Building an iPad recording studio; Part 3 – MIDI keyboards and controllers for your iPad studio

finger on a tablet computer screenIf you have already read Part 1 and part 2 of this series, you will know about the three questions I set up in Part 1. I looked at some of the issue surrounding the first of those three questions in Part 2 when I introduced the ideas around audio and MIDI interfaces and the key features you need to think about when deciding on suitable devices for your own iPar recoding studio needs.

In Part 3, I’m going to look at the second of our three questions:

  • Are you happy to play your synths via the touchscreen-virtual MIDI keyboards or would you rather use a real piano-style MIDI keyboard?

While you can get by using the touchscreen virtual keyboards built into many of the iOS synths (or some of the more touchscreen-friendly control surfaces found in apps like Chordion, Soundprism Pro, Synthecaster, ChordPolyPad or Thumbjam), if you want to do any serious keyboard playing then a MIDI keyboard is a pretty essential accessory in an iOS recording studio.

As with audio/MIDI interfaces, there are a range of options at different price points. Prices can go from about UK£35 but can go seriously upwards depending upon the features you require. However, if you are just starting out and need a first ‘real’ keyboard to use with your iPad as a step up from the virtual keys built into your favourite apps, or perhaps you just need a more compact keyboard that you can carry around with your iPad for jamming/rehearsal sessions (as well as the occasional gig), then what are your choices like?

MIDI controller keyboards provide a much better playing experience that a 'virtual' piano keyboard even with the excellent touchscreen interface provided by the iPad....  although you don't have to go for something as big at this model from Novation.

MIDI controller keyboards provide a much better playing experience that a ‘virtual’ piano keyboard even with the excellent touchscreen interface provided by the iPad…. although you don’t have to go for something as big at this model from Novation.

The short answer is ‘plenty’. The compact MIDI keyboard format has been around for a long time to meet the needs both gigging and recording musicians. For home studio owners, quite often, space is a consideration, so a smaller format (rather than an 88-key, grand piano sized monster) is very popular.

Also, bear in mind that what I’m talking about here are what are sometimes referred to as ‘dumb’ MIDI keyboards; essentially, they are just MIDI keyboards (and sometimes feature keyboards and a collection of knobs, buttons or faders that can also send MIDI data) and all they do is send MIDI data. They do not generally have any sounds built into them (hence the ‘dumb’ label) unlike a fully-blown hardware synthesizer. That said, if you have a hardware synth that features MIDI out ports, it could easily double as a controller keyboard for your iOS synths given a suitable MIDI interface sat between the synth/keyboard and your iPad (as described in Part 2).

Get connected; MIDI or USB MIDI?

Perhaps the other important issue to be aware of is that modern MIDI keyboards can offer two different types of MIDI connectivity. Some of these MIDI keyboards will feature the more traditional 5-pin ‘DIN’ MIDI ports. This allows the keyboard to be connected to almost any other piece of MIDI equipment that features similar 5-pin MIDI ports, with the MIDI out from the keyboard going to the MIDI in of the other item of MIDI hardware.

In contrast, some more modern MIDI keyboards are primarily designed for use with a computer system (usually for a desktop or laptop computer) and, instead of the traditional 5-pin MIDI connectivity, provide a USB-based MIDI port. Essentially, these keyboards have a MIDI interface build into them and the MIDI data is transported to the computer via USB. For those buying a MIDI keyboard just for use with a computer, this can be a convenient option.

Traditional 5-pin MIDI ports or USB MIDI? Some keyboards other both while some only support one format or the other. Check you are getting exactly what you need in this respect.

Traditional 5-pin MIDI ports or USB MIDI? Some keyboards other both while some only support one format or the other. Check you are getting exactly what you need in this respect.

Finally, you can also get MIDI keyboards that feature both types of connectivity. As you might expect, all other things being equal, having both connectors might mean a slightly higher price (but only slightly) or a slightly bigger body design (to accommodate the additional hardware) but is does also bring extra flexibility.

Obviously, depending upon the type of MIDI connectivity offered by the keyboard, you would need a suitable means of connecting it to your iPad. As discussed in Part 2, this means either some sort of MIDI interface that provides 5-pin MIDI connectivity or some means of hooking the keyboard up via USB. Some audio+MIDI interfaces (for example, the Focusrite iTrack Dock) provide USB MIDI support but, in addition, some USB MIDI keyboards will connect directly to an iPad via either the Apple Camera Connection Kit (CKK – for 30-pin docks) or the Apple Lightning to USB connector.

