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iRig KEYS Portable MIDI Keyboard

A portable MIDI controller compatible with iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch and Mac/PC

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iRig KEYS Package

iRig KEYS Package

Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Introduction

Whether you're a musician wanting a portable MIDI keyboard for the road, or need a capable MIDI controller at home that doesn't take up a lot of space, then IK Multimedia thinks it has the perfect answer. The iRig KEYS comes with 3 full octaves (which is more than some other competing portable MIDI controllers) and also boasts flexible interfaces so you can connect it to iOS devices (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) and PC / Mac computers. The iRig KEYS also sports a lot of built-in features that can be customized to your own particular needs.

But, how well does it perform for creating digital music -- and more importantly, is it worth the investment?

Pros:

  • Solidly constructed, light-weight, and small enough to carry almost anywhere.
  • Velocity-sensitive keys are responsive to the touch.
  • Dual interfaces (iOS and USB) for iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and PC / Mac.
  • Connection for optional expressive and sustain pedals.
  • Built-in facility to store up to 4 different keyboard configurations.
  • Good selection of free software included for iOS, PC and Mac.
  • Excellent value for money.

Cons:

  • No cable or adapter included to connect iRig KEYS to new Apple devices with Lightning connector (only comes with cable for 30-pin connector).
  • If you've got large hands, then the mini-keys could make playing awkward.

Before You Buy

Whether you're short on space, or need a portable MIDI keyboard to travel with, read through this part of the article to find out about the iRig KEYS main features, specifications, and what to consider before you buy.

Main Features:

  • iOS Compatibility: iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch with 30-pin connector.
  • PC and Mac compatible via USB.
  • Universal MIDI controller.
  • Keyboard layout: 37-note / 3 octave.
  • Programmable velocity response.
  • Pitch bend and modulation wheels.
  • 4 user configurable keyboard presets.
  • Input for optional expression or sustain pedals.

Technical Specifications:

  • Dimensions (W/L/H): 19.8" (50.3cm) x 4.7" (12.0cm) x 1.6" (4.0cm).
  • Weight: 1.5 lbs (660g).
  • Mac Operating System: Mac OS X 10.5 or higher.
  • Windows operating system: Windows 7 / Vista (SP1) / XP (SP3).

Build Quality, Style and Design: before purchasing any digital music gadget that is designed to be portable, you'll first want to make sure it can stand up to the knocks and bumps that will inevitably happen. Looking at the build quality of the iRig KEYS, it is constructed of sturdy material, with the casing having well-rounded edges to reduce the likelihood of damage from accidental impacts. The 37 keys and controls are also well-made and are positive to the touch -- reinforcing the feeling of reliability.

From a style and design perspective, the iRig KEYS' interface is user-friendly and intuitive to use. All the controls are intelligently grouped together which helps to create an efficient workflow. There's also just enough LED lights on the keyboard to give you essential feedback on settings and connections without too much sensory overload as with some control surfaces.

Overall, the iRig KEYS not only feels sturdy, but has a stylish interface that is intuitive to use.

Setting up the iRig KEYS

iRig KEYS Inputs

iRig KEYS Inputs

Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com, Inc.

iOS Devices: in order to start using the keyboard with your iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch you need to connect it using the included iOS dock cable. This has a 30-pin connection that will fit pre-lightning connector iOS devices. With this in mind, you may have to purchase a 30-pin to lightning adapter (Compare Prices) if your Apple device is newer.

To get you started, IK Multimedia provide SampleTank Free and iGrand Piano Free apps on the iTunes Store. These come with a good level of functionality -- SampleTank in particular has a good selection of audio editing options to manipulate its sample library. Of course, you don't have to use just these two apps -- the iRig KEYS is a universal MIDI controller and so any app that supports the MIDI language will work. For example, we tried it with the very popular GarageBand app and were able to use all the iRig KEYS features without a hitch.

