Review Roundup: Just the Keys, Please - KeyboardMag

Review Roundup: Just the Keys, Please

88-key controllers for a virtual instrument world
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In an era when the words “MIDI controller” conjure images of TWO -octave keyboards for push-button music producers, the options for dedicated 88-key master keyboards are few. There seems to be an unspoken sentiment of “If you need 88 weighted keys, get a stage piano or a workstation.” But you may want the room to stretch out even though you don’t need internal sounds from your slab of black ’n’ whites. The good news is that what is out there is well-differentiated in its category, so matching a keyboard to your needs isn’t a head-scratcher. In this quick guide, we’ll round up the major players a player needs to know about.

Why 88?

There are two main reasons to go for an 88-key controller. One is that your playing focuses on piano; specifically, a premium software piano such as Synthogy Ivory, Modartt Pianoteq, or the Spitfire Hans Zimmer Piano (reviewed in our May 2016 issue). The other reason is, if you’re a composer and/or arranger, 88 keys give you more than enough spread to set up lots of zones for splits and layers, so you can lay out all the sounds you need to craft your counterpoint right in front of you.

There is another benefit. If a keyboard’s price doesn’t reflect everything involved in building an instrument with internal sounds (e.g., sampling sessions, memory, DSP, audio I/O, etc.) that price mainly reflects the quality of the action and whatever real-time controls the instrument has. So if you’ve already invested in great sounds that reside in software, a controller that costs X dollars can offer a better keybed and playing experience than a synth or stage piano of the same price.

Arturia KeyLab 88

We put this one first because, since our full review in February 2015, it’s still the bang-for-buck leader in an 88-key controller that fires on all cylinders—ten endless knobs, nine faders (thanks, from the organ players), 16 drum pads, and a great fully weighted keyboard. Oh, and the included Analog Lab software amounts to a self-contained “synth and vintage keys museum” that culls sounds from Arturia’s expansive V Collection, automatically mapping the most wanted parameters to the Key-Lab’s physical controls. It’s also a boon that the KeyLab 88 comes with two high-end virtual pianos—UVI Acoustic Grand, which is sampled, and Pianoteq 5 Stage, which is physically modeled.

MIDI In and Out ports are on hand for external hardware other than your computer, and the KeyLab is USB-powerable. In addition to expression and sustain pedal jacks, there’s a 1/8" breath-controller input.

In our opinion, the Fatar-sourced hammer action skews a bit on the heavy side—pianists might consider this a plus—but can be lightened up via the 11 velocity curves. Aftertouch, which is also adjustable, had a wide sweet spot and was responsive to subtle changes in finger pressure. The key tops are textured, the keys sit tightly with no lateral wobble, and we just can’t over-emphasize that this action feels far more expensive than it is. The drum pads feel good enough that MPC purists just might not wrinkle their noses here.

The Analog Lab instruments use the same sound engine as the full-priced versions, the difference being that they’re preset-based and you don’t get the full vintage-mockup interfaces you do with the full V Collection counterparts. Still, pretty much anything you’d want to tweak—oscillators, filters, envelopes, and more—is on hand and displayed onscreen in a pane that mirrors the KeyLab panel. We found that whether we ran Analog Lab standalone or hosted it in a DAW or MainStage, settings snapped instantly to their proper hardware control assignments even if we’d switched away from the Arturia instruments then back again. This is valuable, because if you want to run the UVI or Pianoteq pianos alongside them, you’ll need a host program; Analog Lab itself can’t host them.

