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 )
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?