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Launchkey 88 brings a luxurious keybed to a budget MIDI controller

·Managing Editor
·4-min read
Novation Launchkey 88
Terrence O'Brien / Engadget

Novation already makes five different versions of its venerable Launchkey series of MIDI controllers, ranging from the travel-friendly Launchkey Mini all the way up to the studio centerpiece Launchkey 61. But for some, 61 keys isn’t enough. And a serious piano player might balk at the unweighted keys. But now Novation offers the Launchkey 88 with a semi-weighted keybed.

The latest addition to the family essentially bridges the gap between the budget-minded Launchkey and the higher-end SL series, which starts at $600. The Launchkey 88 keeps the cost to just $400 by leaving out more advanced features like CV outputs, color screens and built-in sequencer. But, if you’re primarily producing in-the-box you probably won’t miss the extras that much.

Novation Launchkey 88
Novation Launchkey 88

This is to be expected, and it’s not a con, but the Launchkey 88 is huge. It’s not the controller for you if space is at a premium. I honestly had trouble finding room for it in my small attic studio. That being said, the keybed is excellent. I’m not a piano player, and have no particular allegiance to weighted keys, but these were clearly a step above your average MIDI controller. They lack the springy bounce of the cheaper members of the Launchkey line and I found it much easier to get nuanced velocity response.

Otherwise, the hardware is basically the same as the rest of the Launchkey line. It’s all plastic, but feels solid enough. The 16 velocity sensitive pads are passable but nothing to write home about. The faders have an excellent amount of resistance, but are a tad wobbly. And the knobs are incredibly solid but a tad small. The pitch and mod wheels are lovely though, full stop. The resistance is perfect, and they’re rock solid. Going back to the touch strips on other controllers feels like punishment.

Novation Launchkey 88
Novation Launchkey 88

Of course, the big selling point of any Launchkey device is its tight integration with Ableton Live. It’s not quite good enough to go completely mouse and keyboard free, but you can get a lot accomplished directly on the controller. You can launch clips from the pads, control macros with the knobs and mix your tracks with the faders. You have control over send effects, the panning, and there’s a dedicated button for looping a portion of your track to jam over, as well as a capture MIDI button in case you play something truly inspired but forgot to hit record. You can do quite a bit with looking at the computer, though it can be a bit tough to navigate larger projects.

There are some odd quirks right now, though, that will presumably get ironed out in firmware and script updates pretty quickly. Specifically, Live gets confused by playing in the upper octaves. There’s a couple of dead zones, from G4 through E5, for example, and some keys in the highest octave trigger various recording modes instead of notes. But this only happens in Live.

Novation Launchkey 88
Novation Launchkey 88

The arpeggiator is still incredible, though. The random, Mutate and Deviate features make it easy to create unique patterns and introduce a little unpredictability to a composition. This is the feature that has me coming back to the Launchkey line again and again in my personal studio. And the five-pin MIDI DIN connection allows you to bring that top-notch arpeggiator to hardware synths. However, I still think the controller is best suited to a primarily software-based setup.

Novation Launchkey 88
Novation Launchkey 88

The Launchkey 88 isn’t a true luxury MIDI controller. It’s really an affordable workhorse. But it does go a bit beyond some of its more affordable competitors, and even its siblings. The expansive size probably isn’t necessary for most producers, but the semi-weighted keybed does make a huge difference in playability. And I’d love to see Novation bring it to the smaller members of the family like the Launchkey 49, which is probably a bit more my speed (and easier to shove on my cramped desk).

The Launchkey 88 is available now for $400.

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