We kick off our new Tools Spotlight interview section with Dan Slider, Director of Marketing for P.I. Engineering, makers of X-keys. X-keys are custom controllers for almost any application. The reaction I usually get when I tell people about what they do is, ‘where have they been all of my life’?
How would you describe X-keys?
X-keys is a line of custom computer input controls in different forms, primarily keys but also precision joysticks, jog and shuttle wheels and other analogue controls like that.
How did X-keys come about?
Well the first X-keys was a twenty key keypad, kind of like a numbers pad, and it was designed for CAD, for shortcuts and tools. The different part about it was that they were programmable and they had a key cap that would let you easily label them so you wouldn’t have to remember which key you had programmed for what function. It was right there in front of you.
What is your most popular X-keys product?
Well, when I look at the sales numbers week to week, two of them usually battle it out and that’s our X-keys XK24 the 24 keys, and our XK-3, a foot pedal which has 3 pedals. And it just depends on who places a big order that week, which one will have the better numbers. Right behind those in the numbers are X-keys Stick with the 16 keys on it and our X-keys Pro with 58 keys.
What kind of feedback have you gotten over the years from users?
Almost exclusively its positive feedback almost everybody that buys an X-keys and sets it up and uses it – loves it. Most of the comments I get are ‘how come I haven’t heard of you guys before?’ or ‘why aren’t more people using these?’
Yeah, I was surprised too. I had heard of you all, years ago. I’d seen your site but when I started looking for companies I wanted to spotlight I remembered X-keys and looked you up.
Thanks, I appreciate that.
Yeah, I come from the old CMX background, linear editing and so I definitely love the tactile types of controllers.
So, when I look at the X-keys product line, I think of the external controllers used in the music production sector. Do certain creative communities naturally gravitate towards X keys?
That’s kind of hard to say because we’re all over the place. If you’ve looked at our site on the utilization page, you see that we have some very loyal customers in the music industry. We have a jazz guitarist who has one of our 16-key stick’s, stuck on his guitar and he uses it to switch between effects while he’s playing. I recently did an article on a musician named Tony Harvey who’s using it to actually mix sounds live with his bar band while he’s playing the keyboard. That was kind of a neat article. The other place that we really seem to have taken root is in the broadcast industry. If you ever go to NAB (the National Association of Broadcasters show) in Vegas, and walk the floor you’d be amazed at how many X-keys you’d see in booths – people using them to control their software. I think that some of the other engineers that I’ve talked to said that when they run into a problem and they’re trying to figure out how to control something they’ll just say, ‘just throw an X-keys at it.’ And I think that’s because in many times they are in situations where they have a lot of different applications that don’t like to work together or don’t like to talk to each other and some X-keys gives them a quick little control that they can put together in front of a operator and have all the controls clearly labeled on it and all the guy has to do is hit the button and then it’s gonna work for him.
Right. When I think of your product line, I definitely think of Master Control situations in all the different markets. I came up in local TV and you’re right, all these different types of hardware and software products have to talk together. You have to have something like X-keys.
What are some of the ways X-keys are used in different countries? For instance, I know from having visited Tokyo that there’s a whole different way that people work. Have you noticed any differences there based on how we use them over here in the States?
I haven’t really and we are all over the world. I know of a company in Norway that uses them to control radio stations and I know of very similar applications in different countries. Some photographers use them to process their photos. I know one of our good custom X blocks controller customers is from Sweden and this is a small startup company called LGZ. They have a software that controls, I believe it’s slow motion playback. We’ve got a customizable device with a fader bar and a jog and shuttle wheel on it that they use to control their software.
As more and more people rely on not just Macs but also iPhones and iPads to create content, have you noticed new and interesting ways X-keys are being used with these portable touch-screen devices?
So far, I only know one individual whose using a stick to help control his tablet PC. but you know this would not surprise me because we can just speak pure USB mouse and USB keyboard. So you can configure an X-keys like that and plug it into anyone of these devices that has a USB port on it that’s willing to except a keyboard and off you go, it’ll work.
So like I was saying, I used to be a CMX editor and I also used Sony’s similar controller. A friend of mine who’s an editor told me that he also used this gear and he misses the jog wheel. I notice the XK12 + Jog & Shuttle Controller is on your site but it’s out of stock. Is it still available?
That XK12 is actually one of our newer products and in bringing it to market we had not anticipated the popularity and we’re having some production issues. But we’re getting to get it up on-line and we’ll get it back in stock. We see it as one that is going to move forward more so than the pro version. It’s gonna have all the new features like the addressable backlighting and being able to upgrade the firmware of which the older ones don’t, like the pro.
You hit on that jog and shuttle which to me is kind of an interesting dilemma we have in than the keyboard, mouse and joystick are all native to most of the operating systems. You plug a USB joystick into a Mac or PC and the OS says, ‘oh, a joystick I know what to do with this’. So then the application on that system that’s looking for joystick input is going to link right up to it and off you go. But there is no native jog and shuttle device. So, you plug it in and then the USB device declares, ‘I am a jog and shuttle control’ and the the OS says, ‘um…that’s nice but I don’t know what to do with you.’
