Novation’s first attempt at an 88‑note controller keyboard seems to get everything right.
Novation’s Launchkey range has been around for nearly a decade now, with the most recent MkIII revision being available in 25‑, 37‑, 49‑ and 61‑key variants since Summer 2020. They’re studio‑oriented MIDI controllers that lean unashamedly towards DAW control: Ableton Live gets particularly tight integration, closely followed by Cubase, Logic and Reason. Other DAWs can get in on the action by dint of Mackie HUI emulation.
Rounding out the MkIII range comes this new 88‑key model, Novation’s first 88‑key controller of any kind. It should be of interest to anyone looking to play more elaborate two‑hand keyboard parts, and of course to composers and programmers using sample libraries with keyswitches that are often tucked away towards the extremes of the 88‑note compass. Other than the keyboard it’s very similar to its 49‑ and 61‑key counterparts, with an almost identical provision of buttons, faders, knobs, and underlying capabilities.
The body of the Launchkey 88 is made from a tough, high‑quality plastic material, and at about 8kg the unit is heavier than some competitors. Front‑to‑back depth is a compact 29cm, so it’ll work on many desks with a computer keyboard in front of it. There’s also room for a trackpad or other gizmos on the blank sections of the panel, about 20cm wide on the left and 28 on the right. Powering is via the USB B socket only, there’s no power switch, and for iOS devices you’ll need a powered hub or adaptor to supply the necessary current. A Sustain socket accommodates switch‑type damper pedals and a single MIDI DIN output spits out messages generated from the keyboard and controls. There’s also a Kensington security slot.
From the playing perspective the hardware controls are nicely presented, with clear and contemporary panel labelling. The buttons are a high‑quality rubber‑like material, many are backlit, and they have a nice positive action. The knobs and faders are good too, and wouldn’t be out of place on a premium price hardware synth. Novation are good at those too of course... The 16 multicoloured pads are velocity sensitive and offer a poly‑aftertouch (as well as more conventional channel aftertouch) response.
As for the keyboard action, it’s synth‑style, at least 1cm shorter than a typical hammer action, and subjectively quite light and springy, but of really good quality. It’s notably quiet in use, with a quite luxurious damped feel at the bottom of the key travel. That may well be connected to the fact that there’s no aftertouch sensitivity, which will be disappointing for some users, but on the up side the velocity response is very well graded and can be switched to light or heavy curves, or to a fixed full‑output response. The entire keyboard can be transposed by +/‑ two octaves using dedicated buttons, and by semitones if you use the shift key.
Getting down to work on the Launchkey 88 quickly reveals its strongly DAW‑centric design. As we’ll see in a minute it has some standalone capabilities, in a hardware‑based studio, but they are not really its raison d’être.
Working with Ableton Live, which enjoys the most sophisticated software integration, the conventional keyboard front end runs in parallel with a ‘Session Mode’ that switches in automatically when you first launch the DAW. By default this has the 16 pads acting as clip launchers, mimicking the layout and colours of clips in your session. In Live a red box shows which two rows of clips, for eight adjacent tracks, are under control from moment to moment.
Then it’s a case of using dedicated buttons and pads for scooting about inside your Live set, launching and stopping clips and scenes, and soloing, muting, and arming tracks. It’s all very clear and straightforward, with a huge amount of feedback coming from the pad colours sync’ing to what you see on screen, and the hardware/software tie‑in is absolutely instantaneous. The same is true for the simple transport controls to the right of the Launchkey’s panel, and the four buttons that access some useful commands: Live 11’s retrospective MIDI recording, Quantise, a Click toggle, and Undo. Press Undo repeatedly, incidentally, and you’ll keep stepping back through the Undo history. Apparently a Redo command (with the Shift key) should be available too by the time the 88 hits the shops.
Actually, the pads do a lot more than just control clips. In Drum mode (which is accessed, like all other modes, via a Shift+pad‑press) they integrate with Live’s Drum Rack device, tallying with the visible on‑screen pads and navigating other available sets. In fact, using the pads as drum and note triggers is a more general ability, and not limited to Live alone. You can also generate chords and custom MIDI messages from the pads (there’s more on this in the ‘Custom Modes’ box).
