October 21, 2013
The Apple iPad is quickly becoming a go-to portable music device for many musicians, whether they’re composing, sequencing, performing, DJing, notating, or crafting sounds.
Thanks to the iOS 4.2 upgrade, MIDI is now very much a feature of all iOS devices.
There’s now a huge range of apps available, and for those which allow you to perform live or input music data in real time, the ability to add a physical keyboard is a real plus point.
This article will:
- show you what equipment you’ll need
- offer hints and tips to enable you to get the most from your hardware
- show you what portable keyboards are currently available
Equipment: What You Need
iPad, iPhone or iPod touch
Nearly any iOS device — that’s iPad, iPhone and iPod touch — is capable of working with external keyboard hardware so long as it has at iOS 4.2 or newer installed on it.
Assuming this is the case, you then need to find out whether your device has a standard dock connector or a newer Lightning connector. This affects what interface you need.
You can’t connect a music keyboard directly to an iOS device, so you’ll need to use an interface.
These interfaces allow you to hook up at least one MIDI instrument to your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch. Some will allow two or more devices to be connected at once.
Generally, buy the most up-to-date interface you can. Older interfaces may not run with the latest apps. That said, you need to ensure that the interface connection works with your generation of Apple device.
Most MIDI-compatible keyboards, digital pianos, synths and workstations can be used with the appropriately kitted-out iOS device.
Some instruments feature “MIDI IN” and “MIDI OUT” ports. MIDI cables feature 5-pin circular connectors which plug in to the port on the instrument.
Newer instruments feature a USB connection which will transmit MIDI data. This only requires a single cable between the instrument and interface.
You’ll need one or more cables to connect between the interface and the MIDI instrument. This will depend on what connections each piece of kit has.
Some interfaces are supplied with cables, which is fine so long as you’re using them with an instrument that can be connected.
Common cables include MIDI to MIDI (full-size/mini) and USB to either USB or MIDI (full-size/mini).
Recommended iPad MIDI Interfaces
The IK Multimedia iRig features 3 MIDI ports: IN/OUT/THRU, plus 2 LEDs for displaying MIDI IN/OUT activity. Importantly, the micro USB port also charges the iOS device so you won’t run out of power during use.
An upgrade to Line 6’s original MIDI Mobilizer, the MIDI Mobilizer II works with the iPod touch (3rd and 4th generations), iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, iPad 2 and iPad. It includes two 5 foot, 5-pin Planet Waves MIDI cables and is powered through the iOS device.
One thing to be aware of is that this relies on the device’s battery alone. You can’t keep the Apple device charged while using it. This is a potential problem for longer projects.
Offers MIDI IN and OUT jacks, but doesn’t allow the device to be charged while in use.
Recommended Portable Keyboards
Apple devices can be used with almost any MIDI instrument (not just keyboards) so it would be ridiculous to list all of them here.
Instead, we’ve picked out some portable keyboards specifically designed or targeted at Apple’s mobile devices.
25-key (2 Octave) Keyboards
Akai MPK25 25-Key MIDI Controller Keyboard
Features 25 full-sized semi-weighted keys with touch response and aftertouch, a USB/MIDI connection, and plenty of programmable controllers including pads and knobs.
Korg MICROKEY25 Micro USB MIDI Keyboard
Thin, lightweight, USB powered controller keyboard from one of the best names in synth and keyboard design. The mini keys are velocity sensitive, and controls include octave, transposition, arpeggiator, sustain/tap, and a joystick. It will connect to an iPad via the Camera Connection Kit.
Line 6 Mobile Keys 25-Key Midi Controller
Features 25 full-size, velocity sensitive keys with power supplied by the iOS device. It has a pitch bend and modulation wheel, volume and pan knobs, octave up/down buttons, plus a 1/4-inch jacks for connecting expression and sustain pedals.
Novation Launchkey 25-Key USB MIDI Controller Keyboard
Featuring 25 mini keys, the Novation Launchkey also features 8 knobs, 16 tri-color velocity-sensitive launch pads plus two more assignable buttons. It also ships with Ableton software if you wish to use the controller keyboard with a PC or Mac.
