Arturia KeyLab 88 review: huge bang for buck in a master keyboard-software bundle

February 6, 2015

Arturia has released a steady stream of classy USB/MIDI controller keyboard/virtual instrument packages over the past few years. Until now, all have been of the unweighted 25-, 37-, and 61-key variety, but now Arturia jumps into the big leagues with the “kitchen sink edition,” the 88-key, fully weighted KeyLab 88. The company also sweetens the pot with its 5,000-preset Analog Lab virtual instrument, and the first 3,000 units sold include high-end virtual piano instruments from UVI and Pianoteq. How good is it? 


Overview

KeyLab 88’s front panel and control layout are almost identical to its more compact KeyLab 49 and KeyLab 61 counterparts. Beginning at the top left are standard pitch and mod wheels, and an octave up/down selector followed by endless-rotary volume, parameter/category, value/preset knobs, mode buttons, and a Spartan (but super bright) 16x2 blue fluorescent display. Moving along, we have ten multifunction assignable buttons, ten assignable endless rotary knobs, and nine assignable sliders. Finally, we see standard transport controls and 16 full-size illuminated MPC-style pads.

The keyboard itself is a fully weighted 88-key Fatar action with velocity and monophonic aftertouch. Like Arturia’s other controllers, the KeyLab 88 exudes quality with its all-aluminum case and lovely solid wood end cheeks. Unique to the KeyLab 88 are two add-ons—an aluminum and plastic music stand, as well as a laptop (or tablet) shelf that effectively extends the empty area at the top right of the control panel by four inches. Both can be solidly attached to the rear panel via simple slip-in keyholes, and thoughtfully include rubber surfaces to prevent unwanted movement. My only issue with the laptop “shelf” is its right side-only location; right-handed players might prefer a laptop or tablet on the left so they won’t need to take their dominant hand off the keyboard. Also, I’m not a huge fan of the pitch and mod controllers’ above-the-keyboard location, but in Arturia’s defense, 88 full-size keys make for a large instrument, so this helps reduce its width. And speaking of girth, it’s worth mentioning that at just over 28 pounds, the KeyLab 88 is the lightest fully weighted, 88-key controller on the market—a virtual flyweight compared to 88-key controllers from other manufacturers that squash the scales 60 pounds or more. 

The back panel features standard power switch; a DC adapter jack; a breath-controller mini jack; 1/4" inputs for expression, sustain, and aux footswitch; and standard five-pin MIDI in and out. In conjunction with the USB port, the MIDI I/O jacks allow the KeyLab 88 to function as a conventional MIDI interface. My example was perfectly content with USB bus-power, but an optional AC adapter can be used if USB bus power isn’t available.

 

Included Virtual Instruments

Though most controllers these days throw some virtual instruments or soundware into the mix, Arturia really steps it up with the inclusion of its Analog Lab virtual instrument software. Originally released in 2010, Analog Lab distills Arturia’s well-respected virtual keyboard instrument collection into one easy-to-use instrument, usable either as a standalone or plug-in.

Eschewing the fully editable user interfaces of Arturia’s individual virtual instruments, Analog Lab includes more than 5,000 presets; however, key parameters, such as filter and envelope settings, are editable and are pre-assigned to KeyLab’s knobs and sliders. The most recent Analog Lab edition includes presets from Arturia’s “legacy” instruments: ARP 2600 V, CS-80V, Jupiter-8 V, Matrix12 V, Mini V, Modular V, Oberheim SEM V, Prophet V, Vox Continental V, and Wurlitzer V, as well as the brand-new Solina V vintage string machine and Matrix12 V vintage polysynth. Though the editable parameters offer a fair amount of sound-shaping flexibility, hardcore synth-programming types will no doubt miss the ability to edit and create sounds with the full and unlimited user interfaces. 