What about other controls? Knobs can take over Live’s device parameters, track volume, pans, send A or B levels, or generate MIDI Continuous Controller messages (again, more in the box I just mentioned). The faders will do all the same too, except for pan, and it’s easy to select what role each bank of controls is undertaking from moment to moment. Ready‑rolled device compatibility is only for Live ‘factory’ devices, and doesn’t extend to third‑party VST or AU plug‑ins, though there’s a way around that too (yep, the box again).
What’s really nice here is that relevant names and values for any parameter you’re adjusting appear in the Launchkey’s little LCD display. Also, mismatches between on‑screen parameter values and pot/fader positions (which will always come adrift on a non‑motorised control surface like this) are handled well. Moving an out‑of‑position control flashes up a yellow info bar at the bottom of the Live window which helps guide you in to the point where a ‘pickup’ occurs. The only proviso here is that sometimes the Launchkey’s finest value increments are too coarse to tally up exactly with a stored value, and hence the knob or fader will change it, even if only slightly, no matter how careful you are. Some way to engage finer increments or a kind of pickup ‘catch’ would be welcome.
Some additional buttons let you move between instruments and plug‑ins on tracks that have more than one, and also to keep a single device focused even when the track it’s on isn’t currently selected. Both very useful.
Despite the focus on Live, other DAWs can also benefit from the Launchkey’s features. Cubase 12, Logic and Reason are natively compatible, so to speak, and enjoy track select, record arm, solo and mute commands, transport controls, and pot/fader control of many track parameters including sends. Other DAWs like PreSonus Studio One work with the Launchkey via emulation of the Mackie HUI standard. The experience is still good, and workable — I saw good track volume pickup behaviour in Studio One, for example — but is generally much more limited in scope. Tracks can be armed, soloed and muted, but there’s little or no feedback as to which set of eight is being controlled at any given time. Some dedicated buttons (in this case Click, Quantise and Capture MIDI) didn’t do anything.
How does the Launchkey work in a hardware‑oriented studio? Adequately well, I’d say. On top of normal key, wheel and pedal messages the programmable pad, knob and fader modes (see the ‘Custom Modes’ box) can get you a long way. You can’t reprogram these on the unit itself though, only via the Components software, so hardcore hardware‑only people will have to sully their setups by having a computer around for that. Another limitation is that the mod wheel is fixed to generating CC1, but Components does at least let you choose the CC number associated with the pedal input (with a sensible sustain‑pedal default of CC64).
Another thing to be aware of is that the Launchkey offers nothing in the way of multiple key zones, nor even split/layered functionality. And finally the DIN MIDI output is not very sophisticated. It’ll transmit MIDI Clock derived from the internal arpeggiator or your DAW, but aside from that only locally‑sourced key and control messages. With no way to switch these off, using the Launchkey as a single ‘hub’ for a hybrid virtual and hardware studio may be impossible. Adding a separate MIDI interface to your DAW sidesteps these problems, of course.
No single MIDI controller can be all things to all studio folk: the most successful are always specialised in some way. If it’s not clear already, the Launchkey 88’s strength is hardware control of Ableton Live, and, to a lesser extent, other DAWs. If you’re an Ableton user this is going to be seriously tempting: there is not a better all‑in‑one solution out there currently.
At this asking price, and if the DAW‑control focus suits you, there’s nothing to touch the Launchkey 88.
Having said that, there is a more generic strength too: the keyboard action. No, it’s not weighted, and doesn’t have aftertouch, but it’s smooth and quiet, and just works really well for many synth and sample library duties. It’s even OK for acoustic piano sounds.
This keyboard, allied with the extensive integration with Ableton Live (or Live Lite, which is provided as part of a useful software bundle) can genuinely form the basis of a productive and fluent production environment. While Novation’s own Launchpad will in some ways provide a better overview and more tactile relationship to a larger session (and a Push 2 goes that much further again), the Launchkey has strengths of its own. I was sceptical at first as to how much use a pad grid spanning only two scenes would be, but it turns out to be surprisingly flexible, if better suited to building up arrangements than triggering them full DJ‑style. Mixing features on the faders and knobs work beautifully, and Live device control, with parameters always eminently well‑mapped, is at times revelatory.