32-Key (2.5 Octave) Keyboards
M-Audio Keystation Mini 32 Ultra-Portable USB Midi Keyboard Controller
32 low-profile velocity-sensitive mini keys, plus four assignable controls for real-time adjusting of parameters. The keyboard sensitivity can be adjusted as required. It works with the iPad if connected via the Camera Connection Kit.
37-Key (3 Octave) Keyboards
IK Multimedia iRig Keys Compact Midi Controller
An ultra-slim 37-mini key keyboard which connects directly to an iOS device via the 30-pin dock. It also features a pitch bend and modulation wheel, input for sustain or expression pedal, plus five backlit soft-touch buttons and a set button which allows for more configuration and preset options. It features a virtual instrument app plus SampleTank.
49-Key (4 Octave) Keyboards
Akai Professional SynthStation 49
Akai’s SynthStation 49 features a full-size velocity-sensitive keyboard, pitch and modulation wheels, nine velocity-sensitive MPC-style drum pads with backlights, transport control buttons, a built-in dock for iPad, plus 1/4″ stereo audio outputs. It currently won’t work with the 4th generation iPad.
Samson Carbon 49-Key MIDI Controller Keyboard
This semi-weighted keyboard controller includes assignable data encoder, volume slider, edit key, LED display, sustain pedal input, transpose/octave buttons, pitch and modulation wheels and a dedicated slot for holding an iPad.
Hints and Tips
- Think about what types of musical activity you’ll be using the controller keyboard for and pick an appropriate size and level of controllability based on that. Do you need to play in real-time or are you entering notes and beats in step time? Would a larger keyboard be better or is a compact space-saving instrument more important? Do you need lots of additional controllers.
- Do you want to use the controller keyboard with a laptop computer as well as your iPad/iPhone? Check out what connections it has.
- Not all keyboards or interfaces allow you to charge the Apple device while you’re using it, so take care particularly if you’re using processor-intensive apps for long periods of time or while performing live.
- Do you need the controller keyboard to have its own on-board sounds and effects, or are you exclusively using it to drive the audio found in your iOS apps?
- Are all the apps you want to use compatible with the interface and keyboard you want to use. If you’re not sure, read the help files or contact the developer or manufacturer to find out.
As always, the market changes rapidly, so keep an eye on the latest developments by following us.
August 11, 2013
Keyboard instruments come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and while the basic layout of the keys remains the same, their size, weight and feel varies significantly between instruments.
This guide will help you pick the best keys for your playing needs.
1. Keyboard Options
The three main factors to consider are the number of keys a keyboard has, what size they are, and how heavy they are to play.
Number of Keys
Keyboards range from 25 or fewer keys right up to 88 or more keys, usually on a single tier keyboard but sometimes, in the case of an organ, in two or more tiers.
Digital pianos, emulating their acoustic cousins, often have 88 keys, although 76-key and 73-key models are also quite common.
Workstation and controller keyboards often also feature a full 88 key keyboard, although they range considerably and include 2-octave (25 key), 4-octave (49 key), 5-octave (61 key) and 73/76-key.
Less expensive home keyboards often come with 61 keys, though larger and smaller versions are available.
Size of Keys
The size of keys are usually described in relation to that of an acoustic piano or an organ.
Full-sized keys are found on digital pianos and a variety of other synths, workstations and home keyboards.
Mini-keys are often found on very inexpensive keyboards designed for children, although some ultra-portable controller keyboards may also incorporate them. Generally they are smaller in both width (side to side) and length (front to back) than full-size keys, and some larger adult fingers may find it difficult to play distinct notes.
Hybrid keys (my term) may have the full width of piano keys but a reduced length.
Shape of Keys
White and black keys may differ in shape between various keyboard styles and manufacturers.
Digital pianos generally emulate the key shape found on an acoustic piano.
Other keyboards with full-size keys may have more rounded or angled keys.
White keys may have a full front to them, akin to a piano, or just a few millimetres, like an organ.
Weight of Keys
A key’s weight refers to how much physical resistance it offers when a player’s finger strikes it. Key weight varies significantly between different types and manufacturers of keyboard, and even across an individual instrument.
Digital pianos may have a fairly heavy uniform weight of key across the entire range, or they may simulate an acoustic piano by ensuring the lower (bass) keys have a heavier touch than the higher (treble) keys. Other workstation and controller keyboards may also have piano-style keys like this.
