Nektar Panorama P4 Controller for Propellerhead Reason

February 21, 2013
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Nektar Technologies’ Panorama P4 is designed from the ground up to let Reason operate a lot more like a workstation keyboard or even a mixing desk. It communicates bi-directionally with Reason, has several operating modes for different Reason tasks, and has a motorized fader, which may come in handy when you’re massaging your final mix.  (Click for larger image.)

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Physical Layout

The P4 packs a lot of functionality into a lightweight and attractive package. The luxury item is the motorized long-throw fader. Next to the fader are mute and solo buttons for the selected mixer channel.

The keyboard, which senses channel aftertouch, can be split or layered into four zones, with the usual choices for what types of data can be transmitted from each zone. Around the back are 1/4" jacks for a sustain pedal and an expression pedal, and a MIDI out jack should you want to drive hardware sound modules. The white keys have a snappy, springy feel, but I found the black keys a bit spongy.

Power is supplied strictly via USB. The motorized fader is powered separately, so two USB ports are provided—one normal and one mini—along with two matching USB cables. Most of my computer’s USB ports are in use, so I got the extra power from the charger that came with my iPhone. This worked perfectly.

The P4 comes with a 25-page CD-sized Quick Start guide, which wasn’t completely up to date at the time of this writing, as the P4 software was still being fine-tuned. At present there’s no downloadable PDF manual, just a bunch of FAQ pages in the support section Nektar’s website—and you have to register to access.


Within Reason

Above the LCD are four backlit mode buttons: Mixer, Instrument, Transport, and Internal. Internal mode is for when you’re using the P4 as a standard MIDI controller. The other three are for Reason. (See “MIDI Master Functions” on page XX for more on the generic controller features.)

In Instrument mode, the P4 is linked directly to the synth module whose track you’ve selected in the Reason sequencer. Turning the data encoder knob dials through the presets within the currently active browser folder for the selected module. For example, if Malström is in its Bass folder, the P4’s knob will dial through the bass sounds, but no others. Naturally, you’ll see the name of the preset in the Nektar panel. By setting up a Favorites folder for each module, you can select patches from the P4 at a gig without having to touch the computer. 

Beneath the LCD are five function buttons, M1 through M5. In many situations, M5 opens up a menu. In Instrument mode, you can scroll up and down in the menu with the data knob, hit M5 again, and the LCD will change to show a new set of instrument parameters, such as the filter settings.

At this point, the eight knobs to the right of the LCD are your instrument control panel, and the LCD shows both the functions of the knobs and the current values of their parameters. This system is very easy to work with, provided you have a decent idea of how the Reason modules work. With a module as complex as Thor, the M1 through M4 buttons will also be active, allowing you to do things like step from one oscillator to another.

In Instrument mode, the first eight sliders to the left of the LCD control a couple of ADSR envelopes (assuming the instrument has two ADSRs). The ninth slider is always the master level for the instrument. Again, this is a nice touch for live performance, because these are often-used controls.

The ten Transport buttons operate Reason’s transport no matter what mode the P4 is in—record, stop, rewind, loop on/off, and other commands are always available. Put the P4 into Transport mode proper, and you can move the loop start and end markers, change the tempo or the click volume level, add a new MIDI lane to the currently selected track (with or without muting an existing lane), and more. The dedicated Track+ and Track- buttons, available in every mode, step through the tracks in the sequence, and the LCD shows the name of the current track.


Mixer Mode and the Motorized Fader

imgMixer mode is more complex than Instrument mode or Transport mode. In Mixer mode you can assign the P4 to Reason’s main SSL-style mixer console, to a 14:2 or 6:2 mixer module, or to the ReGroove mixer. 

When controlling the SSL mixer, the eight sliders to the left of the LCD control the levels of eight mixer channels. The knobs above the sliders control pan or send levels, and the buttons below the sliders can mute or solo a channel or select it for editing. When you’ve selected a given channel, you can edit many of its parameters using the knobs to the right of the LCD. The mixer’s EQ knobs, sends, dynamics processing, and settings can all be edited directly from the P4’s knobs and buttons.

If your project has more than eight mixer channels, you can step left or right through eight channels at a time using a pair of bank left/right buttons. The (non-motorized) sliders operate in “do nothing until you cross the current value” mode, and I’m told other slider response modes might be added in a future update.

