The CME VX8 is a particularly ambitious keyboard controller, with an ambitiously low price tag. It's a balancing act - so can CME pull it off?
Despite suspicions in certain quarters that they didn't actually exist, CME's long-awaited VX Intelligent Keyboard Controllers have finally made the transition from vapourware to hardware. Responding to musicians' demands for increasingly sophisticated control surfaces, the VX range aims to answer the growing need for comprehensive control of software instruments and 'traditional' MIDI instruments in both studio and on-stage environments. Of particular interest to computer musicians will be U-CTRL, a special operational mode that transforms the VX into a dedicated DAW remote-control surface. The range also introduces a 'world first' — motorised faders on a keyboard instrument. Four models are available: the VX5, VX6, and VX7 49-, 61- and 76-note synth-action keyboards; and the VX8, an 88-note, weighted, hammer-action keyboard. The VX communicates with your setup via USB and MIDI (or a combination of the two) and, as is increasingly becoming the norm, USB allows it to function as a stereo in, stereo out audio interface; particularly useful for anyone requiring only basic audio facilities, or perhaps for the travelling musician working with a laptop computer.
Immediately recognisable by its red lacquered livery and black plastic end cheeks, the VX8 (on review here) is quite a weighty instrument at 26.94kg, so make sure you 'bend ze knees' and keep your back straight when you lift this beastie! The control surface is neatly laid out, providing a generous complement of knobs, buttons and sliders with which to execute performance gymnastics and, of course, to navigate the VX's various functions. Performance controls on the front panel include eight centre-detented potentiometers, the lower eight of the function buttons, 12 velocity-sensitive 'drum pads', nine rotary encoders and nine faders, plus pitch and modulation wheels, global-octave shift and transpose buttons and a ribbon controller. All of the knobs, F1-F8 buttons, pads, faders, ribbon controller and mod wheel can be freely assigned to a wide variety of controller functions. A basic two-line LCD display is your window to the inner workings of the VX, so expect a fair amount of button pressing whilst navigating around the instrument's menus. An alpha dial, numerical keypad, inc/dec and cursor buttons provide the means for data entry and navigation, in collusion with the Enter button, the pressing of which is mandatory after every value you adjust — you will be using this button more than any other! The upper row of eight buttons access various modes and editing functions, whilst the six chunky transport buttons are primarily concerned with remote control of your DAW. Lastly, the enigmatically named, crescent-shaped U-CTRL button transforms the VX into a dedicated DAW control surface — and, as Kirsty Wark would say, more on that later.
The rear panel is well populated with connections, offering one MIDI input, four MIDI outs, a Breath Control input compatible with Yamaha BC breath controllers, two assignable footpedal/switch jacks, two mic/line input jacks with gain control, two line-out jacks, two headphone jacks with a shared output-level pot, two USB 1.1 hub ports (a welcome bonus in these times of proliferating USB dongles), a USB-to-computer port, and a PSU jack with power switch. The Breath Control and footpedal inputs, like virtually everything on the VX, are freely assignable across the gamut of MIDI controller possibilities. An expansion board blanking panel also resides here, whose existence is all but totally ignored by the manual. The CME web site reveals details of one of its potential uses, for the ASX, an Advanced Synthesis Expansion board which consists of four plug-ins: "the Minimax, a polyphonic replica of the analogue synth legend; the Lightwave, a wavetable-based virtual analogue synth with plenty of modulation possibilities; the B4000 organ, a precise model of the famous tonewheel organ; and the Vocodizer, a complex vocoder which is controlled via a dedicated microphone input." Also hinted at are a "sound module with sample function, analogue synthesizer module, Firewire audio interface module, digital mixing console module, etc", but no details were available on these at the time of writing.
