Is Roland's A‑88 MkII controller keyboard the perfect all-rounder?
Roland's exploits in the MIDI controller market go back to the very first years of MIDI itself: in fact they pretty much invented the idea of the controller keyboard separate from the sound source way back in 1984. Using a dedicated master keyboard, in the studio or on stage, makes sense now just as it did then: it can lend a clarity and simplicity to a setup that you don't always get with sound-generating keyboards doing double duty as controllers. Potentially too, a good MIDI controller can fulfil a hub-like organisational role in hardware-based rigs, and perhaps also provide a top-quality playing feel at a lower price than its workstation or stage piano counterparts.
The Roland A‑88 MkII on test here has pretensions in all these areas and a few more besides. It builds on the capabilities of the A‑88 (MkI) that was released in 2012, adding much more scope for real-time control, and a cutting-edge MIDI 2.0 compatibility: certainly it's the first MIDI 2.0 product I've laid hands on.
The 88-note keyboard used here is one of Roland's PHA-4 Standard hammer-actions with ivory-feel keytops and escapement. There's no aftertouch, but it does transmit release velocity. Alongside is a bank of eight knobs and eight velocity-sensitive buttons/pads, both with multi-colour backlights. Two simple switch buttons send various types of MIDI message and supplement the distinctive (some would say notorious) Roland bender that combines X-axis pitch-bend and sprung Y-axis modulation into a single stick.
Three keyboard zones can be established to drive multiple external sound sources via DIN or USB MIDI, and you can store zone and controller configurations into eight 'snapshots' for later recall. Any form of alphanumeric display or menu system is notable by its absence: instead, combinations of button and note presses access parameters, enter numeric values, and so on. To that end the bottom half or so of the keyboard has annotations printed above each note.
On the rear panel there's a USB C socket for connection to a computer instead of the much more familiar square USB B. Happily both a C-to-C and an A-to-C cable come as standard, so almost anyone should be able to get going straight away. More conventionally, a trio of quarter-inch pedal sockets marked Damper, FC1 and FC2 can be flexibly deployed for switch-type or expression pedals, and there's 5-pin DIN MIDI Out and In. A DC input power socket is there too, but as the required adapter is an optional extra Roland obviously assume most people will power via USB from their computer. Reasonable enough, though it was disappointing to discover that the A‑88 MkII does not seem to be able to power from a USB A-to-C cable plugged into a USB mains adapter: hardware-only MIDI people will be forced to cough up for a PSB 1U.
On a more positive note, the A‑88 MkII's USB MIDI is class-compliant for iOS devices, and for macOS you can opt to go class-compliant or use Roland's Advanced driver: I tested both and could not tell apart any aspects of behaviour except for slightly friendlier port naming when using the proprietary driver. There are drivers available for Windows 8.1 and 10 too.
The unit weighs nearly 16.5kg. Being less than 28cm deep it feels quite manageable to lift and lug about, but the design, which has all the controls to the left of the 88-note keyboard, makes it long, at 143cm. The depth of bodywork beneath the keys also make it appear surprisingly chunky overall. Construction seems essentially sturdy, but the plastic caps that cover each end, much wider on the left than the right, do look a touch vulnerable, with leading edges that don't quite fit flush with the main body.
The very first moments with the A‑88 MkII reveal how overtly piano-like the keyboard touch is. Which is to say it's weighty, silky and plush in the same way as a good modern grand piano. Digging through spec sheets reveals that the PHA-4 Standard action employed here is a variant, with a slightly shorter key length to pivot point, of the PHA-4 Concert that was used in the RD‑800 stage piano, for example. It's also in some of Roland's home-oriented pianos, including the FP-10, and while not their flagship action — that accolade goes to the PHA-50 used in the RD-2000 — my personal impression is that it's among the best currently offered by any manufacturer.