Analog Lab’s instrument selection centers around a novel, CG-rendered Studio View window, showing a studio filled with the above-mentioned keyboard collection. Clicking an instrument selects it and displays its sounds in list form, along with attributes including the virtual instrument name, sound type, user-programmable favorite status, the sound programmer’s name, and others. Attribute filters, such as instrument, sound categories, and characteristics are easily applied; these are tremendously helpful given the epic quantity of sounds on hand. The lower half of Analog Lab’s user interface replicates KeyLab 88’s front panel knobs and sliders, and up to 20 instrument parameters are individually settable for each control via small pop-up menus. The main UI also lets you drag and drop 10 Snapshot sounds from any instrument for quick recall via the front-panel Snapshot buttons. Though they were easy to configure, changing the Snapshots while sustaining notes cut them off abruptly. For the finger-impaired, the chord menu offers myriad auto chord assignment options for the 16 MPC pads.   

In addition to standard single-sound Play mode, there’s a Multi mode, which lets users stack and/or split two patches across the keyboard, each with independent level, pan, and controller assignments, plus dual send knobs for applying bus effects. Though not extensive by current standards, Analog Lab includes a well-rounded effects collection, including expected reverb, chorus, delay, flanger, phaser, and overdrive, as well as more exotic flavors such as Destroy, SubGenerator, and VocalFilter, all with a generous array of user-tweakable controls. 

With no true acoustic piano instruments available in Analog Lab, Arturia includes two third-party virtual piano instruments: Modartt Pianoteq 5 Stage and UVI Grand Piano Model D. Exclusive to KeyLab 88, both are “lite” versions (and upgradable to full versions for a price). These are not hosted within the Analog Lab environment; they can run as standalones (in the case of UVI Grand Piano Model D, it’s hosted inside the free-to-download UVI Workstation app), or as virtual instruments hosted by a DAW. For those unfamiliar with Pianoteq, unlike sample-heavy piano instruments, it utilizes physical modeling to create light-on-RAM but heavy-on-CPU pianos, whereas UVI’s Grand Piano Model D features just under 600 MB of samples for a more brute force, sample-heavy approach. 


Sounds

With so many presets on hand, Analog Lab offers an almost overwhelming number of preset choices, and suffice to say, covers almost any analog synth noise imaginable, including scads of massive Moog and Oberheim basses, subtle-to-punchy brass, leads aplenty, tons of sound effects, and more pads than you’ll ever need. The new Solina V patches authentically nail the wheezy “divide-down” string machine vibe and retain the full version’s tweakable three-band Polymoog resonator for unique vocal filter flavors. 

The virtual Wurly and Vox organ both ably cover their namesakes and the presets explore far more esoteric tones courtesy of their added parameters. Sometimes the added parameters and effects get in the way, because the abundance of “out there” patches can make it hard to locate signature Wurlitzer, Vox, and Minimoog patches. Arturia could easily remedy this by adding a “basic” category to the sound filter section. (the filters that sort patches, not the filters in the synths).


Pianos, Man

Two Pianoteq models are included: a Hamburg Steinway Model D, and Pianoteq’s own “K6,” a mid-sized grand of unspecified origin. To my ears, the K6 had more “in-the-room” personality, and a slightly less clinical tonality than the Steinway model. Compared to heavy-hitter sampled pianos, there’s a very subtle synthetic feel that’s hard to put your finger on, but both are fine-sounding pianos with excellent dynamic range, and their wide variety presets make them adaptable to any situation.

As for the UVI Grand Piano Model D, UVI’s heavy-handed iLok authorization scheme refused to play nice with my MacBook Pro. After installing four separate items (iLok License Manager, the UVI Workstation host, the Grand Piano Model D Grand sample pack, and a RAR file utility to expand the sample pack) and numerous back-and-forth emails with UVI tech support, I was never able to authorize my computer to use it. I can’t say whether UVI or iLok was to blame, but when overzealous copy protection prevents legitimate customers from using software, copy protection has failed the software maker and the end-user alike. 


