You Might Need A Macro Pad: The JC Pro Macro 2 Mechanical Keypad

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When I started co-hosting The Creativity Podcast last year, I started casually shopping for macro pads or a Stream Deck. We were recording our interviews locally with OBS Studio, and on the rare occasion that we did a live stream, we were pushing the stream to YouTube via OBS as well.

The most common and basic use for a Stream Deck here would be assigning each camera or scene in OBS to a different key, so you can focus the live stream on the right person.

My Collection of JC Pro Macro Pads

Then we started using Riverside.fm to record our interviews, and they also have functionality for streaming our interviews to YouTube. That’s when I stopped investigating macro pads, because there really isn’t much I can control while live streaming with Riverside.fm.

Then my friend and Creativity Podcast co-host Jeremy Cook designed a macro pad, and now I have absolutely no idea how I survived without one.

I have four of Jeremy’s JC Pro Macro pads

Jeremy has been sending me prototype PCBs since he got started, but I don’t want you to think I’ve been just getting free toys as an incentive to post about them on my blog. Jeremy has only sent me printed circuit boards. I’ve had to buy keys. I’ve had to buy keycaps. I’ve had to buy Arduino Pro Micro boards, and I’ve even physically broken and had to replace a couple of those!

The secret to acquiring cheap Cherry MX key switches and keycaps!

I’m not sure this is truly a secret. I’ve been posting cheap mechanical keyboard deals on Butter, What?! for years. Some of those mechanical keyboards have hot-swappable switches. That means you can just pull them right out of the board, and you don’t have to desolder anything.

I’ve noticed that the E-YOOSO 87-key keyboard goes on sale all the time, it has hot-swappable key switches that just pull right out, and the switches and caps are the sort that work with LEDs! At its usual $26 price tag, it is a good deal. There seems to be a coupon code every week that pushes it down under $20, and I got mine for $18. I was bummed out taking it apart, because it seems like a fine keyboard for its price.

At the price I paid, it winds up being under $0.20 per switch with keycap. The bummer is that you can’t really use all the keycaps, because each row is a different shape. You can see the problem in picture of my CNC pendant macro pad. I thought it was more important to have the letters X, Y, and Z on those keys than to have the correct shape!

If you and your friends are looking to save some money, maybe pooling together to make a handful of macro pads would be a good value! There are enough switches on the E-YOOSO keyboard to build 10 macro pads, and I think Jeremy’s pricing on the PCB is a really amazing value. Maybe you have a friend who is proficient at soldering. You could have him do all the soldering work in exchange for a free macro pad!

Who knows. I’m sure you and your friends can figure something out.

What can you do with a JC Pro Macro Pad?

You can do a lot with the sample Arduino code Jeremy has posted so far, and I imagine there will be more of that available before the Kickstarter ends. I’m pushing the limits quite a bit further, but not in a clean way that’s ready to be easily consumed.

What I’ve strung together here are layers of kludges. It is working, it is a good proof of concept, but some parts need replacing and others need quite a lot of smoothing over. I’m going to include all my code in this blog.

Before we get to how I’m doing it, here is a list of the interesting things I’ve been doing:

  • I can send commands from the PC to the pad via USB serial
  • I can update the color of individual LEDs from the PC
  • I can update the color, direction, and speed of “spinners” on the OoberLights Micro
  • I am adjusting key LEDs based on the state of their function (red for speakers, green for headphones)
  • I am changing LED colors based on the focused window title
  • I am changing key function based on active or present windows
  • Different number of button presses have different functions

In what way is all of this a hack? There’s a script I run in the background that is calling out to xdotool once a second to check window titles. There’s another script doing math on the output of the ifconfig command to show me upload and download speeds on my OoberLights Micro board.

I have the keys and knob on the JC Pro Macro set up to output oddball key combinations like control-alt-F12. I forward those keys on to a script that checks the active window title to decide which real key to pass back on using xdotool. You might turn the knob right, the pad generates control-alt-F12, my window manager passes that on to my custom script, the custom script verifies that Davinci Resolve isn’t active, so your turn of the knob sends a volume up keycode.

