Arturia’s elevator pitch for the Keylab 88 goes something like this, “The KeyLab 88 is a professional-grade 88-note MIDI keyboard controller designed with the working musician in mind. Featuring a new hammer-action keybed from Fatar and deep integration with our award winning Analog Lab software, the KeyLab 88 is unique with its robust, solid metal construction and classic wooden side panels.”
My thoughts aren’t too far off from that statement. Let’s dig a bit deeper.
The Arturia Keylab 88 is the mother ship controller of the Keylab line of deeply integrated controllers. You may have seen my past review of the Keylab25. I love that controller but I think it misses the mark on one thing… no pads. Maybe not a big deal but my thought is that maybe the 25 should have the pads and the 88 shouldn’t. That makes more sense in terms of purpose and workflow, but I understand the designs in terms of space and real estate for the pads to reside. having said that, the larger Keylab controllers may have hit it on the head, giving the user a good complete package of control from pads and sliders to keys and transport.
Speaking of the pads… The pads feel nice, rather confiortable and are pretty responsive. Not as large as MPC pads, rightfully so, the 16 backlit pads come in handy and they make for a good well rounded package on this controller.
So, fast forward to the Keylab 88. A good while ago I became obsessed with the weighted keys. I found that I loved the Korg SV1 keys. They feel great and actually inspired me to play better. I discussed my thoughts on it here in the Quick Hands on Korg Krome article. But to bring it full circle, I now have a vintage Rhodes and the Keylab 88 in the lab to compare directly with one another. They are such different beasts. Long story short? They don’t compare. They are too different beasts.
I was surprised to find that the weighted keys on the Keylab 88 are much heavier than the keys on the Rhodes. Some of the more experienced players may already know that it makes no sense to compare the two. At any rate, I’m going to do just that. My Rhodes has a lovely weighted action and the keys sort of bounce back at you as you play. In contrast, the Keylab 88 keys are a bit heavier. I recently went to a well-known pro studio that had a Yamaha C7 Grand Piano. The Yamaha C7 Grand Piano plays like a dream. As it should. The keys on the Yamaha C7 Grand Piano are more weighted than my Rhodes as well but not as heavy as the Keylab 88. All of that said, the keys on the Keylab 88 are a bit heavier than what I’ve experienced elsewhere but the action is nice on this “88 note hammer-action Fatar keybed with velocity and aftertouch”. It’s without question an enjoyable playing experience, especially for those looking for more of a piano feel. On that note, you’ll notice your playing will become a bit more nimble on other synth action keyboards.
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Build quality is good. Arturia does so well with their metal body casing. The keylab series is built better, in my opinion, than a good number of synths out there in the market. Although, I can deal without the “wood look” ends. My thought is that wood ends need not be faked. It’s wood, its good. It’s not wood, then the ends should match the rest of the body. I think it cheapens an otherwise well done controller.
The Keylab 88 has classic midi in / out 5 pin din connections. Control inputs for expression pedals, sustain pedal and breathe controller. It also has class compliant USB for midi i/o and bus power. Given the sheer size (approximately 45 lbs and 60 inches long) of this 88 key behemoth, it is pretty impressive to think that it can be bus powered. As a matter of fact, I only use it powered via USB bus power.
Fun fact… A friend came into the lab and stared at it for a bit before saying “that big board is bus powered?” Why, yes it is my friend! Yes indeed it is! But for those that prefer otherwise, the “DC power input allows use as a standalone controller.”
The Keylab 88 has plenty of real estate for your Macbook 15″ or 17″. Even the BeatStep Pro rests rather perfectly on the top right side. Keylab 88 comes with a shelf extension of sorts that extends the open space a couple of inches out on the back right side. ALso, included is the removable music stand that attached to the Keylab 88 to the left of the shelf on the back side. The removable music stand stretches from the far end of the 16 backlit pads, clear across to approximately mid ways the 32-digit LCD screen on the left side of the control surface. The stand is perfect for sheet music, ipad (ipad pro even) or, as I use it, with all three Roland Boutique sound modules lined up across the removable music stand (albeit the 3rd RB extends a bit off of the side of the music stand… but it works none the less). The one thing on the top surface that I wish was located a bit more inline with the keys is the pitch and mod wheels. It seems to be the trend lately to place those above the keys somehow rather than inline with the keys. Still, I’ve managed to work with them without noticing much while playing.
Features on the hardware side are;
- 2 clickable encoders,
- 6 transport switches,
- 1 modulation wheel,
- 1 pitch bend wheel,
- two banks of 10 encoders,
- two banks of 9 sliders,
- 1 volume encoder,
- 10 assignable switches and
- 16 backlit pads with velocity
Software bundle includes Analog Lab (6000 synth sounds) – best of the best from Arturia’s classic emulations, UVI Acoustic Grand Piano and the Pianoteq 5 Stage. I don’t know that there is a more comprehensive bundle with 88 hammer-action Fatar keybed with velocity and after-touch. I could gush over the soft-synths and sounds included here but the review would get much longer as each of these software synths are dope onto themselves. I’ll just say, if your budget could only buy a weighted controller or a soft synth bundle, I’d immediately point you in this direction for the illest 2 birds scenario. Analog lab has you totally covered on classic synth patches (everything from Arp 2600 V to Prophet 5 V), while the UVI Acoustic Grand Piano combined with the hammer action 88 keys sounds and feels like the real deal indeed. Lastly, everyone knows I love a good EP, the Pianoteq 5 Stage is no slouch by far. This is a complete package indeed.
Overall, I think the Keylab 88 is an amazing command station type of controller. The build is pretty well done in terms of sturdy metal construction. The integration with Arturia plug-ins is flawless. The hammer action fatar keybed with velocity and after-touch feels great. In fact, it’s probably one of the best on the market as far as I’ve experienced personally. The software bundle covers a lot of ground rather well too.
As for the things that I would improve, if I may nit pick for a bit? I’d like the pitch and mod wheels inline with the keybed. I’d like real wood end cheeks and not “wood look” end cheeks. I’d maybe trade the 32-digit LCD screen for a slightly bigger full color screen simply because this nice build deserves that bit of fanciness. But even with all of that said, I still think Arturia rocked this one rather well. I can confidently recommend this board for those looking for the center of the universe controller with weighted keys.