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KeyStep Pro Review: An almost perfect MIDI controller for hardware synth fans



It is also worth noting that it is a lot of shift functions on this keyboard. Most of them are clearly marked and explain themselves, but it will take a while to commit them to muscle memory. All but one of the 37 keys have a shift function. Most buttons do the same. The most useful and obvious are those that control the arpeggiator and scale mode. The arpeggiator here is excellent. There are seven different modes, including: sequential, random and polyphonic. And there are opportunities to descend an octave or ascend up to three. Scale and chord mode makes it easy for those of us with less keyboard skills to transpose a chord or be in the key when you get stuck. There are seven preset scales to choose from, but you can also create custom scales and store them in one of the two user openings.

There are even three options for how the sequencer will proceed. It̵

7;s obviously ahead. But it is also a random mode, which just jumps around a chaotic sequence. This is surprisingly fun to make on airplane drum fills without relying on the repeat repeat function. Then there is the “walk”, which is semi-random. The KeyStep Pro manual probably explains it best:

In Walk mode, the sequencer digitally rolls ‘dice’ to decide whether he wants to go forward or backward at the end of each step: there is a 50% chance that he will play the next step, a 25% chance that he will play the current step and a 25% chance that it will play the previous step.

This is actually quite similar to the stochastic mode on the Volca Modular. And it turns out that it is also very good on drums. If you find yourself falling back into the same old tracks or just want something a little unpredictable (without being pure chaos), walking mode can generate some great sparkling drums. This works best with fairly busy patterns, though.

KeyStep Pro

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

Honestly, my only complaint here, apart from the occasionally steep learning curve, is that you have to have the sequencer playing to use the arpeggiator. It would be great, especially when you just noodle and get stuck, to be able to use the arpeggiator whether you have hit play or not.

The only thing that prevents KeyStep Pro from being a no-brainer is the limited software integration. This was built almost exclusively for players who spend their lives with hardware instruments. There are no transport controls for DAW and a limited number of buttons that must be mapped manually.

If you are running a hybrid setup with both hardware and software, you may want to consider either a dedicated controller for your DAW or Novation 49SL MkIII. It’s a bit more expensive – $ 600 versus $ 399 for the KeyStep Pro – but you get tight integration with Ableton, decent pads for launching clips and finger drums, plus several larger screens for direct feedback on parameter changes. You still get CV and MIDI connections, but fewer of them than on Arturia’s controls, and there are no dedicated drum ports.

It is also much larger. Although the KeyStep Pro is not exactly portable, it is easy enough to throw in the back seat of a car or move around the house if you want a change of scenery. The 49SL is almost eight inches wider, four inches deeper and more than twice as heavy at 15 pounds. 49SL will live in your studio.


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