Cheetah Musical Instruments: Cheaper The Better?

Bob Leggitt | Monday, 6 October 2014 |

This blog has specialised in unearthing facts about little-known, forgotten or misrepresented musical instruments from the pre-Internet age, but the advert below, from spring 1989, gives a particularly cool insight into the British range of value-for-money tech gear being sold under the brand of Cheetah. It’s a brand most musicians have never heard of, but in late ‘80s Britain it did have a presence in the market, albeit a rather unassuming one.

Cheetah Musical Instruments 1980s

You could be forgiven for thinking at first glance that I’d added a few years onto the date of publication for this ad. Some products do look much more 1984 than 1989, and there’s an analogue synth in there – something which was so far out of fashion by the late ’80s that it was almost back in again. And just check the state of that drum machine! It looks like it’s been irrevocably rejected from the adding machine page of a 1982 Tandy catalogue… But as you look more closely, you see there’s a multitimbral digital synth, which would certainly not have been available for less than two hundred quid in the middle of the decade. Plus, the range majors on MIDI master keyboards, which are a lot more indicative of the second half of the ‘80s than the first. So no, there’s no mistake – this was indeed 1989.

Cheetah went to market with the motto “Power Without The Price”, and the centrepiece of their range was a variety of MIDI controller keyboards. This was a real growth area through the late 1980s as prices of modules dropped and keyboardists began to demand better quality ‘piano-feel’ hardware to exploit the dynamic subtleties of the increasingly realistic sounds of the time.

CHEETAH MIDI CONTROLLER/MASTER MEYBOARDS

Whilst the company was based in Wales, UK, the MK-prefixed master keyboards were made in Italy. It’s not featured in the ad, but the baseliner of the range was the MK5 – aimed squarely at beginners (or desktop micro users with musical dabbling tendencies), and costing just £99.

The lowest-priced option in the ad is the MK5V, which offered five octaves, a standard synth feel (with velocity sensitivity) and a durable casing, for the sum of £274.95. If you wanted the same feel at a lower price, you could get an MK5II, which was similarly packaged but had no mod wheel or key velocity. The MK7VA upped the stakes to seven octaves, aftertouch, key-splitting and a weighted action for £399.95. This was less than half the price you’d expect to pay for ‘industry standard’ gear covering the same bases, so Cheetah was making huge waves with its almost double-take value for money here.

Staying with MIDI controllers. the ‘flagship’ Master Series 7P, just being released in May 1989, provided a convincing piano feel with ‘piano weighting’ and a full 88 key range, plus a wide array of sophisticated features including flexible zoning, multi-layering, MIDI echo/delay and arpeggio, and the ability to transmit and receive MIDI clock. £699.95 may not exactly have seemed cheap for a keyboard with no onboard sounds, but you did get a hell lot for your money, and again, if this was exactly what you were looking for, then there was nothing on the market to rival the Cheetah Master Series 7P for value.

As you might expect, Cheetah’s master keyboards did extremely well in reviews, and whilst here in the UK there was an obvious patriotism for a home-based company, you couldn’t argue with any of the accolades.

CHEETAH MS6 ANALOGUE SYNTHESIZER

Moving on, the ad also features two synthesizers – one analogue and one digital, and both offered only in keyboardless expander form. Priced at £299.95, the Cheetah MS6 was a 6-note polyphonic rack-mount synth with classic, two-oscillator analogue architecture. It contained 320 factory presets and offered storage for 96 user patches. And it could be played multitimbrally with the possibilty of assigning different sounds to the full six voices – each monophonic in that case of course.

Whilst three hundred quid might seem like a bargain for a brand new analogue synth, the format of the unit has to be taken into account. There was no dashboard of knobs, so real-time control was not easily accomplished, and by the time you’d added in the cost of a keyboard you weren’t actually looking at quite such an obvious choice. In the late ’80s, the depth and substance of the MS6’s analogue sounds over and above the still typically rather tinny digital samples of the day did make the product highly saleable. But today, the ‘static’ nature of the MS6’s format comes to the fore, and for me that limits the synth’s appeal.

