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.