IK Multimedia has brought the market a very effective, reliable and quite technologically-advanced MIDI keyboard controller to the market with the iRig Keys I/O. We were given the 49-key model today to write an honest review of our thoughts and experiences after some very in-depth testing the controller. Being one of the few MIDI controllers to be compatible with not only Mac and PC but iOS as well (yes, it also comes with the necessary cables for all platforms), the amount of versatility we’ll be getting at our fingertips is immeasurable. Combine this with a built-in audio interface, one of the largest software bundles we’ve seen in a MIDI controller, and some touch-sensitive strips to get your programming on, and we have a big package here in a small frame. Let’s get into the details of our iRig Keys I/O review here today.
Highlights of the iRig Keys I/O
- MIDI keyboard available in 25 or 49 key counts
- Full sized, synth action keys
- Programmable touch sensitive sliders and knobs
- 8 velocity-sensitive pads (multi-colored)
- 2 programmable slider strips (pitch and modulation)
- Built-in audio interface (24-bit up to 96 kHz sampling rate)
- 48V phantom power switch
- Optional ability to power via battery (4 AA batteries — included)
- Mobile device stand included
- Balanced stereo and headphone outputs
- Combo input jack (for line, instrument or mic)
- Included cables: Lightning and USB
- Compatible with iPhone, iPad, Mac, and PC
- Comprehensive software bundle included
Stability and build of the iRig Keys I/O
The first noticeable build feature of this particular MIDI keyboard we noticed once unboxing is the slim size and light weight. It’s about 1/3 the size of many other 49 key controllers we’ve reviewed and have on deck (looking at our MPK49 here, it’s about nearly half the size, albeit less pads, a few less extra buttons and sliders). Coming in at a very low less than 5 lbs., traveling with this keyboard will be a breeze. For those still on the fence, this will be a big determining factor — if you are indeed a portable DJ or music producer, or perhaps a keyboardist needing an on-the-go solution, this one is beautiful. Even better, with their new I/O series, IK has included an iRig Mic and two travel bags for both the 25 and 49 key models made of polyester (all sold separately of course, and although we do recommend studios going for a more traditional condenser mic setup, this can be nifty if you need a cheaper and more versatile solution especially if you’re traveling). Even if you aren’t, it can compliment your home studio well and fit snug on your desk.
With light weight we at times become skeptical since brands will start to sacrifice build materials in order to achieve a lower lbs\ounce count. The iRig Keys I/O is enclosed with hard-shell plastic casing all around. It isn’t cheap at all, and although not many MIDI keyboards do come with aluminum or steel builds, we have seen higher quality builds before. This doesn’t make the Keys I/O cheap at all — testing the enclosure ourselves, it’s hard to scratch and ding. If you take proper care of this (especially when traveling, we do recommend buying their bag for it), it’ll last years as a long-term investment. To compare, even a lot of Akai’s MIDI keyboards (that are almost 1.5 times the price of this) have the same hard-shell plastic casing, so the price of this actually justifies the build completely.
So what exact build are the keys in this one? They are called ‘synth action’, which is a very popular keybed tech among common MIDI keyboards, especially within this price-point. Synth action keybeds have a very quick response and spring up fast when you play. This is effective for “synths” as many old-school synthesizers had a similar feel, hence the name, but even many pianists we’ve spoken to don’t mind it. For music production and recording, there’s a reason this keybed type is popular — it’s affordable and effective, and spans across a wide variety of players. Don’t get us wrong, a few other pianists on the other side of the spectrum we’ve spoken to scoff at anything that isn’t fully-weighted, but professional players or even people who are more focused on improving their piano playing skills don’t buy MIDI keyboards in general. These types of devices are made specifically for producers in home or even semi-pro studios, otherwise you start to get into digital and stage pianos, or albeit, real synths and actual pianos.