Installing the VX as an audio and MIDI USB device should be straightforward. The computer sees the VX as a generic USB audio device, using your OS's standard drivers. Having enjoyed trouble-free USB connections with countless other musical instruments, I was a little concerned to encounter some problems here. When powering up everything from scratch, Sonar consistently failed to find the VX MIDI drivers. It was invariably necessary to close Sonar and reboot the VX before Sonar would add the MIDI drivers to its list of ports. More frustrating was that, when starting Sonar, the software reported the VX audio driver as either an incompatible format or 'in use by another application'. Attempting to run a song with the input or output of any Sonar audio track routed to the VX produced the same message. To test compatibility, I loaded the audio file I'd tried to play in Sonar into Adobe Audition, Soundforge and Windows Media Player and directed their outputs to the VX's USB audio driver. It played perfectly from the VX's audio output in all cases. Nevertheless, the audio driver was still unavailable to Sonar. Additionally, until I disabled the USB audio driver in Sonar's audio driver list, Windows frequently reported the VX as an 'unknown device', subsequently invoking the 'blue screen of death' and crashing Windows completely. A recent post on the VX user forum may throw some light (or not) on these issues; "The VX controllers are class-compliant USB devices and require no driver install. Rather, they use drivers that are built into OS X and Windows. This is true for both audio and MIDI features. Users basically connect their VX to the computer and the operating system recognises the hardware within a few moments. Occasionally a restart is required before the VX is available to software. Occasionally it has been noted that some PCs have issues with audio and MIDI over USB and users will need to troubleshoot settings, chip sets, etc, on their computer to find a solution."
The VX has 51 programmable presets, or 'Banks'; Bank 00 appears to be a sort of 'home' preset, but the manual is characteristically unforthcoming as to its intended purpose. All 51 Banks on the demo unit presented the same default assignments for all controls — no specialised templates were included for any particular software or hardware devices. The panel legending for the eight potentiometers and nine faders suggests predefined functions for them (see main photo), reflecting a bias towards General MIDI. As it happens, the first four knobs' labels did not match the functions actually programmed into the review unit, so I suspect their legending can be taken merely as a 'serving suggestion', or as an aide memoire for some of the most popularly chosen tasks you might assign to them. Personally, I would prefer to have some blank cut-out template cards to lay over the controls and label them myself. Indeed, if you want your instruments of choice to do your bidding, you'll probably need to start assigning the controls to meaningful destinations from the word go. This is a fairly intuitive procedure — simply press the Assign button, then each of the lower eight buttons takes you to each type of controller in turn, starting with the keyboard, pitch-bend and mod wheels. In common with everything to which you can assign a MIDI controller, the range values can be inverted and you can even send controllers to different MIDI channels and output ports, irrespective of the keyboard's channel and port assignment. For any assignable controller, there are 202 possible control options listed, 75 more than the standard 127. The additional 75 destinations provide control over esoteric functions such as pitch-bend sensitivity, sequencer transport, EQ, tune request and HPF cutoff frequency. However, not all these additional control destinations will work with all the VX's physical controllers. Fortunately, the manual contains a full list of controller destinations, with comments on what works with what.
The U-CTRL PDF for v1.08 lists compatibility with the following:
- U-CTRL MODE A:
Digital Performer 4
Acid Pro 6
Cubase SX 3.1
- U-CTRL MODE B:
Soundtrack Pro (Mac)
- U-CTRL MODE C:
Logic Pro 7 & Express 7
Further control assignment details of note are as follows: footpedals A and B can be assigned to any continuous or switch-type controller, with adjustable range. Aftertouch can be routed to any standard control destination, including polyphonic aftertouch, which will be good news to many, with a choice of 10 preset aftertouch curves. The F1-F8 function buttons are particularly versatile, being individually assignable to transmit program changes, controllers or note numbers (with specified velocity.) When sending controller data using the F1-F8 buttons or drum pads, two values can be specified — one for when the button is pressed, the other for when it's released. An 'off' option is also available for either action — ie. if either value is set to 'off', then nothing occurs for that action. Likewise, the sequencer transport buttons and velocity-sensitive drum pads can be assigned to transmit notes or the full range of controller data. The rotary encoders and faders can only send controller data, again across the whole range of possibilities listed in the manual. It's also worth noting that all controllers always appear at USB output port 1 in the VX's normal 'Master' playing mode, as well as being independently routable to any of the four hardware MIDI out ports.
When editing controller assignments, the crucial thing to remember is to always hit 'enter' after changing any value, otherwise the change is lost the moment you jump to a new editing page. It's annoying at first, but you eventually get used to it. There's one other niggling point in Assignment mode: when you're adjusting controller settings the display instantly reverts to the keyboard's assignment page whenever the keyboard is played. This can be absolutely infuriating when you simply want to play the keyboard to check the results of
your editing, as you have to navigate all the way back to where you were to carry on twiddling.
