What does Arturia’s flagship controller/sequencer offer electronic musicians?
Keystep Pro is a great unifier, controlling CV/gate modular systems as well as DIN MIDI and USB MIDI sound sources. It plays arpeggios, sequences, and drum patterns as well as notes. A small external transformer supplies 12V power, and it can run from USB power, too. The sum of its parts is a compact instrument bristling with knobs, sockets, buttons, and displays. Arturia has laid out everything intuitively, with little in the way of hidden parameters or menus.
As a product category, sequencer/keyboards have never had a great impact on the music business. Giorgio Moroder used one from PPG, and QuasiMIDI offered the multichannel sequencing Cyber-6. Oberheim’s Xk had an excellent arpeggiator, and currently Novation’s SL MkIII integrates with Ableton Live while offering its own onboard eight-track sequencer. On the whole though, sequencer/keyboards have been thin on the ground.
French Form Factor
Keystep Pro reintroduces the concept in compact form, offering three octaves of slightly reduced-sized, velocity- and aftertouch-sensitive keys. It’s heavier than it appears, using a great deal of metal in the chassis rather than plastic. While this probably makes it hardy, you may not want to take a long journey with one in a backpack.
The instrument looks very professional. Its predecessors the Beatstep and Beatstep Pro and the very compact Keystep keyboard risked looking toy-like, particularly in the white finish shared by the Keystep Pro. (Maybe a black version will come along.)
The major difference between the Keystep Pro and the smaller Keystep is the number of sequencer/arpeggiator tracks available. It has four rather than one (as well as a control track for parameter changes). Track 1 (colored green) plays a sequence or drum pattern. Tracks 2–4 (orange, yellow, and red) play sequence or arpeggio patterns. You can play, mute, or solo each track with an LED flashing every time a note, drum event, or arpeggio note plays to indicate the track it played on.
Transport controls for Record/Quantize, Play/Pause, and Stop handle pattern playback. A Shift button gives all of them alternative functions. A continuous rotary (with a tap-tempo option) determines tempo, and a very small LCD display shows the current pattern speed. It also displays some simple menus about drum sound layout and other internal parameters. A metronome plays, quite loudly enough, from a tiny speaker on the control panel.
Starting with the Keystep Pro means choosing what sort of system you’re connecting to—DIN MIDI, USB MIDI, or CV/gate—using one or more of the four sets of CV/Gate/Velocity or Modulation minijacks on the rear panel. To work with drum events, you’ll find eight more Gate Out minijacks on the rear. Additionally, you may want to connect an external clock, using the In, Out, and Reset jacks. The metronome has its own audio output in case you need it to play in your headphones. The final rear panel feature is a quarter-inch jack for a sustain footswitch.
Start recording (though we’re nowhere nearly through with all the control panel options yet) and play a sequence on Track 1. A tiny light flashes above each key as it’s played or replayed, a row of 16 pushbuttons flashing along with your pattern, and you can punch notes in and out with these. Use Shift and you can move the sequence in semitones or octaves, nudge it a note at a time, invert it, and quantize or randomize the note order.
Other pattern options are shifted functions of the keyboard keys. For arpeggios, you can latch them on (with the Hold button); shift the octave up and down; select up, down, random, or as played (labeled Order) patterns; select monophonic or polyphonic patterns; change time divisions from the master tempo to quarters, eighths, sixteenths, thirty-seconds or triplets; and select scales—chromatic, major, minor, Dorian, programmable user scales, and so on. Selecting functions with keyboard keys isn’t ideal, but the alternative of adding another 37 function buttons to the Keystep Pro would be unthinkable.
For a first pattern, maybe you’ll create some kind of impressive twangy, staccato bass sound. Running an arpeggio or sequence pattern, punching notes in and out, and (probably) playing along with a timed echo will give endless hours of enjoyment. But that’s just one, 16-step sequence. You can extend sequences to 32, 48, or 64 notes. Using continuous rotaries encircled by little LEDs, vary the filter cutoff and other parameters on hardware or software synths and vary the gate and velocity of notes in real time. You can add swing to patterns too, as well as a variable random element. And that’s still just your first sequence.
Adding a second and third sequence (or arpeggio) is straightforward. Adding a drum pattern in TR-808-style, using the 16-step display buttons and muting drum sounds as you wish, is also straightforward. Any sequence step can play polyphonically, with new steps created in step time or real time. You can also quantize sequences as they play or later on.
But that’s only the beginning of the available sequence modes. Above the single pattern mode is Chain Mode, and above that a Scene Mode, so you can create very long and complex compositions. An entire configuration is called a project, of which 16 can be memorized, each of 16 scenes; Arturia’s MIDI Control Center software allows you to save projects and configure various internal parameters.
One of the most exciting facilities of any sequencer is transposing live from the keyboard. This is a basic function of the Keystep Pro, with a dedicated Transpose button next to the touch strips. That isn’t to say you’ll automatically sound like Tangerine Dream or Jean-Michel Jarre using this instrument—just that you possibly could, if you wanted to.
For conventional performance, the Keystep Pro’s pitch touch strip returns to center, and the modulation touch strip doesn’t. Underneath those lies a small control area for creating short spontaneous loops, though there’s no ratcheting (note trill) function as on the Beatstep Pro. Basic keyboard transposition up and down two octaves is also readily at hand, so you may well use the Keystep Pro for general playing and note-entry duties without even touching on its sequencer facilities.
Keystep Pros…and Cons
The Arturia Keystep Pro doesn’t have a lot of competition in the current market. As I mentioned above, plenty of sequencers are available, but up to now, the concept of the sequencer/keyboard has never really caught on. It’s a compelling way of working, however, and the Keystep Pro is compact enough to fit into any studio or stage setup, having all the physical connections necessary to do it. However, the manual is extremely basic, though much more information is available online.
It won’t take you long to learn Keystep Pro’s operation. With so many options, though, you may be temporarily blinded by all its possibilities.