Key dimensions and depths are all reassuringly standard: 10mm white key dip, with a further 4mm of 'squish' into a firm bed where you might have expected the aftertouch response to be, if there were any. Black key fronts sit 11mm above the white tops. A subtle 'escapement' resistance happens about half way down the key travel and makes for a communicative, swinging feel through the fingertips. Superficially the action feels weighty, but in practice is perfectly fast and fleet, capable of extremely fast repetition, and doesn't require especially strong fingers. Acoustic noise is nicely muted too. Testing the A‑88 MkII with Pianoteq 6 and Garritan CFX Concert Grand was immediately successful and musically rewarding: the default velocity response is top class, and the other onboard velocity curves tilt it one way or another as you'd expect. Alongside my Nord Piano 3 the A‑88 MkII felt a bit more like a real acoustic piano, and 'mechanical' in a good way, and personally I'd have no hesitation in using it for the most demanding piano-oriented work.
As for synth-style playing, the PHA-4 can certainly do that too, and feels fast enough, but is obviously never going to replicate the lightweight, sprung-key Minimoog experience.
Less attractive, for me, are some playing considerations tied up with the form-factor of the unit, with bender and synth-oriented controls way off to the left. On a 49 or 61-key controller this layout might be fine (if arguably rather ugly still, like a horribly overgrown Korg 700), but on an 88-note board it's not clever. The bender feels very remote when soloing with the right hand in the upper octaves, and the buttons' legends are tough to read from a normal central playing position: most players will physically have to shunt across to work them. Roland says the shallow design makes it easy to place the unit flush against a studio desk with computer keyboard, mouse and other gizmos still accessible beyond, and I don't dispute that. But if only the controls could have been distributed along the empty 8.5cm strip behind the keys instead: currently that's dead space, barely deep enough to support a Volca or Pocket Operator, let alone a bigger synth module or laptop.
I'll also ask, if this is Roland's flagship MIDI controller, couldn't we have had a couple of synth-style wheels as well as the bender? That would have negated all Marmite love-it/hate-it reactions to the combined pitch-modulation stick and is something Roland does on other products.
As for the A‑88 MkII's programming scheme, I'll gladly summarise right away and say that it's flexible, robust and should fulfil most players' needs unless they're intending to drive really big multitimbral hardware rigs, or going for the kind of tight software integration (I'm thinking Native Instruments) for which only a proprietary controller will be suitable.
However, starting out with the controls on the left-mounted pod was not, for me, immediately intuitive. The octave transposition keys, semitone transposition and velocity curve were easy enough, but after that I needed to get my nose stuck into the printed manual.
It turns out that many programming tasks are perfectly straightforward and rely on a time-honoured and faintly quaint data entry method. Want to change your MIDI channel, for example? You press FUNC[tion] and then one of the keys in the lowest two octaves, which are labelled above with MIDI channel numbers.
For piano and general duties the action is excellent: there's little out there that's better.
Other procedures, such as assigning a MIDI CC type to one of the knobs, require more steps that involve tapping piano keys labelled 'Numeric' to input the CC numbers. Still others are fundamentally unintuitive and unguessable, and will necessitate consulting the documentation.
Still, there's a good amount of flexibility on offer, and it's nice that the eight buttons/pads are velocity sensitive, so can be used as mini drum triggers, sending MIDI notes (or indeed chords of up to four notes) of your choice. They can also be made to generate CC values on a momentary or latching basis, or send program change messages, and with 16 banks of the eight pads on hand, that's a lot of assignments and messages!
Controller configurations can all be saved, and later recalled, as a Snapshot. I'm staggered how few of these memory locations the A‑88 MkII has on offer though: eight seems downright measly. Of course, some users won't end up saving even one, and just alter settings as they go along, but offering more would surely not have required a great deal of additional memory and access to them could have been easily implemented using the Bank buttons. Even as it stands, recalling a snapshot is a three-button manoeuvre, and the settings load a fraction of a second later.
