Novation’s SL Mk3 series of keyboard controllers offer 49 and 61-key models. At a glance, it’s clear to see that Novation has stepped up its game in terms of features, functions, and controls. But we want to find out if the quality matches the quantity.
These high-end controllers come with a pretty premium price tag, so our review will discuss overall value for money and who they suit most. Let’s see what these flagship controllers have to offer.
Our verdict on the Novation SL Mk3
The SL Mk3 series is an absolute success, but we have a couple of suggestions. An SL Mk3 is the best keyboard controller for Ableton, but if you use another DAW, you might find better value elsewhere.
The difference in cost between the 49 and 61-key models is smaller than expected, so we suggest going for the larger keyboard. With those tips in mind, these controllers are fantastic.Available at: SweetwaterAmazon
We can start to see just how much Novation has crammed into these controllers in this area.
Knobs and faders
Each model has the same amount of assignable controls, which is a pleasant surprise. It starts with eight fully-assignable endless rotary knobs. It’s important to note that they are endless because it makes transitioning from one use to another seamless.
You also get eight assignable faders; the first thing we look for in faders is that they feel sturdy, and these faders are smooth and robust.
Sixteen assignable buttons provide the function of 32 buttons through two banks/pages. Buttons often go underused by many because they aren’t as expressive as knobs and faders, but they can be incredibly useful.
The SL Mk3 controllers each have a grid of 16 performance pads (32 over two banks); we’ll discuss them more below.
Novation has packed in enough production tools to give the feel of a standalone instrument rather than a controller.
The powerful pattern-based sequencer offers eight patterns per track, eight tracks per session, and 64 sessions.
Programming new sequences is easy with the 16-pad grid that allows per-step velocity and automation (up to six events per step). You can automate all assignable controls, which adds another layer of creative potential.
The sequencer is ideal for many types of music but perhaps most useful for electronic genres, like EDM, Trap, etc.
You can use assignable aftertouch to manipulate any parameter during performance; we love it.
There are 16 scale types that allow users to explore more exotic scales and progressions without a deeper knowledge of music theory.
You can divide the keyboard into a maximum of eight zones, which is fantastic for live performances. Whether you are controlling virtual instruments or external hardware, eight zones can turn one keyboard into an electronic orchestra.
Everything feels intuitive, from the real-time recording that allows multiple gate lengths per step to clearing steps, patterns, or sessions. Editing sequences is hands-on, just like it would be on a hardware synth.
The built-in arpeggiator has selectable velocity curves and is often a great way to kickstart a new track when you lack inspiration.
A sensible workflow that helps you work quickly and accurately is the key to any good keyboard controller.
SL Mk3 controllers come with not just one but five RGB TFT LCD screens. The screens provide valuable visual feedback on multiple parameters, and editing on the fly is a breeze.
Transport controls and dedicated buttons
Basic transport controls make recording in your DAW more of a hands-on experience, and dedicated “Track”, “Page”, and “Scene” buttons save some tedious mouse clicking.
Keybed RGB LEDs
Every key has an RGB LED that helps identify keyboard zones and scale modes. They are particularly helpful with multiple zones, making it easy to identify different sounds/instruments.
A look at the connectivity options is enough to show the impressive flexibility of these SL Mk3 controllers. Whether you are working exclusively in your DAW or with external hardware, you can control everything from one place.
You get MIDI In/Out X2/Thru, Analog Clock Out, and two sets of CV/Gate/Mod outputs. Basically, whatever hardware you’ve got, you can hook it up.
We have mixed feelings about the software bundle because you get far less than some other manufacturers provide. But you get Ableton Live Lite, which suits the SL Mk3 perfectly, and you get 4 GB of high-quality Loopcloud samples.
What you get is excellent; we’d just like to see more.
It seems, to us, that Novation has made a huge effort to encourage expressive performance with this keybed. Both the 49 and 61-key models have velocity-sensitive, synth-style, semi-weighted keys. The keys are individually sprung and very responsive at any velocity.
You’ll never get a realistic piano feel from a keyboard that doesn’t have fully-weighted keys, but what you do get here is a very impressive middle ground.
These synth-action keys are ideal for fast lead/organ playing, even with the quickest note repetition, they perform flawlessly.
Being semi-weighted doesn’t mean you’ll feel any real resistance when you play, but it gives enough to know you can confidently play piano/EP sounds without limiting dynamics or expression.
If we were critical, we could say that it would be nice to see some aluminum or wooden sides, but that’s rare in 49/61-key controllers.
The hard plastic chassis feels secure enough, more importantly, all knobs/buttons/faders feel robust with a premium finish. No complaints.
Compared to other MIDI controllers
Here are a few alternatives that might be worth considering. You can also check out our picks of the best MIDI keyboard controllers on the market.
Novation SL Mk3 vs. Arturia KeyLab 61
The KeyLab 61 is one of our favorite keyboard controllers because it’s a great all-rounder. We prefer it over the SL Mk3, unless you use Ableton Live.
Novation SL Mk3 vs. Komplete Kontrol S
These controllers are similar to the SL Mk3 series in that they are perfect for particular software (Native Instruments). Overall, we prefer the SL Mk3, it offers more flexibility.
Check out our Native Instruments Komplete Kontrol S series review
Novation SL Mk3 vs. Launchkey 88 Mk3
If you want to stretch to a full-size keyboard controller without stretching your budget, the Launchkey 88 might be a perfect choice. Especially if you want to stick with Novation.
Who is the Novation SL Mk3 series best suited for?
It suits producers who want a hands-on workflow, especially Ableton Live users who integrate external hardware.
- Expressive keyboard.
- Outstanding connectivity.
- Perfect for Ableton Live.
- Intuitive workflow.
- Creative features (Sequencer, Arpeggiator).
- RGB pads.
- Multiple screens.
- Doesn’t integrate as well with other DAWs (non-Ableton).