Arturia Keystep is not only a portable one-touch keyboard, but also attracts with a sophisticated, live controller concept and brings in addition to an integrated arpeggiator even a true step-sequencer. In addition, the tiny communicates via CV output with analog equipment.
What’s in the box
It comes with the included Quick start guide, USB cord and 3 CV cables
Arturia Keystep Controller & Sequencer
As a portable keyboard, the Arturia KeyStep lures with a live-compatible controller concept. In addition, the little one has an arpeggiator and step sequencer on board. Via the CV output, it communicates with analog synthesizers and modules.
The first impression counts. That is what the designers thought as they designed the compact and clear user interface of the Keystep. In contrast to many other keyboard controllers, it convinces with a clear optical structure and a tidy-looking design. At second glance, however, the shadow side of this reduction is also making its mark: Where are the freely assignable controls with which I control the filters and effects of my software synthesizer? However, let us have a look.
Above the keyboard are two knobs. This selects the Time Division and Arpeggiator Mode / Sequence, depending on whether the Arpeggiator or the Sequencer has been activated on the Mode Switch. The rate pot also adjusts the tempo of the played mode. This can alternatively be tapped with the Tap button. The installed potis are apparently of the same stable variety as other Arturia products (e.g., Mini- / MicroBrute). In addition to the pots, there is the handy transport panel that lets you record, play, and stop sequences and arpeggios, among other things. The hold button frees the hands by holding the notes / chords played, and the octave knobs allow transposing from single semitones to + 4 octaves.
Arturia Keystep Aftertouch
The core of the Arturia KeyStep MIDI controller / sequencer is located under the transport unit: The Slimkey keyboard offers 25 touch-sensitive keys including aftertouch. The mini-keys have a soft resistance and play very pleasant. We find pitch bend and modulation in the form of touch faders. How does the operation of the Keystep work with this admittedly lush equipment with controls? When you press the Shift button, the various buttons and switches change their function. It opens up a kind of “structure in a structure”: The keyboard becomes the control center of MIDI channels and swing / gate rates, the transport field to the sequencer editor and the octave switch to the transpose switch. Such double-mappings are nothing new in the world of compact, portable MIDI controllers, and in the worst case can be confusing and confusing. However, the implementation in the case of the Keystep seems to me very practice-oriented.
The shift button is not the end of the many configuration options of the small keystep. Arturia has provided the keystep with free editor software, which is available for download on the manufacturer’s homepage: the “MIDI Control Center”. This allows detailed, advanced settings to be made on the computer, such as velocity curves, MIDI assignments or CV / Gate information. The need for small keyboards is huge in the mobile age, but the choice is just as big and qualitatively mixed. Arturia has a positive attitude with its KeyStep controller keyboard and can surprise several times in the test.
The first surprise comes just after unpacking: The KeyStep is relatively heavy for a controller keyboard with mini keyboard and rests in contrast to many competitors sovereign on the tabletop. Looking down, a closer look reveals a metal plate on which the keys are located.
In addition to the usual USB socket, there is also MIDI interfaces (In / out), three CV outputs, and sync signal sockets for PPQ signals (input and output) in mini-link format. The separate MIDI Control Center software not only allows you to configure the CV and sync signal jacks for common formats, but also makes other settings for the device. The small is powered by USB bus power or an optional power supply. The power consumption is so low that even an iPad is sufficient to supply. A sustain pedal connection and two clock selectors (internal, USB, MIDI, external) complete the rear panel.
The miniature keyboard features 32 slim-key keys, which can be played unexpectedly well balanced and have a pleasant, somewhat tight back pressure and a good pressure point. It works relatively quiet and allows a differentiated attack. Accordingly, the game dynamics is not a matter of luck. Even the monophonic after touch can be controlled reliably. You can tell that the manufacturer has made professional demands on the development. To expand the game area, there are finally two octave buttons. The Pitch bend and Modulation Wheel are pitch-wide ribbon controllers that respond to light pressure.
The view of the back of the keystep leaves nothing to be desired. In addition to MIDI In and out you will find here a CV interface with three mini jack sockets (Pitch CV, Gate, and Mod CV) for connecting external devices, whether digital or analog. There is also analog Sync In / Out jacks. The sync source can be selected with a small DIPswitch between Internal / USB / MIDI / Sync In – unfortunately a fiddly solution. There is also a sustain pedal input. Power is supplied either via the supplied USB cable or via 9V power supply, which is not included in the delivery.
Among the ports, you will find not only the usual USB port, but also MIDI interfaces (in / out), three CV outputs, and sync signal sockets for PPQ signals (input and output) in mini-mini format. Not only can the CV and sync signal jacks be configured via the separate MIDI control center software for popular formats, but other settings can be made for the device as well.
