Novation's new controller keyboard has bright lights, friendly buttons and a newt-like orange underbelly. Splendid.
For over 20 years Novation have been making controllers, synths and control surfaces, and their appetite for perfecting the species continues unabated. The new Launchkey range of keyboard-based controllers is founded on three sizes of keyboard, the models named according to the number of keys. We're offered a choice of two, four and five octaves, and although the smallest of these hasn't enough space for all the sliders and buttons of the others, the functionality is otherwise the same. This means multi-coloured, multi-purpose pads and a thoughtful selection of knobs and buttons for use with soft synths and popular DAWs. The package is further sweetened by a bundle of free software and samples, including Ableton Live Lite.
The middle-of-the-range model, the four-octave Launchkey 49 was the one supplied for review and, upon unboxing, I was immediately taken by its newt-like orange underbelly beneath the more conservative panel of dark grey. When handling, you can't quite escape the rattly feel of plastic, but at less than 4kg, at least it won't be a burden to haul around. If portability is your highest priority, the flyweight champion of the stable is the Launchkey 25 at around 2kg.
Perhaps strangely for a controller keyboard, there are no standard five-pin MIDI sockets. Connectivity is exclusively via USB, channelling Novation's ambitions firmly towards PC, Mac and iPad. The exclusion of hardware synths is no accident because the manual states: "Launchkey's controls are non-assignable. This makes Launchkey very simple to configure and use.” Even had a MIDI port been present, you'd still be unable to fully control most hardware synths due to their wildly varying CC requirements.
Three buttons are provided to toggle sections of Launchkey controls between 'basic mapping' (ie. standard MIDI CC transmission) and 'InControl' mode. The former is best suited to adjusting the parameters of soft synths, while the latter is Novation's built-in functionality to provide seamless DAW operation. It's devilishly simple but no less effective for that.
Probably the most impressive addition at this price point is the 2 x 8 row of velocity-sensitive, multi-coloured pads designed for either percussion tapping or the launching of loops. The pads' velocity response is fixed, but they respond well enough provided you strike positively. The notes transmitted by the pads are fixed, as is the transmission channel (10) but these restrictions shouldn't be too problematic with most DAWs, although I would have preferred to choose my own notes for drum performance.
The keyboard defaults to MIDI channel 1 on each power up, although you can temporarily change it by entering the MIDI channel menu (by holding down the two track keys simultaneously). A similar process involving the transpose keys allows specification of semitone transpositions rather than the usual octaves. I found the keyboard's action to be light and suited to speedy synth performance, but although velocity-sensitivity is present and correct, aftertouch has sadly fallen by the wayside.
So far, so intuitive and I'm glad to report this state of affairs continues throughout. From the InControl protocol to the sensible choice of physical controls, it's clear the Launchkey has been well thought-through and even if neither the knobs nor the sliders occupy the luxurious end of the scale, they're no disappointment at the price. I'll quickly mention the LED display, which is not massively overworked: its main function is to show the value of the current parameter being transmitted, whether from a knob, slider or mod wheel.
Finally, power consumption is minimal — indeed Novation haven't even popped a power supply into the box. Instead they offer a 2m USB cable and suggest that even an iPad (via Apple's camera kit) can power the Launchkey. If rigged up to a laptop that isn't running on mains, it's recommended that you purchase and use a 9V adapter for your Launchkey frolics.
I confess to being initially dubious about powering any peripheral from my iPad, mostly because of Apple's ongoing commitment to restrict the activity at iOS level. It was therefore a pleasant surprise to find the Launchkey lit up and worked just fine — and fairly reliably too, providing I always connected up in the correct sequence. By following the simple instructions I was able to avoid the dreaded "attached accessory uses too much power” system message and although the iPad battery doesn't last quite as long as usual, it wasn't prohibitively draining. I'd probably still opt for an external adapter for long-term use though.
Having established that I needn't dig out a power adapter, it seemed only natural to continue with the iPad and explore Novation's two apps, downloadable from Apple's App Store. They're both free, so it's well worth trying them out even if you don't own a Launchkey, but if you do it's a pleasure to find all the knobs, sliders and transport keys already mapped.
Confusingly also named Launchkey, the first of the apps is the simplest. It's a basic synth that's programmed via a row of controls and a graphical interface. The other app hasn't stretched anyone's naming muscles either; it's called Launchpad and is definitely the more feature-packed of the pair. It's even vaguely Maschine-like in its ability to launch multiple loops, mix them, filter them and add effects and is refreshingly easy to get around. Each song is laid out in a 6x8 matrix with orange pads indicating a sample is ready to go, green denoting playback. The hardware's buttons, knobs and sliders are all well employed but in some ways the iPad's own interface is even neater. For example, it can display the sample names and loop types, which is handy information when you're jamming.
