Review: Novation Launchkey 88 MK3

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Review: Novation Launchkey 88 MK3

novation launchkey 88
Words by Sam McNiece

Focusrite Australia | RRP: $649

The invention of the MIDI keyboard is likely the largest helping hand musicians who work within the framework of DAWs will ever have. They unlock expression and tactility that is just not possible with a mouse and keyboard and allow an immediacy of ideas to flow effortlessly through intuitive controls. 

Novation has been at the heart of this innovation since their inception with their first product in 1992 being a MIDI controller for a portable music workstation.

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With over 30 years of knowledge and experience in producing controllers, Novation has finally released an 88-key full-sized MIDI keyboard with heaps of flexibility and plenty of knobs, pads, and faders to control large portions of your DAW. It is part of the MK3 iteration of their flagship Launchkey product line and has all the extended features present on the rest of this iteration.

The aptly named Novation Launchkey 88 is a MIDI controller that features 88 semi-weighted keys, 16 velocity-sensitive pads, nine faders, eight pots with buttons, transport controls, an onboard screen, plus stacks of other buttons to control your DAW/external gear. The elegant design looks sharp and sophisticated with the dark enclosure contrasting the bright pads on the device. The keyboard is lightweight and portable, but robust and well made which makes it a great workhorse keyboard for everyday and gigging use.

This MIDI keyboard is USB-B bus powered and can connect to external gear via its MIDI out, plus you can get a real piano feel by plugging in a sustain pedal through the provided port. Most readers would be interested in using this with a DAW of their choice but it also functions as a standalone MIDI controller. You can configure four custom performance modes which lets you assign MIDI CC information to the knobs, faders, and buttons through Novation’s awesome Components web-based software.

Keys are semi-weighted which provide a realistic feel for this versatile keyboard. They are velocity sensitive with an adjustable velocity curve to suit your playing style, a nice touch. The keybed felt great during testing and quite responsive to my playing which will suit a wide range of keyboard players from beginners to the more adept. The pads, knobs, and faders all felt very tactile and responsive as well, which allowed me to be more engaged in my creations during testing. The knobs are not endless encoders but fixed which might not be everyone’s cup of tea as when moved, will jump to the value on the knob, but for me personally, when controlling hardware synths it is really nice to have a reference point as to where the upper and lower limits are when the devices might not have a visual representation of the position.

For controlling external gear or soft synths, you can harness the Launchkey 88’s arp and scale functions to liven up your productions. The arpeggiator can be latched and then further tweaked by changing its octave range, arp speed, and direction, plus altering its behaviour through the mutate and deviate functions which can transform a simple arpeggiated melody into a complex and varied sound. The scale mode will transpose your playing to fit within a key which you can set quite easily on the device, assisting less experienced keys players in creating harmonious melodies.

There’s also a built-in chord mode which gives a few different ways to play chords. Firstly there’s scale chord which lets you select from triads, 7ths, 9ths and 6/9ths in a given scale which you can trigger from the pads and still have access to play the keyboard with your other hand. There’s a user chord mode which lets you set up your own chords and assign them to individual pads to make chord progressions a breeze, and finally a fixed chord mode which lets you set and play a chord across the keyboard with the root note being whichever key is struck. A little hack here is that you can set different MIDI channels for the chord and keyboard outputs which will allow you to trigger multiple digital/analogue instruments with separate interactions.

Perhaps the best feature of the Launchkey 88 is its deep Ableton integration. The pads, knobs, and faders all sync up to your project giving you control over triggering clips, device controls, and channel volume and mute allowing you to focus on your performance and not pick up the keyboard and mouse. Logic and Cubase also have dense integration right out of the box with this MIDI keyboard and there’s basic functionality with any other DAW that uses HUI (Human User Interface Protocol) – which includes Pro Tools, Studio One, and Reaper.

Part of this integration with Ableton, Logic, and Cubase includes a dedicated button for access to retrospective MIDI recordings in each DAW. I don’t know about you but when this feature was released in Ableton 10 it was potentially the best update ever. There had been so many times previously when messing around that I played something I thought sounded great but in attempts to recreate it, I was unable to get the magic of the playing back. This feature is like having a secret recording engineer that will hit record before you even think you’re ready to play. Awesome.

The unit ships with Ableton Live Lite, XLN Audio Addictive Keys, AAS Session bundle, Spitfire Audio LABS Expressive Strings, Klevgrand R0Verb and DAW Cassette, plus access to Novation Sound Collective for a continuous supply of new plugins and software instruments. With all this you’ll be free to make stacks of interesting sounds including realistic piano and strings.

Overall, this feature-laden MIDI keyboard/controller has a heap of features that will appeal to beginners and experienced music makers and producers the world over. The sleek design paired with great key feel and plenty of integration and customisation options will allow your music making to flourish and enable a seamless creative workflow, with whatever way you choose to use it.

Head to Novation for more information. For local enquiries, reach out to Focusrite Australia.