Photos: Mark Ewing
There's certainly no shortage of 88-note weighted controllers available for the pianist on the market today. There are also lots of semi-weighted synth-action controllers with spans of 25, 49, 61, or 76 keys, most with mod and pitch wheels, and some with aftertouch. However, the UF8 keyboard controller from the Beijing-based Central Music Company (CME) is something I've been searching for for several years — a budget MIDI controller with 88 keys and aftertouch.
Some musicians assume that 88 weighted keys can only be used for playing piano and other percussive sounds, and that they aren't suitable for synth sounds and orchestral instruments. However, I've never been convinced by this argument, especially since many modern Gigastudio libraries require keyspans of 76 or more notes to easily access the keyswitching functions used to move between different articulations. Within reason, weighted keyboards can be extremely useful for playing all instruments, and moreover, not everyone has the space or the money for two controller keyboards. So, why use two keyboards in the studio when you could use one?
Although this new UF range is the first to appear under CME's own name, their patented weighted keyboard action has apparently already appeared in various other companies' products. There are four models in the range. The UF5, UF6, and UF7 have semi-weighted synth-action keyboards of 49, 61, and 76 keys respectively, while the UF8 being reviewed here has a 88-key weighted hammer-action keyboard. Otherwise, they are identical, except that the UF8 is supplied with a sustain pedal — on the others, this is an optional extra.
All four UF keyboards incorporate several unusual features — the aforementioned channel aftertouch, a breath-control input, the option to retrofit an optional Firewire-based audio interface, plus a largely aluminium case compared with the plastic of some competitors' models. Each has eight rotary controllers, nine sliders, transport controls, pitch and mod wheels, plus sustain and pedal controller inputs. They are also excellent value for money — the UF8, with 88 weighted hammer-action keys is just under £430 in the UK, while the remaining semi-weighted models come in at £270 for the 76-key, £230 for the 61-key, and £170 for the 49-key versions.
The entire range has stylish good looks, and the unusual metallic red end cheeks and rear panel provide lots of character. At 23.5kg the UF8 isn't a lightweight keyboard, although it's still fairly typical of its genre, with M Audio's Keystation Pro 88 at 21.4kg and Oberheim's MC1000 at 20kg. However, those intending to gig on a regular basis should bear this in mind (CME's semi-weighted 76-key version would possibly be more suitable at just 11.8kg).
The indented modulation and centre-sprung pitch-bend wheels both have a smooth positive action and are placed to the left of the keyboard for easiest access, while the transport, controller, and editing controls are ranged in groups from left to right across the top, leaving plenty of space for you to rest a computer keyboard on top (as suggested by the top-panel graphics, which mark out the outline of one on the right). Round the back, there's a standard MIDI Out, the sustain pedal input, footpedal input, breath-control input, a USB port for bi-directional connection to your computer, a power socket, and an On/Off power switch.
This last switch is tiny, and the cause of one of my few hardware grumbles — it's simply hard to find and operate. Power for the keyboard can be supplied via the USB connector, but aftertouch and breath control is only available when you plug in the supplied adaptor and power it from the mains supply. This provides 12V DC at 1.5 Amps, sufficient to power devices like Yamaha's BC3 breath controller. These normally require a 15V supply, which couldn't be easily derived from a USB connection. However, the USB socket still has its uses — the USB drivers provide an additional MIDI input to send SysEx setup files to the keyboard, and are supplied for Mac OS X 10.2/10.3 and Windows 2000/XP.
Audio Interface Option
The UF400E audio interface is an optional extra that wasn't available at the time of this review, although in fact I can tell you a lot about it, as CME have admitted that it's based on Terratec's Phase 24, which I reviewed in SOS May 2005. With a stereo pair of analogue balanced inputs and outputs, plus coaxial S/PDIF In and Out, MIDI In and Out, and a further unbalanced stereo out with level control suitable for a third or fourth line or headphone output, it supports sample rates up to 192kHz. I measured its dynamic range as a good 109dBA at 44.1kHz, and judged its audio quality as excellent for the price, and similar to M Audio's Audiophile 192 and ESI Pro's Julia.
However, the UF400E has some additional features not found on the Phase 24, including a mic preamp, a high-impedance guitar input, additional MIDI In, Out, and Thru sockets, and (yet another CME first) mLAN support, so it can be connected to one of Yamaha's digital mixers. I can't comment on the quality of the mic and guitar preamps, but judging by the parts of this audio package that I have tested, and its projected £150 UK price tag, I think this will be a very popular option.