Three key zones called Lower, Upper 1 and Upper 2 allow you to direct MIDI messages from different pitch ranges to multiple MIDI destinations. The names suggest (correctly) that you can achieve a split keyboard setup with a layered upper zone, but in fact it's more flexible than this.
With no split active all three zones span the entire keyboard, and you can switch between them by pressing one of the dedicated buttons. You might have one driving your DAW via USB, and the other two playing hardware synths on different MIDI channels via the DIN out. Used like this those Lower and Upper labels are purely arbitrary. Then, as you'd expect, you can easily layer the two Upper zones across the entire keyboard span.
Being able to further split the Uppers with the Lower to get a genuine three-way split is a bonus that isn't at all obvious. I also appreciated that for normal two-way splits it's easy to see and choose which zone your real-time controls are connected to at any given moment. The same doesn't seem to hold true for layered configurations though, weirdly, and you definitely can't make complex controller assignments in which (for example) individual knobs remain tied to a single zone regardless of other split/layer settings.
All good controller keyboards ought to have an arpeggiator, and the one on offer here is effective, if simple. Only the Upper 1 zone can arpeggiate, with classic Up/Down/Up&Down/Random modes and octave range chosen with the eight panel buttons. Tempo setting is by button tap-tempo only, or via sync to incoming MIDI clock, which according to the manual could be sourced from DIN or USB, but only the former worked for me. There also seems to be no way to force arpeggiated note triggers to align musically, so while the tempo will certainly sync, notes can potentially lie 'between' the beats if your playing is rhythmically off.
Further key-press settings include rhythmic divisions from quarter note to 1/16 triplets, and gate times of either 50 or 100 percent. The most remarkable thing of all, though, is a spelling mistake on the button labelling: 'ARPEGGIATO', with a missing R. It sounds exotic, and before I discovered it was a typo I got quite excited for some undreamt-of new musical feature. I dare say this little error will be corrected on production units in due course.
I've been quietly lamenting the state of the serious MIDI controller market for years now. So many of the giggable and programmable keyboards of yore seemed to be swept aside, a decade or more ago, by legions of small DAW-oriented models without so much as a DIN MIDI output. There's a place for those, of course, but some of us also need capable master keyboards that are flexible enough to use on stage as well as in more complex studio setups. The A‑88 MkII really is one of those.
My criticisms are relatively few. Personally I'm no fan of the form factor that has controls clustered to the left: it's ergonomically poor, and I know I'm not alone in finding it aesthetically 'challenging'. Some users will wish that Roland had gone with wheels rather than a bender, and that space could have been found for a few faders as well as knobs. The onboard programming system is serviceable, but can be confusing too, and can't harness the full flexibility of the instrument in the same way as the companion app. Lack of aftertouch is a shame, along with some considerations about mains powering and particularly the need to purchase a mains adapter for stand-alone use.
However, for piano and general duties the action is excellent: there's little out there that's better, and there's every chance some players will prefer the PHA-4 action to one of Kawai's, Fatar's or Yamaha's flagships. Programming depth and scope will be enough for many studio and live performance tasks, and it doesn't feel obviously skewed towards either discipline. MIDI 2.0 compatibility will be of interest to those that enjoy the cutting edge, even if it currently exists only in the realm of the potential.
In short, if you're in the market for a versatile 88-note piano-feel controller, this has to be right at the top of the list.
Eighty-eight-note controllers with good hammer actions and proper stand-alone DIN MIDI chops are surprisingly few and far between. Studiologic's SL Grand is a contender, with a Fatar TP/40 Wood action, extensive programming scope (four zone assignments and per-key touch adjustment) and aftertouch, but no real-time controls other than three joysticks. Arturia's KeyLab 88 MkII has a less good Fatar action and no multi-channel split/layer zone functionality, but a great complement of real-time controls, pedal sockets and CV/Gate connectors. You should probably also cast an eye over Roland's own RD-88 stage piano: for a few hundred pounds more it offers the same PHA-4 action, with less sophisticated but still workable three-zone control of USB and DIN MIDI devices, plus fine onboard sounds and a more conventional and even slimmer design.
