Slim, light, and packed with sensors, QuNexus promises to be the most playable ultra-compact instrumental controller out there.

Slim, light, and packed with sensors, QuNexus promises to be the most playable ultra-compact instrumental controller out there.

Computers and other electronic hardware can be anything as an instrument. But that means you may need something different when it comes time to play them.

The first thing to say about QuNexus is that it isn’t a piano. But the first thing to say about pianos is that they’re not at all portable – and they are built for striking strings rather than playing synths. Think instead of QuNexus a super-portable controller for a variety of uses, with added sensors for expression. It’s a hybrid input controller that values expression and mobility above all else.

Keith McMillen gave CDM the exclusive first access to this controller to review. Launched by crowd funding, the hardware is now available to everyone. It’s shipping, and the kinks have been worked out. (A major software update, 1.1, shipped as we were testing, CV cables are available to analog lovers, and a buggy pre-production USB cable we had was swapped out for the current, more reliable model.)

The QuNexus definitely isn’t like other keyboard controllers you’ve seen. But is its unorthodox design what you need on the go and for extra control?

qunexus_9

The Drum Pad Keyboard

For all the bells and whistles, at its heart, Keith McMillen’s QuNexus is exactly what it looks like: a mini piano made of drum pads. It’s an ultra-slim, ultra-compact slab with pressure-sensitive pads arranged like piano keys.

And that’s a good thing. QuNexus performs two tricks conventional keyboard can’t. First, it’s slim and light. You can throw one into your laptop bag and forget it’s there. Second, the pressure sensitivity on the pads is uniquely suited to continuous expression, just as drum pads would be.

Now, at this point you might just pick up a slim drum pad controller and call it a day. But QuNexus also one-ups any comparable drum pad controller on the market. The pads are superior quality: they’re firm and solid to the touch, and velocity and pressure response is flawless. Comparable mobile alternatives from Akai and KORG are more affordable, but they don’t feel this good. (I’d gladly pay more for better pads alone, and until now there’s been no “premium” portable choice.)

For melodic lines, you also get the advantage of having those pads in a conventional black-and-white keyboard layout. (Since real drums are never in a 2×8 or 4×4 grid, we might generally tick that in the “pro” column.)

And then there are the aforementioned bells and whistles – loads of them. QuNexus has a tilt sensing on the keys, dedicated buttons for on-the-fly editing and preset storage, and even outputs for MIDI expansion and control voltage. Lights include 16-level grayscale lights behind the keys, plus colored lights on the other controls. Those lights have defaults for feedback as you play, but they can also respond to messages sent via MIDI, so DIYers can devise their own light shows to work with cutom patches.

To take advantage of all those sensors and lights, QuNexus has uncommonly-flexible I/O options. You can connect it, bus-powered, to any computer, via driverless USB MIDI. (That includes everything from the Raspberry Pi to the iPad – and yes, bus power even works with the iPad, no external power needed.)

See our coverage this week of possible I/O configurations and videos of how this all works in use:
Extra Modulation, Extra Routing: What the QuNexus Keyboard is Good For [Videos]

On the left, Control Voltage outputs for gate and assignable continuous outputs. Hello, modular and analog fans.

On the left, the microUSB connection to your computer. Below that, Control Voltage outputs for gate and assignable continuous outputs — hello, modular and analog fans.

On the right, an input that can be used either for a pedal or CV input. The USB port for the Expander allows you to attach MIDI DIN ports and chain hardware, via additional hardware from KMI.

On the right, an input that can be used either for a pedal or CV input. The USB port for the Expander allows you to attach MIDI DIN ports and chain hardware, via additional hardware from KMI.

Build and Playing Experience

The QuNexus is crazy-thin, more the size of an iPad case than what we’d normally associate with a music hardware accessory. But in that case, KMI have managed to squeeze loads of ports by using the smallet connectors available. There are jacks for USB MIDI (via a microUSB port, as found on many mobile phones), expression pedals (requiring a minijack converter), and Control Voltage output (KMI has a special cable). Additionally, if you do need conventional MIDI DIN and the like, KMI has a jack for their external MIDI expansion box, though that’s best seen a a studio solution, coming in a big metal case.

