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Arturia MiniLab 3
4.5 4.5 out of 5, based on 1 Review

An excellent controller with a beautiful design!


2 weeks ago

Arturia MiniLab 3 by cr73645

Arturia MiniLab 3

Picking up the right keyboard controller for music production isn’t always an easy task. Market is filled with several good options when it comes to these small gadgets and lately there has been a high variety of small/portable MIDI controllers, which might be hard to choose from.

Arturia, known not only for their software instruments but also hardware, including controllers, is now bringing the Minilab to its third iteration (or simply Minilab 3), updating the previous version with a few tweaks including the addition of 4 sliders – and it looks great!

I’ll start with the hardware, and later with the installation process, included software and DAW integration. I’ll be using Windows, OSX and iOS, but mainly focused on Windows (my current OS for music production).


Hardware:
The first thing that is quite noticeable on the Minilab 3 is how good it looks. Yes, yes, this is a superfluous point, but it might make a difference to someone who cares about it, and I’m one of them. The thing has a beautiful design, with rounded edges and clean look. The white version of it is very nice to look at.

The carcass is made of pure plastic – this seems like a step down from the bottom metal plate found on the Minilab 2, but it provided a lighter instrument to carry on. I still think that I’d rather keep the previous arrangement. Even so, the plastic is of a nice feel, there’s no bending to the structure at all. To finish the looks there’s a small wooden insertion on the sides, that I’m not sure how “woody” it is but gives a sophisticated design to the whole thing.

Arturia MiniLab 3-minilab3_02.jpg

On the back, a connection for USB C provides power and MIDI messages, with a good quality angled USB cable included, pedal input (for control or sustain) and a standard MIDI connection. This last feature is something that really pleases me and is quite uncommon on this kind of controller. There’s also a Kensington Lock. A negative comment should be made on the back logo, with the “_The sound explorers” thing – unnecessary.

Arturia MiniLab 3-minilab3_01.jpg

On the front, from left to right, there are 4 rubber buttons for SHIFT, hold and octave range. They’re backlit in white and have a good “action”. Next there’s an OLED display, which is quite small, but readable and coupled with a sturdy stepped encoder (that is also a click button) for editing a few parameters and navigating in your DAW or Arturia’s Analog Lab – the display is a very welcome addition to the Minilab 3 compared to the 2nd version.

There are two touch strips for modulation and pitchbend, quite standard on this kind of controller – they just work and do their job. The 8 knobs are infinite encoders (that’s a very good thing), look good and feel better than I anticipated, with a nice resistance on the move. There are also 4 sliders that feel quite good too, with no lateral movement.

Then there are the 8 pads, velocity and pressure sensitive. These are nice feeling in terms of the overall quality of the rubber, but they’re a bit hard for controlling velocity, and feel a bit “heavy” if that makes any sense. It feels, to me, hard to achieve full velocity and I couldn’t be precise on my finger drumming input. Not that they’re bad, but not as good as others (mostly found on more expensive gear). They feel similar to the Analog Rytm Mk1. The pads are backlit in blue from factory, but that can be changed inside the MIDI Control Center, each one having its own color.

To end this part, I’ll praise the keybed. Arturia has made a nice touch minikey. They’re precise for velocity control and there’s a great overall perceived quality of the keybed. I’ve only used the Keystep once and forgot how good it felt – this one seems the same and made me want to get the Keystep 37 for a more on the fly synth jamming play. In comparison, I’m very used to my Kontrol M32, and this one is the first that is on par with it when it comes to minikeys – on the absurd side, I’d say they’re more precise and nicer than the ones on Nord Lead 4 / A1. Arturia did a real good job with the keys. The only drawback is the lack of aftertouch when compared to the Keystep range.

Overall, I’d say that the quality of this small controller is quite high, even considering the price tag. It looks great, it feels sturdier than “bigger things” and usability is quite good.


Installation Process:
At first it seemed simple enough with Windows, but we all know that Windows has its days. I couldn’t, at first, make the MIDI Control Center work, giving me an error that was quite annoying. Restarted the machine, deleted the software, and made everything from the start – it worked. Took me 20 minutes to set up.

On OSX it was as simple as expected and straightforward - no hiccups there. With iOS on an iPad Pro it was instantly recognized and it powered the controller without any problems.

After installing the drivers and MIDI Control Center, I was able to quickly edit my controls, color scheme for the pads, create user banks for different approaches on CC messages, etcetera. There are no real hidden features that are hard to get to.


Hold, Arpeggiator and Chord Mode:
These are features included with the Minilab 3, and you’re free to use it inside your DAW or external MIDI gear.

Hold is the equivalent of a sustain pedal, and it does an amazing job at expanding what you can do with the 25 keys. One interesting feature is that you’re able to hold a chord, but once you press a new chord after the note off message, you won’t accumulate the previous notes, like if you pedalled between them. It works in an interesting fashion for piano playing for example, as you won’t get all notes scrambled together.

