Mention Amstrad to anyone of a certain age in the United Kingdom and they will almost certainly recall the cheeky cockney rags-to-riches (Sir) Alan Sugar and the business empire he built from packaging up cheap electronic components into crappy hi-fis or reasonable-but-strange home computers and word processors.
What most people won’t know is that Amstrad dipped its dirty big toe into the world of music keyboards, with the launch of its one (and only) cheap instrument, the Fidelity CKX100. What. perhaps, Sir Alan had not bargained on was that many users (e en beginner and aspiring musicians) would not put up with complete tat, particularly when the pricing was less competitive compared to offerings from Yamaha and Casio.
Landing in 1988, the specifications on paper at least sound reasonably decent — well, perhaps not. The 49 mini keys immediately draws comparison with the Yamaha PortaSound keyboards of the era, and it features 8 voice polyphony, 10 sounds, 28 rhythms, vibrato and sustain buttons (no pedal input), “auto harmony”, the appalling and badly-named “playright” mode, cheap speakers, the ability to record data to a cassette, and even a MIDI out jack.
The keyboard’s case is also emblazoned with the moniker “Computerphonic”, which no-one seems to know anything about and is likely some crappy jargon to sound cool and ‘hip’.
Although it features “complex multi-chip crystal-clocked hardware” it manages to pump out very lacklustre sounds, including a strange stereo separation affair whereby low and high notes are pushed solely to the left and right channels while the mid-range notes remain in centre field. Samples seem to be of low resolution quality with a lot of background noise.
The onboard sound chip is the M114S which was designed specifically for crossfading waveforms. Sound generation is done by taking single-cycle waveforms sampled from the attack, decay and sustain portions of a sound source, with two oscillators per voice and three waveforms. Seems as if there was a lot of potential but it was implemented very badly.
Which brings us to the “playright” system. In principle, it’s a sound attempt to encourage non-musicians and absolute beginners to experiment with music by letting them play song with an accompaniment and “never play a wrong note”. However, its execution appears to be complete garbage and merely causes confusion and a horrible musical experience.
“Playright” switches the keyboard to allow only pentatonic scales to be played, based on which accompaniment chord is currently selected. As one reviewer puts it:
“Playright mode is a software system that corrects any incorrect notes you play and brings them into harmony with the accompaniment. As the tape announcer puts it – “the Playright mode is automatically selected. Don’t worry about which keys to play.”CKX-100 Colin Cat, Micro Music Aug/Sep 1989
Playright mode seems to completely remap the keyboard into a complete mess of notes in all sorts of strange places, and would likely completely confuse anyone just learning the alphabetic names of the notes on a piano keyboard (which never change, even if the key signature does). As Colin Cat laments, the system may well prevent you from playing a ‘wrong’ note but it also makes it virtually impossible to play the right notes as well.
The saving grace for those who like to connect things is the capable MIDI out implementation, which splits accompaniments into eight separate monophonic MIDI data channels. Unusual, particularly for its time. Perhaps (if you like mini keys) this makes it a decent controller for other gear.
Without Yamaha and Casio on the scene at the time, this may have been inadequate intro to music making. The only blessing is that Sugar decided this was one market area not worth pursuing. Either sales were so terrible or he found some other consumers else much easier to milk for their cash. Given how he accelerated the race to the bottom for “hi-fi” units, musicians can surely be grateful this keyboard disappeared into near obscurity.
Is it any good now, here in the 21st century, as retro gear? The sounds are fairly dire, and there are better, cheaper, more readily available options for creating that ’80s vibe. That said, there are a few resources online which demonstrate the “Fidelity”, so you can judge for yourself whether you want to make the effort to track one down.
An interesting page featuring a lot of technical information gleaned from the instrument plus opinion from users.
- Keen on Keys:
Five music tracks using directly sampled and manipulated sounds from the Fidelity CKX100 and the accompanying demonstration cassette.
Archived article from Micro Music magazine where Colin Cat shreds to pieces the Amstrad offering.
A search on YouTube and other video sites will bring up a few demonstrations of the instrument, although it remains rather an enigma.