The Rock Band keytar Rock Band 3 Wireless Keyboard, next to an iPod touch, for scale.

What if a gaping product hole for musicians were filled by a game company instead of a musical instruments company? There’s no need to imagine: pick up the new Rock Band 3 keyboard, and you’ll see what I mean.

Consider: most sub-$100 and compact keyboards have dumped 5-PIN MIDI DIN ports in favor of USB only – little comfort if you want to plug a keyboard into that DIY sound module or eBay treasure. (Alesis’ QS25 is one exception, but even a $150 M-Audio Oxygen is USB-only.)

And keytars? Fuggedaboutit. Strap-on keyboards or keytars are a great way to play keyboard lines, but they’ve tended to be freakin’ huge. They really do feel like strapping a full-sized keyboard on your shoulder, which can kill the joy of playing them. And the current “entry-level” model, Roland’s Lucina AX-09, has a street of US$600 or more. eBay bidders have made used items similarly pricey.

So, forget for a second that a game is involved. What if I told you you could get a cute, light little keyboard with MIDI DIN, intelligent MIDI mappings, and two great-feeling synth action octaves, all in a strap-on form factor with battery power, for $80?

Yeah. That’s what I thought. So whether you’re a hardened gamer or just looking for a nice, mobile keyboard controller, here’s an in-depth look at how MIDI works on the new Rock Band 3 Wireless Keyboard Controller – forever to be known to everyone outside Harmonix and Mad Catz as “the Rock Band keytar.”

Ports: 5-pin MIDI DIN (seriously), and a 3.5mm (1/8″) minijack for the pedal.

The Hardware, Impressions

Hardware specs:

  • 25 velocity-sensitive keys. (Velocity already gives a leg up over some stuff you can get on eBay. No aftertouch, though.)
  • TRS port for stomp or expression pedals. (Right now, that means the bass drum pedal, until we figure out a DIY solution. It uses a little 3.5mm jack; working on finding out voltage specs.)
  • 1-axis touch strip which maps to modulation and pitch.
  • 5-pin MIDI DIN port.
  • Xbox 360 (or PS3) game pad, wireless Xbox operation. (For wireless MIDI, you’re on your own.)
  • Three AA batteries. (No external power.)
  • Optional stand accessory. (This looks cute; I didn’t pick it up yesterday but may yet.)
  • 4.6 lbs.

The touch controller on the neck requires simultaneously pressing the “Overdrive” button for pitch bend. Fortunately, it does work well for modulation, the default setting.

A standard complement of game pad controls lies above the keyboard. Surprisingly, every one of these buttons works for MIDI control or feature toggling.

US$80 street, and also available bundled with the Rock Band 3 game.

I’ve handled a lot of “shoulder-mount keyboards,” and the simple reality is, a lot of them have pretty awful ergonomics. The Rock Band keyboard is about the best I’ve handled. It’s light enough that you can hold it in one hand, and compact enough that it’s about the width of a typical adult waist. That means it actually feels like a keytar sized to be played as a keytar.

The keyboard action is just a basic, unweighted synth action, but feels solid enough, and velocity response is consistent. I have to admit: I was very surprised by the quality of the keyboard. You could easily put this alongside so-called “pro” unweighted keyboards in the sub-$200 range and, blindfolded, no one would ever guess this was a game keyboard. I have no idea who built the action (it’s labeled “made in China”), but there would be no shame whatsoever in using it.

One oddity: F3, C4, and F4 each have raised ridges on the left-hand side of the keys, in order to delineate the keyboard’s five zones for gameplay. With proper keyboard technique, though, you won’t even feel them, since the pads of your fingers will hit the middle of the keys. (That is, unless you have larger fingers.)

You also get a standard set of game controllers, and everything either sends a MIDI message or is used to toggle features on the keyboard. Not a button goes to waste.