Pressing the Master button puts the VX into its normal playing mode, from where the 51 Banks can be selected. On playing the keyboard, the display changes from showing the Bank name to showing an instrument name and program change number, with MSB and LSB values (this is the initial program change sent when the Bank is selected). The eight buttons F1F8 also transmit program changes (with associated GM instrument names) and these can be set up and stored with a Bank, so each Bank gives access to eight further sounds of your choosing. This is all indispensable for the GM-ophile, but if, like me, you have an aversion to such things, it would be nice to know that unwanted program changes could be prevented from reaching non-GM instruments whenever you change Banks on the VX. Curiously, there seems to be no way of disabling program change transmission, so you'll have to disable its reception on the target instrument. Incidentally, if you do change sound using the F1-F8 buttons, the only ways to return to the Bank's initial 'root' sound are either to re-select the current Bank (requiring several button presses) or spin the alpha dial until you find the sound in question. Hmmm.... Elsewhere on the visual feedback front, whenever you adjust a controller, the display helpfully updates to show the controller's name, rank and serial number, er, I mean controller type, MIDI channel and value.
During actual performance, several issues emerged, some of which may be addressable with software updates and some of which won't be so easily overcome. The VX8 keyboard itself has what I'd rate as a medium to heavy action, being more 'puddingy' than a well-adjusted real piano, yet fairly typical of many weighted electronic keyboards. The default keyboard velocity curve (normal) requires a great deal of effort to play, with velocity values averaging only around 70 with fairly hard playing and reaching a maximum of 115 with extreme heavy-handedness. This can be adjusted by selecting one of 10 preset velocity curves, of which the lightest, 'Hard 2', felt the most natural to me. Despite this, reaching velocity 127 still required particular effort, and even then it was not consistent (see the 'VX Brain Utility & Firmware Updates' box). I noticed that high velocities were most difficult to achieve consistently on the black notes, with an accompanying tendency for random 'sogginess', as well as unexpected random high velocities. I also found that moving controller knobs while playing could sometimes cause random high velocity values to occur across the keyboard generally. Continuing the velocity theme, I found the drum pads really have to be hit dead-centre, otherwise the velocity is impossible to control accurately, and can be so low that they appear not to have triggered. On several occasions, a pad would fail to transmit a 'note off' and became stuck. This led me to the Utility/F8 page, whose purpose is to send an 'all notes off' message, only to find that it didn't work.
I was initially thrown by the default choice of sustain-pedal polarity, which was opposite to that of my Yamaha and Roland pedals. Fortunately it can be changed in the Utility menu, but this, as well as your choice of keyboard velocity curve, must be stored for each Bank. Ideally, the default sustain-pedal polarity should be a global setting applicable to the whole instrument.
The ribbon controller's behaviour also gave me cause for concern. Firstly, the ribbon requires considerable pressure to engage it. Secondly, there is no 'dead spot' in the centre, making it very hard to position your finger on an accurate 'zero' value when controlling bi-polar parameters such as pitch-bend. This makes performing positive guitar-like vibrato difficult, as you have no 'zero zone' to work from. Worst of all, though, when you apply pressure to the ribbon, it sends out a brief positive burst of data rather than jumping cleanly to the appropriate value according to the point of pressure. The effect in the case of pitch-bend is that the pitch jumps high momentarily, then settles at the pressure-point value — just like a positive pitch envelope every time you press the ribbon. This is the case whatever the ribbon is controlling: pitch, filter cutoff, you name it. This is simply shoddy design.
The F1-F8 Function buttons are also missing a crucial feature. I wanted to set up a Bank to control Native Instruments' B4 II, and successfully assigned the faders to control the drawbars inversely — so far, so good. Next, I wanted to assign the F1-F8 buttons to toggle the switchable parameters, such as overdrive, vibrato and percussion on/off. However, I could find no option to make these buttons latchable — ie. to make them alternately send values of 0 and 127 each time you press the button. This means that you have to keep your finger depressed on the button for as long as you want the particular feature to be active. That's plain daft and makes the VX unsuitable for this sort of application.
