Then one day, I was at Best Buy, and I happened across this little gem: the M-Audio Session KeyStudio 49. I had been thinking of buying a keyboard for a little while, and knew that I didn't need an 88-key monstrosity. I just needed something that could play some chords and give me the abillity to test-drive musical ideas quickly. After some consideration and quick research (I didn't want to waste money on a lemon, after all), I made my purchase.
Before I get to my thoughts on the KeyStudio, let me give you an outline of what you get with it. Of course, there is the keyboard itself, which is a 49-key, velocity-sensitive, synth-style (unweighted) keyboard. It's got pitch-bend and volume dials, octave select buttons, and an "edit" button. It's also got an on/off switch, in case you want to leave it plugged in to your computer but don't want it taking up USB bus bandwidth. It's powered off your computer's USB bus, so there's no wall-wart power supply.
It also comes with M-Audio's Session recording software, which is actually pretty good software. Don't get the wrong idea, ProTool it's not, but you can do some decent editing with it. The software also comes with loads of samples, a solid synth library, including all the standard patches for drums, piano, guitar, brass, and strings, and some really cool odd-ball sounds. The loop library is not bad either, including drum loops that work pretty well to back up your recorded sounds.
Which leads me to the M-Audio Micro USB audio interface. At first I dismissed this thing as being a cheesy little dongle I didn't need. Don't make the same mistake I did... USE IT. It's a USB-powered audio interface which allows Session to record low-latency audio tracks. You can plug a microphone or your guitar directly into the Micro and record to your heart's content. Just make sure you use the Micro for monitoring as well, as the audio card in your computer will probably add latency to your sound.
It took me a while to warm up to the M-Audio Session KeyStudio 49. I've spent some time in recording studios, so I think I was biased toward the more "professional" software, and didn't think I could get a good recorded sound out of something that only cost $99 total. Boy was I wrong. When I finally got around to using the whole system, I was blown away. As I said before, this isn't "professional" hardware and software, but for home recording, it's really very good. I used it last weekend to record a couple of tracks for one of my friends, and the whole thing sounded excellent after a little tweaking.
Yes, there are some quirks, but you can expect that out of any audio software. When you're pushing around that much data in what has to feel like real-time, there are going to be some small issues. Fortunately, there were all solved by stopping and restarting playback or recording. No reboots, no lockups.
If you're in the market for a good quality, inexpensive home recording system, this really might be the way to go.