The controller keyboard is supplied with power via USB bus power or an optional power supply. The power consumption is so low that even an iPad is sufficient to supply. A sustain pedal connector and two clock selectors (internal, USB, MIDI, external) complete the rear panel.
The keyboard features 32 slim-key buttons, which can be played unexpectedly balanced and have a pleasant, somewhat tight counter pressure and a good pressure point. The keyboard works relatively quiet and allows a differentiated attack. Accordingly, the game dynamics is not a matter of luck. Even the monophonic aftertouch can be controlled reliably. You can tell that the manufacturer has made professional demands on the development. To expand the game area, there are finally two octave buttons. The Pitch bend and Modulation Wheel are pitch-wide Ribbon Controllers, which are sensitive to light pressure but of course different from the established wheels.
In addition to USB and MIDI interfaces, the Arturia KeyStep has three CV outputs and sync signal jacks for PPQ signals. (Photo: Arturia)
As an extra, the Arturia KeyStep has a built-in arpeggiator that can handle lush 32 notes and provide eight chord break patterns. The notes can also be added to the arpeggio in live play with the Hold button pressed and any octaves. The tempo and note length of the arpeggios can be changed directly via two knobs. The play area is switched to function keys via the shift key; Gate and swing settings can be changed here. Played chord patterns are held with the hold function, so that the game hand is free again.
In chord mode, it is possible to save a played chord and then fire it at any pitch by pressing a single key – live a welcome help.
The Step Sequencer, which is also integrated, can record eight patterns with up to 64 steps, either in step mode or in real time. Alternatively, you can create and exchange sequences graphically by software. In step mode, individual notes or chords with up to eight notes per step are entered at the preselected note duration. Even pauses can be set by keys, as well as possible legato connections. Sequences can be further supplemented or shortened with the edit button. It is also possible to switch live between the eight patterns that can be stored in the device.
Patterns can be triggered at any pitch. In addition, tempo and rhythm can be adjusted as with the arpeggiator. If you do not just want to control the pattern, you can also switch over and improvise for playback. Small Damper: The sequencer does not record controller data, such as from the modulation wheel.
Arpeggiator and chord mode
It seems that Arturia has been thinking. Let us start with the arpeggiator. In addition to the known modes Up, Down, Exclusive (similar to Up & Down) and Random are also Up and Down x2 (each note is repeated), Inclusive (lowest and highest note is repeated) and Order (similar to Sequencer: order of played notes) can be selected. The arpeggio loop is activated by pressing the Play button in the Transport field. All notes that are played will automatically be included in the Arpeggio. Via Shift + Transpose you have the possibility to transpose the arpeggio live. The keys can be released using the hold button, but the arpeggiator continues to run. If at least one key remains pressed, you get the chance to extend the current arpeggio in Hold mode. Otherwise, it starts with the newly played keys from the front.
By pressing the shift key, you can set further functions of the arpeggiator. With the knobs, you can regulate the swing factor and the gate time and specify the arpeggio rhythmically. Of course, all of this works while the arpeggiator is running, and MIDI transfers are done flawlessly at all times.
The Transport panel now gives you the option of stopping, pausing, or endlessly running the machine, for example, to take care of the sound processing of the targeted synthesizer / keyboard. In my case, this is a software synth in Ableton Live. Now I am a bit disappointed: The only way to control the tone of the software synth via MIDI with the keystep, are the touch faders. Above the keyboard, there would still be room for two to three freely assignable pots, with which one could then control, for example, an LFO-Amount or the resonance. A few more controllers would definitely not have hurt the Keystep; unfortunately, the control options for external instrument parameters are limited.
The arpeggiator has eight chord break patterns and can handle a generous 32 notes. These can also be added to the Arpeggio in live play with the Hold button pressed and any octaves. The tempo and note length of the arpeggios can be changed directly via two knobs. The play area is switched to function keys via the shift key and the gate and swing settings can be changed. Played chord patterns are held with Hold, so that the game hand is free again. In chord mode, it is possible to save a played chord and then fire it by pressing a single key at any pitch. This is also a welcome help live.
The integrated step sequencer can record eight patterns with up to 64 steps, either in step mode or in real time. Alternatively, sequences can also be created and exchanged graphically by software. In step mode, individual notes or chords with up to eight notes per step are entered at the preselected note duration. Even pauses can be set by keys, as well as possible legato connections. Sequences can be further supplemented or shortened using the Edit button. This can be switched live between the eight stored in the device patterns. As in Chord mode, patterns can be triggered at any pitch. In addition, tempo and rhythm can be adjusted as with the arpeggiator. If you do not just want to control the pattern, you can also switch over and improvise for playback. Small damper: The sequencer does not record controller data such as the modulation wheel.
