Arturia’s new KeyLab Essential focuses firmly on computer control, with ambitious DAW integration.
The KeyLab Essential Mk3 is the latest in Arturia’s budget‑friendly range of controller keyboards. The most significant new feature is the deeper integration with a range of DAWs, which I’ll focus on for this review. But first, let’s give its standalone facilities a once‑over.
The 49‑keyed KE3, which I’m reviewing here (there’s also a 61‑note version), has a good weight to it and is the perfect size for me. It’s pretty solid, although entirely plastic. The chassis does flex a bit under chord stabs or when you are testing the aftertouch — before you realise it doesn’t have any. The off‑white (it’s also available in black) is nicely sedate, juxtaposed with the shiny‑as‑heck new mid‑panel display and posh‑looking data encoder. The controls’ flow and order is a nice refinement over the Mk2, and those lazily curved corners make it feel fresh and stylish. The feel of the keys is good, and they have a decent synth‑style resistance. It’s compact enough to sit between my keyboard and monitor without knocking everything off my desk, and while there’s no wasted space, it isn’t overloaded with controls.
The KeyLab bucks the modular‑friendly trend with only a single MIDI output port and pedal input looking very lonely on the back. Computer connection is USB‑C, and I appreciate the angled cable, which means I can butt the back up against my monitor stand without the cables getting in the way. Sadly, though, Arturia have put the other ports to the centre, defeating the good idea of the angled cable.
The ubiquitous Ableton Live Lite is bundled with the controller, along with a piano from UVI and one from Native Instruments. There are also some music lessons from Melodics and samples from Loopcloud. But the essential item is Analog Lab V. It doesn’t look particularly stimulating but inside it’s a fabulous feast of over 7000 sounds harvested from 24 vintage instruments. It’s the best of the V Collection pulled into one place with an easy and immediate interface. And the integration with the KE3 is sublime.
You can navigate the whole laboratory from the KeyLab front panel. The encoder browses the library and selects sounds, while buttons let you jump between categories and styles. The knobs and faders hook into two rows of pertinent parameters, and you have a decent hardware synth experience.
Other features are common to most MIDI controllers these days, like a Chord mode, Scale options and Arpeggiator. These are all focused in the display via a few long button presses and a bit too much messing around with the encoder.
The KE3 has three primary programs or modes: Arturia mode for Analog Lab and other Arturia synths, DAW mode for DAW control, and User mode for regular MIDI. You can create custom MIDI maps for up to six devices in the highly configurable Arturia MIDI Control Centre.
Arturia’s scripted connections aim to give you a seamless, joyful, mouse‑free DAW‑controlling experience. They’ve damn near pulled it off, too. At the time of writing, the KE3 has a special relationship with Bitwig Studio, Cubase, Ableton Live, FL Studio and Logic Pro. Other DAWs are planned, but for now, the rest will have to lean into the good old MCU/HUI protocol. I checked out the integration in Bitwig, Cubase and Ableton Live, and here’s how that went.
Arturia assured me that the installation should be automatic and seamless, and it wasn’t, but these things rarely are. However, once I installed the KE3 script, the integration was a very beautiful thing.
The KE3 controls the mixer faders and panning, scene firing and clip launching, browser navigation and device control. The transport control was also fully functional with play, record, stop, forward, reverse, tap tempo, metronome and loop on/off. The greatest button of all, though, was the Undo button, which will come in for some serious use.
The first button on the screen launches the Browser. You can use the data encoder to scroll through your various plug‑ins and devices and use a pair of buttons on the display to shift categories. Bitwig has a very clunky sound preview facility that the KE3 had to wrestle with. The idea is that on the first click of the encoder, you get a preview of the selected synth, and then it loads on the second click. It just doesn’t really work; the first click does nothing, and so you end up just having to click twice every time.
Once you’re in a nice big project, then the KE3 really shows its quality. A single button on the display swaps the bank of faders and knobs between Mixer and Device modes. In Mixer mode, you get level and panning control and can move between banks of eight tracks. The ninth fader and knob always control the master output. You get little white triangles in the corner of the volume sliders to show you what’s currently under control, which is a super‑helpful feature that Ableton doesn’t share.
Device mode flips the faders and knobs into controls for Bitwig’s own synth and effect devices. You use the Part button to move between different pages of parameters and all the current controls are displayed along the bar beneath the device. It’s really very good, and the way you can flip between controlling the mixer and then, say, the Polysynth is seamless. However, there doesn’t seem to be any way to jump to another device. The controls will only affect the selected device, and so to move to another in an effects chain or back to the instrument after editing an effect, I have to drop to the mouse. The implementation is excellent; it’s just not completely mouse‑free.
Device mode isn’t automatic for third‑party instruments or plug‑ins, not even Arturia’s. It’s a little strange because while in Device mode, you can map the controls to the parameters in the Bitwig Device version of the plug‑in but not to the controls in the GUI. For that, you can swap to a User Program and use regular MIDI control. You can swap to Arturia mode for Analog Lab and other Arturia synths for a more seamless synth experience.
