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Arturia KeyLab MkII

Controller Keyboard
By Simon Sherbourne

Arturia KeyLab MkII

Arturia take their KeyLab range to the next level.

KeyLab is the family name of Arturia's range of master keyboards that combine stand‑alone MIDI controller functionality with DAW control. The keyboards all also serve as an integrated hardware front-end for Arturia's Analog Lab: the company's soft synth that consolidates the mighty V Collection into a workstation instrument.

Back in February 2018 we reviewed the KeyLab Essential. The KeyLab MkII comes in as pro or flagship big brother to the Essential, bringing the whole range up to date. The weighted 88-key version is still available with the older first-gen design.

Key Features

There's a strong family resemblance between the KeyLab MkII and Essential, but the MkII is significantly deeper (in fact deeper than most MIDI keyboards) to allow for a 4x4 pad grid and longer faders. The MkII is a much sturdier and heavier construction, with a metal main case. The buttons are solid and clicky instead of soft and wobbly. The higher-spec metallic wheels appear above or next to the keys depending on whether you have the 49- or 61-key version.

The keybed is the same 'Pro-Feel' Arturia mechanism with aftertouch as found on the MatrixBrute and MiniBrute 2. It has a light, fairly shallow action, like the Essential, but with less wobbliness. I like the low-profile pads, whose multicoloured backlights indicate pressure with brightness. The main data knob and screen area appears much the same as on the Essential, but is enhanced by three dedicated buttons for switching between Analog Lab, DAW and User modes. The right-hand zone sports nine strips of sliders, rotary encoders and buttons.

Connectivity is a strong point. Power is via the USB port, although there's an optional DC adaptor. There are no fewer than five pedal/expression control inputs on quarter-inch jacks. Traditional MIDI is connected via a pair of full-size DIN ports. There's also CV connectivity comprising a single CV input, and pitch, gate, and dual mod outputs.

On the back panel we find CV outputs, MIDI I/O, three quarter-inch aux control ports, expression and sustain pedal inputs, a CV input, and a USB B port.On the back panel we find CV outputs, MIDI I/O, three quarter-inch aux control ports, expression and sustain pedal inputs, a CV input, and a USB B port.

Quick Start

Unlike a number of its high-end peers, the KeyLab can function without needing a computer to think for it, but in most cases it's probably going to find itself as part of a DAW-centred studio. It's a class-compliant USB device, so should start making itself useful as soon as it's plugged in. However, to take full advantage of the KeyLab MkII you'll want to install the software that comes with it, and get it set up correctly with your DAW of choice.

Software download, install and licensing is all handled smoothly by the dedicated Arturia Software Center application. With the KeyLab MkII registered on your Arturia account you'll get access to Analog Lab 3, Piano V, and the MIDI Control Center. Analog Lab installs as a stand-alone app as well as a plug-in in the AU, AAX, and VST formats.

No special codecs or packages are required for DAW setup. Up-to-date versions of Ableton Live have the necessary script built in, and all other DAWs communicate with the KeyLab via Mackie Control or HUI. You'll need to select the correct DAW map in the MIDI Control Center utility and follow the instructions for setting the prefs in your DAW.

DAW Control

With everything set up the MkII can be easily re-focused between controlling Analog Lab, your DAW, and your own custom assignments. DAW mode is where the MkII behaves most like a generic MIDI keyboard, ready to play any instrument plug-in or MIDI synth attached to your DAW tracks.

DAW mode also provides transport controls, and buttons for common functions like Save, Loop mode and Click, etc. In this mode the sliders map to faders and pan in your mixer. The buttons below the faders act as direct track selectors, or you can use the left and right cursors on either side of the main data knob to nudge the focus between tracks.

Selecting a track targets it for the five Track Control buttons in the centre of the panel. These access Solo, Mute, Rec Arm, and automation mode controls. For the most part this is a better use of space than providing per-track buttons or banked layers for these functions as on many controllers. It does mean, though, that you can't quickly mute/unmute multiple tracks.

In most DAWs selecting a track also targets it for MIDI input. In Ableton Live, however, Rec Arm does not follow Select, meaning that to move MIDI input focus between tracks is a two‑stage process of selecting the track, then hitting the Rec button in the Track Controls. This is a common issue with Live controllers (it was the same with the Novation SL MkIII we looked at recently). It is possible to have linked controls, as evidenced by Push and the Native Instruments controllers, but it seems many manufacturers overlook this in their scripts.

The Live integration would also be improved if the transport record was mapped to Session record instead of Arrange record (at least as an option). A way to bank the pads up and down in Drum Racks would be welcome too; as it stands you can only access the first 16 slots.

Live enjoys some extra functionality in the Session view, with a clip‑launching mode available on the pads. The Main data wheel scrolls the Scene focus (although you can't launch a whole Scene), and the horizontal position can be banked with buttons, or by selecting a track. I did find the layout confusing, though: the pads show two clip rows from eight tracks, but stacked into two chunks because of the 4x4 pad grid.

Actual Sounds & Voices

In Analog Lab mode the KeyLab MkII melds with Arturia's VI master plug-in to become a hybrid workstation. Analog Lab acts as a unified front-end for the entire V Collection. It provides a tagged patch library, a shell for creating dual‑layer splits, and a way to store patch playlists that can be used when playing live.

The KeyLab MkII can browse and control the V Collection sounds in the included Analog Lab plug-in.The KeyLab MkII can browse and control the V Collection sounds in the included Analog Lab plug-in.The beauty of Analog Lab is that it gives you access to the sounds of the V Collection, without actually buying it. However, if you do buy the Collection, or any of the individual instruments, it unlocks the full GUIs within Analog Lab. Apparently browsing and control maps are also implemented for Arturia's new Pigments synth.