The motorized fader will jump to a different physical value when you assign it to a different channel. The trick is to know where to do the assignments. The motorized fader does not show the fader level of the channel you’ve selected using the P4’s mixer channel select buttons. By default, it reflects the mixer channel that corresponds to the currently selected track in Reason’s sequencer. If you click on an SSL mixer channel on the computer screen, it’s highlighted visually, but that has nothing to do with the motorized fader. 

Presumably, the active sequencer track will be assigned to some Reason rack module, whose output will be connected to a mixer channel. And indeed, when you move the motorized fader, the mixer channel that corresponds to the instrument that corresponds to the sequencer track moves in response. Using a Lock button, you can prevent the motorized fader from switching mixer channels when you switch sequencer tracks, which is very handy.

Before any of this can happen, you have to use the Surface Locking dialog box in Reason to lock the P4 Mixer mode to a Reason mixer. You’ll want to save this to your default song template to avoid having to make this setting each time you start a new project. It would be more convenient if this assignment happened automatically, but there are quite a few Reason “surfaces” that you might want to lock the P4’s mixer mode to, so this system may make sense.


MIDI Master Keyboard Functions

The Panorama P4 has some very nice features for use as a master keyboard with any DAW, not just Reason. My favorite may be the QWERTY key macro function. You can assign any of the panel buttons to transmit up to eight computer keyboard strokes in a series for one-button access to some fairly complex commands, depending on what your DAW assigns to keystrokes.

In addition to user-defined macros, the P4 stores sets of function key maps. The 11 function keys are reached by holding the F-key button while pressing one of the transport buttons. The unit ships with ten different F-key maps containing definitions for F-keys that will work well with popular DAWs, including Ableton Live, Pro Tools, Sonar, Logic, Cubase, and FL Studio.

The internal memory of the P4 is structured as three types of maps: keyboard maps, percussion pad maps, and F-key maps. When you save a preset, what you’re saving is, first, the assignments of the knobs and sliders; second, pointers to three of the maps. The maps themselves have to be saved separately (although this can be done quickly using a Save All command). While potentially you might forget to save your edits to one of the maps, this arrangement gives you great flexibility.

There are 20 pad maps in memory, but only five keyboard maps and ten F-key maps. A keyboard map contains four split/layer zones. It defines MIDI channel, transposition, an on/off switch, and program change and bank select for each zone, plus switches for whether to transmit pitch-bend, mod wheel, sustain, and other performance controls. Zones within the active map can be switched on or off at a gig. I would like to see more than five keyboard maps for live use, but if you’re gigging on virtual instruments hosted in something like Apple MainStage or a Muse Receptor, you’ll have a lot of control over zoning and MIDI CC response on the receiving end anyway. 


Drum Pads

Percussion pads have become a quasi-standard feature on well-equipped controller keyboards. The 12 pads on the P4 have some sweet features that can be set up through the operating system, such as the ability to play pentatonic scales.

I had trouble with light touches producing no MIDI note, and with double-triggering. I later realized this was due to my classical piano technique: I immediately release most of the finger pressure on a key after striking it, while still holding the key down. At that point, the P4 pad thinks my finger has lifted, so a slight follow-up pressure, due to natural arm weight, is sensed as a new strike. I found the same tendency for the pads to double-trigger on my original-model M-Audio Axiom 61. 

The way to play drum pads (on the P4, an Akai MPC, or anything else) is to strike firmly and then immediately jerk the arm away. Each pad can also translate after-pressure into various MIDI messages. For this, tap firmly, hold firmly, and add pressure.


Conclusions

If you’re hunting for a handsome keyboard controller with a ton of functionality at a reasonable price, the Panorama P4 is worth a very serious look. If you’re using Reason, its dedicated features will let you do quite a lot of recording work without ever touching the computer. Learning the workflow will take some time, and there will always be a few tasks for which you’ll need to go back to the computer screen and mouse.

The major negative is the need for a thorough and organized instruction manual, and I’m hoping that Nektar will address that soon. Nonetheless, it’s inspiring to see a new hardware maker enter the fray with a solid product, and the Panorama proves that Nektar is a force to be reckoned with.

 

PROS  Works beautifully with Reason. Lots of physical controls, including a motorized fader. Four split/layer key zones. QWERTY keyboard macros for DAW control. Handsome LCD screen.

CONS  Minor setup difficulties in initial release. No cursor diamond or dedicated data increment buttons. Online-only documentation is not well organized.

 

Bottom Line:  The most tightly integrated keyboard controller if you’re using reason—and still a very nice set of keys and controls if you’re not.

$599 list | $499 street | nektartech.com

 

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