Back in December I was shown one of the early prototypes of the QuNexus from Keith McMillen Instruments. You can read about it here if you want a refresher:
At the time I was pretty excited for this to released, for awhile now I’ve been wanting a nice and compact keyboard controller like this. The fact it could be bus powered from the iPad was certainly one attraction, I knew I was going to be spending a lot more making music on the iPad in the coming months. It would also come in handy in the studio though, being a little more ergonomic when I just needed some “keys” really quick while working on a song.
But of course, like everyone else, I had to wait for KMI to actually get them made once they reached their Kickstarter goal to fund the project.
And wait some more.
Finally, I got news that it was going to be “coming soon”!
But then I still had to wait a couple months.
Like many things in life, right about the time I decided to stop thinking about it and just get on with things, it arrived on my front door. The timing couldn’t have been better though, as I was deeply into writing my new EP and it was being done entirely on the iPad. Within a few minutes of unpacking it, I knew it was the controller I had been waiting for, and I was happily using it on the new tracks with no issues at all within minutes.
But that’s kind of a boring review huh? Well, a little more details are in order then I guess?
As you can see, the QuNexus arrives in a small cardboard box that’s barely bigger than it is. It would make a good way to transport the QuNexus to and from gigs, though I also wouldn’t have any qualms about just tossing mine in my backpack next to the iPad too. In fact, I’ve done this quite a few times now, and never felt that the QuNexus was not sturdy enough to survive the trip.
Also in the box is a brief mention that the software you need to program it is available when you register online, and there’s an 18 inch USB cable as well. Personally I liked the shorter USB cable for this kind of device, but decided I wanted one even shorter for use with the iPad. I found a nice 6″ USB to micro-USB adaptor on Amazon for only $4, which means much less cable clutter on the desk. You can see it in the picture at the top, and here’s the link to the cable if you’re interested:
One of the amazing things about a controller this small, is just how robust and well made it feels. Not at all what we’ve come to expect from a $150 controller! It has the same smooth and soft plastic case that the Quneo has, and there’s a real sense of weight and solidness to the unit. It doesn’t feel hollow or cheap at all, there’s enough weight to it to keep it in place while you play it on a table for instance (it also has 6 very low profile rubber feet to help with this).
Just like the prototype, there is a slight bit of flex to the case if you try and bend it some. But rather than making the unit feel cheaply made, it actually makes me think that this will survive on the road for quite a long time. I’d rather a little flex if it gets dropped, than a cracked case! Also, it should be mentioned that while these are made in China, each one is hand-tested at KMI before being shipped out. I appreciate this attention to detail.
One of the things that most interested me while trying the prototype was just how responsive the QuNexus felt when playing the pads. Yes they are a soft rubber similar to a lot of MIDI drum pads, but playing them felt much easier than any pad controller I’ve used (and I’ve used a lot!). You don’t have to hit them so hard to get a wide range of velocities, you can play it almost like a normal keyboard. Happily the production units seem to be equally as responsive, so no worries that the prototype was a fluke in this regard.
Another happy surprise was the software editor that comes with the QuNexus. The early version I was shown with the prototype was certainly functional, but nowhere near as easy to use (or nice looking) as the software released with the production units. With the software editor you can really fine tune the response of the pads, change what CC’s the QuNexus sends, adjust the sensitivity of the tilt function, plus a lot more.
All of these changes can then be stored onboard the QuNexus in one of 4 preset locations labelled A-D, allowing you to have different set ups for different uses. By default the unit ships with a sensible selection of basic presets to get you started, and I’m guessing most people will be fine with those. I decided to adjust some of the sensitivities of the various controllers for my own needs right off the bat, but this was simple enough to figure out with the software. Didn’t even need to refer to the manual.
The same can’t be said of editing the QuNexus from it’s front panel however. It is possible to access and modify certain parameters, but you’ll need to refer to the manual often to get the hang of the workflow to do this initially. Still, nice to know you don’t NEED a computer to make edits, if that’s not your thing.