Organ/synth action style keys are generally light to the touch, with no difference between upper and lower keys. Semi-weighted keys offer a weight somewhere between weighted and organ/synth.
There is no standard weight for any key type, even on different keyboards from the same manufacturer. One thing to bear in mind is that some keyboards offer the user the ability to change the weight of the keyboard. In fact, this alters how sensitive the keys are to the player’s touch. It does not change the physical weight of the keys, or the strength required to play them.
Some weighted key keyboards feature an internal mechanism very similar to a piano, including the hammers, whereas others employ some kind of resistance to produce a noticeable weight in the key.
Finish of Keys
Keys may come in a variety of finishes. Digital pianos and higher-end workstations will often simulate the feel of acoustic piano keys (of course, ebony and ivory are no longer used). The keys on most keyboards have a slight gloss/sheen to them. Expensive keyboard instruments may incorporate material designed to absorb moisture from the fingers.
Velocity Sensitive Keys
The keys on all but the cheapest keyboard instruments are velocity sensitive. That is, the instrument responds to how hard a player hits a key, often by making the sound louder and possibly altering its timbre, much as a piano does. There is often an option to turn this feature on or off, or some voices such as organs may not register it.
Aftertouch Sensitive Keys
More expensive synthesiser and workstation keyboards feature keys which can transmit aftertouch information. That is, once the key has first been struck, additional pressure on the key can trigger further effects such as vibrato, pitch bend, and so on. It requires different hardware to be built in to the key bed, under each key, together with the operating system to process it.
Some keyboards offer polyphonic aftertouch. That is, the keyboard can recognise and respond simultaneously to varying pressure on each key currently being depressed. Other keyboards will only respond to the aftertouch on one key (which may be the first or last key pressed) no matter how many keys are held down. The first offers greater sound altering possibilities while the second may offer a more uniform effect. The latter style is more common.
2. Choosing a Keyboard
The theory is all well and good, but what type of keyboard should you choose for your needs?
If you want an experience as close to an acoustic piano as possible, then you will want fully weighted, full-size keys. Generally, the more you pay for an instrument, the better its key action will be. Aftertouch is not a consideration, and it won’t be available on most (if any) digital piano keyboards. Best suited for piano-intensive music including classical and jazz.
If you’re looking for ease of playing synth or organ parts, a non-weighted organ/synth style key weight will most likely suit you. It can be quite difficult playing fast jazz organ parts on a weighted keyboard. Best suited when piano realism isn’t a top priority.
Semi-weighted keys provide the best of both worlds — or a compromise, depending on how you look at it. A semi-weighted keyboard with a good, solid action can be a good all-rounder, heavy enough for ample expression in piano parts but light enough for fast organ/synth solos and the like.
You will generally pay more for a keyboard equipped with aftertouch, but it can be a very useful and intuitive controller for synth players. It’s generally found on higher-end synthesisers and workstation keyboards.
Size of Hands
If you’re buying a keyboard primarily for a very young child, an instrument with mini keys may be your best option. Otherwise, full-size keys are generally the way to go unless you are simply using the keyboard for step input or small pieces of live playing.
Controlling Other Equipment
Your choice of key type may be dictated by whether you are using it as a standalone keyboard or whether it will control other sound sources.
This can also be a valuable consideration if you like a particular model but aren’t mad keen on its keyboard. Many keyboards can be controlled from a different keyboard, via MIDI. It may also be possible to get a sound module (has no keyboard) version of the keyboard you are interested in, or even a software emulation of it.
This may not be so helpful for touring/gigging musicians, but for those primarily studio-based it’s a definite consideration. You may well end up with a really great keyboard which you can use to control a number of other devices.
Generally, keyboards with a greater number or weight of keys will be heavier, although other factors must be considered such as whether it has built-in speakers.
If you are frequently on the road and need to travel light, smaller and lighter keyboards may be what you need. If you need a decent piano and can compromise a little on size and weight, a semi-weighted 76-key keyboard is a good choice.
3. Testing it Out
Purchasing instruments online can be a great time and money saver but sadly it doesn’t offer the possibility of testing out different keyboards.
Even if you know the basic specification of an instrument, you can only really know how it plays by getting hands-on time with it.
Keyboards vary, even between models from the same manufacturer, due to price and changes/improvements in construction style. If you are able to, I would recommend visiting a music shop and trying out the keyboards you are interested in.
