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Buyer's Guide to building your own SynthStation setup

Despite the goofiness of my video for the SynthStation 61, it really has been a game changer for me. I am playing way more now that it is so easy to just flip on the iPad and play. That is really one of the most important factors in playing music; reducing the barrier from thinking about playing to actually playing.

I've received a lot of feedback and questions from people looking at setting up their own, so I thought I'd do the thing right and make a complete post out of it. This article will cover all of your options for keyboards, speaker monitors, and headphones at various price points. I want to make three things clear though:

  1. Despite popular opinion, my daddy doesn't work for Akai. I have no relationship with Akai; in fact I'm kind of pissed with them, since they don't even deign to reply to my emails. They make good gear though.
  2. I am not an Amazon Affiliate, I can't because of political nonsense between them an Illinois, so I get nothing from any of the links here. Amazon just offers good prices, so that is my first stop. You should shop around though! Half my gear is used from Craigslist, but always double check that deals on Craigslist are truly deals.
  3. Many of the deals on Amazon will be honored by Guitar Center. Keep in mind the golden rule at any musician store:
    Everyone in there is an asshole, and that includes you.
    Musicians are all assholes; we have to be. Who else would think that other people want to hear us making noises? If you go in there with that in mind you'll get along much better with everyone.

This is really long, so if you're short on time just scroll down to whatever you're interested in (in your price range) or scroll the whole way down for my ultimate recommendation.

MIDI Keyboards

I spent a lot of time auditioning keyboards before deciding on the Akai MPK61. It is pricey, and I did go into debt to get it, but I love it. Picking out a keyboard is a fairly personal thing, based on your expectations and experiences. If you have a Guitar Center or something near you, bug them to play with everything they have; even if it isn't on display!

If you have a background with pianos, for instance, you absolutely want a hammer-action keyboard (not covered in this guide), which will play and feel like piano keys. If, as I, you learned to play piano on a Yamaha rompler, then a synth-action keybed will suit you. I can't think of anyone who would benefit from any of the "semi-weighted" options like the Axiom/Pro; pianists will be teased and unsatisfied, and synthisists will just be annoyed. There are also some keyboards with "micro keys" which should be avoided unless you have small-child hands.

The amount of keys is also an important factor. All keyboards have octave shifting so that you can play the whole range, but it will ruin your flow to have to switch while playing. At the very minimum I recommend getting 49 keys, you'll still be switching octaves, but a hell of a lot less than on 25 keys. 61 keys almost completely eliminate this. 88 keys will completely eliminate this, but those keyboards take up a lot of space and will exceed the surface area of most desks.

With all of these options, in order to plug them into the iPad, you will need a Camera Connection Kit (The official one ranges from $23-40, but there are alternatives as low as $3). All of them except for the rockband controller and Q49 will need external power like a powered USB Hub or wall-socket!

Under $50

Madkatz Rockband Keytar - $30 on Amazon 

Rockband 3 is fun, but the keyboard implementation is not. It isn't even remotely instructive since you don't see note/chord names, just colors. I have this keyboard and was using it for the longest time as my iPad keyboard. You can octave shift with this in MIDI mode, which is essential with only 25-keys. This is battery powered, for a very mobile solution. You will need a USB-MIDI interface though!

Under $100

Alesis Q49 - $82 on Amazon

(Updated, thanks to Pierre for pointing this one out in the comments!) This 49 Key keyboard has only one MIDI control slider, and no knobs, but it does have pitch and mod wheels. Having those wheels will be worthwhile! The keyboard will draw power from the iPad, so it won't need a powered HUB. Also a very sleek form factor and black finish make it more appealing than the M-Audio Keyrig49 ($89 on Amazon).

Under $200

M-Audio Oxygen 61 - $170 on Amazon

For a little less than twice the price of the KeyRig 49 you get 61-keys and a bunch of knobs and sliders. There aren't a lot of apps with MIDI learn, see the list on iOS Musician, but these can come in handy when you want finer control over your knob movements rather than relying on the sensitivity of the on-screen controls. If you think there is any chance you'll start to use computer-based Digital Audio Workstations (Reason or Ableton Live)  then these knobs are essential.

Under $300

No recommendation.

If you are feeling adventurous and have the space there is the $220 76 Key Yamaha Portable Grand, but I have no experience with this or any similar "Graded Soft-Touch" keybed. It sounds like it just pisses off pianists though, like any of the semi-weighteds.

