The svelte compactness of a laptop poses a challenge for computer musicians: how do you play the thing? A typically-sized music keyboard kills the laptop’s portability and small footprint. That makes a compact keyboard a no-brainer.

This month, both Alesis and Korg have new compact offerings, each USB-powered, small, and cheap. And as a side note, I see a very different product opportunity not served by either one …but more on that in a bit.

Korg microKEY

Korg’s microKEY fits 37 mini keys from the microKORG XL and microSTATION into a USB-powered keyboard. I actually quite like playing the microKORG: the action and size could certainly be described as “toy-like,” but they’re consistent enough to be good fun. It’s a badly-needed product offering, because Korg’s otherwise terrific nano Series is marred by the awful keyboard, which offers few advantages over your laptop’s existing QWERTY keyboard in feel or control and has key caps that chronically fall off.

The microKEY looks much better:

  • 2.21 lbs, fitting into 22.24″ x 5.47″ x 2.13″
  • Driver-free operation, and two USB ports to turn the keyboard into a hub (nice)
  • Something fun to play right away: the M1 Le soft synth and Lounge Lizard Session, among other bundled “lite” software
  • Octave shift buttons
  • Pitch Bend wheel and Modulation wheel
  • November 2010, price TBD

The Korg also nicely trumps Akai’s LPK25, seen below. The LPK has mini keys, but only 25 of them. The Akai sports an arpeggiator and tap tempo, which is cool, but I expect most users would rather have pitch and mod. And while the Akai is USB-powered, it lacks the USB hub. I also really don’t like the feel of the LPK, personally, so I think the Korg bed wins out.

Korg microKEY

But wait — Numark/Akai/Alesis respond within days with their own offering!

Alesis Q25

The Alesis Q25 is more of a grown-up alternative to the Akai-branded LPK25. And it has wheels. Specs:

  • Pitch and modulation wheels, octave up and down buttons, and an assignable “data slider”
  • Class-compliant, bus-powered USB MIDI
  • Full-sized keys – but still compact (updated): Dimensions: 19″ (w) x 7.25″(d) x 2 3/8″ (h) Weight: 4.6 lbs. That’s heavier than the Korg, but you get full-sized keys. And it’s actually roughly the same size. The Korg is, in fact, wider, if shallower and ever-so-slightly less tall, at 22.24″ x 5.47″ x 2.13″.
  • Fall 2010 (maybe, say, November?), price… US$79
  • UPDATED – yes, we have MIDI. As echolevel notes in comments, there is indeed MIDI DIN on this keyboard. So there you go – that counts as an advantage over the Korg.

So, the Alesis is also absurdly-cheap. Instead of being ultra-compact as the LPK and Korg pieces are, it falls more into “very compact.” That may make it perhaps more of a rival for M-Audio’s Oxygen – minus the handy knobs and transport controls – than the Korg above.

I’m waiting on final specs on weight and size from Alesis; stay tuned, as I’ll update the story. (Follow us on Twitter for the latest.)

Alesis Q25

Which one would I choose? Well, as I said, if we’re going to go ultra-compact, I’d choose one that goes all the way and is fun to have around. While we don’t know the price, that means the Korg looks to me like the winner – I’ve got plenty of full-sized keys around, as do you, I suspect, so why not cram 37 little keys next to your desk? It’ll be just fine for playing fun little synth lines.

On the other hand, I can absolutely see some people picking the full-sized keys. So, if two octaves is enough for you, you actually get a narrower keyboard in the Alesis that only adds a little bit of depth and weight versus the Korg. I’d rather have 37 keys than 24, but if you’re playing basslines, that could make the Alesis a winner.

Of course, all bets are off until we see the actual models.

And what I really, really want isn’t here.

The Keyboard That Lives Only in My Head

I have no doubt that Alesis/Akai and Korg are dead-on in terms of what will sell well in the market. But indulge me for a moment: what if we had something really unique for more boutique interests?