In U-CTRL mode, the VX receives fader automation data from the first eight tracks of your DAW program and reproduces them as physical fader movements. A very useful feature — or is it? On automated mixing consoles, the great benefit of moving faders is that you can interact with them. In other words, when the console is in 'update' mode you can interrupt a fader's motion, pushing it to new positions, and those changes are memorised for future passes. Therein lies a problem with the VX — the manual issues dire warnings of damage to the keyboard (and even the risk of fire or electric shock!) if you interfere with a fader's movement in this way. When faders in Sonar, for example, are enabled for automation recording, you can modify any previously recorded fader envelope by simply interrupting the on-screen fader's motion, and the envelope is automatically updated until you let go. Try this using the VX faders, however, and they strain against your movements, slavishly following the existing fader envelope, and the envelope remains unchanged. You can update Pan envelopes using the VX's rotary encoders, so surely it should be possible to allow the VX's faders to update an automation envelope in the same way as the on-screen faders?
With this valuable aid to mixing made unavailable, the VX's moving faders are reduced to little more than a flashy and noisy display of information which is otherwise clearly shown on your computer monitor, adding unnecessary cost (and the potential for mechanical failure) to the instrument. As a result, the feature could be seen as pretty much redundant.
The VX keyboard can be divided into up to four zones, each assignable to its own channel and MIDI output port. The distribution of notes across zones is slightly odd, in that while zones two and three can freely occupy any part of the entire note range, zone one's lowest note is anchored at 0 (C-2) and zone four's highest note is anchored at 127 (G8). This means that zone one has to be the lowest zone and zone four the highest — although the manual won't tell you this. Each Zone can be given its own velocity range, transpose and octave-shift values, but their independence ends there — pitch and modulation wheels operate globally across all four zones, with no option to disable them per zone. Even more inconvenient is that the foot controllers also operate globally across all zones, meaning that all instruments will 'hold' when the sustain pedal is pressed. Piano and bass sustaining together? That's going to sound messy. Curiously, although each zone's detailed settings can be saved to a Bank, their individual on/off status is not, nor does the VX remember Zone Mode's overall on/off condition, and the zones' states remain as last set regardless of the Bank selected, which somewhat reduces the VX's efficacy as an on-stage master controller.
In the 'standalone' Automation Mode, the VX can record up to eight tracks of moving-fader automation using its inbuilt automation sequencer. This must be done track by track as a series of overdubs. Each track must be recorded from the beginning — you cannot navigate within the 'song' and drop in to make amendments, and previously recorded tracks' fader moves are not reproduced while you are recording the next, so there are no visual cues as to what the other tracks are doing. Your recorded moves are retained on power-down, and can be revisited next time you turn on the VX. OK, I'm so sticking my neck out here, but I just can't see the point of this. The automation sequencer records only fader moves, so you're not doing this in context with any music — and any attempt to MIDI-sync the VX with a song running in my sequencing program on the computer came to nothing (the VX does not appear to send any MIDI clock in this mode, even though it was turned on in the Utility menu). Yes, the fader movements are sent out over MIDI on playback, but there is simply no context for them. If there are any practical applications for this feature, the manual is keeping quiet about them — all it essentially tells you is that in this mode, 'you can record fader movements.' There is seemingly only room for one set of recordable automation, which limits its usefulness even further.
This is not, as you might expect, a mode in which you perform on the keyboard, but an editing page that allows you to 'force' the keyboard to play in a variety of musical scales — 41, to be precise, which include Major (the normal chromatic scale) Whole-tone, Half-tone, Blues, Augmented, Balinese and Hungarian, to name but a few. The keyboard temperament can also be changed from equal temperament to one of 12 Arabic tunings. This is done by adding tiny amounts of pitch-bend data to the note data, but will only work if pitch-bend reception is 'on' for the target instrument. However, the manual doesn't say what the receiving instrument's bend range should be set to for the correct result — and without that knowledge, it all becomes rather meaningless. And why there are 12 Arabic tunings but none of the classic temperaments, such as Werkmeister, Kirnberger or Valotti and Young, is something of a mystery.
At the time of writing, a firmware update to version 1.08 was downloadable from the CME website at www.cme-pro.com, along with the VX Brain utility program. This PC-only utility provides the means to update the VX's firmware via its USB connection, as well as providing a tool to sculpt your own custom velocity curves using a simple graphical interface. These curves can be saved in addition to the 10 preset curves installed in the VX — a welcome feature that helps provide a more personalised playing experience, although it should be noted that the velocity tool will only work with version 1.08 or higher. A similar tool to customise key aftertouch would have been equally useful — perhaps this will follow in a future software update? Style Seq songs and standard MIDI files (format zero only) can also be transmitted to the VX using VX Brain and saved to any of the Style Seq song locations, although these are restricted in size to 64K per file.
