If you like to be on the go and play music, you may want to invest in a travel keyboard instrument. With plane seats and overhead storage compartments getting smaller, bringing a full-size keyboard is not really an option. Even if you check an instrument, there’s no guarantee it will survive. There have been many cases where an airline damaged keyboards, violins, cellos, or guitars. So you gotta think smaller and travel size.
This buying guide will explain the pros and cons, current technology, and pricing for travel musical keyboards.
What Are You Looking For?
Purchasing a keyboard instrument with travel in mind is a balancing act of trade-offs; size vs. functionality, cost vs. feature-set, etc. We also need to think about who the intended user is (kid, teen, adult) to make certain the device is appropriate. So let’s go through some of the variables, and figure out the options.
I initially thought of air travel as it can be the most restrictive when it comes to traveling with a keyboard given all of the rules/regulations. If you’re mode of travel is a train, bus, or even a car, your size requirements may differ. And when I talk about size, I’m talking about the physical dimensions.
The second size metric is the size/number of keys. Generally, the more keys you have, the more varied music you’ll be able to play. And more keys means a wider keyboard. Let’s talk the size of the keys. If you have large hands, you’ll probably want full-width (not necessarily full-size) keys. If you’re used to playing on a keyboard/piano with full-size keys, purchasing a keyboard with undersized keys would probably not be a good idea.
For a travel keyboard, I would rule out full-size keyboards that have 88 keys, or even the three-quarter ones with 66 keys. They will be much too large to consider portable. The largest “reasonable” size is in the 44-key range, and even that is stretching it a bit.
If you’re interested in only playing melodic lines, or only playing with one hand, then by all means look for something that with fewer keys. If your playing style/music genre requires two hands, then you will start bumping into the limits of having fewer keys.
When I purchased my portable keyboard (CMC Xkey-37), I figured it would be a good compromise between portability and the ability to play the songs that I liked. And to be honest with you, what I wanted to play was a bit outside the range of my keyboard, so working around that has been a bit of a pain. For one song in particular, the keyboard just didn’t have the range (number of keys) to play it correctly. If I had just one more key, it wouldn’t have been a problem. (The song if you’re interested was Adele’s Someone Like you.)
Key travel is another concern. Now I’m talking about the height of the keyboard. Remember you’ll be putting this thing in either a backpack, or maybe a keyboard carrier, so think small. For people who just want to make some music, having full key travel is probably not a huge concern, but you will have a tougher time being more expressive in your music (see below).
What Features Do You Want?
I’m only going to cover a few of the important ones. You may have other features that are important to you. The key is to make a list of the features that are must-have, and those that are nice-to-have.
Keyboard Instrument Action
If you want to play nuanced notes, then full-size keys along with some sort of touch response or “hammer feel” will be important. This is also referred to as the action. Think of the amount of control a player has on a regular piano in terms of how loud or soft a key can be pressed. Cheaper keyboards may have a limited touch response. Worst-case is that the note is either on or off. Compare that to a higher-end keyboard that does have graded action. Once you start talking about things such as “graded action”, “hammer feel”, etc., the price is going to go up. Sometimes way up.
Output / Sound
How are you planning on hearing your playing? Do you want an external speaker, or is a headphone jack acceptable? If you’re looking to play outdoors, you’ll probably want two speakers. The trade-off there is you get louder sound, but the keyboard will be heavier and wider. With the advent of Bluetooth, it’s easier to find keyboards that will pair with your headphones, or external speaker.
Where do you see yourself playing? In a park, a hotel room, on the train? Your typical playing location will determine how you power the keyboard whether you like to jam in the great outdoors, or in your room.
Friendly reminder: Don’t be “That Guy/Girl” who plays his/her music loudly in a public space. Unless you’re really good, then don’t forget to bring your hat for all of those tips!
