Cre8audio’s NiftyKEYZ case might just change your whole approach to modular.
One common way of explaining modular synthesis is to see it as the building of a custom synthesizer. The analogy can only take you so far because the result doesn’t look anything like what most people would recognise as a synthesizer. I mean, where’s the keyboard? NiftyKEYZ from Cre8audio aims to fill in the gaps between the modular and synthesizer keyboard worlds. It gives you an entire row of Eurorack modular built into a recognisably synthy keyboard form. It could be the bridge you need between your more traditional electronic music gear and modular.
While keyboards have been part of the East Coast modular journey since Moog and ARP, the West coast musings of Serge and Buchla have looked for music outside the keyboard paradigm. Eurorack has tended to play in both East and West theme parks, mixing ideas and concepts, and has subsequently de‑emphasised the role of the keyboard. So when I put the keyboard back at the centre in the shape of the NiftyKEYZ it felt a little disorientating. It made me realise that my collection of modules, in terms of synthesizer building, is entirely incoherent.
The NiftyKEYZ puts forward the idea of building a polyphonic synthesizer out of modules. But that idea assumes that you have multiples of the same module, which I don’t. And so, as I worked towards filling the four voices that the NiftyKEYZ could address, I found that I was building something very weird. I was mixing analogue and wavetable oscillators, different filter types, and I never seemed to have enough envelopes. The result was a polyphonic synthesizer the likes of which I had never heard, and that was tremendous.
The NiftyKEYZ is a chunky metal case and wooden‑ended 49‑note keyboard with a 112HP void for Eurorack modules. It has threaded rails and a decent power supply on flying bus cables. The keyboard is wired into various bits of CV functionality scattered across the front panel. There are four sets of CV and gate for running four voices of synthesizer magic if that’s what you want to do. CV is also generated from the keyboard’s velocity and channel aftertouch. There’s a mod wheel that can double as an LFO, and you can attach an expression pedal to get your feet involved in the action. With clocks, resets and multiples, the NiftyKEYZ is packed full of modular functionality.
There are two outputs with two summing inputs each. You can route out as a single mono, or dual mono, or a single stereo if you come from a stereo module. That works fine but the headphone output is exactly the same, which means if you have a single output you only hear it on one side of the headphones, or two mono outputs get panned hard left and right. That’s just a bit strange.
The Eurorack case with keyboard concept is not a new one. We reviewed the strikingly similar Waldorf KB‑37 in 2017. Now discontinued, the KB‑37 was a premium device with a Fatar keyboard that elegantly put forward the same idea of building a synthesizer out of modular. However, it was expensive and designed around a single channel of MIDI‑to‑CV, which made it both limited and out of reach of more budget‑conscious people wanting to dabble in modular from the safety of the synth format. NiftyKEYZ addresses all that straight on by having more keys, more HP, and more MIDI‑to‑CV voices in a more affordable package. It doesn’t feel as premium as the KB‑37 but it makes up for that in the functionality.
The NiftyKEYZ is wide enough for all sorts of things. You could drop in a semi‑modular and a bunch of effects and utilities. At 112HP it’s not quite wide enough for two Moog semis but it would eat up a Mother‑32, Strymon Magneto and Beads. There are 14 power connectors so that’s easily four oscillators, four filters, a quad‑VCA, a couple of dual envelopes and an effect. But it does depend on how wide your modules are.
The MIDI‑to‑CV engine provides four channels of CV/gate that you can then patch into your chosen array of modules. There are different voice modes, so you can run all four in unison, run two voices where you have two pairs of unison, and then there are three‑ and four‑voice modes where each note rotates through each channel.
Each mode was completely fascinating. It somehow managed to turn my messy thinking with my inconsistent range of modules into something quite brilliant. In unison mode, I found that my mismatched oscillators would playfully interact once I pulled the tuning together, and behaved like you’d expect them to with big sounds, wobbly detuning, and lush filtering. But this is modular and so nothing stays the same for long. As you fiddle about, each voice starts to find its own character within the single notes. You could be tuning to intervals, bringing in aftertouch to modulate waveforms, sharing or splitting filters or patching velocity into an effects module’s wet/dry mix.
Switching into other voice modes builds on the differences and creates these adventures in twisted polyphony, where every note feels like a different synthesizer. You can make a completely sensible polyphonic synthesizer if you wish, but where’s the fun in that?
The voice modes also allow you to split the keyboard in some very creative ways. In single‑voice mode you get channels 1 and 2 on the left and 3 and 4 on the right playing in unison for some bass and lead type action. In two‑voice mode you get the same split but each one is duophonic, playing each channel in turn. Three‑voice mode gives you a three‑note chord on the left or right with the spare fourth voice on its own for either a low chord and lead or bass and high chord configuration. Four‑voice mode doesn’t do any of the splitting nonsense and instead can become an auto‑chord, where you can teach it a chord and then play it with one finger.