A word of warning here though; don’t buy a USB MIDI keyboard on spec unless you are sure it is advertised as working with an iPad in this way or actually trying before you buy. Not all USB MIDI keyboards will work with iOS and, while some work fine, others may not, or might require too much power to work without an additional power supply. In short, until this market matures a little, your best bet is to try before you buy or only buy if a manufacturer explicitly states support for iOS.

Headline features

MIDI connectivity aside, the specification of specific MIDI keyboards can, of course, vary considerably. With apologies to those of you who know this stuff already, for those taking their very first steps with MIDI, a few words here of the key features to look out for might be useful.

There are perhaps three obvious other features you should be considering when picking a MIDI keyboard to suit your own needs; size, whether the keys themselves offer velocity/aftertouch sensitivity and what (if any) additional MIDI controls (knobs, wheels, faders, buttons, pads) are provided.

Size is, to a large extent, dictated by the number of keys provided, with the standard formats going from 25 up to 88 keys. Clearly, more keys generally means a higher price (all other things being equal), more playability (look Ma – two hands at the same time!) but less portability. If you are a proficient keyboard player then a larger format might suit. However, if you just want something that is low cost and compact enough to be both portable and fit in the small space dedicated to your iPad recording studio, then a 25-key unit will still get the job done.

The number of keys provided obviously influences both the size and the price of the MIDI keyboard but, if you need something very compact for portability or space considerations, then there are choices out there including the Korg nanoKey2.

The number of keys provided obviously influences both the size and the price of the MIDI keyboard but, if you need something very compact for portability or space considerations, then there are choices out there including the Korg nanoKey2.

Velocity sensitivity refers to the ability of the key to detect how fast (the velocity; but this is effectively how hard you press) to hit them. This, in turn, alongside MIDI data that tells a synth which key (or keys) you have pressed, also tells the synth the ‘velocity’ of those presses. And, in general, synths then turn velocity into loudness. So, if you are playing a piano sound via your synth, with a velocity sensitive keyboard, the harder (faster) you push a key down, the louder the piano sound will be played back.

This does, of course, mimic the way a real piano keyboard behaves and, in short, you want a velocity sensitive MIDI keyboard as it allows your playing to be more expressive. In truth, most modern MIDI keyboards offer this feature but do check the spec as there is always the occasional exception.

Some more sophisticated keyboards don’t just respond to the initial velocity however; they also respond to what’s called ‘aftertouch’. This essentially mean how hard you continue to press after to have already pressed down a specific key. In budget MIDI keyboards, aftertouch is much less common and some iOS synths don’t respond to the data even if the keyboard can generate it. However, if your possible keyboard includes it then that’s a positive rather than a negative. However, for a budget-conscious, first stab at a compact iPad recording studio, aftertouch is perhaps in the ‘nice to have’ category rather than the ‘must have’ category.

The Novation Launchkey series provide a good range of extra controls depending upon the exact model in the range.

The Novation Launchkey series provide a good range of extra controls depending upon the exact model in the range.

Finally there is the issue of those extra controls. While the prime use of a MIDI keyboard might be to play musical notes that will trigger playback in a synth, that’s not the only use of MIDI data. Most iOS synths – and, indeed, some of the better iOS recording apps that support MIDI – can respond to MIDI data in other ways. In particular, you can send MIDI data to trigger changes in a synth’s various sound parameters. So, for example, you might be able to control the frequency and resonance of a filter on a synth or change the level of distortion in a synth’s effects section (amongst a myriad of other possibilities).

If this sounds like it might be fun (and it is), then you need to consider whether you want a MIDI keyboard that includes some of these control options. The two obvious ones that are present on lots of MIDI keyboards are a pitch bend wheel and a modulation wheel. The function of the first is obvious while the second can often be linked to specific synth parameters so you can tweak the sound as you play.

The price is right

So what about some specific example given the range of keyboards that are (as of the time of writing) currently on the market? Well, if you are flexible in terms of the form of connectivity (separate MIDI interface or USB MIDI via Apple’s CCK), then there is a huge choice. Companies such as Akai, Novation, Miditech, Korg, M-Audio, Alesis, Behringer, CME, ESI and Samson all make suitable devices with standard ‘compact’ formats being 25 or 49 keys (although you can, of course, also buy larger 61, 76 and 88 key devices if that’s what you need).

