Arturia Keystep by Diogo C
The scope: After the immensely successful Beatstep Pro sequencer Arturia comes with another instrument for the electronic musician: enter the KeyStep, a keyboard controller with sequencing capabilities and MIDI, USB and CV support. Although it’s not as innovative as its step-oriented sibling, this nifty keyboard comes with a considerable number of features and some of them quite unique for the category, so without further ado let’s get to them.
The hardware: Starting with the thing itself, KeyStep is a highly compact 32-keys controller that measures only 48.5 (W) x 14.5 (D) x 3.6 (H) centimeters and weights less than one and a half kilo - 1.375 kg to be exact. Its upper casing is made of a hard type plastic, with a metal bottom plate attached to it that gives it quite a robust aspect. The plastic used on keys are of good quality, they inspire confidence and feels sturdy without being clunky. Buttons are made of good quality rubber, the knobs also have a rubberized finish and both are quite solid. A Kensington lock port is also provided in case you need to secure it, which is handful. There is no power on ON/OFF switch, so the unit will stay on at all times when plugged to a computer. Overall the KeyStep is a polished and well built unit, and most importantly, it seems to be durable enough to survive many rides and gigs.
Keyboard: KeyStep uses Arturia’s “SlimKey” keybed with mechanical springs, which presents a rather unique key size that I haven’t seen elsewhere, the closest approximation would be Arturia’s own Microbrute synthesizer but it features semi-weighted keys on slight different size while the KeyStep’s are full-weight and slightly bigger overall - they’re longer, wider and larger. To be exact, each key is 9 cm long and roughly 2.5 cm wide, which may be a bit too small for some and those with large fingers and/or big hands may have a hard time nailing the right notes. On the other hand, here we have a surprisingly good keybed in terms of feel and action, it’s probably the best one I have ever tried on something of this price range. Key response is very good and playing it doesn’t feel too stiff or too loose, for the sake of comparison with what I have around me at the moment I’d happily take it over the keys on the Minilogue but needless to say that it doesn’t match up to bigger controllers like the Novation Nocturn or the AKAI Advance, just to name the two that I’ve recently had on the studio. Velocity and aftertouch are also accurate enough, they don’t have the greatest of resolutions of course, but it should be satisfyingly enough for most players. It’s important to keep in mind that the KeyStep is not meant to be a full-fledged master keyboard, at least not for the serious keyboard players who already have a big keyboard with all the octaves they need, it’s more of an accessory that adds up to a bigger setup or conversely something portable enough in size and weigh to be carried around without major hassles.
Keystep’s small footprint definitely favours small desks - hand and Miles Davis CD for scale.
Transport controls, tap tempo and synchronization: KeyStep comes with a basic transport section with record, play/pause and stop buttons. A tap tempo button and a rate (BPM) knob are also provided next to it. KeyStep can send or receive clocks through USB, MIDI and analog output, and its sync source is determined by a couple of switches located on the back of the unit. I’ve found this solution to be very cool since it doesn’t rely on a computer and you can change it on the fly - might need a flashlight depending on the environment and something to flip the switches if your finger doesn’t fit in there as it’s quite small. Besides USB and MIDI clocks the KeyStep also can handle a number of analog sync formats, such 1 pulse for Korg devices, 24/48 PPQ and 1 step for gate or clock. Analog sync can also start from clock or from gate, which is handy. Lastly, transport buttons can also send MIDI CC.
Synchronization switches are located on the back. You might need a toothpick to toggle the switches as they are a bit small.
Hold/Shift functions: “Shift” enables access to MIDI channel selection for the keyboard, gate time and swing for the sequencer/arpeggiator. It also allows the user to skip the knob positions on the arpeggiator and sequencer to arrive directly at the desired position while skipping all the intermediary ones, which is a very clever design. “Hold” keeps note pressed on the arpeggiator, allowing for notes to be entered while it’s running or it can be used as a sustain pedal, both quite a handy features.