Most people will head for the editing section first, where they'll find a three-digit, seven-segment display, Inc and Dec buttons, and an endless data dial (rotary encoder) with a 'collar' of 12 LEDs around its circumference to indicate its virtual position. By default, the display shows the current Program number, so a quick spin of the dial will select your sounds, and you can change the associated MIDI channel after pressing the Channel button. After a few seconds, the Program button will take priority once more, no matter what other function you have been using. The four velocity responses are displayed as 0, 1, 2, and 3 (described in the manual as Norm, Hard, Soft, and Wide), and Aftertouch can be disabled when not required.
There's a Transpose button for shifting up to ±12 semitones, and an Octave Shift button with a ±3 octave range. I find I rarely need to transpose an 88-note keyboard, but these two functions become a lot more useful when using the Split function to turn those 88 keys into two separate zones with different MIDI channel and voice settings. The split is at F#2 (note 54) by default, but you can push and hold the Split button and press any other note to alter this position.
The Dual mode button lets you send MIDI data on two simultaneous channels to layer sounds, but you can only use it when the Split mode is off. Although the manual doesn't mention this, I found you could also set the Transpose/Octave functions individually for zones and layers — with the Split/Dual functions off, you set the lower zone/layer, and once you activate one of them, the same buttons set the upper zone/layer.
The final editing button is Drawbar, which inverts the action of some faders (more on these in a moment), but there are several additional functions available from two-button combinations, including All Notes Off (panic), GM, GS, and XG modes, a MIDI demo, and several hidden ones that I'll come to later. Usefully the various buttons stay illuminated if they are set to non-default values, to remind you if your current setup is transposed, uses a non-linear response, or is in dual, split, or drawbar modes.
The controller section comprises eight rotary knobs across the top, each with two functions, and nine faders beneath them, with up to three functions, all controlled from the associated knob and fader function buttons. The eight rotary knobs are allocated to the controllers normally associated with cutoff frequency, resonance, envelope attack and release times, pan, reverb and chorus levels, and tempo. The last of these eight knobs starts sending MIDI Timing Clock data as soon as you move it, and is adjustable from 20 to 250bpm. You can stop this by powering down and up, or using the Reset function, although this latter method also resets any custom controller allocations you may have made.
Clicking on the Knob Function button to light its associated LED reallocates these eight knobs to Expression, Breath, Bank MSB, Bank LSB, and four more identical Expression controls, but this time you can define your own choices for any or all of them — to allocate your own choice of controller number, you hold down the Knob Function button, tweak the desired control, and then dial in the new controller number using the endless encoder and/or Inc/Dec buttons.
When no LED is lit next to the Fader Function button, the faders control Main Volume and the volume of MIDI channels 1 through to 8, while one click of the Function button lights the other LED alongside this button (shown overleaf). This leaves the Main Volume as before, but switches the other eight faders to controlling MIDI volume for channels 9 to 16.
Another click on the Function button lights the lower LED, which defaults to providing Expression control for the first eight channels, but all nine faders can now be reallocated to your own choice of controller numbers for the current MIDI channel. Operating the Drawbar mode mentioned previously forces the faders to a fourth set of fixed controllers from #13 to #20, and inverts their action to act as organ drawbars with suitable instruments.
If you've defined new controller settings for the user-defined rotary and slider knobs, you'll be pleased to hear that they survive power down, although you can at any time return the UF range to its factory default settings. There are also a couple of 'secret' functions not mentioned in the manual that should be extremely popular — pressing Drawbar and Channel dumps every keyboard setting as a SysEx file that you can save using your sequencer or a SysEx utility, while pressing Aftertouch and Dual waits for a SysEx dump in the other direction when using the USB drivers. Together they make it far easier to save and restore various different setups.
The remote sequencer transport controls comprise ReturnToZero, Rewind, Fast Forward, Record, Stop, and Play, and PC templates are provided to set them up for use within Cubase, Nuendo, Logic, Cakewalk Pro Audio and Sonar on the PC (but there are none yet for Mac users).
For most musicians buying an 88-key controller, the feel of the keyboard is arguably more important than any other function. I first tried out the UF8 keyboard at this year's Frankfurt Musikmesse show, which was ideal, as I was able to compare it directly with other weighted hammer-action keyboard controllers from companies including Doepfer, Fatar, M Audio, and Oberheim, as well as a selection of acoustic upright and grand pianos.
