Novation's latest LaunchKey Mini offers more features in a smaller package.
There's no shortage of mini MIDI controllers knocking around under £100for about $100 and so any manufacturer hoping to capture this market is going to need to pull something a bit special out of the bag. The previous versions of the Novation LaunchKey Mini have held their own against the likes of the Arturia MiniLab and the Akai APK Mini, so does the updated MkIII offer a creative advantage for mini-keyed music makers?
I find it remarkable how the smallest tweaks to a design can make previous versions appear dated so quickly. Novation have followed Native Instruments into the neatness of straight lines and square angles. The MkII had the smallest curves on the case and graduations on the knobs, but I wouldn't be seen dead with such old tat now that the MkIII is here. The clean lines are beautiful, the straight down encoders futuristic, and even the keys have been flattened to make them feel nuanced and less chunky. It looks classy and understated with the matte grey/black paint even if it is still made of plastic. It sits over 1cm lower on the desk, and the pads and buttons have been slimmed down so as not to spoil the flow.
The button, knob, key and pad count are almost identical to the MkII with the addition of a couple of extra buttons. But the most prominent physical developments are the pitch and modulation strips, whose presence should be standard on every MIDI controller. Call me old fashioned but I do enjoy a good modulation wheel. However, if you're looking for miniaturised control and sleek lines then a touchstrip is a small compromise. You don't expect to get too excited about the feel of miniature keys, but these feel OK — there's plenty of spring and resistance in a small amount of travel.
The LaunchKey Mini is lightweight without feeling flimsy, gives good resistance to my twisting and banging it about and has half-decent rubber feet for keeping it still on the desk. If I could find any complaint at all for the build quality of a plastic controller it would be that there's perhaps a bit too much wobble in those very petite encoders.
On the back you get a regular USB port that serves as both power and computer connection and that all-important Kensington security slot for when you're making music in a cafe and have to nip to the loo and don't want anyone to steal it. But that's not all. With the MkIII Novation have added a useful Sustain pedal socket that can be mapped to anything via the Novation Components software. And they've added a MIDI output port which is a cause for celebration. The MIDI Out is on that increasingly common TRS mini-jack output, for which they've decided not to supply an adapter. No problem, I thought, I'll use the one that came with my Novation Circuit — except I can't because it's not compatible. The LaunchKey uses the recently accepted standard of TRS A whereas their older devices all used the now-defunct TRS B. See the 'Mini MIDI Standard' box, later, for more details. I have a slight twinge of disappointment in not seeing a CV/Gate output, which was a very welcome feature of the SL MkIII, but that would be a lot to expect.
As it says on the box, this controller is designed for making tracks in Ableton Live and specifically in Live version 10, where you can make use of the MIDI Capture feature to record your playing after you played it when you weren't in record by hitting 'Shift-Record'. Novation have been running this integration for quite some time and the LaunchKey slips effortlessly into Ableton Live controller mode when you launch the DAW.
The main functionality revolves around the pads and the knobs. Holding Shift and hitting the right pad can change the pad mode between Session, Drums and Custom and the knob mode between Device, Volume, Pan, Sends and Custom.
'Session' transforms the pads into a reflection of the Session View in Live. A red box encompassing two rows of clips over eight tracks appears on your computer screen, and that information is shown on the pads in perfect RGB colour, which is a lovely upgrade from the three colours of the MkIII. You can launch any of the visible clips by tapping the pad or you can launch the top row as a scene using the pad/button to the right of the eight pads. The bottom row no longer has it's own launch scene button, but instead lets you step through some additional tools. Tap the second row button once and they all become red stop buttons pertaining to the top row, tap again and they become blue solo buttons and on a third time they are yellow mute buttons. This gives a satisfying level of control over your clips while sacrificing the ability to trigger the next scene on the second row.
Track navigation is handled by holding the increasingly popular Shift key and pressing the first and second row buttons for up and down and the Arp and Fixed Chord buttons to move between tracks, which will ultimately move what clips you see on the pads. And this is where something odd happens with that Shift key. Pressing Shift results in a sort of status view displayed on the pads. It shows you what mode the pads and knobs are in. So as you hold Shift to navigate to a different row or track that clip information is no longer displayed on the pads and you are forced to refer to the computer screen. That can be very disconnecting and rattles the vibe of performing from the keyboard. The Shift button's position is on the opposite side of the keyboard from the navigation keys, so both hands are tied up when trying to move tracks or scenes. On the MkII there were dedicated buttons for track navigation, which always left a hand free for doing musical things. This feels like a regressive step. I wonder whether it would be possible to add a latching function for the Shift button?
'Drum' mode refers to the Live Drum Rack and helpfully maps itself to the first 16 drum sounds loaded in the rack — assuming you've loaded a kit. You can use Shift and the Scene navigation keys to access all 128 possible sounds within a kit. The pads are smaller than what you'd find on most drum controllers but they are perfectly adequate for finger drumming and give a decent level of velocity control. In fact, the smaller size gives you better access to more sounds without having to stretch your fingers too far.
'Custom' mode lets you map the pads to whatever notes you want using the Novation Components software. By default it drops to a melodic C-minor scale and this creates something interesting — it becomes an extension of the piano keyboard. You have, more or less, an additional two octaves to play with on the pads, which means you could easily be playing some low chords on the keyboard and a higher lead on the pads without having to mess around with the Octave buttons. Using Components you could allocate the pads a different MIDI channel and have the keyboard and pads play different instruments. That's quite handy considering the fairly restrictive two-octave range of the keys.
