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”.
From my opinion when you invest in a big keyboard like this you want to make sure it can do everything it possibly can and it needs to feel right too.
As Arturia Keylab 88 MKii is not a novice device and cost may sound like too much to you. But for those who are in this industry knows it’s just a hot cake with a fairly genuine price tag.
Music Radar named the Keylab Mark ii - the best midi controller and sequencer of 2019.
Now i've already tested the key lab 49 earlier this year and found that many of the features are the same with this 88 key version.
But there’s one thing that stands out on the 88 version. I'll go over that and the other features in this post.
So does the key lab 88 – deliver what it promises to and is it right for you let's find out.
Detailed Analysis of Keylab 88 MK ii Features and Specs
I get a lot of questions from people who are looking for a digital piano for their living room to play on or to learn how to play the piano on so let me cover something first.
I have reviewed more than 70 digital piano in this site but the key lab 88 like other dedicated MIDI controller keyboards is not a standalone piano.
It even doesn't have sounds stored internally and it doesn't have inbuilt speakers too.
As you might not know MIDI controllers are meant to be used either with a keyboard to play software instruments or with Hardware synthesizers to control the sounds that they generate.
If you just want something you can switch on and playing right on then this post is not for you.
You should be looking for a digital piano not a Midi Controller.
The strength of a MIDI controller lies in how well it allows you to control and manipulate sounds through using the knobs, faders and buttons of the controller.
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.
It would be better if I begin going into details by explaining all the major buttons and controls of the Keylab 88 MKii.
We will explore from left to right.
On the very left you've got your pitch and modulation wheels.
The pitch bend wheel helps in increasing or decreasing the pitch of notes.
Whereas modulation wheel allows you to modify the different elements of sound. In simple terms you can attach expression to notes.
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.
After this panel you will find 16 backlit pads which you can use to control (map) some of the functions on your DAW or either you can use it as a finger drum.
When I played the pads I found themselves feel pretty good but not as good as Akai pads and machine pads but this is solely my opinion.
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.