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If you're into mobile music-making, you'll want to check this out

 

By Craig Anderton                                               

 

You’re a musician on the go. You want a keyboard that can go with you, not take up a lot of weight or space, and not look so weird TSA agents will engage you in long conversations...which brings us to CME’s Xkey 25 and Korg’s nanoKEY2.

 

Price: Xkey 25 $100 street, nanoKEY2 $50

 

Size: Gotta have full-size keys? Read no further: it’s the Xkey (15.27” x 5.31”). The nanoKEY2 has mini-keys, but it’s a lot smaller (12.8” x 3.27”)—and incidentally, fits perfectly between two ribs in the bottom of my suitcase so it’s well protected from the Minions of Satan who handle airline baggage. The Xkey fits in almost any laptop case.

 

Feel: Both use “chiclet”-type 25-key keyboards, so there’s only about 1/8th inch of travel. You have to get used to this, but it works. The CME has a “crisper” feel that’s closer to what you’d expect from a keyboard; the nanoKEY2 keys feel “looser.”

 

Other controls: The nanoKEY2 has button switches for pitch bend up, pitch bend down, transpose up, transpose down, mod wheel, and sustain. The mod wheel and sustain buttons can be set to any controller. However note that these are all switches, so for mod wheel, bend, and sustain, you need to use the computer applet (described later) to set the time required to reach the maximum bend amount or modulation or sustain delay, as well as minimum and maximum values. The Xkey 25 has the advantage of pressure-sensitive pitch bend and mod wheel buttons, so you have much more control—with the caveat that doing nuanced mod wheel motion is a challenge because you need to exert steady pressure. Pitch bending is quite doable and expressive if the range is only a few semitones. The Xkey 25 is definitely more expressive, and much less dependent on accessing the editor.

 

Blinky lights: Korg wins this one—the octave button color shows the amount of transposition. The CME has a single red LED on the back that indicates it’s connected to USB.

 

Bling factor: Tough call, they both look quite cool. The Xkey 25 has an Apple-esque, brushed aluminum silver outside, and is offered in five different finishes.  But even the low-cost nanoKEY2 comes in either white or black, which matters if you’re into the whole Star Wars light side/dark side thing. Overall the nanoKEY2 looks cuter, the CME more authoritative.

 

Aftertouch and velocity: They both have velocity, but here’s a major difference: the nanoKEY2 doesn’t have aftertouch, while the CME offers selectable channel aftertouch or polyphonic aftertouch (check out this article for more on polyphonic aftertouch). Seriously—in a $100 keyboard! The good news is that the poly aftertouch response is surprisingly good. The bad news: good luck finding a soft synth that responds to it properly. Arturia’s CS-80V does a great job, but with NI’s Kontakt, each key has to be its own Zone for poly aftertouch to work. Many synths don’t support it at all, and some accept poly aftertouch messages but treat them as channel aftertouch. However, now that there’s a decent, low-cost keyboard with poly aftertouch, I will be relentless (and probably annoying) in pestering software companies to take advantage of it.

 

Computer applet: Both have cross-platform computer applications that let you do things like choose velocity curves and such, but the Xkey applet gives many more customization options (and also supports iOS/Android). You can draw your own velocity curves (or swipe with iOS devices), and each key can transmit its own program change, a controller value, etc.

 

CME Xkey applet

 

Korg nanoKONTROL2 applet

 

You can even set individual sensitivity for each key, but there’s a major catch: unlike the nanoKEY2, you can’t save any of these settings for future recall (although any changes you make are saved in non-volatile memory). Given the Xkey applet’s flexibility, let’s hope CME adds a save/load preset ability in a future update. On the other hand the Korg software is temperamental—on both my laptop and desktop Windows machines I eventually got the MIDI driver and editor working, although I’m not quite sure how. Regardless, even when the MIDI ports were supposedly not working, I had no trouble actually acessing any program with the nanoKEY2—only accessing the Editor applet was an issue. 

 

Neither applet is multi-client; you can’t use it while the program connected to the keyboard is running. So neither applet hits a home run. The Korg would if it installed more smoothly and was multi-client so you wouldn’t have to quit the program to change important performance parameters, and the Xkey would hit a grand-slam homer if it could save and load presets. (According to the company, this is planned for a future update.)

 

Accessories: Both include USB cables but don’t lose the one that comes with the CME—it needs to have a thin profile connector, and not all micro-USB connectors will fit.

 

And the winner is: For serious functionality, full-size keys, more control, smoother app installation, solid construction, and the overachievement of poly aftertouch, CME’s Xkey 25 gets the prize. It’s set up on next to my desktop computer’s QWERTY keyboard for doing quick patch tests, or catching inspirations. But when I’m going on the road, the nanoKEY2 wins. It’s pretty much indestructible—even if you fly United Airlines—weighs 0.54 lbs. compared to the Xkey’s 1.32 lbs, takes up hardly any space at all, and costs half as much so if it gets eaten by a TSA agent, I’ll be out a lot less bucks.

 

Purchase the CME Xkey 25 or Korg NanoKEY2 at B&H

 

 Craig Anderton is Editorial Director of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.

 

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