The touchpad on the neck is probably the weak spot of the design. It’s usable, and conveniently located, but its response is pretty hard to control exactly. It’s also hard to hold down the overdrive button while using it, which is the only way to get to pitch. Then again, your left hand is likely busy holding the keyboard, anyway, just as on all keytars, so a pedal seems the better solution for anything really expressive. I’ll see how I adjust to it over time, though.

MIDI Mapping

As with the guitar, operation is simple: plug in a MIDI cable.

Yeah, okay. There is something to be said for old-fashioned MIDI, huh?

Once you’ve plugged in, you get some surprisingly robust MIDI implementation:

Battery power, FTW!

Keyboard: 25 keys transmit normally, with velocity. (No aftertouch. I’m glad we get velocity.)

In drum mode, the keyboard transmits General MIDI drum parts, which is, of course, handy for playing drum patches. (It’s also handy for confusing the hell out of you if you didn’t know that’s what it did.)

Touch controller: 1-axis modulation. Hold down the “Overdrive” button, and while that button is held, it sends pitch bend – which makes pitch bend nearly unusable. (Too bad they didn’t just make the Overdrive button a straight toggle.) Works well enough for Modulation, though.

Octave: Octave up and down shift uses the X and B keys (on Xbox, or the left and right action keys), just as on the guitar – and just as on the guitar, you get four up, four down. Octave feedback is available on the LEDs.

Program change: Top and bottom action keys increment or decrement, respectively, program change. (Y and A on Xbox.)

D-pad buttons: As on the guitar, these toggle functions, though for the keyboard all four are mapped instead of three. Up turns on and off drum mapping, right changes the pedal to foot controller, down changes pedal to channel volume, and left changes the pedal to expression.

Transport controls: The Back, Guide, and Start buttons on the Xbox gamepad correspond to Stop, Continue, and Start MIDI messages, respectively – so if you’re tracking your next Rock Band Network song in Reaper, you can control your takes right from the keyboard.

Pedals: There’s one pedal port on the side. More on how to use this soon; I haven’t yet tried it. It’s a 3.5mm jack, but I have to find out the voltage. Stomp should work fine with a standard Rock Band drum pedal, and in the default mode, you can use that for a damper pedal. For expression, you need something that sends analog voltage.

Panic: Press the Back, Guide, and Start buttons simultaneously to switch all notes off. (Curiously, this appears not to be the same as on the guitar, but I can only test the keyboard to know for sure.)

MIDI channel: 1. Always. It’s always MIDI channel 1.

Note that there is no accelerometer output from the keyboard. Too bad; that would have been fun (and likely more useful than the two-fingered salute you have to do to get pitch bend from the touch strip). In fact, this sounds like a ripe opportunity for a little hack – maybe a strap-on board that transmits accelerometer and MIDI via Bluetooth.

It’s keytarvision! Yes, this is what the keyboard looks like while you’re playing it, strapped on, which is eminently comfy. Resting it on your lap or a surface also works.

Of course it comes with a strap.

Applications

Bottom line is, this thing is a joy for controlling computer synths or hardware, and may have just become my portable keyboard of choice, just because it’s fun to strap on. Of course, if you don’t care about the “keytar” form factor, any number of inexpensive keyboards will give you real pitch and mod wheels and some knobs. But if you want to play a keytar, this game controller has become, bizarrely, a must-buy.

As we find out more about the pedals, I’ll share that. In the meantime, enjoy.

  • http://www.biologikmusic.com Eric L

    ha! awesome!

  • Michael Una

    Yes!

  • http://retrothing.com James Grahame

    Exciting for several reasons. The first is that my 8-year-old's keyboard skills will dramatically improve if he gets to play keys in a game. The second is that I'll finally get to try playing Crazy Train on a keytar without looking like a total gorb. Will also be very cool to play with the mini synths that are suddenly overrunning my workshop.

