Anyone fancy a versatile controller keyboard with the tip of the Arturia software iceberg included free?
Arturia’s Lab range marries hardware keyboard controllers with the company’s extensive soft‑synth portfolio. Their Analog Lab V plug‑in deploys the engines of the mighty V‑Collection as a unified sound module that integrates with the keyboards. MiniLab is a portable and significantly more affordable alternative to the larger KeyLab master keyboards. As well as the compact controller, MiniLab 3 comes with a pared‑down version of the sound suite, dubbed Analog Lab Intro.
The MiniLab 3 controller maintains roughly the same shape as the MkII, with its deep panel giving it the same footprint as a 15‑inch laptop. I had the white model and thought it looked like a cute tiny Mellotron that had sprouted controls, or the synth edition of Is it Cake? Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s a lovely form factor. Previous MiniLabs had 16 encoders and eight pads with a two‑octave mini‑keyboard. For this iteration Arturia’s designers have replaced eight of the encoders with four sliders, perhaps thinking to trade off the total number of controls for some versatility, and tick off more boxes for people shopping around.
Encoder count aside, the 3 has levelled up as a controller, gaining stand‑alone capabilities. A DIN MIDI out port has been added to the rear panel alongside the USB‑C connection, and there’s now an onboard arpeggiator. In the last couple of years a MIDI out has become a significant differentiator in the small controller market: it’s great to have the option to work host‑free and plug straight into a hardware module.
In The (Recyclable) Box
I’m not normally one for an unboxing paragraph, but special mention should be made of the MiniLab’s eco credentials. Not only is the packaging 100‑percent recyclable, the unit itself is constructed from 50‑percent recycled plastic. Thinking outside the box (sorry), Arturia are providing the MiniLab 3 with a five‑year warranty, promoting longer product lifecycles as part of the bigger sustainability picture. Bon travail Arturia!
Included in the package is a software bundle that will get anyone new to computer‑based music up and running. As well as Analog Lab Intro, you get two piano plug‑ins: UVI’s Model D and Native Instruments’ The Gentleman. Then there’s the ubiquitous but perfectly capable Ableton Live Lite.
A smart move is the inclusion of a subscription to Melodics, an online interactive music learning service. There’s some really cool apps and sites springing up like this, which make learning an instrument like a game. This one looks particularly intriguing, as in addition to follow‑along keyboard lessons it covers drum pads and production in general.
This Is My Laboratoire!
MiniLab is a flexible, general‑purpose MIDI controller, but let’s start with what sets it apart: Analog Lab. The idea is simple: Analog Lab is an app and plug‑in that hosts Arturia’s synth engines, offering a single point of contact with an overarching preset library, pre‑mapped macro controls and a live show manager.
Although I’m an avid V‑Collection user, it’s been about three years since I dipped into Analog Lab, as day‑to‑day I use Native Instruments’ Komplete Kontrol, which Arturia also support as a platform for their instruments. (Incidentally if you’re weighing up both options, they have different approaches: Analog Lab gives you access to sounds from all premium synth engines, but only full panel control of synths you own. With an equivalent‑level Komplete Kontrol option, you get full access to the synths but there are fewer of them).
The app/plug‑in has had a facelift and looks colourful and friendly. The home screen is now dominated by icons rather than text, presenting the content in different ways. You can browse by Types (Bass, Keys, etc), Instruments (the V synths) or patch designers. Clicking on a Type pops up a bubble with an audio example and three preset examples. I’m not convinced of the utility of this, but double‑clicking takes you straight to the patches in the more familiar Explore view. This scrollable list has a search field and tag lists. Tags stack up in the search bar as you click them, progressively narrowing down your search.
Intro has around 500 patches (as opposed to 9000 in the full version of Analog Lab) so you don’t need to make much use of filters. This equates to about 20 patches per instrument, which doesn’t provide a lot of room to access the range of sounds these iconic synths can reach. I managed to boost this to 840 by installing most of the free sound packs in the integral Store. There are many paid packs available, or you could upgrade to the full version of Analog Lab, but the most compelling way to start unlocking the potential is to purchase some of the actual instrument plug‑ins. Any instrument you own can be accessed with its full user interface from inside Analog Lab.
The bottom of Analog Lab’s window presents macro controls that match your hardware. The first four are always high‑level sound shapers: the actual parameters these control varies by patch, but they are always titled Brightness, Timbre, Time and Movement. The next four encoders control levels or mix amounts for insert effects and returns.
That leaves the sliders. For a reason I can’t fathom, Arturia have mapped these to Analog Lab’s master Bass, Mid, Treble and Level in all the factory patches. Why, when you have the most incredible, responsive software synths at your fingertips, would you use half your controller to adjust EQ? You are left with just four macro controls per patch that actually control the instrument. It’s consistent but restrictive, considering that the MkI and II MiniLabs made full use of their 16 encoders to control a range of relevant controls on the underlying instruments. It is possible to reassign controls to Analog Lab effects and master controls, and whichever few macros get exposed to Intro by the instrument. But you can only do this on a per‑patch basis, not a whole synth.
There is good news too. First, the controls are rotary encoders so there’s no parameter jumping when you take control. Second, preset browsing from the hardware has been improved since I last used a Lab controller. The MkIII has a dedicated push encoder with indented action. With Shift this lets you step through sound categories; otherwise it scrolls through lists, with a push registering a selection.
Analog Lab can host two synth patches side by side. You can create splits and layers, transpose them relative to one another, and choose where standard performance controllers like pitch wheel are routed. The encoder and sliders point to one side at a time, toggled in the software or via a Shift+Pad combo. Both channels share two insert effects, and delay and reverb sends. The effects section is laid out like a little stompbox rig, with a selection of modules to choose from in the four slots.
Further customisation and performance configuration is available in the form of multiple Favourites lists, and a Playlist feature designed for live shows. Unfortunately, you’ll need the full version of Analog Lab to configure Playlists. Teasingly, Intro can make a Playlist but can’t add anything to it!
The MiniLab 3 has DAW‑control functionality for leading DAWs except for Pro Tools. Scripts are provided, but I didn’t have to install anything for the current versions of Live and Logic. However, the transport buttons also played notes in both until I manually disabled the control port. Shift+Pad 3 on the controller steps through its various modes: Analog Lab, DAW and any User Sets you’ve made.
In DAW mode the pads become transport buttons, and the main encoder selects tracks, or scrubs the timeline with Shift. In Live mode you can dial through scenes and launch clips from the pads. The faders adjust channel controls on the selected track, and the encoders map to devices. Although there are discrete pages, you can access DAW transport controls using Shift while in Analog Lab mode. It would be cool if this was extended to the encoders and sliders as well.
The MiniLab 3 has plenty going on to make it a great general‑purpose portable MIDI keyboard.
We’ve focused a lot on specialised functionality, but the MiniLab 3 has plenty going on to make it a great general‑purpose portable MIDI keyboard. It’s customisable using Arturia’s familiar MIDI Control Center app, where you can define CC or NRPN functions for all the physical controls and pads. You can store five pages in addition to the Analog Lab and DAW modes. This is a great feature to have, although I’d have preferred if they were accessed by a different pad, instead of adding to the list to tap through when switching between Analog Lab and DAW modes.
The MiniLab 3 carves a niche for itself in the sub £100budget controller space: it’s portable without feeling cramped and with a decent spread of controls including endless encoders. Stand‑alone MIDI and the arp greatly extend its utility, as does its integration with Analog Lab Intro.
Less control of the V instruments than the larger Labs, but a compelling starter package and portable controller.
£95 including VAT.
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