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Novation Launchkey MkIII

Controller Keyboard By Robin Vincent
Published September 2020

Novation Launchkey MkIII

The third generation Launchkey offers versatile control over hardware and software alike.

When Novation revealed the Launchkey Mini MkIII last year you knew it wouldn't be long before the rest of the Launchkey range followed suit. It's taken longer than expected, but everything that made the Mini MkIII a very cool little controller has been stretched out into the full-sized and infinitely more playable Launchkey MkIII.

What's New?

The model under review is the largest in the range at 61 keys. Along with the usual 25- and 49-key options there's now a 37-key version for those people who find the 49 too big or the 25 too small. The features are the same across the range except that only the 49 and 61 have the fader bank.

This new version looks sedate and serious. It's all clean lines, angles and elegance and it does that thing where it instantly makes the very capable MkII look garish and unfashionable. What were they thinking with the coloured underbelly of the MkI and MkII? It was really easy to unpack, slid out of the box with one hand and I was delighted to see foam packed under the keys. It's pleasingly compact for a 61-note controller at only 26cm deep, which is a bonus for our crowded desktops and studio spaces.

Beyond the sharp lines the most obvious change is that the pads and faders have swapped positions. Pads are now over on the left with faders in the middle, just off-centre, and only the transport controls on the right. I wonder how much customer feedback went into agonising over that decision?

The hardware has a poise to it that raises both a smile and your expectations. It's still made of plastic but doesn't seem as clunky as many 61-keyed MIDI controllers can feel. The look is cemented by the replacement of the red three-digit display with a cool blue-backed LCD with two rows of 16 characters. The pads are nicely set just that little bit lower and all the other buttons follow the style and height. The knobs are upright, cylindrical, feel slightly rubberised to the touch, and are taller and much more solid than the ones on the Launchkey Mini. They give a good, smooth resistance. The faders have a similar feel and are now accompanied by RGB buttons which will no doubt make themselves useful.

The keys themselves have a relatively light, synthy feel. The white keys are shiny and grip your fingers whereas the black keys have a less grippy matt texture. They are velocity-sensitive, offering three selectable curves or can be turned off. There's no aftertouch on the keys but the pads are both velocity- and pressure-sensitive and will do single or polyphonic aftertouch.

Rounding off the physicality we have proper rubberised pitch and modulation wheels, and out the back there's a single USB socket, sustain pedal input, and an old-fashioned and very welcome 5-pin DIN MIDI output. It's USB powered and that's the only cable that comes in the box. This brings me to one of my only complaints about the Launckey MkIII: Most computers keep the power on their USB ports even when turned off, so the only way to stop the glow of those pads is to pull the USB cable out.

Before we plug it into Ableton Live (for which it is largely designed) there are a number of useful standalone features baked into the controller that don't require a computer at all. There's a wonderfully fun Arpeggiator, eight scales and inbuilt chords that you can use with any external MIDI gear via the MIDI Out on the back.

A five-pin MIDI Out and a host of onboard features mean the Launchkeys play especially well with hardware synths.A five-pin MIDI Out and a host of onboard features mean the Launchkeys play especially well with hardware synths.

Arpeggiator

The Arpeggiator comes from the Launchkey Mini and has all the usual directional and timing features you'd find with any arp, but it also has some special generative sauce in the flavour of Mutate and Deviate. Mutate takes the notes you are holding and starts to add octaves, harmonics, intervals and finally chaos, depending on how far you dial it in. Deviate does the same with rests dropping in all kinds of rhythms before hitting complete randomness. They transform a familiar function into something enormously fun and creative — it can keep you entertained for hours.

The main functions of Type, Rate, Octave and Rhythm are mapped out on the keyboard and accessible by holding the Shift key. The first five knobs take on the roles of Tempo, Swing, Gate Length, Mutate and Deviate respectively and are again accessible by holding the Shift key. One of my biggest gripes about the Launchpad Mini is that you had to hold a button to manipulate the Arp, which prevented you from playing and manipulating at the same time. Well, it looks like Novation have taken that on board because you can now lock the Arp controls on by briefly holding down the button. The functions from the keyboard are now selected on the pads meaning that you can keep playing with one hand while accessing the Arp functions with the other. That's a huge improvement.

Screen

This might be a good point to talk about another improvement, which is the screen. Every time you move a knob or touch a pad the blue screen tells you what you've just done. This sounds a bit after-the-fact but it's a terribly useful confirmation that helps make the workflow more intuitive. It works especially well with the usage of the pads in Arp mode and selecting Scales and Chords where you are faced with a cryptic row of coloured pads. Tap a pad and the screen tells you its current function and you find yourself a lot less baffled.

Scales/Chords

There are eight scales to choose from, which quantise the notes on the keyboard. Then, using the Chord mode, the pads can become instant scale-appropriate chord generators. You get a row of triads with inversions, a row of 7ths, 9ths and 6/9ths which you can reach via the up/down arrows. If you go into User Chord mode you can create and save your own bank of chords. Just hold a pad and play up to six notes to enter your chord. It's at this point that you're wondering where you're going to get an extra finger to play a six-note chord with one hand, but you don't need to play a chord, just play the notes you want to appear in the chord one after another. You can transpose the chord with the up/down arrows and even copy the chord to the next pad to create a bit of a progression.

Finally we have Fixed Chord mode where you hold the button, play a chord and then you can play that same chord up and down the keyboard transposing as we go.

