Arturia KeyLab MkII by Arthur Stone
The Arturia KeyLab MkII is a hardware keyboard (a MIDI controller+) and a software package, Analog Lab, that works in sync to emulate classic keyboards: pianos, organs and synths. The KeyLab system has been developing for a long time and is now more software-mature and stable than ever. Previously I reviewed the KeyLab MkI Essential and this was a good starting point and comparison for this review.
Even switched off the Arturia KeyLab MkII looks good. And tempting.
You're greeted by around 80 control features set in a polar, spearmint, starship control room...a stylish control room (and black is also available if you're into that sort of thing). Everything is well-spaced and although it is a controller of sound rather than a creator of sound (which is produced in your DAW or as standalone app or a connected MIDI/CV device) there's a lot on offer, Your usual faders and rotary dials , a main large push-encoder with a smooth-detented motion, 4x4 drumpad, transport controls, pitch and mod wheels, and a load more buttons.
Powered up the KeyLab MkII had the familiar backlit light display of the MkI Essential and a small-backlit screen for menu/patch info.
Then of course there are 61 nicely sprung keys - a very playable size (of approx. 13.5cm long and 22mm wide or 5 ¼ “ x 10/12th “ - and set firmly into the tasty metallic keybed/chassis
This feeling of solidity, and improvement in key 'feel' is the main difference over the MkI Essential; it feels more expensive (it is) and it feels like a real synth...which effectively it is when connected to a PC, hardware or device.
Another advantage of the MkII over the MkI Essential version is the inclusion of full-versions of some virtual instruments (Piano; Moog; B3; Stage-71; plus Analog Lab ), in addition to the preset based KeyLab instruments, all both stand-alone and as DAW plug-ins. There's also an attractively-priced upgrade path to the full V collection.
Price: UK £435 (£389 for 49-key version)/ $549 US/ Euro 499
After registering on the Arturia site you download the software and drivers, install, and power up the KeyLab MkII. Smooth process for me; the stand-alone instruments each have their own install.
In addition to Analog Lab I'd recommend the stand-alone versions as they allow the keyboard to really interact with software, and for example move the drawbars directly on the B3 organ from the MkII faders and also adjust a range of functions including tasty fx pedals and amps across the range of virtual instruments inc: MiniMoog, Fender Rhodes, Stage-73, Hammond B3 with Leslie; Piano, and then AnalogLab software with it's wide variety of classic synths.
The full stand-alone instruments (and their DAW/VST versions) are fully-tweakable from source (e.g. oscillator level up sound design), whilst the Analog Lab synths are available as tweakable presets and patches which do offer a good degree of control (the most useful and musical parameters) and a good basis for sound design and patch creation.
The keyboard is nicely-sprung (around 10mm or downward travel) and easy to sweep with the keys having smooth, rounded edges; there's no sharp edges or snags. My fingers enjoyed playing (non-fatiguing) and I didn't feel like I was fighting the action. The keys supported my playing.
The synth-action keyboard is less suited to piano-style VST instruments but it is pressure- and velocity-sensitive so with a little adjustment in performance it is possible to engage with the instrument and achieve plausible sounds, helped by the three selectable velocity curves.
I was getting 1.3ms delay running stand-alone in iZ RADAR Studio on the iZ Adrenaline drivers @48 kHz and it was a pleasure to use the Moog set up, fx pedals, etc. using a touchscreen monitor.
AnalogLab synths and stand-alone versions also run as a plug-in in your DAW. With the DAW controller's e.g. transport, navigation, editing and player controls, this gives the KeyLab MkII a studio controller role with useful features for musicians and engineers alike. You don't have to use everything – it can be used simply to play an instruments with too.
A third role is as a MIDI/CV controller for external hardware or digital systems e.g. modular or fx.
The rear panel hosts 5 mini-jack CV ports: pitch, gate, 2 mods out and CV in. The CV in can be converted to MIDI data and written to a DAW. There's a User Edit mode for customising voltages.
I didn't test CV functionality but I'm tempted to try it out.
Arturia's (and other manufacturer's) ranges of hardware can be connected too; there is a culture of the art being possible from the chaotic complexities of interaction – electrical and sonic – and Arturia has given us this freedom through design. I respect Arturia's commitment and focus on the musician and music.