Our keyboard finder database lists basic specifications for a range of digital pianos, keyboards and synths, including the number of keys and an indication of key weight.
July 26, 2013
With so many iPad music creation apps available, it would be nice to have something physical to play notes on. While it is possible to hook up external keyboard controllers, how about this product — still in development — which combines a protective case and a musical keyboard.
The C.24 is a two-octave wireless keyboard controller and case. The device will send MIDI data to the iPad for use by whatever compatible apps are installed and running.
As well as the mini keys there’s also a capacitive analogue strip, divided into two and with display LEDs. The right-hand side of the strip is used to control pitch bend while the left-hand side is divided into eight virtual buttons that can control such elements as octave shift and effects like modulation. The developing company, Miselu, has also created an open standards interface which means that other devices could be added for further control. There’s a space above the existing keyboard for such devices such as faders and knobs to be housed.
Donating $99 to the Kickstarter project will guarantee you one of the first devices, expected to be ready to ship in November.
Check out the company’s promo video below which explains the key concepts.
There’s also a longer video (around 16 minutes) in which VP of design, Mike Prichard, talks about the design process.
February 21, 2012
Fancy getting your hands on a vintage piece of Hohner kit? The Hohner Bass 2 Keyboard is from the 1960s. This auction offers up one in very good condition and fully functioning.
Seller ringobellini says that they run it through an SVT with a tube driver to get a great fuzz bass tone.
The Hohner Bass 2 features decay, volume controls, 3 voice selector buttons, slot for stand/mount, battery life meter, 9V power input, and 1/4″ audio output.
The casing is olive green.
Here’s a video comparison of the Hohner Bass 2 and Hohner Bass 3.
January 22, 2012
It includes 100 preset songs designed to help beginners learn to play the keyboard.
It features 392 built-in voices including realistic acoustic instruments including drums, plus synths and sound effects. There are 100 preset accompaniment styles on board.
Finally, the Yamaha Education Suite offers various lessons and tutorials for the budding pianist.
Available now for a RRP of $299. Buy now at zZounds.com.
January 16, 2012
The answer to this question boils down to how authentic you want your piano-playing experience to be.
On the surface, there really isn’t much difference between an acoustic piano, a digital piano, and any of the multitude of music keyboards and synthesizers.
This means it’s possible to play the same notes on both a piano and a keyboard.
However, all instruments vary in how they feel and how they respond to a player’s touch.
Acoustic and digital pianos often have heavier keys which are weighted more heavily at the lower end (left-hand side) of the keyboard and have a lighter touch at the top end (right-hand side). Most standard keyboards and synthesizers do not have this.
Additionally, nothing can completely rival a true acoustic piano in terms of sound. High-end digital pianos come close. Every digital instrument is only giving an approximation of the sound of an acoustic piano.
Cheaper instruments, and those for whom a realistic piano sound is not a priority (such as some synthesizers which are more geared to creating non-acoustic sounds) may not offer all the nuances and subtleties you’d expect from an acoustic piano or a very good digital piano.
However, the average musician and listener may never notice the difference. A seasoned classical or jazz pianist might do, but could still use a digital piano or keyboard from time to time for convenience.
It’s also worth considering that most pianos have at least 76 keys on their keyboard, and usually 88 keys, whereas some keyboards and synths have 49 or 61 keys (four or five octaves). This means that some pieces of music which have a wide range might be very difficult to play seamlessly.
So yes, you can play piano notes on a keyboard but you should be aware of its possible limitations.
April 28, 2011
If you’re enamoured by the range and quality of Yamaha keyboards, you’re not alone. Laden with features and available at attractive prices, Yamaha instruments are a great buy whether you’re new to keyboard playing or a seasoned pro.
We’ll save the range of Yamaha’s digital pianos for another article. Here, we’ll take a look at the main categories of keyboard and make suggestions as to which is best for you.
Types of Yamaha Keyboard
Yamaha Portable Keyboards
These might be considered Yamaha’s entry level keyboards, but in fact they don’t skimp on features.
Recognisable by their PSR or YPT product codes, they generally consist of five octave (61 key) keyboards with a light touch that’s sensitive to playing pressure. They usually include a wide range of natural and synthetic sounds, including acoustic pianos, auto-accompaniment styles and built-in speakers.
