As someone who’s been in the business for 30 years you occasionally see an exciting new product that you know straight away is a gamechanger. I certainly felt this way as soon as I saw the CME Xkey. You might think that someone who is used to playing full 88 note weighted keyboards and pianos wouldn’t be interested in such a product, but this little keyboard addresses a number of issues faced by keyboardists, such as weight, size, portability, desk space, etc. The possibilities moving forward are huge.

Packaging and Build

The Xkey is designed and manufactured by Beijing company CME. The first thing you notice about the Xkey when it arrives is the whole luxury Apple-type experience that the manufacturers are going for. Packaging and product design are both reminiscent of Apple and the keyboard certainly sits well within a Mac setup. I’ve been sent the Xkey 37 to review – this one comes with a micro-USB cable although the Xkey AIR is also available (where you can also trigger iPad and iPhone via bluetooth).

I was concerned that the whole product might feel a little flimsy due to it’s weight but it’s pretty solidly built, with thick plastic keys and a brushed aluminium body. There is a slight bend if you’re not on a flat surface so I’d say that if you’re using it on a stand, to have some form of support underneath. The Xkey 37 weighs just 880g and with a depth of only 3.9mm it easily fits into a suitcase for the travelling musician.

Functionality

For someone who has travelled a lot, the fact that it’s USB powered is always a bonus – power supplies can really add to the bulk so the less items to carry the better. The keyboard is plug and play, being up and running within a couple of minutes of being lifted out of the box. Now that CME have released this 37 key version alongside their 25 key original, it’s much more appealing to pro musicians as in addition to writing, it’s possible to do two handed learning or practise while on the road.

The smart buttons on the side allow for octave change, pitch bend, modulation and sustain. They have a rubbery, pad finish but worked well without any issue (see video below).

Playability

For someone who is used to playing piano or weighted keyboards the Xkey can feel a little strange and take some getting used to, especially since everything is very flat with the black keys only slightly elevated above the white. When a note is pressed, the whole key depresses rather than angling downwards like a traditional keybed. This requires a high level of accuracy to avoid mis-hitting notes, but this can only be a positive since it trains you to be more precise in your playing. It can sound as though you’re typing as the keys emit a click similar to a computer keyboard, although quieter than the noise some digital piano keys make.

One of the more startling aspects of this keyboard is the fact that it’s touch sensitive – the full 128 degrees of expression. It also has aftertouch capability which really adds to it’s appeal and usability.

Extras

CME have just released the Xcable which features three connection options – MIDI, sustain pedal and expression pedal. For a pro player the ability to use a sustain is an absolute must and therefore this is a much-welcomed addition. Also if you’re like me with a few retro sound modules, the option of being able to plug in a MIDI cable is another huge bonus.

There’s an iPad app available for the Xkey Air that allows you to configure your settings from the screen, including assigning functions to keys and buttons and setting the velocity curve.

Summary

Keyboardists have longed for a more portable rig for years and this keyboard fulfils that need with a multitude of uses. It’s great for the tour bus and hotel room but can equally be used by producers in a compact studio setup to avoid the need for a pull-out drawer on your desk. I’d also use it as a second / third keyboard for gigging, for easy access to additional sounds and effects – with the minimal weight you can’t go wrong adding a couple of these to your live rig. It’s very versatile and certainly worthy of a place in your setup. Really looking forward to an 88 note version…

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