In our opinion, Arturia makes some of the best MIDI keyboard controllers ever. It’s been some years now since the original MiniLab release, which was a huge success. The MiniLab MkII builds upon that success with improvements in many areas. In this review, we will look at what the MiniLab MkII does well, where it could improve, and how it compares to the competition.Table of contents:
MiniLab MkII overview
The MiniLab MkII is a two-octave (25-key) MIDI keyboard controller with mini-keys. Despite being available for not much over $100, it’s loved by amateur and professional musicians alike. It comes in Arturia’s familiar white casing with black controls and blue highlights.
These days, people expect more from a controller than just keys and a pitch/mod wheel. The MiniLab MkII is one of the most feature/function-packed small controllers around.
Starting from left to right, it has touch strips instead of wheels for pitch bend and modulation. Many people prefer wheels over touch strips to be more accurate, and we probably share that opinion. Each user will have a personal preference, but they have improved accuracy and sensitivity since the first MiniLab.
Above the sliders are some octave buttons, a pad bank switch button, and a multi-function shift button.
There are eight RGB backlit pads with aftertouch that allow you to trigger up to 16 samples using two banks. One of the best things about the MiniLab MkII is that it has 16 assignable rotary encoders.
We have to start with the 16 assignable encoders we just mentioned when it comes to DAW integration. It’s a huge amount for such a small controller, encoders one and nine double as push-buttons, making them multi-function. The encoders are already pre-mapped to the included software, and the push encoders make browsing and selecting presets quick and easy.
Beyond the included software, you are free to map the encoders and touch strips as you like, using your DAW’s MIDI Learn function. It’s highly unlikely that you will ever use an effects plugin or virtual instrument with too many parameters for the MiniLab MkII to handle in real-time.
There are no basic transport controls, but given the controller’s size and everything else on offer, that’s no problem.
In the studio
The MiniLab MkII is extremely popular amongst home studio producers, but you’ll find them in high-end studios, too. Whatever DAW you use, the key to being productive is an efficient workflow. As you can see from what we said about DAW integration, the MiniLab MkII helps you build an efficient workflow.
For home studios, it’s great for small rooms where you don’t have a lot of desk space. But, whatever size of studio you have, the best way to start a project is often through a single device. Whether you are creating a template or a final production, the MiniLab MkII lets you do that.
Having the pads allows you to program drums, percussion, and samples in a more intuitive way, and they feel great.
Overall, it provides a full hands-on workflow, which is fantastic. The only real limitation is when you need more keys.
On stage/mobile use
Some qualities that make the MiniLab MkII great in the studio also make it great on the road or the stage. For a start, it’s small, so it’s easy to take around wherever you need it. Also, the workflow it provides means that if you have a laptop and your MiniLab MkII, you have a powerful studio anywhere you go.
Many performers use a laptop on stage so they can use effects plugins or virtual synths, etc. The MiniLab MkII makes an excellent addition to a live setup because it’s the perfect size for a dedicated synth bass or lead.
If you use a larger keyboard controller for piano-style playing, you can assign the MiniLab MkII and a soft synth to a different MIDI channel. Essentially, it would be like having a dedicated hardware synth on stage without the weight and expense. It’s especially effective because you have so many assignable controls to shape your sound on the fly.
The RGB pads are ideal if you use samples in your live show or include any finger drumming. The only slight issue with the pads is that it’s often more awkward to finger drum with a single row of either, rather than two rows of four stacked.
There is a noticeable upgrade in the quality of the keybed. Clearly, you aren’t going to play expansive piano parts on two octaves, but the keys’ feel very good, responsive, and expressive.
Build quality is an area where you have to come and go a little with keyboard controllers this size. They are small and relatively cheap, so it makes no sense to manufacture them with heavy-duty materials. Plastic is pretty standard, but there’s still a significant improvement from the first generation MiniLab.
The structure feels rigid enough and doesn’t creak and crack as much as most when moving it around. All of the buttons, pads, and encoders feel premium for the price range, too.
The MiniLab MkII is around 50% heavier than the previous model, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s still light and portable, but the extra weight gives it the presence of a serious bit of gear.
Depending on your experience with Arturia controllers, the software bundle will either blow you away or be a little underwhelming.
Let’s be clear first of all, it comes with Analog Lab Lite, and under any circumstances, that’s outstanding. The sounds come from Arturia’s flagship V Collection of stunning virtual analog synths. Analog Lab Lite is a collection of 500 presets, which sounds pretty huge, and the sound quality is utterly outstanding.
If you knew about the original MiniLab, you might know that it came with a full version of Analog Lab and around 5000 presets. So, in that sense, it’s a little disappointing that it’s been downsized. However, in terms of quality, it’s stunning, and there are some reasonable upgrade offers.
MiniLab MkII vs. other keyboard controllers
The MiniLab MkII is, without doubt, one of the best small keyboard controllers we have ever seen. But, it has some stiff competition; here are a few alternatives.
Akai MPK Mini MkIII
The MPK Mini MkIII is still the king of the small keyboard controllers, but the MiniLab MkII runs it close. The MPK Mini MkIII has better pads, better keys, an LCD screen, and a long history of success.
Novation Launchkey Mini MkIII
The Novation Launchkey Mini MkIII is a very popular keyboard controller, especially with Ableton users. But, for us, it doesn’t match the MiniLab MkII in many areas; buy Arturia.
Alesis are masters of making budget instruments and controllers, and the V25 is a good example. Overall, it’s not as good as any others we mention in this review, but it has full-size keys, and that’s worth a lot.
Final verdict on the MiniLab MkII
We absolutely love the MiniLab MkII. It looks and feels more expensive than it is, and the Analog Lab sounds are stunning. It’s a fantastic buy for anyone with a home studio or who likes to make music on the go. Well done, Arturia.
- Solid build quality.
- Outstanding sound from Analog Lab Lite.
- Fantastic RGB pads.
- Quality keys.
- Lots of assignable controls.
- Less Analog Lab presets the the old MiniLab.