A fully-weighted master keyboard at this price is unheard of. Is the KeyLab 88 too good to be true?
It’s unusual to review a product after it’s been on the market for this long, but in this case, there’s a good reason. I first received a KeyLab 88 immediately upon its release, but it was clear that there were problems. For example, the velocity response was unpredictable, and I couldn’t use a standard–polarity sustain pedal with it. Discussing these issues with Arturia revealed that the company were already working on updates, so we agreed that they would supply another unit as soon as they felt that the bugs had been ironed out. When this arrived, tests revealed that they had addressed the major issues but... there was now a hardware fault.
In common with several purchasers who wrote to various forums, I discovered that the keyboard had a bunch of dead keys, in my case spanning from A7 to E8. To be more accurate, they were not dead, but hitting them as hard as you would to elicit a MIDI velocity of 127 elsewhere on the keyboard resulted in only silence. Hitting them considerably harder squeezed a maximum velocity of around 15 from them. So, like the first review unit, the second was soon winging its way back to France.
Sometime later, a third was dispatched and, upon its delivery, everything seemed to work correctly except that I had lost one of the updates that had been present on the second unit — the sustain pedal was again inverted. So I updated the firmware and ran Arturia’s MIDI Control Centre, which I had first installed when I tested the company’s Analogue Experience products some time ago. This detected the KeyLab 88 and, after updating itself, allowed me to modify the pedal input so that ‘off’ was detected as MIDI CC 64 value 127, and ‘on’ as value 0. I was finally able to play the KeyLab 88 as nature, and Arturia, had intended.
The KeyLab 88 is an 88-note master keyboard with a velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive, piano-weighted Fatar keybed. It doesn’t boast an escapement action, but its touch is quite acceptable on a product designed for a range of playing requirements, especially since the firmware now offers 10 velocity curves and 10 aftertouch curves to tailor its response. Behind this, you’ll find the standard Arturia complement of knobs, faders, velocity- and pressure-sensitive pads, switches and transport controls, together with pitch–bend and modulation wheels, octave up/down buttons and a volume knob.
Editing is carried out by two further knobs and three buttons that interact with the menus displayed on the 16x2 character display. With its polished wooden cheeks and uncluttered design, the KeyLab 88 is an attractive unit and, while I’m not a fan of white keyboards on stage, Arturia have already released black versions of the KeyLab 49 and 61, so maybe a black 88 is in the works. On the bright side (and that’s not a pun regarding white and black keyboards), the KeyLab 88 weighs just 13kg, which makes it much more manageable than some of the 76-note keyboards and workstations that I still use, let alone the 88-note back-breakers of just a few years ago.
Initial setup couldn’t be simpler: just connect it to your computer using a USB cable and most if not all soft synths should recognise it and add it as an option in their MIDI menus. However, as with all products hosting parameter access editing systems, detailed configuration can be a bit clunky. Many times I intended to change values but instead found myself whipping through menus, to the accompaniment of much swearing in the wilds of Cambridgeshire. I therefore found it much quicker and easier to create configurations using the MIDI Control Centre software. Having done so, I was able to save up to 10 maps as presets within the KeyLab 88 itself, which allowed me to use whichever was appropriate for a given setup. This is a nice touch, especially when the keyboard isn’t connected to a computer.
When I first started playing the KeyLab 88 in earnest, I wasn’t a huge fan of its Fatar keybed but, as it started to loosen up a little, I found myself becoming more comfortable with it. Things were further improved when I determined the appropriate velocity and aftertouch sensitivities for my playing style. Similarly, I wasn’t sure at first how I felt about the position of the pitch-bend and modulation wheels. I’ve never been comfortable stretching over a keyboard to reach these and always prefer them to be to the left of the keyboard. Then I realised that, when playing in the upper octaves of an 88-note keyboard, it would be an even greater stretch to reach them if they were in the traditional position. Consequently, my only caveat regarding the hardware would be to take care to ensure that the KeyLab 88’s relatively lightweight knobs and sliders are fully protected if you’re going to be schlepping one around the country.
