by Craig Anderton
Arturia has released three products in the “Analog Experience” series. I already reviewed the Player and Factoryversions—checking out those reviews is a good place to start as they explain the general concept.
In a nutshell, the Analog Experience series bundles a surprisingly sturdy MIDI keyboard controller with a stand-alone/AU-VST-RTAS plug-in virtual instrument dedicated to hosting preset sounds drawn from Arturia’s soft synths (with Laboratory, these are Arturia’s virtual instrument emulations of the ARP 2600, CS-80, Jupiter-8, Minimoog, Moog Modular, Prophet-5, and Prophet-VS). Where the versions differ is in the keyboard (Player has 25 keys, Factory 32, and Laboratory 49 keys, but the feature set increases with the number of keys), the number of preset sounds (1,000 in Player, and 3,500 for Factory and Laboratory), and of course price—with Laboratory being the top of this particular line.
So if it’s digital instruments playing on a computer, where does the “analog” part of the experience come in? Two ways. First, most people who know analog agree that Arturia does a very good job of capturing the sound quality of the instruments being emulated. Purists will debate whether a virtual instrument can ever be truly “analog,” and while technically speaking a digital instrument can’t be analog, its can deliver the same kind of tonal quality that was the hallmark of analog synths. Second, analog synths were about control. By definition, they had to have one control per parameter because there was no such thing as menus and dual-function controls until digital hit the world. Although the Arturia keyboards don’t offer control for all parameters, they do allow for a reasonable amount of real-time, performance-oriented tweaking.
You begin with installation on a Mac or Windows (32- or 64-bit) computer. The package includes an installation CD-ROM that holds the virtual instrument and sounds, a USB cable, printed multi-lingual manual, and the keyboard. After installing the software, you need to authorize it. You’ll find a small plastic card with a serial number and unlock code; you go online to obtain an activation code, launch the player, then complete the authorization. This is all straightforward as long as you follow the directions.
Copy protection is done through the Syncrosoft eLicenser, which gives you the choice of authorizing based on a particular computer and hard drive, or to a USB dongle to allow for portability to other machines (or re-installation if your computer’s hard drive crashes . . . of course, that never happens, right? Right?!?). You can buy a Syncrosoft dongle from Arturia, but Steinberg and certain Korg software products (as well as others) use a Syncrosoft dongle and you can use that. However, make sure you have the latest version of the Syncrosoft license control software before doing any protection-related operations, like transferring an electronic authorization to a dongle.
One of life’s mysteries it that you can download the Laboratory software (instrument and sounds) for $299, but buy the complete package for $349 street. That makes this a $50 USB-powered keyboard controller, in which case it’s a serious overachiever. Made by CME, the casing is metal, with wood ends to give the old analog synth vibe. The keybed is your typical unweighted, synth action with a bit of a “springy” feel; it’s responsive and comfortable to play.
But perhaps the most surprising element is not just the inclusion of aftertouch, but that it’s really good aftertouch—smooth, predictable, and consistent (Fig. 1). It’s definitely not what some keyboard players dismiss as “afterswitch.” In fact, I was sufficiently impressed I did a screen shot to see if my ears were deceiving me . . . they weren’t.
Fig. 1: This shows pressing down and releasing a key. Note how there’s a smooth change from zero to maximum, then back down again.
Now let’s take a tour of the various controls, going from left to right.
Fig. 2: Wheels, LCD, and navigation.
Toward the left of Fig. 2, you have the traditional pitch bend and mod wheels, as well as octave transpose switches. These light to indicate the amount of transposition. Above that are navigation controls and, unique to the Analog Experience series, a backlit 2-line by 16-character LCD.
Fig. 3: Additional navigation and MMC controls.
Fig. 3 shows additional navigation and data entry buttons. Note the sequencer buttons; these aren’t for an onboard sequencer but generate MIDI Machine Control messages for doing start, stop, record, loop, fast forward, and rewind in your host program (assuming it responds to MMC messages—not all do). The Snapshot buttons make it easy to store 10 edited patches for instant recall, but they do double-duty as Setup knobs. This add tremendous flexibility, as they let you specify such characteristics as whether the knobs are absolute or relative, different aftertouch and velocity curves, minimum and maximum aftertouch for the keyboard (supposedly the pads have aftertouch as well, but I don't think it's implemented), octave transposition, split points, and much more. The setup options help make the case that this keyboard is truly a general-purpose MIDI controller, not just a way to trigger Laboratory sounds.
Fig. 4: Controller knobs.
Moving along, there are ten controller knobs (Fig. 4). Six of them are dedicated to particular functions within the presets: filter resonance, filter cutoff, LFO speed, LFO amount, chorus mix, and delay mix (the only onboard effects included in the instruments are chorus and delay). The other four are “wild card” controls whose purpose varies depending on the preset—Arturia picks four important parameters from the presets, and allows these knobs to control them. However, remember that the keyboard is also a general-purpose MIDI controller; when used with other gear, the knobs can control whatever you define them to control in the target instrument.
Fig. 5: Envelope control sliders.