I should mention that a major problem arose when I set about updating the 1.04 firmware of the review VX. The downloadable update on the CME site was (and, at the time of writing, remains) corrupted and unzippable, so I followed a link in the user forum and downloaded the equivalent files posted by one of CME's technical support team. After precisely following the detailed instructions in the PDF file that accompanies the downloaded firmware, the VX failed to update as expected, despite the LCD reporting a successful update. Alarmingly, the faders' motors were stuck straining at their extremes of travel (visions of a conflagration were foremost in my mind) and the unit was totally unresponsive — both to its own controls and to any attempt to reapply the update. The VX was subsequently replaced with one containing firmware version 1.05, and taking into consideration that the 1.08 firmware file I had may also have been corrupted, I thought it unwise to attempt any further updates! Of necessity, this review is therefore based around version 1.05, and while some of the negative software-related points I've raised may be addressed in 1.08 or later, this remains unknown.
The manual's explanation of Style Seq Mode is nothing short of incomprehensible. It is, in fact, a form of playback-only auto-accompaniment feature designed for performing pre-programmed MIDI song files in the proprietary 'Pad Style' format, that are imported to the VX via USB. These can be interactive, using the drum pads to trigger additional phrases and loops, but again the manual assumes the concepts are already understood and offers no tuition or practical explanation of the various functions Style Seq is supposed to provide. The review VX had 10 demo Style Seq songs on board, the first nine of which simply demonstrated some 'marching fader' routines accompanied by a basic drum pattern. The 10th demo was a cringeworthy GM version of Madonna's 'Hung Up', wittily entitled 'Huang Up'. Imported format-zero MIDI files that are not in 'Pad Style' format will also play as normal songs, while ready-made Style Seq songs and even interactive educational music games can apparently be downloaded from the Internet, though I could find none with which to evaluate this feature.
U-CTRL enables the VX control surface to function exclusively as a hardware DAW controller. When in U-CTRL mode, the VX mutes all activity at USB port 1 and solely addresses USB port 2, using this port to communicate with the host DAW. In versions of the VX firmware below 1.08, only one U-CTRL mode is available, which uses the Mackie Universal Control template found on most DAWs. Successful operation has been reported for both Cubase and Logic, but Sonar doesn't recognise the VX as a Mackie controller prior to version 1.08, nor is Pro Tools supported. Fortunately, I found help on the VX user forum, where one post recommended trying third-party Mackie Control emulation software such as Wisemix's MCmµ for Windows (www.wisemix.com) or Opuslocus's LC Xmu for Mac OS (www.opuslocus.com), which allow customised mapping of U-CTRL messages. In these cases, a virtual MIDI cable is required to enable the Mackie control emulator to communicate with the host DAW, so I grabbed the bull by the horns and installed both Wisemix MCmµ and Jeff Hurchalla's freeware Maple Virtual MIDI Cable (www.hurchalla.com). After some initial head scratching, everything fell into place and U-CTRL worked perfectly. Automation recording on Sonar could be performed directly from the VX controls, and recorded VX fader movements were reproduced faithfully on playback (see 'Motorised Faders' box). Firmware version 1.08 apparently provides three U-CTRL modes with a greatly expanded list of compatible programs, including direct communication with Sonar, presumably obviating the need for additional emulation programs or virtual MIDI cables.
Being in the market for a versatile, high-spec master keyboard, I had really high hopes for the VX, yet ultimately found it to be a disappointment. On the plus side, the VX offers a wealth of control possibilities, and in many areas it performs well. U-CTRL will prove to be appealing to some users, although being able to address more than eight sequencer tracks would be of more practical use to others. The benefit of having moving faders is questionable considering the limitations explained earlier, so the factor of the extra cost they impose is one that prospective buyers will have to weigh up for themselves. I also feel the target market for the VX is slightly muddled — the emphasis on GM, for example — and the Style Seq feature is a classic example of a manufacturer over-complicating technology by cramming in novelty features. Interactive educational games are all well and good, but seem out of place on a 'professional' instrument. The VX is also let down by a number of gaffes which could have been avoided, and although many of these could be addressed with software updates, it would be taking a gamble that those updates would ever be implemented — and so the instrument is, from a purely personal viewpoint, not a viable choice in its current state.