Arturia's budget 88-note controller offers tremendous value for money.
Arturia have a long history of producing MIDI keyboards that can take on many general controller duties as well as offering tight integration with their Analog Lab virtual synth compendium. The hardware/software tie-in technology is mature now and bears comparison with Native Instruments' NKS system and S-series controllers, albeit generally coming in at a lower price and with a somewhat less ambitious scope.
The new KeyLab Essential 88 on test here continues that tradition, with the combination of an 88-note synth-action keyboard and a handy software bundle that includes the latest version of Analog Lab. It's a pleasingly affordable package, a big brother to the existing 49- and 61–note models, but how many compromises are being made compared to the more expensive MkII KeyLabs?
The 88 velocity-sensitive keys, which Arturia describe as having a hybrid synth/piano action, employ a full-size octave span but are a bit shorter (at 14cm) than those of a typical decent hammer-action controller or a real acoustic piano. The white key dip is a chunky and positive 12mm with a fairly light resistance into a hard keybed. It's not as plush as something like a Fatar TP/9S (found in many Sequential synths and the Studiologic Sledge) but it's a long way from a flyaway budget action, and a lot better than some KeyLabs of yesteryear. It's a shame not to see aftertouch, but you can't have everything at this price, and at least release velocity is transmitted.
The eight pads are small but good, firing reliably wherever you hit them, and with good velocity response. They also transmit Poly Pressure from aftertouch manipulation, so with compatible synths you get a taste of what a full-blown MPE controller is like. Nine endless encoder knobs and accompanying 30mm faders fulfil real-time control duties, alongside the compact mod and pitch wheels. The central grouping of display, knob and buttons are dedicated to control of Analog Lab and other Arturia soft synths: at other times the LCD reports controller values but the accompanying buttons and the dial are disabled.
On the rear panel there's the ubiquitous USB‑B computer connection, a DIN MIDI output, a sustain pedal input and an inlet for a 500mA 9V power supply. There's also a security slot at the right-hand side. It's unfortunate Arturia couldn't squeeze in even a single expression pedal socket, but that (and many more hardware...