Arturia’s Essential series offers budget-friendly alternatives to the brand’s flagship keyboard controllers.
In this review, we are looking at the KeyLab Essential 88, which is a full-size, 88-key controller.
As the name suggests, the KeyLab Essential 88 provides the core functionality of the flagship model at a lower price. We’ll discuss what it has to offer and if the lower cost makes it a great deal.
Our verdict on the KeyLab Essential 88
The KeyLab Essential 88 isn’t just an alternative for those who can’t afford the flagship model; it’s an alternative for those who don’t need it.
The KeyLab Essential 88 is a fantastic choice if you don’t need weighted keys. There are cheaper options, but few will offer more features or a better software bundle.
Keyboard controllers are often the centerpiece of a home studio, making assignable controls a crucial aspect of a good controller.
Knobs and faders
The KeyLab Essential 88 comes with nine assignable faders and nine assignable rotary knobs. The number of knobs and sliders is pretty impressive compared to most similar controllers.
Despite being the entry-level model, the quality of the controls feels very good, too. Whether controlling instrument expression, synth parameters, or plugins, there’s enough for most users without the need for a separate device.
Pitch and modulation wheels
Pitch and modulation wheels/sticks are often omitted for 88-key controllers. We think that’s a real shame as they are essential if you want to get the most out of synth sounds. We’re pleased to see them included with this keyboard.
Production tools are features that make music production easier or add a different dimension to your approach.
Eight backlit pads
There are eight backlit pads that you can use to trigger samples, loops, etc. The pads are beneficial in both studio production and live performance.
If you want to get into finger drumming, they aren’t the most responsive pads on the market, but they are amongst the best outside of Akai Pro MPC units.
Chord Play mode
Chord Play mode is a very handy feature for anyone who is struggling to get their fingers around more complex chords.
The Chord button allows users to trigger a chord of up to 10 user-defined notes with a single key. It should encourage beginners to experiment with more creative/colorful harmony.
If a controller doesn’t enhance your workflow or, worse yet, slows it down, it isn’t worth buying.
A keyboard controller almost lives or dies by its interface. We use controllers as a means to control many things from one source. If that source has a tedious or clumsy interface, it will hurt your workflow.
Working in your DAW is easy with the KeyLab Essential 88, thanks to the onboard transport controls (Rec, Play, Stop, and so on) and the clickable jog wheel.
Browsing/editing presets and parameters is a quick process between the keyboard’s small display screen and your computer. Typically, the less you have to use a mouse, the better, and this is a very hands-on controller.
The position of the faders and rotary knobs makes it easy to use them in tandem for automation, and there’s enough space on the panel for a phone/tablet, etc.
The available connectivity is probably fair for the price, but it’s not as impressive as the rest of the unit.
It comes with MIDI Out, USB (Type B) and a 1/4″ sustain pedal input. While that might not sound like much, USB covers all basic needs, and the pedal input is great for playing the piano.
Very few manufacturers can compete with Arturia when it comes to software bundles.
The KeyLab Essential 88 comes with Analog Lab, UVI Grand Piano Model D, and Ableton Live Lite. So, you’ve got a DAW and enough sounds to make any style of music.
Analog Lab is one of the best collections of virtual instruments around. It features over 6000 presets across various vintage synth/keyboard instruments. The included presets emulate iconic synths like the Yamaha DX7, Roland Jupiter, and Juno.
The Keylab Essential 88 controls automap to each preset’s parameters in Analog Lab, giving you immediate hands-on control.
The KeyLab Essential 88 has velocity-sensitive, semi-weighted keys.
When buying a keyboard controller, the keyboard feel isn’t everyone’s primary concern. However, it’s important to think about what kind of sounds you’ll be using most.
Piano sounds generally benefit from weighted keys for more expressive playing, while synths and organs prefer lighter keys.
These keys might be too light if you need the most realistic piano experience. For everything else, they are very good.
It’s worth noting that some genres, like Pop, EDM, and so on, don’t often require the same level of piano expression as Classical or Jazz, so lighter keys should be OK.
Compared to the KeyLab 88 Mk2, the Essential model might seem a little flimsy. However, at almost half the weight of the flagship model, there are benefits of not having a solid metal construction.
It’s a similar story with the controls; they don’t feel as premium as the KeyLab 88 Mk2. But, we have to remember that the Essential model costs far less than half the price.
In relation to the price, this keyboard controller is very well made and one of the best-looking controllers around.
Compared to other keyboard controllers
Here are a few more excellent options to consider if you aren’t yet convinced by the KeyLab Essential 88.
KeyLab Essential 88 vs. KeyLab 88 Mk2
This option is a massive jump in cost, but if you want all of those Arturia features (and more) and weighted keys, the KeyLab 88 MkII is a solid investment.
KeyLab Essential 88 vs. M-Audio Hammer 88
We are talking about the original Hammer 88, not the Pro version. If you need a realistic piano action more than you need lots of features, the Hammer 88 is a great choice (it costs a little more).
KeyLab Essential 88 vs. Nektar Impact LX88+
The Impact LX88+ is similar to the Keylab Essential 88 in terms of features/controls, and it’s a little cheaper. We prefer Arturia’s layout; it’s more intuitive.
Who is the Arturia KeyLab Essential 88 best suited for?
It suits anyone who wants intuitive hands-on control of their DAW, sounds, plugins, and performance.
- Intuitive interface.
- Excellent software bundle.
- Lots of assignable controls.
- High-quality backlit pads.
- Display is a little small.
- Not weighted keys.