This is absolutely the wrong way to do this, but it is the most convenient to set up, and I can make changes to things effortlessly. I feel like the right way to do this is to set up alternate layouts on the macro pad, then just send a command to the macro pad to change layouts when appropriate. If I did that, though, I’d be flashing the Arduino over and over again.

Can you be more specific about the unique things you’re using your macro pad for?

Of course I can!

I like Jeremy’s idea of being able to have custom modes for different applications. This is similar to layers in the QMK firmware. I just didn’t want to have to remember to switch modes, so I am adjusting the keys based on window title.

Most of the time, the knob is just a regular volume knob. If I’m currently editing video in Davinci Resolve, the knob nudges the play head forward or back by a single frame. There’s also a button I can hit that toggles the knob between one frame at a time or one second at a time, and the color of the light on that key tells me which mode I’m in.

I took that a step farther with my OBS Studio keys. Those keys become active any time OBS Studio is open—it doesn’t even have to be the active window! For lack of a better idea, those keys glow red, yellow, and green, just like a traffic light. They’re pretty simple. They’re just tied to three different scenes in OBS Studio.

Controlling my studio lighting with Home Assistant and the macro pad

There’s some good home automation going on in my office. When I’m not in here, the lights are off. If I’m at my computer or in my recliner, the basic lighting turns on.

I also have video lighting at my desk and workbench. I don’t have a good way to detect when those should be used correctly, so I have to manually change to those Home Assistant scenes. I was doing this in the web user interface, but now I have it bound to my macro pad.

Home Assistant Podcast Lights

When I first set this up on the original prototype macro pad, I was using three different keys. That seemed quite wasteful, and it encouraged me to work a little harder.

I now have four lighting modes bound to a single key. If you click it once, it turns off my overrides and the automation takes over. That sets the key to a green light.

Two clicks gives me a red light and my single podcasting light, three clicks goes cyan and gives me the brightest lighting possible, and four clicks goes purple and only lights up my workbench. This is a lot like double-clicking a mouse, but I was sure to put these in the order I most use them!

The lighting overrides in Home Assistant are more complicated than I’d like them to be. It is a Node Red loop that keeps checking a global variable, and I’m setting that global variable by calling hass-cli via the macro pad.

A button to toggle between headphones and speakers

This one bums me out a bit because I don’t like doing things that the system should be able to do for me. For a long time, I used a set of JBL Elite 700 Bluetooth headphones, and for a short time I connected my Bose QuietComfort 35 Gaming headset via Bluetooth. That was automated for me. When I turned the Bluetooth headphones on, my computer switched to them. When I shut them off, my computer switched back to the speakers. Easy!

Now I’m plugging my Bose headset in to reduce latency. Now there’s no way for the computer to puzzle out whether or not I have my headphones on, so I mapped a two-handed, three-fingered key combination to toggle my audio output. Something I wouldn’t accidentally hit, but something I could hit in the middle of a video game if I decide to switch outputs.

One of the first things I did when configuring my JC Pro Macro pad was assign a button to swap audio outputs. I had no idea how much nicer this would be!

Sure, it takes two hands to put my headphones on, but it is still nice having an entire hand free while changing audio outputs. I can continue to adjust the fit of my headset. I can pick up my phone to check messages. If the game I’m playing loads quickly, I can already be mousing around the menus. It just feels better.

Not only that, but I’m setting the color of the headphone button based on the audio output. If the light is green, things are safe, and my output is going to the headphones. That means I won’t accidentally pick up speaker noise on my mic while podcasting. Isn’t that cool?!

I’m only scratching the surface with Davinci Resolve

As soon as I attached a big old knob to the rotary encoder, I knew that this had to be made to work with my video editor. I only have two functions set up here.

In the default mode, one click of the knob moves the play head a single frame. When I toggle the second mode, each click moves the play head one second. This makes it easy to fine-tune a cut down to exactly the right frame, even when the timeline is zoomed out too far to be that precise. It also allows you to spin the knob quickly to zip around at higher speed.

I watched a video explaining how to use the real Davinci Resolve keyboard, and so far I haven’t been smart enough to replicate its fancier functionality. With their keyboard, you’re able to hold a key while turning the knob to do things like move the connecting point between two clips forward or backward along the timeline.

