Keyboard controllers are not a new concept – soon after MIDI became a standard, sound modules were released that allowed you to access the sounds of a synthesizer without all of the other hardware bulk or expense. It also allowed for keyboards offering a robust piano-like feel, or guitar-like portability – all while bringing along the great sounds offered by the hot synths of the day. As we have gotten to the point where it is possible to make high quality music with an entire suite of software synths, the need for external keyboards and sound modules has declined to the point of being a quaint thought for most home musicians.
The advent of high-quality music production on the iPad has very much changed things up – suddenly portability is a concern, as is power consumption. Some existing controllers work in conjunction with an interface such as iRig MIDI, but typically also require external power – not exactly portable. Newer iOS specific keyboards have typically suffered from low quality construction and a poor musical feel. Now IK Multimedia has released iRig Keys – their attempt to make an affordable product with solid portability and high quality musical feel. Let’s take a look!
iRig KEYS is the ultimate portable keyboard players and producers companion. Use it any time and anywhere inspiration strikes you… simply hook it up to your device or computer and start playing. You can use iRig KEYS for live performance or for songwriting and composition with the included app and software or with a multitude of other MIDI compatible instruments and recorders on any iOS, MacOS or Windows system.
•37 velocity-sensitive mini-keys (3 full octaves range plus one note)
•Modulation and pitch bend wheels
•Volume/Data knob (assignable)
•Octave/Program Up/Down back-lit, soft-touch buttons
•SET button to store and recall 4 different customized setups
•Input for an optional sustain or expression pedal
•Core MIDI (iOS) and USB class compliant (Mac/PC) – plug and play
•Powered from the iOS device or Mac/PC USB
•Comes with SampleTank FREE iOS and iGrand Piano FREE apps (download from the App store)
•Comes with free Mac/PC virtual instrument: SampleTank 2 L (download from IK User Area)
In much the way touch-typists have wrangled with non-standard layouts and key sizes of laptops and external keyboards, so have pianists had to deal with inferior and non-standard synthesizer and mobile keyboards to interface with music-making devices. In my house I have both ends of the spectrum: I have an m-Audio Axiom Pro 25 with weighted full-sized keys and a great feel – and a hefty price tag, external MIDI and power requirement as well. My younger son has a low-end iOS compatible controller that clicks more like a computer keyboard than a piano! It suffers latency and recognition issues as well.
Immediately upon pulling the iRig Keys from the box I knew it was well on the way to hitting the sweet spot for an iOS controller: it was very light and portable, yet seemed sturdy enough to handle life in a backpack. The keys felt like a standard synth keyboard (albeit smaller) and the pitch and mod wheels were correctly sized and placed and felt appropriate.
But there are three things that matter more than just a quick look at feel: does it work, does it ‘play’ and will it hold up? Let’s take a look at each one:
Does It Work?
While one of the biggest draws of iRig Keys is as a USB-powered controller for iOS devices, one of the features I loved was that it came with an iOS cable and a standard USB cable. This means I should be able to use it with my Mac and PC music software as well as on my iPads. Well … it WORKED! Here is a quick run-down of what I used iRig Keys with:
- FL Studio on PC
- Ableton Live on PC
- Cakewalk Sonar on PC
- Digital Performer on Mac
- SampleTank on Mac
- Sonik Synth 2 on Mac
- GarageBank on Mac
It worked GREAT on all of those software packages with no issues configuring or getting things to work. As expected all 37-keys and the pitch and mod wheels controlled perfectly in each software package. When it came to trying to use the buttons to switch programs, that capability varied by package but was best exploited within IK Multimedia software such as SampleTank or Sonik Synth 2.
Does It Play?
Last year I surrendered my basement music studio to my kids – they now have music suites on both sides of our finished basement. This works for me since I tend to focus more on either playing guitar or keyboard hooked into my iPad. So I need very little space, and tend to set up pretty much wherever, but have left my guitar in a corner of our dining room and bring in a small fold-up (tray) table as needed. I was thrilled that I would put the iRig Keys and iPad on the table together and make music while also holding my guitar.