With or without a computer, the Launchkey MkIII has a lot to offer as a standalone MIDI controller. All the knobs, pads and sliders send out MIDI and are mappable to software or hardware MIDI devices. In Drum Mode the pads are set to MIDI note numbers which are set by default to trigger GM drum sounds. But it also potentially gives you another place to play or trigger things from a separate MIDI channel to the keyboard. There's no split function on this controller, but that's a sneaky way of getting some dual control action.

With or without a computer, the Launchkey MkIII has a lot to offer as a standalone MIDI controller.

Ableton

The Novation integration and workflow with Ableton Live is mature and well documented. Working with this combination has become fast, intuitive and almost idiot-proof. Provided you are running Live 10.1.15 or above then everything is done for you and the Launchkey puts itself into Session Mode ready to give you control over pretty much everything.

The two rows of pads give you a colour-matched display of two rows of Session clips. You trigger them by tapping the pad or you can launch a session by pressing the big side arrow button. But that's only for the top row. The second row can double as a Stop, Solo or Mute for the clip above it. You can navigate around the Session using the up/down arrows and the Track left/right buttons. Ableton Live displays a red rectangle around the 16 clips currently in view on the pads. The only slight annoyance here is that to move the view one step to the right requires tapping the Track button eight times to move the track selection all the way over to track nine. You can get around this by using the buttons under the faders to select the far right or left track first, but you'd think there'd be an easier way just to move the view window left a bit or right a bit.

The Pots take on panning by default but you can quickly employ them as volume, sends or Device controls with the touch of Shift+Pad. You can switch the pots to Pickup Mode in the settings which means that when switching between different types of control the position of the pots are saved and are only reactivated when you turn the pot back through that saved value. This prevents sudden controller changes when you first turn a knob.

On the 49- and 61-key versions the faders take on volume control over the current eight tracks in view but these can also be switched to control sends or Device parameters. However, it won't let you select what the Pots are currently set to and vice versa.

The process of recording into clips, mixing, manipulating and moving on is really smooth. You can work and play on a track while hardly touching the mouse at all. A couple of additional buttons in the MkIII make this easier. 'Capture MIDI' is the coolest new feature in Live that the MkIII has a dedicated button for and it brilliantly stuffs whatever you were playing into the nearest clip. But you've also got a Quantise button, Click On/Off and my most commonly executed command: undo.

Device selection is now also a breeze: press the Device Select button and then tap the appropriate pad. Under that button is Device Lock which locks the controls to the currently selected device so you can keep on tweaking while wandering off to other devices or other tracks.

One last feature is found with the button with three dots. This makes a bunch of pads emulate the arrow keys on a keyboard and the enter key. You can now quickly navigate around all sorts of menus and parameters and select them. It's also a very neat way of zipping around the session clips to choose one to fire outside of the 2x8 pad window.

There are things you can't do like create tracks, browse and load plug‑ins or samples, so the integration and functionality is more about playing within a session you've built. So if you were to load up a drum kit and a bunch of instruments you could go to town with the Launchkey, building up entire sessions filled with clips. And within that preloaded environment it's so easy to jam away with yourself without ever having to leave the keyboard.

Conclusion

Throughout writing this review I've been referring back to the images and manual of the MkII and I can't quite believe how old and clunky it appears. In comparison the MkIII is a work of art in keys, RGB pads and plastic. The sense of style and design is spot on and it looks totally fabulous on my desk. It feels like Novation have worked hard to pull in a more fluid Ableton Live integration that means you can stay at the keyboard, stay being creative, rather than dropping to the mouse.

That said, it's the MIDI Out socket and those standalone features that elevate this device from being an Ableton Live-based keyboard to being a controller that's creatively useful in any MIDI situation. It's no longer tied to your computer and can take on your hardware needs too. It's also worth mentioning that the Launchkey MkIII has scripts for enhanced functionality with both Reason and Logic, and there's also good old HUI support for all the other DAWs and you can get busy mapping the controls to whatever you want. So while it's a superb choice for Ableton Live users, the Launchkey has more than enough to keep things interesting for users of anything.

Custom Modes

Novation look after the configuration of their hardware devices using a browser-based piece of software called Components, in which you can set up the MIDI functionality of every knob, button, fader and pad. You can create Custom Modes that give the faders the right MIDI CC# to match your particular hardware synth or turn pads into program changes. You then upload that Custom Mode to your controller. The brilliant thing about the MkIII is that you can now store four Custom Modes independently for the Pots, Faders and Pads in the Launchkey itself. You can leave the computer behind and swap Modes whenever you need to.

Setting up Custom Modes in the Components software.Setting up Custom Modes in the Components software.

Pros

  • Style and design.
  • Ableton Live integration.
  • Not just for Live.
  • Arpeggiator Mutate and Deviate.
  • MIDI Out port.
  • Can store four Custom Modes.

Cons

  • No Off button.
  • No aftertouch.
  • Transport buttons don't light up.

Summary

Novation bring both style and substance with the MkIII Launchkey, offering near-perfect Ableton Live integration along with some tasty standalone features and a fun generative arpeggiator.

information

Launchkey 25 MkIII £159.99, 37 MkIII £179.99, 49 MkIII £209.99, 61 MkIII £259.99. Prices include VAT.

www.novationmusic.com

Launchkey 25 MkIII $159.99, 37 MkIII $179.99, 49 MkIII $219.99, 61 MkIII $259.99.

www.novationmusic.com

Published September 2020