I recently found myself wanting a great MIDI controller / Keyboard which works seamlessly with Ableton Live, and the Novation Launchkey 49 is exactly what I needed. So, how good actually is this keyboard for Ableton users, and is it worth buying? After spending about £200 to get one, I’m going to give you my honest thoughts on whether you should get one too.
- What Is The Novation Launchkey?
- What’s The Difference Between the Launchkey and Launchkey Mini?
- Ableton Live Workflow With the Novation Launchkey
- Novation Launchkey 49 MK3 – Volume Sliders for Mixing
- Launchkey MK3 – Connectivity
- Who Is The Novation Launchkey MK3 For?
- Launchkey MK3 49 – How Good Are The Keys?
- Launchkey MK3 – Build Quality.
- Screen – What’s It For?
- Price + Where to Buy
- Conclusion – The Novation Launchkey is the best MIDI Controller for Ableton
What Is The Novation Launchkey?
The Launchkey is a MIDI controller intended mainly for Ableton users, with a focus on combining a velocity sensitive keyboard with a range of knobs, pads and buttons for streamlining your workflow within Ableton Live.
The newest version of the Launchkey is the MK3, which comes in a range of sizes. Today, we are just going to be focussing on the 49 key variant, but here’s a quick rundown of the differences across the product lineup.
Firstly, the Launchkey Mk3 has 3 distinct versions – the full sized key versions (with faders), the full key without faders, and the mini (smaller keys and more budget friendly).
What’s The Difference Between the Launchkey and Launchkey Mini?
- Launchkey 49, 61 and 88 (MK3): These are the top spec ones in terms of additional features. Alongside the full sized keys, these all come with the addition of 9 volume faders for controlling the volume of tracks in Ableton – 8 tracks, and one master track fader by default.
- Launchkey 25, 37 (MK3): These two both offer full sized keys but fewer of them, making them the middle ground between the mini and the larger options. The only thing missing apart from the extra keys is the volume faders.
- Launchkey Mini 25 (MK3): This is the smallest and cheapest of the lot, with the same functionality as the 25 and 37, but with a smaller key size.
I bought the Launchkey 49, so my review is going to be most relevant for those of you looking for a 49, 61 or 88.
Ableton Live Workflow With the Novation Launchkey
When I say this thing is seamless, I really mean it. Coming from the perspective of a producer who, up to this point, very rarely bothered to use hardware for their music, I’m blown away by how intuitive and quick it is to get your head around the controls.
There are a ton of really cool features, but the best way to explain why I love the Launchkey is by taking a look at my Ableton Live workflow using it.
Thanks to the 16 built-in pads which are 90% of the quality of the pads on something like a Maschine, you are able to quickly record drums on the fly. There’s a quantize button which instantly lines up your MIDI too, which is really cool.
Through the clever pads system, I then pick a scale within the keyboard. I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a great pianist, and this feature is super helpful for me. How this works is that scale selection means you physically cannot press a key which is not in the scale – this is done by replacing those keys with notes in the scale – press any key on the keyboard and it can sound good.
From here, I can then record melodies and basslines in multiple tracks, easily switching between them by using the pads.
Another quick quantize, and I’ve got the basis of a beat! Now I work very fast with a keyboard and mouse, but never have I been able to come up with a great sounding trap beat in under 60 seconds before.
The workflow is so, so quick. You can just switch between tracks and record to whichever you want, all without needing to touch your keyboard or mouse. There’s also a handy undo button as well as a record button, so adding melodies in to your tracks is super quick and easy.
Take a look at this video (credit to Novation):
Novation Launchkey 49 MK3 – Volume Sliders for Mixing
As I mentioned earlier, the three larger models all come with multiple volume sliders for easy mixing. Not only this, but under each one there is a selection button, so you can switch between tracks and record very quickly and easily.
Within about an hour of playing around with what this thing can do and how it works, I figured out the core functionality and a workflow which works for me.
The inclusion of physical volume sliders is actually really nice, and saves a lot of time making minute tweaks in the mixing rack with a mouse. I think although it can be difficult to get a super precise, accurate value to within closer than about +-0.5db, it is still more than enough for drawing up new ideas and getting a solid song idea down.
