Mark Jenkins looks at ways to compact your keyboard setup
Keyboard players. You arrive three hours before the rest of the band, drag your Hohner Clavinet up three flights of stairs, then look for people to help you load in your Hammond (and Leslie speaker), Fender Rhodes, and Oberheim polyphonic.
The drummer arrives later, because he has his own pickup truck; the guitarist turns up even later with his instrument strapped around his back, because he has a girlfriend to carry his combo amp; the flute player arrives by bus, carrying a music stand.
Then the singer arrives, carrying nothing.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all that could change? The problem is you can’t make big keyboards very small and light, to enjoy the same easy portability as the rest of the band.
Or can you? In the last few years there’s been experimentation with keyboards that can be made more portable, probably inspired by practice keyboards that didn’t actually make any sound.
There are two main approaches to making keyboards portable: fold them or roll them up.
Roll-up keyboards appeared a few years ago, at first offering very low-quality built-in sounds of the sort you found on toy electronic instruments. Since then the quality of the rubber roll-up keyboard hasn’t changed much, but the sound quality and interfacing has.
First there were keyboards that offered a handful of alternative sounds, and then instruments with a larger control box offering MIDI, USB, or other connectors. Sounds became pretty much similar to the General MIDI set.
But these days you can find roll-up keyboards that really could be incorporated into a super-portable stage setup.
I looked at several roll-up keyboards, including some available through Amazon. They usually have generic names like Lychee, Goshyda, Hami, Lujex, or Konix with their PA88M, and prices starting around 40£/$/€.
Mostly they have five octaves, but 88-note versions do exist. Obviously they must be used on a wide enough table, since they can’t go on an X-stand.
Built-in sounds are usually of basic quality – okay for accompanying dancing or simple rehearsals, but for better sound quality you’ll want to choose a model with MIDI or USB and get your sounds from a laptop or small module.
The volume from built-in speakers is always small, so you’ll want amplification as well – at minimum a set of powered computer monitors.
So how are these rolling keyboards to play? With non-moving flat rubber keys, you must adjust your technique.
If you’re used to playing a Wasp, Arturia MicroFreak, or other touch-keyboard instrument, the transition isn’t difficult. You just have to get used to a very positive style of playing, there’s no room for subtlety.
Every note has to be delivered with consistently medium velocity – anything less won’t trigger, and anything more will really start to wear on your fingers.
But the great news is that all these keyboards weigh no more than a couple of pounds and can run from batteries.
The other way to go is to fold up your keyboard. This idea was introduced some years ago by an Italian manufacturer of MIDI controller keyboards, and now there are many designs, again easily available through Amazon.
The “Dream Cheeky” keyboard is widely available – it’s a 3-octave design that folds in half and comes with an iOS app to create decent sounds.
Last year Korg took on distribution of a line called Blackstar (aka “Carry-On”), in 49- and 88-key versions at $99 and $129. These are extremely slim and have some decent on-board sounds with internal speakers and a headphone socket. They lock open fairly solidly but not quite enough to feel safe stretching them across an X-stand.
The key travel is minimal and the keys are a bit “clacky.” so playing along, say for a podcast with microphones also open, can be tricky.
The Vangoa piano (in black or white) is available through Amazon at around $250. It comes in a hold-all bag.
When clicked into the open position, it locks really firmly. You can indeed play it on your knee or on an X-stand as well as on a table.
The very small speakers on the back (facing your audience) only give enough volume for basic auditioning. But amplified from its minijack socket, the thing is quite convincing.
It has sounds almost exactly as the GM set – from pianos, electric pianos and clavinets, to organs, brass, winds, guitars, basses, brass, lead lines, polyphonic synths, percussion, and sound effects. Now none of these sounds is variable in any way and they’re not of the highest quality, but in a mix they might very well pass, and give all you need for rehearsing.
The keyboard feel is fairly plastic – for some reason similar to old Russian keyboards like a Polyvox or Aelita. But it’s quite heavily sprung (and may be semi-weighted).
You can also have every key light up as you play it. But happily you can switch that function off.
The Vangoa has very similar competitors, under names like Costway and HiiPeak, or the Eastar EP-10. There’s one from NikoMaku, which has a problem in that its keys are something short of the standard width. There’s also a BX-20 model from Magicon with a body design that flexes a lot more than the Vangoa.
On these and similar models the weak point is always the catch or interlock, which holds the sections together. In folded mode these can be vulnerable, and if you snap something off while packing, that’s the end of your folding keyboard – it will never be dependable again.
Going upmarket, and less delicate, a forthcoming magnetically locking design from Pocketpiano.com being endorsed by Jordan Rudess comes in individual octaves and with built-in “Synthogy Ivory 2” piano samples. So you can construct an instrument of any size you like, but it’s expensive – $1299 for a 7-octave instrument.
If you have the budget, you might look at the Roli “multi-dimensional” keyboards, which come with professional quality sound synthesis software. These neither fold nor roll, but are available in 2-, 3-, and 7-octave versions that can lock together. With their rubber keybeds sensitive to touch in many directions, are extremely lightweight. (There’s also a multi-colored “Lumi” version of the Roli.)
There are plenty of demos of current models on YouTube and elsewhere, and it’s a technology that is evolving rapidly. With mass outlets like Amazon on board, the market for rollin’ & foldin’ keyboards can only expand.