Lastly, let’s talk slider, knob and pad make of the iRig Keys I/O. The sliders in particular are touch-sensitive, and using them in our home studio we had no problem getting the hang of it. We do know many who prefer the standard physical slider (especially if they’re performing live and would rather have the confidence of more manual control); however, we see no problem with this higher-tech touch-sensitivity and feel they work fine in relation to being programmable for some FX and being able to use them in a flow. Unfortunately we’re only getting two here as opposed to many other MIDI keyboards out there usually having 8, physical sliders, so that may be a con for some, especially performing more advanced live sets. The knobs are standard and effective and move well, while the master data\volume knob comes with a click guide. The drum pads are velocity-sensitive and rubberized and felt quite smooth when we were using them. No complaints with being able to drum (one of our favorite past times with controllers), although it will take you some time to learn how to program them in your respective software, you’ll be fine eventually. All in all if you’re able get back the (arguably) limited number of them, we’re happy with the sliders, knobs and pads on the iRig Keys I/O.
Standouts of the IK iRig Keys I/O MIDI controller
When it came to actually using the iRig Keys I/O, we got to jamming immediately in Ableton Live. The DAW was able to recognize it very fast and all we had to do was choose a sound to assign and we were playing as usual. We did try out all of their VSTs and software plug-ins provided, and our favorite by far was the orchestral package (we’ll go further in detail about the software included next). We found a nice string sound and even went to produce on an existing track we have in the works and decided to keep some of the jamming we recorded. All in all this keyboard works as intended with no usage disruptions. Using the keyboard itself gave us satisfaction completely, and even the touch-sensitive sliders (which can hit or miss by some gear we’ve learned) were very easy to program as well as use. The additional two touch strips are defaulted as pitch and mod controls (usually ‘wheels’ in other MIDI keyboards) but you can program them as you wish with let’s say some FX or panning.
Another big plus here is the fact that the MIDI controller also has an actual audio interface built-in to the unit itself, which is a bit rare among competitors. Coming in at 24-bit / 96 kHz audio resolution, you’re getting a higher-end way of processing digital audio as opposed to just going straight into your computer. Of course, you don’t really “process” the sounds of a MIDI keyboard since the ‘sounds’ are already located on your computer, but it can also help with latency since it has to process and send the data from one place to another. It can also help organize any other gear you have that you’d like to keep altogether, especially with it’s headphone out for monitoring or private play, line in for any compatible instruments you may have on hand (even Hi-Z guitars and basses), as well as a balanced stereo if you’re performing on stage and need to hook up to a PA or mixer. Another huge plus we love is the fact that this built-in interface can also handle a traditional condenser mic with it’s 48 volts of phantom power, and yes, it can even power these mics when you’re in battery power mode). This will be even a bigger steal if you’re a beginner and don’t have your audio interface already. You can get by with this while you learn, although we eventually recommend upgrading to something better audio resolution.
The last standout of the iRig Keys I/O in our opinion is definitely the cross-platform support. Working with Mac and PC, laptops or desktops and even iPads and iPhones, we had to try it out in each. In particular with an iPad, there’s a little more latency but not too noticeable, and upon plugging in the device it was able to recognize the keyboard as needed. We played around with the different apps available and loved the sounds, and found no problems with the usability here. Being in the game for many years now, we’re noticing a trend here — yes, iOS devices are becoming more popular among bedroom, some home studio as well as on-the-go producers. Do we do so ourselves? Not yet, although it’s fun to play around with, but in terms of serious producing, we’re not sure if we’d ever move away from our home studio with a traditional computer. However, everybody is different, and we’re glad IK Multimedia included this compatibility to keep up with the times as a just in case measure.
Included software and sounds
Not to sound dramatic here, but this is definitely one of the most comprehensive software bundles we’ve ever seen in not only a MIDI controller, but a piece of music equipment in general. If you’re indeed in need of some music software (especially if you’re a beginner) and some sounds and effects to go along with the DAW (digital audio workstation, another name for music software), this is one of the best. They’re able to do so because IK is really big on apps, software and VSTs themselves, so many of the included bundles are actually created by them.
