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Arturia AstroLab

Stage Keyboard By Gordon Reid
Published May 2024

Arturia AstroLab

AstroLab puts Arturia’s considerable collection of classic instruments into a single stage keyboard.

Ever since the earliest attempts to use DSPs to emulate analogue synthesis, people have dreamed of a keyboard that can host accurate emulations of the keyboard instruments that have underpinned popular music from the 1960s to the present day. A few manufacturers have even tried to build one, but it’s fair to say that none of their attempts was a commercial triumph. But perhaps that’s about to change because I have in front of me a pre‑release version of the AstroLab, which promises to make the sounds of Arturia’s software instruments available in a single, compact stage keyboard. So, is 2024 the year when we’ll be able to carry a grand piano, a Hammond B3, a Moog Modular, a Synclavier, a Fairlight and around 30 other instruments onto stage under one arm? Let’s find out.

Introducing The AstroLab

The 61‑key, velocity‑ and aftertouch‑sensitive AstroLab is clearly from the same company as instruments such as the KeyLab series, but it looks slicker and smarter, and I particularly like the ‘wraparound’ cheek design. Weighing in at 10kg, it isn’t heavy but, because it’s so compact, it feels reassuringly solid and robust. Unfortunately, one decision that was made to reduce its size was a bad one: the pitch‑bend and modulation wheels are placed behind the keyboard rather than to the left of it. To me this decision is incomprehensible because the AstroLab has been designed for the stage and, if you need to place it below another keyboard or shelf in your rig, you may be unable to reach the wheels. At the very least, your wrist could be uncomfortably bent backward as you attempt to use them.

A second surprise was the positioning of the control knobs — which we’ll discuss later — to the right of the top panel. Most players are right‑handed, so it would make more sense for these to be placed on the left so that they can be tweaked more easily while playing. Arturia’s own pre‑release video shows the presenter reaching uncomfortably over his playing hand to demonstrate the use of these. It looks awkward, and it can’t be conducive to a good performance.

The AstroLab measures 935 x 327 x 99mm and weighs in at 10kg.The AstroLab measures 935 x 327 x 99mm and weighs in at 10kg.

Despite its piano‑shaped keys, the AstroLab has a semi‑weighted synth‑action keybed that Arturia claim is designed “to hit a sweet spot between pianists who expect some resistance and synth/organ players who want to be able to move fast”. This is a laudable target (even if it unintentionally insults pianists) especially in a keyboard that seeks to emulate such a wide range of instruments. But inevitably, a compromise risks pleasing no‑one, so I recommend that you test it for yourself. If a hammer‑action model later appears, the question will then be (as always) whether you want to risk organ swipes on a piano‑style keybed or attempt to play grand pianos on a synth‑style keybed.

A large encoder and its associated navigation buttons dominate the centre of the panel. Arturia have made a brave decision here, embedding the instrument’s 320‑pixel display in the centre of the encoder. I can’t see any advantages to this but, as long as there are no long‑term reliability issues, neither is it a problem; all is fine provided that you keep your hand out of the way while rotating the outer ring to change values or when pressing the screen down as the equivalent of an Enter button.

There are five ways that you can connect the AstroLab to the outside world. If you’re using Wi‑Fi, you have two options: you can connect it to an existing network, or you can create a one‑to‑one relationship with your computer by making the synth a Wi‑Fi hotspot. While you might choose a network for flexibility, I would recommend using hotspot mode if you’re going to connect the AstroLab to anything when performing; you never know what might happen with a public network. But bear in mind that the AstroLab doesn’t support MIDI over Wi‑Fi, so you’ll need to use a 5‑pin or USB cable if you want it to talk to other hardware or use it as a controller. The fifth method is to use Bluetooth. Once paired with your computer, tablet or phone, you can stream audio of up to 48kHz sample rate through the AstroLab, and the manual suggests that this is for “playing along [...] with songs that reside on your phone or computer”. It’s simple to set up and it works.

Sounds, Sounds, Sounds

AstroLab sounds are organised into four levels. The first is a sound (which, to avoid ambiguity, I’ll call a patch) created using one of Arturia’s instruments within their Analog Lab software. This can be a patch supplied by Arturia or, if you have the appropriate instruments, programmed yourself. Once saved, it can (with a few exceptions and caveats) be transferred to the AstroLab, stored, and then played whether the computer remains connected or not.

Either one or two patches comprise a Preset. A Preset with one Part is called a Single and a Preset with two Parts is called a Multi, which, given that this term has existed elsewhere for decades with a different meaning, is misleading; I wish that Arturia had called it a Duo or something equivalent. When two patches are used in a bi‑timbral Preset, they’re called Parts and can be arranged as either a split or layer with each having its own MIDI channel, octave, transposition, pan and volume settings. You can determine whether a Part responds to the wheels and pedals, and you should be able to choose whether aftertouch affects neither, one or both. But, for the moment, this isn’t possible. (It always affects both.) Happily, there are no limitations on which patches you can use to populate the Parts in a Multi. This isn’t trivial. If, in the past, you wanted to go on stage and play a Modular Moog with one hand and a Synclavier with the...

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