CHEETAH MS800 DIGITAL SYNTHESIZER

The MS800 was a digital synth from Cheetah, again coming in a rack-mount format. At just £199.95, this really was dirt cheap for any multitimbral module released in 1989. But again, unfortunately, the dashboard-devoid format limited what could have been a remarkable product to what realistically was going to be no more than a preset bank to most users. Programming was deemed prohibitively difficult, and the MS800 in any case used a maverick method of sound creation which probably wouldn’t have been recognised by the kind of customers at whom the unit was aimed. There were four oscillators per voice, each selecting from a wide range of sampled waves, and pannable into a stereo image. Thankfully, the preset bank was generous enough, with 256 factory-set patches.

CHEETAH MQ8 HARDWARE SEQUENCER

Up for release in April 1989, Cheetah’s MIDI hardware sequencer, the MQ8, was another tech product which probably overestimated the patience and technical prowess of the average user. It offered 8 tracks and could accommodate 16 songs. But as with all earlier MIDI sequencers, the whole shooting match was governed by the overall MIDI event capacity, which in this case maxed out at 20,000. My old Kawai Q55 will take 70,000 notes, and that would always run out long before I’d fully orchestrated a gig’s worth of songs, so the Cheetah MQ8’s much smaller capacity would have got me nowhere. You could, however, save to tape, so in a non-live environment the capacity wasn’t such a problem.

The price was £249.95, but you have to bear in mind that this was still the 1980s, when sequencers cost money, and the value of the MQ8 was increased markedly by its special features. These included MIDI ‘effects’ such as Arpeggio, Echo and Embellish, and turned what would normally be a very utilitarian device into an exciting proposition.

CHEETAH MD8 DRUM MACHINE

In the realm of 1980s drum machines, £149.95 was another market-bustingly low price. But the MD8 once again suffered from Cheetah’s convoluted implementation, sparking complaints about ease of use. And whilst the loaded drum samples were inter-replaceable courtesy of a tape-load function, onboard memory resources were critically low, and this impacted on stuff like the polyphony as well as individual sample storage and limitations on sample quality. You could, however, program in real time, and the multiple Out sockets would have been a real luxury on a beatbox costing two hundred quid in the late ’80s, let alone one costing a hundred and fifty. Look at all the rivals to this product, and they were either much more expensive, or much more limited – sometimes both.

But perhaps the MD8’s most joyous feature was an input for a set of live drum pads. Speaking of which…

CHEETAH DP5 ELECTRONIC POWERPLAY DRUM KIT

Yes, another jawdropper from Cheetah – this time a set of electronic drum pads for just £179.95. That was purely for the pads and their stand. You didn’t get the cymbals, hat or kick pedal, and if you wanted to use your DP5 kit with the MD8 beatbox you had to pay £39.95 for a ‘Trigger Level Adjustment Module’. But the DP5 was still incredibly cheap, and for once, it wasn’t killed by an over-complex user interface.

CHEETAH GEAR IN SUMMARY

Even in the UK, Cheetah didn’t look like overpowering any of the industry’s dominant forces as a brand. Aside from the obvious controller keyboards, Cheetah’s most memorable claim to fame was undeniably the MS6 analogue synth, which was voted second best expander/module of 1988 by the readership of Making Music magazine. It was beaten only by the Roland MT32. This wasn’t a measure of sales – only opinion, but in order for the Cheetah to compete against the market’s big guns for votes, it must have sold pretty well.

The Cheetah MD8 was also notably documented as the UK’s eleventh bestselling drum machine for the same year. Eleventh doesn’t seem like a massive achievement, but it did beat products like the Boss DR-220e and the Yamaha RX5, so it was by no means a lame duck commercially.

I can’t find any sales charts for the MIDI master keyboards, but Cheetah’s continued and intensive commitment to them suggests they were a huge earner for the company. Controllers were really the core of the business, and were the first hardware product the company had released. And Cheetah's master keyboards really were amazing value, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that they kicked the proverbial posterior of some pretty illustrious products in terms of sales – on home soil at least.

What a fascinating advert though. An obscure choice of tech gear from one company with a remarkable policy on pricing and an often decidedly maverick ethos on design.

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