Arturia KeyStep Review – Tiny, But Packed With Features
Reviewed by Ryan Harrell in Keyboards
Since the Arturia KeyStep is three instruments in one (keyboard controller, sequencer, and arpeggiator), you have to evaluate its performance on these fronts as well. Many of you buying this will want to use it as an external controller for analog synths, so the sequencer/arpeggiator performance is particularly important. Of all the keyboards I've reviewed so far, the KeyStep is perhaps the only one where integration with a bunch of DAWs isn't the biggest priority.
So does the Arturia KeyStep work well as an external controller? Does the sequencer do its job?
Read on to find the answers.
Keyboard: The Arturia KeyStep has slim keys, as befitting any portable keyboard. But unlike a lot of its competitors, these keys boast aftertouch. This greatly improves their usability and lets you create some more complex vibrato/sustain operations.
One grip I have about the keyboard is its comfort. The keys aren't just narrow, they're also quite short. A flat edge pushed in also means you have no room to rest your wrists. The keys aren't waterfall-type either, so there is little spring.
All this can make playing for long hours uncomfortable, although key quality is extremely nice.
Sequencer: You can access the sequencer by choosing the toggle switch located to the left of the knob (up for sequencer, down for arpeggiator). Once selected, you can create your own sequence patterns, or use one of the pre-built patterns.
Each sequencer pattern can have 64 steps. Each step can have a maximum of 8 notes (for a total of 8 * 64 notes in the complete sequence). You get eight-pattern memory that comes pre-built with patterns, though you can also overwrite them, or save an unlimited number in the MIDI control center software.
You can enter notes step-by-step or record/replace them in real time with the dedicated play/record button. There is a dedicated 'tap' button to enter rests and note ties in sequencer mode.
Arpeggiator: Flick the toggle switch down and you'll access the arpeggiator. This isn't a plain vanilla up/down arpeggiator. Rather, you get dedicated knobs to control the time division and arpeggio rates.
There are eight built-in patterns, including common up/down, convergence, divergence, as well as a 'random' mode. You can also define your own patterns using the 'order' mode.
Both the sequencer and arpeggiator get added functionality via the Shift button.
Pressing the shift and transpose buttons lets you use the keyboard to transpose any sequence on the fly. The Shift button also lets you change the MIDI output chanel or control the gate length and swing - handy features for externally connected synths.
In addition to all this, the Shift button enables Keyboard Play mode as well. This allows you to out notes as well as sequences via the MIDI and CV outputs simultaneously.
The Shift button in conjunction with the three dials is essentially a workaround for a more elaborate set of buttons and pads, as found on the BeatStep. I prefer dedicated buttons over dials since it feels more intuitive and reduces the chances of a misstep (easy to go from 1/8 to 1/16 notes with just a tap of a dial). But dedicated buttons would have meant way more space and sacrificing portability.
There's another performative aspect - the Hold button. This button lets you 'hold' an arpeggio hands-free or add notes to an arpeggio or chord sequence. Tapping it also gives you access to sustain pedal operation.
Other controls: Besides the above, you get two touchstrips for controlling pitch/mod. This is a nice space saving design and feels intuitive enough. I still prefer the tactile rubbery feel of the wheel.
Additionally, there is no marker to know if you're at neutral position on the touchstrip. Be prepared for some fiddling around to go back to '0' after some on-the-fly pitch changes.
Ports & connectivity: The Arturia KeyStep shines when it comes to connectivity. There is a huge number of input/output options. You get three separate output ports for CV/Gate, Pitch, Mod - necessary for connecting analog synths.
You also get MIDI In/Out ports plus a sustain pedal input. In addition, there are dedicated sync i/o ports. Here's a list of all the analog clock rates the sync ports support.
And of course, you get the standard USB cable. Curiously, it doesn't come with a power adapter. Not a problem if you use USB, but you'll have to buy it separately for computer-free operation.
Overall, you'll be a happy camper with all these ports if you have a lot of devices to connect.
Software: The Arturia KeyStep doesn't ship with any free synths or VSTs (which is fine since most serious musicians already have their own VSTs).
It does ship with the Arturia MIDI Control Center. This little tool lets you control every Arturia controller, from the BeatStep to The Laboratory. You can use it to create and save sequences, change key functions, etc. I found this software to be much easier to use with clear, visual indicators - much easier than most editors.
