Hands-On Review: Keylab Essential mk3 Universal Controller

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Hands-On Review: Keylab Essential mk3 Universal Controller

Arturia has been producing quality musical instruments and software plug-ins for nearly 20 years. The brand endeavors to create comprehensive hands-on hardware and software for an intuitive music-making experience that sparks creativity. When I was asked to review Arturia’s latest budget controller and software, KeyLab Essential mk3, I welcomed the opportunity. For a budget controller, you could not do better, because this quality MIDI controller is great for producing music in your studio and provides excellent synth action with velocity sensitivity and deep integration with your chosen DAW and software plug-ins. I love synth-action keyboards, especially for playing drums. If you have ever tried to play drums on a fully weighted piano action keyboard, you know my pain!

KeyLab Essential MK3
KeyLab Essential mk3

Hardware

The KeyLab Essential mk3 is a lightweight MIDI controller that’s currently available in 49-key and 61-key models. Its well-made plastic enclosure features faux wood-grain stickers on the sides, offering a sharp appearance at any angle. The front panel is adorned with 8 velocity-sensitive drum pads, 9 endless knob encoders, and 9 faders. The center section features a new 2.5" screen with four soft buttons and a large clickable rotary encoder, making navigation easy and breezy. To the left of the display, you’ll see the dedicated transport controls and DAW function buttons including metronome on/off, loop, save, quantize, and more. To the right of the display are hardware controls for the on-board arpeggiator, chord generator, scale function, as well as mode navigation (more on this later). The far left of the keyboard offers more dedicated controls for the controller including transpose, octave shift, and MIDI channel select, as well as a dedicated pitch and modulation wheel. The rear panel includes a standard 5-pin DIN MIDI output jack, a ¼" pedal input for sustain or expression, and a USB-C port for powering and connecting the controller to your computer.

Software

The KeyLab Essential ships with a comprehensive software bundle including Analog Lab V, Ableton Live Lite, and a collection of sounds from Loopcloud, as well as two piano instruments, UVI’s Model D and Native Instruments' The Gentleman. Additionally, the software package includes a subscription to Melodics, a desktop app with more than 40 tutorials designed to help you improve your keyboard playing and finger drumming.

Setup

Setting up a new keyboard controller can be a daunting task, since any number of issues can arise, from broken installers and missing drivers to organizing and installing presets. Thankfully, I had none of these issues. Upon receiving the KeyLab Essential mk3, I followed the simple instructions laid out on Arturia’s website, which had me download and install Arturia’s Software Center. The ASC lets you easily see what products you own and allows you to try some products for a trial period. The ACS installed the KeyLab Essential and Analog Lab V, as well as the MIDI Control Center, which you can use to handily customize the MIDI controller’s knobs and faders by assigning custom notes and controller messages. The best thing about the KeyLab Essential is you don’t have to program anything to get up and running quickly. The system offers deep integration with several DAWs including Cubase, Bitwig, FL Studio, Ableton Live, and Logic Pro X. Each of these software titles includes a dedicated Integration Script, which automatically places MIDI scripts into the correct folder for their respective DAW software. I went with Logic Pro since it is my main DAW, but also tested the system with Ableton Live.

In Use

Once I had the suite of software installed, I loaded Logic Pro and began working on a new composition. Arturia claimed that Logic would recognize the controller straight away, but something was amiss. I looked at Logic’s controller setup and saw that it had generated the controller, but upon further investigation from the Arturia site, the controller had the wrong type of driver selected. Once I enabled the Arturia “MIDI” driver, everything snapped to life and I started to populate Logic with audio and software instrument tracks. The controller’s Program button navigates between three modes: DAW, Arturia, User.

Logic

The DAW mode utilizes the downloaded and installed Logic script, which allows for easy navigation of the tracks on the arrangement page and adjusting the parameters of a selected plug-in or instrument. A contextual button under the display lets you toggle between controlling a plug-in parameter and Logic’s mixer. In mixer mode, I used the first eight knobs and faders to adjust panning and volume levels for the first eight tracks. Fader/knob 9 were allocated to control the master volume and pan controls. As I scrolled through the available tracks with the large clickable data wheel, the bank of eight knobs/faders automatically adjusted. I toggled to the plug-in control and the parameters of the instrument plug-in were mapped to the first 8 knobs/faders. The ninth fader/knob controlled the volume and panning of the selected instrument, which let me lower the volume quickly as I increased a synthesizer’s resonance and drive. Good stuff!

Analog Lab V

I loaded up the Analog V software into an instrument track and used the “Prog” button to switch to the Arturia setting. The plug-in opened in the browser window, where I could search for a wide variety of sounds and textures. I loved the 1-to-1 controls over the instrument as I used the large click-wheel to peruse patches and presets. All of the controls are clearly mapped. I especially appreciate the display’s ability to update when moving a knob or fader. I never once felt lost or confused when adjusting parameters. The sounds from this collection are incredible. The browser made it simple to narrow down my quest for specific sounds, such as synth pad, deep bass, sequences, and more. I could create a complete arrangement easily using just the Analog Lab V software. Fantastic sound library!

Ableton Live

Next, I setup the KeyLab Essentials to work with Ableton Live. After I installed the MIDI script, I launched Ableton and the system worked flawlessly. Like Logic, you can navigate through the mixer window or through a plug-in’s parameters with no issues. When working in the mixer mode, I could launch a scene by pressing the large click-wheel. Once I switched to the instrument view, I could control the parameters of the selected instrument or plug-in. Bank 1 of the drum pads allowed me to launch specific clips, while Bank 2 is designed to play sounds from Ableton’s Drum Rack.

Conclusion

Overall, I really liked the controller. If you are in the market for a lightweight and portable keyboard controller, the KeyLab Essential would not disappoint. Serious keyboard players might have issues with the synth action keybed and the lack of aftertouch but, for most, this won’t be an issue. As a basic controller with scalable velocity that’s easy to program to your playing style, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. The DAW integration works well for Logic and Ableton. I still had to use my mouse, but nowhere near as much, which helped keep me focused on the task at hand. The 1-to-1 control over Analog Lab V was spot-on and allowed for fast and efficient browsing of presets, selecting of patches, and sculpting the sound with the hardware-controlled parameter. This KeyLab Essential mk3 is one of the best budget MIDI controllers available.

For more information about the new KeyLab Essential mk3, including additional features, specs, and highlights, be sure to check out the detailed product page for the Arturia KeyLab Essential mk3 61-Key Universal MIDI Controller and Software. Or drop us a line below, and we’ll do our best to reply to your comments and questions.

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