It’s hard to tell in photos, but the QuNexus feels really nice. While it is extremely thin and has a thin plastic shell, there’s very little flex and the resulting impression is solid. The pads are definitely on the grippy side – .to me, they’re too sticky; I would have preferred a flatter, less textured surface. But that doesn’t impact playing.

The pads favor stability over travel distance as you play – the response you feel is largely in the resistance of the pads themselves rather than in much vertical movement. These are not MPC-style pads, full stop. But the result was that I found it was much easier to play melodic lines and even convincing performances on a piano patch.

Playing the QuNexus can be immensely satisfying, partly because it can comfortably switch between expressive synth keyboard and drum controller. You just have to embrace the idea that it isn't a conventional keyboard.

Playing the QuNexus can be immensely satisfying, partly because it can comfortably switch between expressive synth keyboard and drum controller. You just have to embrace the idea that it isn’t a conventional keyboard.

The resemblence to that piano keyboard may be the QuNexus’ greatest strength and its most divisive feature. I was surprised to hear some glaringly negative reviews. I think the reason is, as I said at the outset, this isn’t a piano. A traditional key action will always be preferable to a keyboard player. (See the keyboard we previewed yesterday for one with extra expression features.) But the QuNexus is to me the most usable solution when space is a premium.

I found it surprisingly easy to play; I was more constrained by the octave layout and size than the pads themselves. And because these really are drum pads, it’s actually more comfortable to then switch to drum lines. (Time for me to hit Pd and Max for Live and see what can be done for programming bass lines and step-sequenced drum patterns; I’ll have to check in again later this summer.)

Then there are the added pressure sensitivity controls. These make it easy to add bend or modulation as you play. If you’ve used drum pads with the feature before, none of this is new; it’s really about getting access to that in a piano-style black-and-white layout.

There are also dedicated controls for octave up and down toggles. These come with rather garish blinking color feedback. (Personally, I’d rather turn it off, but at least you know which octave you’ve selected.) And there’s a small bend pad on the left side that stands in for pitch and mod wheels. The bend pad doesn’t add much; it’s too tiny and too unwieldy to control for bend. But it’s there, and could be useful for vibrato or other less-particular inputs.

No matter: the real advantage here is the continuous control on the keys themselves. And here’s where KMI starts to pull out the stops: there are options for every editing and customization scenario you could imagine.

On the left-hand side of the keyboard, you'll find octave toggles, buttons for storing and recalling presets, and the bend function.

On the left-hand side of the keyboard, you’ll find octave toggles, buttons for storing and recalling presets, and the bend function.

Editing and Control

KMI’s software comes with a Mac and Windows editing app, plus a quick start manual. I was able to get through most of the functionality just by plugging in the QuNexus: it instantly behaves as a conventional keyboard controller with desktop software and iPad, and much of the onboard controls are self-explanatory. Ditto with the editing software, which while offering per-control options for everything is easy enough to navigate. The quick start will cover the needs of the majority of QuNexus users in short order.

Open the full manual and support downloads, though, and you may feel like you’ve been given the note to someone’s computer music class. Every possible hardware rig is considered, every imagineable mapping of every sensor to every parameter of every piece of software, it seems. At one point, they instruct you how to make your own cables and include a diagram of a voltage conversion circuit. It can actually be overwhelming, but everything is there.

Let’s start with those editing features you’re most likely to use, and then move on to the fancier stuff.

The QuNexus editor is one of the features that sets this controller apart. You have control over every imaginable assignment, plus copious options for adjusting curves to your liking. (You can even do that per pad, if you want to go completely crazy.) The editor is nonetheless easy to follow; I used it without ever looking at the manual. The best part is being able to store four presets for recall on the controller itself.

The QuNexus editor is one of the features that sets this controller apart. You have control over every imaginable assignment, plus copious options for adjusting curves to your liking. (You can even do that per pad, if you want to go completely crazy.) The editor is nonetheless easy to follow; I used it without ever looking at the manual. The best part is being able to store four presets for recall on the controller itself.

It is vitally important to be able to reassign pressure and aftertouch, because different apps and synths expect different inputs, and to adapt to your playing style. Here, you get the options you need. You can use pressure for modulation or bend, for starters, though the latter takes some adjustment — too sensitive, and you’ll find yourself playing out of tune. But you can also send per-key modulation, which allows more subtle timbral control if assigned intelligently.

