Arturia MiniLab MkII* is a refreshed version of the compact MIDI controller keyboard by the French company, also known for their software emulations of vintage synthesizers. It provides a 25-key keyboard, 16 rotary encoders and eight pads. Included in the package are Analog Lab Lite with 500 synth sounds and also a license for Ableton Live Lite. Find out what it’s like for daily home studio use by reading this review.
It’s All About Control
There is something about MIDI controller keyboards that eludes me, although I obviously get the idea, and have used several over the years, starting with the KORG microKONTROL in 2004. Given the right mappings from knobs to software features, generic controllers work with any music software that supports MIDI, but it is exactly this generic nature of them that causes problems or inconveniences. It shouldn’t be so difficult – you just want something to happen in the software as you twist a knob or press a button – but in practice setting them up can be quite tedious and error-prone.
Since a typical MIDI controller keyboard is not made specifically for any software, the integration often feels a little off. You need to use a lot of mental energy to create and maintain the mappings. There have been attempts to solve the problem, like Novation’s Automap, but I never really got the hang of it and sold my Novation Nocturn in frustration years ago. The MIDI mapping editors that you get with the controller keyboards are often clunky, but sometimes you can get pretty far if your chosen DAW supports the controller out of the box. Then you can apply some basic mappings without a lot of extra effort.
The best hardware/software integration is still achieved when both are made for each other and intended to work intimately with one another. Successful examples of this approach are Native Instruments MASCHINE* (you could use the software without the MASCHINE hardware, but you would be missing out) and Ableton Push and Push 2* for Ableton Live. Both MASCHINE and Push can still be used to control other music software, provided that you get the mappings right.
Some synthesizers, or at least their keyboards, can be used as MIDI controllers for software, but obviously they work best when used as standalone instruments. Typically the knobs, faders, switches and buttons used to control the synthesizer are rather difficult (or even impossible) to map to virtual instruments, unless they happen to be very similar in operation.
Then there are products like Arturia MiniLab MkII*, a refreshed version of the original MiniLab: made for generic use, but especially good with some software product from the same stable. The MiniLab is a 25-key MIDI controller with 16 knobs and eight pads, USB connectivity and touchstrips in place of the pitch bend and modulation wheels. It controls Arturia’s own Analog Lab in the V Collection* software, but is supported out of the box by Ableton Live*, and can use custom mappings that you create with the supplied MIDI Control Center application.