Berkeley, California's Keith McMillen Instruments (KMI) has a solid reputation for innovation in an industry sometimes known for releasing products that are often just another variation on a common design. The QuNeo is unlike any other pad controller available, the SoftStep takes MIDI foot controllers to the next level, and the 12 Step fills a niche that has been ignored for far too long. All of them weigh in at a pound or less, easily fit into a computer bag with a laptop, are impossibly thin, yet still feel very durable.
Apparently they are.
The KMI website features video of employees dousing products with beer, throwing them out two-story windows, smashing them with watermelons (big ones), driving over them with cars, and putting them right back into action — considerably more than I felt comfortable doing with the review units. Each device is conveniently USB bus-powered. KMI also makes the MIDI Expander, an inexpensive breakout box that converts USB to traditional five-pin MIDI, which gives the user plenty of backwards compatibility and hardware options. It costs a bit less than other USB-to-MIDI converters but only works with KMI products. It does work flawlessly though. Plug and play. Other adapters allow easy connection to an iPad.
The first clue that these are products for the "Laptop Generation" comes upon opening the box. No software or documentation comes with the units, save a small pamphlet, which instructs you to go online for the manual and installer. Considering how many discs I send to the landfill each year, I appreciate this, but since these are definitely RTFM products, I went ahead and printed the manual. I'm still old-fashioned enough that I prefer to figure things out with paper in hand.
I set up the QuNeo with Live, Logic, Reason, Animoog, and Pro Tools. Starting is easy, since you can download templates for popular DAWs, but you can go considerably deeper with your own mapping assignments, if you're inclined. I assume most will, after spending some time with the QuNeo, since customization is where the magic lies.
There was a slight learning curve with Live, since it was the first program I used, but a lot of what I learned about setup translated to the other programs, except Pro Tools, which I bailed on, out of frustration — though I'm not ready to blame KMI for that.
There are many grid controllers available to consumers, but what makes the QuNeo unique is its layout of differently-shaped trigger pads, beyond the prerequisite array of squares. It's a compact surface that still feels organized. Nothing is labeled, but the layout itself is a mnemonic. Square pads obviously lend themselves to percussion trigger assignments, while circles, strips, and triangles can be assigned to volumes, pan, start, stop, or whatever your intuition tells you. In fact, the "rotary" controls are also pads. They can be set to sense circular movements so you can "spin" them, in the virtual sense; although difficult to explain, there are more than enough video examples floating around the Internet showing DJs in action, to get the point across. If you'll pardon the pun, the most striking feature is that the sixteen square pads not only respond to note on/off and velocity, but also lateral movements. Put another way, each pad also functions as an X/Y controller. Alternately, each pad can be subdivided into quarters, so its four corners each function as a trigger, for a total of 64 trigger points. The LEDs illuminate in different colors, depending on where, how fast, or how hard you hit the triggers. I'll leave it to the performer to decide whether or not this kind of feedback is useful, but I have to tell you, it looks really cool, and cool can be very inspiring. Since the QuNeo community seems to be both clever and communicative, the Internet is awash with ideas and seemingly limitless hacks that I didn't have time to explore. I am very interested in its use as a step sequencer though.
I have to admit, out of all of three of these, the 12 Step was my favorite. While the QuNeo and the SoftStep are exceptional interpretations — and genuine improvements — of other devices that are available, there aren't many keyboard-layout foot controllers on the market. Of the available choices, most are expensive and bulky — fine if you plan on depending heavily on one in your Prog Rock band, but what about something for the musician that only occasionally needs to trigger notes by foot? I've gone so far as to build one myself ("Die MIDIFraü" — complete with grammatically incorrect umlaut), out of a Hammond organ bass pedal-to-MIDI kit and some off-the-shelf Roland momentary switches, but the 12 Step is much more sophisticated than my own creation and considerably more portable than any other option I know of. I assume most people will be using this with their laptop or iPad, but I ran it through its paces with hardware synths, using the MIDI Expander. No software was necessary to just plug it into a Moog Voyager [Tape Op #40] and trigger notes. I made a very compact, portable bass synth rig by using it with an old 1/3-rackspace Alesis MIDI Bass module, which gave useful bass sounds that I could access with the simple turn of a knob. A quick, cheap, easy, reliable, portable bass pedal solution like this may not be what KMI had in mind as a primary use when they developed the 12 Step, but it is a much underserved market. I only had the chance to use the mini rig once before starting this review, and I only played E, A, and D supporting bass notes in a few songs over the course of the gig, but I definitely enjoyed projecting some gut-rumbling low end with the tap of a toe, and will again. Each key can send up to five notes of polyphony, so if you want to, say, trigger an Am7 when you push the A key, or stack some octaves, or 5ths, it can easily be done. Additionally, each key responds to pressure, velocity, and (y axis) tilt — so pitch bend, volume, or modulation can be employed, along with note trigger. I'm sure clever people with excellent balance will be able to utilize these features better than I could. 12 Step also functions as a clip launcher for hardware and software samplers. With small bands touring lighter, from both a personnel and equipment standpoint, the 12 Step fills many voids and solves more than a few problems related to realizing your studio creations in a live setting. I was delighted with it.
Somewhere in the middle lies the recently updated SoftStep. At first glance, it looks like a ten-pad MIDI foot controller, but like the other devices, each pad is multi-assignable and responds to commands along both the X and Y axes. That means each pad can be assigned to send out up to six data streams. In short, it's not your father's MIDI footswitch. Much has been written about how the first version of the SoftStep can work with virtual instruments, so I connected it to a popular guitar multi-effect from the '90s and created banks. Within them, I assigned some buttons for effect on/off, and others for parameter control. Again, I kept it simple, but the possibilities are vast. As an example, within one bank, the first four pads could select between four presets, while four more could switch effects on and off within the preset (distortion, reverb, delay, envelope filter), while the last two controlled the parameters of a particular effect, say, using the X/Y of one pad to control the envelope filter as a wah, and the other to control feedback and width of the delay (up/down, left/right), giving options for "playing" delay effects beyond what traditional expression pedals have allowed. Of course, the SoftStep can be used for clip launch, triggering specific notes (simple bass pedals again) or even lighting-scene changes. A distinct advantage the SoftStep has over the 12 Step is that each of its keys can have independent MIDI CC messages, while the latter's are global for the entire keyboard.
While there are many inexpensive controllers out there that can cover a lot of what the KMI products do, they have a professional feel to them that sets them above the toy-like construction of their similarly-priced brethren. In fact, at Moogfest, I spied Dave Smith, inventor of the legendary Prophet5 and the MIDI protocol itself, using a QuNexus key controller to play his own Evolver synth, which is a pretty sweet endorsement. Frankly, my only criticism is that even with a month's worth of weekends available, I only scratched the surface of what these devices can do. The support forum is active and seems to be a source of countless ideas and solutions, from both users and the KMI staff. There are many hours' worth of rabbit holes you can fall down with any of them, but at the same time, I made them do what I initially wanted, not long after opening the box. You can't ask for much more than that.