Arturia Keystep Sequencer
Most of the described features apply to the sequencer of the Keystep, which allows through its polyphony up to eight different tones on each of its maximum 64 steps. For example, you get the possibility to place entire chord connections in sequences. The created sequence is saved at the point where the encoder is currently standing. Internally, eight sequences can be stored, which can then be easily retrieved live. The MIDI Control Center software can accommodate and retrieve additional patterns.
However, in my first attempts I had to look again in the manual. The workflow of the sequencer is initially more confusing than with the simple arpeggiator. Namely, by means of the transport field, sequences can not only be recorded and played, but also edited further. Certain steps can be deleted or extended. Especially interesting for me is the rest button. This allows pauses or bindings to be inserted between steps. In real-time mode, certain steps can also be replaced or completely deleted. The sequences can be edited down to the last detail and finally edited via shift features, for example in terms of swing and gate. With a little practice, even that is easy to do live. So fast is not a sequencer / arpeggiator enthusiasts with the keystep boring.
The sequencer records velocity information, but unfortunately no controller data, such as the mod slider. Information beyond pitch and duration can only be sequenced by assigning it to velocity.
CV / Gate outputs
With its CV / Gate outputs and an additional Mod CV output, the Keystep is suitable for controlling analog synthesizers without MIDI and can be used as a (USB) MIDI-to-CV interface. In the course of the analogue revival and modular boom, this process is experiencing a renaissance and Arturia’s own analog synths are also equipped with it. The CV outputs are switchable for maximum compatibility via editor software: For pitch CV, the methods are 1V / oct. and V / Hz ready, Gate can operate in the S-Trigger, V-Trigger 5V and V-Trigger 12V modes and for the Mod CV Output there are eight options from 0-12V. Which functions can be controlled by CV, of course, depends on the connections and capabilities of the receiving device. The keystep allows transmission of gate, pitch CV and other control voltage for modulation purposes, which can be determined by mod slider, aftertouch or velocity. By misusing Velocity and assigning it to this output, the Mod CV can also be sequenced to control, for example, the filter cutoff of a connected synth.
MIDI and CV can also be used in parallel. This is especially useful for the shift function “Keyboard-Play”. It allows the keystep to send information via MIDI, for example, while playing a melody on the keyboard, which is then sent to the CV-Out independently of the arpeggio / sequencer.
Thanks to the sync option, the keystep can be synchronized with other devices as a master as well as a slave without problems. My MicroBrute (via MIDI) obeyed the keystep the same way as my Korg Volca (via Sync In). Especially for live setups this flexibility is a great relief. But even in the studio I came through jamming and experimenting on interesting ideas.
Also very inspiring is the “chord” function, which is similar in design to some old and new polyphonic analog synthesizers, e.g. Korg Polysix and the Dave Smith Instruments OB-6. You play any chord in chord mode. The keystep remembers the chord structure and places it on each note that is played. The function can be combined with the sequencer / arpeggiator. Thus, chords can suddenly be played like melodies and placed in a completely new relationship to each other. Even without any understanding of harmony, this way you get unconventional chord connections. A very intuitive and effective tool that shows that the keystep can have the inspirational character of a stand-alone instrument, even though it is actually just a MIDI controller.
Arturia KeyStep Specs
|Number of Keys||32|
|Type of Keys||Velocity sensitive Slimkeys|
|Other Controllers||Pitch bend, Mod Wheel touch strips|
|Dedicated Transport Control||Yes|
|Pedal Inputs||1 x 1/4″ sustain pedal|
|Other I/O||3 x CV outs, 1 x Sync in/out|
|Power Supply||USB or optional 9V DC power supply|
Pros and Cons
- Intuitive operation
- Robust workmanship, convincing mini keyboard
- Integrated polyphonic step sequencer and arpeggiator
- CV and sync interfaces
- Connectivity (MIDI, CV / Gate, Analog Sync)
- Extensive arpeggiator and sequencer functions
- Inspiring musicality through chord / keyboard play function
- No freely assignable controller
- Complex workflow with the sequencer
- Sequencer does not record controller data
- Ribbon controller for pitch bend and modulation
No one who sees “just” a cheap keyboard with good keys in the Arturia KeyStep does justice to the small controller keyboard. The keyboard is already a highlight in the segment of mini keyboards, but thanks to its universal interfaces and the integrated step sequencer for lovers of analog tone generators a small sensation. Clever details such as the ability to switch live between sequences, as well as the intuitive operation make the Arturia KeyStep a real pleasure. The only downer: There is not a single freely assignable encoder for additional MIDI parameters except the modulation controller, although the housing would provide ample space. If that does not bother you, KeyStep is an absolute recommendation, whether as a high-quality mini-keyboard or as a potent performance dwarf for stage, and studio.