Synth keybeds

What light-touch, synth keybeds do people here prefer?

Years ago, I had a Juno 60, and I loved it’s light, soft feel. I’ve got a Kurzweil PC-88 (Fatar), which serves me well on the piano side. A few years ago, I bought an Akai MPK49, which is a fine, functional controller, but I find it to be almost unplayable. When I bought it, I figured that I would adapt. I didn’t. “Repulsive” is too strong a word, but I am not drawn to play it and once playing, I want to stop.

The problems for me (others might love the feel, that’s good! Personal tastes vary) are that the spring is too strong and the keys (relative to the fulcrum) are too short. The black keys are 3-inches long, compared to 3-1/2” on the Kurzweil. When I play at the top of a black key, especially with my middle finger, it often doesn’t depress. I’m right on top of the hinge, and with the strong spring, this means that I need much more force than expected.

The quality isn’t bad. The key shape is okay and the side to side wiggle is so-so. The plastic doesn’t feel overly cheap. So I’m not slagging the Akai. It’s a good value. It’s just that the feel doesn’t suit me.

So… anything out there with full length, light touch keys that is responsive? (If the spring is too light, the recovery could be sluggish.) The Juno 60 was rocket fast to play, once you get used to the light touch.

I can judge the other features easily enough just by looking at the controls and jacks. Gig performer let’s me program the cool stuff there, so long as the knobs and switches are solid and reliable.

For extra credit, I have a couple of Yamaha FC7 expression pedals. Compatibility would be nice. The industry doesn’t help us know this before we buy. (The Akai is not fully compatible.)

My budget is, say, up to $500, but could stretch for the right model. ($300 would be better!) 49 keys. USB and MIDI. Roland, Novation, and Alturia are obvious candidates, and I’m open to others. Light, small, and rugged for solo gigs would be ideal. (Wait… light and rugged?)

As an aside, I think marketing drew people to heavy springs. Fully weighted and hammers are expensive. Light springs are cheap. By using heavier springs, keyboards could be marketed as ‘semi-weighted”, which tricked buyers into thinking they were better than synth/spring weighted. (This is different than the semi-weighted keys of traditional electro-mechanical organs.) Oh well.

All recommendations appreciated! My only local music store is Guitar Center, and they have almost no keyboards on the floor.

I would try this:

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Yes, that’s under consideration. It looks like it has full-length keys. I’ve been looking at reviews, but nobody seems to mention if the action is light or heavy. Have you tried it?

That’s not the problem, YOU have to TRY it. Order one, test it and send it back if you don’t like it. Reviews won’t help much, it is your own feeling which matters. :wink:

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So true! Third party reviews help me eliminate unlikely candidates, but I will only know if I love it by trying it in person.

So far, I’ve got some feedback that the Novation has high quality, but is somewhat heavy. I’ve also found a review that claims that the KeyLab MkII is light: Arturia KeyLab 61 MK II [Exciting, Deep] Review | Reviewer's Revival - Review Revival

I have an Arturia KeyLab Essential 61 and for my taste it is light. I have played weighed keyboards for decades (doepfer, nord stage) and compared to those the Arturia is definitely light. It is my first light keyboard and although coming from weighed keyboards I immediately liked playing it very much! It is clear and not imprecise and it’s fun to play e.g. organ.

As @David-san already mentioned: you have to test it yourself!
Andreas

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Thanks! This sounds like the weight I’m looking for. The local Guitar Center has an Essential 49 on the floor. I’ll try it later this afternoon. If it feels good (i.e., light touch), I’m thinking ordering a KeyLab MkIi 61, which is said to have higher quality keys, but is likely to have a similar weight, coming from the same company with a “family feel.”

I was initially looking at 49 keys, but the 61 is only about three-inches wider. The Akai MPK49 has always felt constrained to me, but I wanted a small footprint at the time. Thinking back to my Juno-60 days, I realize that’s what I really want - light touch, 61-key controller, but with MIDI and a modern control surface. The metal body and wood accents make it yet more Juno-like. It’s in a tighter, more efficient case, which is nice. The Juno needed more real estate for its electronics. The included Analog Lab software includes a “Jun-60 V” emulation, which is like a cherry on top.

Thanks again for sharing that it has a light feel.

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I checked out the Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 at Guitar Center today. Based on that, I will order the KeyLab MkII 61 in white, shortly.

On the floor, GC had the KeyLab Essential, a small NI controller, an Akai MPK249, various Yamaha integrated synths, and a number of piano keyboards. The Essential is indeed on the lighter side, as were the Yamahas. None of the keybeds was great. All of them “clack” on glissandos. Like my Akai MPK49, the 249 is crappy with 5-inch keys and the fulcrum too close to the top of the black keys. The 249 spring is slightly lighter than my 49, but you can barely press the black keys at the top, which is a big deal when the keys are short.