Much of the value of the KeyLab 88 is contained within the Arturia Analog Lab, Modartt Pianoteq 5 Stage and UVI Grand Piano Model D software bundled with it — or, to be more precise, the software licences for these products that are bundled with it. Unfortunately, no CD-ROM or DVD-ROM is supplied so, unless you have superfast broadband, prepare yourself for a long evening of downloading and installing the many gigabytes to which you’re entitled. I don’t live in the city, and my maximum broadband speed is, to be honest, rubbish, so it took me four hours to download all the packages, create the necessary iLok account, then install and authorise everything. What’s more, not having installed the UVI Workstation host software before, I found the registration process for Model D to be a bit long-winded and intrusive, which led to much additional swearing in the wilds of Cambridgeshire.
I reviewed Arturia’s Analog Experience software a few years ago, and many of its features have survived in the Analog Lab, which now contains nearly 6000 sounds distilled from the company’s current range of V-series software synths and keyboards. There are numerous ways to select sounds and, as before, the software then provides a subset of the original voicing parameters rather than the complete edit map for each instrument. With up to 20 parameters available per sound, you can access most of the important features of the simpler instruments such as the Wulitzer EP200 and Solina, while those provided for the more sophisticated synths are still sufficient to sculpt myriad new sounds. What’s more, you can even determine which of the available parameters is assigned to each of the knobs and sliders on the KeyLab 88’s control panel, which is a nice touch. If you own full versions of the underlying soft synths and have them installed on the same computer as the Analog Lab you can go still further, because pressing the Edit button reveals the full editing system of the appropriate synth, thus turning the Lab into an integrated editing and playback environment for all of your Arturia V-series instruments.
Other features include a Multi mode, which, despite its name, is a dual mode that allows you to split or layer two sounds and apply a range of effects to each, and Chord mode, which allows you to replay up to 16 chords of your choosing by pressing the appropriate pads. Then there are Snapshots, which allow you to allocate 10 sounds to the buttons on the KeyLab 88 for quick recall, and Live mode, which allows you to order up to 128 sounds and Multis for recall using MIDI patch changes. There are frustrations — for example, you can’t re–order the sounds that you insert into the slots in Live mode, and I would expect the Snapshots feature to be of limited use on stage because, when you press a button to select a sound, the previous one is instantly silenced and there’s a delay before you can play the next. What’s more, the Analog Lab appears to have lost two features of the previous Analogue Laboratory: Scenes (which for me isn’t a huge loss), and the ability to use the pads as rhythm loop triggers. And while it was stable for most of the review, Analog Lab isn’t entirely watertight. On one occasion, I managed to get it into a right tizzy, reporting CPU usage of more than 1000 percent and unable to escape from a loop of error messages. But overall, it’s much more flexible and much more useful than you might imagine, and deserves serious consideration.
Alongside Arturia’s own software, the Modartt Pianoteq 5 Stage physically-modelled piano comes highly recommended (not least in the Sound On Sound review from April 2015). While it’s a limited version of the Pianoteq Pro software that I already have loaded on this Mac, and it lacks almost all of the Pro version’s editing features, the underlying quality is retained. One significant benefit of physical modelling is that it requires a tiny fraction of the disk space needed for a sampled piano, yet Pianoteq also demands surprising little of your computer’s precious CPU power. With the latency at its lowest setting (64 samples at 44.1kHz) and 128 voices enabled, it made the CPU fans whirr somewhat faster than usual on my MacBook Pro but played faultlessly.
Finally, we come to the UVI Grand Piano Model D, which is a huge, sample-based instrument based on a Steinway Model D. It runs within UVI’s Workstation, a powerful multi-timbral environment capable of hosting all manner of instruments and effects from both UVI and third-party developers. Getting you to install this is, no doubt, a significant part of the reason why UVI agreed to bundle the software in the first place. In use, I was pleased to find that the UVI and Modartt instruments have rather different characters (otherwise, why bundle both?). In my view, the underlying tone of the UVI piano is the more realistic, but the Pianoteq is more playable due to its lack of sample layers. You may disagree, but that’s fine. Pianos are singularly personal instruments, so all I can say is that you might like both, or one, or neither. Probably both.
