I’ve always loved all sorts of music, especially of the electronic variety, but I’ve never really had the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of how to play it properly or make my own tunes. I had some drumming lessons a while back, but found it too frustrating that I couldn’t practice in-between lessons as I had neither the space or funds to have a kit of my own.
With the advent of the iPad and Garageband in particular, learning music has never been easier. Sure, you miss the tactile feel of bashing the sticks against the skins, twanging the strings or pressing on the keys, but having them all in a slab of kit thinner than a drumstick certainly makes up for that, at least from my perspective. I have even managed to turn a couple of my iPad tinkerings into actual tracks, by bringing them into the desktop Garageband and extrapolating the loops into brooding techno epics, which are currently being mastered for me by Z’s buddy Tanner4105. The trouble is, I’m still just making it up as I go along, with no understanding of what I’m playing, only that it either sounds good or bad. Have a listen and let me know what you think.
I’ve noticed the ‘lessons’ section in Garageband before, but it was always to hard to follow along trying to play the notes on a regular computer keyboard, so I was excited to try out the new K-Board from Keith McMillen Instruments. (Apologies in advance if I get any terminology wrong – I am a complete novice!) The K-Board is a very compact (15 note/2 octave) MIDI keyboard that connects via plug-n-play USB to either your computer or mobile device (you may need a special connector depending on your mobile preference). One of the big selling point of the K-Board is its robustness. It has no actual moving parts to break – the keys are a tough silicone with touch-sensitive smart fabric under each one which allows for them to manipulate effects and expression, and detect velocity, pressure and angle – all of which can make it function much more like a touchscreen. The downside to this is obviously that you still don’t have the ‘feel’ of a ‘real’ keyboard, but it can literally be chucked in your bag without fear of it being damaged. There are even a bunch of silly videos on the KMI site to prove this.
To the left of the note keys there are a set of function and modifier buttons for Velocity, Pressure, Tilt, Toggle, Sustain, Pitch Bend, and Octave up and down. Minor niggle here, the labels aren’t centered to the buttons and all but ‘Tilt’ are abbreviated unnecessarily – one of my pets hates! They all light up and glow when active (just like the note keys do) and affect the way the notes are played or sound as you’d expect:
Velocity turns on the note speed detection – harder press equals louder note.
Pressure activates the sensitivity of the keys, allow you get adjust the sound of the note depending on how and where you press the key. This produces very interesting effects when using crazy synth sounds, like the knob twiddling on an analogue keyboard only with less actually control. By default it maps to MIDI ‘Mod Wheel’ channel, but KMI provide a piece of software to let you edit the output.
Tilt does a very similar thing, but modifies different parameters of the sound depending on the angle of your finger on the key. It defaults to the Pitch Bend effect but again can be edited.
Toggle simply keeps the note playing until you tap the key again (great for arpeggiated synths) and Sustain does exactly what you’d expect – holds the notes until you release it.
The Pitch Bend works by rocking your finger from left to right in the same an actual wheel would on a hardware synth.
All of these combine to enable you create very odd sounding noises if that’s what you want and all of the effects are recorded and can be played back.
So how does it perform? I fired up the GarageBand lessons and played along with the first four lessons from the piano section. My first problem as a beginner was remembering what note was what. I solved this by simply writing the letter below each key. And it was great to finally understand what a chord is – I know that sounds lame, I knew they were three notes played together, but I never really bothered to find out which ones or how they’re put together before. I couldn’t seem to play them with the correct fingers though – the instructor tells you to use your thumb (1), middle (3) and little (5) to play the chords, but I had to use 2, 3 and 4 instead. It was a combination of my inexperience and the keys on the K-Board being smaller than a real keyboard’s ones, all of which made it tricky to hit them correctly and all at the same time. My daughter was sitting with learning too, and she found it much easier with her smaller fingers!
We moved on to lesson two, and before long we were playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. But, by the third lesson we ran into another minor problem with the K-Board – it “doesn’t have the range“! The lesson was delving into the treble and bass clefs, which correspond to the right and left halves of a piano keyboard, and starting to get us to play different notes with our right and left hands. The K-Board’s two octaves just isn’t enough for this, but then again that’s not really what it’s designed for so I can’t fault it for that! We ploughed on through the lessons learning all about rhythm, tempo, rests and measures and so on.
After a few lessons, we went back to playing around with GarageBand’s many instruments and discovered the the K-Board is great as a drum pad for all those virtual kits tucked away inside your computer. I even dug out my old sticks and started bashing away on the keys with no fear of damaging it. I’m not saying I produced a good beat, but I’m sure I could with a bit more practice! And the Tilt button makes playing a guitar through the computer much more, simulating the effect of a whammy bar.
The K-Board was great for taking these first steps into the world of music and it only made me want to do more! The fact that it is very small and light – 345 grams (12 ounces) and 13 inches x 3.5 inches – means you can take it anywhere and practise whenever you like. As well as GarageBand, it works with loads of the best music software out there, including Logic Pro, Ableton Live, Native Instruments NI Komplete, and Moog Animoog on the iPad – which is one of my favorite apps! I love the sounds it can produce, and hooking up the K-Board gives you another way to create those crazy noises.
The K-Board is available from Guitar Centers throughout the U.S. priced at just $69.99 for the holidays. GeekDad received a review until for the purposes of this post.