Review – IK Multimedia iRig Keys I/O

IK Multimedia’s specialty is blurring the lines between desktop and iOS, studio and mobile, audio and MIDI, and even between software and hardware. Their latest “bundle” completes the circle on the IK Multimedia ecosystem. I deliberately choose not to describe it as either hardware or software, because it is both.

iRig Keys I/O

IK Multimedia now offer a fully functioning environment for keyboard players, either in the studio or on the go, using either a computer or an iOS device, with software instruments, easily mappable sliders, knobs, and pads, with effects processing, with MIDI and audio connectivity, and even with two bundled DAWs. Their new iRig Keys I/O has it all.

The Keyboard

iRig Keys I/O is more than a MIDI controller or audio interface. It’s a complete software and hardware workstation. It comes in two flavors: 25 keys or 49 keys. It feels great to play, in no small part because of the full-size keys, which is unusual but most welcome on this kind of lightweight, portable device.

It comes with a Mini-DIN to USB cable and mini-DIN to lightning cable to connect easily to either a computer or iOS device. I plugged it into a powered USB Hub, and it was recognized immediately by Logic Pro X as both a keyboard controller and audio interface.

The layout of the controls is economical but also very intuitive. There is a lot more functionality to the sliders, pads, and knobs than their initial settings. After about ten minutes and a brief glance at the manual, I was editing CC assignments, and storing user configurations.

The 49 key version ships with four dedicated touch sliders. Two for pitch bend and modulation, and then two more for octave shifting, and program changes. The 25 key model ships with only two physical touch sliders. One fader is used to toggle between pitch bend and modulation, the other between program change and octave shift functions, thanks to the ingeniously programmed Alt button. The ALT button enhances many of the other controls as well. For example, it is also used to toggle the data knob between sending MIDI CC values, and volume control for the main and headphone outputs.

The Controls

The four knobs are assignable to eight CC numbers, making it a great simple MIDI control surface that can accompany just about any DAW. Holding down the ALT key toggles the four physical knobs between knobs 1-4 and knobs 5-8. The knobs are also touch sensitive and will display the current CC value when touched; making it great for sending momentary values. This function is off by default but can be toggled on. They can work in either absolute mode, sending the full range of 127 MIDI values, or relative mode, with a customizable programmed range of CC values. The state of all the controls are stored in four factory presets, and up to 99 configurable user presets.

The knobs and sliders are programmed to work with IK Multimedia instruments straight out of the box. I was easily and intuitively able to use the data knob to scroll through instrument banks, and load sounds in SampleTank 3, Miroslav Philharmonik 2 and Syntronik (reviewed here.)

The other knobs are pre-mapped to control the macros at the bottom of the instrument interfaces on SampleTank and Philharmonik. And they can be easily mapped to any Syntronik parameter via the Syntronik right click/MIDI Learn function.

Editing

As functional as the iRig Keys I/O is with the factory presets, its flexibility comes alive when editing parameters related to the keyboard, pads, touch controls, and knobs.

Pressing the ALT button followed by the EDIT button opens the magic door into this corner of its brain. Once in this mode, pressing the Data button confirms selections and choices

The first thing is to choose between Global or Preset edit mode. Global options pertain to the keyboard itself; how the program change functions work, setting the MIDI transmit channel, the velocity response curve, semitone transposition, and enabling/disabling the touch knob features. Here is where you can enable or disable the sending of a CC message associated with the touch of each knob.

Editing Presets is where you can toggle the default Data knob push function behavior between sending (relative or absolute) Control Change messages or audio volume control. Preset editing also allows the user to customize which CC number each knob will send when rotated, or when touched. There is only one external pedal input on the back of the keyboard for either a sustain pedal or expression pedal. Preset Edit mode lets you set the pedal function, and a nice added touch is that it can also be programmed to send out Program Change messages.

We can also edit the pads here. They can be set to a unique MIDI channel, separate from the main keyboard transmit channel. Velocity response can be edited, as can each pad’s note number, CC, or program change assignment. Preset Edit mode also allows the user to edit the slider messages from their default Pitch Bend and Modulation assignment.

Audio

With all this talk of the keyboard functions, let’s not forget that the iRig Keys I/O is also a fully functional 96 kHz / 24-bit audio interface.

Logic Pro X happily recognized it as soon it was plugged in; with no driver or software installation necessary. The combo input jack on the back does double duty for line and mic input. There is a separate button to enable/disable phantom power. A dedicated gain knob is used to adjust input gain when recording.

