Arturia KeyLab Essential 61 by Arthur Stone
The Keylab61 Essential is a USB hardware keyboard which controls Analog Lab software containing emulations of famous synths, organs, and pianos. The software and hardware come as a hybrid bundle and can run as a DAW plug-in or stand-alone on a host computer. The system is based on synth/organ/piano presets with control of parameters (filters, envelopes, modulation, etc.) via the Keystep Essential's faders and rotary encoders.
Sonically the Analog Lab software will provide: ARP 2600; Buchla Easel; CMI; CS-80; Jupiter-8; Oberheim Matrix-12; MiniMoog; Prophet; SEM; Solina; Synclavier; and Modular. In addition a very good selection of acoustic pianos – the 'best grands' and variations; Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, plus a Hammond B-3, Vox Continental and Farfisa organs.
The tech behind the fabulous sound is called TAE (True Analog Emulation) which digitally-reproduces the analogue circuits of the original hardware.
Prix: 249 euros approx. £220/ $300
The Keylab Essential 61 arrived well-packaged with a USB cable and instructions for registering online and downloading the software. I logged onto Arturia's website, registered myself and the Keylab 61 and downloaded the necessary software: the ASC or Arturia Software Centre (which manages licenses and synchronises software across devices and handles updates); the Analog Lab software (the VST instruments and presets/patches); and also the latest firmware (ready to install after connecting the keyboard controller). This was a happy experience: the Arturia website is easy to navigate and find what's needed. In all, it took 20 mins – a coffee break – to install everything on my W7 PC.
Next I plugged in the controller keyboard. The keyboard is a work of art...not too minimalist but neutral to the eye. Plastic has come a long way since the 70's: it once symbolised cheap and tacky but now the design and manufacturing of these products gives them a good feel and solidity – not a solid technical keybed in the Kawai tradition but, for the money, a very decent, lightweight playing experience on full'ish-sized keys – 61 of them plus the 8 pads.
The nine 40mm faders also feel much more solid than in the past with a nice weighted flow; the same for the endless rotary encoders. The 23 illuminated buttons are of the soft silicon type with a soft silent click – they feel good and not too cramped. The legend text on and around the button (and rotaries and faders) is legible at arms length.
Everything is clear. The 2 x 16-digit centre text display screen (approx 2 1/2” or 70 mm diagonal) is accompanied by a 1” or 25mm detented rotary controller. The overall vibe is stylish and whilst it doesn't feel overly luxurious it doesn't feel cheap either. Plastic can be cool too. Arturia have done more than a decent job with the design and manufacture. Even the faux-wood ends seem appropriate.
After connecting the USB cable to the PC I started the Analogue Lab 2 software and was prompted to activate the software for my PC (and up to 4 other devices) by login. It worked. 25 mins and I was up-and-running.
La premiére fois:
I spent some time noodling, as you do, through the various presets. Everything sounded very good and worked as promised. Next I installed the bundled 3rd-party piano - a UVI Model D Steinway - which I needed to download with the UVI player from the UVI site; the serial code was in my Arturia account (whereas the Arturia code came printed in the hardware bundle). The piano is excellent (from my semi-pianist perspective) and, with eye's shut and headphones on, gives a reasonable impression of being in a room with one. There's also a handful of demo samples available for the UVI player. The Arturia pianos are very good too.
The bundled Analogue Lab 3 software is tweakable preset-based rather than with full control over all parameters of the modelled synth; I wondered if this would be limiting in any way or if it would spoil my enjoyment of the simulation?
The presets are, in fact, high-quality, highly-tweakable and a whole lot of fun!
I created a demo preset 'Gearslutz Dawn' (a factually-correct title) which has a keyboard split with a low Yamaha DX7 FM bass and an Oberheim SEM playing a random arpeggio up top.
Élixir de vie:
I recently reached 54 years of age, born in 1964. Often I still feel young; exuberant and energised. Playing the fabulous synths in Keylab/Analog Lab reminded me of the time of the originals, especially the mid-late 70's. Jean-Michel Jarre created Oxygene.
I was fortunate to spend some time on holidays in France and one thing that stood out was the culture of blending of aesthetic style and novel technology; a decade prior to personal computers and the internet I saw examples of stylish embedded technology e.g. a futuristic boutique hotel in La Rochelle, push-button ordering of food in a Bordeaux restaurant and the emergence of a civic internet structure.