On to the knobs, then. These map themselves neatly to the first eight parameters of the selected device. That's particularly nice when your track has those eight macro knobs assigned. There doesn't seem to be any way to move to the next group of parameters or the next device in the chain, which is a shame. Volume and Pan are self-explanatory. With Sends you are able to switch the control between any of the sends you have set up by holding Shift and selecting it from the second row. Seems to me that would be a useful way to enable banks of control for the Device mode.
'Custom' mode for the knobs releases them from Live specific control and lets you map them to any parameter in Live or a third-party plug-in. Their assigned MIDI CC numbers are editable in the Components software.
The Live implementation is comprehensive and for the most part smooth. You can select tracks, record clips, add automation, mix and perform directly from the LaunchKey without much reference to the computer. Other than the annoyance of the disappearing clip view and two-handed navigation the workflow is easy and seamless, unlike my playing, which would really benefit from a sadly lacking undo button.
For a mini-keyed controller that's barely wider than my Microsoft Surface Pro, the LaunchKey Mini MkIII is hard to beat.
This is a function brought over from the SL MkIII that might just have the ability to sell this controller all on its own. The Arpeggiator is thoroughly engaging and makes good use of the layout by spreading settings and modes all over the place.
Like using the Shift button, all the modes and options for the arpeggiator are accessed by holding the ARP button. These modes are spread across the keyboard, starting with seven modes, then five rate options, four octaves, five rhythms and then a Latch on/off. The pads also show a colourful version of the modes and options, with five pages of modes on the top row and then the options selected on the second row. That's very handy for when your hands are on the keyboard, making it difficult to select modes on the keys you are playing. As with Shift, you have to hold the ARP button down to access these settings, which tends to tie up both hands. The Latch key solves this in most cases so that you can take your hands off once you played a chord, but it does make me wish that the ARP, as well as the Shift buttons, had their own ability to latch on.
The modes and other settings are the ones you'd expect from a decent arpeggiator, but there are two unusual ones that make this a bit special. 'Mutate' is a mode and 'Deviate' is a rhythm and they are both enormously fun. Once enabled the intensity of their effect is dictated by knobs 4 and 5. Mutate throws its own notes in there from a gentle, perfectly placed variation to a mess of all sorts of things. Once you've found your melody stop turning the knob and it will repeat indefinitely. Deviate does the same sort of magic to the rhythm, from cheekily missing out notes here and there to radically overhauling the vibe you were going for.
There's also control over the gate length, swing and tempo. But the tempo control only works when Ableton Live isn't playing or when outside that environment.
Along with the ARP the other new function is Fixed Chord. Hold the button, play some notes and now every note you play will play that chord transposed to the key you are playing. The chord is stored until you hit the button again to store a new one. Simple and effective.
Novation have provided some similar integration into Logic Pro X. Track selection and navigation is all there along with a drum mode, mixer controls and so on. Reason 10 will map the knobs to useful parameters of any selected instrument. Otherwise HUI support is provided for transport control, Volume, Pan and Send control and navigation in most other DAWs.
As a regular MIDI controller the knobs are all available for mapping. The Components software gives you a lot of flexibility when matching up to controls on other hardware devices using the MIDI output.
On iOS or Android devices the LaunchKey can be mapped to instrument apps, provided you have a connection that provides power. Unfortunately, the LaunchKey won't work if you try to power it from your phone or iPad. But adding a USB power pack is enough to keep the LaunchKey and tablet combination viably portable. Mapping the knobs is easy and there are plenty of iPad synthesizers that would benefit from a bit of creatively Mutated and Deviated Arp action.
The LaunchKey Mini MkIII manages to pull together a bunch of creative features in a neat and stylish package that sits deliciously low on the desk. The new look is on point, the return of the pitch and modulation strips is very welcome, the ease of control in Live is as smooth as it should be and the fun-factor arpeggiator and MIDI output set it nicely apart from the crowd. The workflow issues around the holding of the Shift and Arp buttons are small narks and could probably be ironed out with a firmware update. For a mini-keyed controller that's barely wider than my Microsoft Surface Pro, the LaunchKey Mini MkIII is hard to beat. Which leaves me with one question, what are those symbols on the top three keys for?
TRS mini-jack MIDI works because MIDI only uses three wires within the traditional five-pin DIN cable and so can easily be accommodated by the three connections of a TRS connector. But when TRS mini-jack started turning up on devices no one had thought to declare a standard, and so the three wires of MIDI have been connected in two different ways inside the mini-jack connector. The MIDI Standards overlords caught up, named them TRS A and TRS B and declared that TRS A should be the standard. Novation have been using TRS B on all their products up until now, so any adapters from your older Novation products won't work with the TRS A-fitted LaunchKey Mini MkIII. It's nothing that a bit of soldering or some adapters won't cure, and as this standard persists we'll be able to connect MIDI directly with stereo TRS mini-jack cables — which, to my old–fashioned brain, just seems weird.
- MIDI Output.
- Arpeggiator Mutate and Deviate modes.
- RGB colour pads.
- Pitch and mod strips.
- Perfectly sized.
- Needs additional power with iOS.
- No TRS MIDI adapter.
- Shift-key shenanigans.
With the LaunchKey Mini MkIII Novation have brought back some old favourites with pitch/modulation strips, sustain pedal port and a MIDI output while adding an enjoyable arpeggiator, full-colour pads for Ableton Live integration and a slimmer, more stylish look.