For live use, the music rack and/or laptop shelf extension attach positively to the back. We’re not sure how Arturia got a pianist-pleasing keyboard and the solid build quality into a package weighing under 30 pounds, but they did. “Would be a bargain at twice the price” is a cliché, but one reason clichés stick is that sometimes they’re true.
$799 street | 28.6 lbs. | arturia.com

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Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88

Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S88. If your workflow involves spending much time in the Komplete/Kontakt ecosystem of virtual instruments, the case for the 88-key model of the Komplete Kontrol S series is compelling. The entire range, compact synth-action models (reviewed December 2014) and hammer-action 88 alike (reviewed February 2016) sports a very smooth Aftertouch that responds to pressure fairly linearly. Thanks to memory-foam under the keys, they bottom out nicely with little bounce but quickly return upon let-off. Both USB and five-pin MIDI are provided, though the keyboard won’t run on USB power; an AC supply is included. Pedal inputs are available for sustain and expression. In place of pitch and modulation wheels are two vertical ribbons with LED ladders to show their positions.

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A couple of killer features distinguish the Kontrol S. First, the integration with NI’s own soft synths and libraries is as tight as it gets, with important parameters automatically mapping to the eight touch-sensitive endless rotary encoders and showing up by name in the crisp display that accompanies each knob. Touch one, and that setting gets the focus onscreen. You can add chord generation, custom arpeggiation, and custom scales to a setup, and use the keyboard’s controls to browse for patches and multis by category and attribute tags in the Kontrol browser.

Since we first reviewed the S88, NI introduced the NKS (Native Kontrol Standard) protocol, enabling third-party developers to take advantage of the same browsing and parameter-mapping integration. Companies that have signed on include Arturia, u-he, Heavyocity, Spitfire, and XILS, among others.

The controller’s Light Guide feature, which is a strip of multicolored LEDs just above the keys, goes far beyond eye candy. It can color-code splits and zones, as well as key-switched articulations, drum kits (one color for kick, another for snare, and so on), and even which notes are in a selected scale—a cool tool for education. Any soft instrument that supports NKS can take advantage of this functionality. Plus, DAW integration is especially tight with Ableton, Cubase, Logic, and Nuendo.

Last but not least the included soundware. NI bundles in Komplete Select, which comprises nine virtual instruments and soft synths—Massive, Reaktor Prism, Monark, The Gentleman piano, DrumLab, Retro Machines, Vintage Organs, West Africa, and Scarbee electric piano. An SSL-style bus compressor rounds out these goodies.

The only thing that might leave some players wanting? Although those knobs and individual displays are undeniably cool, you don’t get faders or drum pads as you do on the KeyLab. Still, the S88 is a stellar deal and a no-brainer for musicians already using Native Instruments software.
$999 street | 32 lbs. native-instruments.com

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Kawai VPC-1

Kawai VPC-1. If what you need is a one-trick stallion that does that trick exceptionally well, the VPC-1 (reviewed January 2014) is for you. There are no knobs, faders, wheels, or displays; just a superb action that, part for part, is as close to that of a real grand piano as any electronic instrument gets. The real wooden keys move in seesaw fashion with their balance point in the middle. The grading (heavier feel towards the bass) comes from weights mounted on physical hammers. Let-off—that little notchy feeling at the bottom of a real piano’s key travel—is mechanically simulated. Where many hammer actions use two sensors, the VPC-1 uses three, arranged so as to facilitate realistic legato playing and single-note trills. Simulated ivory key surfaces improve grip and wick away moisture. In other words, the point here is to provide the perfect musical interface for high-end software grand pianos.

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The other half of that equation, of course, is careful matching of velocity response to the software you probably have. Kawai worked with the software developers themselves to create custom velocity curves for Synthogy Ivory II, Modartt Pianoteq, Galaxy Vintage D, and Native Instruments Alicia’s Keys. You can further customize the response using the freely downloadable VPC Editor software (Mac or Windows but no phone/tablet versions yet). This gives you an easy graphical interface where you can draw a curve with broad strokes or tweak the sensitivity one key at a time. It will also read your key strikes to adjust velocity based on your playing.

In addition to USB, a MIDI output lets you control an external sound module at the same time, and MIDI In is useful for piggybacking, say, a synth-action controller to control other soft synths on other channels, as incoming data will be passed through to USB. However, this is made inconvenient by the VPC-1’s slightly curved top. A flat top (think Rhodes Mk. II versus Mk. I) would be better for stacking another keyboard.

