Arturia MiniLab 3 hands-on: A big upgrade for a budget MIDI controller

Look, there’s no shortage of affordable MIDI controllers out there. And when you stick to the big brands, it’s pretty hard to go wrong. Arturia itself even has several budget offerings, all of which are pretty solid on their own. One of its most popular, the MiniLab, is getting a fairly major update that includes changes to the controls, an arpeggiator, and the addition of a MIDI port – and a full-size one at that.

Visually, the MiniLab 3 does not differ significantly from its MKII predecessor. Its corners are a little more rounded, and it’s ditched eight of its 16 encoders for four sliders. But otherwise it keeps the same general setup. You still get 25 velocity-sensitive keys, eight velocity-sensitive RGB pads, and mod and pitch touch strips above the keyboard. And there are faux wood panels on the side that give it a little bit of unique flair.

Arturia MiniLab 3

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

The hardware itself is what you would expect for $109. It’s plasticky, but not a cheap feel. The buttons and sliders have decent resistance and the keybed is slightly springy. All of this basically goes without saying, and other similarly priced controllers have their own pros and cons. The MiniLab’s pads and buttons are better than the LaunchKey Mini MK3, but its arpeggiator isn’t as unique and its integration with Ableton Live isn’t as tight. While the Akai MPK Mini MK3 has the best pads of the line by far, its keyboard is nothing special and its integration with DAWs is extremely easy.

However, integration with DAWs has been improved on the MiniLab 3. Arturia has put additional effort into improving this over the past few years, and we’re starting to see some of the fruits of that work. The controls available have been greatly expanded for many apps with scripts customized for specific DAWs such as Ableton Live or FL Studio.

Arturia MiniLab 3

Terrence O’Brien / Engadget

The arpeggiator is pretty solid. I don’t think it’s quite as interesting as the one on the LaunchKey Mini MK3, but it’s hardly barebones. It features six different playback modes, swing and gate controls, as well as your standard octave and time division options. There’s also a chord mode that lets you play full chords with a single finger.

If you’re short on space and don’t want to lug your controller around, the MiniLab 3 is a great option. While Arturia calls it portable, it’s just big enough to be a little unwieldy in a bag. And I have some concerns as to how these faders would hold up being banged around with other things. If portability is your primary concern, either Novation’s LaunchKey Mini or Arturia’s MicroLab are probably better choices. But if you simply want the most controls in the smallest possible space, while still wanting solid software integration – particularly with Arturia’s Analog Lab – then the MiniLab is for you.

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Russell Falcon

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