Arturia Minilab Mk II

 

When the sum is far more than its parts. A rock solid keyboard with perfectly integrated software.

by Alex Arsov, Jan. 2017

 

I was quite impressed with this piece of gear. It is a very solid and compact mini keyboard with almost the same keyboard action than I have on my main, big fancy MIDI keyboard from a well-known developer. Keys are rock solid jumping back straightaway, allowing us to play fast parts without any trouble.  The companion software is perfectly integrated with the keyboard itself, adding a whole new dimension to the package. I updated Analog Lab Lite the same day I got keyboards, and for just €29 EUR I got 5,000 sounds instead the 500 that come with the Lite version, which comes bundled with the keyboard. Needless to say I went totally bonkers with all those rotary knobs, beating the hell out of the presets. I haven’t had such a good time since I got the Access Virus for the first time many years ago. Maybe it is not totally the same as tweaking an old analog synth, as Analog Lab allow you only to tweak some essential parameters inside the presets, not allowing you to make something for scratch or to drastically change any preset, but still, the whole experience, Analog Lab Lite, or in my case Analog Lab in combination with Minilab Mk II, gives a totally new level to the package. For the price of an average VST instrument (€100 EUR for Minilab Mk II+ €29 for the upgrade to Analog Lab 2) you get a great sounding VST instrument with 5,000 presets along with hardware that works perfectly with it. The first two knobs are for browsing and selecting presets, all the others are for tweaking sounds in a way far beyond what you can do with most other mini keyboards.

 

 

Hardware

Two octaves of mini keys with rock solid action. The whole box is a bit smaller than the average laptop. Eight touch sensitive back-lit pads that can be switched between two banks for controlling up to sixteen beats at once. Sixteen rotary knobs, the first two even click-able. They come preprogrammed for Analog Lab Lite (or Analog Lab 2) but they can easily be programmed for other purposes and stored as a preset in the hardware through the MIDI Controller Center software that you can download from the Arturia site.  

Pitch and Modulation touch strips are ideal for going totally bonkers with and getting really cool results, especially with Analog Lab or any other similar virtual synthesizer. It’s possible that for orchestral music the old-fashioned mod-wheel seems to be the perfect tool, but I found that with those touch strips you can make some fast and unpredictable movements that can’t be recreated with any other controller and can put some pads or leads with filter connected to the mod controller into some totally new and crazy heaven. I played with this tool like small child, so can confirm from my personal experience the touch strips are  rock solid and didn’t break during my mad session.  

AL2-Lead
AL2-Lead with Mod Touch-strip

 

In the upper left corner we find four buttons. The first two are Shift and Pad. With Pad we can switch between two banks of eight pads, while the Shift button is more multipurpose, calling various presets in combination with the Pad button or selecting the main MIDI channel in combination with keys, or even for enabling the first nine buttons to work with various MIDI CC messages according to the selected preset. Next two are octave up and octave down buttons. The further up or down you go the faster the button will flash.

The whole Minilab Mk IIis quite heavy and rock solid from keys up to the pads and even the USB connector is very solid, not one of those small ones that can easily become the weakest link in similar products. There is also a footswitch jack input that can serve as a sustain pedal or even a latching switch.

 

Software

We already mentioned Arturia Analog Lab Lite, little brother of Analog Lab 2. Lite comes with 500 presets with an option to upgrade it for a really small fee to the full version with 5,000 presets. You can read more about Analog Lab 2 in our previous issue, but I have to warn you that with Minilab the Analog Lab 2 experience is quite different, having all those controllers already connected with hardware.  You can find the full Analog Lab 2 review here:

http://soundbytesmag.net/analoglab2fromarturia/

AL2 – Pad

 

The next piece of software is Ableton Live 9 Lite. I have the full version (it’s a great peice of software) and I also have at least nine or ten Ableton Live Lite coupons lying around, as they pack it along with almost any musical hardware that you can buy. The most famous Slovenian poet was well-known for his habit of carrying plenty of figs in his pocket to give to children, and I even thought that maybe I should also take those Ableton Live Lite copies with me for local kids. Nevertheless, it is a great piece of software and if you still don’t have it then it is a great starter DAW that will allow you to start making some noise (all those Lite versions were a bit too restricted for my taste – after all, this should be Lite and not Demo version, but it looks like DAW developers still haven’t figured that out – it is not just an Ableton issue, to be clear).

Next up is Grand Piano Model D from UVI. It is a great sounding Steinway piano, definitely not one of those that you get as a part of some sample libraries that come with various samplers. Detailed and perfectly sampled, UVI always know how to do such things.

Arturia Analog Lab Lite in combination with this Grand Piano makes this one of the best software pairs that I’ve got with any hardware till now. OK, I got plenty of useful software with my big MIDI keyboard also, but that whole package was around €500 EUR. It is not Analog Lab Lite on its own that makes it so special, but integration with the hardware that makes it stand out. Yes, I have plenty of MIDI controllers and I connected a few essential parameters with most of my virtual synths, but not in the way Analog Lab and Minilab Mk2 are connected. Fourteen knobs and mod strip are connected from preset to preset in the best possible way, while with another two knobs we can search through categories and select an appropriate one.

I read some other reviews of this product and noticed that the only critique goes to these wood-like pieces of plastic on the edges. The problem is that Americans don’t understand European culture. If that imitation wood would be the result of some German developer then this would definitely be proof of bad taste, but as this is made by a French company it is absolutely “chic” (for our American friends that means stylish, sophisticated and attractive).

 

Conclusions

For €99 EUR you get such a solidly built piece of hardware that you can even use it as a weapon in a bar fight. It also comes with a Kensington lock port, so it will stay there until the police bring it back to you. And there the great software that is perfectly integrated with the hardware. For an additional €29 EUR the even-better software perfectly integrates with the hardware. Eight velocity sensitive and rock solid pads along with sixteen rotary knobs. Two-octave keyboard with superb action. Nice Pitch and Mod touch strips and a non problematic USB connector. With MIDI Control Center you can save up to eight global device presets into the hardware, saving new settings for every knob and pad. Of course you can load as many templates as you want from the MIDI Control Center, setting various templates for different DAWs or plug-ins. Furthermore, you can apply various velocity curves to the keyboard, setting sensitivity according to your playing style. Same goes with the pads. You can also set how fast a button should react when applying parameters to the desired controllers by setting the so-called acceleration speed. There are more details that can be set through this MCC and, all in all, my general impression is that Arturia held back only with the pricing of this product – everything else seems quite richly featured..

For more info visit Arturia site:

https://www.arturia.com/minilab-mkii/overview

 

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