Arturia’s continuing advance into the hardware market knows no bounds and their new, portable controller definitely punches above its weight.
Seemingly packed with everything you need to make and control your sounds, the Minilab Mk II updates the original version with a slightly different layout and style along with well thought out integration with some of the included software. Indeed, all you need to add to this package is a laptop and you can be making music on the move before you can say bleep.
Arturia MiniLab Mk II – the hardware
The Minilab Mk II is a two-octave mini keyboard that has borrowed its styling from its cousin the Keystep and it looks fresh and usable. It weighs just 1.5 kgs and has a pretty similar footprint to my 15” MacBook Pro, making it portable without losing some important features.
The keybed itself is responsive and nicely springy, for what is a plastic synth-style set of keys and doesn’t suffer too much from the mini-key problems of some other brands. Compared to the keys on the microKorg, these are positively playable. Don’t get me wrong, slim keys are not the easiest things to get familiar with if you are used to full size ones, but for creating bass lines and some triad chord sequences, these will suit just fine.
The pads are nicely manufactured with some pleasant backlighting and feel like they can handle some serious beat making, but they also double up as software controllers, more on that later.
The controller knobs at the top of the unit have a very slight wiggle to them, but nothing out of the ordinary, and the caps themselves come off the pot so can be replaced. As with any controller keyboard of this type, it is probably very easy to break the pots/knobs off if the unit is dropped or struck so care is always recommended. As it is, they only protrude just over one centimetre from the top of the casing so as long as it is transported in a padded bag or carry case they should last for the lifetime of the unit.
The touch sensors for pitch-bend and modulation control work well and, although they do not give the same amount of visual feedback of the normal plastic-wheel counterparts on other keyboards, they do feel a bit more fun to use, particularly now as we get more used to touch control.
Finally, there’s fairly standard octave up/down buttons to access the full range of keyboard notes, a shift key to adapt some of the control assignments and a button to ‘bank’ the pads from numbers 1-8 to 9-16.
Aside from the USB socket and a ¼” jack for a sustain pedal there are no other physical connections. There’s no power supply socket so you are totally reliant on bus power, which may be draining should you hook the controller to an iOS device.
The casing feels pretty solid considering it’s an all-plastic affair and there is little wrong with the build quality of the unit overall. I even like the knowing nod to wooden end-cheeks even though there isn’t a real grain in sight. The rubber feet gripped my tabletop firmly and it would have to take a hefty push to get it to slide around, which is always a good sign if you are a bit of a heavy-handed player.
All in all, for the money, this is a well-designed and constructed controller keyboard. But how well does it do interacting with software?
MiniLab Mk II – on the bench
For my first test I dived straight in with little thought to the manual to find out how easy it was to use as a plug and play keyboard. On power up it flashed through the coloured lights and was ready to use with Logic Pro X.
The MiniLab behaved as I expect any keyboard controller would to; the keys played notes and the pads could be used to trigger drum sounds (just as the keyboard can as well).
Also as expected, the rotary controllers were sometimes spuriously mapped to a synth parameter, although more often than not they weren’t. None of this was surprising, as without any formal on-board mapping template or wrapper, such as Novation’s Automap, the rotary encoders on the controller can’t have any idea of what CC data was required.
The pitch-bend and modulation ribbons worked correctly though, highlighting the USB/MIDI compliance. In Logic Pro, as with other DAW software, mapping can be manually setup and within minutes the rotary controllers were pressed into service to control filter envelopes and oscillator tunings much like other control surfaces.
This instant ‘plug and play’ was also proved in Propellerhead’s Reason, where the keyboard was correctly detected and identified on scanning. It did seem that the pickup speed of the pots was a little out of kilter in Reason, but this is an attribute of the keyboard that can be adjusted in the MIDI Control Centre program downloadable from Arturia’s website. Other customizable elements such as velocity sensitivity curves and MIDI channel numbers can be changed, as well as the creation of up to 7 more user presets for custom mapping (preset 1 is permanently assigned to the Analog Live Lite software).
But what about the bundled software?
Onto the included software and in particular the aforementioned Analog Lab Lite, where the controller and the promised pre-mapped parameters come into their own. Clearly, Arturia have a knack for integration of their controller hardware and quality plug-ins, as seen in their previous releases of the Analog Experience keyboards and software. This is carried on into this package and upon firing up Analog Lab Lite in standalone mode you are greeted with a virtual shop window of classic synths and a default patch to begin with.
While it’s always fun to click on the CS-80 or Moog Modular like an impatient child pointing into a toyshop, it’s when you switch into the software’s browser page you’ll find the controller makes your mouse (or trackpad) virtually redundant. The two clickable rotaries take care of patch selection inside the browser, with the remaining knobs mapped directly to tweakable parameters on the synth sound you call up.
As mentioned before, the pads can also be pressed into service for selecting presets up and down (pads 15 & 16) while pads 9, 10 & 11 are used when you call up a multi, which is two presets layered together. Any changes you make to any of the factory patches can be saved in a user bank so, even though you are restricted to 500 patches in Analog Lab Lite, you can still make a lot of noises with what you are given. That said, there is a cheap upgrade path to the full version of Analog Lab which will give you over 5000 patches, or you can go the whole hog and jump straight into the complete Arturia V-Collection, which gives you the full versions of the modelled hardware synths.
The mapping and controllability of the software was mirrored when I opened the AU within Logic Pro X. Parameter changes made on the controller can be recorded as MIDI CC data within Logic without any further setting up and played back faultlessly.
One thing that was somewhat irksome and continued to bug me during the test period was the fact that you have 16 knobs on the hardware, but only 14 shown on the software GUI. Obviously rotary pots 1 and 9 take care of patch-switching duties, but if you are taking visual cues from the screen it is easy to forget this and often I found myself scrolling through patches rather than affecting a filter frequency for example. While this isn’t exactly a deal-breaker, it would have been beneficial to indicate the physical controllers slightly differently to the rest with, for example, different colour pot caps.
For a really in-depth look at the bundled software please watch the video below.
Arturia MiniLab Mk II MIDI controller keyboard – our conclusion
All things considered, this is high quality package at a budget price point. If you already have a keyboard controller in your studio, then the Minilab Mk II probably won’t do a lot for you (although the software alone might). However, if you are currently keyboard-less or if you need a portable, usable and sturdy controller then this is definitely worth putting on your list of possibilities and, in our opinion, pretty near to the top.
- Portability and build quality
- Integration with included software
- Real-time, hands-on control over parameters
- Confusion of 16 pots on hardware vs. 14 on-screen
- Always has to be bus powered
Arturia MiniLab Mk II Technical Specification
- 25-note velocity sensitive slim keyboard
- 16 endless rotary encoders, two of which act as switches as well
- 2 banks of 8 velocity and pressure sensitive backlit pads
- 2 capacitive touch sensors for pitch-bend and modulation
- Octave up and octave down buttons for full note range
- 8 user presets
- USB powered
- USB/MIDI compliant – no drivers needed
- Kensington Security Slot
Required minimum configuration
- Windows 7 32-bit and 64-bit or higher
- Mac OSX 10.8 or higher (64-bit plug-ins)
- Minilab Mk II unit
- Quick start with serial and unlock codes
- USB cable
Included software (download only)
- Arturia Analog Lab Lite
- Ableton Live Lite
- UVI Grand Piano Model D
Arturia MiniLab Mk II gallery