Yamaha Piaggero Series
The Piaggero keyboards (NP Series) offer a bit more keyboard real estate. They feature a 76 key keyboard (about six octaves), plus improved built-in speakers, sounds and accompaniments. They cost a bit more as a consequence but are more suited to styles of music where a wider range is useful. See the current range.
Yamaha Lighted Keys
Just one Yamaha keyboard features lighted keys. The EZ-200 can make it easier to learn pieces of music by lighting up which keys should be played.
Yamaha Synthesizers and Workstations
Yamaha’s synthesisers and workstations are great when you want to take your music making and creation further than is possible with the standard keyboards.
Available in a range of sizes, they usually have more advanced features such as the ability to edit sounds, record on multiple tracks at once, and have more real-time control over playing.
They are generally a lot more expensive.
Yamaha Arranger Workstations
Yamaha’s arranger workstations include the Tyros series and a few higher end PSR keyboards. They’re really useful when you want more advanced control over performance or want to build multi-track compositions from the single instrument.
They are usually expensive.
Choosing the right keyboard
My keyboard buying guide is a useful read. It’s not limited to Yamaha keyboards, but you can simply narrow your search. It tells you what features to look for and what types of keyboard are best suited to the music you want to play.
If you’re buying specifically for a child, read buying a child’s first electronic keyboard instrument for advice.
After that, you can use our keyboard finder to pick out current models which match the features you want.
Yamaha keyboards are high-quality instruments that can give you many years of enjoyable music making. If you have any questions, leave a comment below.
April 27, 2011
Bit late off the mark on this one. In January, Alesis announced its latest controller keyboard. The QX49 USB/MIDI keyboard offers four octaves (49 keys) of controller goodness.
It’s got most everything you could want from this kind of controller keyboard: velocity sensitive keys, drum pads, rotary knobs, long-throw faders, snappy buttons, pitch and modulation wheels and footswitch input.
It powers via USB so there’s no additional wiring or power socket needs. The controls are fully assignable so it should work with most of the music production and sequencing software available for Mac and PC, or indeed any piece of MIDI hardware you connect it to.
It has a MIDI out port plus a MIDI thru, routing on any data sent from a connected computer. It will ship with a copy of Ableton Live Lite Alesis Edition.
Exact availability is to be confirmed though it’s likely to be in the second quarter of this year. It should have a retail price of around $259.
April 26, 2011
You love your piano or synth, right? But what else can you do to show your appreciation apart from playing it (naturally), taking it on gigs and talking to everyone about the latest pieces of music you’re playing or sounds you’ve created?
Wear a themed T-shirt of course!
We present the ultimate list of piano, keyboard and synth-inspired short-sleeved tops for your pleasure.
We’ve set the bar rather high by calling our list “ultimate”. Call us out on this one — if you’ve seen or designed an amazing (relevant) tee, let us know.
Now go, adorn.
Who said that tee-shirts had to be merely printed? Here are two designs that can be played. We’re thinking you might get into a spot of trouble if you try to play someone else’s tee, particularly if they’re female, but if you’re wearing this yourself, feel free to prod away at your chest.
Electronic Music Synthesizer Shirt
Synthesizer Battery Operated Keyboard Design
Red Synthesizer Filter Shirt
Keyboard: Vintage Synthesizer: 3D Model
Vintage Keyboards: 3D Model
If you really have this many synths you may not have any money left to buy this tee-shirt. Unless you’re Rick Wakeman.
The Moog T-Shirt
Robots Are the Future, apparently.
Puppetbox Synthesizer Logo
Some nice knobs going on this three-octave beauty.
Filter Tee Shirt
Frequency, resonance, mod depth. What more could you ask for on your chest?
Grungy Moog goodness.
Danger Synth Shirt
Perhaps the owner has been circuit bending. I’ve never touched a synth and received a bodily injury, but there could be a first time.
Keyboards != Coasters T-Shirt
’nuff said. If you’ve been there, you know.
Colorful Synthesizer Tee Shirts
It is. Synthesizer.
I Love Distorted Synths
Analog Synthesizer Tee
Nice bit of generic synth action and ’80s style futuristic writing on this one.
Schematic of Moog Synthesizer Tee-Shirt
Now you know why nerds keep staring at your chest and smirking.