As indicated above, prices vary depending upon the exact specs. For example, you can pick up something like the compact Alesis Q25 for about UK£50. This features both USB and full, 5-pin MIDI ports plus pitch and modulation wheels in addition to 25 velocity sensitive keys. If you want ultra-compact, then the Korg Nano series devices are worth looking at including the Nano Key 2 (about UK£35) that uses USB MIDI but is advertised as supporting the Apple CCK. It doesn’t have as many features as more upmarket offerings but it is very compact and portable.

The Alesis Q25; simple and compact.

The Alesis Q25; simple and compact.

Slightly more upmarket would be devices such as Samson Graphite 25 (c. UK100) – lots more control options build in (pads, rotary knobs) as well as semi-weighted keys – and also advertised as supporting the Apple CCK for USB MIDI, although it also features a standard five-pin MIDI out.

Samson's Graphite 25 provides both keys and a good selection of control options.

Samson’s Graphite 25 provides both keys and a good selection of control options.

If you are prepared to go a little left-field – but want something super-stylish and very compact for portability – then CME’s Xkey (c. UK£85) might be worth a look. This offers USB connectivity and includes few software you can download for both desktop and iOS that allows you to configure the keyboard’s key settings. The keys themselves are very low profile – if Apple actually made MIDI keyboards, then they would look like the Xkey – and, while they do take a little getting used to, it is actually very useable. Again, having owned, used and travelled, with an Xkey for quite a few months, I’ve generally found it to be a rather neat companion for my iPad. It doesn’t have many options in terms of other controls but what it lacks in features, it makes up for in looking very cool :-)

xkey publicity shot 2

CME’s Xkey – very compact and stylish.

Prices obviously increase well beyond this introductory level depending upon the number of features you require, just how road-worthy you want the construction to be and how many keys you want….  but the types of units listed here provide a suitable starting point providing you can find a device that best matches your own specific needs.

In terms of iOS-specific keyboards that connect directly to the iDevice docking connector or connect wirelessly, then there is less choice but still some perfectly acceptable candidates. IK Multimedia’s IRig Keys would be an obvious choice at c. UK£65. It features 37 velocity sensitive keys and can work with either a PC/Mac or your iDevice (a 30-pin cable is provided and a Lightning cable is available as an optional extra).

IK Multimedia's iRig Keys is designed specifically for use with an iPad.

IK Multimedia’s iRig Keys is designed specifically for use with an iPad.

Alternatively, Line 6 offer their Mobile Keys in both 25 key (c. UK£60) and 49 key (c. UK£90). Again, these work with Mac/PC but also support iOS and are supplied with a 30-pin dock connector cable (and ought to work fine with a Lightning adapter).

Line 6's Mobile Keys is also designed with the iPad in mind.

Line 6’s Mobile Keys is also designed with the iPad in mind.

More is better?

Unless a compact format is right at the top of your priority list, if I was to offer some more specific guidance in the context of a iPad-based recording setup, it would be to do your best to stretch for something that includes some hardware controls – rotary knobs, sliders and performance pads – as well as the keyboard/pitch bend/modulation wheel found on most MIDI keyboard controllers. For example, the M-Audio Axiom 49 (at about UK£170) or the Novation Launchkey range (for example, UK£99 for the 25 key version or UK£139 for the 49 key version) might be good examples of something that covers all the bases and ought to take some time to outgrow, although there are equally good options from other manufacturers and more compact choices if space/portability is an issue.

M-Audio's Axion range - not the cheapest MIDI keyboards you might buy but they have a range of impressive features.

M-Audio’s Axion range – not the cheapest MIDI keyboards you might buy but they have a range of impressive features.

Again, the big advantage of these various additional hardware controllers is that you can link them to the various virtual controls within your iOS synths or, if your recording software permits it, to virtual controls within your recording app (for example, to the virtual faders in the mixer – Cubasis does a good job with this, for example). This can make a whole range of tasks just that bit more intuitive – live sound tweaking of your synths and mixing included – so, in the long run, a few extra controls are well worth the investment in a slightly more upmarket MIDI keyboard.

A load of knobs

In terms of those hardware knobs, faders, buttons and pads, there is another possibility; you could buy just a control surface as a separate item to your MIDI keyboard. These kinds of devices have become popular with desktop musicians because they can easily be added into an existing music production system. Many of them provide USB MIDI connectivity so, with a desktop computer, even if you already have a MIDI keyboard you like to use, providing you have a spare USB port, you can add a set of hardware controls without having to also replace the keyboard itself.

Korg's 'nano' range includes the KONTROL and - as shown here - the PAD models.

