Novation Launckey and Launchkey Mini reviewed

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Standing out in a crowded market is a daunting task for any manufacturer, but Novation isn’t just any manufacturer. With over two decades of experience ranging from both analog and digital synthesizers to flexible software and some of the world’s most popular controllers, Novation clearly knows what works in the electronic music market—and how to price it.

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PROS: Excellent integration with Ableton Live. Multi-colored LEDs provide ample visual feedback. Automap software simplifies configuration. Small size fits laptop bags and cramped DJ booths. Comes with Novation’s soft synth of the original Bass Station.

CONS: Mixing via columns of buttons is inherently limited to value jumps of 16. Pad buttons are not velocity sensitive.

Bottom Line: An affordable and compact session controller for Ableton Live.

$249.95 | $169 street |

Their new line of Launchkey controllers is an excellent example of this understanding. With three keyboard models to choose from, all of which are bundled with extremely useful software, the Launchkey lineup covers a lot of ground at a range of price points. Over the past month, I tinkered with the Launchkey 49 and Launchkey Mini and was rather impressed with their value and functionality. Here’s why.

The Launchkey 49 (also available with 61 or 25 keys for 50 dollars more or less, respectively) includes all the features we’ve come to expect from a controller keyboard: a bank of nine sliders (as opposed to eight, in case you want to control virtual Hammond drawbars), eight knobs, transport controls, and nine assignable buttons. What takes the Launchkey up a notch are the 16 velocity-sensitive pads that do double-duty as Ableton Live clip launchers, with integrated multi-colored LEDs that indicate the status of the assigned clips. This gives the Launchkeys a level of integration with (and with Image-Line FL Studio as well) that other keyboard controllers can’t touch. From these pads, you can control two simultaneous rows of eight clips and easily shift between rows via an additional pair of buttons next to the pads. In practice, it’s actually quite easy to get up to speed.

Deepening the Launchkey integration is the inclusion of Novation’s “InControl” features—essentially a baked-in version of their Automap software, for customized control of various soft synths, effects, and DAW features directly from the unit.

Significant added value comes thanks to Novation’s inclusion of two soft synths (Bass Station and V-Station) and a pair of iPad apps: Launchkey and Launchpad. The former is a nifty little iPad synth; the latter is a performance-oriented loop player. Both apps are great fun and quite useful, considering they’re both free, regardless of whether you’re a Launchkey user. Good stuff.

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The Launchkey Mini includes the same software, but is more of a tabletop controller for casual use and DJ gigs. It loses the sliders and transport controls while retaining the knobs and pads.

The only major caveat with the Launchkeys is the lack of five-pin MIDI connections; these keyboards are for computer use (via USB) only. That said, even the large 61-key version can be powered from your iPad. Kudos to Novation for packing a ton of features—and some really great software—into an affordable line of controllers.