Additionally, since there are so few control options, the KeyStep integrates well with nearly every DAW.
Conclusion: Make no mistake about it: the Arturia KeyStep isn't easy to use. The sequencer and arpeggiator take quite a bit of time getting used to, especially if you're upgrading from plain vanilla MIDI keyboards. You'll need an analog synth to fully appreciate the power and capabilities of the KeyStep.
But apart from the complex sequencer/arpeggiator, the KeyStep is still a competent keyboard. The keys feel and play better than 90% of the competitors thanks to aftertouch and the supple synth action. There is some discomfort over long periods because of the key size.
The real stars are the arpeggiator and sequencer, along with the ability to control external synths. If you don't intend to use these features, the KeyStep would be be a waste of money.
Bottomline, buy the Arturia KeyStep for the arpeggiator/sequencer, stay for the well-built keys.
It's difficult to evaluate the Arturia KeyStep in relation to most of its competitors. Mostly because while its competitors are MIDI Controllers, the KeyStep is an analog synth controller + arpeggiator + sequencer. The MIDI keyboard just happens to be one more thing it does.
So to tell you whether the KeyStep is worth your money or not, I would first have to understand how you actually produce music. Do you have a bunch of hardware synths lying around? Do you hate how non-intuitive most software arpeggiators are? Do you want to create new sequences and arpeggios in live performances?
If you said 'yes' to any of these questions, I would recommend the KeyStep to you wholeheartedly.
I understand that this describes a niche audience. Most of you simply need a decent keyboard to enter notes in the DAW, plus a few pads/knobs to launch clips, make drum patterns, and control volume or panning.
If you fall into this bucket of musicians, the KeyStep doesn't offer anything that dozens of other controllers don't already do. You'll find a better keyboard on any Novation and more controls on an Akai.
Which is to say, the Arturia KeyStep is a great device, but it's not meant for everyone.
Here's a quick recap at what makes it good, what not:
What's good: The Arturia KeyStep works well in a studio setting but comes fully into its own in a live performance, especially with a bunch of synths and a pad controller for company. The arpeggiator and sequencer bring much needed intuitiveness to your sequences. And the keys feel good enough to not be a distraction in live situations.
Let's look at what makes it a good pick:
- Good keyboard quality. The keys are light with a tiny bit of spring. The aftertouch is a massive plus too.
- Powerful sequencer. You can create complex sequences (up to 64 steps) without ever touching your DAW.
- Highly capable arpeggiator. You can choose from the 8 built-in patterns or create your own with dedicated rate/time controls.
- TONS of input/output options. You can also connect it to older analog synths with the sync i/o ports and CV outputs.
- Great looking design with '80s Miami Vice aesthetic
- Portable and well built; great for live gigs
What's not good: Although it does a lot of things right, the Arturia KeyStep also misses a few tricks:
- Narrow keys and short key bed gets uncomfortable after extended use.
- Touchstrips don't have the intuitiveness of traditional wheels
- Dial-type controls for arpeggiator/sequencer take more effort to use, and are more error-prone than dedicated buttons
- Inconveniently located sync mode selectors at the back of the unit
- Arpeggiator and sequencer can be complicated to use for newbies
Who it is for: Intermediate and advanced players who want a compact, travel-friendly keyboard for live performances will find this to be the perfect pick. If you have hardware synths that need a controller and frequently make music that uses arpeggios/sequences, you will love the Arturia KeyStep as well.
On the whole, the Arturia KeyStep is best if you:
- Want to perform live
- Need to control external synths and want computer-free operation
- Can make use of the arpeggiator and sequencer
I DO NOT recommend this for beginners. The arp/sequence functions are just too much to handle for newbies. You'll find far better beginner-friendly choices in our roundup of the best 49-key and 88-key MIDI controllers.
Where to buy: As with most musical instruments, I've found that Amazon constantly offers the lowest prices and attractive deals on shipping. Click here to check the current price on Amazon.
Final Verdict on Arturia KeyStep
A great pick if you can make the most of its features, a mediocre one if not. The KeyStep is a horses-for-courses buy. If you know what you're doing with it, you'll love it. If not, the portability and keyboard aren't enough to sway your decision. Don't buy this blindly; consider whether you can actually use it right. If you're unsure, pick a more "traditional" option like the Akai MPK Mini MK2.
Choose Alturia KeyStep if you:
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