Arturia MiniLab 3 is an advanced MIDI key controller, extensively programmable, with a MIDI Out port and programmable pedal input, paired with a software bundle ready for those who produce quality EDM, dance, and pop.
There are two aspects to navigate in the world of mini key controllers: one is purely hardware and concerns the quality of the materials, the quantity of physical controls and the quality of the keyboard, the other is the programming power of the physical controls with the integration between plug-ins and DAWs provided as standard. MiniLab 3 has a 25-key mini keyboard, equipped with velocity with a mechanism that is certainly better than other competitors, because a first clear resistance is appreciated compared to the rest of the stroke. In many other cases, you have to deal with a simple spring with a movement that is more spongy than keyboard-like. In terms of controllers, MiniLab 3 includes eight encoders, with a high resistance to movement that allows very fine rotations, along with four sufficiently long faders and eight pads sensitive to dynamics and aftertouch to which to assign different MIDI controllers, for two banks (total of 16 pads available), each with an RGB LED illuminated perimeter. Compared to the past, we find a very readable OLED display, on which you navigate with the click encoder that also works as a switch and physical controller. Pitch and Modulation are taken from KeyStep Pro, i.e. in the form of a ribbon.
On the software front, one of the major advantages is the native integration with the controls of Ableton Live, Apple Logic, Propellerhead Reason, Bitwig Studio and Image-Line FL Studio, directly managing Loop On/Off, Stop, Play and Record, provided that the MIDI port called MiniLab 3 MCU is disabled in the DAW. It also implements the Mackie Control Universal protocol for those DAWs, like Steinberg Cubase or Motu Digital Performer, which are not immediately compatible. For this purpose, the MiniLab 3 MCU MIDI port will need to be activated in the DAW.
Every time a physical control is touched, except for the keyboard, the small display shows the name of the controller and the value that is sent, including the octave that is recalled with the Oct+ and Oct- buttons (+/- 4 octaves). The access door to advanced functions passes from the Shift button, with related functions reported in gray on the panel: activation or not of the chord mode with relative editing (the trick is to hold Shift longer); transposition in semitones with the Oct buttons, activation or not of the arpeggiator with Pad 1; switch between the two pad banks with Pad 2: switch with Pad 3 between the DAW mode, User Preset and the one for controlling instruments already preset for Analog Lab, including the management of the five User Programs; management of the DAW transport with Pads from 4 to 7 with relative change of the pad colors to visually recall them instantly; Tap Tempo with Pad 8; choice of the MIDI channel using the keyboard. The Pitch Bend ribbon behaves like a classic Pitch Bend Wheel: when you remove your finger, the pitch returns to its initial value, unlike the Modulation ribbon which maintains the value. On the panel you can activate Hold, which works as Sustain when a pedal is not connected, the Chord mode that memorizes the chord played on the keyboard up to 16 notes and triggers it from a single note of the keyboard.
MiniLab 3 provides an arpeggiator that can only be triggered by the keyboard and not by the pads, to which a note can be assigned that can overlap with the arpeggiator’s notes without becoming part of them. It can be programmed directly from the display by entering editing mode by holding down Shift + Pad 1 for longer. In editing, it is possible to activate and deactivate the arpeggiator by intervening on encoder 1, which allows you to switch to Off and On.
The functions of the arpeggiator, which are called up in editing by turning the encoder under the display, are immediately applied, so you can hear them. Once the function is chosen, press the encoder and you move on to the value to be modified.
- Mode: allows you to recall the order of the notes between Up, Down, Inc to repeat the notes in ascending and descending order repeating the highest and lowest note, Exc similar to Inc but without repetition of the highest and lowest note, Random and Order, which plays the notes in the order in which they are called up from the keyboard (the mode we absolutely prefer)
- Division: the rhythmic division from ¼ to 32nd with triplet options, regardless of whether the Tempo is internal or MIDI
- Swing: applied to all possible divisions, it manages the swing with positive or negative values in percentage
- Gate: the duration of the notes, with negative values that shorten them or positive ones that lengthen them. The result always depends on the type of sound you are using.
- Rate: controls the BPM only when the clock is internal and not synchronized via MIDI. It can be set with the Tap Tempo function (Shift + Pad 8)
- Arp Sync: choice of clock, between internal or external taken from the DAW
- Octave: number of octaves of the arpeggiator, up to three
- The arpeggiator interacts with the chord mode, so by memorizing the chord it is possible to change the key. By activating Hold, the arpeggiator will continue to play without the need to hold down a keyboard key.