KMI were thoughtful in giving you some flexibility in how to send those messages. You can transmit polyphonic aftertouch to synths that support it. Some don’t, though, preferring channel aftertouch – a single aftertouch message on any key impacts the whole sound. Here, KMI offers what they call “channel rotation”: the basic idea is to assign different keys to different channels, thus allowing you to use each finger of your hands to send different messages. That lets you work with lots of additional software that otherwise couldn’t use all the pressure information the QuNexus can sense.

Mapped to a useful modulation parameter, the QuNexus' pressure sensitivity really shines. Sure, you could do this with a drum pad controller - but if you're used to a piano layout, the QuNexus is far easier. It really is a joy with synths like the iPad's Animoog.

Mapped to a useful modulation parameter, the QuNexus’ pressure sensitivity really shines. Sure, you could do this with a drum pad controller – but if you’re used to a piano layout, the QuNexus is far easier. It really is a joy with synths like the iPad’s Animoog.

Tilt control is also available. It lets you send additional modulation by tilting the pads. It’s showy, and could be fun for some synth sounds. The trick is working out how to manipulate pads in the direction of tilt as well as pressure. I preferred pressure alone, but this may depend on your tastes.

The other limitation of tilt is that, like pressure, it is necessarily connected to depressing a key. That does make some sense in certain scenarios; it’s a bit like playing a whammy bar. You can customize the “on” threshold in the editor. Some sort of continuous controller independent of keys, though, like a ribbon or accelerometer, would have been nice. Again, QuNexus is all about playing keys.

Given these different possibilities – and given on some patches you won’t even want the pressure data – the ability to store presets is invaluable. Using the editor, you can set up four patches, and quickly switch between them on the front panel of the QuNexus. You can also use a “control layer” to differentiate control features (like synth parameters) from the layout you want to play. For me, the easiest approach was to set up four playing styles – one without any velocity, one with velocity but no pressure, one with velocity and pressure, one with tilt and all. Then, I could adapt my synth maps accordingly on the computer and iPad.

Also invaluable is something KMI gives the acronym “CoMA.” I’d call it the “software is too stupid to map anything that sends more than one message at a time” mode. (I’m looking at you, Ableton Live.) Since a lot of automatic MIDI map modes in software just respond to whatever Control Change message they happen to receive, they’re flummoxed when a controller sends two message at once. This mode lets you hold that software by the hand and make your assignment without incident.

There’s also an on-the-fly parameter editing mode, but I don’t recommend it. It’s fine for quick experimentation when you don’t want to resort to the computer, but settings aren’t saved even when you unplug the QuNexus, and the editor is far more convenient than remembering combinations of key presses.

Many editing parameters are available for on-the-fly editing, but since they don't get saved, you're probably better off using the editor.

Many editing parameters are available for on-the-fly editing, but since they don’t get saved, you’re probably better off using the editor.

The QuNexus works nicely for playing instruments and custom patches in the likes of Max, Pd, Reaktor, or SuperCollider. It sends MIDI only, but there’s an OpenSoundControl bridge if you prefer. I found MIDI’s data was granular enough for the accuracy of these pads; OSC’s higher data resolution seemed overkill.

Where the QuNexus seems less well-suited is as a general purpose controller. There are elaborate custom patches and setups from KMI for doing things like controlling Ableton device racks and launching clips. They’re interesting in theory, but unless you’re triggering obvious glitch effects, it’s just hard to imagine getting a lot of use out of this as a controller. A set of pots or faders would be far easier, and any number of other options (joysticks, Wacom tablets, iPad touch layouts) would be better to control. That’s okay, though: to me, the QuNexus’ main draw is as an instrumental controller.

CV and Analog Control

The QuNexus’ small size and keyboard layout will remind analog lovers fondly of control units like those on early Buchla modules. It seems therefore a nice companion for analog gear. KMI has also reduced smooth and improved gate response, which should address any early concerns about analog.

Also, because you can use MIDI as an input (via computer or KMI’s own Expander hardware and MIDI DIN), you can use a QuNexus as a converter from MIDI to CV.

Looking at how the QuNexus works with analog gear is best left as a subject to a future article, particularly as we again look at integrating a Korg MS-20 mini with Eurorack gear. But otherwise, the earlier advice applies: if you like this kind of playing, the QuNexus should work nicely with your analog rig.

