CME Xkey review – compact MIDI keyboard for iOS, OSX & Windows

xkey publicity shot 1I’ve mentioned my search for the ‘perfect’ MIDI keyboard to use with my iPad-based recording setup a number of times here on the blog. Given my own personal preferences, I’m not really sure that the product I’d really like actually exists but, as it came quite close, I purchased an Alesis QX25 a couple of months ago and, overall, I’ve been pretty pleased with how it works.

However, while the QX25 is small, it isn’t tiny and if you want to be really mobile then something more compact would be a better choice even if it meant slightly fewer features. There are a number of choices here. For example, something like Korg’s microKey 25 or nanoKey2 might suit. Both are very compact and, here in the UK at least, can be purchased for less than UK£40.

Another possibility is now CME’s Xkey. In one sense, this takes some of the elements you might find in both the microKey and nanoKey devices and combines them into a very ‘Apple’ looking product. What you get, therefore, is 25 full-size keys (although the black keys are slightly narrower than a full-size keyboard) but the low profile key format found on the nanoKey is presented in a very stylish unit.

Gary Cramphorn of Hand-In-Hand Distribution – CME’s UK distributor – was kind enough to loan me a review unit of the Xkey to take a look at and, as I happened to have a road trip lined up, I took the Xkey along for the ride to give it a practical test. So, based upon my experiences to date, is the Xkey worth considering for your mobile music production system?

Let’s get physical

If you are a self-confessed Apple geek (that’s me then) then I suspect the look of the Xkey is going to appeal. It measures 388 x 135 by 16 (yes, 16) mm and weighs about 600g. The low profile height means that the keys themselves don’t have the full travel of a conventional MIDI keyboard but it does make the unit very easy to slip into a bag to carry about. For example, while I was travelling, I used my laptop bag and was easily able to carry both my iPad and the Xkey in the bag alongside my laptop without anything bursting out.

xkey publicity shot 2

Small but beautifully formed – CME’s Xkey MIDI keyboard.

Incidentally, the compact format is not just appealing for mobile musicians; the Xkey will work with both OSX and Windows desktop computers and, if space on your work surface is limited, then the Xkey might be just the ticket. It most certainly looked the part sat alongside my iMac. The silver metallic body is very similar to Apple’s own alphanumeric keyboards; if Apple made compact MIDI keyboards then I suspect it would look something like the Xkey.

I happen to own one of CME’s larger format keyboard controllers – a UF8 – that I use for any serious, two-handed, keyboard playing (well, as serious as my keyboard playing ever gets) but, if it was just for a few chords or a melody or bass line, I’d happily just use the Xkey.

The only connection on the unit is a compact USB socket that is tucked out of sight to the rear of the right side. A dedicated cable about 1m in length is supplied with a standard USB connector at the other end for connecting to your computer and/or iPad. For use with the iPad, you will also need to budget for one of Apple’s Camera Connection Kits. The keyboard is, of course, bus powered so, once the USB connection is made either to the iPad or a desktop computer, the keyboard will receive power. A small LED located near the USB connector lights up to show that power is being received.

The Xkey travels well - and works great with an iPad while on the move - as shown here in my 'mobile studio' on my recent road trip.

The Xkey travels well – and works great with an iPad while on the move – as shown here in my ‘mobile studio’ on my recent road trip.

The keys themselves are of a plastic construction and, as shown by the images included in the review, they are ‘low profile’, with the black keys only very slightly higher than the white keys. The small gaps between each key are a good design decision and, while it means the black keys are somewhat narrower than on a standard keyboard, I suspect the gaps mean far fewer duff notes. I had no significant issues adjusting to the layout despite my somewhat dodgy keyboard skills.

The only other controls are contained within the strip of six buttons located on the left-hand edge. From top to bottom, these provide octave up, octave down, modulation, pitch bend up, pitch bend down and sustain pedal controls. And, yes, it is a bit odd using a button for pitch bend or mod wheel control at first but it is surprisingly easy to adapt to and, again, it helps keep the format compact.

In control

If you are using the Xkey under iOS, there is a free to download app – aptly named Xkey Plus – that you can install and use to configure the Xkey hardware. This allows you to upgrade the firmware (very straight forward; it took just a few seconds with my review unit), set velocity curves (you can draw your own and also turn velocity sensitivity off if you prefer), adjust a range of other MIDI settings (from MIDI channel through to velocity range and aftertouch response) plus a number of other things.

The Xkey Plus app is a free download and allows you to configure the Xkey hardware in a variety of ways.

The Xkey Plus app is a free download and allows you to configure the Xkey hardware in a variety of ways.

While you can use the Xkey without ever installing the Xkey Plus app, this would be a bit of a shame; the app offers some very useful ways to customise the behaviour of the keyboard so it is well worth experimenting with. However, I suspect once you have got everything set how you like, all you will generally use the app for is checking for firmware updates.