So we either have to rely on a small developer that’s willing to put the time in to use our software development kit and communicate directly with our device; that’s the best integration. Because we can feed them the raw position data and (the developer) can say, ‘oh, that shuttle wheel is at ten degrees to the right which means I’m supposed to be forwarding so many frames per second.’ So without that we have to rely on something like translating it into keystrokes or some kind of mouse command and it’s a bit of a guessing game.
That said, our latest software MacroWorks 3 has some really nice scripting capabilities in it. So you don’t have to be a programmer, you just have to be willing to play with some numbers and tweak some things and you can dial it in and get it to work pretty well for you depending on all of those strange factors like your OS, system speed, the application and what else looking at all those other things. So it’s possible, it just takes a little bit of work. (NOTE: MacroWorks 3 runs on Windows. Use ControllerMate if you run OS X).
What creative software is currently supported by X-keys? What software could be added in the future?
Well again, this is one of our dilemmas Eric is that since we’re talking keyboard and mouse we can talk to any application. We can just send keystrokes to Word or Photoshop or Sketchup or Skype or anything that’s willing to accept a keyboard. We can communicate with it. So in that sense we support anything that runs on a computer. The tighter integration is more reliant on the developer to say, ‘ok I’m just going to look for this X-keys device and when this button goes down this is what I’ll do.’ So that’s kind of a tough question to answer because we do support everything.
And there are things like Lightroom that has a limited set of keyboard shortcuts, so we can do some things in Lightroom. There’s kind of a 3rd party software that’s freeware but has a support community for it. And there are programs that are out there like that, that have X-keys support written into them because some developer thought this would help people, so he was motivated to make it work.
Is there any other hardware or peripherals or even workflows that you’ve noticed users using that works kind of synergistically with X-keys?
We do, in the broadcast industry. Avid has us written into a couple of other programs. And Grass Valley has us written in. The article I was telling you about before with Tony Harvey, he’s using a program called SAC which stands for Software Audio Control. So he’s using an interesting blend. He’s using our scripting to control the backlighting on the XK24 so he can see which one of his mics and inputs he has selected by an indicator from the backlighting. But what the XK24 is putting out to the SAC software is simple keyboard shortcuts. But he was able to do with our scripting and with just a little bit of help from our techs who are nice and knowledgeable people and can make that script dance and sing.
That’s great! It’s good to see case studies to give people ideas.
Yeah, that is a real good way to get an idea of what things might be done with the X-keys and I’m always looking for more so if there’s anybody out there that has a unique way of using X-keys, I would love to hear from them and be happy to publish a little article about what they’re doing.
Are they any new features in the pipeline for the next version release that you can talk about?
Mostly what we’re working on now is we’re updating the entire product line to bring all the features up to the same level. We have all these products that have been released at different times. Some units have backlighting, some don’t. Some have different capabilities. We started with the XK24 and now this line of XK12s with the jog and shuttle and joystick. The next one we have coming will be a 60-key version which will be an update to the pro and an 80-key version. Those will all have dual backlighting on the keys and the full capability of our Pi3 firmware which means you can now talk mouse, joystick, keyboard to the same device. You can also talk to our software and send keyboard messages at the same time. So there’s some neat new little features that the developers will like I think.
Is this something that we may see for NAB this year or?
Yeah, we should have some prototypes at NAB this year. And the 60-key and the 80-key and another bigger custom version with 128-keys on it. Those are all on board for release this year.
Dan, that’s all the questions I had. Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you want to mention?
I guess the only other thing I could think of Eric is that the biggest challenge for me in this has been finding an easy and cost effective way for a developer to make really good looking key-caps. If people want to order a couple hundred units we can go to an engraver and get custom key caps made but if somebody’s just starting up and they just need 10 or 20 units… And for the individually user it’s not a problem, you can write on our key caps in pencil and Sharpie and slap the lens over it and it’s never gonna wear out and you know what that key does.
But you can imagine if you’re a developer making a product for someone that you want to sell, you want that X-keys to look like a professionally finished device. And right now the best option we have is that we use this ultra-thin sign material, laser engrave it and cut it. That makes a nice looking legend to go under our key caps. It can be backlit and all that. The downside of it is that we can only do it in black and white because those are the only colors we can source the material in so we’re looking into some new ways where we can add color and we’re still figuring out how we can etch on the key or paint on the key or print on it with some kind of professional ink that’s not going to fade or wear away. So you should watch for those things on our Facebook and our LinkedIn pages as we experiment with that. We’re looking to be able to offer that and to be able to help people put a really nice professional control device together to go with their software.
Yeah, that would be really good because when I think back to my switcher days, there were all these very rudimentary keys, kinda black and white text. So it would be nice to have a degree of customization that looks aesthetically appealing as well.
Yeah, we think that’s something that our customers want and something that will set us apart from other people trying to do this.
Thanks to everyone that entered our X-keys giveaway!
We will be announcing the winner next week Wed. April 18 so stay tuned.