Making music with portable instruments

Hi there,

I could use some shared experiences and recommendations regarding small, portable and midi-capable instruments to sketch musical ideas on the fly - as in: when I am on the bus, at lunch, lazing around on the sofa, watching television or taking a walk in the park.

I am getting better at understanding music theory and it would be great to have a simple and portable way to experiment with chord progressions, scales and melodies. I guess a portable midi sequencer (like 90’s Cubasis:) with some kind of a keyboard. Searching google, the usual forums and vendors for small portable keyboard thingies also helped to make up my mind what I would need:

So: my device of choice would have something like a black & and white keyboard (OP-Z or pocket piano style do count). It would be able to record polyphonic midi on about 4 tracks or so, have rudimentary arrangement capabilities (as on the OP-1 tape) and a usable way to get the recorded data on a mac afterwards. Of course it also would make some kind of sound with headphones, but honestly, I would be okay with simple wave forms as it is more about sketching the harmonies, not so much the harmonics. Polyphonic sine or triangle synths and a noise source sound fun to me. Battery powered/rechargeable is a must though (maybe a battery powered C64? ;-). Needing the connection to an iPhone would be okay because I am carrying that with me anyway but apart from that it would be a small device that fits in a small bag.

Of course I already found some things but as usual there are compromises to make:

  • The OP-1 would be perfect regarding its form factor but it does only record audio. I played with one a bit last year, liked the keys and and the concept, loved some of the synths. It was really fun to create something with it but I would miss the midi part and it got way too expensive now, at least for me.

  • The OP-Z though lies within my financial range, sounds nice and records midi. I have not tried it by now, but I think I would be okay with the keyboard, too. Though I have no compatible iOs device and don’t see a need to upgrade my current ones atm. Also the midi part is centered on looping and pattern sequencing, which I might get around with but it also seems tedious to get the data into a DAW afterwards to work on it or just print the „compositions“ on sheet. It’s a pity because it would even fit into a pocket.

  • CME Xkey / iPhone. I am not sure if the newer bluetooth versions would work with my current phone (5), probably not. But finding an older one with 25 keys for a decent price should not be problem. Playing into any iOS DAW should work, I have not used any of the synths for ages that I bought when I got the my first iPhone back in the days but I remember that they all had some kind of piano roll function and about four tracks or so to work with (SEM, that blue Korg polysynth and so on - they were cheap and I am afraid I have them all…) Apart from that he CME is not too big either. It has no battery though.

  • The ROLI block looks nice because it is very small but I have a Haken Continuum and find myself playing on the soft surface in a different way than I would and want to on keys. Also I am not sure but I think it is not compatible with my current phone again. At least it is rechargeable. I would be afraid finding myself not using it as intended but having taken the opportunity to purchase one just for the heck of it… (this last point might also apply to the OP-Z :roll_eyes:)

  • I never touched a Keith McMillen K-Board but would be afraid the pads would have a similar effect as the roli, perhaps not to the same extend though - many people seem to use them as a controller keyboard. Also not the smallest one but okay and could work with an iPhone, probably still while a car is driving it over. (using a connector kit with a cable would be okay). No batteries though - will it power from an iPhone?

So, those are the devices I found by now. They are all great but none of them does really fit my needs. The OP-1 is fun but ridiculously expenisve. It has a nice linear workflow - but not for midi. The OP-Z has a lovely form factor, works with midi but is more aimed to looping sequences then to linear composition, not compatible with my phone, which is not a deal breaker but still a shame and exporting finished midi compositions is not easy to do. All of the keyboard/phone combinations are cheap and easy to use but lack portability due to their need for external power. Or they are made of silica gel and again not compatible with my phone. If I were still commuting (two hours/day on a train with a table in front of me) I might have gone for norns and would have made up a small midi DAW to use it with a grid, but on the bus this might be be a little awkward…would work in a park though and I could record birdies.

I would think that the use case is pretty common - so what does everyone else work with? Gameboy with tracker? Whistling and beat-boxing into an audio recorder? Getting better with sheet music and just paint dots on lines?

1 Like

Kind of the same answer that I gave here:

Shorter answer is “iPad” but if that’s the whole kit, it means you’re using a glass keyboard, which can be less than satisfying. I’ve considered Roli Blocks as a more compact alternative to the Linnstrument, but I haven’t tried them yet. I’ve also considered the Arturia Keystep, though it isn’t the smallest keyboard available. I just think I’d find it more enjoyable than the CME Xkey.

I tend to avoid Keith McMillen controllers because of a sour taste in my mouth from both Quneo and the 12-step.

The OP-Z is tempting, but I find it hard to justify when I have so many iPad apps and can quite successfully use the iPad to make music.

I’m looking forward to making norns a more frequent part of my life, but this year has been nuts at work, and that has slowed my norns progress considerably.

Yamaha QY series, maybe?

1 Like

Paper and pen. Reminders/notes on iPhone to jot down ideas.
On the iPad Pro I sometimes sketch out scores, patch ideas and setups in Zoomnotes or if I get more graphically inspired Procreate. And I sometimes use Scrivener for more descriptive stuff.
But I don’t really think of the iPad Pro as a solution for suddenly getting inspiration down when I’m out and about or away from the computer - it’s already about the size of a computer anyway. It’s perfect for working in bed before going to sleep though!
It’s kinda hard to beat pen and paper, for me, as long as the notebook isn’t too big and I remember to scan/photograph the pages so they get into my actual work system for further development.


Hm, first of all: Thank you for taking your time and your recommendations!