PC and Mac: to use the iRig KEYS with your PC or Mac, you'll need to connect it up with the included USB (A to mini-B) cable. Once done, the USB LED light on the keyboard will illuminate showing that you're good to go. Also included in the box is a registration card for IK Multimedia's SampleTank 2 L software. Using your free serial number, this virtual instrument sound workstation can be downloaded from their website along with a generous 2-gigabyte sample library. SampleTank 2 L (which can be used as a standalone or DAW plugin) is normally a paid-for extra and so makes the iRig KEYS even better value for money.

Controls and Features

As previously mentioned, the iRig KEYS comes with quite a few controls and features to enhance your playing. This includes:

  • Vol/Data Control: as well as being a volume control knob by default you can also configure it (in edit mode) to send any other MIDI message. This is a handy feature for specific control changes.
  • Pitch Bend and Modulation Wheels: for times when you want to instantly change the pitch of an instrument or add vibrato, etc., these two wheels are another useful feature -- not all portable MIDI controllers have these so if you like to play live then this could be an essential feature.
  • Octave and Program Change Up/Down Buttons: using these two sets of controls you can easily shift the octave up or down on the keyboard and change instruments without having to use your audio software. Both sets of controls have back-lit illumination. There's no digital display for the octave range on the keyboard, but shifting up or down flashes the LED button a number of times -- this tells you how many octaves you have shifted from the default range (which is C2 to C5).
  • Set Key: this is a great feature for customizing your iRig KEYS. There are 4 presets available that you can program in order to setup your keyboard in different ways. Configuring this feature is relatively easy once you get the hang of it -- one of the four LED lights net to the Set button will be illuminated showing which preset bank your working on. If you find that you regularly need to switch your keyboard to different configurations, then this feature is a real boon. You'll be able to quickly change how the keyboard sends MIDI information without having to keep changing to edit mode and changing things manually all the time.
  • Pedal Input: on the rear of the keyboard is an input that you can use for plugging in sustain or expressive pedal controls.
  • Variable Velocity Response: this is a great feature for changing how the keyboard responds when you hit the keys. The iRig KEYS is a velocity-sensitive keyboard that plays instruments louder or softer depending on how hard you hit the keys. However, with this feature you can change the default mode -- there are 6 settings to choose from (3 fixed and 3 sensitivity levels).

Conclusion

iRig KEYS Keyboard View

iRig KEYS Keyboard View

Image © Mark Harris - Licensed to About.com, Inc.

Playing the iRig KEYS is a comfortable and pleasant experience, with controls such as the pitch/mod wheels and octave up/down buttons being conveniently positioned. There's quite a few user-configurable features too that will help you setup the keyboard just the way you like it. In particular, there's the SET button which is used to select up to 4 user-presets. This is a handy feature which negates the need to perform repetitive configuration tasks when changing how the keyboard sends MIDI data. The size of the mini-keys are just right for the average person to play, but you may struggle if your hands are particularly large.

One of the most standout advantages we like about the iRig KEYS for creating digital music is its interfacing flexibility. You can either plug it into your iOS device (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch) or PC / Mac computer. However, if you intend on using the iRig KEYS with an Apple device with the newer Lightning connector, then you'll need to purchase a 30-pin to Lightning adapter at extra cost. Ideally, we would have liked to see the iOS dock cable come with dual plugs, or maybe even an adapter. That said, the iRig KEYS still remains a very flexible MIDI controller for playing at home or on the road.

Looking at the software side of things, we tried the iRig KEYS with a number of DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) including the very popular Garageband app on the iPhone with excellent results. What we also liked is that the iRig KEYS also comes with its own software to get you started -- especially useful if you're new to the world of digital audio creation. As well as SampleTank Free and iGrand Piano apps for iOS, IK Multimedia have also included SampleTank 2 L which is normally a paid-for option. If you (or your kids) are just getting into making music on a PC or Mac, then the 2 Gb sample library that it comes with is well worth the download.

Overall, if you're looking for a solidly constructed and light-weight portable MIDI keyboard that won't break the bank, then the iRig KEYS offers an impressive array of features for your home/mobile studio.

Disclosure: Review samples were provided by the manufacturer. For more information, please see our Ethics Policy.
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