Hands-On Review: The Novation Launchkey [MK3]

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Novation has always been in the forefront of MIDI controller technology. The first version of the Remote SL promised a supreme command over your chosen DAW, complete with scribble scripts and a smart programming interface, which allowed you to control not only software, but hardware MIDI devices, as well. Novation has been pushing the boundaries of controller technology with its flagship SL MK3 MIDI controller, which adds a boatload of advanced features and functions, but with a premium price tag.

So, what’s a struggling musician supposed to do if they can’t afford the absolute very best? Do not fret, because Novation has always offered low-cost, budget-friendly controllers. In fact, its latest offering, the Launchkey [MK3] series, offers a host of premium features, but at an affordable price. Packed with a ton of inspirational music-making features, more expressive pads and keys, and deeper Ableton Live integration than ever before, the Launchkey MK3 is offered in a variety of sizes, including 25, 37, 49, and 61 keys. For this hands-on review, I was sent the 49-key version.

The Novation Launchkey MK3

Unboxing

The controller came in a well-packed double box with the appropriate hard foam protection you’d expect. However, there was no literature, only a USB cable. I connected the controller to my computer via USB and the MK3 bloomed in an array of colors. Like a flash drive, a Launchkey folder appeared on my desktop containing a link that read, “Click here to get started.” Clicking the link opened my web browser to the Novation Launchkey web page, where it self-populated the serial number and offered several downloads for configuring the controller for Logic and Reason. Where was the Ableton version? It turns out the controller is already set up for Ableton Live 10. I did have to update my Ableton to version 10.1.15, after which everything worked like it should.

Setup

There was literally no setup. If you have the latest version of Ableton, you are good to go. I watched a couple of getting-started videos just to get familiar with the unit. Maybe a total of 20 minutes and I was up and running. I checked out the “Settings” menu and discovered that the controller has a surprising number of advanced features, such as distinct MIDI channels for Keys, Chords, and Drums, as well as velocity curves for the keys and pads, channel and polyphonic aftertouch for the pads, MIDI clock output, pad attack threshold, and LED brightness for the pads and buttons. What’s more, the Launchkey implemented a clever way of using the pads to set the values.

Digging Into Ableton

The Ableton integration worked extremely well. The Launchkey MK3 is populated with secondary functions that are accessible by pressing the “Shift” key. Simply holding Shift while pressing a button or key provides access to these features without having to menu dive! It was a little fiddly at first, but I got the hang of it quickly and could navigate easily.

The bottom row of pads configures the pads with four function modes: Session, Drum, Scale Chord, and User Chord, as well as four custom settings that you can set up via the freely downloaded component software. Session mode allows you to fire off clips. To the right of the top row of pads is a “>” button, which allows you to launch the scene of all clips in the row.

Selecting Drum mode reassigns the pads so they work with the Ableton’s drum rack. The Scale Chord mode changes the pads to dedicated, one-note chords. The first row offers triads, while the secondrow of pads contains 7ths. Pressing the down arrow reveals a third row of 9ths, and the fourth row offers 6ths and 9ths. Holding down “Shift + Up or Down” changes the chord octaves. User Chord mode allows you to create and save up to 16 chords with up to six notes in each chord.

The top row changes the Knob modes, offering Device, Volume, Pan, Send, and four custom settings. The Device mode assigns the knobs to whatever instrument or plug-in is on the selected track. You can navigate between different plug-ins using the Device Select button. By default, any instrument rack or drum rack’s macros are assigned. Moving a knob automatically updates the LCD screen and provides visual confirmation of the parameter you are adjusting. There is also a “Device Lock” button, which locks the knobs to a specific instrument or plug-in, which is fantastic in a live performance situation.

Volume, Pan, and Send are self-explanatory. Holding “Shift + Send” repeatedly will cycle between Send-A and Send-B. I created an additional return track but, sadly, the Send did not cycle through Send-C. Hopefully, this will be added in a future update.