Eight of the nine sliders (Fig. 5) control the envelopes—four control amp ADSR envelope parameters, with the other four doing the same for the filter. The ninth slider is for tempo control, and again, these produce standard MIDI controller messages for use with other gear. The slider knobs are the one place where the keyboard looks like what it costs, as some of them on the one sent for review were angled slightly (this is particularly noticeable with the Release 1 slider shown in Fig. 5).
Fig. 6: The four pads.
Again unique to the Analog Experience series, there are four pads (Fig. 6). These can trigger individual loops or sounds, and we’ll re-visit them when we cover “Scenes” as that’s where they’re most important (other than being general-purpose MIDI controllers).
Let’s check out the available rear-panel I/O (Fig. 7).
Fig. 7: The rear panel connections.
There are physical 5-in MIDI in and out connectors—nice. Why would you need MIDI in? Well, you might want to add, for example, an additional control surface. Next to the MIDI connectors you’ll find jacks for an Expression pedal, Sustain pedal, auxiliary footpedal, and breath controller input. Given the USB input and USB-powered operation, you might wonder why there’s an AC adapter input. It’s not necessary for the Laboratory package, but you might want to use the keyboard as a stand-alone MIDI controller, without a computer, in which case it needs a power source (note that the package doesn’t include an adapter).
I’ve stressed that the keyboard is useable as a general-purpose MIDI controller, so you might be thinking “It sure would be nice to have an editor so I could assign whatever controllers I wanted to the controls, set split points, and more.” Well, you can. A companion MIDI Control Center application installed with the program (Fig. 8) is all about additional control over your control.
Fig. 8: The MIDI Control Center application.
You can assign whatever MIDI controllers you want to the switches, knobs, sliders, rear panel controller options, and the like. Granted, most modern instruments have learn options, so you may not need to modify the existing settings; however, this can be very handy when controlling hardware (particularly older hardware).
Furthermore, if you want to control the Laboratory virtual instrument with other controllers, the various parameters have learn functions—just Ctrl-click on the parameter (this includes switches as well as controls and faders).
The software is identical whether used as a plug-in or stand-alone, other than a file menu in stand-alone for setting interface preferences
Fig. 9: The upper section consists of a browser/preset selection area, while the lower part mirrors what's happening with the keyboard.
The browser (Fig. 9) lets you limit the presets shown to particular instruments, instrument types, and characteristics. This was all covered in the Factory review, so if you’re not clear on how this works, refer to the review. The bottom line is that given 3,500 sounds, you need some kind of help to narrow down your search to ones that will be useful for you—I’m sure don’t want to audition string pads if you’re looking for a bass part. Whenever I’ve tested the selection method to find a sound I wanted, it didn’t take long to locate something suitable. Maybe I missed out on something that would have been even better had I spent more time looking around, but then again, maybe not.
If you click on the Edit button, the cool synth graphic gets replaced with some basic editing options—you can change browser tabs, alter pitch bend range, set the amount of polyphony and mono/unison/poly mode, sequencer step size (if the patch includes a sequence, and the option to sync LFO to MIDI tempo. However, there’s also an Open button and this is unique to the Analog Experience series. If you have the synth installed from which the present was chosen, you can open the full GUI and have complete freedom to edit the patch (Fig. 10).
Fig. 10: The Minimoog V is installed on the computer, the preset is from the Minimoog V, and as a result the patch can be edited using the original instrument GUI.
Of course, while this editing is welcome, don’t forget that the knobs and sliders on the keyboard can do a fair amount of editing as well.
The Scene is a super-important aspect of Laboratory. Superficially, it looks like a collection of 200 grooves representing 11 different genres. Typically, this means a split with two sounds on different sides of split, drum sounds or patterns that are assigned to the pads, and melodies and/or arpeggiations. These can be inspirational and fun, and that’s fine; however, dig deeper, and you can use the edit options to create your own scenes (Fig. 11).
Fig. 11: Editing a scene gives lots of ways to customize the sound and create complex setups. Here, a preset is being chosen for one of the splits.
The little arrows to the right of the various categories (sounds, mode, pads, mixer) bring up additional editing. For example, open the pads, and you can drag and drop hits or loops on to the pads. Mixer allows changing the level and panning for the two splits and the four pad audio outputs, while Melody is where you choose your riffs. All of these contribute to the most editable entry yet in the Analog Experience series..
At this point, we could still cover more, but this is supposed to be an article—not a major motion picture coming to a theater near you! By now, it should be pretty obvious this is a very powerful package. The variety of sounds alone is welcome, but the addition of scenes takes the controller into a whole other dimension altogether, thanks to the splits, layers, melodies, pads, and so on. Although the ability to edit patches in the full GUI may be of limited usefulness, as presumably one reason people buy Laboratory is they want to save money compared to buying all the instruments individually, Arturia does offer a bundle of all their soft synths and Laboratory for about $500 street. This is an exceptional deal for those who love the sound of analog, but don’t feel like buying (and maintaining!) the equivalent in hardware.
Player is cool; for very little money, you get lots of sounds and a compact controller. Factory took the concept even further, but Laboratory is definitely the Big Dog of the line.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.