Keith McMillen's idiosyncratic controllers go from strength to strength — and in this case do so with a spectacular blaze of colour...
Hardly a week goes by these days without a new performance controller of some sort coming along to jockey for a spare port on your USB hub. In the early days of MIDI we lugged around heavy controller keyboards, grateful for pitch-bend and modulation wheels to add a bit of expression to our playing, and while MIDI control devices have been around for a quarter century or so, it's taken a long time for non-keyboard controllers to properly establish themselves in the music-tech ecosystem.
The journey into the mainstream for controllers has been helped by a number of factors: the emergence of software instruments encouraging real-time control, the DJ/VJ performance scene, and technological advances (including USB) allowing ever-more sophisticated devices to be made relatively cheaply. By and large, though, today's controllers can be traced back to earlier (and more expensive) archetypes: MIDI fader boxes, drum machines (including the iconic Akai MPC series) and vinyl turntables. One thing that has changed, though, is that today's units are almost invariably festooned with multi-colour LEDs: one cannot go on stage without at least one small box flashing away on a table (and I have to say: quite right too).
The QuNeo sports a selection of pads of various shapes and sizes, and each of the pads is equipped with various selections of LEDs. The device itself is the same size as an iPad, and equally thin, so it will apparently fit into iPad holder accessories. (The edges are vertical, like an iPad 1.) The QuNeo weighs less than my iPad 3, due to its plastic casing and the lack of battery, glass screen and most of the rest of what makes up an iPad. The device is USB bus-powered via a micro-USB socket on the left-hand edge (the same place as the 30-pin connector on an iPad) and, also like an iPad, there's no reason why the QuNeo can't be operated hand held, although the cable connector is in a slightly awkward spot. The device does have a tendency to flex slightly, which would worry me in a more conventional mechanical controller, but I had no reliability issues during the review period.
The heterogeneous layout of the pads on the QuNeo is novel, but not unfamiliar. Most of the area is occupied by a four-by-four pad matrix — just like a drum machine — while the remaining space is filled with fader-like strips, buttons on their own or in pairs, and a couple of circular discs that the documentation calls 'rotaries'. Nothing is labelled, but everything visually resembles parts of other, more conventional, control surfaces. The QuNeo has no moving parts as such: all the panels respond to pressure and — in all cases except for the small buttons — position. The 'drum pads' (as we'll call them for the remainder of the review) are raised above the front panel while the 'faders' and rotaries are recessed. At this stage, it might be a good idea to plug the QuNeo into a computer to see what happens...
The QuNeo ships without any software or documentation; a leaflet in the box gives download details for these, and also warns against using the device before running the installer. In fact, the QuNeo is MIDI class-compliant and will happily generate MIDI once you've plugged it in, although you're unlikely to get very far without the downloaded application templates and at least a cursory look through the manual. (The installer does contribute some DAW support, such as a controller script for Ableton Live.) Pressing pads at this point should, though, cause LEDs to come on: the QuNeo's presets generally default to MIDI 'local control on', meaning that control gestures are reflected in the LED displays.
The 'fader' pads each contain eight staggered LEDs, ranging in colour from green at the low end to red at the high, which illuminate to indicate current position. Even though the LEDs are variable brightness, this visual indication is pretty coarse — nowhere near as accurate for eyeballing as physical or on-screen faders — and only really useful for a general level indication. (The generated MIDI is full resolution, though: I was able to get pretty much every value from zero to 127 out of a fader.) The long horizontal fader under the drum pads has 17 LEDs, the centre one being a distinctive blue. This fader also supports two-finger gestures for 'width', although it's harder to control that accurately when playing.
The rotaries can operate like physical rotary encoders, or like knobs — both infinite encoder and absolute value modes are supported. Current position is indicated by a red LED at the rim (there are 12 indicated positions), and the rim lights up while you touch and 'rotate' a disc with your finger.
Although it's impossible to tell without hooking up some MIDI monitor software (or reading the manual), every pad on the QuNeo — right down to the buttons — is pressure sensitive. Each pad can output a continuous controller indicating pressure, and can also output MIDI note messages (with velocity) when pressed. Since it takes a certain amount of pressure to trigger a note, there is some latency involved and the process feels slightly sluggish; MIDI controller output is much more responsive. When it comes to the drum pads, pressure response is more significant, and LED feedback is more sophisticated.
The drum pads can operate in either of two modes, which we'll discuss shortly, but press on a pad and you should — depending on the preset — see LEDs come on at each corner. All LEDs are variable brightness, and glow to indicate pressure on a continuous basis. Move your finger around the pad and the LEDs will vary both in brightness and colour, as the QuNeo determines finger position. And, as you'd expect, the pads generate note information as well as controller data.
Like MIDI keyboards from the olden days, the QuNeo believes in a 'local control' MIDI setting. When set to 'on', the LEDs respond to pad pressure, showing fader position, drum pad trigger, button press and so on. When off, the LEDs are de-coupled and do nothing by default: it's up to the host software to generate MIDI to drive them (useful, for example, for a visual step sequencer, or rotaries used purely as value indicators). The local control setting is local to each set of controls, so (for example) faders might light up automatically on touch while pads are driven remotely.