Through the free MIDI Control Center, any physical control of MiniLab 3 can be programmed at will and saved in one of the five available Users. Programming is very simple: click on one of the physical controls, which is outlined in red, and the modifiable parameters appear. When it comes to a control change, there is always the possibility to set the value for On and Off. Each physical control can act on the MIDI channel assigned to the keyboard (Keyboard) or independently to a MIDI channel of choice.
The eight encoders can be assigned to a Control Change or an NRPN, which will present a Scale parameter between 1:1 to 1:128 and two MSB and LSB values. The four sliders can be associated with a Control Change in Fader or Drawbar mode (inverted values). Pads can be assigned a note, a control change, a DAW command with MCU protocol or a Program Change with Bank MSB and LSB. For each pad, you can choose a color at will. If you want to maintain a fixed velocity value for the pad, you need to go through Device Settings, which will give a fixed value to all the pads.
In addition to physical controls, we find that a control change can also be assigned to the Shift button. The encoder under the display can be assigned to send a Control Change in four modes: simple use as an encoder, combined with the Shift button, as a switch button with On and Off value and Gate or Toggle mode, or in the combination of Encoder + Shift with function also of button as the previous one.
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On the Device Settings page we find a series of general parameters:
- Vegas Mode indicates the pause time before activating the mode for the LEDs.
- Default Keyboard Channel corresponds to the sent MIDI channel
- Backlight turns off the LEDs of the pads and the four buttons
- Pitch Bend On-Off disables the ribbon; Pitchbend Setting allows you to maintain the reached value with Hold instead of returning to zero
- Knob Acceleration provides three values
- User Preset 1-5, allows you to enable or disable the single User Preset
- Low Power controls energy consumption
- The velocity curves can be linear, exponential, logarithmic and fixed (with programmable value) for the keyboard and, independently, also for all the pads (it is not possible to differentiate between individual pads). For the aftertouch of the pads, you can choose between the linear, exponential and logarithmic curve.
- The pedal input can be assigned to the function of Sustain, Expression with minimum and maximum values, Footswitch with choice of Control Change, and Control with choice of Control Change and maximum and minimum value. The polarity can be reversed, making it compatible with all the pedals that a keyboardist already owns.
Analog Lab Intro
In the Mini Lab 3 bundle, there is also a light version of Analog Lab, called Intro. If you already have a full version of Analog Lab, you don’t need to install it. Like all Arturia products, Analog Lab is also integrated with Mini Lab 3, which allows quick control of all the main functions without having to intervene on the software. The Intro version provides as many as 8469 presets to be distributed over two parts, for each of which the keyboard range can be limited. Exploration takes place by type, instrument, style, bank or designer. Inside there is a very rich selection of presets derived from all the instruments of the V Collection. The preset tour is a journey through the last forty years of synthesizers and for those who produce it is a remarkable sound palette. Many presets, like those of drums, are real loops ready to be inserted. Often you also find bass lines or classic arpeggios. Among the instruments we find the Piano bank with excellent acoustic pianos and that of Stage 73 with equally musical Rhodes pianos. Being a Lite version, editing is limited to the control of the parameters of the four effects. Want to find inspiration right away? Select from Characteristics the Sequence/Loop tag which presents as many as 1193 and the inspiration is served!
Arturia confirms itself as a producer very attentive to modern production needs, where almost all young people rely on small keyboard controllers, with reduced keys, for the management of timbres and automations. Its strengths are the keyboard, the MIDI Out/Thru to connect to other synthesizers, the universal pedal input, the MIDI programmability facilitated by the excellent editor, the compatibility with MCU or native for DAW control and the construction generally more solid compared to other similar key controllers. There are aspects that can be easily improved via software: there is no possibility to give a name to the physical controls when used as a pure MIDI controller, unlike the integration with Analog Lab which shows that it is feasible. It is not possible to use a pad only to send aftertouch values and another limit is the fixed velocity value assignable to all pads simultaneously. Then there are options that surprise for quality, such as the response curves to velocity and channel aftertouch on the pads. We have always appreciated the two ribbons for Pitch Bend and Modulation, much more pleasant and controllable compared to a small joystick. The keyboard mechanics is superior to many others, but of course we are not talking about a standard keyboard mechanics. The mini keys, which are so popular with the younger ones, continue to be a handicap for us when you want to play a piano, but two octaves are more for entering chords or single notes in productions, or triggering events on a modular or on soft synth. It is the limit and the merit at the same time of this type of products. There is space, finally, to create faceplates to overlap the panel to dedicate to your favorite templates, in full Stereoping Synth Controller style. Some MIDI filters are missing, such as the one for the MIDI Clock.
As it is, Mini Lab 3 is a product to recommend for its excellent value for money, but things change as soon as you access Analog Lab Intro, with its thousands of presets that are nothing more than those of the complete V Collection, but not editable.