IK Multimedia iRig Keys
PRODUCTION EXPO 2014: More and more musicians and producers are turning to the now perennially-popular iPad in both the live arena and studio.
However, even with the cleverest multi-touch apps, there’s only so much you can control at once on the screen. The solution? Peripherals! Here we take a look at five of the best iPad-friendly MIDI keyboards, starting with IK’s iRig Keys…
IK Multimedia iRig Keys
IK Multimedia’s iRig brand is the most widely recognised in the iOS music-making hardware market, covering everything from audio and MIDI interfaces to a Bluetooth pedalboard and even a mini DJ mixer. iRig Keys is, unsurprisingly, the keyboard member of the family, and it ticks a lot of boxes for the iPad musician.
For a start, it’s small and lightweight, but while many keyboards with the same characteristics only give you 25 mini keys, iRig Keys offers 37. If you’re a keyboard player you’ll know that extra octave is invaluable, enabling two-handed playing.
You also get smooth and sturdy pitch and modulation wheels, an assignable knob, octave and program up/down buttons, and an input for a sustain or expression pedal. 30-pin and Lightning cables come in the box, which means you can connect the iRig Keys to any iPad directly. It’ll hook up to your Mac or PC as well, via a USB port.
The velocity-sensitive keys might feel ever so slightly spongy to the touch, but that minor niggle notwithstanding, iRig Keys offers a great balance between features, portability and playability. If you don’t get on with mini-keys, check out iRig Keys Pro, which offers similar specifications but boasts three octaves’ worth of full-size keys.
Korg microKEY 25
With the nanoKEY, Korg were one of the first companies to release a super-portable MIDI controller keyboard. Unless you’re happy to play flat, laptop-style keys with very little travel, however, we’d suggest that the microKEY 25 is a better bet.
As its name suggests, this is a 25-note keyboard, so it’s best suited to those who want to record beats, basslines, melodies and chord progressions one hand at a time.
That said, the velocity-sensitive mini-keys feel a lot better than some we’ve played, and you can skip between octaves with up/down buttons.Other controls include a nicely weighted pitch/modulation joystick, a sustain button and an arpeggiator trigger button.
The microKEY 25 represents decent value for money, but bear in mind that in order to plug it into your iPad you’ll also need Apple’s Camera Connection Kit, which effectively adds a USB port to your tablet (the keyboard will also work directly with your PC or Mac).
There are similar 37- and 61-note versions of the microKEY that will hook up in this way, too, but have to be plugged in via a powered USB hub.
Line 6 Mobile Keys 49
Line 6 made its name in the guitar market, but it also had the distinction of being the first company to come up with an iOS MIDI interface. Releasing a pair of iPhone/iPad-friendly MIDI controllers was a natural next step, and thus the Mobile Keys was born.
The cheapest is the 25-note model, but we’re focusing on the 49-note offering here as it’s a great option for anyone who wants a good number of velocity-sensitive, full-size keys.
This compromises the device’s portability somewhat, obviously, but this is a keyboard you can actually play properly, making it suitable for songwriting, recording and - at a push - performing.
The good news continues round the back, where you’ll find sustain and expression pedal inputs. There are decent-sized pitch and mod wheels, too, plus volume and pan knobs and octave up/down buttons (some of these controls are assignable).
The only slight issue is that, although the Mobile Keys can connect directly to older iPads and to any Mac or PC, it doesn’t currently ship with a Lightning cable.
This means that if you own a newer iPad, you’re going to have to shell out for a Lightning-to-30-pin adapter as well - not the end of the world, of course, but it’s an additional cost that you may conclude you’re not willing to pay.
The Xkey looks like it could be made by Apple, sharing design similarities with the company’s QWERTY keyboards. You’ll also notice how slim it is: the 25 velocity-sensitive keys might be full- size, but they have a very low profile.
This might make you think that the Xkey isn’t much fun to play, but as long as you’re not attempting super-fast passages - unlikely on a keyboard this size anyway - they’re actually pretty good. Crucially, the black keys are at least a little more raised than the white ones.
Perhaps the Xkey’s best feature is one that can’t be seen: it supports polyphonic aftertouch. This means that, providing your synth app supports it (which some, such as Moog’s Animoog, do), you can change a sound by adjusting the amount of pressure you apply on the keys after you’ve triggered it, and all on a per-note basis.
The pressure-sensitive pitchbend and modulation buttons are less user-friendly, but the sustain and octave up/ down buttons are self-explanatory and work well enough.
The Xkey might not be the cheapest two-octave keyboard on the market (and you’ll have to factor in the cost of a Camera Connection Kit if you want to connect it to an iPad), but it’s certainly the most stylish. There’s real substance behind the good looks, too, making it well worth your consideration if you’ve got the cash.
Novation Launchkey Mini
Novation is another company which has spent years creating MIDI controllers that span sizes, designs and price ranges, and the Launchkey Mini is one of its most recent releases.
Like many products of its type, it connects directly to your Mac or PC or to an iPad via Apple’s Camera Connection Kit.
The Launchkey Mini gives you a bit of everything: 25 velocity- sensitive keys, 16 illuminated velocity-sensitive pads, eight knobs and a selection of buttons. There are no dedicated pitchbend/modulation or sustain buttons, but you do get octave up/ down controls.
Controls can be assigned in your favourite music-making apps, but if you want to have some fun straight out of the box, Novation give you apps that are designed specifically for use with the Launchkey Mini and other controllers in the range.
The Launchpad app lets you trigger samples, load your own and tweak effects, while the Launchkey app is a synth. These can be used together, too.
Clearly, a great deal of thought has gone into making the Launchkey Mini a ‘complete’ solution - it certainly gives you a lot for your money. The build quality might not feel like the toughest out there, but if you handle it with care, it can do plenty.