Both apps run happily side by side, the keyboard triggering the synth of one while the pads fire off loops from the other. Buttons you'll later use to switch tracks in your DAW are used here to swap (surprisingly smoothly) between the two apps and the only glitches I encountered came when booting alternate synths in the background to play alongside Launchkey. I reckon playback shudders under those conditions are acceptable — the main thing is I didn't experience any crashes. The real downer is that you can't import or paste user loops and samples. The whole experience is about playing with the material provided, so we'll have to pin our hopes on Novation applying the necessary spit and polish in the future. Fortunately, Launchkey's other personality (Launchkey the keyboard, not the app), straddles the far more familiar territory of your PC or Mac, where any lack of originality can't be laid at Novation's door.
Instead of a DVD full of goodies, your Launchkey box contains a registration card directing you to downloadable copies of Novation's V-Station and Bass Station, plus associated documentation, your copy of Ableton's Live Lite 8, and a free pack of samples from Loopmasters. These days, I suppose getting free samples from Loopmasters is about as rare as getting a product endorsement from Jordan Rudess, but that doesn't mean such things have no value. With over 600MB to nose through, there's some varied, generally useful, inevitably dance-fixated material that is ideal starting fodder for Live Lite, itself bundled with a couple of software instruments and a further 200MB of audio loops (Loopmasters again).
Painless DAW operation is the Launchkey's main raison d'être and the DAW Setup Guide provides clear instructions for setting up Logic, Cubase, Ableton, FL Studio, Reason and Pro Tools. All the controller assignments are done for you via the integral InControl mode, so there's absolutely no work needed (or possible) on the Launchkey itself. In the case of Logic, the Launchkey poses as a Mackie HUI, which it did admirably for me. Or, when paired with the supplied Live Lite, after just a few preference tweaks you have a controller ready to mix, launch clips, select, solo and mute tracks or tweak and play synths. Never have I been up and working so quickly.
In most DAWs, 'pot pickup' is enabled by default. This is not some post-festival clean-up activity; rather it means that physical controls have no effect until they move past the on-screen value, which is just what you need for jump-free operation.
I'm sure I needn't tell you much about Ableton Live Lite, other than, in conjunction with the Launchkey hardware, colour made a pleasant contribution for clip launching. Clips ready to launch are shown in yellow and those already playing light up green. There are limitations to this Lite version, though: it has just eight tracks (in any combination of audio and MIDI), plus two return tracks and six concurrent audio effects. To get you started, it includes 50 instrument racks (saved combinations of synths and effects) and can host any soft synths you own, making it reasonably powerful in its own right and a worthwhile introduction to the complete beast for those who've never had the pleasure.
Novation's own bundled soft-synth offerings are a little long in the tooth now, but they're still usable companions for Lite or for your existing DAW. They're straightforward software implementations of the Bass Station and K-Station synths, complete with familiar layouts and a selection of factory patches. The Bass Station is fine for basic monophonic analogue sounds, but with its polyphony and integral effects V-Station has far more muscle and is the more versatile.
Novation continue to rethink and refine their controller range and have chosen well for the Launchkeys by prioritising the functions most desirable beyond simply banging notes in. As is so often the case, the range lacks my personal ideal length for a portable synth controller, which is three octaves, and there's no 88-note version either. Those gaps aside, there's all you need to play drums, launch loops, control basic DAW functions and tweak virtual instruments — and the price is right. Admittedly, the plastic construction isn't the most rugged, but with the possible exception of the deliberately omitted MIDI port, there's little to pine for. Most soft synths can learn controller assignments, after all.
There are a few instances where some basic user configuration would have been welcome. Assignment of the transmitted drum notes and maybe the pads' velocity response are two that spring to mind. But the InControl approach to DAW operation is quite seductive and probably worth the sacrifice of configurability.
The iPad integration is welcome too and a recognition of the continuing improvement of iPad synths and music apps in general. Unfortunately, you are still reliant on Apple's flimsy camera kit, but if handled with care, the Launchkey and iPad go well together, especially as Novation's Launchpad app shows so much early promise. For PC and Mac owners, Ableton Live Lite will be viewed either as a tasty appetiser or a workhorse in its own right. Ultimately, those coloured pads are probably the feature that most of the Launchkey's rivals will envy, but with the painless allocation of controls also a big plus, it will surely find its way into many a laptop- or iPad-based rig.
Although there are a wealth of affordable controllers out there, the Launchkey scores with the number and luminosity of its drum pads. M-Audio's Axiom range are probably the closest rivals. They include semi-weighted keyboards, MIDI ports and more traditional controller features (and complexity) such as keyboard splits and assignability but have only eight old-style drum pads. Of the rest, Akai's Synthstation 49 probably deserves a mention. Despite its lack of knobs and sliders, it has an integral iPad docking station, which could be a boon if iPad performance is important.