The arpeggiator, although basic, is a great add on if you think about the external instruments that you can control thru the MIDI out port. There are different modes (up, down, up and down, etcetera), octave range, gate length, rate and even swing settings. Coupled with the hold function it works as a latched arpeggio. One thing I did notice is that it won’t continue the pattern if you miss the tempo (this on a live playing situation) and will simply restart from zero unsynced with the previous pattern. This is not ideal and should be addressed on a future firmware update.

Chord mode is simple and effective. SHIFT + Hold button activates the Chord feature, and if you hold this combination, you’ll be able to dial you own desired chord. One cool feature is to combine the Chord mode with the arpeggiator, and it all works as expected.


Included Software:
Many of the MIDI controllers comes bundled with things to get you started on music composition. The ones included with the Minilab are: Ableton Live Lite, Analog Lab V Intro, UVI Model D, Native Instruments The Gentlemen, and a temporary membership for Melodics (40 lessons) and Loopcloud (2-month subscription + 1GB welcome pack of loops). These are more than enough for a beginner to start with.

On a quick review, Analog Lab V seems to fit the role for synth sounds, with several presets to choose from, and quick controls already mapped for the Minilab 3. The sound is good, not CPU intensive, but I’d like a little bit more control over synth parameters – the upper 4 encoders are mapped to synth macros, the 4 lower ones are for effects sends, which is not optimal if you think of someone that will probably use the effects inside Ableton Live Lite. As complete as it seems, in the end, you’re stuck with presets, and you’ll miss some basic and drier sounds, since editability is quite limited.

Ableton Live Lite is a cutdown version of the whole thing, with 8 tracks total and other limitations that you can look for on Ableton’s website. For a beginner (and even advanced users not willing to spend much on a DAW) I’d say it is the best one, even if slow to start with (look for free lessons from Ableton’s own tutorial gallery). I use Ableton myself and will focus on it for the DAW integration part of the review.

UVI Model D ($49) and NI The Gentlemen ($99) are both good piano sample libraries. They’re not gigantic and most detailed ones for classical piano playing, but for music production, you’re getting a high quality and editable grand and upright piano sound. I’ve tried both on a more “Lo-Fi vibe” and the result was excellent.

I woudn’t be able to compare the bundled software with other controllers – the reason is that it would be quite unfair, since needs for each user seem to vary a lot. I must say that I would rather a single Arturia V Collection instrument than the Analog Lab Intro, but believe many will enjoy the presets and start creating music from there, and even maybe jump to the full version of Analog Lab.


DAW Integration:
As said before, I’m an Ableton Live 11 user and I’ll stay with it for this review.

What I can begin with is that I was impressed on how they integrated this small controller with Ableton. Everything seems well thought out and you can achieve most of the necessary actions for DAW control, with transport and mixer controls, as well as controlling separate tracks in a logical and easy way.

Arturia MiniLab 3-beat.jpg

Each control on the Minilab 3 is mapped to a different thing inside the DAW. First thing to do is to select the DAW control mode – simply press SHIFT + Prog (3rd pad). You’ll get feedback on the screen with a “DAW” text and you’re good to go. Ideally this should be done before opening your DAW, but I could jump between modes inside Ableton and didn’t get any kind of malfunction. This allowed both DAW and plugin control individually.

Navigation is done thru the click encoder and all feedback thru the display. Simply scrolling the encoder will jump thru scenes, while holding shift button will change the active track. The click is for playing the whole scene, while a SHIFT + click arms your track for recording. It’s all simple and elegant.

Knobs are factory linked to the macros for Ableton’s instruments in a track, or can be used for control some of the parameters of the selected track with CC. The sliders control volume, send A and B and pan, in this order – this is one of the features I liked the most, and it’s something I couldn’t do as easily with the Kontrol M32 (it required a two hand gesture of shift + knob turn for panning for example).

There are 2 banks for the pads. Bank A is for clip control over the scenes view, Bank B is for playing drum sounds on the Drum Rack inside Ableton. Sticking with the Bank A, it triggers the clips of a selected scene individually – it works, but it’s not able to stop the clip, which in my opinion should be done with a second touch to the pad. The SHIFT + pad combination provides transport commands, such as stop, play, record and tap tempo.

As said before, it is logical and straightforward. For a small controller, with a condensed interface, I’d say Arturia did a great job at covering all these features into it. At least with Ableton, everything works as expected and I’m happy with it.


Upgrades from Minilab 2:
Starting with the hardware itself, there’s a big step up in my point of view. Minilab 3 looks better, feels better, has an extra conventional MIDI output, uses USB C, there’s a display for multiple purposes and internal functions. The knobs seem like an updated version when compared to the older unit and feel good.

Although the Minilab 2 had more controls, with 16 encoders, on Minilab 3 there are 8 encoders and 4 sliders – the interface seems less cluttered. In the end, for general use, the trade is almost fair enough if you consider the sliders, but the OLED display + extra encoder makes a huge improvement on the whole DAW integration performance. There’s also an improvement on transport commands and immediacy of their use, simply because they’re now labelled.