The 49- and 61-key versions of the Launchkey MK3 feature an additional row of nine faders and buttons. By default, the faders are set to Volume, but they may be changed to Device, Send-A, and Send-B. There are also four custom settings that you can set up in Novation’s Component Editor software. Knobs and faders can’t share the same function. For instance, you can’t have the faders and knobs both assigned to Volume simultaneously. The far-right button below the faders switches the buttons between Select and Arm, which is a fast and easy way to move around your Ableton session.

The transport controls are to the right of the faders and include Play, Stop, Record, and Cycle, which turns on the loop cycle on the arrangement page. The upper row includes Quantize, Click (metronome), Undo, and Capture MIDI, which is a great tool for capturing the last take as a recording, allowing you to experiment without the pressure of recording.

Advanced Functions

The Launchkey MK3 offers some forward-thinking features that will help anyone write better music. On the left side of the keyboard, there is a button labeled “Fixed Chord.” Hold this button down and select six notes to create a custom chord (like User Chord mode on the pads). Play and transpose the chords using only a single key. The “Scale” function also works with Fixed Chord, which provides a smart and easy way to prevent any wrong notes within a chord scale. With just the Scale function on, the keys will only play the notes within a given scale. This affords a remarkable amount of freedom when playing the keyboard.

The Arpeggiator is my favorite feature of the Launchkey MK3. For the uninitiated, an arpeggiator generates patterns based on the notes held on the keyboard. Most arpeggiators offer the same basic patterns of up, down, up and down, played, and random. You can select how many octaves (up to four) the pattern will play and the rate of the pattern based on the clock (1/4, 1/8, 1/16, and 1/32 notes). The Launchkey MK3 offers these parameters and much more! You can use the Fixed Chord mode to create up to a six-note chord and the arpeggiator will generate a pattern based on a single press of a key. The arpeggiator also offers a “Rhythmic Select” function, which adds rests to the pattern.

These functions are assigned as secondary Shift functions on the keyboard. Simply hold Shift while selecting a key to recall a specific function. What’s more, pressing and holding the Arp button engages the Arp Control Lock over the pads and knobs. The top row of pads selects the different groups of parameters as shown on the keyboard (Arp Type, Rate, Octave, and Rhythm). The bottom row selects the various selections available in each group. The row of knobs offers control over Tempo, Swing, Gate, Mutate, and Deviate.

Selecting Mutate under the Arp Type section allows the Mutate knob to add random notes to your pattern. Combined with the scale functions, Mutate makes for an incredibly flexible way to create patterns on the fly. It’s like a “Happy Accident” machine that effortlessly generates different patterns that are always in key. The Deviate function is like Mutate, but works with the rhythm of the pattern, adding rests randomly. These patterns combined make for a wonderfully powerful pattern generator with spectacular results.

Using Other Software

The Launchkey MK3 is also compatible with older versions of Ableton Live (8 and 9), as well as Logic Pro X, Reason, FL Studio, Pro Tools, Cubase, and Studio One. You won’t get quite the depth of integration as Ableton Live 10, but still you are able to control basic transport functions and channel functions like Volume, Pan, Mute, Solo, etc. I tried the Launchkey MK3 with Logic Pro X and the device mode automatically mapped itself to Logic’s Smart Controls, which is perfectly acceptable. With Reason, I could get a little deeper with controlling instruments and effects. You can always remap the controller however you want using the Component software editor, and the Chord, Arp, and Scale functions will work as expected.

Hardware

The Launchkey MK3 is designed to control hardware MIDI devices and includes a dedicated 5-pin DIN MIDI output port. Armed with your favorite MIDI device’s MIDI parameter list (found in the manual), you can easily set up the knobs, pads, buttons, and faders to control anything using the Components software. The Launchkey also generates clock output, allowing you to synchronize an entire studio of drum machines and synth modules.

Final Thoughts

My only minor gripe is that the Scale Chord pad mode doesn’t trigger the arpeggiator. Hopefully, it can be implemented in a future update. The Launchkey is a fantastic keyboard controller with plenty of powerful features. In fact, if the Novation made a box with just the arpeggiator and scale functions, I’d be first in line! If you are in the market for a keyboard controller for Ableton Live, then the Launchkey MK3 is a no-brainer. But even users not using Live 10 will enjoy a powerful controller for any hardware or software application.

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