A few years ago I reviewed Arturia’s Beatstep Pro [Tape Op #111] and was really impressed by the functionality of that unit. Their new MIDI/CV sequencer/controller KeyStep Pro takes things up several levels. BeatStep Pro was essentially Arturia’s take on older voltage-controlled step sequencers on steroids, adding MIDI and up to four separate sequences of up to 64 steps, plus the ability to store and program songs around multiple sequences. There was no keyboard on that unit, instead 16 rotary encoders for setting the pitch with lots of options for manipulating the sequences. With KeyStep Pro you can still program a sequence using a rotary controller, albeit with only one knob for pitch instead of 16 knobs with one for each step. But with the addition of a three-octave 37-note slim key keyboard, it’s much easier to visualize and program sequences from a player’s perspective.
There are basically three ways to program a sequence with KeyStep Pro: Step mode with the keyboard, step mode with the encoder, and live mode with the keyboard. Like BeatStep Pro, there are four separate and simultaneous sequencers, each referred to as a Track, available with up to 64 steps each. Tracks can be a different length, so you can set up some really cool polyrhythmic sequences. Much of the overall architecture and functionality of BeatStep Pro is the same as KeyStep Pro, although there are a lot of useful new features in addition to the keyboard. Track one can act as a sequencer or a drum sequencer, while tracks two through four can act as a sequencer or an arpeggiator. KeyStep Pro would obviously be an amazing tool for live performance, but since Tape Op is a recording magazine, I’m going to focus more on the recording and compositional aspects of the device.
My first session with KeyStep Pro was using it as a controller in Ableton Live [#126], and it was amazingly easy to set it up via USB MIDI. Once I set up Live to receive MIDI sync and added four MIDI tracks on channels 1-4, I then set up four different MIDI instruments in Ableton Live, and was quickly able to record a bunch of cool sync’d sequences into the DAW to then further manipulate with Live’s editing capabilities. Recording was super easy, as the start button on KeyStep Pro started Live as well – and off you go! (I should mention here that although I was using KeyStep as the master clock, it can just as easily slave to external clock sources of nearly any kind). In this instance, where I found KeyStep Pro the most useful and fun was in the keyboard-activated step mode and the arpeggiator mode. The live mode also produced some fun and somewhat unpredictable results, but in a studio setting it seems easier to just play directly into your DAW if you’re wanting to simply perform a keyboard part. The cool thing about KeyStep Pro is that you can do either. KeyStep Pro’s three-octave keyboard makes for a great MIDI controller, and I really like the touch strip pitch and modulation controls. The sequencer and arpeggiator are super fun, especially for more percussive sounds and bass parts. Once you have a sequence or arpeggio playing, you can then manipulate it in a variety of ways like transposing, inverting, or reversing the sequence. And unlike most sequencers that can only play one note per step, KeyStep Pro can play up to 16 notes of polyphony per step, and also has a really cool unique chord mode where chords can be played and arpeggiated with one key!
For my next session with KeyStep Pro, I grabbed the rack from Panoramic Studio with my rack-mount Moog Voyager mono synth and Black Corporation’s Deckard’s Dream polysynth, then used standard 5 pin MIDI cables to connect them to the keyboard. Once again, it was super easy to play a chord-based sequence from the KeyStep Pro to the Deckard’s Dream with a bass line sequence on the Moog simultaneously on separate MIDI channels. And because I still had the USB MIDI connected to Ableton Live, I could sync up my new hardware synth sequences with my soft synth sequences super easily. One minor issue I had was that I was also recording MIDI into Live. When I tried to send MIDI back through KeyStep Pro to the Moog, I couldn’t get it to send MIDI from the DAW. I asked Arturia about that and they sent a firmware update that had just been released that fixed the problem. Voila!
Finally, I hooked up my Eurorack modular rig with primarily Verbos and Mutable Instruments modules and used the analog CV, Pitch, Gate, and Velocity/Modulation outputs to create sequences with my modular rig. Within the limited functionality of analog VCOs and their tuning glitches (which is kinda why we love them though, right?) KeyStep Pro worked perfectly creating sequences in the analog CV patch cable world. Again, they all sync’d up perfectly with my session in Ableton Live, which was starting to sound like Koyaanisqatsi on LSD after testing with all these various synths. I should note that in addition to the commonly used one volt per octave CV standard, KeyStep Pro can also output 1.2 volts per octave to match the Buchla standard.
The build and visual/tactile interface of KeyStep Pro are super solid and next level. It’s hefty but not overly large, plus all the knobs and buttons feel like they’ll last for years. One of the coolest features of the unit is that each sequence is color-coded, green (1), orange (2), yellow (3), and magenta (4). Above every note on the keyboard is an LED. As you change sequences, the step keys and all the keyboard LEDs also change color to match the sequence you are working with, so even with four sequences going it’s really easy to keep track of what is doing what. It’s a visually elegant and functional interface.
When I had reviewed BeatStep Pro, I had dropped it off with my friend and synth wizard Suzanne Ciani to get her comments, so I thought I’d do the same with KeyStep Pro. Once Suzanne got it integrated into her setup that includes a new Mac Pro Tower running Digital Performer with a UA Apollo x8p [#130], her Buchla modular, and two Eventide H9 Harmonizers [#107], KeyStep Pro became her main MIDI controller for her rig. Here’s what she had to say about it; “The Arturia KeyStep Pro is just what I was looking for – just what I needed. It fits right on my desktop and allows me to quickly interface with soft synths in creative ways: Multiple sequencers, arpeggiators, and a touch-sensitive keyboard. It is so elegantly designed with extensive feedback, whether from the color-coded tracks, the sensitive rotary knobs, or the quick access routing of the shift key – that entering the deep depths of its possibilities seems completely intuitive. All this feedback also gives the instrument a big edge for live performance – no menu diving. Just lighted pathways to what’s going on. It is a musically sophisticated and well-thought-out tool that lets you be yourself or discover the new you with exotic scales and Euclidean like rhythms.” I should note that Suzanne ended up buying a BeatStep Pro after I loaned her mine and wouldn’t let me have the KeyStep Pro back either. She ended up buying that unit as well.
It’s also worth noting that when I reviewed the BeatStep Pro I had a few minor quibbles with it, and these have all been addressed with KeyStep Pro. Bottom line is that this would make a great sequencer and keyboard controller for any studio, small or large. But serious electronic musicians will probably want to have both BeatStep and KeyStep Pro units as part of their studio for the maximum amount of flexibility, and as they’re both pretty reasonably priced, this combination is within the reach of most musicians.