In Use

I generally travel these days with a laptop and an iPad, sometimes with the iPad alone. But there are endless conditions where I want some kind of tactile input device and don’t have the luggage space for a proper keyboard.

For melodic playing, the QuNexus form factor is perfect. I started leaving it in my bag while working on the review, and now it won’t leave. It’s as invaluable to me as my Apple wireless mouse, neatly fitting alongside the front lip of the machine, for working with music software. It’s equally nice as an iPad companion. It’s not hard to imagine people toting this to coffee shops or hotel rooms or bus station waiting lounges.

Indeed, I even pulled it out in coach on a transatlantic flight and got some melodic parts recorded. (Okay, I did realize I couldn’t use it on the tray table with velocity sensitivity on – that’d bother the person in front of me. For that, I moved it to my lap and carrier on.) And we’re talking a controller that works when there isn’t enough seat separation to unfold your 15″ MacBook.

Tested at 35,000 feet: yes, it's possible to use QuNexus and iPad in coach. I managed to get some sound designs and melodic patterns together without disturbing anyone - seriously. Oh, and a nice compliment for the idea of the digital instrument: an older man seated next to me asked if I was a pianist as we deplaned.

Tested at 35,000 feet: yes, it’s possible to use QuNexus and iPad in coach. I managed to get some sound designs and melodic patterns together without disturbing anyone – seriously. Oh, and a nice compliment for the idea of the digital instrument: an older man seated next to me asked if I was a pianist as we deplaned.

Advice

The funny thing about the QuNexus to me is, once you recognize what it is – great portable pads laid out like a keyboard – you may like it a lot more. It’s not a radical departure from existing instrumental inputs. And it’s not the best all-purpose control surface – even KMI’s own QuNeo would likely be preferable for controlling lots of parameters.

But that’s not a bad thing. For the price, the QuNexus is an exceptionally-good set of drum pads that you can play like a keyboard. It’s as slim and light as you could imagine, without sacrificing connectivity or functionality. And unlike small, cheap drum pad and keyboard controllers, you feel like you’re playing something that’s comfortable in its own skin rather than a sized-down version of something else. It’s more interesting and more responsive than other devices, and feels more rugged, to boot.

That to me, in practice, has proven invaluable. I’d get a QuNeo or Ableton Push or other controller for endless controls, and explore other options if I wanted a new instrumental controller to put in a road case. But for an always-in-your-bag melodic controller, I can’t think of anything that does what QuNexus does as well as it does in so small a case. (If you really want more conventional keys, you could look to KORG’s very nice microKEY line. But they do take up considerably more space. And I’d skip KORG’s nanoKEY now that QuNexus is an option; nanoKEY’s action is basically what you get from a computer keyboard.)

The hackability aspect could mean there’s more from QuNexus to come, once intrepid software makers and patchers get their hands on it. The editor works nicely enough, and since the LEDs can be detached from the input and controlled separately, the QuNexus takes on some of the possibilities controllers like the monome have revealed. These hackers may also find better ways of responding to pressure control that does allow for more open-ended possibilities; I know I’ll be playing with that myself in coming months. (I’ll share if I make anything good.)

Whether you hack it or not, though, I think the QuNexus will be well-suited to anyone wanting a unique input that they can easily carry around. It’s perfectly playable, and small and light enough that you don’t notice it in your bag. The real proof: you may miss it those times you don’t.

With street prices around US$150 (€170 from current pricing), for many musicians, it will be a must-buy.

qunexus_2

Ups:

Playable pads, usable for drums and melodies
Velocity and per-pad tilt support
Easy-to-use preset storage
Copious editing options
Flexible I/O
Beautifully portable, and works with iPad

Downs:

Tilt and pressure work well with keys, but there’s no separate continuous control
Bend pad is too small to be useful
Not so portable if you need MIDI DIN

http://www.keithmcmillen.com/qunexus/

Previously:
Extra Modulation, Extra Routing: What the QuNexus Keyboard is Good For [Videos]

  • johnwesleybarker

    Seems a bit expensive compared to similar products (M-Audio and Korg)

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Right, and in their place you get something with more I/O options, more editability, and better playability and portability.