Under $400

Akai MPK61 - $380 on Amazon

Oddly the MPK61 is priced $20 lower, on Amazon, than the MPK49! This is a highly configurable, and truly pro-level keyboard. The PC/Mac software that comes with this allows you to map the 8 sliders, 8 faders and 16 pads to anything on any MIDI channel. There are 3 banks to make that virtually 24 sliders and knobs, or 4 banks on the pads for 64 of those. In apps that take MIDI Control Change messages, but do not let you "Learn" new controls, this lets you map the keys in the hardware firmware. There is both USB-MIDI as well as standard MIDI In Out ports so you can do a lot of different configurations. I have the USB going into my PC for playing in Ableton, and I have the MIDI going out to a M-Audio USB Uno into the iPad. I cannot understate how much I love this keyboard, it just feels right to me.

Headphones

Don't even fucking think about picking up a pair of Dre Beats or anything from Bose. I would also discourage you from considering Sony's as they tend to "bass boost"; even in their reference headphones. You want to hear the sound as it is, so you can shape it to sound good everywhere, anything that is "boosting" or doing other weirdness is not helpful. Sony's also pinch the hell out of my head.

In all cases you should consider comfort! Many places, like Guitar Center, will let you try them on. Bring an mp3 player with some FLAC (or AAC Lossless) tunes from different genres and try them all!

Fortunately I have spent a lot of time researching this so I can name specific recommendations.

Under $50

Any of the Sennheiser headphones below $50 will be the best headphones you can buy for under $50. I have a pair of old PX-100s that are really nice, comfy on my bald head, and match the white iPad 2/3s. 

Under $100

KRK KNS-6400 - $79 on Amazon

My husband has a pair of these and they are some of the best sounding studio reference headphones of any price. I would recommend these for music listening as well. They are comfy, but their finishes on the pads are not as comfy as their bigger brother. This is a real shame, because the only other difference between the 8400s and the 6400s is a meaningless 5hz at the low-end of the Frequency Response. The 6400s "leatherette" versus the 8400s "Premium leatherette" is night and day though; the "leatherette" is itchy/scratchy. 

Under $150

KRK KNS-8400 - $130 on Amazon

I've got a pair of these. They go down to 5hz, the 6400s go down to 10hz, but the iPad only goes down to 20hz and just barely. These are not worth the extra $50 for the frequency response. They are worth the extra $50 for the comfort though! I can wear these forever. After having spent about an hour and a half in Guitar Center trying on every pair of headphones out there I can assure you these are the most comfy headphones available. Bonus: They sound amazing too. I recommend these over everything else out there under $1000. 

Monitor Speakers

I have not explored any of these. I got lucky and got my monitors for 1/10th their price from a friend, so I never had to do any serious research. All of these recommendations are based on reviews and hearsay.

Monitors are expensive, and often priced individually, but they are different from cheap Computer Speakers in that they are trying to accurately reproduce sound, instead of coloring or "bass boosting" or someshit. This is often referred to as "flat response", and the degree to which they succeed in this will determine their utility and usefulness.

If you're just looking for something to jam around with and have fun, you don't need to stress to hard on that. Any one of those options will be fine for just playing around in your favorite apps, and you will probably hear things in your MP3 collection that you've never noticed before. 

Keep in mind how you're planning on routing your audio. This is critical, if you have a cheap audio interface then you won't get the most out of the best. If you're just looking for speakers to plug straight into the headset jack of your iPad then just get the RPM3s or M1 520s below and forget the rest, as they will need preamps to be audible. This article is already crazy long, so I'm not getting into routing, interfaces or preamps. Do note, however, that the iPad's preamp is shit and noisy, so for truly high-fidelity situations you will need an interface plugged in via USB. 

In all cases you should just avoid the cheap M-Audio and Behringer monitors, as they have terrible reputations for build quality and will most likely fail you.  

Under $100

Akai RPM3 - $71 on Amazon (Price is for a Pair)

These little monsters are actually designed to work as an iPad audio interface, providing not only audio through USB, but also recording! I discovered these this morning while researching this article and if I had the cash to blow I'd be grabbing a pair. Since the audio is coming via USB it will avoid the issues with the iPad headphone jack. Speaking of headphones, these have their own higher-quality headphone output! You can even use it for recording two mono or one stereo source. You will want a powered USB hub so you can plug these into the iPad with your MIDI keyboard at the same time!

Under $200

Alesis M1 520 - $195 on Amazon (Price is for a Pair)

Like the Akai RPM3s, these have their own built in USB interface for plugging directly into the iPad. These are larger than the RPM3s, with a 5 inch woofer. They also have a headphone output for when you don't want to wake up the neighbors. Unlike the RPM3s though, you can only record 1 mono source. You will want a powered USB hub so you can plug these into the iPad with your MIDI keyboard at the same time! 

