We review the Arturia Keylab 88 to see if it can replace all your other Midi controllers. Could this be the all-in-one controller you’ve been looking for?
If you are looking for a high quality and feature rich midi keyboard that could replace every other controller on your desk, or be your best friend on the road then we might have the one for you! The Keylab line-up are Arturia’s flagship range of premium midi keyboards so I wanted to have a closer look at the Keylab 88 to see if it is worth all the hype.
One thing to note here is that the controllers in the KeylLab line-up share many of the same features, in particular how the hardware has been optimized for Arturia’s Analog Lab software, and so much of this article applies across all the Keylab keyboards. So if you are interested in the 25, 49 or 61 Keylab models then this article will still have some relevance to you!
So back to the Arturia Keylab 88 review, apart from being very good-looking (in my opinion) is it really worth the price tag? Can it really replace all the controllers on my desk?
Let’s jump in and take a look!
Let’s start with the top face of the hardware where we get; 6 transport switches, 13 general purpose switches, 9 faders, 11 encoders, 2 clickable encoders, 88 hammer action velocity sensitive weighted keys, pitch and modulation wheels and 16 velocity sensitive pads. There is also a small 32 character screen and all this comes in a form factor of 129.5 x 34.9 x 10.8 cm and weighing in at 14.7 kg.
Along the back face we see A power switch, USB port, Midi in/out ports, Expression input, sustain input, aux pedal input and a breath controller input (for a Yamaha BC3 or similar if you can get your hands on one).
At 14.7 kg (32.5 lb) this thing is actually quite light when compared to other 88 keyboard controllers on the market and this is mostly achieved by the solid metal outer construction. I am not put off by the lighter than average weight of the Keylab 88 considering that it is just a midi keyboard with no speakers or built in PSU and that it is aimed at the performing musician even more so than the producer. The unit is framed at the sides by wood panels giving it a very retro synth look, the signature design look Arturia has adopted in the Keylab line-up. The keys are Fatar TP100LRs so they have a realistic piano feel to them and being a hammer style key you can expect a little more from them than you would from just weighted keys. See our article here for more info on weighted keys. The pads are somewhere between the Akai MPC pads and NI Maschine in terms of how hard the pads feel under your fingers. This is totally fine giving them a very playable feel without leaving your fingers numb after a long session.
So the Keylab 88 is a well-built and feature rich controller at the hardware level, it may not be as heavy as other 88 key units out there but it has it where it counts. As always when choosing an instrument for yourself I must advise you to go and try it out for yourself first! Much of what you will like and dislike about the hardware of a midi controller is subjective and so your best bet is to see the unit and ask yourself questions like; do the keys feel right to me? Can I control the encoders, are they in the correct place for my work flow. Do the pads feel good and do I have a feel for how the velocity curve in the hardware works?
I also ask myself one more question when looking to buy a new instrument of any kind. When I look at it, does it make me want to pick it up and play? For me this is the most important question because not only does it encompass the above questions but also if I have an instrument I can’t get away from then that is worth more than one that I am not bothered about playing. At that point any flimsiness in the fader or sogginess of the keys go away and I just play.
Here we will discuss some great features the Keylab 88 has that will make your life easier and please keep in mind that while this is specific to the Keylab 88 some features will apply across the other keyboards in the Keylab line-up.
The Keylab 88 has a midi editing function built right into the hardware allowing a user to tweak the midi data being sent from the controller on the fly. You are even able to select one of the 10 user presets, modify it and re-save it to the on-board memory. Depending on your work flow this can be a huge time saver! I own a NI Maschine and like to create custom mappings to control other software, the amount of times I have needed to go back and update a midi note value or CC value etc I would definitely pay a little more to have the ability to update it on the fly.
You can literally update any control surface on the Keylab 88 that you can from the free to download Arturia Midi Control Center software.
Velocity Curve Presets and User defined
Something I personally would like to see on more midi controllers especially those with pads is the ability to change the velocity curve settings. The Keylab 88 has 10 different velocity curve setting for you to choose from which can be applied independently to the keys and the pads. This means you can have one preset for the keys and another for the pads, furthermore this can be applied per preset!
On the Keylab 88 only, you are able to select from 1 extra Velocity curve preset called `User`. From here you are able to edit the 5 velocity locations along the `y` location to create our own curve. Note the `x` axis locations are set and not modifiable.
Remember – since the Keylab 88 only has volatile working memory and the presets memory, to save a user defined curve you will have to save your current setting in working memory to a preset bank. Do this before you power down or before you change to a different preset since the user defined curve will not have been saved into the preset bank you were on.