The QuNeo also supports 'bank switching': when enabled, the arrow-shaped button pairs don't send MIDI, but switch between four banks of values for their corresponding controller, lighting up to indicate the current bank. The bottom-most arrow buttons can bank-switch the vertical faders as a group, the long fader, or the rotaries; the rotaries also have a dedicated multi-colour bank-switch button.
The drum pads operate in one of two modes. In Drum Mode a pad transmits pressure as well as X and Y position of the press: that's three MIDI controller streams from one pad, plus note-on/note-off. In Grid Mode a pad is divided into quarters, each of which transmits its own pressure and note information, but not location: in effect, you sacrifice location but get four controls in place of one. Each pad has its own mode setting, so you can have 16 location-aware drum pads, or a grid of 64 pressure-sensitive quarters, or any combination of the two.
The QuNeo is loaded with 16 presets. Each preset determines the MIDI messages transmitted by each pad, turns MIDI local control on or off per control group, enables or disables bank switching, and sets the input modes of the pads. Each preset is documented in the manual, so there's nothing to stop you firing up your DAW, dialling up a preset, dropping into your software's MIDI learn mode and mapping some controls. The QuNeo's pads send out multiple controller messages at once, making mapping difficult. To get round this, the QuNeo has a special mapping mode which temporarily separates the controllers, allowing them to be mapped in turn.
If you're not in the mood for doing your own mapping, downloadable templates support the most popular DAWs (this list currently includes Ableton Live, Traktor, Battery, Reason, Serato, Mixxx and Logic). I fired up the template for Ableton Live to give the QuNeo a workout. There are two presets designed to work with this template: one for clip launching in Live's Session View, and one for drum triggering. Some Ableton scripting maps a section of the QuNeo's drum pads to a red control marquee in the Session View, much like that used for the Novation Launchpad and Akai's APC controllers, while fader pads are mapped to Live's mixer controls. The clip launch pads are 'doubled up' into Grid Mode (each pad controls four clips) which took a bit of getting accustomed to. The clip control seemed a little unresponsive, although Live's MIDI indicators showed data coming from the pads; this can be improved, to some extent, by editing the preset and tweaking the note velocity values. For drum triggering, the pads were a little laggy, with very slightly higher latency than the pads on the Akai LPD8 which I hooked up for comparison, but the QuNeo is putting out a lot more MIDI, and unless you're neurotic about controller response it's unlikely to be a problem.
For curiosity's sake, I created a new Live Set from scratch and tried setting up some controller mappings myself, modulating parameters in a couple of audio effects fed from some drum loops. The mapping process was a little fiddly, and the drum pad controller ranges were not terribly predictable, but the degree of sonic control available from even a single pad on the QuNeo was pretty amazing; and the QuNeo has 16 of these pads, allowing for some serious multi-finger action. What it lacks in accuracy, the QuNeo more than makes up for in gestural sensitivity.
The downloadable editor allows every last detail of the QuNeo's MIDI behaviour to be modified: the editor allows any of the 16 presets to be modified, saved to the QuNeo itself, or individually exported to disk. (There's no bank storage file format on the computer side.) A single editing window shows an image of the QuNeo pads overlaid with MIDI note and controller assignments, beside a panel of editing controls. The editing process is pretty straightforward, and, rather cleverly, the overlay text for all the pads varies according to the type of control being edited. Slightly annoyingly, edits are not immediately reflected on the device: you have to click the 'Audition Preset' button to load it. A keyboard shortcut would be nice, at least.
The editor provides the ability to tailor pressure sensitivity. Each group of pads has a sensitivity setting, while the drum pads have several controls for tweaking their response: a sensitivity adjustment for each pad, and note velocity thresholds, curve and corner isolation parameters for the drum pads as a whole.
The rotary pads can each operate in either continuous 'direction' mode (like an infinite encoder) or absolute 'location' mode (like a pot). In fact, when the rotaries are bank-switched, each bank can set its own mode for each encoder. In location mode, an active zone 'width' can be specified for controller pickup, to avoid value jumps: the LEDs are dimmed until pickup occurs. This feature isn't unknown in other MIDI controllers, but seeing it implemented here is a sign that the MIDI functionality has been thought through in detail.
The QuNeo is an impressive piece of design: its diminutive form encapsulates a well thought out and sophisticated MIDI implementation with plenty of options for gestural control, and the array of multicoloured LEDs means that it looks good, too. The unit's all-plastic construction means that it flexes slightly, so the build quality is a slight unknown, although I had no problems with it. The touch control requires some pressure to trigger notes, but pressure and location sensing works well enough, and the pad layout is intuitive and functional. The software support is comprehensive and the features are well documented.
Pressure sensing is, however, something of a 'Marmite feature': some people love it, others hate it. Personally, I like the degree of control offered when modulating instruments and effects with pressure pads, but am less enamoured of them as note (or clip) triggers.
While the QuNeo goes to some lengths to give visual feedback when its controls are operated, the LED displays are inevitably of low resolution, and you'll have to use your ears as well as your eyes to keep track of what's going on. On the other hand, the QuNeo does let you see — and change — lots of parameters at once, with an immediacy often lacking in other control devices (and in laptops).
If you like the idea of pressure pads as control inputs, have a fondness for flashing lights, and like controllers with decent MIDI intelligence, the QuNeo could be for you.