Arturia’s KeyLab series has produced some of the most popular keyboard controllers ever made. They offer a mix of versatile functionality and build quality that most competitors can’t. We are reviewing the KeyLab 88 MkII to see how it lives up to the KeyLab reputation.Table of contents:
KeyLab 88 MkII overview
The KeyLab 88 MkII is an 88-key MIDI controller with weighted keys and aftertouch. It offers deep DAW integration and plenty of performance features.
Arturia KeyLab controllers of any size are amongst the most feature-packed on the market.
Fatar hammer-action keybed
Not all full-size controllers have hammer-action keys; they don’t even all have weighted keys. So, the fact that you get hammer-action keys is great.
The original KeyLab 88 had hammer-action keys, but in truth, they weren’t the best. The keys were quite noisy and didn’t quite feel right. The MkII keyboard is a significant improvement; the keys feel better, more responsive/expressive, and make less noise.
16 RGB-backlit pads
Anytime you can get 16 pads on a keyboard controller, it’s a pretty good thing. The pads feel great to play, and they are responsive enough for most finger drummers.
While on the topic of finger drumming, it might have been better to have them placed on the right rather than the left. That way, it’s easier to finger drum while playing chords with your left hand. Although, if you’re left-handed, it won’t be an issue.
Anytime we try out pads, we compare them to MPC pads, which probably isn’t fair. So, what we can say is that Arturia does it as well as most.
Assignable faders and encoders
Arturia has never been shy when it comes to adding assignable faders and encoders. The KeyLab 88 MkII has nine of each.
Connectivity is one of the areas where the KeyLab 88 MkII shines. It has four CV outputs and a CV input, so for anyone who uses analog/modular gear, it’s an absolute dream.
Along with the CV ins/outs, there is 5-pin MIDI in/out, and sustain, expression, and three AUX pedal jacks. Very few controllers offer this kind of connectivity to your external hardware.
Laptop and music stand
The removable music stand is a pretty small feature that many users might not even use. The laptop stand is an excellent addition to whether you need to save space in your home studio or use your laptop on stage.
Aftertouch is another way to add more expression to your playing. It’s not always found in keyboards with weighted keys, but since the KeyLab will be used with virtual instruments, it’s nice to have.
Depending on the software that you are using, you can assign aftertouch to different parameters. It’s a great way to add modulation effects to polysynth stabs or pads.
It’s easy to see that the KeyLab 88 MkII has lots of potential for integration just by looking at it. But, having lots of assignable controls isn’t enough if the integration process is too tedious.
Luckily, the KeyLab 88 MkII auto-maps to popular DAWs, giving you instant access to transport controls without touching a mouse. Anything that doesn’t map automatically is easy to MIDI assign as you go.
When you start to use the included Arturia software instruments, you see the real power of the KeyLab 88 MkII. All controls come pre-mapped to work perfectly with every single instrument in the Analog Lab software. Once you get started, it almost feels like you are using a hardware synth; it’s fantastic.
Arturia even provides magnetic overlays to custom set up your controller for popular DAWs.
In the studio
The KeyLab 88 MkII delivers everything that you could want from a studio controller. It’s the perfect centerpiece for your studio.
It integrates perfectly with your software and hardware, allowing you to control everything from one place. The CV connectivity is a real gamechanger for the KeyLab 88 MkII; it’s hard to find another controller that works so well with external gear.
If you just need a controller to play one or a few different virtual instruments, then you can get something much cheaper to do the job. It won’t have all of the features that come with the KeyLab 88 MkII, but there’s no point paying for them if you don’t need them.
On the other hand, if you have a stage setup that needs to be able to utilize and manipulate a lot of software quickly and accurately, the KeyLab 88 MkII is outstanding. The same goes for hardware, too.
The small details that we mentioned already, like the laptop stand, show that Arturia thought carefully about what a modern performer needs.
When you lift the KeyLab 88 MkII, you’ll quickly realize that it’s heavier than some stage pianos. What this tells us is that the build quality goes beyond the average MIDI controller. It has a solid aluminum chassis with wooden side panels, so it’s extremely robust. It looks great, too.
Everything is pretty solid, from the inputs to the mod/pitch wheels, to the buttons and sliders. Sliders on controller keyboards don’t always feel as sturdy as they could, and in transit, they could be the one potential weak spot. But, we would have to be pretty harsh to consider them below par.
Arturia is one of the best when it comes to software bundles, but it’s not because you get a huge amount. It’s because what you get is perfect for the KeyLab controller.
You’ll get a copy of Ableton Live Lite and a full copy of Arturia’s Analog Lab with the KeyLab 88 MkII. Ableton Live is one of the most popular DAWs, especially amongst electronic music producers. Once installed, it only takes a minute to integrate your KeyLab with Ableton fully, and you are good to go.
It’s important to note that you get a full copy of Analog Lab, as you only get the Lite version with some smaller Arturia products. It includes over 6,500 modern and vintage synth/keyboard sounds that are pre-mapped to the controller. Analog Lab is genuinely one of the best collections you will ever get for free.
Compared to other keyboard controllers
The KeyLab 88 MkII offers just about everything that you can fit on a keyboard controller. But it’s always best to check out some alternatives before you buy.
KeyLab 88 MkIi vs. M-Audio Hammer 88 Pro
We think the Hammer 88 Pro might have the best-feeling keyboard of any full-size controller. It also offers many assignable controls, just not quite as much as the KeyLab 88 MkII.
Check out our full M-Audio Hammer 88 Pro review
KeyLab 88 MkII vs. NI Komplete Kontrol S88
The simple answer here is that we prefer the KeyLab; it just has more to offer. But, if you rely heavily on NI software/plugins, the Komplete Kontrol will serve you better.
KeyLab 88 MkII vs. KeyLab Essential 88
The KeyLab Essential 88 is a stripped-back version that has slightly fewer features and a less premium feel. The catch is that it’s far cheaper, and it might be enough for your needs.
Final verdict on the KeyLab 88 MkII
We have to work really hard to find anything to complain about with the KeyLab 88 MkII. As we said, other options may suit certain users more. But, in terms of overall quality and functionality, we think Arturia leads the way with this controller. It does just about everything and does it very well.
- Lots of assignable controls.
- CV connectivity.
- Laptop stand.
- Hammer-action keys.
- 16 RGB-backlit pads.
- Solid aluminum chassis.
- Full Analog Lab software.
- Larger display would be perfect.
Who does it suit?
Performers and producers who create on a regular basis. It’s all about workflow, and if you spend a lot of time making or performing music, the KeyLab 88 MkII is for you.