I fired up a very heavy processor and track-intensive Logic Pro Project and set the iRig keys I/O buffer down to 64 samples. The iRig handled it like a champ and barely broke a sweat. At a buffer setting of 32 however, not surprisingly, the audio did start breaking up.

I tried recording, first at a traditional 44.1/24 setting with the buffer at 64. The iRig Keys I/O worked perfectly. Latency with software monitoring enabled was in the expected range. I only had to set the gain knob at about 12:00 o’clock to properly power a Rhode NT-1A large diaphragm condenser mic to record a standard VO.

At 96 kHz, unfortunately, the buffer setting of 64 was unusable. Moving it up to 128 solved things immediately and it performed as expected, with about the same latency as the 64 sample buffer setting at the 44.1 kHz sampling rate.

Headphone volume is easily controlled with the data knob in ALT mode. And all this via USB power from my iMac.

Connections and Connectivity

Physically, the back panel of the keyboard is straightforward and robust. I appreciate a physical I/O that doesn’t require head scratching to figure out.

iRig Keys I/O ships with Mini-DIN to USB and Mini-DIN to lightning cables, for easy connections to either a USB computer port or an iOS device. A nice added bonus is the included iPad holder.

But the real connectivity comes with the bundled software. IK Multimedia welcomes new iRig Keys I/O owners into the IK Multimedia universe with free versions of their Sampletank, Philharmonik, and Syntronik software instruments, plus the full iOS versions of each.

In addition, the T-Racks 4 Deluxe Mix and Mastering suite is included, plus licenses for free versions of Studio One by Presonus and Live by Ableton.

With a sticker price of $300, this is everything you need to make music right away on either Mac, PC, or iOS device. Add one of the IK Multimedia microphones, a pair of iLoud Micro Monitors, and a travel bag; and you are ready to make music anywhere.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of this review, iRig Keys I/O completes the IK Multimedia ecosystem. Whether you are a guitar player or keyboard player, vocalist or podcaster, studio musician using a Mac Pro, or a songwriter working with an iPad on planes and in hotel rooms, they have the product you need.

Do all of their products offer all the functionality of other more expensive and complex hardware and software? No, of course not. But they get you in the game at a very reasonable price point. And there are upgrade paths to the more full-featured products.

Even if/when you leave the IK Multimedia universe, their products hold up in the bigger picture. iRig Keys I/O is a perfectly usable mobile controller and audio interface to use on the go or in a small home studio setup.

Of course, if you need more audio I/O or more physical controls, or more octaves on your keyboard, your journey won’t end with the one device. But I can almost guarantee you that when that time comes, you’ll still find a use for this keyboard.

Suggested Enhancements

As I was working with the unit for this review, a couple of small things occurred to me that IK Multimedia could do to enhance this offering.

It’s great that they include a Mini-DIN to USB cable, but it would be nice if it were a bit longer. Unless it’s connected to a computer right in front of it, the cable won’t be long enough. Then again, USB extensions are readily and inexpensively available.

It also would be nice if the knobs worked bi-directionally when navigating through instrument folders. As it is now, turning the Data knob counterclockwise navigates as expected, but turning it clockwise jumps back to the top rather than stepping back up through the folder hierarchies.

With all the functionality packed into this keyboard, it would be nice if the LCD could display more than three characters. The abbreviations in the nested edit menus take a while to get used to. Of course, there is limited space, so this limitation is completely acceptable. Same thing with the lack of an Exit button when in Edit mode. Sometimes, when burrowing deep into the edit menus, it’s not obvious how to exit Edit mode from where you are.

But there is a lot to love with this device:

  • It’s plug and play, both for MIDI and Audio.
  • It required NO setup to be recognized. It just worked.
  • Edit mode allows the external pedal to optionally be programmed to send Program Change messages.

The latter can be useful in a live situation.

And, the inclusion of touch-sensitive knobs and control strips on a device in this price range shatters what were previous barriers to entry for these types of functions.

All in all, I think iRig Keys I/O is a big win. It’s solid and robust for standard mono mic or line input recording, and the keys feel good to play, it offers very nice functional and flexible MIDI control via the knobs, pads, and sliders, and ships with a ton of great software to get you started making music right away!

For more information, visit http://www.ikmultimedia.com/products/irigkeysio/

Eli Krantzberg
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Eli Krantzberg

Apple Certified Pro Eli Krantzberg is an internationally known author and music software trainer for Groove3. His instructional videos have helped demystify music software such as Logic Pro, Pro Tools, Sonar, BFD, Melodyne, and Kontakt for thousands of users all over the world. Based in Montreal, Canada, Eli is involved in all aspects of audio production. In his studio he works with various artists, as well as on commercial jingles, corporate videos, and original music composition.
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