Korg’s ‘nano’ range includes the KONTROL and – as shown here – the PAD models.

There are a number of these devices that can also be used under iOS. For example, Korg offer nanoPAD2 and nanoKONTROL2, both priced at around UK£40, and advertised as iPad compatible. They required the CCK kit or USB/Lightning connector to work (and so tie up your docking connector) but they are compact and very affordable. Slightly more expensive – and perhaps slightly more upmarket – would be Arturia’s Beatstep. This compact controller provides a combination of buttons, rotary knobs and drum trigger pads in a very stylish looking unit. It has a street priced of around UK£80 and also works with the iPad via one of Apple’s USB adapters. It is not just a controller though; the Beatstep also has a ‘step sequencer’ mode but, in the context we are considering here, you might think of that mode as an ‘extra’ over and above the rather nice control surface features.

The Novation Launch Control XL provides an impressive selection of control options.

The Novation Launch Control XL provides an impressive selection of control options.

Novation’s Launch Control (c. UK£80) and the newer Launch Control XL (which should be available around the time of publication and with a guide price of c. £UK159) provide other, very interesting alternatives. While there perhaps isn’t quite the same level of choice with these ‘controllers-only’ devices as there is with MIDI keyboards themselves, that choice is expanding.

Techie reminders

Keep the technical issues mentioned earlier in mind though…  particularly concerning the format of the MIDI connectivity and the source of power required for the keyboard. A keyboard such as the Alesis QX25 (about UK£85) features both USB MIDI and a standard 5-pin MIDI out port and this combination of connectivity is ideal as it gives you the best of both worlds. However, having owned one of these Alesis QX25’s for some time, while the keyboard itself is pretty decent given the price, it does occasionally refuse to be powered via the iPad. I suspect it is right on the edge in terms of how much power it requires and how much the iPad can supply via the docking port? Most of the time it works well….  but, obviously, a keyboard that is clearly listed as ‘iPad compatible’ in terms of the power requirements is going to be a safer bet if you are buying on spec.

Arturia's Beatstep is a compact and very stylish MIDI controller with iPad support.

Arturia’s Beatstep is a compact and very stylish MIDI controller with iPad support.

Do also bear in mind the point made in Part 2 of this series; do you go for separate audio and MIDI interfaces or a combined audio+MIDI interface? If you go down the separate route, you can, of course, simply swap the connections over when you need to move from either MIDI entry via the keyboard and audio entry from your mic or guitar but I suspect that might get old very quickly if you do a lot of recording. While it might limit some of your choices, for simple convenience and to avoid lots of plugging and unplugging, a combined audio/MIDI interface (with 5-pin MIDI connectors) and a MIDI keyboard that also includes 5-pin MIDI connectivity would provide the best solution.

Going soft….

Of course, you might not be a keyboard player (I’m not either, but I still use a MIDI keyboard extensively for MIDI data entry despite my rather clumsy piano skills) and, if so, it can also be worth considering what alternatives exist for MIDI data entry.

MIDI guitars have been around for a long time but, despite years of R&D, it is still a far from perfect technology and, if you go for a top-of-the-range options, nor is it cheap. However, there are other possibilities, including some rather interesting iOS apps that can come in handy. I’ll come back to these later on in this series when I begin to look at software.

However, before we get to that topic, let’s make sure we have a microphone (or two) organised for any audio recordings we might want to make….  and that’s the topic for Part 4….

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    1. Very nice article, thanks for the thoughtful advice.

      I own a MIDI keyboard with USB-out and an Alesis ioDock with only 5-pin MIDI input. Are you aware of any device that bridges from 5-pin MIDI to the “flat” USB connector? I bought something online but it expected the “square” USB connector. I would love to integrate the integrate my MIDI keyboard without, as you say, swapping between audio and MIDI input.

    2. Great article john … I look forward to part 4. On the issue of power, I note that a separate power supply is no longer a given for keyboards due to alternative power sources, eg. Ipad, USB. In doing research earlier this year I found some do not even have a 9v power jack. I ended up purchasing an external power supply for my m audio axiom 61 for convenience but it was a bit of an effort to find the required specs and then to find the adapter itself. This may not be a big issue for a lot of people, but Just something to consider when looking at which keyboard suits best.