I love the idea of ultra-compact keyboards. But “cheap” isn’t as important to me. The portable controller of my dreams would have:

  • Class-compliant USB (good so far)
  • A MIDI port, so it could be used with portable synths and not just computers. Don’t want to take up the space for a giant DIN? Why not use S-Video on one end, MIDI on the other?
  • Ruggedized construction: something that feels great and holds up to regular transportation, even if that adds to weight. (Now, let’s be honest – some of this is psychological. Plastic is a great material. Metal is more fun.)
  • A higher-quality synth action bed. (I need to check Fatar to see if they offer something in the two-octave variety that’d work.)

Updated: Readers are already suggesting some existing offerings… check comments.

In other words, I’m actually asking for something more expensive – but something I’d buy once and use forever. And I want something that’d work with hardware, minus the computer. The market clearly wants cheap and light, whereas I want expensive and heavy.

I don’t think the industry is going to do it any time soon, which suggests what we really want is a DIY effort. Now, DIY keybeds are out of the question, but presuming you could order a reasonable quantity of beds and get custom casing, this otherwise isn’t impossible. And open, kit-based design means people could customize such things with novelties like ribbon controllers or tilt sensors.

The DIY community has thus far limited itself to mainly simple designs – the monome, gorgeous as it is, is just a light-up grid of buttons. Maybe it’s time for an open keyboard.

Keeping price down isn’t easy for the industry in big volumes; in small quantities, it’s a major, major problem. So how much would you pay for such a thing? And anyone want to comment on feasibility, or whether I’ve just lost my mind?

Oh, and in the meantime, yes, I’m sure a lot of those Alesis and Korg keyboards will sell. We’ll have a look and let you know how they are. So, feel free to comment on / ask questions about either the real-world or pipe-dream possibilities.

  • http://eternalprototyper.com/ Darren Landrum

    I want the Q49 to hurry up and ship, because I think I'll probably pick one up. Then again, do I want to be an early adopter? Decisions, decisions…

  • Human Plague

    This type of keyboard layout is based on the physical properties of a piano. That is, strings, hammers, and the space between them.

    To put it another way, I can type faster than I can piano and the QWERTY keyboard falls under the same legacy; it's based on the typewriter which had engineering problems to solve (e.g space out the keys so that there is a low probability of them getting stuck together and mashing up the ribbon)

    I have to ask, other than training, is there a reason one couldn't play Mozart on a Monome or something similar? Velocity?

    These keyboards look cool, and I'm interested in buying one, but I sometimes wonder if it's just legacy and familiarity.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, velocity would be a fairly significant issue, yes. :)

    But otherwise, yes, you can use any layout you like!

  • http://eigenzone.org Geert Bevin

    I love the Eigenharp Pico for its portability and flexibility in fact. It's also constructed out of metal, making it extremely sturdy. (I think it's aluminum but I have to check)

  • leMel

    Your wish list seems nicely covered by the Korg microKontrol & Kontrol49 – even the metal casing. Hmmm.are those class-compliant? I keep hoping Korg will update the microKontrol with the improved minikeys of the microKorg XL

  • Bo

    I never understood why no one develops a folding ultraportable keyboard like 2 LPD-25 hinged together, so that you have 4 or more octaves. I know there's one pro-grade one with large keys you can take on the plane, but with mini keys it would fit into a backpack and you wouldn't have to think about playing bass or melody next.

  • hbc

    As far as open keyboards go, you can get Fatar beds and a DIY midi kit from the modular synth maker Doepfer. Then you could throw that into any enclosure you want. Add wheels, joysticks, force sensing resistors, whatever.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @hbc: yep, kinda what I'm thinking, though looks like truly open-source USB MIDI firmware is now a definite possibility.

  • Mr. Tunes

    I am desperately waiting to see when a company will finally address the shortage of foot controllers. Enough cheap keys already!

  • anechoic

    I've been looking for an ultra-compact keyboard controller for a few years now

    I wonder if all these play nicely with ALSA midi on Linux?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @anechoic: All of the above are class-compliant, so they'll all work on Linux, for sure!

  • http://arvidtp.net Arvid Tomayko-Peters

    Huh – I have the Akai LPK25 and its cool and tiny, but I do miss the wheels. And the arpeggiator I could just build in MaxMSP if I really wanted such a thing.