    • gunboat_d

      in your experience using it; if you’re just using it to tap out melodies on an airplane or a park bench, the extra I/O are kind of superfluous, right? does this excel more in a studio setting where you have something to take advantage of the CV?

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Well, I don’t think pressure/velocity is superfluous — pretty useful. Some of the other stuff, sure, and I have never found a reason to adjust individual pad sensitivity! But I found the feel and pressure absolutely essential when going mobile.

    • gunboat_d

      i’ll have to give it a try. velocity would be nice in small package. korg’s microkeys was pretty infuriating to use; no better than my laptop keyboard.

    • sprewl

      I wonder if, practically speaking, it’s like the 3 Korg nanoseries controller combined in one unit?

  • Eric Ameres

    I’m particularly interested in the CV capabilities (I (finally) have an MS-20 and a Doepfer Dark Energy that I’m eager to have “play nice”)

  • Peter

    It seems more expensive but it FEELS more expensive too. Plus ive had two korg products die on me mysteriously, so here’s hoping it lasts a bit longer too.

  • Eric Ameres

    I could swear I’ve seen reference to an onboard step sequencer or arpeggiator. Any sign of that, or are the “rec/play/stop” markings just for controlling others via mapping?

    • leow

      Yes, the original Kickstarter video shows it being used as a step sequencer:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uV8Q2AvB2QE
      and this demo video shows it working as an arpeggiator:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5oZGvjAiVyw

      I was wondering the same thing, as I haven’t heard much about those features since these early videos. Perhaps the sequencer was actually something done in Max, rather than being onboard? One thing about using it as a sequencer – the bottom row of “white” keys is just one key short of having a full 16 steps…
      Anyway, Peter, did the QuNexus have either of these functions when you tried it?

    • Eric Ameres

      Whew! I’m relieved that I didn’t just imagine it! I hope it doesn’t require a computer to realize these features. I am hoping to add features to my semi-modular rig without adding a computer.

    • Eric Ameres

      BTW, I guess in the demo they showed the sequencer as 8 steps with the remaining keys selecting the instrument. Still very compelling for a lot of uses!

    • http://pkirn.com/ Peter Kirn

      Ah, good question – maybe they never released that patch. I have some different ideas for how to do it, though, so may experiment. And I’d try to write it in Pd, too, if possible, for maximum portability.

  • iwaiwa

    I wonder if (at some point) there will be a way to have Scales where the (correct) notes in a scale light up on the keyboard and the user can press on the lit notes.

    I know AniMoog has Scales and thus shows (on the iPad) only the notes in a Scale, but the AniMoog keyboard is “virtual”, whereas the QuNexus is physical, thus ability to have the correct notes in a scale would be by the “light up the correct notes in a Scale” method.

    (Ability to choose a key and scale, might be able to be done with the Shift button + piano key. Don’t know exactly how this can be implemented, but seems like it’s “do-able” / a real possibility).

    • Agent0047

      KMI has implemented something similar on the QuNeo, (Enhanced Note Mode – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X96dLJ8SL4k ) so I’d bet it’s possible…

    • Eyoo

      If you’re using Ableton, it’s simple; just create a clip that’s outputting MIDI straight to the Quneo (or Launchpad, or your grid of choice) at the right values. So the clip just has a ‘chord’ of the specific MIDI values that correspond to the right lights on your controller, and thus the right notes. Can even change the colour to set root notes differently.

      If you change key (assuming you’re diatonic) just add a pitch MIDI effect, and move everything up/down at whim!

      The only trouble is just figuring out whatever quirky system they use to categorize the lights (admittedly, the Quneo has a very annoying system).

  • dead_red_eyes

    Sadly there’s slew going on in between notes on the Volt per Octave output. In an email reply, one of Keith’s techs said that cannot be removed because it’s a hardware limitation. There’s been a firmware update, but it still doesn’t fix the issue. There’s a thread on Muff Wiggler about this: http://www.muffwiggler.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=70936&postdays=0&postorder=asc&start=140

    • Joshua Goran

      I think this is critical: I haven’t heard a good thing from anyone using this with CV devices yet, and while I think it still might be a great controller for iOS/USB uses, it seems dishonest for the QuNexus to be referred to as “snappy” for CV uses when that clearly isn’t the case, and there’s oscilloscope photos to show it.

