, the MD16 seems to have proved robust enough under field conditions. Check the condition of the velocity-sensitive pads on the desktop version, though if just one or two are duff you can still access all the sounds over MIDI. The rackmounted versions are blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with tacky, non-velocity-sensitive black plastic programming buttons which have a tendency to stick after extensive use. But, as I'm sure few Cheetah owners ever bothered to get to the bottom of the MD16's arcane programming structure, prodding fatigue may well not be an issue here. The good news is that Cheetah tended to use off-the-shelf components, rather than custom chips, so a reputable service company should be able to deal with repairs. Having owned both an MD16R and MD16RP (along with other bits of Cheetah equipment), I've had no problems.
I've never put this theory to the test, but there used to be an unspoken Murphy's Law about Cheetah products and other British-designed equipment -- if it worked the first time you switched it on, then it would work for ever.