    The USB hub and extra octave on the korg is cool. Almost makes my tempted to get one too. I do wish one of these had a footswitch port though – for sustain or another controller. The LPK25 has a button for sustain which is pretty useless – if i wanted to use my hands, I'd just hold them on the notes, especially on a 2 octave keyboard. So I tend to just re-use that button for something else in MaxMSP or MainStage.

    @ Mr. Tunes:
    http://www.keithmcmillen.com/products/softstep/
    not super cheap, but looks cheap for what you get – and super-compact. I hope it comes out soon – i really want one.

  • http://arvidtp.net Arvid Tomayko-Peters

    Oh and the "beer-proof" part of the keith mcmillen softstep (and these other small performance devices) is important – my little Akai keyboard is still covered in spatters from when the keyboard/sax player (whom, dont get me wrong, I rulllly heart) decided his synth was not quite drunk enough during our live soundtrack to Psycho.

  • http://frasconimusic.com Miguel Frasconi

    I have been using the mini-keyed Yamaha CBX-K1 for over 12 years, and before that, novation's two-octave full sized keys (both midi out, pre-usb). I now use the LPK25, but miss the pitch mod wheels (what were they thinkin!?). That korg looks very cool and might replace my yamaha, if only for the usb. But my new love is the rare Fatar/Studiologic four octave controller with *hammer action*. Weighs 20lbs but it feels like playing a real instrument.

  • http://andrew.hicox.com plurgid

    what @Bo said * 1000.

    full size keys, good action, more than 1.5 octaves and folding. Also indestructible.

    I would pay good money for that.

    I have an LPK25 and a MicroKorg, and they are fun, but it only takes about 30 minutes poking keys on either one of them for me to get totally frustrated and wish I had full size keys.

  • amoeba

    first one to offer velocity and aftertouch gets my moneys

  • http://frasconimusic.com Miguel Frasconi

    @Bo, @plurgid,#folding keyboard. VAX77
    http://www.infiniteresponse.com/
    Also, I've been waiting for that softstep for while. Great idea.

  • Veronica

    Creative Labs had a winner with the Prodikeys… http://www.prodikeys.com/

  • itchy

    i would actually like korg to create a full analog version of the microkorg with a 3 or 4 vco's and replace all that dead space for the menu with knobs. this would be my dream synth. it would be all analog and filled with switches an knobs…………..yay

  • http://cooptrol.com cooptrol

    Am I the only one who doesn't use keyboards of any kind for music production?

  • http://www.ilektron.com Mudo

    Open keyboard or circuit bending…

    I have some ideas in the lab waiting for some interested arduino coders…

    one of them superkeytar instrument!

    Anyone interested?

    luthier(dot)lab(arrow)gmail(dot)com

    mutis mayfield at FB.

    ;)

  • http://bedroomproducersblog.com/ bedroom producer&#03

    37 minikeys? ultimate pwnage.

  • http://xfader.com regend

    That Alesis is begging for knobs or buttons across the top. I still use the original Axiom 25.

  • Keats

    Most of you all probably have macs, but on my PC, the onboard audio card/driver isn't good enough.

    Anyways, I bought the M Audio Ozone, which is 37 key midi controller + audio interface + w/ 2 audio ins and 8 knobby thingies for $65 on craigslist. Not quite as small as the controllers you mentioned above, but it's (most) everything I need for a small gig in a tiny, cheap package.

    That's why I buy used gear. :)

  • Charles

    I want a 37-key (full-size, none of this minikey nonsense) controller with USB bus power, some decent quality infinite-rotary knobs, MIDI ports, and the pitch/mod knobs mounted above the keyboard to minimize the width. No built-in arpeggiators or autoriffs, no audio interface, no synth engine necessary. As far as I can tell this doesn't exist, though.

  • http://vimeo.com/14050862 Chili

    At first glance the Korg's built in USB hub seems like a win. However in practicle use it may not be so great. Will it power an MPD32? Will it power a APC40? Monome? Probably not…

    I got an LPK for christmas last year. I use the arpeggiator all the time cause it's one button push away. I think the keys feel fine although I haven't compared it to the Korg. But if the Korg feels anything like the other cheap stuff they're putting out, I'll stick with the Akai

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @Chili: Um, the APC40 isn't bus-powered, so it definitely won't.

    The USB bus will provide as much power as is available on the USB bus. ;) Mouse and keyboard, etc. should be fine, which I say makes this useful.

  • Stan

    For that matter, why not use S-Video on both ends, and ditch those old large-bore MIDI jacks for more real estate on laptops & controllers. (It's about time for another standard to be improved out of existence…) But seriously, unless you're touring the club circuit, (in which case XLR would have been a better choice) the current MIDI spec is pretty beefy, and not all of the contacts are even used, so you're carying all that wire around for – ?

  • poopoo

    @stan — So you can use the same cable for din syncing your 909 to your 303…obviously.

    Ucapps.de have a great chip called the GM5 that does 5in/5out usb to midi. They are tiny and can use class compliant drivers or a more advanced custom driver. They output a low current 5v too which could probably power a simple keyboard. I bought a load of them when they first came out and have been retro fitting them to some of my old midi toys.

  • http://www.derekjhunt.org Derek

    I love the current influx of mini-midi devices. I have the AKAI LPK25, and while it's fun, I really do miss have a pitch and mod wheel. I can't wait for the Korg.

  • http://vladspears.com Vlad Spears

    I love tiny keyboards as much as the next electronic noisician, especially if they are on an SK-1, but my own wish for a portable keyboard would focus on portability over all other qualities. Here's my reasoning:

    1) Even if we slap the best tiny keys that could possibly be made on a portable controller it will still not be anywhere near the playability of a larger bed of keys unless the hands playing it are at the smallest end of adult human range. The high-end action would be wasted on the mitts of your average musician.

    2) These tiny keyboards, while portable, still aren't portable enough. Add in a case or shell to protect them when packing into your bag with a laptop and other small gear, and they're still pretty bulky for hauling around regularly.

    My wish is for a portable keyboard based on infrared detection of finger movement in a configurable image sprayed by light onto any work surface. This technology is already available, and seems to have been first released by VKB as a portable typing device for PDAs way back around 02004. It's only about 7.5 cm tall.

    With a change of focus and modest detection improvements, I think it would create the single most portable midi keyboard/controller possible, short of auto-constructing/de-constructing nanomachines bringing the best Fatar can create into instant existence from a small block of raw material. Or a neural jack. Or direct detection and proper interpretation of brain waves. We're not quite there yet on those fronts, but we likely *can* create a VKB-style midi controller.

    I wrote about it back in 02005, and I still want it. Image at the link.

  • http://aumhaa.blogspot.com amounra

    Arturia's new keyboard has pretty much all of the required features…I'm in love with it. Its smaller than most of the other 25 keys, totally rugged, and sexy. Has MIDI to boot. And pretty cheap, considering what you get. Smallest keyboard I've seen that's actually usable.

  • immon

    real shame the function buttons on the LPK cant be re-assigned to pitch and mod that would make it much better

  • http://toilville.com peter

    Since it seems us midi dudes are quickly becoming the minority on these things, maybe someone should make a usb to midi dongle thingy to re-add legacy midi control to these sucks.. maybe running off some kind of gumstix linux dealie.

    My use of dealie should indicate i barely know what i am talking about,

  • Nino

    I was thinking about buying something like this: http://www.behringer.com/EN/Products/UMA25S.aspx nothing wrong with that I think? It also has an normal Midi out

  • http://das.blogsport.de DasDAS

    I needed more keys than that and got the new Alesis Q49. Since it would not fit into the 80×60 flightcase that houses my synths, I cut away 1.5 cm on the right side with a saw. Ducttaped the hole, it works! If I was more of a maker I would have gotten rid of the whole casing and built it directly into the flight case. The Alesis has a nice feel to it, I can even play a bit of piano without too much loss.

  • http://wheatwilliams.com Wheat Williams

    These devices would be great for a music student to use in a classroom with a laptop, for simple things like music theory homework. Working out four-part voice leading, note-entry into Finale or Sibelius, and the like. And they would fit along with the laptop in a large tote or backpack. Bravo.

  • Kim

    Ditto on the 3 octave with wheels above keys. Then we can have a computer mouse on each side. Fits my desk well. The Arturia Keyboard looks great! Id like that one. Its a shame the led screen is not real hardware, because it would be cheep to produce and very cool to have, if touch sensitive. So why not make attachments for a real touch pad. This year iPads and other touchscreens rocks the music interface world. velocity sensitive screens are in the pipeline.

