Novation’s compact keyboard gives you hands‑on control of FL Studio.
Among Novation’s highly regarded MIDI controller keyboard range are the successful and popular Launchkey models that provide integrated support for Ableton Live. Novation have now taken the Launchkey concept and adapted it to offer similar targeted integration with FL Studio. There are two new keyboards in the range — the FLkey Mini and FLkey 37 — with physical layouts very similar to the Launchkey Mini and Launchkey 37. Both are compact and would suit a mobile rig but, equally, the larger of the two is a suitable contender for a compact personal studio space. So, if you are an existing (or potential) FL Studio user, are Novation providing the ideal choice for your MIDI controller keyboard needs?
For the purposes of this review, I had access to the FLkey 37. As the name suggests, it offers 37 full‑size keys as well as conventional pitch and mod wheels, 16 trigger pads, eight rotary encoders, dedicated transport controls and a number of other buttons associated with navigation duties. There are also some neat chord/scale options, and options for switching the pads and encoders between a number of different modes of operation. There is a small 16x2 display on the top surface, and on the rear panel you get USB connectivity, a 5‑pin DIN MIDI out and a standard sustain pedal input.
The Mini scales things back somewhat with 25 mini‑sized keys, touch strips for pitch and modulation and fewer dedicated buttons, but you do still get the 16 pads and eight encoders. Its MIDI out is via a 3.5mm jack rather than a full‑size 5‑pin DIN and there is no display panel on the top surface.
The included software bundle provides a six‑month trial version of FL Studio Producer Edition, XLN Audio’s Addictive Keys, AAS Session Bundle, Spitfire Audio’s LABS Expressive Strings and Klevgrand’s ROVerb and DAW Cassette plug‑ins. As described in the March 2021 issue, FL Studio Producer Edition is an impressive package, especially for electronic music producers, combining lots of functionality with an excellent range of virtual instruments and effects.
I’ll not dwell too long on the quality of the hardware other than to say it’s exactly what you would expect from Novation. The velocity sensitive synth‑style keys were very easy to play, the pads are also velocity sensitive, the encoder pots smooth, and the various other buttons suitably solid in operation. The construction is all plastic but, providing due care and attention is paid when in transit, it feels robust enough to give good service.
As with the Launchkey range, Novation have done their best to squeeze plenty of FL Studio functionality into the FLkey 37. Starting with some basics, as well as the usual Play, Stop and Record buttons, the transport section (located far right) offers Metronome (on/off) and Quantise (applies the current quantise settings to the currently selected Channel Rack). You also get very useful Undo/Redo buttons and a dedicated Score Log button (FL Studio’s retrospective MIDI recording feature; you never have to miss that excellent take you just failed to record).
However, the real workflow enhancements come from the various modes offered by the pots, pads and (as described later) keys. For the pots and pads, these various modes are accessed by holding the Shift key (just beneath the small LED display) and then pressing one of the clearly labelled pads with Pot Modes on the upper row and Pad Modes on the lower row.
Four of the Pot Modes are straightforward, allowing the encoders to be linked to either volume or pan within the FL Mixer or the FL Channel Rack. Dedicated Mixer and Channel Rack navigation buttons (located to the right of the encoders/pads) allow you to move left/right or up/down in banks of eight channels. As you use these navigation buttons, the currently selected bank of channels is highlighted within FL Studio so you know exactly where you are within your project.
Within any of FL Studio’s own virtual instruments, Plug‑in Pot mode automatically maps the encoders to eight key parameters. So, for example, within the Harmor synth, the first three encoders give you real‑time control over the X, Y and Z dimensions of the modulation system, while in Slicex, pots 4, 5 and 6 control the filter envelope, cutoff and resonance respectively. The mappings are fixed but seem to be sensibly chosen in each case. For third‑party plug‑ins, you can use the Custom pot mode to create your own mappings via Novation’s Components web‑based editor, although do be aware that the FLkey can only store one Pot and one Pad custom mode at any one time. That said, FL Studio’s Multilink controller system provides further options for mapping external controllers to specific FL Studio parameters.
The pads also offer multiple modes. Channel Rack mode lets you trigger notes on up to 16 channels at once. Each pad sends a C5 note, but this works well for triggering when each channel features a single sample. Instrument mode is designed for the drum/slice tools that FL Studio offers. For example, with FPC, the 16 pads correspond to the drum machine’s pads and the FLkey pads light up with colour‑coding that matches that of the plug‑in. Within Slicex, the pads are mapped to consecutive slices and, if your loop contains more than 16 slices, the Page left/right buttons allow you to navigate through additional parts of the loop.
Sequencer Mode lets you toggle on/off steps within the currently selected Channel Rack track and, if your pattern has more than 16 steps, then the Page buttons can be used for navigation. Again, on‑screen, the track/steps range you have selected to work on is briefly highlighted as you move around.
Scale Chord and User Chord modes will be particularly useful if a piano keyboard is not your instrument of choice. Scale Chord mode lets you select from a number of preset banks of chord types containing triads, 7ths, 9ths and 6/9ths. You can change the root key but, essentially, each pad is then populated by chords of that type within the selected key. This is a great way to trigger basic chord sequences. User Chord mode lets you assign your own chord (with up to six notes) to each pad. It obviously requires an initial configuration, but the chords are retained within the internal memory until you change them. If playing complex chord shapes is over and above your piano‑playing pay grade, this is a useful aid.
Among further useful features such as the dedicated Preset buttons for browsing presets within the currently selected instrument, some further assistance for those less confident in their piano skills or music theory is tucked away in the FLkey 37’s keyboard: Scale mode. The dedicated Scale button — located to the right of the mod wheel — activates this mode. If you hold both Shift and Scale, you can then pick the required root key (via the MIDI keyboard), while the bottom row of pads picks the scale type (Minor, Major, Dorian, Mixolydian, Phrygian, Harmonic Minor, Minor Pentatonic or Major Pentatonic (note that the FLkey Mini only offers a subset of these scale types). Once selected, whether using the keyboard or pads to trigger MIDI notes, the pitches will automatically be pitch‑corrected to stay ‘in key/scale’; no more duff notes.
The keyboard also offers a Fixed Chord mode (you store a single chord type and can then trigger it at any pitch) and a Note Repeat function. The latter is great for creating things like 16th‑note hi‑hat patterns; you just hold the note down and it automatically repeats at the chosen beat division.
As with all Novation’s MIDI controller keyboards, it is well constructed, packs in a lot of features and is very sensibly priced.
There is very little not to like about the FLkey 37. As with all Novation’s MIDI controller keyboards, it is well constructed, packs in a lot of features and is very sensibly priced. It does exactly what it claims with a minimum of fuss. Yes, if you are to get the most out of it, it does require some practice to retrain your muscle memory to release the mouse and master the access systems to the FLkey 37’s numerous modes of operation. However, once this is done, you would undoubtedly benefit from some considerable workflow efficiencies.
If mobility is a top priority, then the FLkey Mini offers the same core control options in a very compact format. However, for personal studio use and with just occasional field trips, the FLkey 37 is undoubtedly the more powerful option. If you are a dedicated FL Studio user, Novation’s FLkey 37 is an equally dedicated controller; well worth exploring.
- Packs a lot of FL Studio integration into a compact package.
- Solid and straightforward in use.
- Like any feature‑packed controller, some initial effort is required to master the functionality on offer.
FLkeys 37 is well integrated with FL Studio and offers useful workflow enhancements for the dedicated FL Studio user.
FLkey 37 £199, FLkey Mini £99. Prices include VAT.
FLkey 37$199.99, FLkey Mini $109.99.