Roadtest: M-Audio Key-rig 25 + Ableton Live 7 on a Thinkpad running Windows XP

The object was to put together a cheap and light weight system that was capable of playing a few processed loops - usually no more than five, along with using a MIDI keyboard to play synth parts live as well as using keyboard controls instead of a mouse to switch FX on and off and control parameters.

The computer

The IBM Thinkpad R50, in fact the whole Thinkpad series, is known for top quality components and is now available quite cheaply secondhand. A 1.5 gHz CPU and 3/4's of a gig of RAM make it quite powerful enough for the uses here. People who use computer specs for peeing contests won't be attracted by this solution!

Problems with the machine include only 2 USB 1 ports and a rickety but doable audio interface. This could be improved immediately by getting one of the quite good PCMCIA interfaces available.

The Keyboard

There are quite a few cheap MIDI keyboards available these days. We tried a whole range of them and found most to have quite nasty key actions - even the larger, more expensive ones. To get a nice key action you need to go both big and expensive. .. and heavy.

We wanted compact, light, and cheap and the M-audio keyrig 25 filled these criteria. It has, yes, 25 keys, 8 rotary switches, 8 binary switches, a master fader and somewhat cheap and nasty controls for modulation, etc. Whether it would pass robustness tests remained to be seen.

The Software

Ableton Live 7 on Windows XP - having done almost back to back comparisons between an aging Mac with similar power we can say, quite shortly, that the Mac was better as far as latency, audio quality, and track processing was concerned - in every way if you prefer. But Windows wasn't quite as bad as we expected either - our expectations were very low! Adding the ASIO4all free drivers helped as well.

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Ableton is a known quality. It does its job very well with only a few traps and pitfalls. It was disappointing to see, though, that there are no built in key mappings for the Keyrig 25. This is an expensive piece of software and anything that is moderately popular should be supported and there should also be a place on their website where users key mappings are kept. You can make your own manually of course but this takes a little time and settings are easily lost.


The set up has been used for a few gigs now and, by and large, everything has worked as expected although the fragility of the Keyrig continues to be a concern. Keyrig, laptop, cables and mic all fit into a medium-sized backpack.

Onboard MIDI settings seem to disappear at the drop of a hat though.

Other Problems

Recently, there was a very strange failure mode - everything had been set up for the soundcheck and worked perfectly. It was left where it was for a few hours and when it came time to play, there were no MIDI signals being received by Ableton, and no time for any experimentation. The computer's keyboard was used but it was a very poor substitute. In Windows, far more than the Mac, the timing of the Note On was all over the place.

After that there were things to do and there was the thought that tomorrow's performance would most likely be OK after a reboot. It wasn't. Still no MIDI messages. Two days after, in another city, it was connected up and everything worked properly again. Did someone accidentally tamper with the setup while it was sitting there after the soundcheck? Unlikely, and even if that did happen, why did it not work again until another city?! There must be a logical explanation but what it might be is hidden in mist right now.

Update feb 09:The problem with the flakey loss of MIDI control turned out to be an USB interface power supply problem exacerbated by a Macally mouse who's power needs were all over the place. The safe solution would be to give the Key-rig a seperate power supply but trashing the Macally mouse and replacing it with a Bluetooth mouse (where the flashing lights are powered by battery) seems to have done the trick.

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