Arturia has taken their V Collection, Pigments, and Analog Instruments and packed them into a gorgeous stage piano – no computer required. That probably brings some questions to mind – here are some answers and nitty-gritty technical details.

I’m sure this is not an unexpected move: modern embedded computational power means that software that runs as a plug-in can be adapted to standalone operation. What I’m keen to investigate on the AstroLab is how well this keyboard has made its transition from desktop software to standalone keyboard. We’ve seen efforts from Native Instruments, Akai, and Ableton, to name three, but each has brought its own set of wrinkles. What’s promising about AstroLab is that it looks like it might offer the kind of accessibility of our favorite stage keys over the years. They’ve even done some nice work making split operations easy – and it looks gorgeous. I’ve got a test unit UPSing its way here, but let’s cover some technical details.

First, check the design. This is the first of this class of instruments that looks living room friendly as well as designed for stage/studio, with optional legs that turn it into a nice home piece. And for fans of the scroll wheel (ah, original iPod), you get a 320px color screen embedded in a primary navigation wheel, intended for exploring available sounds.

Most significantly, perhaps, this is competitive on price – 1600 EUR/USD for the full package, meaning you’re closer to a portable digital synth price than a stage piano price. And for those of us who work a lot with plug-ins, it’s a huge timesaver.

So you can think of this less as a computer replacement as a stage piano or home piano or standalone studio instrument that doesn’t require all the added work finding presets and managing setups that stage pianos do. It’s got the functionality and price point those of us with computers would expect. In other words, it promises to be a stage piano for those of us who didn’t find stage pianos all that relevant.

It promises to be a stage piano for those of us who didn’t find stage pianos all that relevant.

It’s really intended as an instrument for sound design, jamming, performance, and recording/production in equal measures. Of course, given how well a computer can run these days, its main competition then becomes just using your favorite controller and computer setup, so that’s primarily what I’ll be testing by way of comparison. What AstroLab does offer potentially is integration and accessibility that require more work in a custom configuration – even if that might be more flexible or cost less. And of course it means you can ditch the computer, which onstage can be a big concern.

Questions and answers

What instruments are available? There are 27 instruments from V Collection and Pigments, and 1300+ onboard presets – plus an additional 10,000+ presets you can load from V Collection, Analog Lab, and Pigments. (That includes 7,000 free sounds from Analog Lab Pro and Arturia Sound Store, plus the ability to purchase sounds or use a license from the other instruments.)

So it’s just a preset machine? Or can I design my own sounds? You can create your own sounds with V Collection and Pigments. So you have two approaches – the browse/tweak way of doing things, or the ability to load your own presets. You can organize presets either way.

Note that loading custom presets outside the stock collection – or your own – you’ll have to take computational resources into account. Like I said, the competition these days for standalone designs is really your computer.

It has audio input capability? Can I use it for effects processing? Yes and yes: there are stereo XLR jacks, and since instruments like Vocoder V and Pigments can process external inputs, you can make audio effects use of this.

I’ll also have to check if those Pigments audio input presets I made can run on this; that’d be fun.

What about splits and scale mode? Well, as see on the S-Series from Native Instruments ,you get LEDs to indicate splits and scales.

What expressive options do you get? Unfortunately, this is pretty standard – 61 semi-weighted keys, channel aftertouch, so no polyphonic aftertouch or MPE. But I do understand this is Arturia’s own action, and frankly a lot of folks don’t really need those extra options. You do also get eight 360-degree pots with LED rings, and you also have the option of assignable switch/expression pedal inputs.

How are the pots mapped? These have fixed mappings – brightness, timbre, time, movement, plus FX A, FX B, delay, and reverb. Brightness is of course parameters like filter cutoff; movement applies to tremolos, sequenced effects, and the like. Having these have a single set of labels and mappings means you get consistent operation and can apply your muscle memory. You can reassign these or use them freely in your own patch designs as you with, though.

Additional specs:

  • Screen encoder / ring lets you navigate through press, instruments, effects, and settings, dialing them up jog-style. Turn to scroll, press down to select, and shift-press or long press to edit.
  • 2-part multitimbral – layer or split
  • 2 insert effects: chorus, flanger, distortion
  • Delay (analog, digital, or tape)
  • Reverb (digital, plate, spring, room, hall)
  • 320px color screen
  • 10 preset buttons for quick recall
  • Arpeggiator
  • Sequencer/looper
  • Chord and Scale modes (unfortunately no tuning options on the keyboard itself; I’ll have to find out how that maps to presets, etc.)
  • Mono mic input for vocoder
  • XLR/TRS stereo inputs
  • USB-A host (for both external storage and external MIDI connection – powered)
  • USB-C connection for computer – or phone, or tablet – for data connectivity/MIDI
  • Sustain and expression pedal inputs
  • Assignable aux 1, aux 2 inputs for additional pedal, expression inputs
  • Polyphony: 8 voices for polyphonic synth, 1 voice for mono synths, 48 voices for pianos and organs (limited to ensure reliability)
  • MIDI input / output (output is configurable; it’s a combined out/thru port)
  • Balanced stereo output and dedicated headphone out
  • USB and MIDI sync
  • Built-in metronome
  • <7 ms latency from key press to output. (That full distance can be way larger than that on a computer setup; because the audio interface latency is not the full-time duration from keypress to output.)
  • WiFi and USB-C communication (not just WiFi, cough, Ableton, come on already)
  • Octave shift buttons
  • 10 kg (without those legs)

AstroLab is the primary interface for working with the keyboard, including library management, and adapting your own presets for use on the keyboard in standalone mode. And yes, you can use this as a controller with your computer if you want – meaning then you’re free to blow through all the aforementioned polyphony limits and whatnot, though with the usual added overhead of your computer.

