Amongst other things, Novation are famed for making high-quality MIDI controllers that integrate flawlessy into the modern studio or live set-up, thanks to their superb automatic mapping software. This probably explains why Novation keyboards are so popular, with plenty of professionals and home studio owners favouring their products over competitors'.
If you're in the market for a MIDI controller keyboard, then you're probably considering a Novation, but with SL MkII, Impulse and Launchkey ranges to choose from, what's the difference between them and which will best suit your requirements? As I've used all of them before, I've decided to compile this article in order to help answer these questions and hopefully help you in your quest to find your perfect controller.
Before delving deeper into the individual aspects of each keyboard, I thought that a quick overview of each might be helpful...
Firstly, there's the Novation SL MkII range, which is made up of three models: the 25 SL MkII (with 25 keys), 49 SL MkII (with 49 keys) and 61 SL MkII (with 61 keys). For those that require the hands-on controls of an SL MkII, but don't require any keys, then there's also the Zero SL MkII, which is a useful studio and live gadget.
The SL MkII range of professional controllers are designed to satisfy those that require a shed-load of hands-on controls. It's got a wealth of assignable buttons, dials and faders, and can switch between different modes for controlling different aspects of your software (e.g. DAW mixer, plug-ins, etc.).
The Impulse range also contains three models: the Impulse 25 (with 25 notes), Impulse 49 (with 49 notes) and Impulse 61 (with 61 notes). Again, this provides a model for most needs. Impulse controllers are designed for people that don't quite need the number of controls that an SL MkII offers, but still want tactile hands-on control over their software.
Finally there is the Launchkey range, which is the newest out of all the lines. Launchkey keyboards are priced more towards the beginner market, and although they don't have some of the features of the Impulse and SL MkII units, they still provide you with plenty of controls for getting hands-on with your software, including a number of Launchpad-style pads, which are useful for triggering samples/instruments or launching clips in software such as Ableton. You can also hook a Launchkey up to your iPad and use it to control your favourite apps (e.g. Novation's FREE Launchpad and Launchkey apps). This makes them great for making music on-the-go and there's even a smaller Launchkey Mini model, with mini keys for those that need something even more portable.
Having briefly introduced the ranges to you, I'm now going to highlight how the features of each range differ in a bit more detail...
As you can probably expect due to the differences in prices, the Impulse and SL MkII controllers have slightly nicer feeling keyboards compared to the cheaper Launchkey models. Now, that's not to say that the Launchkeys feel bad, as their synth-style keybed will still allow you to play articulate pieces; it's just that both the Impulse and SL MkII ranges have a slightly sturdier feel to them. Therefore, if a really solid keyboard feel is important to you, I would recommend investing a little more money in your controller. However, if you're not really a keyboard player and just want something that will allow you to input notes, then a Launchkey would be perfect.
SL MkII keyboards all have premium Italian semi-weighted keys, which feel great to play. In my opinion, the SL MkII has one of the best keyboard actions on the current market and it suits my playing style perfectly; it feels nice and sturdy and the keys have a nice amount of spring to them without forcing you to play too aggressively, which allows you to create really expressive performances. All SL MkII keyboards also feature aftertouch, which although is something that I don't make extensive use of, is a really useful feature to have for adding further articulations to a sound with a note held down.
Impulse controllers also feature a great-feeling keyboard, although it uses a different keybed to the SL MkIIs. Impulse controllers are designed with chunkier semi-weighted piano-style keys, which provide a good compromise between a traditional synth response and a piano.
Although the keys certainly have a very different response to a proper grand piano (due to the lighter keys), my previous experiences with customers have taught me that piano players tend to favour the response of the Impulse (over the SL MkII) due to its slightly more traditional feel. However, coming from a synth background, I personally always slightly preferred the response of the SL MkII range, but that's just down to personal preference and I can certainly appreciate why many people go for the Impulse instead, especially given that Impulse controllers also feature aftertouch. In fact, on this subject, it's probably worth mentioning that Launchkey keyboards do not feature aftertouch, so if this is one of your requirements then you will need to look at a different range.