It’s possible that the escapement keybeds incorporated within premium products cost as much as you’re likely to pay for the whole of the KeyLab 88 and its accompanying software. And, whereas flagship products may have large screens and sophisticated GUIs, I’m comfortable (at this price) about using the MIDI Control Centre software to overcome the shortcomings of the KeyLab 88’s on-board editing system.
So where does that leave us? Ultimately, there are still a few minor bumps to iron out, but Arturia are to be commended for listening to feedback, accepting that there were initial problems and then fixing them. The KeyLab 88 now works as I hoped it would and it offers good value for money. If you’re after an 88-note MIDI controller, you wouldn’t be doing yourself any favours if you omitted the KeyLab 88 from your list of candidates.
The rear panel is sparsely populated but, given the price, this is understandable. There’s a single MIDI in/out pair on five-pin DINs, four control inputs — sustain, expression, auxiliary and breath controller, all of which can be reassigned to the MIDI CC of your choice — and a USB type B socket for connecting to your computer. You can use the combination of USB MIDI and the five-pin sockets as a MIDI interface for older, five-pin-only equipment, which is a bonus. Power is also supplied via USB, but the final hole in the back panel is a 5V DC input that will accept power from a mains adaptor (not supplied), allowing you to use the KeyLab 88 away from your computer should you wish.
The KeyLab 88 is delivered with two hardware add-ons, both of which are welcome. The first is a wide although not very high music stand that hooks solidly over three lugs on the rear of the unit. I would give this five stars, except that it’s mounted somewhat left of centre and isn’t tall enough to support classical sheet music, which will droop backward unless you brace it. The second included accessory is a rubber-surfaced extension shelf that also attaches at the rear, adding 4.5 inches (11cm) to the depth of the top surface. This is enough to allow you to place even the largest of laptops, a selection of synth small modules or even small synthesizers safely on top of the controller. It would be nice if this extension could be mounted to the left or to the right of the music stand, but there’s only one position and that’s to the right. I’m impressed that Arturia included these add-ons because, in all manner of situations, they make the KeyLab88 much more usuable than it would otherwise be.
For some reason I haven’t fathomed, two of my software synths — Gmedia’s M-Tron Pro and Virtual String Machine — suffer from hanging notes when played from the KeyLab 88. I tested the keyboard with other soft synths to see whether this was a generic problem, but it’s not. The likes of Gmedia’s ImpOSCar and Oddity, as well as other manufacturers’ products such as AAS String Studio VS2 and Future Audio Workshop Circle, all seemed to work without problems. The KeyLab 88 also worked with the Roland Boutique hardware modules, and as a full-size controller for the Korg Minilogue. Furthermore, Arturia’s earlier Analog Experience controllers don’t exhibit this behaviour with either M-Tron Pro or the VSM, so I hope that it’s an isolated incompatibility involving the review unit, my host computer, my software and my OS. Nonetheless, it may be worth testing your own setup (if possible) if you’re going to be using this combination of products.
- It looks smart and feels solid.
- The bundled software adds real value.
- The sturdy computer platform and music stand are valuable bonuses.
- It may be the most affordable product of its type that there has ever been.
- You may find the on-board editing system a bit fiddly.
Until recently, had some bloke down the pub offered you a weighted, 88-note MIDI controller complete with a powerful soft synth package and two respected grand pianos, all for around £500$800, you wouldn’t have bitten his hand off — you would have been up beyond his elbow before pausing for breath.
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- MacBook Pro 2.5GHz Intel Core i7 with 16GB RAM; OS 10.9.5.
- KeyLab88 Firmware v18.104.22.168.
- MIDI Control Centre v22.214.171.1249.
- Analog Lab v126.96.36.1995, stand-alone, VST, VST3, AU, AAX.
- UVI Workstation v2.5.16, stand-alone, VST, AU, RTAS, AAX.
- Modartt Pianoteq Stage 5 v5.4.2, stand-alone, VST, AU, RTAS, AAX.