Especially now that an iPad is one of the greatest sound modules ever (provided you fill it with some of the amazing iOS synthesizers on hand), a world-class synth rig can accompany you anywhere, whether it’s a trip, a gig, or a studio. But pairing an iPad with a roadworthy keyboard controller presents its own challenge: You must find the combination of size, weight, key-size, and other conveniences that works for you.
IK Multimedia submits the iRig Keys I/O 25 as a unique proposition. As a very compact and light controller, it still gives you full-size keys and a decent complement of programmable controls that can be powered by batteries, USB bus or an optional wall-wart. Moreover, it pulls double-duty as a 24-bit/96kHz 1-in/4-out audio interface that is plug-and-play compatible with Mac, Windows, and iOS devices.
I chose to test the 25-key version, attracted by the prospect of a full-size controller with a built-in high-res audio interface that could slide right into a standard 15-inch laptop backpack. On that front, it did the trick. At 14.7"x8.2"x2.6" and weighing just under 3 lbs., the iRig Keys I/O 25 fit comfortably alongside my 15-inch computer and 10-inch iPad with room to spare. Considering it has a sturdy plastic frame and unweighted, synth-action keys, you’d do well to travel with this keyboard protected: IK sells a dedicated soft case for each model ($49.99) as an option.
The iRig Keys I/O comes with a tablet support-stand that slides under the controller and positions a connected mobile device at an ideal angle. It also includes two cables: One for connecting the controller’s Mini-DIN Device port to an iOS-device Lightning port, the other to a USB computer. Unfortunately, the cables are only two feet long, which is not always ideal for studio and stage setups.
That said, the iRig Keys I/O 25 connected effortlessly over USB power to function as a software controller and interface for two different MacBook Pro laptops. You can use four AA batteries if a laptop doesn’t provide enough USB power, and you have to use either batteries or the optional power supply ($39.99) to use the iRig Keys I/O with iOS devices. (The external PSU will also charge the iOS device.) I had to cycle the unit’s power for my iPad apps to work right with it, but once it was properly connected, it automatically worked with compatible apps for MIDI control, MIDI Learn mapping, and high-quality audio I/O.
THE INS AND OUTS
Both iRig Keys I/O models include a combo input (accepting XLR and unbalanced 1/4" cables) with Gain knob and +48V phantom power, a stereo 1/8" headphone output, and balanced 1/4" outputs with automatic level compensation, so you don’t need a DI box onstage (Figure 1). The 1/4" input accepts line-level and Hi-Z instruments. When there’s an active audio input, the top-panel Input LED lights up blue to indicate a low signal, green or orange to indicate an appropriate range of signal, and red to indicate clipping.
For the price, the iRig Keys I/O 25’s audio interface held up very well against other 24/96 interfaces that I trust, such as Native Instruments’ Maschine Mk3 and the TC Electronic Studio Konnekt 48. Even on USB bus or battery power, its headphone and main output levels run sufficiently high, and the recording levels ran hotter than average at comparable input gain settings. Other than that, there was just a bit more noise on the iRig’s audio input than the other units.
You can program all of the iRig Keys I/O 25’s touch sliders, knobs, and velocity-sensitive pads to some degree. However, there is no software editor, so you must assign everything using the three-character menu and the push-button Data encoder. The manual explains the process.
Using the Alt-key, you effectively double the four capacitive, touch-sensitive knobs to eight; perfect for controlling software instruments that use the popular 8-macro paradigm. You can program the knobs to send any MIDI CC number in Absolute (0-127) or Relative (custom range) modes. They always pick up their values from the last time they were moved, and touching the knobs will show their current value in the menu. Alternately, you can program them send the MIDI CC of your choice when touched or turn off touch sensitivity altogether.
The two touch-sliders handle pitch-bend/mod-wheel duty and program change/octave control. You can rearrange those defaults, as well as program the sliders to any MIDI CC. The pads are programmable to send Note, program change and CC messages.
Other options in the edit menu let you assign the keyboard and pads discretely to one of six velocity sensitivity levels, assign CCs or program changes to a foot pedal, and to transpose the keyboard by any amount to play a more difficult key as if it were the key of C.
For all such programming possibilities, 99 user presets are available for storing your work. In addition, four factory presets cover: the IK virtual instruments that come with the hardware; a general setting for Apple Logic Pro X and GarageBand; chromatic note pads with MIDI volume and pan; and program change pad with MIDI volume and pads.
IK Multimedia includes enough software that, if the iRig Keys I/O happens to be the user's entry into production, he or she will be able to make tracks right away. The most soundware comes from the full version of SampleTank 3 for the desktop (35+ GB of samples) and iOS. You also get the full Syntronik Pro-V instrument, which is based on the Sequential Circuits Prophet-5 for the desktop and iOS, T-Racks 4 Deluxe with 10 mix and mastering plug-ins, and licenses for PreSonus Studio One Prime and Ableton Live 9 Lite.
With the Factory 1 preset, you can browse and select sounds in SampleTank 3 and Syntronik, and its knobs work the first eight macro knobs within SampleTank 3.
MORE THAN THE SUM OF ITS PARTS
The iRig Keys I/O 25 succeeds by narrowing its focus rather than trying to be all things to all people. The built-in interface addresses both a desire to simplify setups and to reduce the overall volume and weight of hardware and cables needed to get a mobile production or performance rig going. It’s truly portable too, fitting a comparable amount of control and features into a very streamlined package. And its emphasis on being Apple-certified “MFi” (Made for iPhone and iPad) speaks to the growing group of iOS musicians.
The full-size keys target those for whom playing matters. And even though the keys are of the unweighted synth-action kind, they play smoothly and without the springy cheapness that plagues other compact keyboards. The drum pads on the other hand are of a reduced size, which does affect playability. But they feel and respond great, and you can assign them to anything, not just notes.
From its high-quality control panel (with LED-assisted touch sliders and capacitive encoders) to its impressive audio fidelity, the iRig Keys I/O 25 packs a heavy punch into its flyweight frame.
Double your pleasure
For an extra $100, iRig Keys I/O 49 adds two more octaves of full-size keys, two additional touch-sliders, and transport controls. It also includes a software bonus—the lush-sounding Miroslav Philharmonik 2 CE orchestral workstation for Mac/Windows, and Miroslav Philharmonik 2 collection for iOS.
Compact, lightweight, and portable. 24-bit/96kHz interface for mic, line, and Hi-Z input. Powered by batteries, USB bus, or optional external PSU.
Short cables. Mini-DIN connectors difficult to replace with longer ones. No software editor. No 5-pin MIDI DIN ports.
$199 iRig Keys I/O 25
$299 iRig Keys I/O 49
Markkus Rovito is a writer, musician, and media guy living in solitude in the heart of San Francisco.