Audio: Quick mp3 demo to get a flavour of the AnalogLab and stand-alone instruments in a DAW session. One mix is ITB and the other summed OTB:
Ground control to Major Tom:
The complexity of the KeyLab control data ecosystem is managed by the MCC; a 'MIDI Control Centre' software app that automatically connects to the hardware keyboard to allow creation and management of templates, controller maps, MIDI assignments, and CV IO.
The ability to customize faders, encoders and buttons for different workflows (e.g. tracking, mixing, multiple hardware synths) and then save to one of the ten user memories (alongside the fixed Analog Lab and DAW modes).
CPU hit: I'm using a RADAR Studio (running Reason DAW) and despite it's power I still had to be careful if combining multiple Analog Lab instances with e.g. the Buchla Easel or multi-instruments, particularly if running loads of hungry DAW plugins and instruments. Analog Lab ran very well on my 10-year older well-spec'd PC too again only running into issues with a couple of patches and again, the Buchla Easel.
This is partly Reason's fault (currently being addressed by Propellerheads with V10). In Standalone mode the Analog Lab CPU performance improved and I suspect this is typical for most DAW's too.
What I'd like to see, in Analog Lab, and other DAW's/systems is the ability to search patches based on their CPU hit; therefore if I use a CPU-hungry bass and kick I can opt to try out less-CPU intensive instruments/patches later in the mix with a simple search.
Light My Fire:
I was left feeling that the Arturia KeyLab system deserved the MkII hardware as a step forward into the future: MkII interface draws us into beautiful software graphics and avoids discrimination between user and machine. I felt connected to KeyLab. The Arturia KeyLab MkII is engaging, great fun and awesome-sounding. Did it inspire me to create music and noodle? Hell yes.
I've mentioned in the MkI Essential review that people who come to visit really enjoy using the KeyLab system too. It's a musical ice-breaker. Phrases like: “What have you got there then?” and “I didn't know you could do that.” and “That's amazing.” are the norm.
After integrating the KeyLab MkII into my workflow, using it as a hybrid instrument via the DAW or stand-alone, I realised a threshold had been crossed (once again); the one-time dream of integrating controller and software in a plausible, musical way had been achieved – at least for me, waiting since 1970's for such devices, fruits of the promised future.
The virtual instruments worked perfectly: with low CPU (even with multiple instances); everything sounded great; it was fun to use creatively; and plenty of tweakability with the full models and even the preset KeyLab instruments.
There's a lot of presets/patches on offer and the ecosystem takes some exploration – but that's part of the fun. On one level the KeyLab is pure instrument (with handy workflow features); it can be the centrepiece; or it can integrate into hybrid set-ups.
The team at Arturia deserve credit for producing such an engaging and musical instrument at a modest price.
It's a difficult balance to accurately score points or should I say a challenge – a challenge to find products that warrant losing points (to be only 80% good or 4/5); tech quality and prices are that good – historically, ever. We don't review crap gear either. So points are generally high or max. honestly.
Sound Quality 5/5 In the MkI Essential review I compared the Analog Lab to hardware synths and it was very close. The KeyLab system is an instrument in its own right no matter how realistic in comparison to hardware; it is capable of creating emotionally-moving and inspirational sounds.
Ease of Use 5/5 It's quite complex. I'm just being honest; but you like 'complex' right? There's a helluva lot of capability and usefulness. KeyLab worked alongside other software and controllers flawlessly with zero glitches or conflicts. Standalone is well-presented; great interface and controller options. Unobtrusive online/offline authorization for a few devices and good software management sync with website. The hardware controller or rather, keyboard instrument, worked flawlessly and is inspiring to use...and look at.
Features 5/5 Short of adding a coffee machine, everything is covered. Everything. Hardware/software. It'll look good solo minimalist with a PC screen or as part of a humongous hybrid monstrosity. The KeyLab software connects with the Arturia website to access: free, third party, and paid-for, sample packs and presets. Doesn't work well with Propellerhead Reason but most DAW's are covered.
Bang-for-Buck 5/5 A solid, stylish keyboard: DAW/VST synth controller; stand-alone instrument(s) in concert with your device; and a user-customizable MIDI/CV controller for outboard gear and synths...or hybrid...or all 3 at the same time. Not a one-trick pony. KeyLab undergoing constant updates/grades with a few free. Ableton Live Lite is included which is a great DAW to get started or for more serious use. Worth mentioning is the upgrade path to the full V collection; a bargain IMO.
Credits and Links:
Arturia - Overview
Top photo used courtesy of Arturia; additional photos by Arthur Stone.