At the same time, in our experience more often than not, a huge bundle included in gear will scream “this is justifying the price we’re listed at”. To us, the iRig Keys I/O doesn’t fall in this category, and is still worth the buy even if you don’t plan on using any of the software, but the bundle can never hurt. You can even set it aside and use it later if you need to (we still have VSTs we’ve set aside for years and haven’t had the chance to get to yet). To highlight, let’s first get into the DAWs that come with this thing. You have the ever-loving (and most popular DAW partnership with gear out there) Ableton Live Lite as well as Studio One Prime by PreSonus. The Lite version of Ableton Live is pretty limited since it’s their trial, but for us it’s important to be able to try out a software before you purchase it anyways. You’ll of course have to drop some more cash if you end up liking it; however, it’s one of the most popular DAWs in the world today, so doing so would be a smart decision if you don’t have a music making software you’ve committed to yet. Studio One on the other hand isn’t necessarily as big of a hit with music recorders and producers, but is still very reliable and quite capable for making tunes. This one is also their version of the ‘trial’ for you to start using it out of the box, but is still feasible for beginners or ‘students’ who are learning keys.
Now let’s talk about VSTs, sounds and plug-ins. Here’s what we’re getting, and keep in mind these are all compatible with both PC and Mac: SampleTank 3, IK’s VST that includes 33 GB of sounds (acoustic, electric, and electronic sounds to play on the keys, as well as drum and percussion and 2,000 MIDI files). You can play keys with any of the sounds as you wish on the interface, as well as mix, play and edit tracks. There’s also the Miroslav Philharmonik 2 CE VST which is one of our favorite piano and other orchestral sound VSTs in the market, and finally Syntronik Pro-V, a very detailed synth bundle of sounds made by IK themselves. The only non-iOS software you’ll be getting is their T-RackS 4 Deluxe, which is a separate mixing and mastering effects suite you may also find useful. Otherwise, all of the above plug-ins are compatible with iOS. We were very impressed with this side of the bundle, especially since most of these VSTs are also compatible with iPads and iPhones, since in our opinion smart device music production solutions need a bit of work before we’re believers of being fully iPad or iPhone creators (aside from just having fun with it, of course).
Concluding the iRig Keys I/O review
Are there any cons to the iRig Keys I/O? Well, that’ll depend on what exactly you’re looking for in a MIDI keyboard. For example, we know some who say fully weighted keybeds or bust, while others are quite fine with synth-action (we’ve been using synth action MIDI keyboards for more than a decade so it’s not a big deal to us personally). Some may also need a few more drum pads, knobs or sliders, so it’ll also depend on your intended use here. Otherwise, we’re not sure what else you can pick a part about this keyboard, especially in the feasible price-point we find it in.
In terms of compatibility with music software you may already have, you will be fine here. We tested with Logic Pro, GarageBand as well as Ableton Live and all software immediately recognized the device. Using Windows, our computer didn’t need to install any drivers and had it up and running in nearly a minute. It did prioritize the iRig Keys I/O as the primary audio interface, so you may have trouble with that, but just switch back over to your traditional interface if you need to.
As stated previously, we ultimately recommend using an external audio interface since many out there provide a lot higher sampling rates than 96 kHz. This doesn’t make the iRig Keys’ interface bad per se, and if you do want to save some money and use the controller as an interface be our guest. Even comparing to let’s say a popular budget-friendly audio interface such as the Scarlet 2i2, they both have the same sampling rate. However, most people won’t be buying this just because of the interface built-in. It’ll be fine for those just starting out, but once you get a bit more advanced we recommend ultimately purchasing a higher quality interface with better audio processing capabilities.
You can always read our popular best MIDI keyboards guide for some competitors, but not many can come close to the software bundle, sleek size and built-in interface in this price-point. Ultimately, we’re extremely impressed with the IK iRig Keys I/O MIDI keyboard controller. The power you’ll be attaining with the purchase is high, especially if you’re an on-the-go musician, need some software, FX and plug-ins, as well as use multiple devices to get groovy with.