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IK Multimedia iRig Keys I/O 49 MIDI Controller and Audio Interface

Portable audio and MIDI interfacing for Mac, PC, iOS

 

 

by Craig Anderton

 


 

 

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Line 6 offered the KB37—a combination 3-octave keyboard and audio interface that also included POD Farm software. It looked weird, but I found it immensely utilitarian. When it went away, so did the concept of a portable keyboard-meets-audio interface, until iRig Keys I/O 49 came along. I don’t see it so much as a studio controller as one for portable use, but for those on a budget ("street" price is under $300), it has plenty to offer in the studio as well.

 

What You Need to Know

 

  • The pitch and mod “wheels” (touchstrips, actually) are above the keyboard, so the size is basically the width of the keyboard, with a strip along the top for controls. I’ve used several controllers over the years with wheels above the keyboard, and while initially skeptical, found it not a problem in use. In fact, with the pitch wheel, you can "trill" easily by tapping on the strip.
  • The audio interface is a single Neutrik combination jack on the back (the ¼" input is 1 megohm for guitar compatibility), with switchable +48V phantom power and input gain control. There are left/right line outs, and a 1/8" headphone jack.

  • Power comes from USB, batteries (included), or an optional-at-extra-cost AC adapter.
  • iRig Keys is compatible with Mac, Windows, and iOS (not Android). However, interfacing is through a small DIN connector, and IK provides two proprietary cables—one for USB A, and one for Apple Lightning. There’s no connector for USB-C, and during this transitional phase to USB-C, using anything with USB-C adapters is a try-before-you-buy situation.
  • The package includes a simple, non-locking iPhone/iPad stand.
  • In addition to the mod and pitch touchstrips, there are “switch” touchstrips for Octave and Program, three transport controls, an Alt button to change button functions, five rotary encoders, and eight pads. The 25-key version has the same complement of controls, but arranged with the edit controls and pads arranged as two rows to save space.
  • To find out everything the unit does, I highly recommend that you download the manual.

 

Strengths

 

  • Interestingly, the "street" price for a new iRig Keys I/O 49 is about the same as a used KB37—we get a lot for our money these days!
  • Although the unit is super-compact, having a 25-key version is helpful when space is at a premium.
  • The included software is impressive, and not a throw-away: 3 instruments (full version of SampleTank 3, Miroslav Philharmonik 2 CE, Syntronik Pro-V for Mac/Windows/iOS), and additionally for Mac/Windows, 11 T-RackS effects, PreSonus Studio One Prime, and Ableton Live 10 Lite. All in all, there’s over 40 GB of samples and 5,000 sounds.
  • The velocity-sensitive keys are full-size, and have a reasonably solid feel.
  • The Class A preamp can operate at 24/96. The company quotes a spec of 46 dB for gain, and -100 dB RMS for input noise.
  • With Windows, the audio interface is compatible with Windows’ newer, low-latency WASAPI drivers. These are getting very close the same kind of performance as Apple’s Core Audio drivers.
  • With iOS devices, although you have to use either batteries or the optional power supply, the power supply will charge your device while powering iRig Keys I/O.
  • IK supplies a plug-in that sets up iRig Keys I/O as a control surface for Logic Pro or GarageBand.
  • A firmware update made several improvements and bug fixes, the main one being better sensitivity adjustment for the pads—initially, you had to hit them with a hammer to get high velocities. There’s also a dedicated preset for Ableton Live, and the option to use the pads to send program changes to Apple MainStage. Make sure you do a firmware update if your unit isn't at the current version.
  • Each drum pad can be programmed to send either MIDI note, CC messages, or Program Change messages on specific channels.
  • The iRig presets for IK’s virtual instruments are pretty slick. For example with SampleTank, you can scroll among folders, open them, load instruments, browse multis, and use the rotary encoders to vary the macro controls. With Syntronik, you can browse and load presets, and use MIDI Learn to assign the controls to specific parameters. There are also general-purpose presets, and the option to create 99 presets of your own.
  • Preset editing can be quite deep. For example the mod wheel can be set to either return to zero, or hold the last-touched position, and be assigned to any CC number.
  • Although subjective, I think iRig Keys I/O 49 is visually appealing. It has a modern look, and the pads that change color with velocity are cool eye candy.
  • There’s an accessory bag for portability; it costs $49.95.