Modularman Scarab Synthesizer T-Shirt
Weird beastie connected up to a load of synth inputs and outputs. Freaky.
Roland TB-303 Acid Synth Tee-Shirt
This long-coveted patchable mono-synth has been used by cutting edge and retro artists for decades, and was the first Korg synthesizer to be re-created in software in the Korg Legacy Collection. The shirt features a popular 1970s Korg sticker design featuring one way-cool dude, jamming away on the legendary MS-20.
The first polyphonic and programmable synthesizer from Korg first turned heads in 1980. Since then, musicians have searched far and wide for their own vintage Trident. With additional string and brass sections, this instrument was three synths in one, hence the Trident name! Taken directly from the original owner’s manual, this design captures all the fun of this VCO, VFO, and LFO-equipped legend.
Travel back to 1982 with this old-school Mono/Poly design. This massively fat sounding, four-oscillator lead synth is still coveted by collectors and performers today. The vintage cream colored shirt features the original Mono/Poly logo, dressed up with an “era-appropriate” treatment.
This style pays tribute to Korg’s very first product—the Doncamatic! First used in a Japanese night club in 1963, the Doncamatic started it all! This artwork is lifted directly from the extremely rare Doncamatic product manual, complete with Japanese text!
Keyboard vs Piano T-Shirt
I really couldn’t choose.
Embroidered Piano T-Shirt
Cute little neon embroidered grand piano icon.
Piano T-Shirt – No Problem
88 keys – 10 fingers – no problem.
Grand piano and manuscript music.
Zebra Piano Tee-Shirt
It had to happen. Zebra goes piano.
Piano Text T-Shirt
Eat, Sleep, Play Piano Tee
If only there were more hours in the day.
Short Broken Piano Tee
I’m not a fan of smashing up piano keyboards, but this design is kinda cool.
Pianos and Cats
I’m not sure what it is about pianos and cats, but it would be remiss of me not to include a few here.
Game Over Cat on Keyboard Tee-Shirt
Very 8-bit retro video game cat. (Were there ever any video games featuring cats?)
Three Keyboard Cat Moon T-Shirt
Three cats, bathed in moonlight, luxuriating by a piano.
Keyboard Cat Tee
Yes. A keyboard cat.
So there you have it. Perhaps not quite ultimate… yet. Show us your favorites.
April 26, 2011
Feeling patriotic? Have an event where it would be good to play the United States’ National Anthem music? Here are some simple free piano/keyboard arrangements for The Star-Spangled Banner.
The Star-Spangled Banner is written here in B-flat major. This is the key I’ve most often heard it played in. It means you have two flats to contend with. B flat and E flat.
It’s written in 3/4 time. That means there are three quarter notes to each bar. For interest’s sake, the British national anthem (God Save The Queen) is also written in 3/4 time.
Here’s the music score.
Here’s a PDF file you can download.
The melody is fairly easy to play. You probably already know how the timing of the notes goes, so the dotted eighth note (quaver) followed by sixteenth note (semiquaver) found in bars 1, 3 and 9 shouldn’t phase you. Similarly, the dotted quarter notes (crotchets) followed by eighth notes (quavers) in 6, 15, 23 and 25.
The first ascending notes (in bar 2) are in fact five successive notes of a B-flat major arpeggio. B-flat, D, F, B-flat and D.
Note the E natural in bars 4 and 17.
You know from the anthem that the first part of the melody repeats. This is marked in the music by way of repeat marks and 1st/2nd time bars.
When you see notation like this, it means that you play everything from the start up until (and including) the bar marked overhead with “1.” The repeat mark (looks like a colon (:) means to go back to the last repeat marks. You can see that’s at the start of bar 2.
Play everything through again, but when you get to the “1st” bar, skip it and jump to the “2nd” time bar. Play that bar and then keep going. This is a form of shorthand and saves printing out repeated passages of music again.
Simple Bass Line
Here, a simple one note bass line has been added.
Here’s the music score.
Here’s a PDF file you can download.
Right Hand Chords
If you’re playing to accompany singing, it’s useful not to play the melody line itself but to fill out the accompaniment with chords. These can be played in the right hand, while the left hand plays the bass line.
Here’s the music score.
Here’s a PDF file you can download.
I hope that helps you when it comes to playing The Star-Spangled Banner.