An optional triple pedal unit supports una corda (soft), true sostenuto, and half-damper sustain behavior, and is hefty enough that your foot won’t be chasing it around the floor.

If you can handle the expense and the weight, the VPC-1 is the gold standard in grand piano controllers. Synthogy uses it for Ivory demos at NAMM. Artisanal piano maker Ravenscroft customizes it for the digital version of its model 275 grand. A major rock star we’ve been asked not to name has one in his grand-piano shell center stage. There’s a reason for all this.
$1,849 street | 65 lbs. | kawaivpc.com

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Studiologic SL88

Studiologic SL88 The Studiologic SL88 offers a lot of functionality if you want your main keyboard to be the boss of splits, layers, and control assignments as opposed to handling all that on the receiving end in host software such as MainStage. You might do this if your rig combines virtual instruments with hardware modules such as a keyless analog synth. This is further facilitated by two MIDI Outs (and one In) plus USB. If you’d prefer your software be the “brain,” those two Outs will shuttle instructions from your computer to external gear. Four pedal inputs comprise two switches, one continuous control, and one that can do either.

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The SL88 comes in Studio and Grand flavors, differing only in their actions. Both are fully weighted with triple sensors and Aftertouch. The Studio model features a Fatar TP/100LR action with a lighter touch for piano and non-piano use, alike. The Grand goes premium with wooden keys and ivory-feel surfaces, at a trade-off of 15 additional pounds.

Onboard, the SL88 can do up to four zones, and the user interface is pretty ingenious: Next to the 320 x 240 color display is a clicky endless knob, which also serves as a four-way cursor joystick and a pushbutton. This lets you select presets, cursor around parameters when editing, change their values, and confirm selections all without taking your fingers off the knob. A number of useful General MIDI-based splits and layers are preloaded, but for rolling your own, the free SL Editor software (Mac/Windows) lets you see a lot more at once, and includes a “Key Balance” page that is every bit as sophisticated as the velocity curve editor on the Kawai VPC-1. Neither model of SL88 appears to come bundled with any virtual instruments to get you started, though.

Three assignable joysticks are all you get for real-time control. The left one is springy, the right one free-floats, and the middle one is springy only on its X-axis—nice options there. If you want more knobs and such, Studiologic plans to offer control expansion boxes that attach to a strong magnetic rail on the rear panel. At present time, what goes there is limited to a music stand and laptop shelf.

The overall vibe of the SL88 is a useful and contemporary take on the ’80s-era master keyboard as command center, and it has a lot going on. It’s also remarkably lightweight given the mostly-metal construction. An outstanding value and definite sleeper hit. SL88 Studio: $499.95 | 30 lbs. | SL88 Grand: $899.95 | 45 lbs. | studiologic-music.com

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Lachnit MK-22

The MK-22 is a very high-end controller made in Vienna by Friedrich Lachnit, whose résumé includes being a technician for Bösendorfer and developing their CEUS technology. Like Citroëns and Bellota ham, it’s one of those European revelations that makes Americans ask, “Why can’t we have nice things?” In this case, we can.

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The MK-22 begins with the TP/40W, Fatar’s top-end weighted, graded, wooden-key, real-hammer action. Lachnit then painstakingly regulates it as one would a grand piano. Light sensors are added to measure the escapement point in the key dip, which is where the hammer’s momentum takes over, and make sure this is consistent in relation to hammer speed. Designer Friedrich Lachnit told us that he doesn’t use “the original Fatar Silikon Sensor board. So there are no silicon contacts under the keys to be pressed. We interchange it completely with our patented FLKeys light-sensor system: we measure the speed of each weighting hammer just before the virtual ‘striking point.’ That way the latency between first finger-touch and Note on (striking) is as close to the original acoustic piano as possible.”