  • http://www.myspace.com/casimirsblake Casimir's Blake

    So it's a good thing I never bothered with those Roland controllers. Sure they have better modulation features and aftertouch…

    But this thing is retailing for £65! Heck, I'm even convinced to try the game with the pro guitar. Harmonix have really pushed the boat out on this one. Shame RB3 isn't available for PC though…

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

    I still owe everyone a proper review of the Roland. It's a different animal, and holds pretty much the same place it always did. What's nice about this is, *nothing* was really quite in this category in terms of price and size. So if the bigger keyboards didn't appeal, this is a really nice alternative.

  • Seamus

    Wow, wasn't expecting it to be that comprehensive and well-featured. I may just have to get myself one! Cheers for the review!

  • danny s

    http://www.behringer.com/EN/Products/UMA25S.aspx

    also a cheap strap-on, with more doo-dads on it.

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

    @danny s: Good point. And I just tried one the UMAs and was surprised by how good the action is. They also have battery power and MIDI DIN on them.

    That said, two potential downfalls: one, just having pegs for a strap doesn't make it as playable as a strap-on; there are some advantages to having the neck on there. Two, I think I'd find the Behringer action a little springy if played over the shoulder; it's a bit stiff even on a surface, and on the shoulder, you have to put in a little more effort.

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

    Interesting, too – I can't stand that red, personally, but it seems Behringer does have it in black. http://www.gearbrat.com/product-p/behringer%20%20

  • Pal

    Toy, toys everywhere.

  • http://gadgetrock.blogspot.com/ mchl nrvs

    line 6 midi mobilizer…nlog –

  • Greg

    The Behringer still ain't 80 bucks.

    It's got a lot more features, but this keytar is pretty cool regardless.

  • Polite

    so much goodness. shame about the midi channel though.

  • Polite

    Also a shame they didn't put the overdrive button on the end of the handle, i could imagine holding it down with my thumb while using the pitchbend.

  • poopoo

    he said strap-on, huhhuhhuh

    I wonder if there is enough room in the case to wedge in a highly-liquid pcb and some extras knobs? Could be cool as a cheap platform for hacking in some extra controller-y stuff.

  • erf

    Grabbed one of these Monday night, before I went to bed I plugged it straight into my QY70. Awesome awesome, and I get to play a game with it, besides!

  • y

    wow…3 articles in a row about this RockBand bullshit….was it a fat cheque PK ?

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

    @y: Actually, the hardware wasn't even a loaner. I went out and bought this. Thanks for your concern.

  • http://bedroomproducersblog.com/ bedroom producers bl

    it's a cool concept, i mean it's a freaking game controller with a midi output. but still, midi controller-wise, i'd always pick a behringer uma25s for the money.

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

    @bedroom: I wouldn't necessarily choose the Behringer. Sure, this doesn't have knobs, but you can't play and tweak a knob at the same time, anyway, if you're wearing it over your shoulder. Mad Catz has an action on here that *doesn't* feel like a game controller. (Well, or pretty much all synth action keyboards feel like toys — depends on your perspective.)

    The Behringer costs twice as much, doesn't have a neck, and weighs more. On your desk, yes, the Behringer absolutely wins. But if you really want to play keytar-style, I think I have to give it to the … game controller. Seriously.

  • monokit

    Very awesome!

  • leMel

    Stop making me want stuff! Thanks for the overview – I was recently tasked with finding cheap keytars (don't ask) and this just shows up. Nice. First thing I'll add is a cheap hardware channel mapper.

  • http://www.sensomusic.com/usine/ nay-seven

    Fun tool , seems great for traveling, you have test it peter, the The touch controller seems short , what do you think about it ?

    longer enough for a good expression..?

  • echolevel

    Peculiar that the buttons are all at the right-hand side. Admittedly, ABXY are traditionally to the right of XBox controllers, but the d-pad is also shunted over there…would have been nice for that whole array to be on the left, since most beginner/amateur players favour the right hand (especially for melody).

    Peter – I play keytarred SH-101 live (like, actual live – all my frantic chipmusic lead lines) but still love to get a sneaky reach-around to the knobs with my left hand. Ooer, etc.

