Sensor technology, like everything else, is advancing at a frightening pace. This pushes forward the possibilities for MIDI control as much as it does anything else. One of the more interesting stories of recent years is that of the QuNeo. It's billed as a 3D controller because it can detect changes in all three dimensions. It's packed with different types of sensors—if it's something you'd want under a pad, the QuNeo has probably got it. Commercially, it started life on Kickstarter, where creative projects are funded by members of the public. Keith McMillen Instruments, the makers of the QuNeo, asked for $15,000 to support their idea. They got ten times that amount. Herbie Hancock and John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin wanted to back it.
The production phase, however, was rockier. Some way in, component defects were found, and after much wrangling with the supplier, the original components were replaced by new ones. Which were also defective. After a new manufacturer was found, and all the problems had been ironed out, the QuNeo shipped about six months late.
The QuNeo is, first and foremost, extremely versatile. Even out of the box, it has templates and presets that work with a range of software, and that are designed to maximise its potential within that software. Ableton, Logic, Reason, Traktor and even the Korg iMS-20 and BeatMaker for iPad are catered for. In Ableton, it essentially acts as a condensed version of the Akai APC-40, using the four corners of the pads to launch clips and so on. A big red box that you move around, sends, channel faders and controls, right down to metronome and overdubing—virtually everything you'd want is there.
There's also a step sequencer on another "page." It's got another preset for Ableton drum racks and one for Battery too, as well as generic "pad" presets so that you can use it as a drum pad controller in any setup. You can switch from one preset to another with two quick button presses. So, if you don't mind using it as a keyboard controller, you can have everything in one unit. Any limitations to its use as a universal tool are only limitations inherent in the approach itself: that's to say, the switching around, and the fact that you can't use it for more than one thing at once.
Digging a bit deeper, the QuNeo is highly—in fact, for all intents and purposes, completely—editable. Every sensor is accessible through the provided QuNeo Editor. So what sensors does it have, exactly? First off, everything is velocity and pressure sensitive. Yes, everything. Additionally, the pads output x and y position data; the sliders output location data; the long slider outputs location data and information about the distance of two touch points from each other; and the rotary pads output information about either touch location or touch movement direction. The rotary pads, incidentally, have a resolution of 4096 ticks per revolution, which is apparently more than most timecode vinyl, and the sliders are accurate to 0.4 mm. Additionally, all of the corners of the pads individually output notes, velocity and pressure. All of this is delivered to your computer as either MIDI notes or MIDI CCs.
With the Editor, you can bend it to your will in any way you could imagine. This included piece of software also has a few nice features you might not have thought of. In particular, it's got extensive options for customising the feel of the drum pads, including a number of presets for replicating the feel of your favourite other drum pads. It also gives you a few options for changing the LED behaviour. It's got a nice interface—one that becomes easy to navigate after a bit of quality time, despite the large number of parameters. They also provide you with an OSC bridge, which gives you the QuNeo data in the form of OSC messages—useful for writing software that uses the device. Sold separately, you can also expand the QuNeo with a MIDI port interface (without one, it's USB only) or an iPad hook-up cable.
Physically, the QuNeo is pretty remarkable. It's extremely thin and light. It's the size of an iPad, which means it fits with most iPad accessories such as mic stand clips. Nevertheless, it's built solidly and feels sturdy to drum on. It also copes with beer a lot better than some of my equipment has. In use, the LEDs are more than fit for purpose as a source of feedback information, coming in four colours, and with each LED having sixteen levels of brightness. The fader strips can even act as VU meters.
So does it fall down in some way? Put simply, not really. The drum pads are very responsive, reacting to light, polyrhythmic tapping in a way that my MPD24 can't. You have to be a bit firmer with the sliders and corners, but it's not too bad. The only thing that really bothered me was when I tried to use the rotaries to edit loop start and end points in Ableton, which you can do with the included template. It wasn't easy to get them where you wanted. Also, there was a bit of jitter on the faders. These are things that may well be able to be fixed by better internal processing of the sensor data, depending on the noise characteristics of the sensors. And there are firmware updates which you can perform easily from the Editor, so hopefully this issue will be ironed out in the future.
The QuNeo, in my eyes, isn't a particularly radical piece of hardware: it's just progressive. It uses the latest sensors in a common sense manner. Leading the way like this is risky, of course. A lot can go wrong. But it looks like McMillen and co have mitigated these risks with professionalism, making for a final product that has been pulled off seamlessly.