KeyStep Pro Review: A near-perfect MIDI controller for hardware synth fans


It’s also worth noting that there are a lot of shift functions on this keyboard. Most of them are clearly labeled and self-explanatory, but it will take a while to commit them to muscle memory. All but one of the 37 keys has a shift function. As do most of the buttons. The most immediately useful and obvious are the ones that control the arpeggiator and scale mode. The arpeggiator here is excellent. There are seven different modes including: in order, random and polyphonic. And there are options to descend one octave or ascend up to three. Scale and chord modes make it easy for those of us with lesser keyboard skills to transpose a chord or stay in key when jamming. There are seven preset scales to choose from, but you can also create custom scales and save them in one of the two user slots. Digital pianos, keyboards, and MIDI controllers have become such a huge part in music production recently, most especially the last one. Though MIDI controllers usually are very portable and most don’t need a stand, keyboards most likely will. Good thing there are options to look at on

There are even three options for how the sequencer will advance. There’s forward, obviously. But there’s also a random mode, which just jumps around a sequence chaotically. This is surprisingly fun for creating on the fly drum fills without relying on the beat repeat function. Then there’s “walk”, which is semi-random. The KeyStep Pro manual probably explains it best:

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

This is actually pretty similar to the stochastic mode on the Volca Modular. And, it turns out it’s really great on drums as well. If you find yourself falling back into the same old grooves or just want something that’s a tad unpredictable (without being pure chaos), the walk mode can generate some great glitchy drums. This works best with pretty busy patterns, though.

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

Honestly, my only complaint here, other than the occasionally steep learning curve, is that you have to have the sequencer playing to use the arpeggiator. It would be great, especially when just noodling around and jamming, to be able to use the arpeggiator regardless of whether you’ve hit play or not.

The only thing keeping the KeyStep Pro from being a no-brainer is its limited software integration. This was built almost exclusively for players who spend their life using hardware instruments. There’s no transport controls for your DAW and a limited number of knobs, which need to be manually mapped.

If you’re running a hybrid setup with both hardware and software, you might want to consider either a dedicated controller for your DAW or the Novation 49SL MkIII. It’s quite 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 drumming, plus multiple larger screens for direct feedback of parameter changes. You still get CV and MIDI connections as well, though fewer of them than on Arturia’s controller, and there’s no dedicated drum gates.

It’s also a lot larger. While the KeyStep Pro isn’t exactly portable, it’s easy enough to toss in the backseat 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. The 49SL will live in your studio.


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