A very simple concept where you can split the keyboard into two independent halves at any point along the keyboard. You can even independently adjust the transposition of the keys or assign the transpose buttons to a particular half.
Empty space over the right-hand side
Weird title but let me enplane. If you study the top of the Keylab 88 you will notice a good amount of free space at the top right and this is on purpose! One of the included accessories is a platform that connects to the back of the Keylab behind this space allowing for a laptop, or a synthesizer to be placed in this location. Such a great idea in my mind for both a performer on stage who no longer needs an extra stand, and for a producer where desk space might be at a premium. Its small attention to detail that tips me over the edge when comparing between similar products.
Analog Lab Software
We discuss Analog Lab 3 in detail here but in a nutshell it is a collection of synth VSTi‘s tightly integrated with the KeyLab 88’s hardware making control of the software a breeze. Below is a interesting video running you through Analog Lab and other Arturia software.
Is this for me?
So this is the part where we discuss whether this might be a good choice for you or not and we do this by focusing in on some weaknesses of the keyboard. I know that when I am looking to make a purchase what I really want is some dirt on the thing because nothing can be perfect right? So here are what I think some weaknesses are of the Keylab 88 and why it may be a good fit for you or not.
Not that this is the most expensive 88 key midi keyboards around, but at around the $800 market is still not a purchase you want to take lightly. That being said if you have come looking for information on this particular keyboard then it is likely you have a reasonable idea of what the market is paying for this type of controller so it may not be such a big deal. In this case I would say that if you are reasonably new to the music production game or don’t have a lot of cash to splash then I can’t recommend this to you. If you are however on the other side of this line then I would recommend this based on price to performance ratio.
Midi controller only
This follows on form the price discussion above because you need to remember that this is just a midi controller! it does not make any sound of its own.
Update Coming? – Speculation
This keyboard has been out for almost 3 years as at the time of writing this article and based on what I know of Arturia I am thinking that there might be an update on the horizon. There has been a number of updated midi controllers recently and looking at Arturia’s current offerings it looks like the next one to be updated is the Keylab 88. The Keylab 25/49 and 61 have been either updated or discontinued in the case of the Keylab 25 and so this is exciting to see a new version possibly coming out. SO if you have the time to wait then I would suggest doing so keeping in mind that this is only speculation on my part that the Keylab 88 will receive an update. However, if you can’t wait or if you are like me and are afraid that the design of the Keylab 88 will go the way of the Arturia MiniLab MkI (losing the wood accent panels down the sides) then go for it!
Faders to the left of knobs.
This is a personal thing I have when looking for a midi keyboard for my setup, I like to assign the faders to parameters in the software to bring expression and life to a recording. I have found that faders are the best and by assigning 3 or 4 different parameters to the different faders I am able to get movement and feeling out of a midi recording.
My preference is to have the faders as far to the left as possible so that I can play the keyboard notes or pads with my right and hand and more the faders with my left hand. On the Keylab 88 the faders are pretty much bang in the middle which for me is OK but I would have liked to see them to the left of the encoders closer to the mod and pitch wheels.
So what is missing?
Since its release, what features that we now see on controllers today are missing from or that we would like to see on the Keylab 88? Perhaps a high resolution display like that on the Komplete Kontrol S Keyboards form NI giving us almost hands free control of the Analog Lab software? Touch strips in place of the wheels like that found on the 49 and 61 Keylab/Essentials keyboards? Perhaps lower latency hardware and drivers for better live performance? And of course we can forget… RGB!
The biggest differences we are seeing now are tighter integration with the software so much so that you now have screens on midi controllers. Take a look at some newer midi keyboards and in particular the new features they have, are these features important to you?
Before writing this article I was already on the lookout for a midi keyboard for my production setup, I even had a list of must have features written down. This sparked my motivation for reviewing the Arturia Keylab 88 and now that we are at the conclusion end of the article I can say that this one is now at the top of my list. It has everything I need from a midi controller and more, it is well integrated into the Analog Lab software of which I am already a user off and I really like how it looks.
I hope that most of all this review has helped you decide if this is the keyboard controller for you or not and given you some ideas of what to look for. I highly recommend writing down what features you need like I did. This really helps you focus on what you want, which can be hard in today’s world when there are so many options.
Let me know if you like this article by clicking the like button below, and let me know if there is anything else you would like me to cover, in the comments section.
Thanks for reading!