As you’re beginning to develop your own workflow, you may find yourself stuck in a rut of tinkering with things for too long so they can sound a certain way. When I began using Ableton, I would get frustrated with trying to modulate the different parameters of a sound because I had no idea what I was doing but I had the idea in my head.
I needed something to help execute my creative ideas while learning new things hands on, so that’s when I began to hunt for my first MIDI Keyboard.
I was looking for a keyboard small enough to fit on my desk, but also had the ability to offer unique sounds and use multiple controller functions. I knew that I would eventually use this setup to jam with my friends so I also wanted a keyboard/controller that I could take anywhere with me.
At first, I was indecisive of what MIDI Keyboard to get because there are so many great options, but there were very few controllers that provided built in software that I could experiment with.
That’s why I thought the Arturia Minilab MKII was my best bet.
I’ve seen several Arturia products in my search, and I quickly became interested in the company because they offer functionality and affordability. Since their start in 1999, Arturia has grown and developed their software synths to emulate sounds from popular synthesizers and keyboards like the Roland Jupiter – 8, Sequential Prophet – 5, and many more.
This is something that I truly valued because I believe creating affordable software is essential for those who want to learn more about synthesis and can help discover their true sound.
Since the Arturia Minilab MKII is the second build of it’s kind, you can tell the quality has improved from it’s previous model. The new color-backlit pads are velocity sensitive and can help you map certain sounds to a specific color to help with your workflow.
Although there are only 8 pads, the shift button allows you to switch between two banks, which brings the total number of pad assignments to 16. The velocity pressure can be adjusted in the MIDI control center, but they already feel responsive with good key velocity out of the box.
Personally, I enjoy using a 2 row by 4 column pad layout because it feels more natural compared to a single row with 8 pads, although this may not be an issue because sometimes programming drums with the pads then moving to your DAW is more suitable to the production.
When it comes to small MIDI keyboards you will find that they are mostly synth action keys, which is something that I like to use when producing electronic music. On the Arturia MiniLab MkII, the velocity curve can be adjusted to your liking, but Arturia does a great job at deciding a common factory setting for the keyboards velocity.
However, one feature I thought needed reworked was the touch control mod wheels. I personally had trouble using them because their response was a bit slow and if you’re someone who likes using pitch bend in your playing, this might be a tricky function to use properly.
Overall, the keys are incredibly fun to play on because they have a bouncy feel to them.
The Arturia Minilab MKII comes with the Analog Lab Lite which is packed with 500 preset patches of tasty sounds that you can modulate with the 16 rotary knobs. I didn’t have to mess with digging for sounds and effects because the Analog Lab Lite allowed me to find new sounds and modulate each parameter with the built in knobs. Two of these knobs are clickable so you have the option to map “record”, “play”, or “stop” buttons since the Minilab doesn’t have those transport keys included on the controller.
If you’re really enjoying the sounds that the Analog Lab Lite provides, Arturia gives you the option to upgrade to the full version that has over 6000 unique sounds to choose from. My favorite feature of the Minilab is that it’s plug and play, which has allowed me to quickly hop into my DAW, pick a sound, and experiment with the different parameters as I create a beat on the fly.
How Does it Compare?
As you’re deciding on the proper keyboard to add to your studio, there are several factors to think about before your purchase. Depending on the functionality you prefer, the Arturia MiniLab MkII can provide the ability to experiment with unique sounds and use the different controller functions for both production and performance.
Since it’s one of the few 25-key MIDI controllers that comes with an additional soundbank, it’s hard to pass up if you’re looking to stay within budget. Although there are several controllers that can get the job done, the diversity of each sound within Analog Lab Lite is a great addition to enhance your sound selection.
If the knobs and pads aren’t suitable for your needs, the next best option is the Arturia Keystep. It’s a 32 key MIDI controller that is still very portable and functional as a studio keyboard.
A unique quality that the Keystep provides is the ability to implement the polyphonic step sequence: chord and arpeggiator modes on each of the presets. The chord step function allows you to play a chord and then trigger it with a single key across the keyboard.
Aside from this, there are also transport keys included on the Keystep to “record”, “play”, and “stop”. Although the Keystep has slightly bigger keys than the Keylab (see below), they are still slimmer than most MIDI keyboards on the market.
If you find yourself mostly playing keys with very limited use of knobs and pads, this is a great alternative that stays within the Arturia name.
If you’re someone who is looking to use a controller with built in sounds, the Arturia Keylab comes with 5000 preloaded sounds from the Analog Lab software that are modeled after classic synthesizers and keyboards.
The great thing about this keyboard is that it come in different sizes ranging from 25, 49, 61, and 88 keys. This is more suitable for someone that is interested in using the Keylab as a piece of studio equipment for more serious piano playing.
It’s a bit more expensive than the MiniLab, as the 25 key model of the KeyLab starts at $199. However, this controller comes with 9 Sliders, a preset navigation menu, and a proper mod/pitch wheel setup which is more suitable for someone who is well verse in their piano playing.
Akai MPK Mini MK2
The Akai is another great runner up if you want more dedicated transport controls, but still have the ability to use knobs and pads with your production.
The Akai MPK Mini MK2 comes with a unique pitch/mod wheel that is similar to an analog stick. This feature functions much better than the Arturia MiniLabs touch bar pitch/mod wheels. I think that they layout of the Akai is useful for drum sequencing because they Pads are in a 2 row by 4 column configuration. However, the Akai MPK does not have nearly as many knobs to modulate and assign functions to.
This controller is a great starting point for at home production and performing in Ableton Live, but you will need to expand your sound library on your own since it does not include software with added presets.
Novation Launchkey Mini
The Novation Launchkey Mini is great if you’re someone who likes programming drums with velocity sensitive pads.
I think the layout of the Launchkey is much more intuitive for playing drums and live performances because you can program drums and use the pads to trigger individual clips and multiple scenes within Ableton. This controller includes software features like the Novation Bass Station, a 4-gig library of session ready samples, and a copy of Ableton Live Lite.
However, the Launchkey lacks the pitch/mod wheel controls and has fewer knobs compared to the Arturia MiniLab. If you’re not worried about having limited options for different sound patches, and will be using this controller to trigger clips/scenes, the Novation Launchkey Mini integrates well with Ableton and is a great option for bedroom producers.
Although the Arturia MiniLab MkII might be small for some producers, this is a great setup to play your own melodies, program your own drums, and perform as an overall workstation.
As you start messing with this controller you will discover new features the Arturia MiniLab includes, like the ability to easily map and customize the controller’s MIDI function and store 8 presets on the device that can be swapped on-the-fly and saved after unplugging the controller.
As someone who loves being able to experiment with sounds but hasn’t quite learned the technical side to sound design, the Arturia Minilab MKII is a great starting point for both the studio and something you can take on the road. This not only functions as a learning tool, but it gives you the ability to play around with live performance and find new ways to implement your own sounds.