The UF60 provides a multitude of programmable controls, including nine sliders, eight knobs, and six function buttons, as well as transport controls.
CME made its mark on the keyboard world with the introduction of the original UF series, a collection of four robust, feature-rich MIDI/USB keyboard controllers. Now comes the next generation of UF controllers, which offers improved functionality, expansion capability, comfortable action, and WIDI wireless MIDI technology. However, all is not well in UF-land — the documentation is woefully inadequate, leading to some serious confusion.
Just like the previous-generation UF series, the new models come in four flavors. The 49-key UF50 ($329.99), 61-key UF60 ($379.99), and 76-key UF70 ($469.99) have a semiweighted action, while the UF80 ($649.99) sports an 88-key, weighted hammer-action keyboard. CME sent me a UF60 for this review, and I tested it with my 17-inch MacBook Pro running Image Line PoiZone, Propellerhead Reason, Ultimate Sound Bank PlugSound Pro, and Apple Logic Pro 7. The computer has a 2.16 GHz Intel processor with 2 GB of RAM and a 120 GB hard drive.
Housed in a sturdy aluminum outer case, the UF60 is well suited for life on the road as well as in the studio. I was impressed with the unit's construction quality and logical layout, and the knobs, sliders, and switches seem like they'll hold up to lots of use. The transport controls remind me of the beefy switches you used to find on analog multitrack recorders. The pitch-bend and mod wheels also seem like they're built to last.
In addition to a power switch and power-supply receptacle, the back panel has connections labeled MIDI Out, Pedal A, Pedal B, and USB. The pedal jacks default to Sustain for Pedal A and Volume for Pedal B, but you can change the pedal type and polarity with a few simple keystrokes.
Also included is an ⅛-inch Breath Control jack for use with a Yamaha BC3 breath controller. There aren't many keyboards on the market with breath-controller capability, so this is a welcome feature. A removable panel hides the expansion bay, which can accommodate plug-in circuit boards that add various functions (more on this later).
I was skeptical when I heard that the new UF controllers have built-in wireless MIDI capability, with an RF transmitter built into the keyboard and a receiver about the size of a thumb drive that plugs into the computer's USB port. Would it work? How much time would I waste trying to get it to work?
To my delight, WIDI worked flawlessly. Setup was simple — I plugged in the receiver to my MacBook Pro, powered up the UF60 and computer, launched PlugSound Pro, and I was up and running — wirelessly. According to CME, the WIDI system has a maximum operating range of 262 feet and high-speed error correction. I felt absolutely no latency when playing via WIDI; notes triggered as quickly as they would with a wired MIDI connection, which is to say virtually instantly.
A Piece of the Action
I learned to play on a weighted action, so I enjoy playing a keyboard that puts up a bit of a fight. Synth players will appreciate the tight, consistent feel of the UF60's action, and there's enough resistance to satisfy piano players as well.
One of my first adjustments was selecting a Velocity curve. There are ten choices here, including three so-called Fixup curves that fix the Velocity value at 64, 100, or 127. These might come in handy if you need to program many notes with the same Velocity.
You can also tweak Aftertouch with seven preset curves. You'll want to experiment with the different presets to find the one that works best for your playing technique.
Pair the UF60 with any soft synth, and you get that “real” hardware vibe thanks to eight knobs and nine sliders. These controls are labeled according to their default assignments, but they can be reassigned to any parameters. In addition, the assignments can go three layers deep, providing access to more parameters than meet the eye and allowing you to tailor the controls to meet your specific needs.
The UF60 provides a function called U-CTRL, which emulates the Mackie Control Universal (MCU) protocol. By enabling MCU in compatible programs such as Reason and Logic, the keyboard's transport and other buttons can be automatically mapped to control the corresponding functions in the software. However, I discovered that this doesn't work when the keyboard is connected to the computer via WIDI — it must be connected via USB. This is not even mentioned in the documentation, which is a serious oversight.
In addition to MIDI Out, two pedal jacks, and a breath-controller input, the UF60 offers an expansion bay that can accommodate optional modules such as a synth card or a FireWire audio interface.