The NI had the smoothest feel. It’s less clacky when playing hard than the others, but still clacks on glisses. The NI is really meant for composing over live performance though, so I’m not considering it. The spring is a bit heavy for my taste, but it has 5.5-inch keys and the top of the black keys is slightly stiff but playable.

The KeyLab Essential definitely feels lighter. The 5.5-inch keys are the typical synth size (as compared to 6-inch piano keys.) The black keys have more resistance at the top, but are easily playable. It’s fairly clacky though. It’s not bad with moderate force on the white keys, but strong force at the top of the black keys is loud and cheap feeling. Glisses clack, possibly worse than the median, but frankly none were great.

Overall, I think Yamaha nailed the “cheap and decent” thing. Their keyboards feel plasticky yet playable. Good value. But I’m looking for a controller, rather than a full synth.

The NI keybed had the highest quality feel, but it’s heavy for my taste, and better suited to the studio than live. Great for film composers who prefer a heavier feel.

The only keyboard I tried with sound was the KeyLab Essential. They didn’t have Analog Lab installed, and the available presets were terrible, but the clack isn’t nearly as bad when sounds are playing. The touch pads were so-so. I saw a review where they recommended touching corners, rather than the center. It helped a bit, but wasn’t great. I got best results when playing the hi-hat with keys and kick, snare with pads. The pads are a bit small, but that didn’t bother me.

So, I will order the MkII. It seems that Arturia’s feel is indeed light, and given that the MkII has a higher quality keybed than the essential, I’m hoping for more smoothness, like the NI, but the lightness of the Essential. In any case, the Essential is already a big improvement over my MPK49, which I find almost unplayable, or at least unenjoyable.

As a bonus, inclusion of and integration with Analog Lab seems ideal. I plan to do some 70s prog covers and prefer to get close with presets and tweaks, rather than building from scratch, so it seems like a good match. Hopefully, this integration will still apply when hosting in Gig Performer, but I like GP’s streamlining for live, so I should be happy either way.

I’ll report back on my findings after it arrives.

BTW, I’ve decided on a white model. The contrast of black knobs and blue text seems better over white, and that’s the clincher. I’m still a bit torn between the stealthy black and flashy white. Yellow text on gray might be my personal preference, if it were available. Anyway, the higher contrast of the white model broke the tie.

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I had keylab 61 mkii from Arturia and I sold it after some months. Too soft for my tastes. And some note off lost when you play hard glissando, organ style. A disaster …
Pity because all the devices on it were great.
I immediately bought a Native Kontrol s 61 mkii.
Great keybed, for me perfect.
To get sliders I bought mixface that I put over my Studiologic SL73.
Full setup now for me is just what I need

Hopefully, they’ve solved the Note Off issues in a firmware update. I’ve read that the first release didn’t light the pads. Maybe they refined the Note Off situation when they added the pad lights in their update. Finger crossed.

I liked the quality of the small Native Instruments controller that I demo’d. It’s keybed was the least clacky of all the synth action keyboards on the floor. (The shop had the Essential but not the MkII.) The keys were a bit firm for my taste, but not terribly so. That you found the KeyLab MkII to feel light is probably good for me. It’s like guitar strings. There’s been a trend towards heavier strings in recent years, but I still like the lightest strings I can get.

Thanks for the feedback! I’ll report back on glisses and Note Off after I get the keyboard.

If you look for missing note off issue on Arturia forum you will find my posts. After a recent firmware, updated situation was much better. My last post confirmed that with a happy feeling. After that post I had a bad note off event during a gig. This convinced me to sell it. Since I have my Native controller (a year now), no bad events of wrong note off.
I really hope they solved this issue, but I cannot be sure.

I ordered the KeyLab MkII at Guitar Center yesterday. Hopefully, no note-off problems.

When I was there, I checked out the keybeds again. The NI controller was definitely the best of the bunch (noting that they only had the Arturia Essential, not the MkII, available. I checked side to side wiggle of the keys. The NI was quite good. The Essential was a bit wiggly. The MPK249 felt the loosest. In practice, this isn’t huge, but still speaks to quality.

I also checked out the throw. The MPK249 is quite shallow. The NI is the deepest. The Essential was in the middle. My overall impression is that the NI is a great all-arounder. The throw and firmness make it the most piano-like without going fully weighted or adding hammers. Great if you cover both Elton John and Keith Emerson, or for film composers who want to do it all with one keyboard.

In my case, I have a weighted piano and I want a synth/organ feel. If it were between the NI and the Essential, I’d have a tough choice. On a budget, the Essential wins, given the control surface. With more cash, the NI and additional control surface gives a higher quality keybed but would take more real estate. It’s not the fast synth I’m seeking, but wouldn’t feel completely out of place for piano sounds.