I’d love to be able to do that, and Resolve has an extreme number of functions that you can map to keyboard controls, but I can’t for the life of me figure out how to replicate their own keyboard’s trim function!

I love my network traffic meter!

When I got the first prototype of the JC Pro Macro pad in my hands, I immediately noticed the four solder pads on the right side behind the keys. I thought it would be a neat place to wire up some OoberLights, but we didn’t have a small enough OoberLights board for that. We do now!

The new OoberLights Micro boards are about the size of the base of a Cherry MX keycap. There are three rings of RGB LEDs. The outer ring has 12 pixels, the middle ring has 8 pixels, and the center ring is just a single pixel. I think blinkenlights are cool, but what can you do with these pixels?!

I’m using a shell script, math, and my spinner Arduino code to display rotating bandwidth meters on my JC Pro Macro. A green pixel spins clockwise to show my download traffic, and a blue pixels spins counterclockwise to show upload traffic.

It isn’t perfect. I have had a bug making the pixel jump in any counterclockwise spinner when changing speed, and getting the speed right for a bandwidth meter has been challenging. I wasn’t sure what to do when there is nearly zero traffic, so they’re always spinning at an extremely slow rate. When they stand still, they look too boring!

This is most definitely just the tip of the iceberg. I have an OoberLights Micro board plugged into a Raspberry Pi, and I’ve managed to add a clean mounting bracket to my favorite 3D-printed Pi case. It won’t be long before I have network spinners and disk usage pie charts on my Raspberry Pi Seafile server!

I’m using a macro pad as a pendant for my Shapeoko CNC

This deserves an entire blog post of its own, but I want to code up some improvements first.

My Shapeoko XXL CNC machine is plugged into a Raspberry Pi Zero W running CNCjs. One of my old laptops is sitting next to the Shapeoko. That laptop connects to the CNCjs web interface, and I sometimes use the laptop to make CAM and design adjustments between cuts.

Much of the time, though, I don’t even power up the laptop. I have an old Nexus 7 Android tablet out there connecting to the CNCjs tablet interface. This works great, but you have to actually touch the screen in the correct places, and that means you have to look at the tablet.

A common thing to do is jog the Z-axis down 0.1 mm at a time until it touches a piece of paper. That’s how you know the tool is just above your material. If you’re using the touch screen, you can’t see the tool, the paper, and the button. You also can’t feel the buttons.

Using a macro pad as a pendant is fantastic. I get the tool close, choose the Z-axis, and then set the jog speed to 0.1 mm. Every click of the wheel will move the router down 0.1 mm, and it is extremely easy to feel the wheel without looking. I can keep my eye right on the tool and never have to worry about touching the wrong part of the screen!

Jeremy’s macro pad is on Tindie and Kickstarter

I’ve done a bad job, and I have been pretty slow at writing this blog post. Jeremy’s Kickstarter campaign for the JC Pro Macro 2 is already way more than half over. By the time Google search starts sending many of you fine readers in my direction, it will probably already be over!

At the time I am writing this, you can only get the 8-key version of the JC Pro Macro pad on Kickstarter. The original 5-key version is available on Tindie, but I’m sure the 8-key version will be stocked on Tindie after the Kickstarter orders have been fulfilled.

I like the original, smaller version of the macro pad. Five keys is actually a pretty good fit for use at my desk, but I’ve grown attached to using the light-up keys as functional indicators, and the original pad lacks those lights.

Five keys is probably just enough to use as pendant for my CNC router, but the extra key and the lights make it easy to see which axis I’m about to drive and just how fast it is going to move.

Conclusion

I don’t really have a conclusion. I feel like I’m only just scratching the surface of what my macro pad can do for me. All my software is a hack, and I’m slowly working on reining that in to make things a little less wonky.

I’ve gotten a little derailed from the macro pad stuff by our OoberLights Micro boards. You can’t imagine how excited I am to see an actual, working, spinning bandwidth meter attached to my macro pad.

What do I really want to know? I want to know what you think! Are you using a macro pad or the Stream Deck? Which macro pad are you using? Does the JC Pro Macro look like a good fit for you? Is there a better macro pad I should be using?! Let me know in the comments, or stop by the *Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with me about it!

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