Review: IK Multimedia iRig Keys I/O | iLounge

Review

Review: IK Multimedia iRig Keys I/O

A
Highly Recommended

Company: IK Multimedia

Model: iRig Keys I/O

Price: $200–$300

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Jesse Hollington

IK Multimedia has impressed us quite a bit over the years with its lineup of music accessories that make it a priority to provide tight iOS compatibility. It was one of the first companies on the scene to provide music creation solutions that could directly connect to an iPad, iPhone, or iPod in an era when most other companies simply expected users to rely on more convoluted USB connectivity, and even though other manufacturers have started to provide direct iOS interfaces, IK Multimedia is still one of the few that doesn’t treat iOS devices as an afterthought. It’s been a while since we’ve looked at anything from IK Multimedia, which we think speaks to the staying power of many of their products — our iRig Keys is still working just as well for us today as it was when it first arrived six years ago — but there’s always room for bigger and better products, as IK Multimedia proves with its new iRig Keys I/O ($200/$300), a solution that builds on the company’s more straightforward keyboard controllers, expanding the design into a full-fledged music production station.

Eschewing the previous distinctions between iRig Keys, iRig Keys Pro, and iRig Keys Mini, the new iRig Keys I/O is branded as a single product that’s available in two versions that differ only in the size and number of keys provided — a small 25-key version for ultra portability sells for $200, while a 49-key version that provides a four-octave range in a form factor that’s still remarkably light and compact is priced at $300. While the small version mirrors the number of keys found on the iRig Keys Mini, they’re full-sized keys on iRig Keys I/O, and the 49-key version goes one octave beyond IK Multimedia’s previous keyboard controllers, while only adding four inches to the overall width, coming in at 27.3 by 8.2 by 2.6 inches and just under five pounds.

However, IK Multimedia has managed to pack a lot more into the available space, not only adding 12 additional keys, but a set of eight velocity-sensitive, multicolored pads, a volume knob along with four touch-sensitive encoder knobs, a pair of touch-sensitive sliders, six additional touch-sensitive buttons, and an LED status display. What’s even more remarkable is that the 25-key version packs all of the same controls squeezed into an even smaller form factor. It should also almost go without saying that all of the encoders and sliders are fully programmable so they can be configured to send whatever MIDI program and control change messages are appropriate for your setup.

There’s also more here in terms of inputs and outputs, which is exactly what we’d expect from a device that not only bills itself as a music production station, but also has “I/O” in its very product name. IK Multimedia is still using its standard 7-pin DIN connector for its digital interface, and includes both a Lightning and USB cable, so it’s ready to be connected to your iPad or iPhone right out of the box, but can also be used with a Mac, PC, or any other USB-compatible MIDI gear, such as a sequencer or USB MIDI hub; it’s worth mentioning that iRig Keys I/O doesn’t include any traditional MIDI ports, so you’ll need to add your own interface if you want to connect it to standard MIDI equipment, but as far as we’re concerned the incredible collection of Core MIDI apps available for iOS mitigates the need for complicated hardware rigs for most users’ needs, and we think the primary focus of iRig Keys I/O is to allow you to use an iPad, or even an iPhone, to effectively create a lightweight yet powerful portable studio without the need for any extra gear. There’s even a mobile device stand already included in the box so you can prop up your iPad right behind the workstation.

Beyond the digital interface, however, iRig Keys I/O also combines the capabilities of many of IK Multimedia’s other products for an all-in-one recording solution. There’s an unbalanced, high-impedance 1/4” TS jack for connecting a guitar or other instrument, basically giving you a built-in iRig HD 2, and a balanced XLR microphone input that can provide 48V phantom power, integrating the features of IK’s iRig Pro. The analog inputs are also all backed by a Class A preamp and an integrated 24-bit, 96 kHz DAC for pristine sampling quality. A pair of balanced 1/4” TRS jacks provide line output of up to +13 dBu into 600 ohms, and a 3.5mm stereo headphone jack lets you plug a set of headphones in directly. There’s also a 1/4” TRS jack for connecting an external pedal (not included). Unlike prior models, iRig Keys I/O will not draw bus power from an iOS device, so you’ll need to either use the included 4 AA batteries or purchase an external DC power supply, although the good news is that iRig Keys I/O is also capable of keeping your connecting iPad or iPhone powered when used with an external power supply, saving you the trouble of getting an iRig PowerBridge for long sessions.

Above the keyboard are a set of completely programmable controls, including eight velocity sensitive multicolored pads that are basically smaller versions of those found in IK Multimedia’s iRig Pads, and can be assigned to send MIDI ON/OFF, channel, or control change messages, with the LED providing visual feedback, allowing you add effects or control beats while performing or composing. Two touch-sensitive control strips on the left replace the pitch bend and modulation wheels found in the earlier iRig Keys Pro, and can also be reprogrammed to send any other MIDI CC messages instead. Four touch-sensitive knobs can be set up as MIDI encoders, and also support a second bank of assignments, providing up to eight controllers in total, and can actually be configured to send either absolute values in single-unit increments from 0 to 127, or to send custom CC values to allow for less granular control changes or quick browsing of longer lists. Three transport buttons also allow for direct control of sequencing/recording apps such as GarageBand right out of the box. All of the buttons and controls are placed within easy reach, and we found that they were very responsive and easily became completely intuitive to use. There’s also of course an octave change button as well for shifting the octave range up or down the scale — the 49-key model begins set to C1 through C5 by default, while the smaller 25-key unit starts between C2 and C4. Along with five built-in factory presets, iRig Keys I/O provides 99 user presets so that the entire configuration of knobs, pads, touch sliders, and even the external pedal assignment can be saved and recalled, allowing multiple custom setups for various performance or recording environments, and up to eight can be assigned for fast recall through the pad buttons, allowing for quick changes during live performances.

While Core MIDI pretty much guarantees that iRig Keys I/O will work with a wide range of MIDI apps, including Apple’s GarageBand, IK Multimedia is also, as usual, throwing in its own enhanced collection of apps, including the full version of SampleTank instruments and the Prophet-5 and Prophet-10 instruments for Syntronik for iOS. For Mac users, there’s also the full version of SampleTank 3 for Mac, T-RackS 4 Deluxe, and Ableton Live 10 Lite. Owners of the 49-key version also get 140 free Miroslav Philharmonic 2 instruments for SampleTank for iOS, and Miroslav Philharmonic 2 CE for Mac.

As we’ve already noted, IK Multimedia has always impressed us with its iOS-focused solutions, providing MFi-certified products that work with the iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch right out of the box. With iRig Keys I/O, however, IK Multimedia has hit one right out of the park, providing a comprehensive DAW-ready music production station that’s portable enough to take on the road, yet sophisticated enough to provide the tools that modern musicians need for their performing and recording gigs. As it did with the iRig Pro five years ago, IK Multimedia has once again produced the rare device that’s significantly better than the sum of its parts. This one unit can serve as a central hub for not only keyboardists, but vocalists and guitarists, eliminating the need to carry around a lot of additional cables and accessories and hook everything up separately, and the comprehensive MIDI integration, wide selection of programmable controls, user-assignable presets, and selection of quality Core MIDI apps for iOS means that iRig Keys I/O provides an incredible wealth of music production possibilities from a device that you can sling over your shoulder. If you’re a musician who wants to compose and work primarily on an iPad, iRig Keys I/O is not only the best iPad music accessory you’ll find, but quite possibly the only one you’ll ever need.

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Editors' Note: iLounge only reviews products in "final" form, but many companies now change their offerings - sometimes several times - after our reviews have been published. This iLounge article provides more information on this practice, known as revving.

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