I have to admit that I also feel a bit frustrated but that has absolutely nothing to do with your posts. It’s just that I did not post this either in this thread, which seems to be more about making notes in a paper and pencil workflow, nor in the minimal setup thread jason is referring to for the very reason that both, paper/pencil or iPad pro/midi controller/small modular are not within the area I see this topic in. My post, which was actually a new thread to discuss small devices, was erased and than placed here by someone unknown (the sour feeling derives from doing this anonymously without asking or even telling me about it - it took me a bit to find out what happened and started with the unpleasant notion that what I had written yesterday night seemed to be just gone).

Regarding the proposed ideas, I might have been too verbose to get understood. I would like to discuss small devices to play/sketch ideas while being in situations like on the bus/underground or in bed, where it would not be worth the effort to have multiple small things connected on the lap to get involved with before the next stop. As in: Wait, how would this melodic/harmonic idea actually sound? Okay, just take that little thingie out of the bag or even pocket and quickly try it out, save the midi if it’s nice and come back to it later.

Like pen & music paper w/ sound combined with something that at least pretends to be an actual physical keyboard (The only things I still do with the iPad after a few years of having one is looking things up and occasionally play Worms or Tangram. To me the idea of a multipurpose touch surface controller does sound much better than it actually feels in most cases).

Thank you @gimber for that link. I did not know about those Yamaha QY yet but add it to the list of devices to be discussed. I had a short look at some user feedbacks on which attest them to be a little cumbersome to operate (as one might expect from 90’s Yamaha devices) but therefore high in battery consumption. Also the LCD-screen might be a bit dark in some situations. Though they can be found cheap on the used market and GM sounds might have a bit of a vintage charm. The bigger ones seem to be liked by some people though. :upside_down_face:

I have already have an Arturia Keystep and find it a bit too big to constantly carry it around ‚just in case‘. It is nice as a simple keyboard for the modular though with its easy to use CV/gate out, quick sync configuartion set-up and the arpeggiator.

What is the issue with Keith McMillen devices, @jasonw22 ? I have not heard something bad about their quality yet.

I am still most tempted by the OP-Z, mostly due to its pocket size and because it seems to be very immediate in to use. If it had a screen to get a visual overwiew and a less tedious export function it would be nearly perfect. I wonder if the iOS screen has something like a piano roll or notation view.

Do you have the actual Spire device? I just learned about it, and it’s really cool, hitting a bunch of sweet spots…

I am not sure what you mean? I found a synthesizer plugin called spire with a website that seems to pretend it is an actual physical device, while it seems that it is not? Anyway it surly is not what you mean in this context, is it?

Oh, I thought you were talking about the IZotope Spire, which is a hardware recording unit with an iOS app that can also be used without the hardware.

It’s really impressive, I’m thinking about getting it.

I just downloaded the app this morning, and need to spend some time with it…

For my on the go sketching, I use my synthstrom deluge. It’s a lot bigger than an op-1, but has similar functionality (and is $400 usd cheaper). I find it underwhelming for any type of finished product, however.

1 Like

I love the OP-Z for this. Very immediate and usable, while having enough depth in the sequencer to keep me coming back :slight_smile:


The screen is really unnecessary. In the time that I have owned the OP-Z I have used a screen… maybe twice. The device is super intuitive.

The Deluge look interesting. I would feel a little stange with such a big device on the lap while riding the bus but will look into it a bit.

I find it impressive how those machines are running on batteries these days. When I was still commuting on the train I seriously thought about a MPC live. It also looks a bit smaller than the deluge, doesn’t it?

What is the underwhelming part of the Deluge?

1 Like

Ah, got it! (there was some confusion coming from the thread merge) The Spire is only audio recording, right? I have heard good things about the quality though. For such a small device. Also 8 tracks are great I think. Of course the surrounding has to be quiet…

Agreed, although the iOS app does help with the initial learning curve and connecting the op z and iPads virtual synths is pretty cool

While commuting/travelling I have successfully used either an Op-1 or a SP-404sx and made music. I haven’t looked into the IOS-devices so much, but it seems an ipad with a few different apps could really cater for a lot of different needs. Especially if you pair it with some solution to record external audio.

1 Like

What about an Elektron Digitakt with a small battery pack?

The internal synth engine is tough to navigate on the screen. It also sounds very digital. My strategy right now is using presets to write melodies/parts, then I hook it up to my hardware synths/modular to record.

Also, check out Downrush. It makes sample management much easier assuming you travel with a computer anyway.

1 Like

The iZotope Spire looks great for this…

This thread is all about iPads, miniature synths, Norns, OP-1s or maybe even some small modular cases? Who knows? What do YOU bring to work or use while traveling?

Lets see your small setups (and maybe some places they have been taken to)! :slight_smile:

(I will contribute soonly)


I was just kinda considering this, thoughts triggered by seeing the “Show your modular” thread title.

I try to only buy things that could be portable and battery powered, so I’m not tied to the PC for recording, and to have the option of taking a tiny set up to any location and jam. Hence buying a Norns Shield! Going out doesnt happen as I’m a bit of a shut in, who works from home (reminds me, must take my vit d tablet! :slight_smile: )

So this is todays small desk set up. Its grown slightly since this was taken to include the PO32 going to the Montreal Assembly pedal PURPLL, and T-APE’s stereo out channels are split between the two Dreadbox pedals, and then on to a Drolo Stretch Weaver (which is then fed into the Planetarium 2).

Everything is being fed clock and other CV stuff via Koma Elektrik’s RH301 Rhythm Work Station and powered by battery packs going thru Koma’s Strom Mobile for maximum ground loop mains nonsense noise avoidance :slight_smile: LED patch cables so I can understand whats going visually instead of just where a knob is pointed and my stupid brain not being able to interpret it very well.

EDIT: Surely there is a tiny set up thread already? I sense a merge may occur… :slight_smile: Or maybe I’m posting in the wrong thread :slight_smile:

EDIT2: We merged! Hello thread!


LED patch cables?!? Say more!

1 Like