Before I learned this, I spent a lot of time manually assigning the UF60's buttons to control the software functions via WIDI. That process was straightforward enough, but I could have saved all that time if the manual had been more comprehensive. Once I established a USB connection, U-CTRL worked with Reason and Logic as expected, though I still had to manually assign the faders to behave like drawbars in Logic's EVB3 organ soft synth.
Unfortunately, sending Program Change commands is an awkward, multistep process: press Shift, press Program Change, select your patch with the Data Dial, and press Enter. You can also program the six function buttons to send Program Changes. I wish CME had included a simple numeric keypad and dedicated bank-select buttons to make patch changes more convenient.
The UF60 and its siblings are more than just full-featured controllers — they're also expandable by inserting a circuit module into the expansion bay. Two modules are currently available: the Waldorf Nano SynCard ($279.99) and the UF400e FireWire audio board ($199.99).
The Nano SynCard is based on Waldorf's MicroQ synth engine and comes with 1,000 sounds onboard. This module provides up to 24-voice polyphony (depending on the patch), and sounds can be edited from the front panel of the UF controller. The Nano SynCard also features built-in effects, left and right ¼-inch line outputs, and a ¼-inch stereo headphone jack. Up to two Nano SynCards can be installed in a UF keyboard, which lets you program splits and layers.
The UF400e provides a FireWire audio interface for your computer, streamlining your rig by integrating all I/O in the keyboard controller. It features 24-bit, 192 kHz audio capability and includes FireWire and S/PDIF ports, a stereo ¼-inch TRS line input, a ¼-inch mic/guitar input, left and right ¼-inch audio outputs, two ¼-inch headphone jacks, and a headphone volume control. The UF400e also provides MIDI In, Out, and Thru ports.
As I was finishing this review, I got word of two significant developments for CME's UF- and VX-series controllers (see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com). First, the company has announced the development of U-CTRL templates that assign the controls to operate Cakewalk Sonar and Digidesign Pro Tools. The company also claims that templates will be ready for 80 percent of available software by spring 2008. These templates will be added to the keyboard's firmware, which can be downloaded from the CME Web site and installed in the keyboard via USB. However, the updates can be downloaded only using a Windows computer running CME's UFBrain software; I was unable to try this on my Mac.
Also on the horizon is a new DSP module called the ASX Advanced Synthesis Expansion ($369). This board provides enough computational horsepower to run a variety of synthesis and effects plug-ins that are stored in its flash ROM, and users can add and replace plug-ins as new ones become available. The onboard memory can hold up to eight plug-ins, any one of which can be active at a time.
The ASX ships with three plug-ins: MiniMax (a polyphonic emulation of the Minimoog), LightWave (a virtual synth that combines analog and wavetable techniques with extensive modulation), and B4000 (a convincing emulation of a classic tonewheel organ). When you register the product with CME, you get another plug-in called Vocodizer, a full-fledged vocoder that uses the dedicated mic input on the ASX.
CME clearly designed the UF controllers to be the centerpiece of a computer-based music-production studio. The UF60 and its brethren are endowed with features that would make other master keyboards envious, and they have enough tactile control to satisfy any power user. The keyboard has a wonderful feel and control mapping is simple, though the manual is lacking certain key points, such as U-CTRL's limitations. Even so, the built-in wireless MIDI and powerful expansion options put the CME UF60 at the head of the class.
Tony DiLorenzo created a CD of vintage synth samples for the Kurzweil K2000 and K2500 called Producers Series Vol. 1, which was rated 4.5 out of 5 in EM's review (see the March 1997 issue).
MIDI keyboard controller$379.99
PROS: Solid, sturdy construction. Keyboard has a tight, consistent feel. Control mapping is simple and straightforward.
CONS: Documentation is inadequate. No dedicated numeric keypad for Program Changes.
FEATURES 1 2 3 4 5 EASE OF USE 1 2 3 4 5 DOCUMENTATION 1 2 3 4 5 VALUE 1 2 3 4 5