($179 MSRP, $149 street)
by Craig Anderton
When it comes to The Player, I think I “get” what it’s all about—and it’s pretty clever. Picture this scenario...
You have a modest computer- music setup (possibly laptop-based) with a DAW, or lite version DAW, that comes bundled with a few virtual instruments. And now, you need a keyboard—not just for playing notes, but maybe for triggering loops in Ableton Live , or hands-on channel muting in Reason. But which keyboard? Something like a Korg M3 or Yamaha Motif is beyond your budget, and while there are some nice-looking controllers out there, you’d kind of like to augment your selection of sounds too. Maybe you’re even primarily a guitar player or singer who dabbles a bit in keys, but wants to go further, or at least lay down some smokin’ synth bass lines for that 80s revival song you wrote.
So you have a long talk with your workspace and your checking account, and you realize you need something small and inexpensive—yet you really don’t want to scrimp on some little plastic thingie. Fortunately you visit Harmony Central, and are reading this review. Then the light bulb goes on over your head: Arturia had you in mind with The Player.
Fig. 1: This view shows the rear and front panels.
The Player is a package with a 25-key general-purpose MIDI keyboard controller, and a cross-platform virtual instrument (stand-alone and VST/AU/RTAS plug-in) with 1,000 sounds, drawn from Arturia’s line of virtual instruments. (ARP 2600V, CS-80V, Jupiter-8V, Minimoog V, Modular Moog V, Prophet V, and Prophet VS). Let’s look at the controller first.
Fig. 2: Even the bottom plate is metal; note the wooden end plates.
One of the most impressive aspects is something a picture won’t show you: This is a hefty little sucker. It’s made of metal, including the bottom plate, and it’s not going to slide around on your workspace unless your keyboard technique rivals King Kong. The end plates are real wood. The keys are synth action, not weighted; although they bounce around a bit, they feel good, and most importantly, the velocity response is predictable. There’s no aftertouch, but that’s hardly a feature you’d expect in this price range.
Front-panel (or maybe I should say, top panel) controls consist of a pitch bend/modulation joystick, seven buttons, and five rotary encoders. We’ll cover what they do when we get to the sounds, but remember, this is a MIDI controller—these controls work with a variety of MIDI devices.
Fig. 3: Controller rear panel detail. The “knobby” thing in the upper right gives a good view of the pitch bend/modulation controller.
The controller is typically bus-powered, but if you’re using it without a computer, the rear panel has a power switch and AC adapter jack (the AC adapter is not included). You’ll also find a USB input, 5-pin DIN MIDI output (yes—drive actual hardware devices, not just what’s in your computer), and sustain pedal input. There’s even a paper manual, and the package includes a 5’ USB cable.
Installation works as expected, and then it’s time to authorize. The package includes 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.
When the player first shows up, you have that legendary Minimoog sound. I almost thought I was hearing the beginning of the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me.” Not only was that the Arturia Moog sound I’ve heard before, it’s the sound of that wonderful product of Bob Moog’s imagination—the Minimoog, one of which sits in a position of honor in my studio. (A quick story: When Arturia first designed their virtual Minimoog, they sent a copy to Bob Moog seeking his endorsement. He instead sent them a list of what he considered wrong with the emulation. They made the changes, sent the revised version to Bob, and then he gave the software his endorsement.)
Fig. 4: The virtual instrument in stand-alone mode.
There are some basic preferences, like the LCD screen color, and a choice of showing the keyboard, the screen, or both. Look toward the left side, and you’ll see a browser where you can filter patches based on instrument, type of sound, or whether you’ve marked it as a favorite. (The manual says you can also filter by characteristic, but this option is apparently not available). The listing in the middle shows the preset name, instrument from which it came, type, approximate CPU load (from 1 to 5), and whether it’s a favorite.
Fig. 5: The Edit option lets you create tags for the search function, and set some basic preferences for each patch.
The ability to edit patches is, not surprisingly, rather limited. Editing options are very useful for some sounds, while with other sounds, I definitely wanted to make some tweaks I couldn’t make (then again, when do I not want to make some tweaks?). I had high hopes when I clicked on the Edit button, but it’s more about tagging the preset for the database, and setting some other preferences.
However, the main point is the sounds. Given that there are a thousand of them, odds are you’ll find something that does the job, even if you’re not in love with every single one of them. Most importantly, they really do have that “analog vibe”—not only is the player a good way to add synth sounds to your music, but you can nail some of those vintage sounds that would require some serious time spent on eBay (and possibly doing some restoration work) if you wanted to go the hardware route. It’s a rich collection of patches that covers all the analog bases, from muscular basses to ethereal pads, and I couldn’t detect any difference between these sounds and the sounds generated from the full versions of the software instruments.
I assume there’s also an ulterior motive: Arturia probably hopes that when you play these sounds, you’ll become sufficiently turned on that you’ll want to check out the more complete, editable versions of their virtual instruments. And you very well might, because a lot of these patches are really impressive. I wouldn’t give up my Arturia Modular or CS-80 software in favor of the Player, but the Player is the best way to get these signature sounds for those on a budget (and who isn’t these days?).
Fig. 6: Graphical representation of the keyboard by itself.
The graphical keyboard controls mirror the physical version, except that the physical pitch/mod controller is replaced in the graphic by the traditional wheels, and the octave and level controls are moved to a slightly different location.
Fig. 7: Detail of the pitch bend and modulation (mod and breath control) controller.
Speaking of the pitch/mod controller, left/right controls pitch, up provides mod wheel data, and down generates breath controller data (although this can all be changed, as described later). The operation is pretty smooth, although you do have to move it with finesse—it’s easy to be adjusting the mod parameter, and have the pitch somewhat to the left or right of center. I would greatly prefer wheels, but Arturia’s approach saves space and cost, which are crucial in a unit of this size and price.
Fig. 8: Close-up of the octave and search buttons.
There are some clever touches. The Octave switches light to indicate a different octave, but they also flash—the faster the flashing, the further away from the standard octave setting. Cool. The Level control does double-duty as selecting search options; you use its “page 2” settings by hitting the Shift switch, which is a toggle (I definitely prefer this to it being momentary). You enable or disable categories by turning the knob to land on the category field, then pushing on the knob to select it. It’s a toss-up whether this is actually easier than using a mouse with your computer, but it’s slick.
Fig. 9: The four knobs control filter and effects parameters, and also double as envelope controls. The snapshot buttons are to the right.
The four middle knobs control filter cutoff and resonance, along with chorus and delay depth. With Shift enabled, they select the A, D, S, and R envelope parameters. The snapshot buttons let you store four of your favorite presets for instant access—shift+press to store, press to recall.
One very important point is that if you use the controls to modify the sound, you can save the modified sound as a user preset. Factory presets cannot be overwritten, but you can store an unlimited number of user presets on your computer, as well as import and export presets to add to user banks.
Remember that the keyboard controller is indeed a controller, and is useable with other software. To help with this, installing the main Player program also installs an additional MIDI Control Center application.
Fig. 10: The MIDI Control Center application.
With this, you can assign whatever MIDI controllers you want to the seven switches, five knobs, sustain jack, and the two “wheel” controller options (pitch bend always remains pitch bend). Given how most software these days has learn options, you may not need to modify any of the existing settings; however, controlling hardware—particularly older hardware—can be a different story.
Fig. 11: You can assign the synth parameters to assign to controllers other than the defaults.
Furthermore, if you want to control the Player instrument with another controller, the various parameters have learn functions—just Ctrl-click on the parameter.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from this package, given the low price. But there are two standout aspects: The controller is much classier and substantial than I expected, and the sounds are a great collection for those who want to get into virtual analog synthesis as simply and easily as possible.
And note that you’re not committed to buying the full package; the software sounds are available separately as a download for $99. There’s also a bigger brother package, Analog Experience “The Factory.” This is similar conceptually, but with a 32-note keyboard with aftertouch, more hardware controllers (1 clickable encoder, 10 encoders, 4 sliders, 11 switches, 1 modulation wheel, 1 pitch bend wheel), and 3,500 sounds. With a $299 list price, if the Analog Experience concept appeals to you, it might be worth saving your pennies and going for the next level.
Is the Player relevant for more advanced users? That depends. If you have a substantial collection of synthesizers, probably not. However, during the time I’ve been reviewing this, despite having a couple nice keyboard controllers it’s been extremely convenient to have this little 25-key keyboard sitting unobtrusively on my desk, ready to go at any time. And the collection of sounds is an asset, no matter what else you might have.
Overall, I’m very impressed by what Arturia is able to deliver at this price point: For less than the cost of many virtual analog plug-ins alone, you get the controller and a bunch of useful sounds. I’ve always been fond of their virtual instruments; the Player makes that “analog experience” available to a much wider, and more budget-conscious, audience.
Craig Anderton is Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. 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.