The MK-22 has dynamic resolution of over 32,000 values. Of course MIDI can’t reproduce that, but the idea is that every MIDI value that does result is uniformly close to the player’s intentions. (Analogy: Recording audio at a high sample rate has value even if most listeners will hear the song as an MP3.) For software pianos that can interpret it, the MK-22 employs CC 88 to transmit high-resolution velocity. The MK-22 Studio model senses Aftertouch.

For all its complexity under the hood, the user interface is relatively simple and focused on playing dynamics. Via two front-panel knobs, the curve is continuously variable, and can be skewed to favor the bass, middle, or treble range. Then, the Dynamics knob acts as a sort of “compressor” relating finger velocity to sensed velocity. This may not seem as granular as a key-by-key software editor, but musically, it gets results as good and arguably more fluidly. Pitch and mod wheels are on hand, as is one assignable pot. Zoning for splits or layers? You’ll want to handle that on the receiving end.

The piano-playing experience may surpass even the Kawai VPC-1. The Lachnit offers a modicum more real-time control, and its appeal reaches beyond piano purists in at least one case we know: It’s the controller of choice for Microsoft Director of Sensory and Sound Design Matthew Bennett, who works on Xbox and the HoloLens VR platform. “After working with this keyboard for at least a couple of months now, I can say it’s amazing,” he told us. “It has changed the way I work and will make a big difference to any pianist who really cares about touch.”

If you want a non-U.S. spec car or a leg of Iberian jamón, you pay a registered importer through the nose. If you want the ultimate pianistic MIDI controller, you pay Friedrich Lachnit.
MK-22: 3,490 (approx. $3,900) | MK-22 Studio: 3,990 (approx. $4,500) | Both: 48 lbs. | flkeys.at

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Roland A-88

Simple, reliable, and compact are the hooks here. The reel is the Ivory Feel G keyboard, which previously was used only on the company’s higher-end digital pianos as well as workstations such as the (now discontinued) Fantom-G8. As its name implies, it has textured key surfaces. It also simulates the feel of escapement, the mechanism in a grand piano whereby the hammer falls back from the string even though your finger may still be depressing the key. (In terms of what you feel, this is the same as “let-off” in the Kawai VPC-1 section above.) The musical benefits of this are most felt on legato passages, fast runs, and single-note trills.

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Looking like a stretched RD-64 stage piano, the A-88 can be powered by USB or an AC adaptor, and supports true sostenuto and half-dampering when combined with the optional RPU-3 triple pedal unit. Connections are basic: Two continuous and one switch input, plus a single MIDI Out port to supplement the USB.

Performance controls are few but useful. Dedicated octave-shift buttons double as transpose buttons, there is a split/layer button with selectors for the lower and upper zones, two buttons and two knobs are freely assignable, and two signature Roland controllers are present: The pitch-mod “paddle,” and the D-Beam, an optical sensor you move your hand over in Theremin-like fashion. It can control pitch, volume, or an assignable parameter.

These controls all get smarter when the A-88 is connected to a Roland SuperNatural-based instrument such as the Integra-7 module or Jupiter-50/80 synthesizer, automatically mapping to key parameters on a per-sound basis as well as enabling sound selection directly from the unit. Since many unweighted Roland synths now offer a SuperNatural internal piano sound, the A-88 could be a great addition if you intend to use that sound much.

The action really does feel great, and I felt it was non-fatiguing even after function gigs involving three or four hour-long sets. Another value proposition is the slim size and light weight, making this a good choice if you’ve wanted a “full 88” in your rig but were holding off for space reasons.
$999 street | 35 lbs. | rolandus.com

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Infinite Response VAXMIDI

The VAXMIDI is the phoenix that has risen from the ashes of the wonderful but ultimately moribund VAX-77, which we reviewed way back in April 2010. Unlike its progenitor, it doesn’t fold in half. Instead, it maintains the same quality while cutting the cost by roughly two-thirds, arriving in kit form for you to do the final assembly. There’s no soldering and the only tool required is a screwdriver, so you don’t need to be a Maker Faire geek. If you are, though, Infinite Response is open-source about everything in VAXMIDI: Their website offers schematics of all parts, from sheet metal to keys to circuit boards, as well as all the firmware source code.

