Like a lot of people during the pandemic, early last year I got into mechanical keyboard collecting. Once you start, it's an easy hobby to sink a lot of time and money into, but the saving grace is that it's also ridiculously inconvenient even before the supply chain imploded, since everything is a "group buy" or some other micro-production release, so it tends to be fairly self-limiting.
I started off with a Drop CTRL, which is a pretty basic mechanical that serves as a good starting point. Then I picked up a Keychron Q1, a really sharp budget board that convinced me I need more keys than a 75% layout, and finally a NovelKeys NK87 with Box Jade clicky switches, which is just just a lovely piece of hardware and what I'm using to type this.
All three of these keyboards are (very intentionally) compatible with the open-source QMK firmware. QMK is very cool, and ideally it means that any of these keyboards can be extended, customized, and updated in any way I want. For example, I have a toggle set up on each board that turns the middle of the layout into a number pad, for easier spreadsheet edits and 2FA inputs. That's the easy mode — if you really want to dig in and write some C, these keyboards run on ARM chips somewhere on the order of a Nintendo DS, so the sky's pretty much the limit.
That said, "compatible" is a broad term. Both the Q1 and NK87 have full QMK implementations, including support for VIA for live key-remapping and macros, but the CTRL (while technically built on QMK) is usually configured via a web service. It's mostly reliable, but there have been a few times in the last few months where the firmware I got back after remapping keys was buggy or unreliable, and this week I decided I wanted to skip the middleman and get QMK building for the CTRL, including custom lighting.
Well, it could have been easier, that's for sure. In getting the firmware working the way I wanted it, I ended up having to trawl through a bunch of source code and blog posts that always seemed to be missing something I needed. So I decided I'd write up the process I took, before I forget how it went, in case I needed it in the future or if someone else would find it helpful.
The QMK setup process is reasonably well documented--it's a Python package, mostly, wrapped around a compilation toolchain. It'll clone the repo for you and install a qmk command that manages the process. I set mine up on WSL and was up and running pretty quickly.
Once you have the basics going, you need to create a "keymap" variation for your board. In my case, I created a new folder at qmk_firmware/keyboards/massdrop/ctrl/keymaps/thomaswilburn. There are already a bunch of keymaps in there, which is one of the things that gives QMK a kind of ramshackle feel, since they're just additions by randos who had a layout that they like and now everyone gets a copy. Poking around these can be helpful, but they're often either baroque or hyperspecialized (one of them enables the ability to programmatically trigger individual lights from terminal scripts, for example).
However, the neat thing about QMK's setup is that the files in each keymap directory are loaded as "overrides" for the main code. That means you only need to add the files that change for your particular use, and in most cases that means you only need keymap.c and maybe rules.mk. In my case, I copied the default_md folder as the starting place for my setup, which only contains those files. Once that's done, you should be able to test that it builds by running qmk compile -kb massdrop/ctrl -km thomaswilburn (or whatever your folder was named).
Once you have a firmware file, you can send it to the keyboard by using the reset button on the bottom of the board and running Drop's mdloader utility.
QMK is designed around the concept of layers, which are arrays of layout config stacked on top of each other. If you're on layer #3 and you press X, the firmware checks its config to see if there's a defined code it should send for that physical key on that layer. QMK can also have a slot defined as "transparent," which means that if there's not a code assigned on the current layer, it will check the next one down, until it runs out. So, for example, my "number pad" layer defines U as 4, I as 5, and so on, but most of the keys are transparent, so pressing Home or End will fall through and do the right thing, which saves time having to duplicate all the basic keys across layers.
If your board supports VIA, remapping the layer assignments is easy to do in software, and your keymap file will just contain mostly empty layers. But since the CTRL doesn't support VIA, you have to assign them manually in C code. Luckily, the default keymap has the basics all set up, as well as a template for an all-transparent layer that you can just copy and paste to add new ones. You can see my layer assignments here. The _______ spaces are transparent, and XXXXXXX means "do nothing."
