Why Arturia KeyLab 88 MK ii is a Game Changer
The musical instrument we are reviewing today is different from what we generally test on this website.
And this is Arturia Keylab 88 MKii and it is a hybrid-synth. It is an advance synthesizer but the core USP of the instrument is “piano-feel”.
Choosing these types of professional hybrid options are not so straight forward as it might look, because you need to understand as a music creator what you need and expect from the instrument.
And obviously you can't ignore the feel which is equally important.
As Arturia Keylab 88 MKii is not a novice device and cost may sound like too much to you. But for those who knows what they are getting into, the price won't hinder their decision.
Talking about the big players in the industry like Music Radar named the Keylab Mark ii as "The best midi controller and sequencer of 2019".
The other models of the series KeyLab 49 also offers some of the similar features, so in this detailed analysis I will picture both of them in one go.
So does the Key Lab 88 MKii delivers what it promises to and is it the right fit for you ?? Let's find out.
Detailed Analysis of Keylab 88 MK ii Features and Specs
Let me make one point clear before moving ahead is that, If you are looking for a digital piano then you are looking at the wrong instrument.
It is not a stand alone digital piano, In Fact it does not even have inbuilt speakers.
Keylab 88 MKii is a MIDI controller keyboard with a specific preference towards the authentic piano like feel.
As you might know MIDI controllers are instruments with lots of editing options with knobs, sliders, wheels, pads and all these are used to act as a middle device to transfer MIDI signals to other instruments.
A MIDI keyboard or controller keyboard is typically a piano-style electronic musical keyboard, often with other buttons, wheels and sliders, used for sending MIDI signals or commands over a USB or MIDI 5-pin cable to other musical devices or computers.
Generally MIDI controllers are used to play software instruments or with Hardware synthesizers to control the sounds that they generate.
One of the prime consent of the these devices are how well it allows you to control your digital audio workstation helping the efficiency of your music creation or performance.
With that said let's take a closure look at Arturia Keylab 88 MKii
Reading Reviews Is So 90's, Instead Check The Video Review Of Arturia Keylab 88 MKii Below 👇
Lets start the Keylab 88 review from the very left of the keyboard approaching towards the right.
The first thing you encounter on the right part is the :
- Modulation wheels
The purpose of the pitch wheel is to bend/change the pitch of the notes in the synthesizer.
You can alter the pitches dynamically without droping any notes.
Whereas the modulation wheels give you total control of the different elements of sounds.
By different elements of sound we mean to set the amount of vibrato, filter, tremelo, etc...
Below the wheels there’s chord memory functions where you can record a Chord IN.
Below the chord buttons you've got octave up and down keys.
On the next section of the panel we have 16 pads with backlit of vibrant colors, and it looks quite cool.
The pads serves their purpose of controlling the functions via DAW.
The beauty of the synthesizer lies in the amount of customization options it offers, as these pads also allows you to map certain functions of the controller.
Another common use of the pads are to use it as finger drums.
Upon my experience I felt that the pads feels good and triggers wells but there's still some room for improvement.
The next sections after the pads are Transport Controls Sections.
On the right of the pads you've got your transport controls section.
The transport control section has 6 buttons rewind, forward, stop, play, record and loop.
Above the transport section Arturia Keylab 88 MKii gives you a unique option and it’s termed as DAW Command/User.
It gives you option of some unique DAW controls and these controls change depending on which DAW you set.
Keylab 88 MKii comes with multiple magnetic overlays for this section. You can attach those overlays over the section to make it easy to understand and use according to your DAW setting.
If you are familiar with DAW one thing you will notice that DAW Command/User section controls are specific to Ableton Live.
After this section on the right you've got your screen and your main encoder knob.
This encoder knob changes its function depending on what you're doing on the moment.
Example you also use these to control your user templates (will explain this in more detail below).
Moving on the right you've got nine knobs and nine faders.
Below the faders you've also got 9 buttons.
These buttons do things like select tracks or select different categories in the analog lab software.
(Analog Lab is a software developed by Arturia. Analog Lab software offers latest collection of 6000+ sounds and is a gold mine for music creators)
Keys of Arturia KeyLab 88 MKii
This is the biggest keyboard that Arturia makes and it follows the same layout as the 49 and 61 key versions.
But what makes the Keylab 88 MKii stand out among its peer is the hammer action keys by fatar which adds a mechanical feel very close to a real piano that's the most notable difference between the 88 and the 49 and 61 key versions.
Upon playing the keyboard I felt the spring action is remarkable and the weight feel also landed on my expectation.
But I did find that compared to some other keyboards the touch is a little heavier than others.
A heavier touch is not a bad thing if you're used to playing on heavy pianos.
But it's kind of different for everyone and in my opinion key feel is very subjective. If you're a pianist like me having hammer action Keys makes all the difference.