I own a Yamaha PortaSound keyboard I got back in the mid-80s as a practice tool which had mini-keys, so I have a history dealing with them – but prefer full-sized unweighted (i.e. synth) keys. The keys on the iRig Keys are larger than that (though the overall system is smaller despite also having more keys and the pitch & mod wheels), but smaller than a full-sized synth.
But the most important thing is that these keys love to be PLAYED. The minute I hooked up and plugged into iGrand Piano and chose a jazz upright I was able to bang out some funky block chords and melody lines. Then I switched to GarageBand and laid down a groove and jammed with a square-wave lead sound, and just played and played and played. I really love the feel of the keys and the size is a great compromise, and the wheels have a perfectly balanced feel compared with the pro synths in my house.
As a non-pianist (and non-typist) I tend to be a bit more flexible on adapting my hack skills to new tools, so I was concerned how it would feel to my son the pianist. Rather than detailing his thoughts, let me say this – it took me considerable effort to get the iRig Keys back from him in order to grab the images for the review. The iRig Keys has become the centerpiece of his music studio in our basement, and the m-Audio Axiom Pro 25 has been retired to the secondary setup.
Will It Hold Up?
Ultimately the most significant way to test product sturdiness is the way you do NOT want to test it: by dropping it on the floor. Well … that is what happened. When bringing the iRig Keys back downstairs I was carrying other things at the same time – too much – and the iRig Keys tipped forward out of my hands and bump-bump-bump-bump down the stairs. Ugh.
But much to my (happy) surprise, there was absolutely no sign anything had happened. The keyboard was perfectly fine without a bump or ding or other sign of anything wrong. And I could immediately plug in and play – there were no electronic issues either.
iRig Keys has traveled around inside of our house, but hasn’t been put to the test of traveling around in a backpack yet. Based on the couple of weeks of us hammering on it so far, I am impressed and feel it is likely to withstand the rigors of the real world.
What About Lightning?
Just as I got the iRig Keys for review Apple started shipping their new iPad Mini and iPad 4 with Lightning connector. I asked IK Multimedia about this, and what they said was that they are looking into how to deal with the new connector, but can confirm that iRig Keys (and iRig MIDI and others) works perfectly with Apple’s Lightning to 30-pin adapter. So they recommend using that as your solution if you have a new iOS device.
I have been impressed with the improved durability of each new product from IK Multimedia – no one ever said that making low-cost products focused on great sound that also were robustly constructed would be easy! But with products like the seemingly indestructible iRig, the solid iRid MIDI and iRig Stomp, iKlip Studio and now the iRig Keys, IK seems to have found a way to get the features they need without compromising build quality. For a product like this that is very important.
But the most important things are that iRig Keys works with just about everything, and that the playability is so high. Using the iRig Keys hooked into my iPad just sitting on the couch is a joy, and one I look forward to experiencing for quite a while.
It is interesting that in all of this I never mentioned key accuracy and latency. If I was reviewing this back in the 80s, those would have been of considerable interest – I recall as instruments began streaming more and more MIDI data and software like Performer began recording it all that I would be concerned about losing data. But that was almost thirty years ago, and USB (or iOS 30-pin) connections handle that transfer without an issue and the iPad and even a netbook can easily process all streaming MIDI data in real-time without issue.
My final thought: if you are looking for an affordable iOS keyboard controller, this is the one. There are others available, but having spent a bunch of time a couple of months ago on 7 sub-$150 iOS solutions at a Guitar Center I was unhappy with all of them. iRig Keys is the first time I can recommend one without reservation.
And here is an unboxing and hands-on video of the iRig Keys in use:
Review: iRig Keys
Price: $99.99 MSRP, but $95.87 through Amazon
What I Like: Solid and robust feel; works with everything; perfect MIDI data streaming integrity; best iOS keyboard controller yet!
What Needs Improvement: Nothing!
Source: Publisher provided review sample