Thoughtfully designed, well built, portable… if you’re looking for a keyboard-based sequencer for using with or without a DAW, and especially for playing live on, the Arturia Keystep Pro is a great option. After-touch and a built-in metronome separate it from lesser controllers, and despite only being four tracks, you can do so much with those tracks that we think for many, that’ll be enough.
First Impressions / Setting up
If you’re looking to build a small studio that isn’t necessarily built around a laptop and DAW, one of the things you will want is a hardware sequencer. There are many such devices out there, but they usually come with grids of pads. Fewer come with keyboards, even though the latter may well be the best solution if you want to make more melodic music.
Enter Arturia’s Keystep Pro. Arturia makes a whole range of Midi controllers, but this is the device that fits that description, with a host of ins and outs to control your gear, plus a 37-note mini keyboard with both velocity and after-touch. It’s small, portable, lightweight, and as unusual as it is powerful.
Firstly it is stacked with ins and outs. They include two Midi outs, one Midi in, four CV voice with pitch, gate and velocity/modulation outputs, eight drum trigger outputs and more – and yes, it does have a USB port for Midi/computer DAW control, too.
Standard colour is white, and it feels pro, built on a metal chassis. As well as the keyboard, there are eight rotary encoders, pitch bend and modulation touch strips, little beat fraction “roll” controls that are a very “DJ” feature, 16 buttons to control the sequencer, and a host of modifier functions, with lights above every key to show you what is programmed in your sequences.
Each of its four sets of sequencer track control is coloured on the panel, and has a small screen above it so you can see parameter settings. There are big master transport controls.
Finally, hats off to Arturia for including a built-in metronome, which even has a tiny speaker so you can hear it with no additional hardware.
You could of course use this as a control keyboard to simply control a DAW synth, or to control a single piece of hardware – but it’s really meant for use as a sequencer for multiple pieces of outboard gear across its four channels. That’s what differentiates it from more run-of-the-mill Midi control keyboards.
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So across its four polyphonic tracks, all can work as “standard” 64-step sequencer channels. However, alternatively, channel one is designed to work as a drum sequencer, and there are arpeggiators on the other channels meaning they’ll play nicely with synths.
The drum sequencer has 24 drum tracks, meaning you get a lot of power to programme sophisticated rhythms, especially as the sequencer is highly flexible. Meanwhile the arpeggiators are also massively tweakable, even when playing, allowing you to shift timing and note orders for creative impact.
Of course you can save all your sequences – up to 16 chained sequences can be saved in up to 16 projects. The KeyStep Pro’s projects can be backed up/loaded via Arturia’s computer Midi Control Center utility. “Scenes” are like snapshots of your settings, and each project can store 16 of these, too – useful for playing live.
We tested it with our Novation Circuit Rhythm as the drum machine/sampler, and some synths (Korg Volca FM, Korg Volca Bass, 1010music Lemondrop) and found it truly absorbing to play on, due to the arpeggiators, the chord mode, and the built-in scales.
We really liked the random note features, and the aforementioned DJ-style “roll” feature, where you can “slip loop” the selected track on the fly by 1/4, 1/8, 1/16 or 1/32 of a beat. We think DJs will love this.
We feel we’ve only started to scratch the surface of this unit in the few weeks we’ve had so far playing with it.
Yes, it only has four sequencer channels, and its nearest competitor, the Novation SL MkIII, has eight – but that’s a much bigger, more expensive unit.
Truth is that hardware set-ups can get complicated quite quickly if you’re not careful – yet when thoughtfully pieced together, you can still do an awful lot with four channels, especially bearing in mind the flexibility of the drum track here.
As with much “hardware-first” gear, this is best suited to jamming, performing, fleshing out ideas, and having fun. Add a sampler/drum machine and a couple of cheap synths, throw in in a small mixer, and you’ve got a great little live set-up that you could even incorporate into DJ performances if you were feeling ambitious.
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Such a set-up would be nowhere near as simple as just adding a sampler like the Roland SP-404 MkII to your DJ gear, or indeed a groovebox like the Novation Circuit Tracks (with or without a couple of pieces of extra Midi-controlled hardware), but it would still be simple enough, and the deep control the excellent sequencer here gives you would mean you’d be all set up for exciting improvisation alongside triggering existing programmed projects.
It’s true to say that possibly the number one target for this keyboard is musicians building modular set-ups, due to all the ins/outs aimed at connecting to their gear – but that’s outside of our understanding or ambition, so we’ll leave chat about those functions to the techie producer channels!
Nonetheless, if you’re looking for a Midi control keyboard with a built-in sequencer, that strikes an appealing balance between power, simplicity and portability, the unusual Arturia Keystep Pro could be it. DJs wanting to move into production without using a laptop, take note.