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Clash of the MIDI keyboard controllers: Line 6 Mobile Keys 49 versus Samson Carbon 49

This is a post that has been a long time in coming. Quite a few months ago, two manufacturers sent me keyboard controllers that are compatible with iOS devices, Macs and PCs, but it's taken me until now to get these two devices tested. The Line 6 Mobile Keys 49 (US$199.99 MSRP) and Samson Carbon 49 (US$89.99) are both 49-key keyboard controllers that are useful with music apps like Garage Band.

Both are USB powered, so you don't need to plug in any sort of AC power brick or use a stack of batteries. I was surprised at how little current draw the keyboards seemed to have, as using each for an hour or two with Garage Band on the iPad didn't seem to have much of an impact on battery life. Line 6, for instance, says that you can use the Mobile Keys 49 with an iPad for almost 9 hours. The keyboards are perfect for musicians on the go and for music students.

Let's see how they stack up, and then you'll have an opportunity to enter a giveaway for one of these two keyboards.

Line 6 Mobile Keys 49

The Line 6 Mobile Keys 49 is a rather compact USB-powered 49 key MIDI keyboard controller that works with iOS, OS X and Windows devices. Unlike the Samson Carbon 49 described below, it comes with a special "mobile" cable that is designed for use with the iPad or other iOS devices so no Camera Connection kit or other accessory is required for us.

Upon hooking up the Mobile Keys 49, I was notified by an iOS dialog that I needed to download an app. This app is apparently enables MIDI recording, but is more commonly used to apply firmware updates to the keyboard controller. The firmware update took very little time to install and a "reboot" was performed by unplugging the cable between the iPad and keyboard.

Line 6 doesn't provide any software with the Mobile Keys 49, but notes that it works perfectly with Garage Band, 50in1 Piano, NanoStudio, Music Studio 2.0, and Pianist Pro. I liked the feel of the keys on the Mobile Keys 49; they weren't as noisy as those on the Samson Carbon 49, and the velocity function -- which emulates a real piano by playing "louder" as you hit the key harder -- seemed more accurate.

The Mobile Keys 49 has 1/4" ports for both sustain and expression pedals, a USB port for connection to your Mac or PC (this port uses a printer cable), and a special mobile port that allows attachment to your iPad or iPhone with a proprietary cable. That special cable worries me a bit -- that sees just like something you'd lose on the road and never be able to find a replacement for...

Controls on the Mobile Keys 49 include pitch and modulation wheels, volume and pan knobs, and octave up/down buttons. The shift button can be used to access transpose, MIDI Channel, program change, velocity curve, and controller assign functions. Instead of having these functions printed above the keys on the keyboard, Line 6 decided to include a sticker. This seems kind of tacky in comparison with the printed function names on the much less expensive Carbon 49.

Conclusion

While the Line 6 Mobile Keys 49 has a better feel and quieter keys than the Carbon 49, I'm not sure it it's worth $110 more than the Samson keyboard.

Pros

  • Keyboard is quieter, has a better feel than Samson Carbon 49

Cons

  • Requires that an app be installed on an iPad to install firmware updates
  • Over double the price of Samson Carbon 49
  • Special functions printed on a cheap sticker instead of screen-printed onto the keyboard itself
  • Connection to iPad uses a proprietary "mobile" cable that may be hard to replace

Who is it for?

  • Musicians and others who want a 49-key MIDI keyboard controller with a very piano-like feel.

Samson Carbon 49

It's surprising: this is a much less expensive keyboard controller -- by $110 -- but as far as I'm concerned it has equal chops to the Line 6 keyboard. It does require that you have one other little bit of Apple hardware if you're going to use it with an iPad; you'll want to buy a Camera Connection Kit if you don't already have one.

Once you've attached it to computer or iPad, you're ready to roll. In fact, if you're planning on using it with an iPad, there's a bonus -- a slot on the top of the keyboard that your iPad slips into. There are two small plastic "feet" that keep it upright; those are stored along with the USB cable in a compartment on the back of the Carbon 49. Only one problem -- if you use any sort of back cover or case for the iPad, like the Apple Smart Case, you'll have to remove it before placing the iPad into the slot.

For musicians who know what they're doing with MIDI, the Carbon 49 has dedicated transpose and octave buttons for changing the key of an instrument or expanding the keyboard to a full 4-octave range. As with the Line 6 Mobile Keys 49, there are pitch bend and modulation wheels to provide a bit more tone manipulation.

Also on the top left of the keyboard is an assignable data encoder and volume slider. An edit key allows keyboardists to adjust various performance-related control parameters, and there's a 3-digit LED display to show the behavior of various keyboard functions in real time. On the back of the unit is a traditional MIDI Out port, a sustain pedal input, and a USB connector.

The 49 keys have a good amount of travel and are velocity sensitive. I did think they were a little noisy, but then my only comparison is with the Line 6 Mobile Keys 49, which seemed a bit quieter in operation. There's one other goodie included if you're planning on using the Carbon 49 with a Mac or PC; it comes with a copy of Native Instruments' Komplete Elements software.

Conclusion

Much less expensive than the Line 6 Mobile Keys 49 keyboard controller, the Carbon 49 is equivalent in capabilities and more iPad-friendly. At this price, it's also within the budget of virtually anyone who wishes to experiment with Garage Band or other apps on an iPad or Mac.

Pros

  • Very Inexpensive
  • Built-in slot for iPad to sit upright in
  • Keys have good travel and response
  • Native Instruments Komplete Elements software included

Cons

  • Requires Apple Camera Connection Kit to connect to an iPad
  • Keyboard is a bit noisy

Who is it for?

Anyone who wants a low-priced but functional MIDI keyboard controller. Also a great keyboard for kids or teens who want to try their hand at composing or playing music with Garage Band on a Mac, iPad, or iPhone.

Giveaway

That's right, we're giving away both of our review keyboards! Two winners will get to take away one of the keyboards courtesy of Line 6 and Samson. Here are the rules for the giveaway:

  • Open to legal US residents of the 50 United States, the District of Columbia and Canada (excluding Quebec) who are 18 and older.
  • To enter, fill out the form below completely and click or tap the Submit button.
  • The entry must be made before August 26, 2012 11:59PM Eastern Daylight Time.
  • You may enter only once.
  • Two winners will be selected. One will receive a Line 6 Mobile Keys 49 MIDI keyboard controller valued at $199.99, while the other winner will receive a Samson Carbon 49 MIDI keyboard controller valued at $89.99.
  • Click Here for complete Official Rules.

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