I’ll pick up the KeyLab MkII at the store, unbox it, and do a quick comparison. Hopefully, it has the fast action of the Essential with the quality of the NI. We will see…

I found a great video showing the keybed and controls of the Arturia KeyLab MkII: Arturia KeyLab 61 MKII - More in depth look - YouTube

Compared to other keyboards, this appears to be less clackity, but has an interesting side-to-side float. Some cheap keys slide side to side. I don’t find it to affect things much, given that we tend to press keys straight down. But this leaning is interesting. The presenter says it works well with glisses. We will see…

Anyway, I wish more keyboard reviewers went into this detail. As written above, a review won’t help you know if you will love the feel, but it might help eliminate the keyboards that are unlikely to work.

I received the Arturia KeyLab MkII 61 today. So far so good! The touch is just right for me. Light, but not flimsy, clattery, or slow to return. I can do a two-finger drum roll on a single key and it doesn’t miss a hit. When playing, the keys aren’t silent, but they aren’t harsh either - except for one the hardest hits. The feel is light, but not so light that I can’t control the velocity. In fact, I’m finding that I can play quite subtly, compared to the MPK49. It feels like an instrument, rather than a consumer electronics product.

The shape of the keys is quite good. They are bevelled nicely, so that glisses feel smooth, but they aren’t so rounded as to feel strange in the least. As the most recent video that I posted shows, the keys move from side to side a bit. This is no problem when playing. It’s not like we do violin-style vibrato on keyboards. And as that video showed, this is beneficial for glisses.

The throw is just right - about 3/8". This might be a bit less than an acoustic piano, but it’s the same as on my Kurzweill PC88 with a 25-year-old Fatar weighted keybed. No wonder it feels right to me.

The overall sensation is that it’s “well-oiled.” In this way, it’s similar to the Native Instruments controller I tried - the Arturia having the lighter touch of the two. By contrast, the MPK249 and Arturia KeyLab Essential felt harsher. This also feels nicer than the inexpensive Yamaha integrated keyboards on the floor. They had a light touch and a good feel for the money, but this is much nicer.

Anyway, Here’s a shoutout to @David-san. He recommended this keyboard in the very first response and he nailed it. Frankly, this surprised me as he didn’t provide much context. Often, a quick response like that is a favorite of the responder, but doesn’t necessarily meet the needs of the query. However, in this case, the first response hit the bullseye. Nice!

Regarding features, I’m still downloading the content. But I’ve watched a ton a videos and read the manual. The Analog Lab integration seems to be excellent. It could be perfect for me as I’m more of a preset adjuster than a from-scratch baker. Integration with DAWs (I use Logic and might try Ableton again) is an unexpected plus. That wasn’t a thing when I last shopped for keyboards. And then there is User mode, which could be redundant with all of the power of Gig Performer, but the ability to customize things could get me out of some binds. Hopefully, I can mostly leave the MIDI values in default mode.

Ooh. Analog Lab 4 just finished downloading. You know what I’ll be doing this evening.

Cheers!

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I didn’t recommend, just suggested as I find it sexy. But what I usually recommend to everyone is to TEST BY YOURSELF. As you mentionned we want a music instrument not a piece of hardware on which we have to play on. We have to be able to concentrate on the music and forget the technology. That where GP helps a lot too :wink:

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Did you try sliding on the keyboard with two hands or with only one hands while moving the pitch wheel to see if no notes off are lost like another user mentioned? (hanging notes)

Fortunately, the controller that looks sexy in photos and on paper feels sexy too. :sunglasses:

The Analog Lab sounds that come with the keyboard include some awesome Hammond sounds and the the side notes sometimes mention specific songs an artists. On a few of those, I pulled up some YouTube videos and played along, which was quite fun. My old Juno-60 had some nice B-3 and C-3 sounds, but I was never able to get the whole deal, including the right distortion. Here, I can dial in a sound and it’s all there.

I played many one hand glisses as I badly faked those songs. On Deep Purple Highway Star, Jon Lord gets his solo started with some low, building noise. I was mashing both hands on the keys trying to get that sound. There wasn’t a single stuck note. (I made a lot of noise, but nothing remotely like the intro to that solo, lol.)

Anyway, I’m stoked with the KeyLab MkII. Great features, solid construction, and an organ/synth keybed that suits me and feels great. I strongly recommend that pianists buy a 88-key, weighted/hammer board and synth/organ players get a keyboard (61 is really nice) with a light feel. Play both? Get one of each. Can only have one? The Native Instruments keys are good quality tweeners. That said, I’ve done film composition with a wide range of sounds using only a weighted keyboard and playing piano sounds on the KeyLab MkII doesn’t feel bad at all (until 61 keys are too narrow) when playing expressive piano sounds. Come to think of it, if you play both piano and synth, start with 88-weighted, just for the full key range.

Again thanks for suggesting the sexy keyboard. It’s exactly what I wanted and then some.

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Nice to hear this. :+1: