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Arturia KeyStep Controller & Sequencer

Small keyboard, big features, and impressive connectivity


by Phil O'Keefe



Many of us love the roominess of large 88 key piano-action keyboard controllers, but in some situations, a small portable keyboard controller is all you really need…  or want; they're often perfect for triggering desktop and modular synth setups. Their small size and light weight also makes them well-suited for use in a crowded home studio or on the go with your iOS or computer virtual synths, and they can often help make step sequencing easier too.


Of course, there's always the issue of connectivity to consider. Many of today's small keyboards don't even have a 5-pin MIDI output jack anymore - just USB MIDI - so connecting them to a hardware MIDI module often means you'll need a computer to use along with them, which is not something you will always want or otherwise need. And if you have a modular system or Eurorack synth rig, you may be looking for additional connectivity, which isn't always easy to find. If any of this sounds familiar to you, Arturia has something that you may find interesting and useful - the KeyStep Controller & Sequencer. Let's take a look at the details that make it unique. 



What You Need To Know

  • The Arturia KeyStep is an inexpensive and fairly compact keyboard controller with a few interesting surprises built into it that make it stand out from other compact keyboard controllers.

  • The KeyStep measures 19" W x 6" D x 1.5" H and weighs three pounds. The case feels sturdy and substantial, and although the top and part of the sides are white plastic, the bottom and sides are metal.

  • The KeyStep can be bus-powered over a USB connection to your computer via its micro-B USB port. You can also use a USB cable with a power bank or a USB wall wart charger. There's also a power jack that accepts a plug from a 9VDC center-positive .5A adapter, which is sold separately.

  • The KeyStep can also be used with your iPad, but you'll need an Apple Lightning to USB adapter. A low power mode helps keep the power draw down when using it with a tablet.

  • The KeyStep has three main modes of operation, and it can function as a Sequencer, Arpeggiator, and Controller.

  • The built-in step sequencer can record and play back sequences of up to 64 steps, with up to 8-note polyphony per step. Up to eight sequences can be stored onboard the KeyStep, and you can store and load them from your computer using Arturia's MIDI Control Center software. You can also re-write your sequences in real time as they are playing.

  • There are four transport style buttons, including Play / Pause, Stop, Record and Tap, which have alternate functions (Restart, Clear Last, Append and Rest / Tie, respectively) which can be accessed with a Shift key.

  • The KeyStep can be your master clock source, or can be set (with a pair of DIP switches on the rear panel) to sync to incoming MIDI clock received at the MIDI in jack or over USB, as well as to the signal received at the Sync In jack.

  • Sequence step gate times can be user adjusted to one of five settings (10, 25, 50, 75 or 90 percent), while swing can be adjusted anywhere from 50% (off) to 75%, with nine intermediary settings in between.
     
  • Arturia's MIDI Control Center software is a free download for registered users. The MIDI Control Center software is compatible with OS 10.8 or later for Macs, and Windows 7 or later for PCs. The software allows you to customize the configuration of various aspects of the KeyStep.   



  • The MIDI Control Center's software piano roll style sequencing is fast and easy to use, although it's also possible to enter in step sequences without the help of the software. You can enter and edit sequences in real time as they're playing, or step by step.  

 

  • There's a Rate knob that you can use to set the sequencer and arpeggio tempo when the KeyStep is the clock master, but unfortunately there's no rate LED display. You can also play the KeyStep as a controller and have it transmitting on one MIDI channel while the sequencer is playing on another channel.  

  • The Kbd Play button is the key to having the KeyStep sequencer play on one MIDI channel while you use the keyboard to play on a second channel. Hold down the Shift + Octave Up buttons and then press the corresponding keyboard key for the MIDI channel you want to play live (there's a legend printed above the keys to guide you), while Shift + the corresponding keyboard key sets the MIDI channel for the sequencer playback.

  • Unfortunately, there's no Song Mode to chain patterns together, although you can recall patterns on the fly, and they will play when the current sequence finishes, or instantly, depending on how you have the Next Seq parameter set in the MCC software. You can even have it change to the new sequence in the middle, so that the new sequence starts in the same mid-sequence position as the one currently running.

  • By holding down the the Shift button when selecting sequences, you can select non-contiguous sequences (jumping from Sequence 1 to Sequence 5) without playing the sequences in-between. As soon as you let go of the Shift button, the new sequence will start.

  • The included arpeggiator is lots of fun, with eight different patterns that can be selected with a dedicated knob. Arpeggiation can be set to go up, down, up / down inclusive and exclusive (where the top turnaround note is or isn't repeated as part of the up / down cycle), random, note order, and more.

  • The arpeggiator knob is also used to select one of the eight sequence memories by flipping a small top panel mounted toggle switch from the Arp to Seq position.  

  • The arpeggiator also has eight patterns, and an eight position Time Div(ision) knob gives you even more ways to change things up, with 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, 1/32, and 1/4T - 1/32T options.

  • As a controller, the diminutive KeyStep may look like a lightweight, but it is packing a surprising amount of connectivity. In addition to 5-pin MIDI in / out jacks, it also has a Micro USB port for connecting to your computer or iPad, 3.5 mm Clock Sync In and Out jacks that can be set to 1 step (gate), 1 step (clock), and 1 pulse (Korg Volca), as well as 24 or 48 pulses per quarter note (ppq).