In Hammer action keys keyboard expression comes out more naturally because this is how we've learned to play it's what your fingers are used to.
But do you are thinking that you gonna be able to switch between your Steinway PIano and the Keylab 88 and feel no difference?
Simply NO, this is a different type of device and beyond the piano feel there are a ton of features to control software synth, hardware synth and your DAW.
By the way the 49 and 61 key versions have all the same DAW and synth control features.
Now let's analyze the overall build quality of Keylab 88.
In my opinion you just can't beat the construction of an Arturia keyboard.
Keyboards from other manufacturers in this price range just don't feel as well-made like this. (BTW, I am not talking about digital piano here)
The surface of Keylab 88 is metal and there's real wood on the sides and it just feels premium quality.
Some Special Features
The 88 key version adds a couple features that you may not find on any other MIDI controller keyboard.
Example - you've got a handy laptop stand on the right top of the panel.
Having the laptop stand is really useful if you're performing on stage. There’s also a stand for your sheet music on the centre.
Another great thing to be noted is that the key lab can be powered either by USB from your laptop or using a power adapter.
A common question from novices may arise that’s what can you do with the keyboard when it is connected to your laptop ?
In that case you can use the key lab 88 to control the most used features of your DAW and can also control analog lab software synth by Arturia.
Ableton Live usage
Now, let's look at the specific DAW features for Ableton Live.
In Ableton Live The drum pads function as clip triggering.
You can use the faders to change the volume of different tracks.
The knobs at faders control pan.
The buttons at the bottom of the faders selects your tracks. The name of the selected track displays on the screen.
You can use the large encoder knob to select different scenes in Ableton Live.
One thing that may look difficult to the beginners are that The Keylab doesn't map controls for Ableton devices automatically.
But there’s nothing to worry cause you can do this pretty easily by creating a MIDI remote script. Here’s a video showing how it is done.
Arturia Lab keyboards are tightly integrated with the Analog lab and V collection software.
The key lab 88 includes Ableton Live Lite, Analog lab and 7,000 presets from the collection of vintage synths, pianos, organs and more.
Analog lab helps you access all of the presets from the vintage synth, pianos and other instruments that Arturia has to offer.
In the keyboard, you can browse the presets with the main controller knob and filter with the buttons below faders.
And when you load an instrument you can use all the knobs and faders to sculpt your sound to your heart's content.
The Keylab 88 is also a very capable sequencer and hardware synth controller.
The Keylab has CV connections for Gate, Pitch, Mod and Input as well as standard MIDI ins and outs. There’s also options for Controls/Pedals on the back.
The nice part about the Keylab keyboards is that you can create templates for every possible aspect you use thanks to Arturia’s MIDI control centre.
Using Arturia's MIDI control center software you can modify pretty much any control, any button, any knob, any fader on the Keylab 88 MKii and assign it to any midi control you want.
Example – you can create a template for profit 6 synth and control it with the knobs and faders.
For testing the software practicality I created a template for the nexus 3 software plugin so that the controls are automatically mapped to the default controls of the nexus 3.
Now these are just my experiment you can create whatever you want with these user templates and they can be really powerful and time and effort saver too.
My Experience With The Keylab 88 MK ii
I have used S88 by Native Instrument and I am pretty sure that the hammer action is heavier on the Keylab.
But if you are trying to decide between the Keylab 88 and the S-88 consider the differences in features rather than the key feel.
The Keylab offers more ways to control sound because it has faders and it's got drum pads and lots of ways to control hardware synth as well you don't get that on the Native Instruments keyboard.
But Native Instruments display unit is really nice and colorful screens which is advantageous.
And personally I really love them and I think the dotted text screen is where the keylab keyboards fall behind a little.
But can you live with the small screen on the keylab?
For me, it’s just a little compromise as Arturia Keylab 88 is a solid keyboard with pretty much every feature you can think of for DAW and hardware synth control.
Having so innovative and powerful yet simple interface really gives you full control of your music composition or performance.
How difficult is to control DAW from Keylab 88 ?
The ability to control DAW is one the best feature MKii offers.
You just need to press the DAW button on the centre of the front panel, below the encoder knob and it will automatically get synced with the DAW on connected device.
By default MKii will work with several digital audio workstation like Pro Tools, Cubase, Studio One to name a few.
Are The Pads Good ?
Nice, All of the 16 backlit pads are velocity and pressure sensitive allowing you to be more expressive on your music.
Are the keys good enough for a pianist ?
Yes they're definitely a step up from the synth action keys on other keyboards.
But keep your expectations in check this is not an acoustic piano.
But for controlling hardware synth in your DAW and having those amazing synth sounds from the Arturia collection this might be the right choice for you if you've got piano fingers.
I hope this detailed review of Arturia Keylab 88 MKii helped you in making a better decision.
Keep Playing and Spread Love.