GarageKey, by DVForge
Posted: 4-June-2005

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: DVForge Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Bill Catambay Class: HARDWARE

Overview
When Apple introduced Garageband, they put a tool in each Mac user's hands with endless possibilities for creating your own music. The music loops that come with Garageband are enough to create some pretty fantastic results. For those a little more ambitious, what if you would like to add some of your own music, but are restrained by budget? DVForge responds to this need with the GarageKey USB MIDI keyboard. The GarageKey is a 37-key piano-style MIDI keyboard that plugs into your Mac's USB port, and can be used to record music directly into your Garageband project. The Garagekey acts as a "software instrument", meaning that you can assign a variety of Garageband instruments to the keyboard, from piano, to guitar, or any other instrument in Garageband's library.

Requirements

  • Mac OS X 10.1.5 and higher
  • GarageBand (or any other software that uses MIDI input)
  • USB port


Price
$139.99.

Installation
Hooking the GarageKey up to your Mac is a snap. All you have to do is plug in the GarageKey's USB cable to an available USB port on your Mac. It is powered through the USB cable, so there is no power supply to mess with. Getting your Mac to actually recognize the keyboard is another story.

As usual for a review, I first tested my intuitive sense (i.e., did not read the documentation). I could tell quickly that this was not going to work, because my Mac just didn't see the keyboard. A quick jaunt through the simple 3-page Users Manual, and I discovered that you have to go into the MIDI configuration preference panel, and set the GarageKey to the recognized input source. The manual was a little vague on this, as it did not explicitly state what the name of the utility is (it's called "Audio MIDI Setup" in your Applications/Utilities folder). In the MIDI setup, the device shows up as "PHECDA USB/MIDI Device" with a generic device icon. Using the Show Info button, I was able to change the name to GarageKey and specify a piano-style icon.


GarageKey with Audio MIDI Setup


In Use

The GarageKey USB-MIDI keyboard is an elegant keyboard, smooth to the touch, and the keys are soft yet sturdy. The acrylic casing around the keyboard is themed quite nicely with the Mac. It also comes with two acrylic leg risers that attach underneath the GarageKey so that the keyboard can sit directly over your Apple keyboard. It's a perfect fit for the Apple keyboard, so any 3rd party keyboards that exceed that size may not fit as well. I found that the risers did not attach very securely. Moving the keyboard around, the risers would often fall off. They are easy enough to re-attach, but it would have been nicer if they attached a little more firmly.


GarageKey sits directly over the Apple keyboard

The keyboard has 37 full-sized keys, and includes octave up and octave down buttons on the rear panel of the keyboard. You can use these buttons to lower or raise the keyboard octave, thereby expanding the musical reach of the keyboard.

The GarageKey was designed for Apple's Garageband software. For those that may have other music software, the GarageKey is MIDI compliant, so it will work with any Mac OS X software application that supports a USB MIDI keyboard input.

Within the Garageband application, my first attempts to get a track using the keyboard failed. This was because I considered the GarageKey a "real" instrument; hence, I chose to create a "real instrument" track. This simply did not work. The manual did not mention anything about how to use the keyboard with Garageband, so I had to contact DVForge support for help. They quickly informed me that the proper way to setup the GarageKey is create a "software instrument" track. This worked like a charm. Moreover, a software instrument track allows you to choose any instrument in Garageband's library, so in addition to a variety of piano instruments, you can choose various guitars, drum kits, horns, and so on.


Setting the instrument for the GarageKey

In my tests, I only used the Garageband software to use the GarageKey, and experimented with a wide variety of software instruments. I tried out various piano settings, guitar settings, violins, flutes, and several others. In every case, it was a sheer joy to play the notes on the keyboard and hear a beautiful sounding instrument pipe through my Mac's speakers. By using the "record" function in Garageband, you can record your brilliant solo's right there in the comfort and privacy of your own home (privacy is key in my situation, since my solo's are far from "brilliant"). Throw in a few Garageband loops, and it's like you are playing with a live band. Either way, the GarageKey truly expands your ability to explore your musical capacity, whether learning how to play, or recording and editing your own original music.

In addition to the wide range of instruments that the GarageKey can be used to emulate, the keys on the keyboard are velocity sensitive. I was not aware of what this term meant at first. In my experience with piano keyboards, or even some MIDI keyboards like my old Casio, the keys are pressure sensitive. Press a key softly, and the key plays softly. Press it hard, and the key plays a lot louder. However, that is not how a velocity sensitive keyboard works. As the term "velocity" would imply, if you press the key slowly, it plays soft, and if you press the key fast, it plays louder. I also found that the sound change from soft to loud (aka, slow press to fast press) varies depending on the software instrument being used. In many cases, the "fast press" sound was not only louder, but played a different kind of sound (more rich, and with more depth). As an example, I recorded a short series of MIDI keystrokes using the "Acoustic Guitar" software instrument. The sample uses the same exact three MIDI keys, four times in a row. In the first set the keys were pressed slowly, the next two sets they were pressed fast, and the last set is a mix.


Sampling the Acoustic Guitar in Garageband using the GarageKey


For those accustomed to pressure sensitive Piano's, this may be a difficult transition. It took me awhile to get used to it, and my experience with piano is extremely limited (we're talking one semester of lessons in college). Once you get used to it, however, it really broadens the range of music that you can play with the keyboard.

Another function that piano players would be accustomed to is a sustain pedal. With the GarageKey, there is no sustain pedal, or any input jacks for hooking one up.


Summary
The DVForge GarageKey is a USB MIDI keyboard that is designed to match your Mac hardware and work seamlessly with your Garageband software. It sports 37 full-size keys with two buttons for changing the octave up and down, and incorporates velocity-sensitive keys. It's an easy hookup to your USB port and requires no power supply. It includes two risers that allow you to store the MIDI keyboard directly over your Apple computer keyboard, albeit, the risers tend to fall off a bit too easily. Using the GarageKey with my Mac, it was a pure joy to experiment with all the different software instruments that Garageband has to offer. Whether you're an aspiring musician looking for an inexpensive way to practice and record your talents, or new to the game and looking for an easy way to learn, the GarageKey is a terrific companion to any Mac running OS X and Garageband.

Pros

  • MIDI compliant keyboard works seamlessly with Garageband
  • USB powered (no power supply to mess with)
  • Velocity sensitive keys with two octave buttons
  • Provides ability to play live with all of Garagebands musical instruments
  • Risers allow GarageKey to sit directly over your Apple keyboard

Cons

  • Users Manual needs to be expanded
  • Risers tend to fall off easily when moving the keyboard
  • No sustain pedal or input jack
  • Velocity sensitive keys take some adjustment to get used to


Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice