Making music has been a part-time practice for me for decades now and I've dabbled in everything from guitar and piano to drums and didgeridoo. One thing that I've particularly enjoyed over the past several years is the way programs like Garage Band have made composing and recording great original tracks easy for everyone from amateurs like myself, to professionals like Trent Reznor, composer of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo soundtrack and Nine Inch Nails frontman. And if Garage Band made things convenient before iOS, then since the arrival of Garage Band on iOS, recording whatever we are inspired to compose has truly become a graceful, portable and trouble-free affair.
So I was excited when I got the opportunity to try out the new Carbon 49 keyboard by Samson. The Carbon 49 is an economical and portable solution to MIDI music performance and it boasts a number of unique and valuable features to make the process of playing and capturing music an intuitive one, with high quality results. I got to spend hours jamming on this little instrument this week and here are some of my findings and feedback.
Overall, the design form of the Carbon 49 is spot on. It's an affordable, lightweight and well laid out solution to bringing a studio quality musical experience with you whether you are on the go or at a home studio. Powered only by its USB port's connection to your iPad (or computer) this keyboard is thankfully, a minimal power drain. With a full charge to your iPad you can easily play your keyboard through your iPad for several hours on end with little worry, but since the Carbon 49 attaches to the docking port on the iPad, there is no way to charge the iPad while using it in conjunction with the keys.
All the special programmable keys, octave controls and editing controls are located on the left hand side of the keyboard along with the modulation and pitch dials. One of the features that this keyboard brags about is actually, not a feature I put to much use. The keyboard touts the ability to hold the iPad upright in a thin slot in the rear of the top face panel. However, it's not a case friendly slot and I count myself among the ever growing number of folks who like their iPad cases and would just as soon leave their iPads encased as opposed to going through the hassle of getting the iPad out of the case for adapting to a device like this, when it can just be laid out on the table top nearby. I use an Otterbox on my iPad these days and it's just the easier way, and since the slot is only for mounting purposes and doesn't have anything to do with performance, for me, it's just easier. Personally, I think it would be better if the Carbon 49 had a built in, fold out stand, along the lines of what you might use to hold sheet music, but sturdy enough to support the iPad (encased or un-encased) in either portrait or landscape mode, as opposed to only supporting an un-encased iPad, and only in landscape mode.
One small critique, the pearlescent paint on the plastic of the keyboard body is easy to scratch and for a device that also touts itself as being portable, I would expect a slightly higher level of durability. The keyboard I've been playing has already gotten scuffed and scraped and I haven't even traveled far with it yet.
I like the form of the Carbon 49 just fine, but even more than the form factor is the great functioning and capability of this MIDI keyboard. The fact that this is such a lightweight design and that it needs no extra power source is a real plus, especially to me, as I definitely see myself taking this instrument with me on some of my travels and to other folks’ places to do some recording and jamming. With just my iPad and the keyboard, I can create awesome songs, add an external speaker to the mix and I'd be ready to perform live. One limitation of the audio quality is that without an external speaker, the keyboard relays on either the iPad’s speaker, or your headphones to listen to the keyboard’s output. So for general use and certainly for anything live, an external speaker would be called for.
When it comes to making music these velocity sensitive keys really deliver the sound in a precise and accurate manner. Whether just tickling the ivories or pounding out a heavy riff on the keys, this keyboard will convey a range and depth of sound that has to be heard to be appreciated.
The iPad connects to the rear of the keyboard via the above discussed USB connection, also at the rear next to the USB port are a sustain pedal jack, the on/off switch and the MIDI output. The included black USB cord stores conveniently in a little compartment in the underside of the keyboard.
From Samson's website’s description:
The Carbon 49's semi-weighted keyboard provides musicians with a responsive and expressive platform that is designed to feel more like an instrument than a controller. It comes equipped with velocity-sensitive keys that accurately capture the dynamics of a performance. With 49 keys, the Carbon 49's pitch range is perfect for performing, while remaining highly portable.
With dedicated Transpose and Octave buttons, you can change the key of any given instrument, as well as expand the keyboard to a full 4-octave range, without using any sub menus or shift keys. With all of these comprehensive features, not to mention classic Pitch Bend and Modulation wheels, the Carbon 49 puts a wide range of musical expression and tone manipulation at your fingertips.
Take control of your music software with the Carbon 49's assignable Data encoder and Volume slider. For easy editing, players can use the Edit key to adjust up to 14 performance-related control parameters. Also, the Carbon 49's 3-digit, 7-segement LED displays the behavior of every function in real-time. Use it with your favorite music and synthesizer iPad apps that support MIDI controllers, and for additional mobility, the Carbon 49 can be directly powered by the iPad.
Quality of Use:
The carbon 49 is no slouch. It's a professional level recording tool. It likely won't be a professional musician's only keyboard, but a talented user will quickly see how to get a high quality performance out it, and it may well suffice as the only keyboard for the amateur or young composer. In my testing I was very impressed with the capabilities of the Carbon 49 and other than one or two minor glitches in the physical design (mentioned above) of the instrument I have only praise for this great MIDI device. It is an exemplary invention that makes the most out of its MIDI capabilities and the iPad’s Garage Band app. I would whole-heartedly recommend it for anyone looking for a portable solution to being able to create studio quality production from a compact and versatile, highly programmable keyboard. Whether you are a beginner or a seasoned recording artist the Samson Carbon 49 is a great option for your musical production needs.
Samson's Carbon 49 is widely available online and at local retailers, typically for $90.00.
For a link to a distributor that even offers free shipping, click HERE.
I now invite you to enjoy the great video below, with a soundtrack recorded entirely on the Carbon 49 by a diverse array of L.A. musicians.