The Keylab/Analog Lab reminded me of that mix of style and functionality – the past and present captured in a useful and stylish instrument; an instrument that inspires me and creates pleasing sounds. Sounds I have admired since the 70's and make me feel young again.
The recent Gearslutz thread.... asked which synth record first inspired you. It's safe to say that most bases of everyone's favourite synth or keyboard sound are covered in the Analog Lab menu system presets and controls; notable omissions are the Korg synths such as MS20, Poly 6 or MonoPoly but you do get Buchla, Jupiter, SEM, Matrix, etc. and there's no shortage of coverage (FM DX7, sample-based Fairlight and Clavier) and potential (even with the more limited control access of the Keylab61 Essential and the other intro-level packages). Despite not having the full on-screen control and visualization (of the premium package V synth) the Essential-level always inspired and I never felt it wouldn't kick ass or provide fun and entertainment in addition to first-class sound.
The accompanying video shows a comparison between the Analog Lab synths and a hardware Moog Subphatty and Waldorf Streichfett string ensemble synthesizer; the MiniMoog and ARP Solina patches came very close and either hardware or Analog Lab sounded great. I was able to get them closer than the samples demonstrate:
Arturia Minimoog vs hardware Moog Subphatty.
Arturia ARP Solina vs hardware Waldorf Streichfett (modded by Cozmik Producer).
Moog Subphatty hardware vs Arturia Minimoog.
I'm quite picky about organ and piano; the hardware originals are complex in sound and emotionally-moving. The Analog Lab delivered some of that and was refreshingly distinct and plausible; I loved the intimate Bechstein piano and some of the organ presets oozed nostalgia – but not all.
With the keyboard you get what you pay for; it's no Kawai obviously but also the keys are fullish-sized and they feel good for the price, as do the rest of the controls (including the faders). The real added-value is how well the hardware controls, and visual feedback, integrate with the software to facilitate workflow (or musical/performance enjoyment).
Arturia and the Holy Grail (of synthesis):
Arturia, the company, started life in Grenoble, France in 1999. They in-house developed 'True Analog Emulation' (TAE), later branching into hardware with a range of hybrid soft/hardware including the Origin and in 2012 set the synth world on fire with the release of the analogue MiniBrute at a time when despite the synthhead hunger, there were few accessible competitors. FF>> to 2018 and Arturia have transformed into fully-fledged electronic musical instrument maker with a comprehensive and capable range of hardware and software.
This is my first experience with Arturia products; decades back, in the early run of the Origin and Minibrute, there were some issues that I read about (natural development issues) but lately I haven't noticed many, if any, issues reported, and I had zero issues during the long review period. In fact I was impressed by how slick, fluid, mature and reliable the Arturia system and well the hardware-software integration worked; obviously a lot of thought and careful design underlie the user experience.
The TAE is focussed on reproducing the sounds and behaviours of vintage components such as oscillators and filters; soft-clipping is also used and Arturia say this adds punch and presence as well as mimicking the current-limiting inside an analogue circuit in use.
It's certainly an attractive and beguiling charm which is present across many patches without the synths individual characters becoming generic or having an 'Arturia sound.'
For example, the TAE oscillators are free-running rather than samples or wavetables, with no 0-point reset...which is how realworld hardware oscillators behave. Arturia neatly describe this as: 'each note having a life of it's own.' Instability is mimicked and this (very) subtle detuning leads naturally to a fatter sound. The TAE oscillators are also completely free of aliasing.
Likewise, the TAE filters aim to emulate the non-linear behaviour of their analogue counterparts at component level. They do sound stunning.
Simulacra and Simulation:
OK let's talk semiotics and anthropology of technology - things and how they are represented - as Arturia specialise in making representations (VST's) of old-school synths and keys (in addition to their wonderful hardware synths and other software).
The philosopher Jean Baudrillard noted that a simulacrum (a copy of something or someone, or a likeness or similarity) can be: a crude copy (Venus of Willendorf), a perfect copy, or an adulterated copy (hyperreal) that might bear no relationship to the original (which might not even exist anymore). Mmm...