I personally found the feel of the UF8 better than or at least as good as any of the other controllers I tried. It has a positive feel with the right amount of initial resistance, give, and rebound. The action is sensibly not graded (ie. heavier in the lower registers, and lighter at the top) because this controller is not intended solely for triggering piano sounds. The action is reasonably light as well, and felt fairly similar in this respect to the majority of 'real' pianos I tried (I've never agreed with those that think that weighted keyboards should come with a free Charles Atlas bodybuilding course). However, opinions on keyboard actions are very personal, and while many other players who have tried the the UFs seem to agree with my view, one did report that the UF8 felt a little 'spongy', so you should try it before you buy it if possible.
Of the four velocity responses, I found the default, Norm, to be by far the most useful, as it provides the widest and most linear range of expression, although I did find it a little difficult to achieve velocity values over 70 using this mode. The Hard curve hikes the velocity values resulting from quiet playing upwards, to make it easier to get to the 'harder' end of the dynamic range, and the Soft curve makes it very easy to generate high velocity values of 70 and over even when playing softly (this is ideal for drum sounds). Wide combines both of these characteristics for aggressive results. However, if none of these responses is to your taste, then you should know that CME are hoping to release their own software utility in the future which will allow you to tweak them.
I also had the chance to try out the semi-weighted synth actions of the smaller UF models, and to me they felt similar to my Korg M1, with a light but positive action, and a sudden 'give', rather than the 'pushing down on a spring' feel of many budget keyboards. I expect them to be very popular for those who require fewer keys.
The aftertouch is excellent on all four models, allowing a smooth and controllable increase from 00 to 7F for expressive results, rather than the 'on/off' effect of many keyboards I've played. When I plugged in my trusty Yamaha BC1 breath controller, it worked perfectly with the UF8, outputting data by default on MIDI controller 2 for adding expression to suitable sounds (although it's easy to reallocate it to any other controller number, such as expression or filter frequency, for other purposes).
I did initially have a hitch using my VP3 volume pedal (distributed in the UK by BCK). When plugged into the UF8, it only generated MIDI controller values from FF down to about 46. However, after a little Internet research I discovered that there are two pedal-wiring options — the VP4 and many other pedals do work perfectly with the UF8, while those whose pedals have polarity switches can solve this issue in a moment. My problem was cured after five minutes' work with my soldering iron to swap the ring and tip connections on the VP3 output jack.
The UF8's own rotary and slider controllers felt smooth and reliable, and I found the user-definable controller settings quick and easy to reallocate. However, CME should perhaps consider dropping the detents on their rotary pots, since while having a central 'click' is perfect for pan controls and the like, they do make it slightly more difficult to achieve smooth sweeps over the whole range for other parameters.
Sadly, I wasted some hours trying to get the transport controls to work in Cubase SX using the supplied template before I discovered on the CME forum that you have to be using the USB drivers (the standard MIDI output sends out different data from these buttons that may work with other software, but doesn't with Cubase). Once I'd installed the USB drivers under Windows XP, the two banks of faders worked well with the Cubase mixer, and all the buttons finally burst into action, although the Stop button caused the song position pointer to jump backwards. Thankfully I was able to download a revised template posted by a CME forum user that cured this problem.
Overall, while there have been a few teething troubles with both drivers and templates, I've been extremely impressed by how quickly CME are sorting them out and responding to user suggestions for new features and improvements. Even on the day I was due to send in my review, an updated driver cured two problems, so I could delete the paragraph discussing them!
During my personal search for an 88-key keyboard controller, I've investigated models from Doepfer, Fatar, Korg, Kurzweil, M Audio, Novation, Oberheim, Roland, and Yamaha — there's never been more competition for the market at which the CME range is aimed, and new MIDI controllers are seemingly being released on an almost monthly basis.
If you don't need aftertouch, you may be sorely tempted by M Audio's Keystation Pro 88 (reviewed in SOS October 2004) with its greatly increased complement of knobs and sliders, especially at its cheaper street price (around £320 in the UK). However, if, like me, you want aftertouch, the options narrow considerably. Oberheim's MC1000, at about £450, provides the same range of basic features, but only has two real-time slider controllers and no USB support, while Doepfer's LMK2+ has no knob and slider controllers at all, and is built into a sturdy flightcase for the gigging musician, but is considerably more expensive at £750. None of these offer an optional audio interface or a breath-controller input.
Overall, CME's UF8 looks good, feels good, has responsive aftertouch, the versatility of a breath-controller input, and quite enough knobs, sliders, and buttons for most musicians. And at its bargain UK price of £430, the arrival of the CM8 means that my search for the right controller is finally over.