    But what I really would love is some new ideas. Combination of these new smart multi touch screens with highly playable hardware.

    Id like something looking like the fretboard of a guitar 30 – 40 cm long, with mounting possibilities for a touch computer like the iPhone, etc. Because these touch devices already has a lot of genuine interface design for sound. The fretboard without the guitar body is easy to travel with, yet it can fit a lot more notes then a 37 note mini keyboard. It also fits nicely in front of your PC keyboard or laptop. Plus, you have tons of buttons for Monome type of play like loops, step sequencers, or what have you. And MIDI interface is possible for the iPhone/iPod. Infact its already released from Line 6. And the new Akai Synth station HW keyboard is using a dock for midi to the iPhone.

    So what are these mainstream HW companies waiting for? (Scared chickens) The software companies on the other hand has started to change the game. APC 40 from Ableton (w/Akai) and Machine and other controllers from Native Instruments, also Arturia was mentioned.. to name a few.

    Personally I want something of very sturdy quality to play with, that has extreme focus on musical ergonomics. In my mind it fits in your hands like the best guitars. Its small, can be played with both hands when you walk around, or played on a desk like a keyboard etc, when your working in front of the screen.

    Why is it so hard to see what the future "guitar" (most popular instrument) should be. Are we still playing on the same "stone age" instruments we've been playing on for hundreds of years?

    Perhaps its time to look at how we create digital music.

    2010

  • http://retrothing.com James Grahame

    I want knobs. Don't care if they're tiny, but 8 knobs along the top panel would be really useful. Of course, the manufacturers love feature-limiting budget product lines, so it won't happen for a while.

  • fuck it

    someone should just make a usb midi to midi cable/device

  • fuck it

    (for using it without a computer)

  • mckenic

    My first keyboard was a v1.0 Oxygen 8 that spat out random values as if I were twisting the knobs.

    My second was the nonoKey (sic)… sigh!

    I have an Emu Keystation for when I want to work but for laptop use I feel the M-Audio and Korg were just bad. Reluctant to give Korg another chance, although another usb port for dongles might be nice. I'd like the (working) knobs, battery power and MIDI out of the Oxygen 8 in a nanoKey width package.

    Ive not actually played since my korg died a few months ago so Im in the market – is the LPK25 reliable?

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    I think the issue is, quality is variable on all these devices. You're describing pretty major failures, so I'd say if you encounter something like that, I'd very much hope you got a quick replacement(!)

  • http://www.mattverzola.com Matt Verzola

    @James Grahame I totally agree. Give me some little knobs and I'm sold.

    My plan? Get my greedy paws on the OP-1 when it comes out and use it as my MIDI keyboard. Compact, sturdy, doubles as stand-alone badass.

  • http://www.darwingrosse.com darwingrosse

    Great overview article. While I agree that some of the existing options are pretty horrible (and the upcoming products seem to be looking pretty useful), even the Korg Nanokey is useful given my rule #1: The best keyboard is the one that you have with you.

    Any of us that travel a lot (and looking at your postings it's clear that group is led by you, Peter) realize that the worst trip is the one where you forgot your keyboard.

    So bring 'em on! One of each for me!

    (Note: I agree that we do need some mini option that includes a MIDI jack. If for no other reason than this gives you the possibility of using it with a modular system. It may seem silly to have a mini keyboard with a maxi modular, but I only use keys about 10% of the time I'm in front of that rig, and it would be nice to have a stash-and-forget keyboard that could be brought out on special occasions.)

  • echolevel

    Hold on, didn't any of you actually READ the product brochure for the Q25? Loads of you are bitching about/dreaming of a compact keyboard with USB and DIN MIDI, and it's *RIGHT HERE*!

    "The Q25 is a 25-note, velocity-sensitive, MIDI keyboard controller with USB and

    traditional MIDI ports that enable you to connect to almost all MIDI equipment including

    software and sound modules."

    and

    " > USB MIDI and traditional MIDI for use with Mac and PC, as well as MIDI hardware"

    Hardly Peter's fault, as he didn't have final specs when he wrote the piece, but the rest of you should know better than to trust the Internet :)

    All the UK shops seem to have stock, so I think I'll pick one up tomorrow.

