Trying to Decipher the Novation Launchkey 25 MkII

A couple of weeks ago, I got a text message from an old family friend. “Hey—would you be interested in a keyboard? I have no use for this one.”

The keyboard in question was a Novation Lunchkey 25 MkII, one of the most popular MIDI controllers on the market. It’s an offshoot of Novation’s famous LaunchPad series, which rose to prominence when this video by Madeon went viral.

I don’t have very much MIDI experience, but I’m not one to say no to instruments (my wife agrees, gesturing vaguely at the piles of guitars and keyboards filling up most of our basement), so I took it off his hands.

Unboxing the unit, I liked what I saw. The design is very sleek. The top is a matte black with color-changing LED pads, and the bottom shell is a nice teal. The controller is very lightweight. It feels just a little flimsy, but all of the mechanics (keys, tonewheels, knobs) all feel substantial enough that I’m not worried about breaking anything.

What I am worried about though is trying to figure out how in the world to get the most functionality out of this thing.

Because despite appearances, this isn’t a standalone keyboard. It has absolutely zero sound-creating capabilities on its own. It needs to be used in conjunction with a computer and synth software to do anything. So if you’re looking on Amazon thinking that $149.99 could get you a good keyboard, think again.

Immediately out of the box, I’m able to plug the Launchkey into my computer and use it with Logic Pro. Logic Pro has a huge selection of virtual synthesizers. When I plug it into my USB port, Logic Pro recognizes it immediately and lets me play these synths using the Launchkey’s keyboard.

But this only opened up a fraction of the controller’s functionality. Just about anything that wasn’t a piano key sat useless. And besides, I already have an all-in-one synthesizer that does that better.

If I wanted to get the most out of this unit, I would need a more capable program.

Luckily, I didn’t have to look far. Included in the box was a registration code. I entered this code on the Novation website and was given a free download of Ableton Live, the industry standard for creating lush MIDI arrangements.

But, like I said, I haven’t worked very much with MIDI, so I very quickly got in over my head.

I was able to get to the same point in Ableton as I was in Logic. I could assign it as a controller for Ableton’s virtual synths and play them on the keyboard. But I still had absolutely no clue about how to get any use out of the rest of the controls. I had been made to think that I would be able to record loops on the fly (an easy assumption, given the big record button on the far right).

And while I might be able to do that, I’m finding Ableton to be an almost indecipherable piece of software hieroglyphics. It’s not like I’m a tech n00b—I’ve coded a few custom themes on my own websites. But when I tried to parse the MIDI configurations in Ableton, I had absolutely no idea what I was looking at.

If I had a few days to spend diving into the backend of Ableton and poring over how-to videos, I might be able to figure out how to make my own live mashups. But for right now, I’m fine just using it to play synth parts.

The Novation Launchkey MkII retails for $149.99 and it is available on Amazon.

Source: Personal purchase

What I Like: Looks great. Basic functions are easy to use.

What Needs Improvement: It definitely needs some sort of complete beginner’s guide included with the hardware.

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About the Author

Nathaniel Fitzgerald
Nathaniel FitzGerald is a longtime audiophile and independent musician living in South Bend, IN. He has been collecting records and vintage stereo equipment for over ten years. He also runs a blog called A Year of Vinyl, where he reviews every record in his (sizable) collection one disc at a time.