Playing the keyboard has never been an essential part of DJing, or even production. It doesn’t hurt, of course. Visualising music theory via a keyboard helps understand chords, major/minor keys, and scales. There’s also the fact that modern DJ setups offer more and more opportunities to enhance recorded music with your own touch, so the idea of digging in to synthesisers to add melodies and better understand how sound is sculpted becomes tempting.
So for that, you’d need a nice, simple keyboard: Sturdy, portable, with plenty of syncing ins and outs…
Does the Arturia KeyStep fit the bill?
In a nutshell
A compact, affordable, 32 key MIDI keyboard with built-in polyphonic 64-step sequencer, arpeggiator, and all sorts of sync connectivity options.
Taking this keyboard out of the box, you’re presented with a decently weighted, compact unit, ‘getting started’ sheet, and a simple micro-USB cable. The design and layout are simple and easy to understand, reflecting the core functionality of a keyboard, step sequencer, and arpeggiator.
Features and build quality
The hardware has a surprising weight to it that the size hides well. This is mostly due to the solid steel base, on which a plastic frame sits, that houses all the keys and controls. As you’d expect, the back houses all the I/O connections, including MIDI in/out DINs, CV/gate 3.5mm jacks, sync I/O 3.5mm jacks, connection or a sustain pedal, DC power, and a micro-USB port.
There are only a handful of soft-touch buttons, including a SHIFT button to double up functionality. All the functions are clearly marked out with good contrast. The buttons have a satisfying give to them, meaning there’s no ambiguity about whether they’ve been used. There’s also a large switch for flicking between ARP and SEQ modes, which is one of the only design choices that feels out of place on the faceplate.
The 32-key keyboard is pressure (aftertouch) and velocity sensitive, which manages to fit into a very compact design. The keys are smaller than a standard piano keyboard but, to my amateur hands, never feel they suffer from this. They also feel nice and solid, with no rattle or springy sound to them, unlike other keyboards I’ve tried in this price range. As someone pointed out in an Amazon review (which I can confirm), for some reason, there are a few keys that sit slightly lower than the rest.
Both the modulation and pitch controls are touch strips, helping to keep the design minimal, and reducing moving parts in the unit. They feel plenty responsive and precise, so they’re plenty good enough for live performance. The only thing I’d change is to add some sort of texture to the centre line on the pitch strip, but it’s really not something to worry about.
Considering how solidly built the rest of the unit is, it’s a bit disappointing to see how much of a weak point the micro-USB port is. This is just an issue with the design of micro-USB generally, but it’s maybe a bit strange that Arturia didn’t go for the usual USB type-B square-style port. If they had to use this specific connector, they could have maybe recessed it into the case slightly to stop it bending in the unit. a big plus-point is that you can use the USB cable with a standard USB charger to power the KeyStep, rather than have to fish around for a compatible DC power supply…
The rear also has a weird jumper-switch system for selecting your sync-in source. This lets you choose between internal, USB, MIDI IN, and Sync-in cable. I guess the system is an efficient use of space, but it can get very confusing, and could probably be solved with a recessed four-way switchable dial.
Overall, it definitely seems like Arturia has put a lot of thought into offering the maximum quality and quantity for a ~£100 price tag. I’m impressed!
MIDI Control Center software
To get the most out of the KeyStep, there’s a companion app for desktop OSes called MIDI Control Center (sic). When you plug your computer in to your Arturia hardware via the micro-USB port, the MIDI Control Center detects it and loads in the current device settings. The software itself is nothing fancy, though it hasn’t been updated to work properly on HiDPI screens like the MacBook Retina line. This only really detracts from the usability in a very minor way.
The simplicity of the interface belies a rather complex array of options to tweak, even on hardware as straightforward as the KeyStep, especially when you start managing multiple presets. This can be handy if you’re switching between different setups, such as external hardware and a DAW/software. These profiles can be saved and edited and quickly written to the onboard memory, just like updates to your firmware.
The app also lets you back up your memory slots to your computer, so you can store recorded sequences, as well as create sequences to be written to the hardware. You also get a tonne of settings to toggle, including the MIDI channel, transport behaviour (like how the PLAY button reacts), CV/gate voltage options, and mod wheel behaviour.
It’s nice to see a solid and intuitive software that feels mature, albeit needing a visual update. Having had to endure some decidedly dodgy driver control panels and companion apps from other manufacturers over the years. Put simply in Native Instruments terms, this is more ‘Native Access’, rather than ‘Service Center’.
The KeyStep offers a ridiculous amount of versatility for the price tag. It works great with hardware like the Volca range of synthesisers, DAWs, and any manner of hybrid setups. The huge array of I/O options means it can accommodate all manner of external hardware, new and old. For example, you can set your clock input to USB, and feed the MIDI clock from a DAW, and translate that to Korg sync pulses out to the Volcas, then output MIDI for use with the keyboard.
The Rate knob is used to change the tempo, but I find it really needs some sort of BPM markings to be useful as the master clock. Even just a single indicator for 100 BPM would help, as it’s all just guesswork, making any tempo changes a risk.
After a bit of an overwhelming introduction to the hardware, both the arpeggiator and step sequencer are straightforward to use, making this very powerful hardware for live performance. In fact, you’d pay roughly the same price for the Beatstep, Arturia’s pad sequencer. The ARP even features a HOLD mode, making it easy to edit and play complex chord patterns on the fly with just one finger.
The arpeggiator features scale up, scale down, inclusive (scale up and down playing the high and low notes twice), exclusive (playing up-down without repeating high-low notes), random, order (notes played in the order they’re pressed), up x2 (play scale up, with each note played twice), and down x2 (scale down, with each note played twice). I’ve seen some complaints about the lack of arp options, but for the site and cost of the unit, it’s more than plenty.
The sequencer allows for up to 64 steps in a pattern, and you can store eight patterns on the device, which can also be synced to a new project within the MIDI Control Center. Overdubbing is as simple as playing a note over an existing one, and you can even add a rest with no notes for some extra creative ideas. The KeyStep sequencer is also polyphonic: you can have up to eight notes playing per step, opening up the option for some interesting chord sequences.
There’s also no reason you couldn’t set this up to create rhythms on an external drum machine, as long as the device allows you to trigger samples via MIDI. You could even control multiple devices on different MIDI channels using a splitter and SHIFT-selecting the right channel.
The sheer amount of sync options that the KeyStep has made this a very enticing option for controlling a hybrid setup. Add in the polyphonic step sequencer, and the intuitive and powerful arpeggiator, and it’s a no-brainer. The only real drawbacks to the KeyStep are the flimsy micro-usb port, and the fiddly sync input selector (both of which could easily be fixed in a revision), and the ambiguous RATE knob, which just needs some sort of indicator to know where you stand.