The last feature is scene and clip navigation, which is done through a combination of the encoder and the bank of pads. The pads can be used for playing notes and triggering drums, and they feel good for that, but they can also be a just‑about‑enough‑pads‑to‑be‑useful clip launcher. Bitwig draws a 4x2 rectangle in the clip launcher, and the pads light up with the right colours to reflect the active clips. You can then launch them with a tap or record into empty ones. The encoder knob moves the rectangle through the scenes, and you can launch a whole scene with a push. I got very confused on my first play because the pads were not launching the clips I expected. I then realised that the KE3 assumes you’ll be in the vertical Ableton‑style Mix Panel view, not the horizontal Clip Launcher view, where I spend most of my time. Once in the right place, it works perfectly as a little launchpad and navigator.
The only thing missing, I would say, is the ability to change views in Bitwig directly from the KE3. To be able to pull up the mixer, focus on device parameters, open instrument GUIs and so on would be very useful.
It’s the best of the V Collection pulled into one place with an easy and immediate interface. And the integration with the KE3 is sublime.
The first time you open Cubase with the script installed is very impressive. You are treated to a virtual version of the KE3 laid out in the bottom half of the screen setup as a MIDI Remote device. We have Device mode and Mixer mode, but they are not as comprehensive as the Bitwig or Live versions.
For the selected track (and you can navigate between tracks using the encoder) the eight knobs become Quick Controls for that track. These are sometimes mapped a bit strangely for instrument tracks, although that may be down to what the plug‑in designer makes available. It is very easy to reassign the Quick Controls. The faders control the send level for that track — that’s all eight faders being used for sends for one track. It feels like they could have been put to better use. Arturia instruments can use the Arturia mode for a more complete control experience.
In Mixer mode, you have level and panning control over just the first eight tracks. There are no banks to switch to in order to reach any other tracks; you just get the eight. The last fader and knob always controls the level and pan of the selected track.
There are some additional controls. Clicking the encoder brings up the instrument’s GUI (could do with that in Bitwig). You also have Arm, Mute and Solo buttons for the selected track. The pads can double up as project commands for things such as adding instrument tracks, duplicate, render, freeze, chord events, channel settings and sync settings. It would be great if you could also do things like add audio tracks, or open the mixer, editor or browser pages. I feel there would be other things I would do far more often that would sit there better. I wonder if it would ever be possible to customise these commands.
The Cubase control is solid enough and can be easily bent to your will with a few tweaks to the Quick Controls, but it feels a bit simplistic when compared to Bitwig and Live.
The KE3 slides nicely into Ableton Live’s seasoned control environment. It’s very similar to Bitwig but with a sense of Ableton’s calm level of authority. In clip launching mode, our pads give us a 2x4 launchpad displayed as a rectangle over our clip stacks. The encoder winds us up and down through the scenes and launches on a tap, whereas a pair of arrows takes us left and right through our project, with the selected track always displayed by name. A handy Record Enable button lets us get quickly into a track, and potential clips for recording are shown on the pads in red and are a tap away from capturing your musical thoughts. It is very smooth.
For device control, the knobs and faders are automatically assigned to the first device in the chain for that track. If you are using Ableton instruments or effects, then that works perfectly. For third‑party instruments, they are in a similar predicament to Bitwig. The device controls won’t work on the instrument or allow you to learn them. However, you can add a couple of parameters to the assignable X/Y pad, and you’ll find the first two knobs are then mapped to those controls. If you opt for the User Program mode, then regular MIDI is returned, and you can MIDI Learn the KE3 controls to whatever parameters you wish. This was the same for Arturia synths except for Analog Lab V, which maintains its unfaltering integration when you switch to Arturia Mode.
Mixer mode is exactly as expected and has multiple pages for further banks of eight faders and eight pan pots. Pot and fader number nine always control the currently selected track.
As we found in Bitwig, the main missing piece is the inability to jump to the next device. You’ve often got chains of instruments and effects, and it would be brilliant to be able to navigate across to the one you want to control. The mouse is the solution, but if I’m having a lovely time playing in the KE3 control environment I’d prefer to stay there.
I really like the refreshed look and layout of the KeyLab Essential Mk3. It’s well‑proportioned, thoughtfully laid out and very tidy. I use the V Collection quite a lot, so I appreciate the consistently good mapping, and playing with Analog Lab V is thoroughly enjoyable. The DAW integration, particularly in Live and Bitwig, is excellent considering it’s at the mercy of what the DAW can do. It feels as competent as what you’d find with Nektar keyboards but with the added integration of Arturia’s own synths. If there were just a way to shift focus onto different devices in Bitwig/Live directly from the KE3 then they would have absolutely nailed it.
- Good looks, smooth layout.
- Seamless Analog Lab V integration.
- User‑configurable MIDI maps.
- Solid DAW integration.
- Undo/Redo button.
- ARP/Chord/Scale options need a bit of menu diving.
- No way to shift control to other devices in Bitwig/Live.
- Cubase integration is a little limited.
A clean and tidy refresh that brings decent DAW integration to an already deeply embedded Arturia control party.
49‑key version £189, 61‑key £235. Prices include VAT.
Source Distribution +44 (0)20 8962 5080
49‑key version $219, 61‑key $269.