Arturia has recently introduced the latest iteration of their popular KeyLab Essential MIDI controller series: the Mk3. What’s new? Is it worth upgrading? Is it a solid choice for beginners and more experienced players as well?
I have been using one for a few weeks now, so let’s find out more in our KeyLab Essential Mk3 review…
You can buy the 49 keys version ($/€199) in white / black and the 61 keys version ($/€ 249) in white / black from Thomann.
Design, Build And Sustainability
The KeyLab Essential Mk3 comes in two color options: black and white, and two sizes: 49-note and 61-note.
This controller is lightweight and convenient for both studio and stage musicians. It’s worth mentioning that Arturia has made some relevant eco-friendly efforts with the KeyLab Essential Mk3 (similarly to what we have seen in our recent Arturia MiniLab Mk3 review), incorporating at least 40% recycled plastic and reducing its carbon footprint by 18%.
The synth-action keybed remains apparently unchanged from the previous version, and to me that’s not a bad thing at all. Though the keys are not weighted or semi-weighted (frankly, I don’t expect them to be at this price range), they offer velocity sensitivity and, most importantly, a pleasant playing experience.
Still no aftertouch, and I’ll let you decide how important this feature is for you. Personally, I will say I would sure like to have it onboard, but at the same time it’s not a dealbreaker. It’s not a feature I would use all the time, and I already have some synths and keyboards with aftertouch, for when I really need it.
The KeyLab Essential Mk3 comes with a 2.5″ screen, a significant improvement over its predecessor’s two-line LCD. While not as sharp as some higher-end displays on the market (it’s not an OLED, and it couldn’t be at this price range) it offers comprehensive information, including parameter values and preset names.
Worth knowing: it’s possible to change its brightness/intensity through Arturia’s MIDI Control Center (a nice touch!).
To navigate through the preset and options there are four contextual buttons and a pleasant-to-the-touch, clickable rotary knob. These buttons are especially useful when browsing through Analog Lab’s presets, as you can easily explore categories (bass, keys, etc.), like/heart presets, and scroll through them (without even having to click to switch the preset).
FYI: the pictures below look a bit fuzzy because I still have the factory film on the display.
The buttons can also be helpful when using your DAW’s own virtual instruments. In Logic, for instance, you can toggle the instrument window on and off, and mute/solo the track.
Finger drummers will be happy to find 8 larger drum pads with a nice feel. (instead of the 16 smaller pads available on the KeyLab Mk2). You can access to 16 pads in total, switching between two banks.
One notable addition in this Mk3 compared to the previous Essential version is the Arp mode, providing a flexible and easy-to-use arpeggiator, aided by the larger display. It would be nice to have more arp modes though, maybe in a next firmware update? Hint, hint…
Worth knowing: The Chord and Hold buttons are pretty much self-explanatory, but using the Arp mode in combination with the Hold and Chord buttons you can easily transpose your arpeggios/sequences.
Just press Chord and create your (more or less complex) set of notes or press and hold the Chord button to pick one of the presets, then press Hold and then activate the Arp mode. Your chord notes will be arpeggiated AND you can now transpose them just pressing a key on the keyboard.
There is also a Scale button, which restricts the notes played to a specific scale. Not a feature I would use, but it can make sense for a product like this that caters to a wide audience, also for educational purposes.
Knobs and faders haven’t changed. You still get 9 of each, and as you would expect they are automatically associated with Arturia’s synth parameters in Analog Lab. I also had some luck checking out third party synths, but I would recommend customising everything through your DAW’s usual MIDI learn feature.
Connectivity, Software And DAW Support
As on the MiniLab Mk3, the classic 5-pin MIDI Output makes its comeback on the KeyLab Essential Mk3 as well. Having grown up surrounded by MIDI-controlled synths and devices, I appreciate Arturia’s decision here. Having a MIDI output definitely makes the KeyLab Mk3 much more versatile than its predecessor.
There is a jack for connecting external pedals (in the MIDI Control Center software you can select if it’s a sustain, an expression or a switch pedal), and a USB-C port for power (a USB-C to USB-A cable is included).
As you would expect from an Arturia product, the software bundle is the usual smorgasbord of goodies, starting with the super-useful Analog Lab, the ubiquitous Ableton Live, Lite UVI Model D Grand Piano, NI The Gentleman Upright Piano as well as a subscription to Loopcloud (2 months) and Melodics (unlimited trial subscription + bonus lessons).
To me, Analog Lab alone (usually sold for $199!) is worth the price of admission here. I use it all the time, and it integrates perfectly with the KeyLab Essential Mk3.
Speaking of integration, with its latest controllers Arturia is making things easier for DAW users. As with the MiniLab Mk3, the KeyLab Essential Mk3 allows you to use some freely downloadable scripts (for Logic, Live, Bitwig, Cubase, etc.) from Arturia’s website. These scripts allow you to play, pause, record, forward/rewind, toggle metronome and looping, undo/redo, etc. directly from your controller.
FYI: if there isn’t a script for your DAW, you can still control it through the classic MCU/HUI protocols.
Keylab Essential Mk3 Review: Hands-On Impressions and Conclusion
After using it for a couple of weeks, I can say that this KeyLab Mk3 is a keeper. Great price/quality ratio, pretty good keybed and pads, large display, Din MIDI output, awesome software bundle, plenty of knobs and faders, lightweight yet pleasant design, smooth DAW integration, lots of customizable options (via MIDI Control Center). It’s simply hard to beat at this price.
As it always happens with prosumer products, there are some inevitable trade-offs. The lack of aftertouch and the lack of an on/off switch might be something to consider for some users.
Following Arturia’s ‘tradition’, the KeyLab Mk3 has no power switch. This means that the unit in most cases relies on the computer’s sleep mode.
Now, on my Mac (Silicon, running Ventura) I experienced two different behaviours in this regard. If I put the computer to sleep, and I am NOT using the controller with a DAW, the unit doesn’t fully go to sleep (the display stays on). Not a big deal anyway, as LCD displays have a quite long lifespan (avg. 50,000 hours), but still a bit of a waste.
If instead I am running Logic, and I’ve selected the Eco Mode – Low Power setting in MIDI Control Center for the KeyLab (see image below), the unit does go to sleep, including the display, after some minutes of inactivity (5 or so). Arturia is usually pretty good with their firmware upgrades, so it is likely that we’ll see some fixes/improvements in the coming weeks, stay tuned!
One last nitpicking detail: I find the “inside” corners slightly too pointy. Not a problem for average home/studio use, but if I would perform live I would probably tape something on them, or try use my daughter’s clay!).
Small niggles aside, wrapping up our KeyLab Essential Mk3 review I would totally recommend it to all those looking for an affordable yet solid feature-rich controller.
It truly has the essential features most players need; it has full-scale synth action keys, it’s super fun to use with the included Analog Lab software bundle, it integrates well with most modern DAWs and can be used with old school MIDI gear as well. Last but not least it doesn’t break the bank ($/€ 199/249 for 49/61 keys). What’s not to like?
You can buy the 49 keys version in white / black and the 61 keys version in white / black from Thomann.
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