Mobile keyboards continue to be fruitful and multiply. But Novation’s latest includes standalone mode, so it isn’t just a computer accessory – so let’s see how this category looks now.
Novation is the company that brought you the workhorse Launchpad grid, so anyone wanting a keyboard with colored grids on it would do well to take notice. But the MK3 adds some features its predecessors lacked – starting with the ability to work with gear minus the computer. New on the MK3:
- Standalone mode and MIDI. There’s just a 3.5mm MIDI out jack, but combined with functionality that works without a host, you can now use this little keyboard with gear and not just a computer.
- Fixed chord mode. Even for those of us with keyboard chops, this is useful on a small keyboard or in dance music contexts. New on the MK3.
- Arpeggiator. New on the MK3, and puts the Novation in contention with offerings labeled Akai and Arturia.
- Pitch/mod wheel. MK3 adds these as touch strips; the Launchkey 25/49/61 have pitch and mod, but it’s new on the Mini line.
- RGB backlight. Yes, yes, more disco lights – but this also shows more information, matching colors to clips you’re launching and indicating status. Also new on MK3.
There’s also a Capture MIDI button, which lets you grab ideas even if you haven’t hit record. That’s now in Ableton Live, too, but it’s great that with the keyboard, this works everywhere.
And existing standard features from the Launchkey mini are here too:
- Scene/clip launch (for Ableton and Novation software – this is a Launchpad).
- Velocity sensitive keys and pads. Also standard on the Launchkey line. Velocity is actually missing on the Launchpad mini, meaning if you want triggering and velocity, this is a better bet.
- Bus power.
There’s additionally now a bunch of bundled stuff from AAS, Softube, Spitfire Audio, XLN Audio and Klevgrand, and Novation now does a free membership. No, that isn’t some elaborate “cloud/subscription” feature – they just send you stuff from partners “every couple of months,” which may be more what you want, anyway.
This does make the Novation offering competitive, no doubt – not least because of Novation’s uniquely close relationship to Ableton Live, but likely just as useful with other DAWs (via Mackie HUI, which works with just about anything).
Here’s a hands-on review by loopop:
This also to me gives it a major edge over, say, Native Instruments’ keyboards, which work only when connected to a computer. That makes their Komplete Kontrol line desirable if you’re mainly interested in plug-in integration, but fairly useless if you want it to do double-duty with gear and not have to boot your laptop.
And that’s true of many other keyboards, too. Akai’s APC and MPK mini keyboards have some nice features and low prices, but they only work with a computer. (The MPK mini now has standalone sounds, but no MIDI out apart from USB.) And now Novation has added one of the features I like best on the MPK – the arpeggiator.
So this is really down to Arturia and Novation if you want something you can use on its own with your gear, as well as with a computer.
Arturia’s Keystep has a step sequencer and more dedicated arpeggiator functionality and controls. It also has channel aftertouch, so while it doesn’t have the extra pots found on the Novation, you can add expression as you play. And the Keystep has the unique feature of both MIDI IN and CV out, which lets you use the same keyboard to control analog gear or modular instruments, as well as making it a simple MIDI-to-CV converter.
The Keystep lacks the pads and their accompanying trigger/DAW features, and it doesn’t have encoders for other sound shaping possibilities.
So Novation gives you a still-usable arpeggiator and adds additional pad, control, and trigger features.