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The seemingly ever-expanding prevalence of Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) software, such as Ableton Live, BitWig, Logic Pro, Cubase, Pro Tools, and many others, has established the importance of a MIDI keyboard controller for virtually all music-production workflows.

And, as some DAWs have grown to support massive user bases, tighter integration between hardware and software has not only become justifiable in terms of product development, but virtually essential to maximize usability far beyond the basics of piano keys, paired with pitch and modulation wheels.

Such would appear to be the exact motivation behind the recent introduction by Novation of the latest iteration (Mk2) of its Launchkey line. Novation, part of the U.K.’s Focusrite group, starts with the basics: a 25-, 49- or 61-note keyboard, and the required pitch and mod wheels. But to this Novation adds dedicated transport buttons, and an array of faders, knobs and multi-RGB-color-illuminated pads.

I recently had a chance to play with the 49-key Launchkey, and here’s the scoop on what I discovered.

First Impressions: I could make a case that MIDI keyboard controllers can be a whole lot of sameness, given the fact that price points, country of manufacture (usually China), and frequently even buttons and pads don’t vary a whole lot. But the devil is in the details, as they say, and it is on that score that the Launchkey stands out a bit for me. The overall physical design of the controller shows a clear focus on aesthetics, and the unboxing process delivered a physical product that seems to balance a solid feel with maintaining portability. It just plain looks nice and feels nice.

The Launchkey works with virtually any DAW, but the target is clear—Ableton Live. In fact, the product is bundled with Ableton Live Lite, but existing Ableton users will find the set-up to be minimal and the integration tight. (Note that Version 9 of Ableton Live is required.) While Novation’s web site suggests it’s plug-and-play, it’s not quite that easy; some configuration within Ableton is, in fact, required for it to work optimally. I found that the documentation didn’t quite match what I saw in Ableton either, and it wasn’t immediately obvious to how to map what was shown in writing vs. what was on the screen. Eventually I got past it; presumably, it’s easier for people using the bundled Lite version.

Once hooked up, I jumped right in. The keyboard and the various controls (buttons, knobs, etc.) had the expected feel—that being a bit on the “light” side of the spectrum, but not cheap feeling, either. Playing the keyboard itself also had a typical, pleasant feel one expects from keyboards of this type.

Launchkey 49: Novation’s 49-note, MK2 version.
Launchkey 49: Novation’s 49-note, MK2 version.

Use & Operation: Like many (if not most) Ableton-specific or Ableton-targeted controllers, the Launchkey is designed for use in Live’s default, clip-oriented Session View. The arrangement of the faders and knobs somewhat echoes Session View, and the pads are designed to support the triggering of clips in this view. For this purpose, the Launchkey is a great companion to Ableton Live. The “issue” (if there is one) is that the Launchkey has just 16 pads in a 2×8 configuration, and for more complex projects in Live, using these pads to control loop playback could become a bit cumbersome in practice, depending on the user’s specific workflow.

For those (like me) who primarily use Live’s Arrangement View, the utility of the Launchkey is a bit diminished. While the faders and knobs still have their intended effect, the pads have less practical value, in my view.

Novation refers to the Launchkey as having two modes: InControl mode and Basic Mapping mode. For Ableton Live and certain other DAWs, InControl mode allows easier pre-mapping of functionality, but Basic Mapping mode simply provides standard MIDI assignments to all the controls, which can be mapped as desired by the user in their DAW of choice.

With InControl mode, the faders act as level controls for each track in the DAW (eight in total). The buttons function as mute and solo controls (again, eight in total) depending on a mode selection button. And finally, the rotary knobs serve as pan controls (once again, eight tracks total). There are track forward and backward buttons to allow these controls to be used on more than just eight tracks through a sort of “scrolling” operation.

Ableton Live users can choose other functionality for the knobs, and the pads have alternate functions as well. This is where things get a little complicated; knowing which key to press and hold and how to make the selections requires referring to the owner’s manual, as not everything has a full explanatory legend silkscreened beside the control.

I can’t really fault Novation for the design decision, since it’s endemic in many controllers on the market. But using a limited number of human interface elements (buttons, knobs, etc.), and then mapping multiple functions to them in a way that can be difficult to explain and not always intuitive, presents some usability challenges. Clearly, there are limits to the number of controls you can integrate, and variations in DAWs make it tough to “hard” label each function on the device itself. Still, it means that there’s definite ramp-up time for new users.

Finally, two more items worth a quick mention. First, the Launchkey 25 provides a subset of the functionality described here; most notably, the faders are not provided as they are on the 49- and 61-note models. And secondly, thanks to its class-compliant USB implementation, the Launchkey series not only works “driver-less” with Windows and Mac, but can also be used with iOS devices through the Apple Camera Connection Kit, allowing the product line to be used with the growing number of music applications for the iOS platform.

Conclusions: The Launchkey series offers great integration with Ableton Live and, in particular, its Session View mode, allowing users to reach for the mouse or trackpad much less often, and improving productivity—especially during live performance. With the compact size, balanced weight, and “more-than-just-a-keyboard” functionality, the 25-key model makes a great studio companion where desk space is tight, while the 49- and even the 61-key models would make ideal gigging controllers for the performing musician.

With MIDI support for virtually any application, and tighter integration for specific DAWs (notably Ableton Live), it makes one a high-value choice in keyboard controllers. And finally, with a street price of about $200 for the 49-key model I evaluated, it’s an affordable choice, too.

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