Laptops and iPads have spawned a new product category—compact controllers, designed for music on-the-go, that can fit in a travel bag, small suitcase, or even a laptop bag. However, during the process of reviewing these I’ve also found them very convenient to pop into a USB port when I want to test something without having to even leave my chair. The tiny footprint additionally means that controllers with faders, buttons, etc. (like Korg’s nanoKONTROL 2, reviewed here as part of the nanoSERIES2 controllers) are a fast, efficient way to make tweaks.
The microKEY25 has (duh!) micro keys that fit linearly in just under 12", as opposed to the 14" required for 25 full-size keys; the up/down key travel is about 3/8", and there’s just enough resistance to the key motion so they actually have quite a good feel. The USB port is a standard B-type connector, not mini or micro; while the miroKEY25 is class-compliant, a dedicated USB/MIDI driver allows using the Korg KONTROL editor. The keyboard’s velocity is very predictable (i.e., when I hit what a thought was a smooth change from low to high velocity, that’s exactly what showed up in the DAW piano roll), but no aftertouch.
The unit's weight is 1.43 lbs., and it draws under 100mA from the USB port. As a result, the microKEY25 can also be iPad-powered and when used with the Apple iPad Camera Connection Kit, works with Core MIDI-compatible apps (e.g., Korg’s iMS-20). However, Korg recommends using the keyboar with a powered hub for extended use.
The controls shown in Fig. 1 include a joystick (which you can push to obtain a switch control) and four buttons: Arpeggiator, sustain/tap tempo, octave down, and octave up.
Fig. 1: The left side of the microKEY25 contains all the controls.
The octave buttons use color and flashing to indicate the current octave range—green for one octave offset, orange for two, red for three, and flashing red for four (a total of ±8 octaves). The joystick defaults to providing modulation when moved up, breath control when moved down, and pitch bend in the left and right directions; the button produces a control 67 message. Except for bend, all of these can be re-assigned to different controllers.
The microKEY25 comes with licenses for downloadable free software: Korg M1Le virtual instrument (with $99 upgrade offer to the full Korg Legacy Collection Special Bundle), Applied Acoustics Systems’ instruments (Strum Acoustic Session, Lounge Lizard Session, and Ultra Analog Session), Toontrack’s EzDrummer Lite software drum sound module, and a discount coupon for Ableton Live, Live Suite, and Live LE software.
While these are a decent bonus, you can also download the free Korg KONTROL editor (Fig. 2) and companion, cross-platform USB-MIDI driver. With Windows, both are x86 programs but work with 64-bit operating systems.
Fig. 2: The KONTROL software adds considerable flexibility to the microKEY25 by letting you re-assign the controllers, choose velocity curves, and determine arpeggiator settings.
Speaking of Windows, I initially ran into the dreaded Windows MIDI port limitation problem (not surprising, given how much stuff I review that loads MIDI drivers). This problem manifests itself as software (in this case, the KONTROL software) not being able to recognize a USB device like the microKEY25, even though the driver software shows up as being connected and recognized.
The Windows MIDI port limitation was a known issue with Windows XP but I wasn’t aware of the same issue with Windows 7. After some quality time spent with Google, the most common answer is that yes, there is still a port limitation, but now it’s 32 ports . . . maybe. Or maybe not. In any event, despite the lack of a definitive answer I ran a batch process (as described in this article) to show all hidden devices under Sound, Video, and Game controllers, deleted all unused drivers, and the KONTROL software worked perfectly. Cause and effect? Probably. So if the software doesn’t seem to be working, check your ports before you call Korg’s tech support.
Anyway, the software gives you quite a few options. You can choose separate controller numbers for the joystick up and down directions, the joystick button, the sustain button, and choose arpeggiator characteristics. The keyboard offers 8 velocity curves or a variable constant velocity value. Note that any changes you make in the editor that you write to the microKEY25 stay in the unit until changed (“what happens in microKEY, stays in microKEY”). This is convenient as you can store custom settings—it doesn’t revert to the factory defaults on power-off.
The arpeggiator is a lot of fun. It can accept external clock, run internally, or with the Auto setting, sense external clock and if not present, run internally. You can use the joystick to control direction (up or down, off or triggered) and when running internally, there’s tap tempo using the Sustain button. Note resolution is from 1/32 to whole notes, with a range of up to four octaves—there’s even swing.
However, testing the KONTROL software with various programs revealed some DAW-dependent anomalies. With Ableton Live 8, Acoustica Mixcraft 6, and Pro Tools 10, you could have the KONTROL software open, freely make changes, and write them to the microKEY25. With Cakewalk Sonar X2, this wasn’t possible without first disabling the microKEY25 as a MIDI device. This apparently “opened up” the port and allowed for communications; you then needed to re-enable the microKEY25 within Sonar to use the changes you made. Sony Acid Pro was sort of halfway in between—you can write changes to the microKEY25 with Acid open, but have to close the KONTROL software before you can use the microKEY25 with Acid.
Concerning accessories, the microKEY25 comes with a short, laptop-friendly 32" cable.
FUN WITH TINY
The microKEY25 seems like it would hold up well; I tried twisting the case to see if there was any flex, but it was insignificant. The keys feel better than you might expect given the price, and the KONTROL editor adds flexibility in terms of the overall control. Besides, arpeggiators are always fun!
I also appreciate the joystick; yes, it’s small, but it’s off to the left of the keyboard, so you can manipulate it without interfering with playing the keys. Korg has the “small” thing down (I use their nanoSERIES2 controllers a lot), and the microKEY25 is no exception.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.