When we sifted through the crop of new music gear at this year's NAMM Show, at the top of the heap was QuNexus, a new micro-keyboard from Keith McMillen Instruments (KMI), the creators of the successful QuNeo multi-touch controller. It was reported to be a step up in quality from competitors like the Korg MicroKey, Akai LPK25, and Alesis Q25, with some unique additions like control voltage (for playing and controlling analog synths) and pressure sensitivity. We were anxious to get our hands on a review unit, but had to get in line—KMI took the Kickstarter route that had worked so well with QuNeo, and by the time NAMM came around the fundraiser had already reached 200% of their target funding goal.
The build quality and overall feel of the keyboard made a good impression right off the bat (once we finally got our hands on one). QuNexus is impressively compact but sturdy, and it is thinner than just about any other piece of gear in our studio (even Teenage Engineering's tiny OP-1). It's easy to take it with you in pretty much any bag—a characteristic shared by many of the products designed by Keith McMillen, who as a touring musician got so tired of lugging bulky gear that he started making his own portable devices. QuNexus fits well in that category, and its minimalistic philosophy extends even to its no-nonsense cardboard box and accessories. (A manual and USB cable are included.)
Despite its small stature, QuNexus doesn't sacrifice playability. Where many other micro-keyboards sport cheap plastic parts, QuNexus' 25 keys are made of soft rubber—more like the pads you'd find on drum pad controllers like Native Instruments' Maschine or M-Audio's TriggerFinger. As a result, the keys are incredibly sensitive and responsive to the lightest of touches. In addition to the accurate velocity sensitivity, the keys also transmit pressure (how hard you continue to push after striking a key) and something that KMI calls tilt, which corresponds to where on the pad you are pushing. This results in four messages being sent when you press a key, and you can map those messages to different parameters in whatever you're controlling.
When it comes to the output of those parameters, QuNexus provides quite a few options. You can hook it up to a computer via the included USB cable, and it will send and receive MIDI without the need for drivers. As I mentioned before, QuNexus also supports control voltage, via three 3.55-mm jacks located on the sides of the unit—two outputs on the left and one input on the right. These jacks let you to play notes (CV and gate) from the first output and control two parameters from the second output. You can also send CV into the QuNexus, to convert signal from an expression pedal or even a synth's LFO signal into MIDI. (Converting MIDI to CV is one of the most important roles QuNexus can play; hardware units that do the same thing, like the Kenton Pro Solo, can easily cost more than double what KMI charges for the QuNexus, so this is a huge highlight.) In our tests, CV integration worked perfectly. QuNexus uses the CV/gate format favored by most analog synths, volts per octave, by default, but it can be changed to the one used by Korg and Yamaha (hertz per volt) using the software editor.
When connected to a computer, QuNexus shows up as three MIDI devices – for sending and receiving to/from USB, CV, and regular old hardware MIDI (via the optional KMI MIDI Expander). The QuNexus also works seamlessly with an iPad via the Camera Connection Kit adapter, and the iPad provides charge. With iPads, analog gear and modular synths all hot commodities in many studios right now, it's safe to say that KMI hit a sweet spot in the controller market.
Only a few downsides of QuNexus come to mind. There is a pitch bend pad to the left of the keyboard that is made of the same rubber as the keys, but it requires a harder press to activate. In our practice this resulted in noticeable jumps of pitch bend once it finally kicked in, rather than a more organic effect starting from the current pitch. The tilt function on the key pad seems to work the same way, but perhaps this gets better with practice. Secondly, editing the preset functionality either on the keyboard itself or via the software editor can be awkward and confusing. Fortunately, the QuNexus is pretty simple, and there's not much reason to change the behavior you get from the four factory presets. If you do want to tweak things, KMI provides detailed manuals on their website that may help you.
Overall, we came away quite impressed with QuNexus, and it certainly has earned a place at the very top of the micro-keyboard rankings. The superb accuracy and feel of the rubber pads is second-to-none among its competitors, and the CV/MIDI routing and conversion options make it much more capable than what you might expect at first glance. If you are searching for a good no-nonsense keyboard for a modular or an iPad, or if you're in need of a high-quality but portable keyboard to take on the road, QuNexus is worth a look.