Arpeggiator: a basic arpeggiator with up to 32 notes, eight play modes and eight time divisions ranging from quarter notes to 32T. Alongside the usual up/down/order/random there are some uncommon play modes here, such as the “include” and “exclude” modes, and it can reach up to two octaves on the up or down modes. Notes can have gate values of 10, 25, 50, 70 and 90 percent and swing goes from 53 to 75% percent with increments varying from two to three percent. Quite flexible for an “onboard” arpeggiator and one useful feature for electronic musicians in general, but I think it will be particularly great for those using modular synthesizers since having an arpeggiator and a sequencer on a eurorack rig can take quite a few HP and rack real estate, so having them on your keyboard is a very positive aspect.
Sequencer: a polyphonic sequencer with up 64 steps, eight notes of polyphony, variable swing and gate. It can store up to eight different sequences, which can be recorded in real time or notes can be individually placed while the sequencer is stopped. Sequences can be changed immediately or after the current sequence is finished, which is quite nice to keep everything in sync. Sequences can also be transposed on the fly by holding the desired key, which is quite cool. However, difficulties may arise due to the lack of visual reference which makes sequencing a bit harder, especially when programming note ties or per-note gate values since the lack of visual cues may confuse some users, but one can reach out for the MIDI Control Center app for a more familiar look on step sequencing - more on this later.
Chord Play: this mode allows you to assign a chord to a single key, by previously programming a given chord by pressing shift + hold and then playing the desired chord. This mode can be useful for electronic music, which doesn’t usually rely on complex or numerous chords, but ultimately it’s a limited tool since you can only have one chord active. It’s nice to have it nevertheless, and a quick path to get those stabs going.
Pitch and modulation strips: both strips are small, which is expected given the narrow width of the unit, and their sensitivity is okay. They don’t offer the greatest of resolutions due to their size and are inherently limited in this regard, but if you have a modular synth it gives you a ribbon controller, which is nice.
Connectivity: KeyStep offers quite a good array of connections. Besides the USB mode we have regular MIDI input and output, two mini-jacks for analog clock send/receive and three CV outputs for gate, pitch and also for the modulation strip as mentioned above. It’s important to note the CV outputs works for the keyboard and also for the step sequencer/arpeggiator, which is quite nice if you’re into modular. KeyStep also supports a sustain pedal over a quarter-inch jack.
MIDI Control Center: As of late Arturia has unified the software editor for its hardware controllers and synths under a single app called MIDI Control Center, with the relevant settings for each hardware unit being displayed accordingly - a laudable move by Arturia since puts everything under the same roof. It also provides a quick and painless path to firmware updates, with a handy online check feature that helps to keep it all up to date. Speaking of the KeyStep’s settings, I’d highlight the handy MIDI thru option for the MIDI output, three velocity curves, “hold” as a sustain pedal as mentioned earlier, options for Volts per Hz or per Octave for the pitch CV output, S-Trig and V-Trig 5V/12V settings for the gate output, different sync formats to support other gear such as the Korg Volcas, and there’s also one interesting option that can set velocity or aftertouch to CV through the mod CV output. Lastly, it offers a pattern editor with store and recall functionalities, which should provide a visual aide for sequence programming for those who need it. Overall the MIDI Control Center is a meaningful piece of software that adds even more depth to this crafty little keyboard. See the attachments for all available settings.
Accessories and documentation: This is a bare-bones package, and we only get the micro USB cable and a quick start sheet, which probably plays a role on keeping the final price tag as low as it is. You can find a full manual online on Arturia’s website, and this is quite a thorough guide with 71 pages on a PDF file that covers all features in satisfactory fashion and provides all the necessary guidance for its operation.