    Not sure what my points are here; I guess I'm saying that knobs and keytars aren't by any means incompatible and also that it's a shame Mad Catz didn't do the sensible thing of putting the button array on the left so that MIDI users can thrash some triggers whilst murdering Für Elise with the right hand. But the MIDI's just a fortuitous by-product and already more than one should expect, so happy happy!

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

    @echolevel: Yeah, okay, fair enough… you can play / knob twist / play, so I'm exaggerating. The SH-101 still remains the best keytar-style instrument I can think of.

  • echolevel

    o/ Yes, it's weird – I've tried all the keytars out there, and the SH-101 is the only one that truly does it. It's like with every other design, people thought they were going to find some ergonomic solution to the problem of strapping a piano to somebody's neck, whereas Roland obviously didn't give a shit. They just said "it's a battery-powered synth, let's put a handle and a strap on it; see what happens".

    The pain (rib pain if you're rocking it Pastorius, hip pain if Cobain) reminds you how hardcore you are, hand-wielding a weapon designed for the tabletop. I've attached straps to other keyboards, but it's not the same… Like the Oxygen8, for instance – it just doesn't punish you enough. Plus you look extremely silly. Not like THIS GUY!

  • mikeyboy

    One small correction–the ridges on the keys are for tactile feedback of the beginnings of the zones. In the game, only 10 white keys are displayed; the colored zones are shown on the scrolling note "highway" to indicate which ones they are. When it needs for you to play some other notes, arrow flash on one side of hte highway indicating that it's going to shift.

    In 5-lane play, the white keys from C4 (middle-C) to G4 are played for green, red, yellow, blue and orange, respectively. There are little colored dots above each of them.

  • Em

    Did anyone tried to make use of the Wii DJ Hero decks? I tried to connect them to Bus Pirate and Arduino without success. Other extension controllers are well documented and readable via I2C. Unfortunately the documentation of the DJ Hero decks is not complete:
    http://wiibrew.org/wiki/Wiimote/Extension_Control

  • http://damianspoke.com Damian Esteves

    A beginner to digital music here. I have this keyboard. How would I go about hooking this up to my PC to use it as a synth/piano? Will one of these cheap MIDI to USB cables work?

  • http://bedroomproducersblog.com/ bedroom producers bl

    @Peter

    yep, i've just found out that uma25s actually costs twice as much. :/

    so in this case, i aggree rock band's keytar is a pretty good (only?) choice for the money. and the fact that it's a game controller adds a few coolness points.

    just for the record, uma25s also comes with a strap and a removable neck. ;]

  • Tudor

    Excellent review!

  • http://-- sef

    I bought one of these saturday, one of the wii ones. I LOVE IT. have not purchased rockband nor do i have any interest in doing so, but this keyboard is definitely what i was looking for in the way of a mobile controller. Works great with my tg33 and my dx7mkII; haven't hooked it up to any software yet.

    Planning on painting it like an NES controller (grey, black, red). If it doesn't come out looking like garbage I'll share some pictures!

    Thanks for this article, Peter, It definitely brought this controller to my attention!

  • http://vokyo.com odirex

    Hey if it needs an accelerometer, just strap a wiimote to it. Plenty of wiimote-midi software out there already to support it… and it gives ya more buttons to play with.

  • http://tabletru.com gessannentumb

    Бывают такие секунды, когда все решают минуты. И длится это часами. Финансово-половой кризис: открываешь кошелек, а там хуй Я Вас любил – деревья гнулись. Идет качок, бычается… “Грудь – это лицо женщины!” Раздевай и властвуй!

  • Patrick

    Looks fantastic!

    Just wondering if anyone knows… could I connect this wirelessly to my computer via Bluetooth (in the same way as a Wiimote, for example) ?

    Thanks!

  • http://www.nu-trix.com Nutrix

    Wow, it now gets into my cheap and cool keyboard to have!