In addition to the 2 full octaves of keys on the controller, there’s also 4 buttons to turn off certain functions on the QuNexus like note toggle (one press for note on, one press for note off), velocity, pressure, and tilt data. Tilt is a function unique to the QuNexus as far as I know, and it allows you to send CC data when you rock your finger forwards or backwards on a key after you’ve pressed it. More on that in a bit.
Finally, there’s a simple pitchbend button and buttons for changing the current octave of the keyboard. And just in case those two arrows labelled “- Oct +” are too complicated for you to figure out, KMI has thoughtfully made one of the dumbest product how to videos ever, “How to change octaves on your QuNexus”. Yes I’m serious, you can see it here:
Sorry, but are people really that thick that they need a video on this? To be thorough with this review, I did try and follow along with the above video, but I was stuck since I couldn’t find the “How to plug a USB cable into your Qunexus” tutorial movie. Sigh, moving on…
Last but certainly not least, the QuNexus can also send CV and Gate data to your analog gear, as well as function as a CV to MIDI convertor if you have the optional MIDI Expander KMI sells. Sadly, I do not have any analog boxes to test these with here in the studio, so I can’t report on how well those functions work. Sorry, I’m a digital boy in a digital world. 🙂
There’s a couple areas I think could be improved, at the very least I feel I should mention them. The 4 buttons for selecting presets and turning the built in functions on and off require a lot more downward force than you would think given how sensitive the keys are. Also, the pitchbend button is not very responsive at all, it requires a super firm press left or right to get the pitchbend to work, and then it’s sort of an on or off affair. My old Edirol PCR-m1 had a similar pitchbend control, so I’m not against the idea, but it was much easier to use and to control for finer bends compared to the QuNexus.
Also, the tilt function on the keys may not be to everyone’s liking. By default (in Preset B) it’s set to control pitchbend, and it’s very hard to play without bending notes each time you press a key even lightly. Even when you change the sensitivity to be less responsive, it still tends to send that data a little sooner than I might like for normal playing. Part of this is just going to be me getting used to the QuNexus I think, but in the meantime it’s simple enough to turn off Tilt if you don’t need it. You don’t even need the software editor for this, just press Preset button D for a second.
Finally, it’s worth pointing out the obvious that the keys are of course not as large as a standard keyboard. At first I kept finding chord fingerings I was used to difficult to pull off, things felt a little cramped compared to a normal MIDI keyboard. Once I started adjusting my fingers to feel more like I was typing at an ASCII keyboard, things got much easier. I have to make this same mental shift in thinking with any smaller controller keyboard, but with the QuNexus it takes longer as the keys are ALMOST full-sized. It’s a minor point, but one I feel obligated to remind people about: This is a new kind of keybaord controller, it will take some getting used to.
Still, as you can tell I’m pretty impressed with the QuNexus overall, and I feel it was definitely worth the wait for it to arrive. It’s a very well made, compact keyboard that I found extremely easy to configure to respond exactly the way I wanted for my playing style. Bus powered from the iPad is a huge bonus, it means I can bring it with me on mobile music making excursions, without having to worry about a power supply.
It doesn’t feel or respond like a normal keyboard controller, but with a little use it’s just as expressive I’ve found. Sometimes even more so, since you can use tilt and pressure to add more variety into what you are playing. With the sensitivities set up correctly for my playing, it’s one of the more expressive MIDI controllers I’ve used in fact. At this point I’m ready to put my MPK25 in the closet and just use the KMI from now on. And since the keys can also function as small drum pads, it can do double duty for percussion playing as well.
I’ve long lamented the rise of cheap and crappy feeling MIDI controllers that have become more popular over the years. As dedicated hardware synths were slowly phased out, it became harder and harder to find a nice feeling keyboard to use when playing virtual instruments. I find it amazing that KMI has managed to release one that is not only portable, feels good, and is extremely configurable, but also available for only $150 as well.
Amazing, and highly recommended.
On a side note, shortly before the QuNexus was released, Keith McMillen released a couple of interviews on Synthtopia.com that I found really fascinating. Definitely worth a read if you want to learn more about what went into the design of his products: