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Arturia KeyLab Essential 61 review

(Image credit: Arturia)

Arturia’s KeyLab Essential 61 is a formidable MIDI controller, packed with intuitive features for keyboardists and producers alike. The KeyLab Essential series aims to facilitate software integration, with a plethora of software shortcuts and MIDI encoders that’ll have you cranking out tunes in no time.

Right off the bat, I was impressed by the KeyLab Essential 61’s design. In a world where many MIDI controllers seem cheaply made, Arturia certainly didn’t skimp on the construction of this keyboard. While it’s extremely light - weighing just over seven pounds, the controller feels sturdy and suitable for onstage and studio use.

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The back of the controller features an optional 9V DC power adapter jack, USB/MIDI out jacks, and a sustain pedal control input. While I’d prefer to have an additional expression pedal input, this certainly isn’t a deal-breaker. The KeyLab Essential series is geared toward efficiency, and the omission of this feature would only affect the most dedicated MIDI organists on the scene.

The Essential 61’s control surface is structured in a refreshingly intuitive manner. An informative LED screen and 360º preset selector is nested in the middle. On its left, MIDI transposition, drum pads, and transport controls are concisely arranged, and the drum pads double as software shortcuts. On the right-hand side, the controller features 9 endless encoder knobs and 9 fader controls.

Perhaps the most user-friendly feature of the KeyLab Essential 61 is its integration with the included software. Ableton Live 9 Lite and Arturia’s Analog Lab 2 are included with the controller, and its controls are automatically configured for both programs. The Analog Lab software makes use of Arturia’s fantastic software instruments, including their acclaimed recreations of classic vintage analog synths.

(Image credit: Arturia)

Using the included copy of Ableton Live Lite, I was able to easily use the pre-assigned controls to start working on a beat. Once configured, the KeyLab Essential 61’s second drum pad serves as a shortcut to your DAW, so you can dive right into the production process. Though transport controls are standard on most controllers, this controller goes above and beyond with extra controls for saving, undoing, punch recording, and toggling the metronome. An additional cool feature: the drum pads are backlit by colour-changing LEDs, and the transport’s “Record” button is backlit by a red LED for added contrast.

The KeyLab Essential 61’s LED screen is one of its best features. It’s far more informative than most other controllers on the market. The LED doesn’t simply show the data of the last MIDI control you moved; it also displays the name of the control and its CC value. The LED screen becomes even more useful when combined with Analog Lab and Ableton, displaying brief patch information and mappings.

The endless encoder knobs are wonderful, automatically remembering and picking up values from when they were last moved. The first four endless encoders are automatically mapped to filter cutoff, resonance, and LFO rate/amount within the included Analog Lab software, immediately enabling access to a wide range of tones on any given preset.

While I wish the MIDI fader controls were a bit sturdier, they certainly aren’t flimsy and their large rubber control surfaces make it easy to adjust parameters. These are also automatically mapped to the amplifier and filter envelopes in Analog Lab.

In comparison to other MIDI controllers on the market, the KeyLab Essential 61’s action is fantastic. I’d prefer a slightly smoother action overall, but this keybed is certainly nothing to complain about. Keys respond firmly and don’t click noisily after lifting your finger up, which is a common pitfall on so many controllers. In terms of MIDI velocity, the keys respond evenly across the dynamic range. You definitely won’t have any trouble bringing out dynamic contrast in your song or performance with this controller.

Verdict

Strengths
Solid, sturdy build in a lightweight package. Intuitive layout and controls, including 360º MIDI knobs and full DAW integration. Top-notch accompanying software for music creation and sound design.

Limitations
No MIDI expression pedal jack. MIDI faders could be a little more sturdy.

$249

www.arturia.com