 

Limitations

 

  • The cables are short. That’s fine if you’re using an iPhone or iPad close to the keyboard, but in the studio, you’ll want/need a Lightning or USB extension cord.
  • For Windows, if your software or computer doesn’t support Wnidows’ WASAPI drivers, you have to use ASIO4ALL—there’s no dedicated ASIO driver. Although many people report good results with ASIO4ALL, it can conflict with other ASIO drivers installed on a computer.
  • The downside of the deep editing is that it’s all done through a three-character alpha-numeric display. While editing isn’t as bad as you might assume, still, you’ll develop a relationship with the manual in the process of developing your own presets.
  • There’s no aftertouch (not that I expected it at this price).
  • I’d prefer a ¼" headphone jack, because adapters can stress connectors. It's better to use an adapter with an 1/8" plug at one end, that connects to a ¼" female connector through a cable, to avoid too much downward weight on the connector.
  • If you plan to use iRig Keys I/O with iOS, factor in $39.99 for the cost of the optional power supply (or a budget for batteries).
  • The audio interface has one input. If you want to record, for example, a vocal while recording guitar direct, it’s not possible.
  • Due to iOS constraints, you can’t monitor via the iOS device, but need to monitor through the iRig Keys I/O (headphone or line outs to powered monitors).
  • The unit is not compatible with 30-pin iOS devices.
  • To control synths with 5-pin DIN MIDI connectors, you'll need to use a USB-to-DIN adapter cable.

 

Conclusions

 

For portable songwriting, iRig Keys I/O 49 is the missing link between a portable keyboard and audio interface. For example, if I had limited space while traveling, like on a tour bus or boat, this would be ideal. I believe the main competition for iRig Keys I/O 49 at the same price point is Novation’s Impulse 49 controller. For a studio situation that didn’t involve portability and already had audio interfacing, I’d choose the Impulse because its more fully-realized control surface—eight faders, eight buttons, and eight rotary controls, in addition to eight pads. However, it’s 33.3" L x 13" W x 3.9" high and  weighs 11 pounds, compared to iRig Keys I/O 49’s 27.3" L x 8.2" W x 2.6" high and 4.8 pounds. These differences, as well as the built-in audio interface, are very significant for portable applications.

 

 

In my opinion (not stated by IK), there are two main target customers. The first is a beginner getting involved in computer-based recording. The price is right, there’s audio and MIDI, and the software (especially if supplemented by some free programs, like AmpliTube Free) is a great deal that may very well be all someone needs for quite some time. It’s also something you can take on trips, and although programming presets may be daunting to beginners, if they download the full manual and go through the process, they’ll learn a lot about MIDI.

 

The second target customer is more pro-level musicians who need a portable setup for songwriting and recording. The size is a big factor, as is the compatibility with iOS devices as well as laptops. And again, the price is right. Although someone on this level may already have their own favorite software installed, if they don’t already have IK’s programs, they’re definitely a worthy addition. And of course, the audio interface is way better than recording through a mobile device’s built-in mic.

 

If you fit either of these two categories, iRig Keys I/O 49 is currently the only keyboard controller that combines MIDI and audio interface in a single, compact, low-cost, intelligently designed unit.

 

Resources

IK Multimedia Product Page

Available from:

Sweetwater

Full Compass

Guitar Center

Musician's Friend

Amazon

 

 

___________________________________________

 

Craig Anderton is a Senior Contributing Editor at Harmony Central. 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. Go to Craig Anderton's official website.

 

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