M-Audio Keystation 88 Mk3 review
Price $ 249 / £ 175
So you want a full set of keys the size of a piano without spending hundreds of them? The M-Audio Keystation 88 Mk3 may well make every dent in your wallet, but will it meet your composing, recording or performance needs? Previous versions have been a staple of audio, professional and other setups, and to make them even easier to fit into office workstations, M-Audio has reduced the depth and height of the keyboard by a few inches in this iteration.
While its predecessor is hardly a challenge for racks or desks, the Mk 3 now weighs almost 1.5kg less. This overhaul represents more of a refit than an overhaul, the most significant aspect of which is that all controls are now located on the left side; previously the transport / DAW buttons were placed away from the other controls at the top right. The flush mounting of the pitch and mod wheels is gone, making them easier to use, while also making them more susceptible to damage.
Station to station
The connector panel remains as is, with MIDI output, USB, two 1/4 inch sockets for sustain and expression pedals, a Kensington lock slot, an on / off switch and a 9V DC power input. A USB cable is included for power and MIDI, although a 9V DC power supply is not. If you are specifically only using 5 pin DIN MIDI, you will need to purchase or extract a center positive 9V power supply. However, for most use cases, it’s less of an annoying omission and more of a relief not having to dump another power supply in a drawer.
The all-plastic construction is perfectly strong, yet lightweight, and doesn’t flex much when mounted on a stand. It is also equipped with foam rubber feet for office life.
The three edit buttons are hard plastic while the eight Transport / DAW buttons are rubber. The edit buttons, Advanced and Octave Up / Down, have associated LEDs that indicate various states from the current octave center to the DAW control type. All editing functions are labeled on their corresponding keys, which cover about half of the keyboard, and five minutes with the manual is enough to digest most of what is needed to assign DC controllers, send bank / program changes. and transpose MIDI notes. A more complete system could be used, perhaps with a display, but for the money there is enough here to get the job done with the minimum of fuss.
The USB side of things is the standard plug-and-play routine with MIDI showing up as “ USB MIDI ” and the transport control side labeled “ Transport ”, which really helps when routing in a DAW. The transport controls consist of record, play, and stop as well as a set of four sliders and center select / shift buttons. These controls can be used with the Mackie HUI, Mackie Control, or MIDI protocols, although the manual does not list the CCs sent with the latter (recording their output will give you the answers). I had the Keystation operational as a keyboard and controller (transport and zoom) quickly in Steinberg Nuendo, and found no effort to assign the modulation wheel and slider, which is nominally labeled “ Volume, ” to any MIDI CC I needed at the time. Again, nothing fancy, but minimal noise.
Keystation 88 mk3 is semi-weighted, which means that weights are added to the spring mechanism to provide more piano-like action, but requiring less force to press and faster springback. This is a compromise for those who want a decent keyboard experience but can also use the keyboard to play percussion, whether that’s drum programming or punchy synth performances. It is, of course, cheaper to produce and weighs considerably less than hammer keyboards. The Keystation has a good balance of firmness and quick spring return, with not too much lateral movement in the keys, a problem often encountered in inexpensive keyboards. The playing feel is better than expected for this price and the velocity sensitivity is well calibrated, which is especially useful with virtual, acoustic or electric pianos, where dynamic response is a fundamental element. The keys are quick enough to play with drum rolls or get particularly funky with a clavinet, and the construction feels solid enough to take years of that kind of action. There is no option to change the velocity curve, but if that doesn’t suit you, most DAWs and virtual instruments include options for this purpose. Unsurprisingly, at this price, there is no aftertouch, mono or poly.
Expression and control
While the Keystation isn’t adorned with rows of knobs and faders, there is enough stuff that ideas for buying secondary controllers can be parked, at least for a while. Including the expression pedal, there are three controllers assignable to the hand – and the foot – at any time, and reassigning them is quick and painless. However, in a performance context, I would like another way to quickly change banks and programs, especially when the lighting is not great. For the desktop programmer, however, there is enough to go on.
The controller keypad comes with a large software package. For DAWs and performance, there are Pro Tools First (M-Audio edition) and Ableton Live Lite, two industry standards in slightly limited formats. There are sample packs for the MPC Beats (freeware) and five AIR Music virtual instruments: Mini Grand, Velvet (electric pianos), Xpand! 2 (synth), DB-33 tone wheel organ and Boom drum machine. There are also introductory piano lessons from Skoove and Melodics.
The Keystation clearly leaves the bells and whistles to its more expensive competitors and focuses on the essentials. The keyboard is lightweight and not at all flimsy, so it may be well suited for a performance setup where weight is an issue, but most units will likely end up on desks under monitor screens for producers, sound designers. and composers. Weighting and velocity sensitivity are well balanced for a range of players who don’t want the expense or expressiveness of a hammer keyboard. Keystation 88 Mk3 gives you a large number of keys, a set of basic MIDI controllers, and the key components of a DAW transport, all at a great price.
Are all of these keys really necessary? For some users, yes. If you regularly play or compose with virtual pianos, there’s nothing like having all 88 keys. Few instruments sound good over seven octaves, except the piano, church organs and their electric brethren.
For media composers and other producers, the size of the Keystation 88 Mk3 also allows multi-instrument setups to be split into an octave or two so they can be quickly accessed or played simultaneously without having to switch between sources. Having beats and bass on one end with higher synth or sampler patches will only speed up the composition.
- 88 semi-weighted keys
- USB type B socket (power and MIDI)
- DIN MIDI Out socket
- Inputs for sustain and expression pedals
- DC 9V 500mA center positive power input
- Plug-and-play (Windows 7 / OSX 10.11 or higher)
- Dimensions: 1378mm (W) x 216mm (D) x 73mm (H)
- Weight: 6.2 kg