M-Audio has just rolled out the latest in its line of MIDI controllers, the MidAir series of wireless devices. The series includes two keyboards, the MidAir 25 ($249.95) and the MidAir 37 ($299.95), as well as a wireless MIDI interface, the MidAir ($149.95). Wireless MIDI is not a new concept, but the MidAir keyboard models are among the first wireless devices to integrate the keyboard, a control surface, and the wireless transmitter in one package. The MidAir keyboards also have a MIDI Out jack for connecting them directly to other MIDI devices.
Setting up the MidAir keyboard models is quite easy. The receiver and keyboard come from the factory prelinked, so you don't have to establish a connection the first time you turn them on. The drivers are Mac OS X and Windows class compliant, meaning no special drivers are needed. However, Windows users who want to use the MidAir with multiple programs simultaneously, or with other USB I/O units, do need to install a special driver.
The MidAir 25 sports pitch-bend and mod wheels, eight rotary encoders, and a data slider for controlling other MIDI devices.
The 25-key MidAir 25, which is the model I tested, has 8 rotary encoders, a linear data slider, and modulation and pitch-bend wheels. Its 37-key big brother has an additional 9 faders. Thirty-seven keys is as big as it gets; anything larger would be unwieldy and sabotage portability.
The 2.4 GHz MidAir receiver connects to one of your computer's USB ports. It has MIDI In and Out jacks, allowing it to also function as a standalone MIDI interface. In Standalone mode (when the receiver is not connected to the computer), you use a 3-way switch to choose whether the wired or wireless input is active. The wired and wireless MIDI inputs are not merged, but with the switch in the Auto position, the receiver will switch automatically between them as input is received.
The M-Audio literature touts wireless operation from a distance of as much as 30 feet, but I sometimes got less. Light plaster and drywall barriers don't pose a problem, but corners, heavy walls, and wooden doors are deal breakers. As a general rule, wireless will work if you're in a position to hear your monitors clearly.
On the Prowl
Noodling while wandering the halls of the studio was fun, but the MidAir really shone during a music therapy session at a local pediatric rehabilitation center. It replaced a wired equivalent, the M-Audio Ozone, and was significantly easier to use with mobility-impaired patients. In a more conventional context, passing the keyboard around the room is a great way for musicians to share ideas.
Unlike their predecessors, the Ozone and the Oxygen, the MidAir keyboards have separate pairs of buttons for octave transposition and program change. My software instruments don't support MIDI Program Change messages very well, but I really appreciated the separate buttons when I plugged the MidAir into my hardware sound modules.
I had fairly good luck using the rotary encoders with my hardware units, but with soft synths other than those supported by the ten factory presets, there were usually several useless knobs. However, the reprogramming process is pretty straightforward and short enough to memorize quickly. With the necessary MIDI implementation charts in hand, I was easily able to bind the knobs to my most-used parameters.
My biggest gripe was power management. The MidAir 25 is powered by six AA batteries, which means you'd better budget for a few sets of batteries and a nice charger. I'd have preferred an internal battery that could be charged between sessions. Worrying about switching the keyboard off to save battery power is the cognitive opposite of the freedom to wander freely. You can power the unit with a wall wart, but tethering yourself to the wall kind of defeats its purpose. M-Audio maintains that using rechargeable AA batteries is the most cost-effective and convenient solution for the user.
Though the limited key range makes these keyboards smaller and more portable, it also makes them hard to recommend as primary instruments. On the other hand, the wireless technology is rock solid. If you're looking for an unusual amount of flexibility or already have a main axe that you'd like to supplement, the M-Audio MidAir models will have you composing from across the room in no time.
Value (1 through 5): 4