CME Xkey Air Bluetooth Keyboard Controllers
By Anderton |
CME Xkey Air Bluetooth Keyboard Controllers
Now MIDI data can float through the air from your keyboard
by Craig Anderton
This isn’t my first dance with Xkey keyboards; I’ve been using the standard 37-note model in my studio, and the 25-key version for travel when I have enough space to bring something bigger than a Korg nanocontrol 2. Of course, I have “real” keyboards but I often need to test out presets that I’m developing, and having the 37-key model set up in front of my QWERTY keyboard makes for a much more efficient preset creation process. On the road, the 25-key version gives the velocity and aftertouch response I want, is light, and can survive portability (I'm sure the brushed aluminum foundation helps with that).
They’re both USB devices, but recently I visited a friend who got tired of cables, and converted as much as he could to wi-fi and Bluetooth. I could definitely see the merits of his approach, and was considering adding one of the Zivix PUC Wi-Fi or Bluetooth adapters ($79 and $99 respectively) so I could convert the Xkey into wireless operation. However then the Xkey Air Bluetooth keyboards (25 or 37 key versions for $199 and $299 respectively) appeared, and seemed like the right solution at the right time. Also note they can still work as wired USB devices.
The 25-key Xkey Air - note the Bluetooth sticker on the C key
A Better Bluetooth. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE, which is also what the PUC+ uses) is faster and more efficient than standard Bluetooth. However, it is available only on the most modern hardware; fortunately for everything else—whether Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, or Linux—CME recommends the WIDI BUD dongle, a small, low-latency, BLE-to-USB MIDI Bridge. I tested Xkey Air with several devices (Mac, iOS, and Windows) and all of them needed the WIDI BUD. Cost is around $49, so you may need to factor that into the sticker price (and don't lose it - it really is tiny).
Just Like the Xkey, But… There are no significant differences to the Air versions’ outward appearance or capabilities, and the feel of the low-travel keyboard is the same. For details on the original, see my review of the CME Xkey 25 vs. the Korg Nanocontrol 2 on Harmony Central. However, dig deeper and you’ll see the on-off switch for Bluetooth, some LEDs to indicate status, and note there’s an internal battery that gets recharged via USB—but as far as I can tell, there’s no way to replace it. I always consider this a negative because at some point, the battery will lose its ability to hold a charge. Fortunately you can always use the keyboard via USB.
Also note that there’s no port for the breakout cable included with the standard Xkey 37 that allows for MIDI out, a sustain switch, and pedal. This isn’t surprising, given the emphasis on portability.
Incidentally, all Xkeys ship with a USB cable that terminates in a micro-B USB connector for plugging into the Xkey’s USB port. Although the connector is standard, the size is thin, and most commercial cables won’t fit—don’t lose the one that comes with the Xkey. It’s 41 inches/104 centimeters long, so you may need a USB cable extender for when you’re not going wireless.
The 37-key version. Note the buttons on the left for modulation, transpose, sustain, and bend.
Trial by Installation. The Xkey Air is ready for prime time…but then there’s the rest of the world. I tried pairing with a circa 2013 Windows laptop running Windows 10, and a pre-Lightning iPad running the latest iOS; no luck. So I plugged the WIDI BUD into my laptop, and still couldn’t get any Bluetooth pairing—yet Widibud showed up as a MIDI input in Cakewalk SONAR, and I could play virtual instruments perfectly from the Xkey Air. How could that be?
Apparently as long as WIDI BUD shows up in Windows’ Control Panel > Settings > Connected Devices, you’re good to go and don’t need Bluetooth pairing because (I assume) the Xkey “pairs” itself with WIDI BUD. In the process of figuring this out, I also I went to the Docs & Downloads page under CME’s support, and found an app called Widi Plus that could update the WIDI BUD firmware, so I did. The iPad solution was the same: use WIDI BUD, which required the Camera Kit adapter for my particular iPad.
The WIDI BUD is “the great leveler” that makes operating Xkey Air possible on what appears to be just about anything that normally handles Bluetooth. But even if your device’s Bluetooth is compatible, WIDI BUD supposedly provides lower latency. CME quotes around 7ms, so that fits my “under 10 ms keeps me happy” requirement.
I wish CME was a little more diligent about documentation; for example, if you want to use Xkey Air with Apple devices, I highly recommend this forum post. It would be great if CME consolidated everything about using Xkey Air with Apple, Windows, and Linux into individual documents. I suspect some people who don’t have my level of perseverance will just assume it doesn’t work when they can’t pair it the way they would other Bluetooth devices. Yet everything worked flawlessly once I figured out the ground rules.
The bottom line is unless you’re using the latest and greatest computers, factor in the cost of the WIDI BUD. For $49, it lets Xkey communicate happily with dinosaurs, allows for very low latency, and even has a helpful little red light that blinks when it’s receiving MIDI data.
The Xkey Plus Application. This is also described in the reviews linked above, and it’s exceptionally useful. You can do so much more with the Xkey keyboards than just play notes—for example, assign different program changes to each key—as well as customize velocity and lots more. Best of all, since writing the previous review, Xkey Plus (which is free) now lets you save and load presets. This is huge, because it means you can easily switch between using the Xkey as a standard note player and something that starts to resemble more of a control surface.
Other Accessories. If you want to strut around the stage, the $49 Xclip (left) clips to the 37-note model to allow attaching a guitar strap, and there are two carrying cases: the $25 Supernova (middle) for a single Xkey, and the Solar carrying case (right; it's just a name, it’s not solar-powered) can hold both the 25- and 37-key versions, or one and various other accessories; it costs around $40.
I’m a fan of the Xkey series. The keyboards are sturdy, light, functional, and very handy. Polyphonic aftertouch and the Xkey Plus software are the icing on a very sweet cake. Furthermore, I’ve had my two Xkeys for long enough that I can vouch they hold up over time. Although you might assume the minimal key travel would limit velocity response or make it difficult to adapt, I didn’t find that to be the case at all. In fact I’m confident enough with its "feel" that I have no problem using the Xkey for preset development, and switching over to a standard keyboard only as a final “reality check.”
The wireless aspect is very cool, although you pay a premium for that coolness, particular if you need the WIDI BUD adapter (you probably will). And of course, there’s the non-replaceable battery issue mentioned earlier. Still, the latency is low, the system is reliable, you can get about 30 feet away from your computer, and you’ll never trip over a cable or yank it out at an inopportune time. For many users, the Xkey Air series will be exactly what they want—and if they can’t stretch for the price, the standard Xkey controllers remain as good as ever.
Video: Xkey Air Overview
Video: What About Latency?
Video: Jordan Rudess playing the Xkey on a mountain in Norway
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.