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The keyboard is not, strictly speaking, a piano-like action. It certainly is weighted, going beyond the usually euphemistic sense of “semi-weighted” to what this term should mean. Like the VAX-77, the feel is in the sort of “expensive weighted synth” territory of classics like the Rhodes Chroma and Yamaha CS-80; which is to say, substantial and extremely expressive.

Each key lifts a hammer (the weight you feel), which passes through an optical sensor. A long skinny triangle cut into the hammer is what disrupts the light path, the state of which is read over 200,000 times per second. Both channel and polyphonic Aftertouch are supported, the VAXMIDI being the only piece in this roundup that senses the latter. High-resolution MIDI velocity can be output as well.

Form factors are interesting. A piano spans seven octaves plus three notes, A to C. The VAXMIDI kit comes in four, six, or eight octaves, F to E. (Why didn’t they put a low E on it?)

A special mode achieves tight integration with Apple MainStage, letting you step through Concerts in series or pick them directly. List mode offers multi-timbral “set list” functionality internally, and Direct is the “program every CC yourself” mode.

Though it’s hard to imagine the VAXMIDI adopted by pianists who just want to play Ivory, its appeal potentially reaches far beyond the DIY/hacker ethos of its early adopters. With a little patience and quite a modest cash outlay, you can assemble an instrument whose combination of keyboard feel, resolution, poly-Aftertouch, materials quality, and MainStage integration is not found in any other controller at any price.
Four octaves: $649 direct | Six octaves: $899 direct | Eight octaves: $1,149 direct | vaxmidi.com

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Doepfer PK-88

You may recognize Doepfer as one of the major names that has been making modular analog synth gear since way before it was cool … again. Their master keyboards are somewhat of an outlier in the U.S., but they’ve been making them for nearly as long. Taking a minimalist approach, the PK-88 is as close to the title of this roundup as it gets: It is, quite simply, just the keys.

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Those keys consist of a great feeling Fatar hammer action, the graded TP/40GH. The PK-88 doesn’t sense Aftertouch, though its siblings the LMK2+ and LMK4+ (which also have more controls and onboard programmability) do. A single five-pin MIDI Out carries a mirror of the USB port’s data. You get one continuous pedal input and one “double” switch jack, which means it can accommodate a double pedal unit that uses a TRS plug. The PK-88 can be USB-powered, which is fortunate because units sold in the U.S. don’t include a power supply and the 9VDC power input is an XLR jack.

One of the biggest attractions of the PK-88 is that it is literally its own flight case. Fasten the matching cover over the keys, and this thing is rugged enough not just to withstand getting tossed around by the ground crew, but also seemingly to be usable even after you crash on a tropical island whose residents include a smoke monster. The LMK series is likewise built, though we think the PK’s absolute simplicity makes it more resilient still. If you don’t need military-grade toughness, the Roland A-88 is a lighter schlep in a similar size profile.
$1,149 street | 44 lbs. | doepfer.com

WEIGHT LOSS

If key real estate is more important than key feel and/or if you’re on a tighter budget, one of these three (lightly) semi-weighted 88s might fit the bill. The Alesis Q88 ($199 street) looks to be a redux of M-Audio’s Keystation 88es, with pitch/mod wheels and octave-shift buttons, but all other functions accessed by a page of key presses. For the same price, however, the M-Audio Keystation 88 II delivers a bit more, adding cursor and DAW transport buttons. Both come with Ableton Live Lite and AIR’s Xpand soft synth; the M-Audio adds a Sonivox grand piano. Going a notch more upmarket is the Nektar Impact LX88 (shown, $299 street). It not only gives you a full complement of knobs, faders, buttons, and drum pads, but also has control templates for nearly every DAW you can name. Speaking of DAWs, you get a copy of PreSonus Studio One Artist in the bargain.

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