You can connect up to three pedals to the A‑88 MkII, and the rear panel labelling of Damper, FC1 and FC2 is really only advisory: expression or switch-type pedals can be connected to any socket. A DP‑10 switch-type damper pedal is supplied as standard, and it's a good-sized unit with a swivelling rubber mat to stop it 'walking'. Connect something more sophisticated and you can easily generate continuous damper values for virtual pianos that support partial- and half-pedalling effects. Roland warn that only their EV-5 should be used as an expression pedal, but the Boss FV-500L and Moog EP-3 I tried worked perfectly. The only real limitation here is that MIDI CC assignments for each pedal can't be configured without the use of the macOS/Windows A‑88Mk2 Control app.
The macOS/Windows A‑88Mk2 Control app wins the award for cramming a huge amount of functionality into a 300x400 pixel window. At first sight it seems to duplicate (albeit perhaps with more clarity and ease of use) what can be achieved using the hardware's buttons alone, but in fact it opens up possibilities considerably.
As I mentioned elsewhere, this app is the only way to configure CC message types for each of the pedal inputs. You just double-click on the Damper, FC1 or FC2 buttons, and type a value into the CC field that pops up. But you can also configure minimum and maximum values, and it's the same story for the R1‑8 knobs. What's more, by setting a max value lower than the min you can make pedals and knobs work with inverse polarity. That's a significant extra capability.
Pad programming is also enhanced. In the app you can choose to have individual CC mode buttons operate in a momentary or latched fashion, rather than having to toggle the entire bank one way or the other. Note triggers meanwhile can be made to generate fixed velocity values, and you can choose individual button backlight colours.
The pièce de resistance is perhaps the Layer pop-up, which lets you set up A‑88 MkII keyboard zones in a truly independent way. For example, you can overlap Upper and Lower zones (or indeed make Lower higher than Upper), designate dead areas between active zones, and set CC#7 volume values on a per-zone basis.
Finally, entire instrument data dumps can be saved to macOS or Windows, to make backups of your settings, or to allow switching your A‑88 MkII between different projects. That's a great feature to have available, for the busy keyboardist or studio tech.
MIDI 2.0 is an evolution of the MIDI spec we've known for nigh on 40 years that promises bi-directional connectivity, better performance and ease of use, but it's so new that most implementations are as yet twinkles in the eyes of synth and DAW designers. See our 'Introducing MIDI 2.0' article.
Roland claim the A‑88 MkII is MIDI 2.0 compatible, but I suspect it's more accurate to say it's MIDI 2.0-ready at this point. One of the few places we already see a manifestation of the new MIDI spec is in macOS's Audio MIDI Setup application, and there the MIDI-CI ('Capability Inquiry') tab reports only 'Unsupported' for the Roland, as it does for any other conventional MIDI device. At the time of writing there are no further clues in the documentation or on Roland's website. However, it may be that the A‑88 MkII will, one day, be able to generate 65,536 MIDI velocities rather than the current 128, and offer much higher resolutions from the knobs too. And perhaps with suitable software (and potentially hardware too) knobs and pads will be able to continually configure themselves for the task at hand. Watch this space...
- A classy ivory-feel, escapement-equipped action, ideal for serious acoustic piano performance.
- Versatile programming scheme for a variety of software and hardware control tasks, and a useful split/layer zone system.
- Programmable via onboard controls or dedicated macOS/Windows app.
- Flexible pedal options.
- Potential for high-resolution velocity and controls via MIDI 2.0.
- Unusually wide design with controls at far left is ergonomically awkward.
- No faders or wheels, and the combined pitch/modulation bender will not be to all users' tastes.
- Onboard programming not always intuitive and does not expose full capabilities of the controller.
- USB powering appears to be restricted to computer ports only, not USB mains adapters.
An 88-note gimmick-free controller, with a top-class hammer-action, that should be a willing performer in the studio and on stage.