Incidentally, if you want to use the Xkey with either OSX or Windows, there is equivalent configuration software available as a free download from the CME website.

In use

So, the look is very slick and the portability box is well and truly ticked – but how does the Xkey actually play? The first thing to say is that the keyboard action – where the full travel of the keys is only a few mm – does take some getting used to. This is particularly so in terms of getting accurate velocity or aftertouch control out of the keys. Equally, the keys make a mechanical noise when played that is not unlike a QWERTY keyboard. However, providing you are using headphones to monitor what you are doing, or are in an environment where you can turn up your iDevice’s audio output to a reasonable level, this really isn’t a significant issue.

Xkey plus provides a range of options for you to tweak so that you can configure the keyboard's response to best suit your own needs.

Xkey plus provides a range of options for you to tweak so that you can configure the keyboard’s response to best suit your own needs.

All this said, with just a little practice – and, for me at least, choosing the User Curve 4 velocity response – I soon found my feet (well…. fingers) with the Xkey keyboard and, providing whatever virtual instrument you are playing is configured to respond to velocity, it is actually possible to put some real expression into your performance.

While I used the Xkey without problems with a range of iOS synths (Thor, Nave, Arctic ProSynth, iSEM, Z3TA+, microTERA, etc.), I particularly enjoyed the combination of the Xkey with iGrand Piano and iLectric. With iGrand, the velocity response and the (for iOS at least) detailed sample-base of the instrument, made for a very nice combination.

The pitch bend and mod wheel options perhaps take a little more getting used to. Doing subtle pitch or mod shifts takes some practice but, equally, there are other effects (rapid pitch bends, for example) that can be achieved rather easily with the push buttons and the sustain button is very easy to use. With the latest firmware, the octave button give you +/- 4 octaves; enough for the lowest of lows and the highest of highs. In short, all of these controls are functional with some practice; they are different to using conventional wheels but still very useable.

In summary

With my initial period of adjustment overcome, I have to say that the Xkey has very much grown on me. I love the Apple-esq looks and styling and the compact format makes it a joy to travel with. At UK£89, it is perhaps not the cheapest portable keyboard you can buy but it does seem very well constructed. There is, I believe, a travel pouch accessory that can be purchased and, if I was doing a lot of moving about with my Xkey, I suspect that would be a good investment to keep it looking and playing well.

Velocity Curve 4 - that will do nicely :-)

Velocity Curve 4 – that will do nicely :-)

At the same sort of price level you could, of course, purchase something from the likes of Samson, M-Audio, Alesis, Korg or Akai with full-travel keys and probably some additional controller options included (knobs, faders and pads) but it will probably be somewhat larger in terms of footprint and almost certainly be of all plastic construction.

In comparing the Xkey with my own Alesis QX25, I suspect that for 90% of what I do, the Xkey would be more than up to the task and the other 10% would be down to the additional controllers the QX25 provides for tweaking synth parameters or creating automation data. However, for portability and sheer style, the Xkey wins hands down and, equally, given the very small footprint, I could easily find a home for it on my studio desk beside my iMac where I’d happily use it for routine MIDI part creation rather than haul out ‘the beast’ that is my CME UF8.

In short, I’m sold on the Xkey and, as a portable solution for my iPad setup or as a stylish, compact and convenient data entry tool on my desktop, I’m adding it to my personal wishlist. I just wish I didn’t have to send the review unit back to Hand-in-Hand quite so soon….

Hand-in-Hand Distribution UK website: http://www.handinhand.uk.net/

CME website: http://www.cme-pro.com/xkey.html

In the UK, the CME Xkey can be ordered directly from Hand-in-Hand. It is also available from both Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

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    Comments

    1. How nice the review is, thanks very much! We are happy that you like it, it is our honor to ask HIH to leave that Xkey for you.:-)

      • Hi Zhao… thanks for the kind words. I actually purchased the review unit from Hand In Hand after completing the review… I guess that’s also a positive recommendation :-) Thanks again for the feedback and very best wishes, John

    2. Would very much like to play one , I feel dubious about buttons for subtle pitch bend control.Even a ribbon would be better ? I’m very interested to know whether you found an synth that made good advantage of the polyphonic aftertouch….this seems the outstanding playability feature to me.
      Clearly an object of desire,extraordinary how such elegant design really makes me want something I really don’t need :)
      If I were a frequent flier I’d get one of these…..mind you another review opined that vigorous playing sounds like shaking tic tacs …not sure that would be very popular…

      • Hi Steve…. I like the tic-tacs quote…. probably quite accurate :-) but no worse than tapping away on a laptop keyboard and, give the background noise in most planes it wouldn’t be an issue. BTW, the iPad and Xkey did fit quite nicely on the fold-out table on the flight I took :-) The pitch-bend and modulation buttons are a compromise…. useful to have but not the most subtle of controls you will ever use. best wishes, John

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