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Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 review

The Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 is a low cost MIDI controller which covers all the essentials. Unlike other low-cost MIDI keyboards, this is a keyboard with a real DIN MIDI connection for connecting to professional music gear.

Hooking it up to a Behringer 2600, this keyboard nicely supports everything the Behringer does: Note and pitch change. A nice basic MIDI keyboard.

Connecting it to my Roland JD-Xi, I was not only able to play the notes (remember, with the JD-Xi, MIDI channel 1 is the first polyphonic synth, channel 2 is the second polyphonic synth, channel 3 is the analog synth, and channel 10 are the drums) from the KeyLab, the drum pads play a few drum sounds, and it’s possible to adjust the cutoff, resonance, LFO rate, LFO pitch depth, and three envelop parameters (attack, decay, and release, but not sustain—this is a JD-Xi limitation) from the knobs and sliders on the KeyLab; this allows some more panel control of sounds than what the JD-Xi itself offers without menu diving.

One annoyance is that hitting “MIDI CH” then the desired MIDI channel did not, at first, actually change the MIDI channel used. I had to hit “Map Select” and choose “User 1” (or “DAW”) before the KeyLab would change MIDI channels.

Another annoyance is that the KeyLab Essential doesn’t come with a power adapter. One can either power it via USB (most phone chargers will generate the 500ma the KeyLab 49 requires), or buy an adapter from a supplier on eBay for only $13 extra. In addition, the KeyLab Essential does not have a power switch; one needs to disconnect the power adapter to power off the KeyLab.

Yet another annoyance is that the mappings for the drum pads, sliders, and knobs are configured by Arturia, and can only be changed by using a piece of computer software called the “Arturia MIDI Control Center” (which is a free download) to change the assignments. There is a Windows and Mac version of this software, but no Linux download. People with pure no-computer DAW-free studios or who use only Linux may not have access to this software.

While the defaults are reasonable, there isn’t, for example, a drum pad for “open hi hat”, so fleshing this out requires connecting it to a Windows or Mac computer.

I downloaded the MIDI Control Center and all of the other software Arturia makes for the KeyLab. It is possible to change what drums the pads hit and what colors the drum hits make. It is also possible to change the MIDI control messages sent out when the KeyLab 49 knobs or faders are adjusted. However, only basic MIDI CC messages (1-127) can be sent with these faders; with my JD-Xi, this limits what I can adjust (e.g. envelope sustain can not be changed with a simple MIDI CC message). It’s not possible to send out NRPN messages, much less custom system exclusive messages.

Also included for free with this low cost controller is a preset-only “teaser” version of Arturia’s software suite. There are a large number of presets to choose from, including some made by Klaus Schulze. However, only a few basic parameters can be edited with each preset, and in-depth sound editing requires purchasing additional Arturia software.

There is also a virtual Rhodes piano, and a fully editable virtual Minimoog. Not to mention, links to download a virtual piano and a basic version of Ableton (“Ableton Live Lite”).

The KeyLab essential 49 does not support keyboard splitting; the more expensive KeyLab Mark II is needed for that; the Mark II also supports NRPN messages, has 16 instead of 8 pads, and has control voltage/gate outputs.

At the price point, I was not expecting anything more than a velocity sensitive keyboard with the ability to change the MIDI transmit channel, as well as octave buttons to change the octave being played, so the fact that I can adjust some more JD-Xi parameters than what the JD-Xi panel supports without needing to menu dive is a pleasant surprise.

This is an excellent low-cost addition to my tiny little recording studio.

Update: It looks like I got the KeyLab Essential 49 just in time. Its price is going up from $209 to $229. At $229, the $219 Novation Launchkey 49 may be a better deal.