Professional MIDI Controller for a Tight Budget
For a lot of pro-producers, working from a home-based set up brings its own unique challenges. Chief amongst these is the constant quest for space for and placement of gear. For those with custom furniture it can be a little less stressful but one thing is for sure, a MIDI controller with DAW integration is an essential part of the Nouveau-tech studio and for the budget conscious there are a lot of alternatives.
The question is, though – which budget controller is right for serious producers? There are so many ways to achieve the functionality necessary in a modest work area but the new KeyLab Essential 61 from Arturia is one of the most logical and certainly one of the most eye pleasing ways of creating a central hub for all your DAW based operations – mainly because of its clean but comprehensive layout.
“…which budget controller is right for a serious producer?”
Hooking the Keylab Essential 61 up is as easy as it gets. For most, simply plugging in the included USB cable will be all that’s needed. There is a PSU available seperately that will power the MIDI out function, (enabling you to link it to an external hardware synth) and a universal sustain pedal connection.
Make sure, also, to create an Arturia account and register the hardware online, in order that you may gain proper access to the excellent software that comes with the Keylab Essential, as well as the very important ‘Arturia Software Center’ and the equally vital ‘MIDI Control Center’ which allows you to customize the controller to your liking.
Keylab Essential includes an incredibly useful grand Piano library from UVI which most of us here found quick and easy to pull into a track and very economical on CPU – making it a solid alternative to whatever standard piano your DAW may come with. You will need to download the excellent and free UVI workstation to load the library but it is an absolute cinch to use. Also available, if you’re interested in trying it out (and why wouldn’t you be..?!) is a sleeved down version of Ableton Live, called ‘Ableton Live Lite’. With drums, instruments and effects included, Live Lite is able to host all your VST’s and Audio Units on up to eight audio and MIDI tracks. Live Lite is pretty useful for doing simple productions on – perhaps creating a really solid mix tape or whatever – but the real appeal is for those who’ve never experienced the joy of truly creative, world class music production in a ridiculously user friendly, drag and drop environment.
Perhaps the greatest unsung hero of the Essentials package though, is the included Synth Plugin, Analog Lab 2. A blatant show of effortless integration from the heart of the French company that literally puts 5,000 presets from the combined might of Arturia’s well respected V Collection in one, very well designed GUI. After you’ve downloaded the latest version through the Software Center you can access it as a standalone app (just like the rest of the V Collection) or as a plugin in your favorite DAW. This is only half of the good news, however. The true value of Analog Lab 2 actually lies in it’s amalgamation with the Essential controller. Analog Lab 2 comes pre-mapped to Keylab Essential and as such, you are able to use it almost like a real synthesizer.
“The true value of Analog Lab 2 actually lies in it’s amalgamation with the Essential controller.”
Keylab Essential comes in a 49 key version as well but APN tested the 61 key model. Upon unboxing I immediately noticed the lightweight but sturdy plastic construction and was happy to see the well secured, large diameter, rubber feet which make for a very stable, desktop stance. The 61 key is long and low, which took a while getting accustomed to after the tremendous bulk of say, a Novation Impulse. From left to right there are an abundance of controls starting with real pitch and mod wheels that, although rather diminutive in size, feel comfortable and natural to actuate, though they are only able to transmit the standard midi messages and cannot be customized with the MIDI Control Center. Next we have the +/- Octave buttons which actually flash faster the higher you go (with the right button) and the lower you go (with the left, or octave down button). When you reach middle C, both buttons stop flashing.
“The 61 key is long and low, which took a while getting accustomed to after the tremendous bulk of say, a Novation Impulse.”
Directly above are two very useful buttons. When you press chord it will start flashing, allowing you to play a chord into memory which can then be re-played with one finger whenever that button is lit up. The Transpose button to the right allows you to pick any note to use at middle C. This is great for those who’re allergic to the black keys…
Adjacent to that are eight, LED backlit ‘performance pads’ which are just big enough for reasonably frenetic finger drummers and have a particularly solid composition. There is a tactile, matte finish to them that makes you want to start mapping your drums for a more personal connection.
The Transport section is the next thing to fall under scrutiny but, just like the rest of Keylab Essential it’s perfectly well appointed and offers exactly what you both need and expect. Stop, Play/Pause, Record, Loop, Rewind and Fast Forward are all present and correct. Depending upon which protocol your particular DAW connects to Essential with (Mackie/HUI), you may also get use of Metronome, Punch, Save and Undo which’ll help you gain speed and credibility during high-stress, Prima Dona style vocal recording sessions.
“The Transport section is the next thing to fall under scrutiny but, just like the rest of Keylab Essential it’s perfectly well appointed and offers exactly what you both need and expect.”
The jog wheel is really the centerpiece of Keylab Essential and using it quickly becomes second nature – especially if you get sucked into the world of Analog Lab 2 where you can scroll through the thousands of presets by turning the fat, gray dial and then pushing it to click into the next layer of preset menu’s to quickly locate the sound(s) or style of sound you’re looking for. The backlit, blue, digital readout is tragically underwhelming in this brave new age of super amoled 18 point multi-touch, 8k screens, but it’s actually very easy to read and displays just what you need to get the job done.
Just to the right you’ll find three programmable buttons that can be used for Preset (Previous) Preset (Next) and Bank (Change). Very useful for those who can’t bear using the mouse to click through acres of presets on synths like Sylenth and Predator. Last but not least there are eight 30mm faders plus a master fader which double as ADSR adjustment for Analog Lab 2 sitting beneath nine, non detented, endless encoders that’re earmarked for either panning (in mix mode) or Cutoff, Resonance, LFO rate and LFO amount when mapped to Analog Lab 2 or one of your own snazzy, ultra modern VSTi synths.
“The jog wheel is really the centerpiece of Keylab Essential and using it quickly becomes second nature – especially if you get sucked into the world of Analog Lab 2…”
“your fingers literally slip, slide and fly around the Essential as though the laws of physics (and boring, semi weighted controllers) do not apply.”
The sixty one, extremely plasticy, synth action keys have an effortless, smooth action that makes it feel as though you’re playing a gigantic, greased up Minilab 25 or Akai LPK. your fingers literally slip, slide and fly around the Essential as though the laws of physics (and boring, semi weighted controllers) do not apply.
In a way, the sheer accessibility of all the functions on Keylab Essential, in tandem with the excellent build quality and sleek, post modernistic design make this an incredibly strong contender in today’s savage MIDI controller market. To make a difference in 2017 you have to get everything just right. Just looking good and touching on a few key areas no longer cuts the mustard.
The Essential looks great in your studio, especially when Vegas Mode kicks in after five minutes and all the onboard LED’s cycle through their different color ways in an ironic nod to mid 90’s screen savers. But the Sixty One actually has the substance and heritage to back up it’s nouveau good looks and that’s what puts it top of the heap in the new budget-pro category.
“…the Sixty One actually has the substance and heritage to back up it’s nouveau good looks and that’s what puts it top of the heap in the new budget-pro category.”
Compatible on Mac:
CONTROLLER: 10.8+: 4 GB RAM; 2 GHz CPU, 2GB free hard disk space
ANALOG LAB 2: Mac OS X: Standalone, AU, VST2, VST3, AAX
Compatible on Windows:
CONTROLLER: Win 7+ PC: 4 GB RAM; 2 GHz CPU, 2GB free hard disk space
ANALOG LAB 2: Windows: Standalone, VST2, VST3, AAX
- Deep Feature Set
- Excellent Software Integration
- Old Fashioned LCD Display
- No Plugin Auto Mapping
- Questionable Longevity