For uses beyond DAW control, unless your requirements are very basic there are arguably better options than the Launchkey, not least Novation’s own premium SL MkIII, or even the venerable but affordable Impulse, if you can live without 88 keys. These forgo the slick Ableton integration for something more generally sophisticated or generic (respectively). Both have aftertouch, more programmability, and expression pedal inputs, and the SL adds sequencing and Eurorack compatibility. Amongst 88‑note competitors more options open up with the likes of Studiologic’s SL 88 Studio (hammer action, pedal support, zone functionality), Roland’s A88MkII (ditto), or Arturia’s Keylab 88 MkII, but they’re all significantly more expensive.
At this price, and if the DAW‑control focus suits you, there’s nothing to touch the Launchkey 88. It’s a superbly effective controller keyboard that carves a perfect little niche. It’s easy and fun to use, and might support a more fruitful relationship with Live than you ever thought possible.
No matter what software or other gear you’re working with, the Launchkey’s pads can be switched at any time to perform other useful and interesting roles. In Drum mode they become an alternative keyboard, and because they can transmit aftertouch (and poly aftertouch at that) they can be useful for a lot more than just drums. Scale Chord and User Chord modes let you generate chords from single‑finger pad prods, according to many preconfigured and programmable chord shapes.
Custom mode is seriously handy, capable of generating various MIDI data of your choice: notes, control change messages (momentary or a low/high toggle), and Program Changes. Knobs and faders get custom maps too, allowing the Launchkey to control third‑party plug‑ins inside your DAW, either via their own preconfigured MIDI CC mapping or a DAW’s MIDI learn feature, or indeed external MIDI modules.
From the factory a variety of these custom maps/modes are already in place, but you can alter them or make any number of your own using Novation’s Components software, and even build up a repertoire of them in your Novation user account, ready to drop in to the Launchkey when you need them. Components runs as a standalone app on Mac OS and Windows, but also as a web app in a WebMIDI‑compatible browser like Google Chrome, which is neat.
Custom mode functionality really seems to have been thought about. It’s extensively programmable, encompassing pad naming, backlight colour, value constraints, specific MIDI channel output and more. It’s also great that the custom modes for each bank of controls are selected independently of one another, which allows you to decide what each does as you go along rather than have the whole lot change at once according to an instrument‑wide snapshot or preset (of which there are none). Modes even remember their states and values as you switch between them, allowing for benign ‘soft pickup’ behaviour when you revisit them.
The Launchkey’s arpeggiator is a welcome inclusion. Enabled by a dedicated button, and with a latching mode available, it’ll use an internal clock or sync to your DAW. Aside from all the old‑favourite capabilities — five patterns, adjustable range, rhythmic division, swing and gate length — there’s also a polyphonic chord mode, some rhythmic ‘skip’ and randomisation options, and a Mutate function that adds notes other than the ones you played.
Another fun feature is Strum mode. Channelling a Suzuki Omnichord‑like playing technique, this transfers note‑triggering duties to the modulation wheel: you hold a chord, turn the wheel, and the chord notes will be spat out (in multiple octaves if you like) accordingly. It works well, even if right‑handed players will probably end up with their hands crossed.
- Deep, tight and easily‑grasped integration with Ableton Live 10 and 11 that works out of the box.
- A fine keybed, with a luxurious feel and nicely graded velocity response.
- Knobs, faders, pads and buttons give lots of real‑time control possibilities.
- Custom modes extend real‑time control to third‑party instruments and MIDI hardware.
- No keyboard aftertouch or expression pedal support.
- DIN MIDI output not as useful as it could be.
- Custom MIDI control programming via computer only.
- No power switch.
A beautifully conceived, modestly priced and tremendously effective 88‑note front end for Ableton Live (and other DAWs), with extensive clip‑launching and device control abilities.