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    @echolevel – thanks! That wasn't available when this was announced.

    And yeah, that has to make the Q25 about the most compact keyboard I've seen with onboard MIDI DIN.

    Of course, for just a little more bulk you could have knobs and transports on the M-Audio Axiom, which doesn't cost much more…

    Okay, it's time for a little compact keyboard round-up, huh? That and finding someone to build our dream keyboard with us…

  • echolevel

    Well the difference in bulkiness is fairly significant; I measured the listed dimensions of the Q25 up against my X-Station 25 and while the width is the same frustrating 19" (slightly too big for my airline carry-on approved record bag, slightly too big to be tucked away in a 19" rack when not in use, etc.), it's about half the depth. People seem to bang on about width, which most workspaces have in relative abundance, but rarely depth, which is often in short supply…especially in-flight ;)

    I think there's a psychological/perceptual thing at work: the rounded arse-end of the Q25 makes you think it's bigger than it is, whereas the squared off angles of the LPK make you think it's smaller.

    Actually, this is all academic for me, because Sony put the fucking work-experience kids on the design committee for my VAIO which, while lovely in most regards, features the 3.5mm audio I/O right where my right wrist would desperately have liked to go if it weren't obliged to hover, claw-like, a few inches over the keyboard so I can have the privilege of listening to the music I'm painstakingly cranking out in twice the time it would normally take… Needless to say, a MIDI keyboard isn't gonna sit nicely in front of the VAIO either, unless I'm using an external USB soundcard WHICH I@M NOT BECAUASE I@M ON THE GODDAMN PLANE AAAREARHAGRRHGHHH [die]

    Yup. Issues. Music tech still has 'em.

  • echolevel

    Actually, you know what? Forget that. It's more than half the depth of the X Station 25 – more like two thirds of its depth. I'm talking out of my own rounded arse-end. So it's a bit enormous…and I won't be investing. May as well haul out the X Station at that rate.

    At least then I'll have twenty knobs, ten faders and an X/Y pad, all of which I can use to contribute to the fallacy that I'm actually *performing* electronic music. After all, audiences aren't convinced when I simply play the notes in a competent and timely fashion on boring old black'n'white keys; they've paid to see some knobs being twiddled and my expression of meaningfully strained artistic intensity as I molest the filter cutoff like a trained professional.

    So I'll lay £5 on everyone who buys a teeny MIDI keyboard also dragging all their other MIDI stuff to gigs so they have a bedroom's worth of CC flimflam fallback :)

  • http://www.createdigitalmusic.com Peter Kirn

    Well, no, I'm being a bit unfair here –

    The Korg and the Alesis LPK have mini keys.

    The Alesis Q25 has full-sized keys.

    That's the depth, not only from the keys but by the time you put the full bed in the housing.

  • http://www.cuckoo.no CUCKOO

    I like KORG's new small keys. They're great to play on with the microKORG XL and microSAMPLER. So I hope the microKEY is using the same.

    Couldn't agree more:

    1. midi-out (for computer free performances) should always be there.

    2. USB-compliant-MIDI >> MIDI-dongle… where are you?

  • spuffler

    Would it really be all that difficult to mechanically design these so they can be snapped together to increase octave span? Electronics allow it, so that would be mechanical design only.

  • http://proaudiostar.com Ghostdad

    Bump for the Arturia "The Player" keyboard.  Just checked it out myself and had no idea how small and feature right it was.  Thought back to this article immediately.  

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  • Slash606

    The Alesis Q25 does not actually have an advantage over the Microkey along the MIDI lines. The Microkey includes MIDI which shows how KORG is still two steps ahead of the competition.

  • Monkeyboy

    None of the compact keyboards have built in cases / covers. Something that would have a built in case you can safely stick it in your luggage would make perfect sense. Or they should at least offer a case for these keyboards.

  • remdi

    they need to do this wireless!

  • Ben

    Does anyone know if there will be any new devices released in this space in preparation for the 2012 holiday season? These small controllers are SO COOL!!