How do you plan on powering the keyboard? Will you need to bring a power adaptor (wall wart), or will you power it by connecting it to a laptop or tablet? Doing any international travel where you’ll need to use a plug converter? Does the keyboard use batteries (either normal or rechargeable)? Using regular batteries will get expensive in a hurry. Plus having to keep spares around (they’re typically C or D size) can add weight.
If you always travel with a keyboard/tablet, then finding a keyboard that’s powered by USB can be a real benefit.
Some other common features to be on the look-out for are:
- Polyphony – This means how many keys you can play at a time. If the keyboard only allows 5 keys (or commonly referred to as “voices”) at once, playing with two hands could be a problem.
- Sounds / Keyboard Instruments – This is the beauty of modern digital keyboards. They can sound like other instruments. So if you want a chicken cluck, or you just need more cowbell, be on the lookout for this feature.
- Rhythms – If you want to have a backing rhythm in the background while you play, this can be a great feature to spice up your music.
- Recording / Multi-tracking – This can be a really nice feature (also expensive) if you want to record yourself. Multi-tracking allows you to record multiple tracks (of say different instruments), and then playback your composition.
Show Me The Travel Keyboards!
So now that I’ve given you options and features to think about, let’s talk travel keyboards:
Casio is a well-respected name when it comes to keyboards. This little gem may be just the thing for a budding musician, or someone who is interested in playing melodies along with their favorite songs.
Pros: Small footprint (18.5 x 9 x 2.7 inches) and less than three pounds. Includes 5 drum pads. Cons: Mini keys
If you want a few more keys, then this Casio is a nice choice. It has more sounds and rhythms than it’s little brother.
Pros: 44 keys with 100 different sounds and 50 rhythms and an LCD display. Cons: Mini-sized keys.
This keyboard has a lot of features in one package, and the price can’t be beat. It gets good reviews on Amazon (4.1 out of 5 stars), and did I mention that the price is great?
Pros: Includes recording, a rechargeable battery, and includes a microphone for singing along. Cons: All of the extras such as microphone, and input cables means more stuff to pack (if you use those features).
These are really stretching the portability aspect, but they are good choices if you want a more full-featured keyboard that’s more suited to teen/adult players. Finding a carrying bag for these should be fairly easy.
The Casio CTK-3500 not only provides 50 build-in dance music rhythms, but also includes a lesson system. Pros: Chordata app integration with 400 tones and 100 rhythms. Cons: At over 3 feet long, it really pushes the envelope of a travel keyboard.
With 600 on-board tones and 180 rhythms, this keyboard can practically play any style of music, and has lighted keys for chords which aids learning. Packed full of extras like a built-in library of 152 songs, a 5-track recorder, and MP3 player audio inputs.
Pros: Can be powered by batteries and a wall socket for travel flexibility. Includes reverb and chorus digital effects. Connect to your PC/Mac via USB. Cons: It’s big and heavy
The CTK-6250 provides a bunch of tones (700), and you can store your own original tones as well. Recording is a cinch on this model as well. Pros: Many effects including reverb, chorus, delay, Phase, Flanger, wah and more. Cons: This keyboard while not quite as large as the Casio LK-280, is still big and heavy.
These next two are a bit out there, but since they roll-up, they require significantly less room to pack. The downside is that you’ll need to find a sturdy surface on which to play. The good news is that both get good marks from Amazon (4.3 and 4.2 stars respectively).
What I Bought in 2017
As I mentioned above, I bought this keyboard as it was very low-profile and “matched” the look of my Macbook Pro. It must be connected to Mac, PC, and even IOS via USB. The software is actually pretty cool. The software only comes with 3 sounds, but as it’s a MIDI controller, you can use GarageBand, or similar program which will have hundreds of tones. The control software has some great functionality for transposing keys, and even mapping a key to a different note. I like it, and still use it occasionally, and now Lars is using it regularly.
Musical Keyboard Tutorials
HD Piano: https://www.youtube.com/user/HDPiano