    I'll have to update my online list. ;-)

  • Adrian

    To use this as a wireless MIDI device,

    you could try making Ladyala's MidiBee project:

    http://www.ladyada.net/make/xbee/midibee.html

  • http://egipt.bloglog.pl wakacje

    Hello! I'd just like to say! what a interesting post!! i'm just doing a bit of research for my website but i had issues reading this post due to the text sticking out on to the side menu:):)

  • Rob

    Great review, but you didn't say how to turn it on in MIDI mode.

    You have to press the Start button once you've connected the OUT midi cable to the Keytar.   You will see the 1st red LED light turn on.

    Yes, it works well with cheap usb-to-midi cables found on Amazon.   I used the "USB MIDI Cable Converter PC" that has 200 reviews and it works fine so far with Garageband.  Tested lag by playing with a drum track and in playback there was no noticable lag.

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  • macsnafu

    I saw this at the store, but couldn't tell from the box if it had a standard midi port, or just the USB connector. Now that I know it's got the port, I've just got to go get one! At that price, it's a heck of a deal.

  • http://icecreamsandwichcake.net Ice Cream Sandiwch C

    This really answered my situation, thanks!

  • van

    I read this article back when it was first submitted and I would like to note that I found one at Fry's Electronics for $50 because they are discounting the keytars. So now I'm telling all my midi friends about the deal.

  • http://www.raybanrb.com/ duylemahio

    Thanks your sharing!

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  • http://twitter.com/skyshyne Skyshyne

    Got it for 29€..including the Rock Band 3 game for my Xbox… and i totally love it!!… and also i'm able to use it on my pc, my mac and my iPad!!

    Thx for the review… and Enjoy!!!!!!!

    • Mike

      I realize this article is months old, just thought I'd mention that the Wii version is going for $25 on amazon right now.  Also, is there anymore information on using an expression pedal?  Can you set it up to send on any midi control change number?

  • http://www.facebook.com/petecorvus Pete Corvus

    Just ordered one today!! Looking forward to controlling Vocoder with it while on lead vox

  • Pandurros

    Wow, I think this is the better controller for my Shruthi-1 on stage!!! Ordering soon!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/neoprog Jean-Christophe Le Brun

    I’ve the Wii wireless controler and Prodipe driver and cables MIDI. Four leds are blinking on my keyboard, but no sound, the Prodipe is ok, works with my Korg piano. What can I do ?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jkersh1 Jeff Kersh

    I have a couple of questions (I’m a drummer/percussionist and fairly proficient keyboardist just getting into this kind of stuff). I have a decent full-size Casio MIDI’d to a Roland JV-1010. I got a RIDICULOUS deal on a RockBand Keyboard on Ebay (after reading this article), and I’ve attached it to my Casio (basically because it looks cool at this point). Now to my questions:
    1) Is there a preferred interface, or type of interface, that makes the keyboard work best? I will eventually use Cubase, because I play a Yamaha DTX-M12 multipad (which included Cubase, and is ergonomically better for my aging spine), and a free copy of Cubase is included. I want to make sure I get an interface that will work appropriately.
    2) Would connecting via an interface allow me to use soft synths? Again, I’m just learning, so forgive if that’s a dumb question.

    • Tess

      You can pick up a USB MIDI adapter on Amazon or wherever for under $10. Plug it in to your PC’s USB port and connect the MIDI IN part of the adapter to this keyboard. As long as the MIDI adapter is working with your PC, there are no special drivers out anything for this keyboard, it just works.

      To hook it up to any non-computer MIDI device, just buy a MIDI cable and connect it.

      For software, any package that can accept MIDI input (such as Cubase) well work just fine. There are tons of MIDI-compatible software packages. The software will have some way to connect a MIDI in device to a softsynth (or some way of producing sound). Consult the software manual, a Google search, or a forum somewhere for how to do this in your software package, and remember that it’s using MIDI channel 1. (There are 16 different MIDI channels so that multiple devices can be controlled at once.)

      I hope this helps. :)

  • mistrust

    Just bought one of these for £5.99 new in Home Bargains (UK discount store). Not sure if there are many around in other stores but it’s still worth looking around….. They’re going for a lot more on ebay!!!