Roundup: Mini-Keys

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By David Battino

Today's laptops and iPads can run stunning soft synths, but it's tough to play keyboard parts on QWERTY keys or glass—especially if you need velocity sensitivity. Plus, even a standard two-octave controller can be too big for a messenger bag or cramped DJ booth. Fortunately, a new pack of miniature USB-powered keyboard controllers promises expressive playability in an almost pocketable size. Their “mini keys” range from 9/16" wide on the Korg NanoKey 2 to 3/4" on the Korg MicroKey. (Standard keys are about 15/16".) All have octave-shift buttons and can be transposed up or down 12 semitones. The two Korgs come with three plug-in instruments: Korg M1Le, Toontrack EzDrummer Lite, and AAS Lounge Lizard Session, along with an Ableton discount. The two Akais include an Ableton discount. The M-Audio bundles Sibelius First.

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1. Korg NanoKey 2
$65 list | $50 street |
The smallest, lightest, and most affordable keyboard here, the NanoKey 2 is a significant improvement on the original. Its plastic case is the width of a MacBook Air and just as thin, yet it feels sturdy.

THE KEYS remind me of early drum machines: wiggly, slippery, and clackety-loud. Still, they’re surprisingly playable, with three velocity curves plus a fixed velocity. I settled on the Heavy curve, because Light and Normal didn’t get quiet enough. I found the NanoKey 2 best for drum parts and triggering chords. The slippery keys made playing runs messy, but the short throw was excellent for fast finger drumming.

THE CONTROLS include buttons for sustain, pitch-bend, and modulation. In Korg’s free Kontrol Editor software, you can set how quickly these buttons ramp up to their maximum value when held. You can also change the MIDI CC number the Sustain and Mod buttons transmit, and set them as momentary or toggle switches.

BUY IT? The NanoKey 2 is like a pocket flashlight: so small and convenient that you’re sure to find uses for it everywhere.

2. Akai LPK25
$129 list | $69 street |
Half an inch wider than the NanoKey 2 but twice as thick and heavy thanks to its synth-style mini keys, the LPK25 is basic. I was amused to see it arrived in a blister pack.

THE KEYS feel more natural than the NanoKey 2 but quite stiff, and their height is inconsistent. There’s only one velocity curve, and it’s skewed toward high velocities; I found it tough to play softly.

THE CONTROLS are just a sustain button and octave shifters. Th ere’s no modulation or pitchbend, but the built-in arpeggiator is surprisingly fun. It offers six patterns: up, down, up/down with and without repeated notes at the top and bottom, as-played, and random. The Sustain button doubles as an arpeggiator latch, and a flashing Tap Tempo button comes in very handy. In the LPK25 Editor software, you can store up to four configurations in the keyboard, each specifying the MIDI channel, transposition, and arpeggio settings—including tempo. You can then switch among these programs from the keyboard.

BUY IT? If you want a very small traditional keyboard and won’t miss pitch or mod wheels, the LPK25 is worth a tickle.

3. Akai MPK Mini
$199 list | $99 street |
Add eight knobs and light-up drum pads to the LPK25, and you’ve got the MPK Mini. By moving the buttons to above the keyboard, Akai made the MPK even narrower than the NanoKey 2. This thing offers a lot of controls in a tiny space.

THE KEYS are the same as on the LPK, but the pads are a treat. Their rubbery surface responds all the way to the edges. Unlike buttons, they don’t depress or wiggle—I had to punch them hard to trigger notes, as the lone velocity curve seems optimized for pounding. Each pad can be momentary or toggled.

THE CONTROLS The MPK retains the LPK’s arpeggiator and four program slots. Its eight knobs can each send any CC; I set one knob to CC1 to replace the missing mod wheel. Each pad can send a note, CC, or program change, depending which mode is active. (In CC mode, velocity determines the data value—pretty cool.) You set all this, plus minimum and maximum values, in the software editor. Best of all, another button calls up a second pad bank, essentially giving you a 41-note keyboard.

BUY IT? With a street price only $30 more than the LPK25, the feature-packed MPK Mini is a terrific deal if, again, you won’t miss the wheels and don’t mind needing a powered USB hub for iPadding.

4. M-Audio Keystation Mini 32
$100 list | $80 street |
The extra keys are just the first surprise on this deceptively simple looking keyboard. The Mini 32 can send a huge variety of MIDI messages from its knob and buttons, and it’s the only keyboard in this roundup that you can configure without a software editor. That makes it ideal for iPad playing, though it’s long enough to poke out of your backpack.

THE KEYS remind me of the Edirol PCR-1: they dip only 3/16", allowing a very slim case. I found the four velocity curves very musical; one curve outputs only velocities 100 and 127, for drum programming. I did find it awkward to play scales with sharps and flats, given the low-profile black keys.

THE CONTROLS include programmable mod, sustain, and pitch buttons—send any CC you like. You get 127 ramp speeds, compared to four on the NanoKey 2. On the Mini 32, though, the buttons are smaller and closer, with the mod button stuck between the two pitch buttons and the Sustain button to the side. I kept hitting the Edit button by mistake. You can reprogram the Octave buttons to send program change, transpose, channel, tuning, and even bank MSB/LSB. You can also enter program change numbers directly, and send an “all notes off ” message.

BUY IT? With its streamlined case, extra half octave, deep MIDI prowess, and iPad-friendly power habits, the Mini 32 is almost the ideal ultraportable keyboard. It depends how you like the feel of its short-throw keys.

5. Korg MicroKey
$129 list | $100 street |
The MicroKey is another level in terms of playability—but also in size and weight. You could lay three iPads (in portrait mode) across the MicroKey’s width.

THE KEYS are the big story here. They’re crisp, wide, and long-throw enough for comfortable playing—even the black keys. The MicroKey offers eight velocity curves plus fixed velocity, and its three-octave range opens a much wider repertoire.

THE CONTROLS are minimal, but you do get pitch and mod wheels, with the latter’s CC number and value range assignable via the Kontrol Editor software. Although the wheels are the size of Oreos, they feel solid and work well. Around the side is a surprise: two USB jacks for you to attach other controllers such as Korg’s NanoPad 2. This does mean the MicroKey requires more power than the others—I couldn’t run it from the hub in my computer keyboard. In a controller this size, I’d also like to see a sustain pedal jack.

BUY IT? If you have the space and ample USB power, the MicroKey is the best mini-keyboard for players who hate mini-keyboards.