      • Hi Brook…. good point. I had the same problem with one of my own small MIDI keyboards and the manufacturer’s website doesn’t make it easy to find the ‘optional extra’ required. For my Alesis QX25 I also bought a small 4xAA battery holder with a suitable connector to plug it directly into the keyboard. This means I can use the keyboard without main power (well, for as long as the batteries last) and can be useful at times when working ‘mobile’. Best wishes, John

    3. For guitarists like me who do not know how to play a piano, the guitar is “You Rock Guitar” which is great for playing with iPad and MIDI applications. It can be connected directly to the iPad or iPhone (or Mac or PC) and is a real magic.

      I would like you to do a post about this device if that’s okay.

    4. Great resource, John! I had been “collecting” iOS synths for months without even seriously considering a Core MIDI controller of any kind – in part because I didn’t understand it and also because I thought it would be too expensive. I happened across a used Akai MPK Mini, which has the added advantage of being powered by the iPad (no external power supply needed). It works great with both my iPad (via Camera Connection kit) and PC (use with Reaper and VST plug-ins). Practically no noticeable latency.

      I think the touchscreen keyboard is vital for convenience and sound design (triggering notes as you modify them), but I can’t imagine anyone using it as a serious performance/recording tool. You can find either compact or full-size keyboards starting at under $150, and that basically turns your iPad into a super-versatile synth/instrument machine, instead of also trying to use it as the input device. Some touch keyboards are better than others, but in general, they struggle with velocity changes, and the lack of a springback response on a key makes it very hard to play things with the proper timing.

    5. Excellent series John, just adding that I recently acquired the Novation LaunchKey Mini which is powered by the iPad (or PC) and works with everything in the iPad that I have tried, also on the PC. I was able to map the knobs in synths and DAWs using MIDI learn with no problems.

      Also I just completed my first road trip with the LaunchKey mini in tow. Fits perfect in a old cushioned PC bag that I had, it was easy to tote around because it’s so light weight, the knobs are low profile which is perfect for getting in and out of a bag. Available for US $99 (Guitar Center for sure) and includes some good PC software too. It works as designed (as in perfectly) with the iOS apps LaunchKey and Launchpad; actually it’s pretty fun to play those apps with this keyboard, and bonus… it looks cool with the lit up colored buttons.


    6. Angel José says:

      I currently use the m-audio oxygen 61, has sliders, knobs and buttons that are easily mapped to my synth, except for the yamaha apps, they seem that you need a powered keyboard to function properly.

      I’ll be looking for an 88-key midi keys solution for my dream iPad studio, as I want to expand my playing skills. Arturia’s 88-key controller looks great and a lot of controls to boot, but I’m still not sure about compatibility.

      Any other 88-key controllers worth mentioning that are compatible?

    7. Also a thing to mention is pairing up iPhones and iPads,having both treats you to a Mac mini almost in horsepower as well as being transparent,flexible and creative.a great program is Auria which is 50$ allows fab filter plugins as well as psp plugins which is sick. Beatmaker2 allows phones and pads to work together so start a track on iPhone transfer to iPad etc.BM2 is way cheaper than Auria however not as Daw one is more artist side other is mix engineer side almost need both with a good dock system or cable.Midi is key so look for those connections.

    8. hello
      i have a question
      i wanna buy a Novatio launch key 49
      does any body have this Midi controller ?
      is it ok or not ????????

      • Hi MeisaM… assuming the specific details of the spec meet your technical needs then, yes, it’s a very good controller. All the keyboards in this sort of price range offer decent value for money… but they are all somewhat different in terms of the features they offer… so my only qualifier would be to check… and then double-check just to be sure :-) Otherwise, good luck and, if you do go for it, I hope you enjoy…. best wishes, John

    9. Steve Jones says:

      I’m looking to plug my M Audio Oxygen8 v2 into an iPad Air via a Lighting to USB cable. I’ll be powering the keyboard via its 12v adapter. Before I shell out 25 pounds on the cable, does anyone know if this set-up will work? I’m assuming that the keyboard being self powered will be beneficial, as it won’t require any power from the iPad, but could this cause any problems?

      Many thank for any advice.

    10. Hi John!

      Just reading your excellent series on iOS recording.

      The keyboards look great, but is there a high-quality keyboard that offers one (or more) X-Y joysticks for use with vector-synthesis type keyboards???

      • Hi Scott…. I looked at this myself but it was a while ago… and Novation and Roland where the brands at that stage that offered something… I guess you will have looked at those already? Not really sure what’s out there in the current lineups from these two though…. Best wishes, John

    11. Hi John,

      Can you suggest a midi keyboard which is powered by the Ipad? I mean no need to have external power supply. I’m planning to have this setup as my 2nd keyboard (Midi Controller + ipad mini)

      Many thanks

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