To make this section complete, I'll also mention the keyboard of the Launchkey Mini, which has a very light feel. If you've ever used mini keys before then there shouldn't be any surprises here. Obviously the light response and smaller keys doesn't make the Launchkey Mini ideal for someone looking for a traditional keyboard experience, but it's a great tool for those that like to produce and/or record ideas on-the-move.
In this section I'm going to look at the buttons, faders and dials of each controller, starting with the SL MkII range...
As I've already mentioned, every SL MkII controller is jam-packed with hands-on controls. In fact, if obtaining the most controls possible is your thing, then you'll struggle to find anything more appropriate. Also, unlike most other controller keyboard lines, you don't get less controls if you go for the smallest model (the 25 SL MkII); all SL MkII keyboards have exactly the same number of controls.
Each SL MkII controller provides you with 8 faders, 8 dials with fixed start and end points and 8 endless encoder dials (with LED rings to indicate the position of the software parameter). On top of this, there's also a plethora of mappable back-lit buttons, as well as dedicated transport buttons for triggering actions such as play, stop, record, loop, etc. in your DAW software. Each SL MkII is also equipped with dedicated 'mode' buttons, which allows you to quickly switch what the keyboard is controlling (e.g. your DAW's mixer, a plug-in, your own custom mapping, etc.).
In my opinion, one of the best control features of the SL MkII, which isn't available on any other keyboard in Novation's ranges (in fact, this feature is so unique that I don't know any other keyboard on the whole market with it) is the 'speed dial'. The speed dial works in combination with the Automap software, taking instant control of any parameter that you have your mouse hovered over. I make extensive use of this feature whenever I use an SL MkII as it makes hands-on control so quick and easy; there's no need to keep reminding yourself of your mappings.
The controls of the SL MkII also have a touch-sensitive feature, which is great for gaining instant visual feedback. Simply touch the control and the LCD screen will update in order to indicate what software parameter it is controlling, along with the value of that parameter. In my opinion, this is particularly useful in live situations for if you want to double-check the function of a control before moving it, without having to keep glancing at a computer screen.
Another cool feature of the SL MkII range is the X-Y pad, which can be used to create some really cool morphing effects. Simply assign one parameter to the X-axis of the pad and another to the Y-axis (using the mapping software), place your finger on the pad and move it around in order to manipulate the parameters. Very cool indeed!
Just above the touchpad are the pitch/modulation controls. These are placed on a ball-type device, which can move both horizontally and vertically, allowing you to control both the pitch and modulation with one hand. Plenty of people find this design easier to work with, as opposed to having a separate control for both pitch and modulation, although please note that this design does spring back to a default position when released on both axes, so you have to physically hold it in place to sustain any modulation. This differs from the action of a traditional modulation wheel, which usually stays where you leave it. However, if required, you can easily de-activate the ball spring using a latch on the underside of the keyboard, which will allow you to move and position the control in any direction without resistance. Alternatively (and this is probably a more practical approach), you could just use the sprung modulation control for applying effects that you only need in short bursts and assign any effects that you need to hold for a significant period of time to one of the faders or dials.
Whilst I rate SL MkIIs extremely highly, there is one thing that I think could be improved and that's the feel of the endless encoders, which feel a bit light compared to the absolute encoders and faders. I like my encoders to feel extremely sturdy so that I can really feel when I'm making changes, so to me, this would be the one area that I would improve on these controllers. It's not the end of the world by all means though and all things considered, I still think that the SL MkII is one of the best MIDI keyboards out there.
Ok, so onto the Impulse range. Both the 49- and 61-note models provide 9 faders, 8 rotary encoders, a number of assignable buttons and transport controls. The 25 note version saves space by just featuring one fader and associated button. Controls of the Impulse can be set-up to control your plug-ins and your standard DAW parameters (e.g. channel levels on the mixer, transport controls, mute/solo statuses, etc.).
However, just like the SL MkII range, I do feel like there is room for improvement when it comes to the feel of the endless encoders, which again, I think could be made to feel a bit stiffer when turned.
The Launchkey 49 and 61 each feature 8 absolute pots (i.e. dials that have fixed start and end points) and 9 faders. The 25 note version only has the space to squeeze on a single fader. Each Launchkey also features an assignable button under each fader, plus transport controls. There are also standard pitch and modulation wheels.