Launchkey MK3 – Connectivity
As you can see from the image I took of the backside of the Launchkey, the connectivity options available are very no nonsense. You’ve got a 5 pin MIDI socket, a USB MIDI port and a sustain pedal port. It’s worth noting this keyboard didn’t come with a 5 pin MIDI cable nor a sustain pedal, but for a majority of users the USB “printer” cable is the best option anyway.
Who Is The Novation Launchkey MK3 For?
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but you’re going to want to look elsewhere if you need a keyboard which you can use without it being connected to a computer. This keyboard is basically a hunk of plastic until you plug it into your PC. It’s not possible to use this as a standalone keyboard and just plug speakers in directly.
This MIDI controller is absolutely perfect for music producers who work in Ableton though. In this case, the Launchkey is a very valuable hunk of plastic indeed.
Launchkey MK3 49 – How Good Are The Keys?
If you’re a pianist and want to feel like you’re playing a real piano, the first thing you will notice about the keys is how they feel relatively light. This doesn’t bother me personally, but it may take well trained piano players a little while to get used to.
The velocity-sensitive full sized keys are fairly accurate, but I did find myself hammering the keys a little to squeeze out some extra velocity at first. Luckily in Ableton there are ways of configuring this so it’s not really a problem at all.
Overall, I’ll give the key feel an ‘okay’. They are good enough, but from a pure piano standpoint there are some better options out there from a realism perspective.
One thing I would like to note is that lighter keys can be placed slightly faster, so if you’re drawing up ideas for an uptempo song with a fast arpeggiation, the lighter key feel can actually be an advantage. The same goes for recording drums using this keyboard too.
Launchkey MK3 – Build Quality.
This is a fairly light bit of kit, but not so light that it feels fragile. You aren’t going to feel like you need to feather the keys or be super gentle with it, so as long as you aren’t wreck it Ralph. The matte finish is good too – the Launchkey isn’t an instant fingerprint magnet unlike a lot of “piano black” plastic gear out there on the market.
It’s a tactile bit of kit which doesn’t indicate the price at all – if I were to try this out blind, I wouldn’t be surprised if this controller was twice as expensive purely based on feel. Overall, the build quality is solid, especially for the price.
Getting the Novation Launchkey MK3 set up within Ableton took a few minutes at max. I have it plugged into my computer using a printer cable. A great part about these keyboards, is they don’t need to be powered by anything over than USB, which comes in handy expecially for producers running out of plug sockers.
It was instantly detected by my PC and worked exactly as advertised in Ableton right away, with very minimal setup.
You probably won’t need to download anything if you don’t want, but it does come with some great samples and resources.
By the way, if you still aren’t yet sold on Ableton, this keyboard comes with a “lite” version of Ableton Live for playing around with, so don’t worry if you need some time to make a decision on that.
Screen – What’s It For?
You might have noticed the Launchkey has a small display in the top left corner – despite it’s tiny size, the screen is actually super handy. when panning a track, you can see how far left or right it is. A ton of other information is relayed to you through this too.
For example, if you decide to configure the inbuilt scale lock, you are able to see the details, such as the root note and which scale is selected. All in all, there is such a vast array of different handy bits of information that I couldn’t cover them all, but all you need to know is that the screen is one of the ways which makes this as close to mouse-free production as you can get in Ableton.
Price + Where to Buy
I bought the 49 key version in store from Andertons for around £200. It’s also the same price here on Amazon at the time of writing.
Conclusion – The Novation Launchkey is the best MIDI Controller for Ableton
The Launchkey MK3 is a very, very good mid-range MIDI controller for all of you Ableton users out there. This keyboard works seamlessly with your DAW, and the layout of all these handy buttons is very intuitive.
On the fly mixing is not something I thought I would enjoy, but wow – the fact that once you wrap your head around this thing, you can easily make a full track with barely any need to use touch your mouse.
The Launchkey perfectly bridges the gap between analogue and digital in my opinion – coming from the perspective of a mostly digital producer who is branching out into making music with hardware and learning to play instruments, this is a perfect middle ground of familiarity. Equally, if you’re a pianist at heart and want to get into producing full tracks, this is going to provide you with a much more comfortable interface than working without it.
So there you have it, the Launchkey 49 MK3. It’s a great bit of kit in my opinion, and if you’re an Ableton user, I have no hesitation in recommending you try it out, especially at this price point.