Review: The Perfect 88-Key Keyboard for Piano Playing and Music Production
Arturia KeyLab 88 MKII
Are you a piano player who wants to have thousands of studio-quality piano sample libraries under your fingertips? Do you want to produce music using hundreds of thousands of sounds but maintaining a pianistic focus? Are you a keyboardist who loves the tactile feedback of real buttons, knobs, and faders rather than fiddling with your laptop? I have got the perfect MIDI keyboard for you.
I am going to tell you 6 reasons why Arturia’s 88 weighted hammer action keys MIDI keyboard is your best choice if you are a traditional piano player looking to delve into the infinite world of digital audio production.
If you are an acoustic piano player, one of the most important aspects of your instrument is the key action and touch response. This is where Arturia’s KeyLab 88 MKII shines. The key action on most MIDI controllers is, frankly, awful. In my line of work, I have used at least a dozen MIDI keyboards. Arturia used one of Fatar’s best key actions on their MKII.
It is a made-in-Italy mechanical action that closely resembles the weighted movement of an acoustic grand piano.
It is a smooth, responsive but heavy action that is more Shigeru Kawai than Steinway and the synth keyboardist will need time to get used to it but piano players will be able to caress extremely expressive musical phrases from these keys. While key noise is a little more audible than what I prefer, the white felt strip at the key pivots helps to dampen the noise.
It would be nice to have a contrasting red felt strip like those on acoustic pianos instead of the inconspicuous white felt strip but that is really more an aesthetic preference. With Arturia’s MIDI Control Centre software, you can select various velocity curves. If none tickles your fancy, you have the option of customizing your own velocity curves. For better expression of synth and orchestral instruments, these keys come with after-touch which are really useful when producing virtual orchestration.
You can find a list of my recommended 88 hammer action MIDI keyboards here
9 out of 10 MIDI keyboards I have reviewed are made from cheap plastics and many of them feel more like a toy rather than serious instruments. You cannot blame the manufacturers as they need to make their MIDI keyboards affordable and lightweight.
On the other hand, the KeyLab 88 MKII is the crème de la crème of MIDI keyboards and oozes luxury. The build quality is comparable to a Rolls Royce rather than a rickety Lada Samara. The entire chassis of the MKII is made of metal, not plastic.
Even the base of the music rest and the included laptop stand is made of metal.
It is a nice touch with the small aperture at the bottom of the music rest which allows you to charge your tablet or smartphone while in an upright position on the stand
You get real wood at the sides of the keyboard and the optional wooden legs, not just tacky veneers.
The pitch bend and mod wheels are made from aluminum which is something never seen on a MIDI keyboard.
The 9 endless rotary encoders, which I prefer over encoders with hard stops, are fluid and smooth.
However, the feel of the 9 sliders is not a wow factor. They felt less premium and there are better sliders out there.
Every button has an incredibly solid tactile feel that will not leave you wondering if you had pressed it. While the backlit monochrome LCD screen provides great visibility at every angle and has utilitarian functionality, it would be nice if Arturia gave us a bigger color screen like those on the Akai MPC keys and Native Instruments S88.
There is no question about how robust the 16 RGB backlit velocity and pressure-sensitive performance pads are on this keyboard.
They are solid with very little side-to-side free play. The color of the backlighting can be easily configured using Arturia’s software. For use as key switches or for scene selection, these pads work great. For finger drumming, the pads are not as dynamic as I would like them but I did get used to them after a couple of days.
If you prefer something more portable, do check out my recommended portable keyboards here.
Bundled Software Instruments
Most MIDI keyboards come bundled with a few obligatory plugins to get you started. More often than not, the bundled instruments are either legacy plugins or lite versions which are often available for free anyway. As the KeyLab 88 MKII is Arturia’s flagship MIDI keyboard, it comes bundled with almost $750 worth of software from Arturia’s library. The biggest highlight is Arturia’s Analog Lab V, a full-blown product that costs $200 and not the lite version bundled with other Arturia keyboards. Analog Lab V contains more than 7,000 presets for analog and digital synths, acoustic & electric pianos, organs, strings machines, and samplers.