Functionality and performance capabilities

There are some other clever features here:

Filtering helps you to quickly find presets you want by instrument, type, your own library, or sound bank.

Playlists let you build groups of presets or set lists for live performance, editable from Analog Lab Pro. These have a hierarchy, too, so you can group presets into songs.

Saving presets on the fly means that you can tweak and design sounds and bring them back to your computer later – for more standalone possibilities. There’s also a Quick Save option (which leaves Type/Subtype where it is). Just get ready to dial in letters with that jog wheel since there’s no keyboard, arcade video game style (kids, ask your parents, who will tell you how AAA won at Q*bert).

Oh, and one more thing – and it’s a big one. You can swap sounds while holding keys and you won’t get any clicks, pops, or cut in sound, Arturia says. (That might also explain why they limited this to two-part multitimbral operation.)

There’s also wireless operation, including Bluetooth audio streaming from your phone – interesting. You have multiple options here:

  • Set up AstroLab as a WiFi hotspot
  • Work with presets, instruments, playlists via WiFi (in place of USB, though thankfully you can also use USB if you prefer)
  • Bluetooth MIDI operation (or USB, or 5-pin)
  • AstroLab Connect phone/tablet sync – which gives you additional browsing and sound loading options

But keeping the simple 2-part design, consistent parameter structure, and fixed effects structure keep all of this manageable and easy, which on AstroLab is really the point. That means it’s fairly easy to keep track of your two parts and what you’re controlling. There are certainly keyboards with more complex split/layer options, but I suspect Arturia has done a good job of making some settings most players will actually use (to quote a past product name from them).

What’s in there

Full insert effects list:

AstroLab – Product Brief

  • Chorus
  • Flanger
  • Phaser
  • Overdrive
  • Bit Crusher
  • Wave Folder
  • Waveshaper
  • Low Pass / High Pass / Band Pass / Comb filters
  • Equalizer
  • Stereo Pan
  • Wah
  • Compressor
  • Twin Amp
  • Rotary

And the instruments – get ready [picture from the mobile app]:

  • ARP 2600 V3
  • Augmented Piano
  • Augmented Strings
  • Augmented Voices
  • B-3 V2
  • Buchla Easel V
  • Clavinet V
  • CMI V
  • CS-80 V4
  • CZ V
  • DX7 V
  • Emulator II V
  • Farfisa V
  • Jun-6 V
  • Jup-8 V4
  • Korg MS-20 V
  • Matrix-12 V2
  • Mellotron V
  • Mini V3
  • Modular V3
  • OP-Xa V
  • Piano V3
  • Pigments
  • Prophet-5 V
  • Prophet-VS V
  • SEM V2
  • Solina V2
  • SQ80 V
  • Stage-73 V2
  • Synclavier V
  • Synthi V
  • Vocoder V
  • Vox Continental V2
  • Wurli V2

All the software is included, too – you get the full Analog Lab Pro and all those thousands of presets. You’ll only need separate Pigments or V Collection instrument licenses if you want to edit your sounds on your computer using those interfaces. But you don’t need another license for the hardware (cough, Ableton again).

What’s missing? You don’t get some older legacy versions of instruments. You swap out Analog Lab’s convolution reverb in place of the internal convolution reverb in Augmented Series, Piano V, and others. And you’ll see some polyphony limitations – think of unison and granular options on Pigments and Augmented Series, for instance. I’ll be testing that.

Also, we’re waiting on compatibility with Mini V4, CP-70, Augmented Brass and Woodwinds, Wurli V3, and MiniFreak V, though those are all coming. And yeah, that’ll be especially funny, the last one – you’ll be able to use the software MiniFreak V on the hardware AstroLab, negating the need for dedicated MiniFreak hardware (maybe).

Loading your own sounds is easy, though. You’ll just do it via Analog Lab Pro, where you can map macros, manage playlists, the works.

Side note: I am pretty sad on the tuning question – master tuning is there (400 – 480 Hz) but not other tuning options. (Also, can we please stop using the potentially racist, definitely not-accurate term “Gypsy,” now and forever, to say nothing of “Arabic” just being labeled incorrectly here because the 12-TET tuning isn’t accurate – which to be pedantic is theoretically also true of something labeled “Freygish.”) On the point of “Gypsy” scales, one really simple objection is, you don’t really know which scale you’re even getting.

But Arturia has more tuning support on desktop, and I’m still unclear on whether you can actually bake tunings from the desktop into presets and work that way, which would solve the problem.

A uniquely focused standalone instrument

Maybe what’s worth saying about AstroLab – and what I’m curious to test – is that this doesn’t do everything a computer does. NI, Akai, and Ableton all replicated a lot of the software experience in hardware. As a result, those devices aren’t really much simpler to use than their computer equivalent.

Arturia has clearly said no to some things here – no bells and whistles like CV in/out, not too many controls, no polyphonic aftertouch, no big touchscreen, two-part multitimbral operation, limited polyphony. But as a result, AstroLab has a fighting change to do the thing great keyboards do, which is to be easy to use and play as an instrument, reliably. And it still does that at a price that’s lower than a lot of dedicated instruments, with the range of sounds you expect from a computer – including the ability to load your own.

That could help it finally bridge the world of dedicated keyboards and the depth of software, rather than sort of trying to be both at once and failing.

Watch for our hands-on soon – and let us know if you’ve got more questions.

Arturia AstroLab

Reviews elsewhere (c’mon UPS, move along… heh my delivery date just moved)