The controls of each Launchkey keyboard all have a good feel to them and you get more than enough to get a great hands-on experience with your software. especially for such a well-priced keyboard. The only real thing to be aware of is that some people will prefer the endless encoder design of the SL MkII and Impulse ranges, which will smoothly and automatically take control of any software parameter, no matter what the starting position of the dial.
The Launchkey Mini simply features 8 absolute dials with no pitch and modulation wheels, but as it's designed as a compact, on-the-go music creation device rather than a complete studio solution, I don't think that I can really ask much more of it.
Moving onto the pads of each keyboard and we'll start with the SL MkII range again. Each SL MkII features 8 rubber pads, which can be used to tap out drum beats, play melodies, trigger samples/clips, etc. It's worth noting although they are velocity-sensitive, they are a little too solid-feeling for my liking. This coupled with their small size can make it a bit awkward to tap out really accurate and articulate drum beats. They're useful for getting ideas down though and I guess that standard full-size pads would take up valuable controller space on the smaller models.
In my opinion, the Impulse controllers (which each feature 8 full-size pads), have the best pads of the lot. They're a great size and have a superb rubber feel, which makes it easy to tap out natural-sounding beats. The pads of the Impulse are also backlit and can light up red, yellow or green. This makes them useful as large launch pads, if you want to trigger loops in software such as Ableton, as the colour of the pad will also indicate the status of the loop (e.g. playing/stopped).
The Launchkey range each feature 16 tri-colour launch pads (including the mini version). This makes them useful for launching clips in software such as Ableton or FL Studio, or you can also tap out beats as they are velocity sensitive.
Visual feedback can be useful both on-stage and in the studio, so I felt it was probably worth me giving the display a quick mention.
The SL MkII undoubtably has the ability to give the best feedback. Its elongated LCD screen allows you to display the names and values of multiple parameters at once, as well as allowing you to quickly browse through the keyboard's advanced menu options.
Impulse keyboards features a chunkier rectangular keyboard, which, although only provides details on one control at once, can also display other information such as your transpose and menu settings.
MAPPING SOFTWARE - AUTOMAP vs INCONTROL
Both the SL MkII and Impulse controllers come with Automap software, which makes setting the keyboards up with compatible software fantastically fast and intuitive. Once configured with your DAW (Novation provide a simple walkthrough guide to show you how to do this), the controls of the keyboard will instantly map to any plug-in effect or instrument that you have in focus, or to your main DAW controls (e.g. track level faders, transport buttons). This saves a massive amount of time, meaning that you don't have to create your own mappings and then constantly load them up as you switch from device to device.
On top of this, one of my favourite Automap features is that you can create and save your own mappings, which will then be remembered any time you bring up an instance of that plug-in. For example, you might use three main software instruments and as such, you may want to give each one similar mappings, so that you don't have to remember different layouts for each (e.g. you might want a specific encoder to control the filter cutoff of each software instrument). As Automap may have intuitively mapped each one out slightly differently, you can then go in, customise the mapping to something that makes more sense for your own working style and then save the mapping. Even if you turn off your computer, your mappings will still be remembered for next time, so you only need to do it once. You can even create different control banks, which means that each dial/fader/button can control multiple software parameters by switching between banks.
Although Launchkey keyboards are not Automap compatible, they do thankfully feature some automatic mapping software of their own, called InControl. InControl is essentially a piece of automatic mapping software that is specifically designed to work with Launchkey controllers and as such, it is less flexible than Automap software in terms of programability.
Unlike Automap, which instantly maps to plug-ins, InControl only automatically maps to appropriate DAW controls (e.g. faders to mixer levels, transport control buttons, etc.), although it can easily be de-activated using buttons on the keyboard in order to allow you to create your own mappings with your instruments and effects. However, with InControl turned on, you cannot alter the automatic mappings.
Nevertheless, a very useful feature of InControl is that you can turn it on and off for certain 'blocks' of controls. For example, you can keep InControl turned 'on' for the faders, allowing you to use them to control track levels, and turn InControl 'off' for the dials, allowing you to map them to a software instrument in order to control filter controls. This has an advantage over Automap, as all controls on an Automap device are controlled by a single mode (i.e. they're either all controlling your DAW, all controlling a plug-in, or all transmitting their set MIDI CC messages).