Arturia MiniLab 3-minilab-mkii-01.jpg

One other thing that shouldn’t be overlooked is the extra features: hold, arpeggiator and chord mode. These are very nice tools on the use, and coupled with the conventional MIDI port, makes the Minilab 3 a great portable controller for any MIDI device and not only a computer/DAW setup.

On the software side, there’s an additional library now with the Mk3 – Native Instruments The Gentlemen. This is a great library for a very usable upright piano sound, even on a more professional level of music production and I was quite shocked with the inclusion of it. There are also the available subscriptions (that I didn’t use) that might be a great start for a beginner.

When you put it all together, you can see that Arturia did bring a lot of improvements to their previous product, with well thought out addendums to their mini controller.


Final Considerations:
Here we have two scenarios: one is for the Minilab 3 to be used as intended with a DAW and plugins; the other is to use it with an iPad or other external instrument. I’d say both works as expected and I’m satisfied with. With a DAW, it works like a charm, and with external instruments it is a decent generic MIDI controller, with some extras like the internal arpeggiator and chord mode.

Expanding this view, controlling software besides the Analog Lab is also doable, mainly because you can create your own MIDI mapping with the MIDI Control Center. To change between Arturia plugins, DAW control and user programs, you’d simply have to press a combination of SHIFT + Prog (3rd pad), giving you more controls for your software or even external hardware.

The other thing that is always important in such music accessories is the capacity to be easily moved – size is a big matter when it comes to just put the thing inside a backpack and go. All in all, the Minilab 3 is very portable and probably would fit inside any bag I would use on the run. In comparison with other stuff, including the mentioned Kontrol M32, the Minilab 3 is deeper, but smaller in length, which is the key ingredient to make it fit inside smaller backpacks. This, however, comes with a cost – having 32 keys is much nicer than 25 (but the Kontrol M32 doesn't fit any of my travelling backpacks for example).

Arturia MiniLab 3-beginner.jpg

Other than size, there’s the problem with durability, and at least to me, it seemed to be made to last, with nice materials all over the place. I had instruments that costed 10 times more and felt inferior to the Minilab, which is a remarkable thing if you think about it.

Of course, one must consider the other options, and that would require a lot of research: other Arturia mini controllers, Launchkey Mini, MPK Mini, Oxygen Pro Mini 32, Kontrol M32, etcetera. Each of these will have its pros and cons and I’d encourage you to watch some YouTube videos and read the manual of each unit before taking the plunge. Considering the included software bundle might also be a good strategy.

The only problem to me is in terms of the software package with the Minilab 3: Analog Lab Intro isn’t enough to cover some basic electronic music production. The thing with it is that there are not enough controls for each synth sound (4 macros only), some of them come with effects that are not removable, and in the end, although the thing does have 1000+ sounds, it lacks some of the basic tones I’d use for my kind of electronic music (basically synthwave and its variations). On the good side, it also includes things besides synthesizers, with electric pianos, clavs, organs and much more.

All in all, I think that if you’re in search for a nicely designed MIDI controller that would fit anywhere and could go with you on the move, the Minilab 3 might be an interesting option. Even on a “static” setup, with the controller in a studio environment, I’d say it is very nice as in how DAW integration is implemented, and it won’t require much space. The included plugins are good, Ableton Live Lite is a good place to start, everything works as expected and feels great. I’d recommend it for the build quality alone, even if it didn’t have all the other features I’ve mentioned.


Pros:
  • Excellently build hardware and small size, with two excellent piano libraries
  • Conventional MIDI output for external instrument control
  • Great DAW integration

Cons:
  • Pads could be a bit better
  • Aftertouch like on the Keystep would make it a game changer for the category
  • Analog Lab Intro, as good as it sounds, is very limited for sound manipulation


Sound Quality: 5.0
Yes, there’s no sound on a MIDI controller, so I decided to review the thing as a package of sounds bundled with it, and I’d say they’re quite up there for the asked price.

Ease of use: 4.0
Although it is a quite capable small little controller, you’ll have to learn how to use the combination of buttons for several features, including DAW control. This is one of the tradeoffs for keeping it small and affordable, I guess.

Features: 4.0
For what I expected price wise, I’d say this is a nicely featured thing. The conventional MIDI connection, all internal features, excellent keybed, makes it a nicely packed controller. The only problem, it seems, that for a synth-centric setup, Analog Lab Intro won’t provide enough control on synth sounds.

Bang for buck: 5.0
In all honesty, $109 for it is quite fair – more than others I’ve tried. It is probably the best looking mini MIDI controller on market, and considering the features and build quality, I’d consider it one of the best. Arturia did deliver an amazing product for the price.

Attached Thumbnails
Arturia MiniLab 3-beat.jpg   Arturia MiniLab 3-beginner.jpg   Arturia MiniLab 3-minilab3_01.jpg   Arturia MiniLab 3-minilab3_02.jpg   Arturia MiniLab 3-minilab-mkii-01.jpg  

 

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