The central display and data wheel can be used for patch browsing and selection. The single Category button tabs you through the hierarchy of the library, starting with the top‑level groupings of Synth, Piano, Organs, and Multis, then drilling down to Instrument Types, Styles, then source banks. When you get to the directory you want, you can tap the Preset button to redirect the wheel to browsing actual patches.

As noted with the KeyLab Essential, it's a pretty limited set of controls and visual feedback to work with, but does work fairly well. It helps of course to have the plug-in open to reference on screen. For live work, if you keep a single Playlist open to choose from you'll be fine. A notable advantage over the Essential is the row of buttons below the faders, which take you instantly between the Instrument Type categories. Unfortunately these immediately load the first patch in these categories; I'd prefer that it just called up the list on the data wheel.

Each patch in Analog Lab has two pages of pre-assigned controls for the encoders/sliders section, plus a third where you can build layered macros to control the other assignments and the internal Part mixer. The rotaries are continuous, so can pick up control from any point. While the sliders can be switched between Jump or Pick-up modes for DAW control, they can also Scale in Analog Lab for smooth takeovers. Their current positions are shown as ghost faders on the plug-in when the values are not in sync.

There's a consistent mapping system used, to the extent that the most common assignments are hard printed on the panel. For example, the encoder mapping generally starts: Filter Cutoff, Resonance, LFO Depth, LFO Rate. The first bank of slider assignments is usually dedicated to envelope controls. This helps a lot given that there are no displays on the hardware to guide you.

Custom MIDI & CV

The KeyLab MkII provides 10 slots for saving and recalling your own MIDI control assignments. These are set up and managed in the MIDI Control Center software, or you can edit them directly on the hardware. There's a sophisticated degree of choice about how controls are configured. Buttons can be toggled or momentary, rotaries can be absolute or relative and work with different acceleration/gearing. You can limit CC control ranges. The pads can be colour-coded, and in addition to note, CC, or Program Change messages they can be set to recall your other user templates.

User control sets and the CV ports can be configured directly on the keyboard, or via the MIDI Control Center utility.User control sets and the CV ports can be configured directly on the keyboard, or via the MIDI Control Center utility.

The Control Center is also where you configure the various foot controller inputs and the CV connections. The three Aux pedal inputs can be assigned to any CC value in either continuous or switched modes. They can also be used for Program Changes.

CV integration in MIDI controllers is becoming more common. Arturia certainly have good form here with the KeyStep, and the KeyLab MkII benefits from pro options like variable voltage ranges, and the option to choose which MIDI note maps to 0V. The note source can be taken from either keyboard part in a split config.

The Mod sources are directly assigned to specific buttons, faders, rotaries or wheels, or can be derived from velocity, aftertouch, or any of the pedal inputs. This keeps things simple and can be set up from the keyboard. Currently the CV outputs can't be accessed from your DAW, but apparently this will come later.

Conclusion

The MkII KeyLab is a solid design and layout update, and adds dedicated DAW control functionality and CV connectivity. It's refreshingly straightforward to set up and use, both as a general controller and as a sound source with Analog Lab. Analog Lab is of course one of the major selling points, offering a wealth of sounds, albeit completely focused on synths and keys.

Having come straight from reviewing the Novation SL MkIII, I can't help thinking that Arturia have missed a trick by not adding some stand-alone sequencing functionality from the KeyStep, especially as there are CV connections. I guess that there will be a 'KeyStep Pro' at some point to scratch that itch. However, as a versatile master keyboard for both studio and stage with elements of both a traditional controller and hybrid instrument, the KeyLab MkII has a lot going for it.

Alternatives

The MIDI controller keyboard market is probably the most competitive space in music tech hardware. There is a ton of controllers out there with buttons, knobs, pads and faders. The KeyLab MkII's distinguishes itself from cheaper, basic controllers with its build quality, endless encoders, excellent programmability and of course the inclusion of and integration with Analog Lab. Close by in the bang-per-buck curve are Akai's MPK and Nektar's Panaroma. The KeyLab's list price does put it within £$100 of Novation's new SL MkIII, which offers multiple parts, sequencing, scales and displays, although is more complex and doesn't have an equivalent to Analog Lab. And of course you can never dismiss the NI keyboards which, like the KeyLab, offer a companion sound bank and excellent DAW integration.

Chords Back In Fashion

The KeyLab has several chord assist features. The most simple is accessed by holding the Chord button while playing a chord. This stores the chord in memory, and you can then play the chord from single keys. A more sophisticated option is to activate the Chord Transpose mode on the trigger pads. This stores chord shapes on the pads, which are also played from single keys on the keyboard. Finally there's the Chord Memory mode on the pads, which triggers playback of specific (non-transposable) chords from the pads, leaving the main keys free to play over the top.

All the modes are useful. What the KeyLab does lack compared to some of its peers is a Scale constraining feature. This means that chords always transpose to chromatic intervals and won't automatically stay in a particular key.

Pros

  • Simple and fast to use.
  • Tight integration with the included Analog Lab 3.
  • DAW controls.
  • Lots of connectivity.
  • Flexible stand-alone capabilities.

Cons

  • Just one small display.
  • No Scale features.

Summary

The KeyLab MkII is a solid, customisable master keyboard and DAW controller, as well as the perfect companion to the V Collection plug-ins.

information

KeyLab MkII 49-note £389, 61-note £430. Prices include VAT.

www.arturia.com

KeyLab MkII 49-note $449, 
61-note $499.

www.arturia.com

Published April 2019