Samson MediaOne  - 5A $200 / 4A $150 / 3A $100 (Prices are for a Pair)

The difference between these 3 is the size of the woofer; the number indicates their size in inches. While I have no experience with Samson at all, the reviews on these seem pretty positive. They aren't truly flat, but they are worth recommending over some Bose shit that costs 3 times as much. These will require a proper audio interface, so if you already have one they are a good option.

Under $400

Yamaha H50s - $175 on Amazon (Price is for Each)

I've heard good things about these and the bigger H80s ($255 each). Of everything listed here, these are the closest to being truly professional studio reference monitors. To get the most out of them you'll want to pair them with an equally professional interface with excellent preamps; I like the Focusrite Scarlet series.

Ultimate Recommendation

I can only recommend what I personally like. If I was just starting out, and I was thinking long-term, this is what I would personally buy and the order I'd buy them.

I'd start off with the keyboard, and that would be an Akai MPK61 ($380). The versatility and quality will make this investment worthwhile. If you get serious about your music making and want to shift into the world of computer DAWs, this will function great for working with both your iPad and DAW simultaneously.

Next I'd get a pair of KRK KNS-8400s ($130), because when you're playing music it is vital that you enjoy the sounds you're making. This is the cheapest and most comfortable way to go about that, and you can plug them straight into the iPad without a powered pre-amp.

Finally I'd get the Alesis M1 520s ($195), or maybe the Akai RPM3s ($71) for the extra recording input, but I'd prefer the larger woofer on the M1 520s. They might not be truly professional studio reference monitors, but they will be great for playing around on. I'd plug the KNS-8400s into these instead of the iPad headphone jack. They can also be used with a computer as an audio interface, so it should be another long-term investment.

For those of you playing along at home, that's a total of $705. Which is probably more than most of you'd like to spend, but all of these are considered with an eye towards the future. I always feel better off investing in the gear I'll still use in 5+ years, rather than half-ass it with cheap gear I'll out-grow.

Reader Comments 8

What about the Alesis I/O Dock? I just ordered one so that I can create my own setup to compose/perform with. It's powered, charges the iPad, and you can have a mic, a line, and a USB/MIDI input setup simultaneously.

April 14, 2012  | person_outline Aaron Apter

Korg has a pretty cool iPad centric USB keyboard. It's only 25 key but no external power needed. It also comes in 49/61/88. The good thing about the 61 is that it comes bundled with the Korg Legacy software. All of them! ms-20,mono/poly....

The USB keyboard also has a built in USB hub for connecting the other nanoKontrol or nano pad controllers.

There are TONS of options out there for everything in these categories. I know this isn't a fully complete end all be all list of what's out there. The best thing to do is what dischord says....shop around,educate,and use as many of these things as you can to find what works best for you.

Chances are you can make anything work it's all down to what you want to spend and keep in the long run.

April 14, 2012  | person_outline freesoul

For those external MIDI controllers do you need a MIDI to USB converter in addition to the camera kit?

April 14, 2012  | person_outline SWIM

Swim: It depends on the controller. If it doesn't support USB-MIDI you will need a USB-MIDI interface to connect to the camera connection kit.

Aaron: I've never played with the I/O Dock, but I heard a lot of people had a lot of issues with it when iOS 5 came out. You might want to look into whether those issues are resolved!

For what it's worth, I recently picked up the Alesis Q49 Keyboard Controller. It draws power from the iPad and doesn't need a powered USB hub. I tried (and returned) many other controllers with full-size keys and this one works very well. It's sparse on features, but then again so is the M-Audio controller. It does have an actual Midi out in addition to USB out, so it can potentially control external Midi gear as well.

I'm very happy with this purchase. Here's the Amazon link if anyone's interested:
http://www.amazon.com/Alesis-Q49-49-Key-Keyboard-Controller/dp/B0038YX3BS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1334606807&sr=8-1

Pierre

April 16, 2012  | person_outline Pierre

Nice suggestion Pierre, I hadn't thought too much about it since the Keyrig49 is slightly cheaper. That has a really good form factor though and does look a bit more stylish.

Since a powered USB Hub is about $20 and this is only $10 more than the Keyrig, if you don't already have an extra USB Hub, this might might actually save you money!

Edit: I think this just went on sale, it is now only $81 on Amazon!

I saw that Line 6 has come out with a 49 key keyboard for the iPad as well, which doesn't have the built-in rack nor the drum pads like the Synthstation is supposed to have. I'm a little wary of it, since I'm really not sure of the quality of the Line 6 products. Have you looked at the product ?

April 18, 2012  | person_outline Limax

I looked as far as the price tag! At $200 I think Line 6 is pricing themselves way out of the market. It is a slick looking keyboard though.

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