ARTURIA KEYLAB 88 Controller Keyboard
The Keylab has all the size, the keys, and the sounds you need. And importantly, the control to handle it.
Review: Mark Davie
Like all 88-note, weighted keyboards, the emphasis is on weight. Arturia’s Keylab 88 is not hugely different, but it is a bit lighter than most. That said, there’s a largesse to it that extends beyond the wooden end cheeks of its long metal chassis. Once you prise it free of its box, the Keylab can really stretch its legs out with a couple of attachable appendages. The first — a perspex-backed music stand — has an aluminium base to give it a firm, stable fit. Music sits on a rubberised base to stop books moving around willy nilly, though its grip impedes sliding individual sheets from side to side.
The second extension is a rubber-topped wing that adds some extra depth to the right side of the Keylab 88, augmenting the free space on deck into a paddock with perfect laptop-sized dimensions; my 15-inch MacBook Pro looked right at home up there. It’s a great addition for any musicians keen on taking it onstage, especially since the Keylab 88 relies on a computer to generate sound.
From there, it’s just a matter of hooking up a USB cable, plugging in a sustain pedal and away you go. There’s provision for a power input, but being USB bus-powered, the Keylab doesn’t ship with one.
On the back, there’s also MIDI in and out; an expression pedal and auxiliary input, both of which can be assigned to any MIDI parameter; and a breath control input.
FEELING THE WEIGHT
Any decent controller is only as good as the feel of its keybed. Arturia has installed a Fatar TP/100LR unit; a decent keybed found in a lot of other name keyboards. It has a good, solid feel. If I was being nit-picky, the keys clunked to the bottom a little too readily. I like a key’s counterweight to hang in the balance a little more. That said, its action allows you to rip across the keys with verve, which suits the supplied synth-heavy Analog Lab software to a ‘t’.
The surrounding unit has as much impact on the feel of the keyboard as the keys themselves. And in this regard, the solid metal chassis of the Keylab 88 feels very rigid, with no warp when you really belt into it or apply force to the pads up top. It’s a solid player.
The software supplied with the Keylab 88 goes a couple of steps further than the Analog Lab bundle, which in itself — at US$89 — is great value. As of this review, you get over 5820 sounds drawn from the 12 synths and keyboards in the Arturia V Collection. That’s almost 500 presets each, which amounts to plenty of variation.
Also included is the modelled Pianoteq 5 Stage, worth 99 Euros. Because Pianoteq’s instruments are modelled, not sampled, the packs are quite small in size and don’t tax your RAM like a sampled instrument does. When you first boot it up, you get to choose a style of instrument from three broad categories: traditional pianos, electronic piano sets, or vibes and marimbas. I’d recommend one of the latter two, seeing as you also get UVI workstation’s Grand Piano Model D thrown in, worth US$79. It’s a very convincing Steinway Model D sample set that uses the UVI engine to deliver great articulation and versatility. Both come pre-mapped to the Keylab for instant physical control over things like effects, mallet bounce, EQ, and velocity curves.
There are a number of ways you can control the parameters and sound of your Keylab 88. Firstly, when used as a standalone controller, Arturia’s MIDI Control Centre application allows you to tailor which MIDI CC numbers are attached to the physical controls, and customise their response to suit. You can store these presets in the software, and sync them to the Keylab’s Working Memory when you need them. The keyboard comes pre-mapped to specific CC values used by Analog Lab.
On the Keylab controller there are a further 10 presets for MIDI parameters, where you have much of the same control: velocity and aftertouch curves; fader and knob modes; keyboard splits; MIDI Channel send assignments; minimum LSB and maximum MSB, and much more.
The final level of control is in Analog Lab itself. Out of the box, the physical knobs are preset to Filter Cutoff and Resonance; LFO Rate and Amount; a couple of FX parameters; and four other main parameters. You can change any of the parameters to your own selection from a drop down menu on the Analog Lab interface. A nice feature would have been to be able to push down on the encoders and change their parameter assignments on the fly.
The knob controls don’t have end points, so they automatically pick up where the software control is. The outer markings around the knob ‘fill up’ blue as you turn the control. I found I needed to crane over the laptop to see that onscreen colour feedback while playing the keyboard. The GUI looks lovely, but some parameters aren’t glance-able, and there’s no full screen option to enlarge the visuals.
The faders are typically preset to control filter and amp envelopes, but can be reassigned like the knobs. The physical fader position is represented by a translucent ghost version in the GUI. Once the spectre picks up the position of the GUI, everything falls into sync. Compared to the knob feedback, the fader visuals are spot on.
Lastly, when connected to Analog Lab, the pads are set up to play chords by default. You can change the root and type of the chord easily from the software. These are great for whipping up compositions, or squirting out fast, glitchy chord patterns. And the LCD readout shows the exact MIDI numeric value the pads are currently outputting, giving you great feedback if you’re using pressure to control effects or aftertouch.
There are three modes of operation in Analog Lab: Sound, for single instrument presets; Multi, for dual or split instruments; and a Live mode, for sequencing multiple patches. In Multi mode, the keyboard split is easy to set by dragging the upper or lower values of each in the software. You can drag ’n’ drop any sound into the Live mode browser, where you can set up 128 presets in song orders and browse through them with the Parameter encoder during your set. From there you can assign 10 of those as snapshots, which are linked to the 10 pushbuttons on the Keylab for access at any time.
When you browse sounds, you can filter the options by instrument, type, characteristics, or just browse your favourites or user-defined presets. And if you own any of the Analog V Collection synths, you can go in and tweak the settings on the synth’s GUI.
I found a couple of quirks with the software. For one, it only ever displays a 61-note keyboard in Analog Lab. Even though the GUI can stretch almost the full-screen in height, it never goes wider. This is only really an issue when you’ve assigned chords to pads at either extremity of the keyboard and want to see what notes are in it, a tiny hiccup. And while Analog Lab was really stable by itself, taxing the computer by using a number of applications at once made mine pinwheel occasionally. Not something I’d be doing in a live situation.
While you can get bog standard keyboard controllers, many these days survive on their ability to integrate into existing systems. The old mode of just providing a few keys and a handful of general MIDI controls aren’t going to cut it. If a controller won’t map — preferably automatically — to my system, I’m ditching it. Arturia’s got that pretty well licked. Its MIDI Control Centre app can take the Keylab 88 from humble piano workhorse to an all-singing, all-dancing circus troupe. Even if you venture outside the Analog Lab paradigm.