In Use

The KeyLab 88 controller has a firm and positive action with zero side-to-side key wobble, unwanted bounce, or other unwanted traits. It’s a little on the heavy side, but not excessively so. My only nitpick is with the keyboard velocity curve parameter; throughout its 11 settings, I detected a difference in keyboard response at the three highest settings (desirable), but not much change at the lower settings. Perhaps different curves are happening internally, but the user manual contains no details. The monophonic aftertouch has a delightfully controllable sweet spot, with none of the “on/off” behavior exhibited by lesser controllers. This aftertouch response is also user-adjustable, but I found it perfect as-is. 

All the knobs and buttons behaved as expected, and more importantly, exude the same solid feel as the keyboard. The sliders have a nice feel, and the illuminated MPC pads definitely give the impression that they’d tolerate a serious pounding (having them attached to large, metal instrument doesn’t hurt). The “A” and “B” bank buttons effectively double the number of available real-time controllers for a whopping 20 knobs and 18 sliders of quickly accessible controls. The knobs, buttons, and sliders can be reconfigured to transmit just about any desired combination of MIDI controller data, storable in KeyLab 88’s ten onboard program memory locations. Switching between the stored programs was a somewhat finicky affair, requiring two button presses, a knob twirl, and pressing the knob. Front panel controller functions can be edited either from the front panel, or via Arturia’s free MIDI Control Center utility, but as with many MIDI controller devices, you may find it easier to leave the transmit settings as-is and, instead, “redirect” controller data within the destination device or software.

When used in conjunction with Analog Lab, the knobs and sliders are automatically assigned to editable sound parameters, making sound tweaking a cinch. When running the full version of the Mini V virtual instrument inside Apple MainStage, KeyLab’s controllers automatically assigned to the Mini’s parameter knobs—very nice!  

Generally speaking, it can be a little off-putting to have incredibly flexible and powerful synths such as the Moog Modular V and Oberheim Matrix 12 V shackled into a preset-only configuration. But the flipside is that the adjustable real-time performance parameters for most of the instruments include filter cutoff, resonance, and full envelope controls; this can get you very close to the level of tweakery available in the full versions. And if you own the full versions of any of Analog Lab’s included instruments, sounds can be fully edited inside without leaving Analog Lab; simply switch to Filter View mode and click the picture of the individual instrument. This is a fantastic feature, and it’s certainly motivation to upgrade to the full versions. 

Analog Lab also features a Live mode for arranging sounds and multis into a master list for live performance. Setting up lists is a simple drag-and-drop affair, but its functionality is limited, and there’s no easy way to move sounds around once they’re in the list. 

I was a little disappointed that Analog Lab was unable to host the included third-party piano instruments. In a studio DAW-based environment, this isn’t a significant issue, but in a live setting, it necessitates hosting Analog Lab and/or the piano instruments using a separate host such as MainStage or Ableton Live.


Conclusions

Besides my quibbles with the velocity curve settings and the slightly finicky program changing (KeyLab 88’s internal programs, not its ability to transmit MIDI program changes), the KeyLab 88 is a first-class controller with great features, a beautiful exterior, and a competitive price tag. At $799 street, it undercuts Roland’s A-88 and Kawai VPC1 in both price and weight. Though KeyLab 88 doesn’t sport fancy key surfaces or escapement simulation, many might agree that these are unnecessary, marketing-driven “solutions in search of a problem.” Even without Analog Lab and the extra third-party pianos, the KeyLab 88 stands on its own as a fantastic controller at a competitive price point. It wins our Key Buy award on grounds of sheer bang for the buck.


PROS Superb keyboard feel, handsome appearance, good value, and huge sound library.


CONS Pitch/mod wheel position, a few finicky controls, and limited editability of included Analog Lab virtual instrument.

Bottom Line

A premium controller at a great price, with a ton of virtual instruments thrown in. 

$999 list | $799 street | arturia.com

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