For the piano players, you get Arturia’s $250 Piano V containing 12 renowned world-class pianos meticulously crafted using Arturia’s proprietary modeling technology. Wurli V which usually costs $150 has you covered with a classic tine keyboard with Leslie speakers or guitar amp output. The presets are modeled after famous songs from artists such as Marvin Gaye & Queen. Organ lovers are not left out either, Arturia’s $150 Vox Continental V is a 1960s drawbar combo organ popularized by the Beatles, the Doors & Elvis Costello. Ableton Live Lite, which is an entry-level yet powerful DAW, is also included so you can start producing music right out of the box.
You can sign up for a 30-day free course on how to produce electronic music here. You can check out my beginner piano app as well as some beginner video courses and course materials available for you. Also, do check out this free 25 Piano lesson too.
It is very obvious Arturia has put in tremendous effort in integrating their instrument plugins with the controls on the keyboard. The integration is so tight and well implemented in Arturia’s ecosystem that the KeyLab 88 MKII operates as intuitively as a hardware synth.
All filters and effects are automatically mapped onto the corresponding faders and encoders and moving between instrument categories is a breeze.
Setting up voice layers and configuring keyboard splits for live playing is accessible with just a touch of a button.
The hardware and software integration on the KeyLab 88 MKII is the gold standard that I hope other brands can learn from.
Getting productive immediately is one of the big selling points of this MIDI keyboard. The KeyLab 88 MKII has 9 presets for use with the most popular DAWs such as Cubase, FL Studio, Logic, Reaper, Studio One, ProTools, and Bitwig.
It also comes with 6 customized magnetic overlays for 6 of the DAWs.
Even if your DAW is not listed, you can easily set up your own user templates.
Transport controls such as setting in and out points, start and stop recording, loops, rewind, and fast forward as well as moving along the timeline felt tactile and analog.
Adjusting track volumes & panning, selecting, muting, or soloing tracks is a breeze and extremely intuitive.
There are also buttons for quick transpose and octave shifts for live performances.
You can set up the keyboard for up to 10 work scenarios and quickly switch between them on the fly. Whether you are playing live, mixing, or mastering, the controller adapts and gets you making music really fast.
Learn how to use a DAW with a 30 free course here. You can check out my beginner piano app as well as some beginner video courses and course materials available for you. Also, do check out this free 25 Piano lesson too.
Being able to connect to every imaginable gear is one of the strengths of this keyboard. I have not seen another keyboard with better connectivity options at this price. Besides the usual USB MIDI port and 5 DIN MIDI for controlling other synths & workstations, there are CV outputs for connecting to analog synths and euro tracks.
You can connect up to 5 pedals to the keyboard including one for sustain and one for an expression pedal. These pedal inputs can be configured to trigger any MIDI functions, freeing up your hands.
You can check out the complete specification and the latest price of this MIDI keyboard here. Also, I have recommendations for speakers, headphones, microphones, and other connectivity devices which you might be looking for.
I absolutely love this keyboard. It might have a couple of quirks but there is really absolutely nothing like the KeyLab 88 MKII out there right now when it comes to the ridiculously good key action and the absolutely tight software integration with plugins and DAWs.
The high-quality weighted 88 hammer action keys make this keyboard perfect for piano players like myself who both plays live in the church and produce piano-focused virtual orchestration in my studio. With the optional wooden legs, this controller looks good both on stage, in my living room, and in my studio.
I hope you found my review of the KeyLab 88 MKII useful. Do check out the links provided in this article for the latest and most updated information and prices on KeyLab 88 MKII. Do also take a look at my other articles to find the best and most suited instrument for your personal need. Also, check out my Piano App and beginner keyboard course available for you