  • You also get a full set of 3.5 mm CV outputs including Mod, Gate and Pitch jacks, so the KeyStep is well-equipped for controlling your pre-MIDI, modular and Eurorack synths.



  • A 1/4" Sustain pedal jack is also included, but you'll need to provide your own footswitch to use with it.

  • The keybed on the KeyStep uses Arturia's proprietary slimkey design, and playing the 32 keys sends out both velocity and aftertouch, making this one of the smallest and least expensive keyboards to provide both.

  • There are capacitive touch pitch bend and mod "wheels" (touch strips) on the top of the KeyStep, immediately to the left of the keybed. These work surprisingly well and respond as you'd expect to your touch. The mod "wheel" stays where you last left it, even if you remove your hand.

  • A set of Oct + and Oct - buttons let you quickly change the range of MIDI notes that the keyboard can generate. These also have alternative Kbd Play and Transpose functions when used in conjunction with other keys. The Transpose function allows you to transpose your sequences in real time while they're running.

  • There's also a Hold button (with an alternative Chord play function) that lets you hold and sustain notes, even without using a sustain footswitch. The Chord mode lets you program chords for single finger play.

  • The keys are definitely smaller than a full-sized keyboard, and there is a bit of side to side wiggle, but it's not too bad considering the low price of this controller. I also occasionally accidentally triggered notes I didn't intend to play, and that's only partially attributable to my modest keyboard skills; unless you're used to playing on mini keys, you should plan on some adjustment time.

  • Arturia bundles an upgradeable light version of Ableton Live Lite 9 with the KeyStep, which will be useful for those who don't have a DAW or sequencer, or one that is appropriate for live use. The only other accessory included is a micro USB to USB cable.


Limitations

  • There is no physical on/off switch on the KeyStep.

  • Mini keys, even when relatively well done (as they are here), will always be a disappointment for some musicians. Depending on your expectations the KeyStep may not provide the kind of playing experience you're looking for. Other users will have no problems with them.

  • The KeyStep doesn't have a MIDI through jack, although it does have a pass-through / echo function to the MIDI output.

  • There is no BPM tempo display. If you want to use it in conjunction with a BeatStep Pro or with another hardware sequencer, you will probably want to slave the KeyStep to the the BSP or other device's clock (instead of trying to do it the other way around) so that you will still have a tempo display.

  • I would have preferred a top panel switch for selecting the clock source instead of the back panel mounted DIP switches, although to be fair, at least there is a way to adjust this manually, without having to hook the KeyStep up to a computer and change the setting in software.  

 

Conclusions

This is a very interesting and useful little keyboard controller, but it's important to carefully consider your needs and expectations before jumping in and purchasing one. The keys are certainly playable, but still a bit too small to satisfy those who are only comfortable with full-size keys. If you have big hands or need to play complex two-handed parts on a regular basis, this probably isn't going to be the best controller choice for you. It would be nice if Arturia also offered a couple of versions with the KeyStep's features, but with full-sized 25 and 49 keybeds instead of the slimkey keybed to give people a choice. Hey Arturia, as long as I'm asking, how about a deluxe full-sized 49 key version with two polyphonic sequencers, a second bank of sequence storage, and another set of CV connections? Oh, and toss in the tempo display and Sync button from the BeatStep Pro too please.

Despite my personal wish list, there are a lot of people who will find the KeyStep to be nearly ideal for various tasks, including as a companion for their modular synths and Eurorack gear, triggering sounds and playing parts on hardware MIDI modules or their software virtual instruments, triggering samples as part of a DJ rig, as well as for MIDI to CV translation duties. I was very impressed that Arturia gave this little controller aftertouch - I'm sure many people will find that to be very useful. I also really like the fact that the KeyStep has a 8 pattern, 64 step sequencer onboard. Even better is the fact that it is polyphonic and supports up to 8 notes per step - something that even Arturia's BeatStep Pro controller and sequencer doesn't really offer. Speaking of the BeatStep Pro, the KeyStep makes an excellent companion for one, providing not only the polyphonic sequencing that the BSP lacks (short of configuring the Drum sequencer for that purpose, which has its own limitations), but also an additional keyboard-style controller and a fun arpeggiator too, along with the KeyStep's additional MIDI, CV and Sync connections. Because of its unique combination of useful features, many musicians will find lots of things that the KeyStep will be able to do for them, and plenty of musical tasks to keep it occupied.  -HC-



Want to discuss the Arturia KeyStep Controller & Sequencer, or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Keys, Synths and Samplers forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!




Resources

Arturia KeyStep Controller & Sequencer ($149.00 MSRP, $119.00 "street")

Arturia's product web page   

KeyStep Quick Start guide    

KeyStep manual (PDF file)   


You can purchase the Arturia KeyStep Controller & Sequencer from:

Sweetwater    

Guitar Center    

B&H Photo Video  

Musician's Friend    




 




KeyStep Guided Tour

 

 




__________________________________________________

 




Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  

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