Review: IK Multimedia iRig KEYS
The iPad has spawned a wide variety of music creation apps, ranging from highly sophisticated professional MIDI samplers to Apple's own brilliant iOS version of GarageBand. Many of these apps offer features that easily rival desktop PC and Mac music applications, and have the added benefit of the iPad touchscreen to create unique and dynamic virtual instruments. But for many musicians and composers, the iPad touchscreen is a weak replacement for an actual physical piano keyboard, in terms of surface area, tactile feedback, and true velocity sensitivity. IK Multimedia's new iRig KEYS ($100) is the latest in the company's lineup of music accessories for the iOS platform, providing an affordable but professional-grade portable MIDI keyboard controller that can be used with any number of Core MIDI compliant apps -- not only on the iPad, but also some iPhones and iPod touches.
Designed to be highly portable, iRig KEYS is a universal MIDI keyboard that provides direct connection to the 30-pin Dock Connector port on an iPad, iPhone or iPod touch as well as a micro-USB port for connection to a Mac or PC; a standard micro USB cable and a two-foot, seven-pin DIN to 30-pin Dock Connector cable are included in the package.
The keyboard includes 37 velocity-sensitive keys along with pitch bend and modulation wheels, a user-assignable control knob and illuminated buttons for octave and program change. At the top-left corner, you’ll find a 7-pin DIN connector for the included Dock Connector cable, a micro-USB port for connecting to a Mac or PC, and a pedal port for connecting an optional external sustain/expression pedal. Core MIDI compliance allows iRig KEYS to be used with a wide variety of iOS music apps, and IK Multimedia provides users with free versions of its SampleTank and iGrand Piano apps for download on the App Store.
iRig KEYS also offers a number of more advanced MIDI features beyond those that would be expected from a basic keyboard. MIDI program and control change messages can be sent directly from the device and users can store up to four presets for quick recall using the “Set” button on the device. The control knob defaults to MIDI volume control (CC#07) but can be easily reassigned to any other MIDI control change operation, and users can also set the MIDI transmit channel, choose from six different touch/velocity sensitivities, transpose the keyboard, send specific MIDI program changes, and even send an “All Notes Off” message.
At 19.8” across and 4.7” deep, iRig KEYS comes in slightly wider but less deep than the Korg MicroKEY-25, but includes an extra octave of range, at the cost of only slightly narrower keys, while weighing in at about the same 1.4 lbs. However, iRig KEYS also includes the pitch bend and modulation wheels as well as advanced MIDI features usually found only on otherwise larger keyboards such as the Samson Carbon 49. Pianists may find the keys too narrow compared to other options, but to be fair, they might not even consider a keyboard with such a limited octave range in the first place; most users should find the keyboard size and spacing to be more than adequate for more typical MIDI synth-style uses.
Where iRig KEYS is particularly unique is in its ability to connect directly to a 30-pin Dock Connector, eliminating the need for the separate $29 Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit to connect to an iPad via USB, and also thereby offering compatibility with Dock Connector-based iPhones and iPod touches. The use of a proprietary 7-pin DIN to Dock Connector cable is a slight concern in this regard, but at two feet should be long enough for most purposes. iRig KEYS is also not externally powered, and instead draws a small amount of power from the connected iOS device, although it automatically turns itself off in order to save power unless a Core MIDI compliant app is running. The obvious disadvantage here is that since the Dock Connector is being used to interface with the iRig KEYS, external power cannot be connected at the same time, which may be an issue for users planning for longer sessions.
IK Multimedia also promises compatibility with the iPhone 5 and fifth-generation iPod through the use of Apple’s Lightning to 30-Pin Adapter, which worked fine in our own testing with the iPhone 5, and will hopefully also support the iPad mini and fourth-generation iPad. Although it’s highly unfortunate that this will require an extra expense, it seems unavoidable until Apple starts allowing third-party developers to build their own Lightning connectors. At $100, iRig KEYS carries a slight price premium over similar options we’ve reviewed, however this is actually easily justified considering its direct iOS device support—you essentially save $29 on a separate USB adapter and gain older iPhone and iPod touch compatibility in the process. In our opinion the iRig KEYS is a great option for serious musicians who are looking for a full-featured, portable MIDI keyboard controller to use on the go.