The voicing in the NiftyKEYZ gives it a vast range of versatility. It pushes it into becoming quite a unique instrument of its own. As you start to work within the splitting structure it becomes very playable and inspiring. You’ll start experimenting with different module configurations. Maybe it works best for you as a pair of duophonic synths, a pad and lead machine, or one big fat bass sound. Or, if you’re like me, then it’s a delightfully confused collection of meandering threads that are a joy to play with.
NiftyKEYS comes with a built‑in arpeggiator with a few modes and a very welcome dedicated Latch button. The modes are simple enough with Up, Down, Up/Down and Random, which combine with a Range knob to explore higher octaves. It also has a Sequencer mode where you can pump in up to 32 notes and then trigger and transpose with a note press.
The voicing also comes into play here because you can disable the arpeggiator individually for each channel. So, you can rather wonderfully have arpeggiation going on with the left split zone while playing lead on the right.
The various voice modes and arpeggiation options are accessible as functions across the keyboard like you often find on MIDI controllers. There’s a Function button that must be lit in order to enable Function mode where you access the functions. It works well enough, but it’s also a bit clunky. The Function button doubles as the tempo indicator, so at a glance it can sometimes seem lit when it’s not. It requires a definite push to ensure it comes on, and then it blinks at you and drops out when you’ve done something, but you don’t always notice. Sometimes, when you change something, you find that it’s not actually in Function mode and you play an unexpected note or ruin your arpeggiation.
The Function section is also where you can change the mod wheel mode to LFO, change the LFO waveform, set clock divisions, transpose, set split zones, allocate arpeggiation, set MIDI channels and turn local on and off. Cre8audio supply a cheat sheet in the box which is like an overlay for the keyboard to further clarify where every single function is. It’s a really good touch.
So far I’ve focused on the modular side, but NiftyKEYZ is also a MIDI controller with both USB and physical MIDI ports. When connected to a DAW the NiftyKEYZ can operate as a regular MIDI controller. Perhaps more interestingly, you can use your DAW to independently sequence the four voice channels. The arp is also sent over MIDI and you can sync up via MIDI Clock.
Unfortunately, there are no CV‑to‑MIDI destinations. It might have been nice to pull some of your modular modulations into your DAW. The other slight snag is that MIDI is not involved in the keyboard splitting. So while I can play a MIDI synthesizer from the keyboard it’s always from the entire keyboard regardless of the voice mode or split mode I’m in. You also can’t turn off the arpeggiator for the MIDI port like you can with the CV/gate voices.
Otherwise, as a keyboard the feel is light, springy and reasonably responsive. If anything, the aftertouch is slightly too eager, but that is adjustable along with the expression pedal response.
I was making sounds and music in ways I don’t usually do with modular, and that felt exciting, subversive even.
While the nature of the product pulls you into building a contained synthesizer, there’s no reason why you should stand for that sort of thing. You could sit NiftyKEYZ in front of a towering rack of modular and patch it in and out of all sorts of places. Four channels of CV/gate playing, arpeggiating or MIDI sequencing could be enormously useful in many different configurations. Similarly, you could fill Nifty’s void with effects modules, utilities or logic gates; you don’t have to think of it in terms of a synthesizer.
However, what I really enjoyed in playing with the NiftyKEYZ was how it pushed me into ‘playing’ modules. It highlighted how different oscillators can be, how varied filters are and how I still never seem to have enough envelopes. I was making sounds and music in ways I don’t usually do with modular, and that felt exciting, subversive even.
NiftyKEYZ offers a safe and familiar route into modular experimentation and a creative bridge between MIDI and analogue worlds. For modular beginners it gives you a familiar framework, and for seasoned knob twiddlers it can slap you out of your sequenced ambient slumber and remind you of how much fun it is to play a synth.
The four channels and the voicing functions are very powerful and turn a simple modular controller into an interesting and versatile instrument that’s unique to every user. It has all the right stuff to make the most of a row of modular and is tied up in a solid and good looking form. I would have loved to have seen a more dedicated internal sequencer with step buttons that run along the strangely empty space between the keys and the modular row. That, or a ribbon controller. But what it has and what it does is brilliant as it is. While it is nicely priced for the level of functionality, don’t forget that you’ll also have to buy all the modules.
- Four‑voice MIDI‑to‑CV architecture.
- Keyboard splits and inspired voicing options.
- Aftertouch and velocity available as CV.
- You get to build your own unique instrument.
- MIDI doesn’t split across keyboard.
- Weird left/right headphone output.
- Function system prone to mishap.
NiftyKEYZ lets you build your own unique four‑voice modular synthesizer into a keyboard instrument that can form a bridge between your MIDI and CV worlds.