There's a full list of keycodes in the QMK docs, including a list of their OS compatibility (MacOS, for example, has a weird relationship with things like "number lock"). Particularly interesting to me are some of the combos, such as LT(3, KC_CAPS), which means "switch to layer three if held, but toggle caps lock if tapped." I'm not big on baroque chord combinations, but you can make the extended functions a lot more convenient by taking advantage of these special layer behaviors.
Ultimately, my layers are pretty straightforward: layer 0 is the standard keyboard functions. Layer 1 is fully transparent, and is just used to easily toggle the lighting effects off and on. Layer 2 is number pad mode, and Layer 3 triggers special keyboard behaviors, like changing the animation pattern or putting it into "firmware flash" mode.
Getting the firmware compiling was pretty easy, but for some reason I could not get the LED lighting configuration to work. It turns out that there was a pretty silly answer for this. We'll come back to it. First, we should talk about how lights are set up on the CTRL.
There are 119 LEDs on the CTRL board: 87 for the keys, and then 32 in a ring around the edges to provide underglow. These are addressed in the QMK keymap file using a legacy system that newer keyboards eschew, I think because it was easier for Drop to build their web config tool around the older syntax. I like the new setup, which lets you explicitly specify ranges in a human-readable way, but the Drop method isn't that much more difficult.
The flags mean that this will only apply when the active layer matches the .layer
property, we're going to provide color byte values (just .g in this case, since
the red and blue values are both zero), and only LEDs matching the bitmask in
.id0 through .id3 will be affected.
.flags = LED_FLAG_MATCH_LAYER |
.g = 255,
.id0 = 0x03800000,
.id1 = 0x0E000700,
.id2 = 0xFF8001C0,
.id3 = 0x00FFFFFF,
.layer = 2
Most of this is human-readable, but those IDs are a pain. They are effectively a bitmask of four 32-bit integers, where each bit corresponds to an LED on the board, starting from the escape key (id 0) and moving left-to-right through each row until you get to the right arrow in the bottom-right of the keyboard (id 86), and then proceeding clockwise all around the edge of the keyboard. So for example, to turn the leftmost keys on the keyboard, you'd take their IDs (0 for escape, 16 for `, 35 for tab, 50 for capslock, 63 for left shift, and 76 for left control), divide by 32 to find out which .idX value you want, and then modulo 32 to set the correct bit within that integer (in this case, the result is 0x00010001 0x80040002 0x00001000). That's not fun!
Other people who have done this have used a Python script that requires you to manually input the LED numbers, but I'm a web developer. So I wrote a quick GUI for creating the IDs for a given lighting pattern: click to toggle a key, and when the diagram is focused you can also press physical keys on your keyboard to quickly flip them off and on. The input contains the four ID integers that the CTRL expects when using the LED_FLAG_MATCH_ID option.
Using this utility script, it was easy to set up a few LED zones in a Vilebloom theme that, for me, evokes the classic PDP/11 console. But as I mentioned before, when I first started configuring the LED system, I couldn't get anything to show up. Everything compiled and loaded, and layers worked, but no lights appeared.
What I eventually realized, to my chagrin, was that the brightness was turned all the way down. Self-compiled QMK tries to load settings from persistent memory, including the active LED pattern and brightness, but I suspect the Drop firmware doesn't save them, so those addresses were zero. After I used the function keys to increase the backlight intensity, everything worked great.
As a starter kit, the CTRL is pretty good. It's light but solidly constructed with an aluminum case, relatively inexpensive, and it has a second USB-C port if you want to daisy-chain something else off it. It's a good option if you want to play around with some different switch options (I added Halo Clears, which are pingy but have the same satisfying snap as that one Nokia phone from The Matrix).
It's also weirdly power-hungry, the integrated plate means it's stiff and hard to dampen acoustically, it only takes 3-prong switches, and Drop's software engineering seems to be stretched a little thin. So it's definitely a keyboard that you can grow beyond. But I'm glad I put the time into getting the actual open source firmware working — at the very least, it can be a fun board for experimenting with layouts and effects. And if you're hoping to stretch it a little further than its budget roots, I hope the above information is useful.