Currently my main setup is based on a mixture of hardware synths and controllers running along a few software synthesizers, using the DAW as effects rack and virtual instrument host. All synchronization and overall control of my hardware is centered on the Elektron Digitakt, and that’s where the KeyStep MIDI output goes. From there it’s distributed to my other real and virtual synths, so basically I’m only using the USB port to access the MIDI Control Center and not to send notes. In this regard, it’s playing the role of a “master” keyboard, contradicting a bit what I’ve said earlier about KeyStep’s role as such, but hey, I’m no professional keyboard player by any stretch of the imagination! I had limited space on the desk and did not want to spread keyboards around me, so it’s slim size came in handy and the keyboard is more than good enough for my poor playing skills. One thing to be noted is that I have other controllers available to handle things like MIDI CC on a knob or rotary encoder, so if you need more comprehensive MIDI functionality you’ll need to have something running along the KeyStep, or even decide for a different keyboard controller altogether. As mentioned a couple of times earlier, another great use it for is on a modular synthesizer rig, either as a keyboard or a sequencer and arpeggiator with the choice of one modulator from the mod strip, velocity or aftertouch. This is something I plan to take full advantage in the future, so the KeyStep is bound to stay on my setup for a good time. I also have a “B” rig which is meant to be sort of mobile-ish, consisting of a laptop, audio interface and now the KeyStep. On this setup I’m only using the Keystep’s USB port since there’s no need for the MIDI I/O and surprisingly enough I was able to power it through a passive USB hub (TP-Link UH400). This is particularly important since the laptop only provides two USB ports and one is taken for the audio interface, so a USB hub is mandatory and being able to use a passive model saves space and cabling. Lastly I tested the Keystep on a friend’s eurorack rig along with a Doepfer Dark Energy, and the outputs on the Keystep were able to drive two different CV inputs using stackable cables or passive dividers, which is quite nice.
Build quality: Overall the KeyStep a well-built piece of gear, it feels solid and most importantly it feels like it will last for a good while. The keyboard itself was a very pleasant surprise as I wasn’t expecting much at this price range, and it’s awesome to have a keybed of this quality on this price and size. The only aspect that makes me a bit uneasy is the switch for the arpeggiator/sequencer as it feels a bit flimsy and fragile. However, it looks to be same switch used on the Microbrute and in my experience as Microbrute owner it holds up pretty well over the years.
Ease of use: A very easy to use unit for the most part. The fact that it’s class-compliant and bus-powered helps a lot, it’s literally just plug and play. I also liked the option for the 9V power adapter, which is great for the computer-less setups that are getting more and more common these days with the analog-modular renaissance that’s been going on lately. However, the power adapter is not included - likely to keep the price as low as possible - but you can use a simple USB adapter, which are found basically anywhere these days. Moreover, KeyStep uses a micro USB port, which is the same as most non-Apple i.e. Android phones, so powering it up shouldn’t be an issue regardless of the setup. Lastly, there’s KeyStep’s small footprint, which makes it a great candidate for crowded or small desks and studios with limited real estate to spare. It’s also quite portable, small enough for being carried on a slightly bigger backpack.
Features: KeyStep is surprisingly well-rounded in terms of features for this price range, but it’s definitely more appealing for the modular crowd than the regular synths or virtual synths audiences since squeezing a keyboard, a step sequencer and arpeggiator on a single unit for roughly a hundred bucks is definitely a very enticing proposition if you want to add real playability to your rig.
Bang for buck: Once again Arturia delivers hardware of incredible value and that provides excellent bang for very reasonable bucks. KeyStep has many elements to be a hit, and in many it is, but unlike the Beatstep Pro it is bound to face some stiff competition. It’s unique feature set should be enough to set it aside, it’s very appealing for the modular synth crowd thanks to its CV connectivity, but it will have a rough time standing out since the “small USB keyboard” segment is a densely populated one and I can see it struggling outside the eurorack circle.
Recommended for: electronic musicians or keyboard players looking for an instrument with a small footprint without giving up on a good keybed. A no-brainer for most eurorack users.
*Excellent keybed for its size
*Built-in sequencer and arpeggiator
*Class-compliant and mostly easy to use
*Doesn’t require a computer
*Good build quality, lightweight and slim
*MIDI Control Center is a great companion
*Hardly any, but the keys may feel small to folks with big hands and fingers
Wishlist for a KeyStep Pro:
*49 keys with velocity to CV
*X/Y modulation pad
*8 rotary encoders
*Split keyboard mode with CV support for paraphonic glory