For those of you looking into a higher-end 88 key MIDI keyboard controller, Arturia has your back here. We were excited for them to add on to their reputable KeyLab Essential MIDI keyboard series, considering many were begging them to give them an 88 key model. For this year, we were pleased to see they listened to many of us and they didn’t tweak too many features we all love in their other KeyLabs but simply some extra beef and of course, more keys! Let’s get into the details of our Arturia KeyLab Essential 88 review.
Highlights of the KeyLab Essential 88
- 88 velocity-sensitive, semi-weighted keys (aftertouch)
- Nine (9) rotary controls
- Nine (9) faders (30 mm)
- Eight (8) control pads (backlit)
- One (1) clickable encoder
- Nine (9) encoders
- Six (6) transport switches)
- Four (4) command switches
- One (1) sustain pedal out
- Pitch bend and mod wheel
- Software bundle: Analog Lab (6500+ keyboard and synth sounds), Ableton Live Lite, UVI Model D (piano VST)
Weight: 18.7 lbs.
Overall features of the KeyLab Essential 88
Considering they have two versions of their 88 key MIDI controller (the other being the KeyLab 88 MKII, which is a lot more expensive but comes in a metal casing and has a Fatar keybed — it did make an appearance in both our 88-key MIDI keyboard as well as best fully-weighted MIDI keyboard guide since it’s such a great piece of gear). It’ll all depend on your budget as well as what you think you really need in a MIDI controller. If you think spending twice the amount of money is going to be worth it for you (the biggest factor will be the actual key make, the MKII’s Fatar keybed is nearly a mirror image of a real piano’s keys).
The semi-weighted keys with aftertouch in this 88 Essential is still going to do the job, and is fine for most producers out there who aren’t too picky when it comes to keys. We know many pianists who say it’s either fully-weighted or bust, while others are fine for using this semi-weighted (since most MIDI keyboards out there, especially in this budget-range, are either semi-weighted or synth-action) in either the studio as well as performing on stage. It’s just personal preference and budget at play here. We’re just glad Arturia is giving us options!
Another one of our favorite highlights of the Essential 88 is the DAW center, which provides automatic mapping with pretty much every DAW out there. You also have some nice access to presets on here (there’s an actual preset button by the screen) and you can browse by name in text (no color here, just words). They told us it will work “all the major DAW” when we asked in articular which software it would actually work with, so we’ll take their word for it as we haven’t had the time to actually test this thing with literally every single DAW available.
The assignable buttons, encoders and faders are all great here, and are definitely ‘essential’ in MIDI keyboards in our opinion (hence the name), although we also know some musicians who just want keys and that’s it — if that’s the case for you, there may be other options in the market for just 88 semi-weighted keys. Otherwise, the Essential 88 also brings us some nice customization when it comes to further controls in MIDI aside from just being a keyboard. Their assignable pads are also velocity and pressure-sensitive with a nice feel and backlit capability.
The Arturia KeyLab Essential 88’s software
A big plus of this MIDI keyboard is going to be the seamless integration with DAW and plug-ins, but most specifically if you’re using some of their VST (which we actually recommend, they make some of our favorites out there). When it comes to Analog Lab (which they include in the package), everything that’s controllable on the keyboard itself is going to automatically map with it. The reason why we love Analog Lab so much? Vintage synths. There are a total of 24 in there, with a whopping 7,000+ sounds to choose from. It ranges all the way from classic pianos to dirty synths, to some real-sounding bass and strings. We use A.L. for seriously almost every song. It’s our go to, aside from N.I.’s massive, for dirty synth leads in our tracks if we’re feeling it. That’s already about a $200 value for Analog Lab alone.
In addition, we’re getting Ableton Live Lite DAW so if you need to try out a new software or are even looking to use your first workstation, this will be even more perfect of a buy for you. Ableton is one of the most popular out there at the moment, and although this is the Lite version, will be worth at least trying in order to see if you want to buy. Lastly, they include what’s called UVI Model D, which is an additional German grand piano VST. Why not?
Concluding our KeyLab Essential 88 review
First thing is first: if you were already shopping for a VST synth bundle, and at the same time need a new MIDI keyboard, this is literally, absolutely perfect. If you perhaps needed to upgrade a MIDI controller, or wanted to expand to 88 keys and still needed a VST synth bundle — still good! Otherwise, it will start to just come down to personal preference. The value in this is something Arturia really focused on. It’s a MIDI keyboard with the ‘essential’ features without overboard specs that jack up the price, and at the same time provide value with software that actually matters. In regards to upgrading from a previous keyboard that you may already have, it doesn’t have anything groundbreaking or different when it comes to what other MIDI keyboards actually bring, no. However, in the past 5 years we haven’t really seen that at all, aside from better mapping with plug-ins and DAW.
In the end, we think this is a viable option to buy when it comes to a MIDI keyboard controller with 88 keys. It isn’t necessarily a MIDI keyboard with fully-weighted keys; however, those start to jump into the above $500 price-tag, and those that aren’t a grand do not come with as many assignable buttons and pads like the KeyLab. So yes, there will definitely be some critiques about the key makes, but again that isn’t the point of the ‘Essential’ series regardless. Also, their software bundles aren’t as hefty, considering Analog Lab is one of our favorite VST bundles out there (we use it almost every song). As stated previously, they do have their KeyLab 88 MKII with the Fatar keybed, but that’s nearly double the price (and yes, did make our guide linked above). We love just having the KeyLab Essential 88 as an option and will recommend it to many for years to come when we it fit into their needs.