For illustrations sake, let's describe the 'Mbira' (a bamboo thumb harp traced back to the west coast of Africa 3000 years ago) as a predecessor of the keyboard synthesizer – the original object that was mimicked and copied and adapted and developed through to the harpsichord and piano to organs and electronic synthesizers. Then computer models (emulations), controlled by hardware keyboards, enabled simulations of the original physical object; whether that be a simple thumb harp producing complex harmonic (or inharmonic!) overtones, or an electronically-complex supersynth straining to produce a pure sine wave.
Of course Arturia didn't set out to copy the mbira (although Analog Lab does that type of thing very well); they set out to emulate hardware electronic synthesizers (and pianos and organs) in software very realistically but with a modified interface not present on the original synths but giving access to many of the original control functions. Arturia have implemented this very well. Realism where needed and useful.
IMO Arturia have positioned the Analog Lab and Keylab system in the right spot between a perfect copy with some added extras that the originals didn't have. That said, the Arturia emulations are just that – emulations. Not the original with all it's potential variation across models leading to flaws, imperfections and, perhaps much-valued and sought-after, sonic vagaries.
This is an important point, and one I will return to in most reviews: the one thing the Arturia system does not emulate is the variation across the total of a given synth model; each synth emulation will sound exactly the same whereas the actual hardware synths (of the same model) will sound different for reasons of age, components, modification or production changes. It's fair to argue that variations in the users studio gear, signal chains and playback systems make this less of an issue; the variation is something we the user provide rather than Arturia. Fortunately this is the raison d'etre of the Gearslut(z).
I'll have to invoke Plato for the next point: he noted that Greek statues, although perfect copies, were proportionally larger at the top so that they appeared in correct perspective to the viewer who is looking up from below. This is my take on the Analog Lab experience – a sonically-indistinguishable emulation despite the differences in how the sound is generated.
In the video accompanying this review I compared a Moog SubPhatty with the Analog Lab MiniMoog and they were virtually indistinguishable; the same comparing a Waldorf Streichfett (with a Sunfish mod) and the Analog Lab ARP Solina string synthesizer. The other Analog Lab synths sounded very close to an 'ideal original' as I recall them and this was helped by the tonal balance, voicing and lack of hype.
Analog Lab sounds...analogue; even the digital synths.
For the money this is a great starter keyboard and soundset: connect the keyboard via USB to a computer, install software and you have a range of high-quality software instruments with control via 61 keys, buttons, pads, faders and rotaries. For DAW or stand-alone. I think it's a great educational tool too – education for the ears.
Obviously a great composing tool, or for enjoyment or for gigs/jams. Light enough to carry on the Tube along with a laptop; or be used on your lap.
Ian the Pirate visited the studio; he's a musician but plays freestyle rather than in chords or time signatures, and is self-taught on keys. I scrolled through emulations of the best synthesizers in history and narrated with some gear talk whilst he noodled (as pirates do). He said that he found the keys and patches quite forgiving of his unorthodox technique and also he noticed the lack of latency in stand-alone mode.
Playback was through a Studiomaster wedge speaker and it sounded fabulous; sometimes Ian would get tranced out on a patch – I jammed along on guitar and it was a wonderful way to spend a late Autumn afternoon.
Rob the Guitar also visited to record some songs. I selected the first organ patch and noodled along. He said he wanted that sound on the track.
Every visitor to the studio enjoyed and was impressed by the Keylab/Analog Lab and I'm sure you will be too – even if you own the originals.
Sound Quality 5/5 Large soundset of first-class synth and keyboard emulations often indistinguishable from real analogue and digital synths.
Bang-for-buck 5/5 Great value. The hardware is solid for the price and the software is comprehensive in the synth/keyboard genre.
Ease of Use 5/5 The more limited control/display access of the Essential-level interface doesn't hinder operations or spoil sonic enjoyment. Keyboard and software integrate perfectly. No iLok or online authentication for use. Multiple instances can be used on different devices.
Features 5/5 Everything you'd need for the circumstances. Lot's of controls and visual feedback from the lights and menu screen. Great design and sync of hardware/software.
Pros: A load of great synths/sounds with a useable controller keyboard at a great price. Works stand-alone.
Cons: Not the flexibility of the full synths; tweakable preset-based.
Arturia - Overview
Images used with permission of Arturia; additional photos by Arthur Stone.