REVIEW: RELOOP KEYPAD & KEYFADR ABLETON LIVE CONTROLLERS
Full Reloop Keypad & Keyfadr review: The Reloop Keypad and Keyfadr are Reloop's first attempts at music controllers that do not use the traditional two-deck set-up, typical of the company's DJ controllers. Although there are many similar products on the market, there are seemingly none that offer such a wide range of controls in such a useful format.
Korg’s series of Nano controllers, or Akai’s MPK-25, are both similar in terms of what they do, but it’s Reloop that have really nailed the combination of features necessary for anyone who wants to start making music. And what’s more, they’ve done it for a fairly decent price tag. As we find out in this Keypad and Keyfadr review, it’s not necessary to have something as expensive or complicated as the Ableton Push controller, or an Akai APC, to have a lot of fun with Ableton - and that includes finishing songs and performing live.
In terms of looks, the controllers are easy on the eye. The build quality is fine, and the finish on the plastic looks very nice - although if you’re not used to this format (small keyboard and large control section) you may find it a little unusual at first. The backlights on the buttons, and especially on the drum pads, are really bright and look good both in the dark of a booth, or in your bedroom.
Both the Keypad and the Keyfadr feature controls for eight channels (and eight more using the shift function), with each channel having three buttons, a fader, two knobs, and one endless encoder, which also works as a button. They also have 25-key keyboards with octave buttons to access the full scale, auto-chord and auto-scale modes, a basic arpeggiator, and transport controls (play, stop and record buttons). Both have a single USB port, which also provides power, and a Kensington lock port. Finally, the Keypad also features 16 pressure-sensitive backlit drum pads.
Overall, they’re two of the smarter, neater products at this end of the market - but they’re not perfect. They suffers from the small, springy, shallow keys that are typical of products within this price range, and if you’re already used to playing the piano or a decent keyboard, you may find it difficult to adjust. The faders are also a touch shorter than they could be.
The really exciting part of this package for me and I suspect for lots of beginners will be not the hardware itself but the software: both controllers come with "Ableton Live Lite", a cut-down version of this very popular DAW, the one that many DJs and producers swear by. It appears to be similar to Live 9 Intro.
Although it's the “lite” version, it has everything a beginner needs: you can save and mix down your work, there are no time limitations, and with the built-in drum machine (Impulse), the selection of synth sounds within the sampler (Simpler), the audio and Midi effects, and the ability to record high-quality audio (via an interface), you have everything you need to make your first EP.
In my opinion, the most troublesome limitation is probably the fact that you can only have a maximum of eight tracks per project - although if you think about it, that means you could have a beat, a bassline, a lead synth, a pad, vocals, guitar and still have two tracks left over (for white noise sounds and/or air horn samples, for example!).
There's plenty to play with and, of course, learn, and the included lessons are absolutely vital, even for those have already played with Ableton (ignore them at your peril, they will become invaluable later on). If you're interested, you can check out the full feature set here.
Everything worked fine; I had absolutely no problems with my very old MacBook Pro. I just plugged in and started playing. These days, compatibility issues are getting rarer and rarer, but it is worth checking if your system is going to be able to cope with Ableton Live’s fairly hefty demands; even if your laptop can happily process two channels and effects when you’re DJing, Ableton’s eight tracks may be more than your processor is used to. However, I am pleased to report that I found the most recent version of Ableton to be a great improvement over the somewhat troublesome version 8.
The drum pads (on the Keypad) are a good size, have a good level of sensitivity, and feel really great to play with. However, you can’t assign the drumpads to one channel and the keys to another at the same time, which could be problematic, especially in a live performance situation.
And I couldn’t understand the inclusion of a very basic arpeggiator, and limited chord and scale modes on the keyboard. Considering that Ableton already has an incredibly powerful, customisable, and easy-to-use arpeggiator within the software, as well as scale and chord plugins that are incredibly easy to control, I doubt that many people will really benefit from these features being included on the controller’s interface.
Overall, as long as you can cope with that tiny keyboard, one of these two products could be a valuable addition to your set up, and of course, in a cramped booth, you may actually be grateful for the compact size of these controllers. It’s true that it would be difficult to perform for more than an hour or so only using the "lite" version of the software, but as part of a larger set up, there’s a lot of potential in this tidy package.
And of course, the way that Ableton’s limitations affect you will depend on how you use the tools you’re given, the style of music you play, the rest of your set up and so on. What I find really appealing is the idea that, in a small bedroom studio, you could easily make your first tracks only using one of these controllers, and the included version of Ableton Live.
The Keyfadr has an RRP of £115, and the keypad comes in at £145, and it's probably worth spending a little more for those 16 drum pads. You'll have a more complete set up, and the pads are really useful for making dynamic and human sounding beats. They will also come in handy for triggering loops and samples as part of a live set up.