Please note that InControl does not work with all DAWs, so please check compatibility before ordering if you want to use this feature. It currently works with most big name DAWs though, so the chances are, you should be fine.
Firstly, I'm going to start by saying that all SL MkII, Impulse and Launchkey controllers are bus powered, which means that you simply need to plug them into your computer via USB and they will work without a power supply. If using a Launchkey to control an iPad app, you will even find that it is bus-powered in this situation. All also feature a Kensington Lock slot in case you need to secure them.
Both the SL MkII and Impulse controllers allow you to assign QWERTY messages to their controls, which is useful for gaining quick access to your most used functions. For example, you could set up a single button to trigger the 'Command+S' message on your Mac computer, so that every time you press it, your project is saved. This feature helps make the keyboard a central control station in your studio or live set-up, whilst also speeding up your workflow. Please note that although a Mac example was used here, you can also set up assignments on Windows computers.
Off the top of my head, the only other additional features I can think of are the built-in arpeggiator and roll features of the Impulse. The really cool thing about the Impulse arpeggiator is that you can customise the pattern by using the pads to add and remove steps.
Using the 'roll' feature, you can create a repeating succession of hits for as long as you hold the pad down. You can even control the velocity of the roll depending on how hard you press on the pad and control the tempo of the roll using the tempo control of the Impulse. This can be useful for live effects, or simply for creating repeating percussive hits (e.g. hi-hats) at a specific tempo.
Having checked the specs of all the keyboards, I also noticed that Impulse controllers have a feature called 'mouse control'. I've never come across this before and am struggling to find any information online, so I'll have to ask the team at Novation to enlighten me and update this article later, as I'm assuming that it doesn't have anything to do with keeping rodents out of your studio!
All SL MkII keyboards feature a USB connection, along with inputs for connecting a sustain and expression pedal; MIDI In, Out and Thru ports; plus a MIDI output for port 2.
The Impulse range features similar connections, minus the second MIDI output and the MIDI Thru ports.
Finally, Launchkey controllers simply feature a USB connection and sustain pedal input. The Launchkey Mini just features a USB connection as it is mainly designed to be a portable controller and as such, Novation do not envisage you needing to connect it up to additional gear.
I've tried to be as in-depth as possible with this article, although if you have any questions, feel free to comment below and I will be happy to help. As I've already mentioned, Novation have a reputation for creating excellent MIDI controllers, so it's just a case of choosing the best one for your particular needs and budget.
Novation have also created a quick-feature comparison chart in case you want to see the main spec differences at a glance, and you can CLICK HERE to read it.
To finish off, I'm going to leave you with a quick 'pros and cons' description of each keyboard, just in case you want to refresh your memory on the details of this article.
Bye for now!
+ Great feel to the keyboard
+ Loads of hands-on controls - more than any other Novation range
+ Intuitive, flexible mapping that's easy to set up and customise
+ Speed-dial for instant control of any software parameter
+ Plenty of studio connectivity
+ X-Y pad for cool morphing effects
+ Lots of feedback from screen
+ Allows you to assign QWERTY assignments to controls
- Endless encoders feel a bit loose for my liking
- Pads are small and hard, making it difficult to create articulate patterns using them
+ Keyboard is a good compromise between synth and piano action
+ Pads feel great - excellent for creating drum beats
+ Tri-colour pads make them great for launching clips in Ableton
+ Intuitive, flexible mapping that's easy to set up and customise
+ Built-in customisable arpeggiator and roll functions
+ Allows you to assign QWERTY assignments to controls
- Endless encoders also feel slightly loose for my liking
- No Speed Dial (as included on the SL MkII range)
+ Fantastic product for the price - the most wallet-friendly of any Novation range
+ Tri-colour launch pads are great for working with software such a Ableton and FL Studio
+ Works with iOS devices
+ InControl software allows you to split the functionality of the keyboard's controls
+ Launchkey Mini is ideal for portable production
- Better feeling keyboards available with other models
- InControl software is less customisable that Automap
- Minimal studio connectivity
- No endless encoders
For more information on any Novation MIDI controller, please click the links in this article, give us a call on 01202 597180 or e-mail [email protected].