      It’s a shame, because I thought this had a lot of potential for a versatile modular controller without needing extra equipment or adapters besides splitter cables.

    • KMI

      First of all, we’d like to say how excited we are to have such a positive response to QuNexus! We’ve worked hard on QuNexus and really value the feedback.

      That being said, we want to address concerns about CV slew and the quality of our CV output… We’ve made a few recordings of QuNexus acting as a MIDI-over-USB to CV converter from Ableton Live 9 to an Arturia MiniBrute. We’re sending a simple MIDI file out of Live on QuNexus Port 3 Channel 2. These recordings were made directly out of the MiniBrute into a griffin iMic plugged into an iMac and recorded in Live 9. There are no effects on the sound. We also put a picture of the envelope for each on the soundcloud file for each recording. On one, the attack is at 0, the decay is up a little, the sustain is up a little, and release is at 0. On the other, attack is at 0, decay is up all the way, sustain in the middle, and release is at 0.

      Here is a link to the audio examples:
      https://soundcloud.com/keithmcmilleninstruments/sets/qunexus-cv-examples

      One thing to note– version 1.0 was sent out with Gate Legato toggled on with the CV page of our editor. Make sure you are using v 1.1.1 (released July 5, 2013), Gate Legato defaults to off as this will affect the CV Slew– make sure you’ve updated to the newest firmware (v 1.1.1). You can grab the new editor and firmware from http://www.keithmcmillen.com/qunexus/downloads/ .

      Thanks and let us know if you have questions…

    • Disgruntled

      To be honest I find the CV playability incredibly poor when it’s connected to a computer, I’m certainly not able to play any kind of legato or smotth phrases, or even fast phrases without nearly every note not sounding or just being a short blip. You can get around this by powering the QuNexus via the mains outlet, then it pays everything fine, but then you don’t get the Midi/Cv and sync to your DAW. Of course once you’ve already had to switch off the LEDs because of the unusable high pitched noise they create when using CV you’re left with something pretty useless, and with something tech support cant be arsed answering. Thankfully mine is on the way back to the shop.

  • jimmie

    Since my comment somehow wasn’t posted..
    Do you have to use their special cable (the one they’re selling) for CV?

    • Keith

      Hi – You can assemble all of the cables for CV in and CV out from Radio Shack parts but I just thought it would be nice if they were all in one package where you didn’t need a mess of adapters to get what you want. The cable kit is just a convenience.

    • jimmie

      Thanks!

  • wetterberg

    Yeah, it certainly *looks* good. I wonder if it’ll start actually arriving at stores… They’re not really… “shipping” as such, at least not to stores in europe. I have a buddy who’s been waiting for ages on his.

  • Ryan T.

    I just got mine yesterday – great build quality, nice surface feel. Playing it is…different. I don’t see it the way I see a standard keyboard. That said, it’s fun and small and makes me play differently, and it’s great for drums.

  • http://melodiefabriek.com/ Marco Raaphorst

    I have two Korg NanoKeys, version 1 and version 2. Love it a lot because: compact and I play different things on it. Have used it when I teaching at SAE in Amsterdam. Very compact, but you can do almost anything. Okay, I always miss my guitar.

    This QuNexus looks very interesting too. If it plays nice, it is nice.

  • anthony antfactor

    Got mine a few days ago – been busy, but took it to work and it played very nicely (pun intented) with my iPad – which was the main purpose. I like how it feels – just need to figure out how to address it’s features (controller data) from the various soft-synths I have (Thor, Animoog, etc). I’ve ALWAYS wanted polyphonic aftertouch – so I think this is a BRILLIANT idea. This is for SYNTHS – and that’s what I use. :)

  • reez

    I recently picked up a QuNexus and really like it, nice build quality, but where are the arpeggiator/step sequencer functions?

  • Jason

    can any tell me, will this work with drum sticks, with a light to medium velocity? Obviously, that’s not its intended use, but I’m looking for a chromatic midi trigger system to add to my drum set, without spending $1500 on a Mallet Kat or similar… Has anyone tried using drum sticks with this? Or can someone try it out an let me know if it triggers well? I’m looking to use it for melodic but percussive electronic drum sounds – xylophone, wood blocks, and maybe some more synthesized hits.