In a crowded world of budget MIDI controllers with limited features and questionable build quality, it’s nice to have a high-caliber controller that hits most of the marks for the demanding professional. Nektar’s P-series aims at this mark, and it both sped my workflow and felt great while doing it.
PROS: Professional build quality. Excellent feeling keyboard, pads, and physical controls. Motorized fader. LED display gives detailed, updated feedback. Extensive two-way integration with Cubase/Nuendo, Reason, and Logic. Function keys can trigger complex DAW macros. Custom mapping of editing parameters for hundreds of instruments and plugins. USB-powerable. Looks great.
CONS: Having only 12 physical pads is a compromise for playing 16-pad virtual drum instruments. Keys are somewhat mechanically noisy, especially on white key release.
Bottom Line: A sophisticated, feature-rich, and well-built MIDI controller designed for the discerning professional, yet still affordable.
P6 (61 keys): $650 list | $599 street
P4 (49 keys): $599 list | $499 street
The Panorama P6 (61-note) and P4 (49-note, reviewed Feb. ’13) have been out for around a year now. A lot of the basics of the Panorama have already been covered, so we’ll focus mainly on what’s new.
At its most basic, the P6 is a universal MIDI controller with nine sliders, 16 continuous rotary knobs, eight buttons, 12 drum pads with pressure, transport controls, modulation and pitch wheels, and a crisp color TFT screen. Additional buttons are dedicated to Undo, Click, selecting among several operation modes (Mixer, Instrument, Transport, Internal), octave shift, selecting tracks and patches, two assignable “Performance Buttons,” and general navigation of the interface and display. Up to four keyboard zones can be assigned, and 20 presets allow for multiple customized setups.
One of the standout features is a 100mm ALPS motorized fader in the upper left corner, along with dedicated Mute and Solo buttons for the selected track. The fader is touch-sensitive, allowing the user to update moves on the fly when DAW automation is active.
I really like the feel of the keyboard. The semi-weighted action strikes a good balance between having enough weight and resistance for piano parts and being fast enough for synth and organ riffs. My only complaints are minor: Organ smears require a lighter touch positioned more on top of the keybed (since the keys aren’t the waterfall kind but instead have a piano-like lip), and the keys are mechanically a bit noisy, especially upon the release of the white keys.
The P-series really shines when paired with one of several applications that have been thoroughly mapped. A lot of the original P-Series integration focused on Propellerhead Reason, as during last year’s review of the P4. In Reason, several improvements have been made since then. Hitting a drum pad assigned to Kong, ReDrum, or Dr. OctoRex now automatically pulls up that drum sound for editing. Transport control is improved, and a new “Transport Looper” feature allows various arrays of musical bars to be assigned to pads, making for interesting and spontaneous loop combination experiments. The Panorama can also randomize the parameters in the currently selected menu, a creative touch that could be useful for sound design. Also, the Panorama currently supports mapping for 94 Reason Rack Extensions.
Steinberg Cubase integration features Mixer control of EQ, sends, inserts, and Quick Controls. You can view the eight insert slots and which plug-ins are available for editing, including all page and menu parameters. The same goes for Cubase instruments. As of this writing, 347 VST plug-ins and instruments have been mapped, with more on the way—see Nektar’s website for the full list.
I put the P6 to the test on a duet track I’d been working on for Jill Scott and Dionne Warwick. Having just relocated studios, most of my gear was still in cases, so I had to work “inside the box.” The Panorama sports nine sliders instead of the usual eight, which will make virtual organ players happy. With the P6 in Internal mode (acting as a universal controller), I quickly mapped the sliders to the drawbars in Logic’s Vintage B3. While I was at it, I assigned six of the buttons and two rotary knobs for vibrato/chorus, distortion, and percussion settings, and was recording five minutes later.
I was able to test out a beta version of Nektar’s new Logic integration template, which should be released by the time you read this. Though incomplete and still showing a few bugs at the time, I was really impressed with how much my workflow immediately improved.
After performing the necessary firmware update and beta Logic template install, things really opened up. Using my large MIDI template for strings, it was a joy to record the numerous tracks on the P6. I’m a big fan of pitch-bend and mod wheels as opposed to a joystick, especially for modern sample libraries that rely heavily on MIDI CC 1 for dynamic control. The combination of the keyboard response, mod wheel, and expression pedal felt great while recording delicate string lines.
After getting all the string parts in, the individual tracks needed to be balanced within each section and as a whole, which is tedious if you use just a mouse. The P6 addressed the individual tracks in banks of eight. The sliders have a smooth, controlled throw with just enough firmness (there is some left-to-right wiggle, though). The Toggle/Mute button cycles the buttons below through mute, solo, and record-arm functions (all light up when engaged), while the top row of knobs defaults to panning. Having all that control available at once felt like having a small console at my fingertips and made balancing the individual parts a breeze.
Once I’d achieved the initial balances between my string tracks, I put the motorized fader to good use writing the automation of the string bus against the rhythm track (the sliders can be used for this task as well, they just don’t move automatically). Having a dedicated set of Mute and Solo buttons next to the motorized fader is a nice touch. The motorized fader is a bit noisy mechanically when following busy fader moves and I wouldn’t say it rivals an SSL console in feel, but it’s every bit as good as most of the standalone DAW control surfaces that are out there.
The Panorama hits almost all of the marks I look for in a MIDI controller: nine sliders instead of eight; a healthy supply of knobs and buttons, useful drum pads with pressure sensitivity, wheels instead of a joystick, dedicated transport and octave-shift controls, sustain and expression pedal inputs, and a logical layout. The keyboard feels great for most playing situations, and the build quality is excellent for both studio use and touring.
Nektar has shown a dedication to expanding the tight integration with the most popular DAWs, plug-ins, and virtual instruments, which makes the Panorama all the more powerful. And for those who like to customize their MIDI control setups, the P6 won’t disappoint. The built-in motorized fader, time-saving function key macros, and visual feedback about parameters go beyond most other MIDI controllers and place the Panorama among the elite. The price at which it delivers that performance makes it a Key Buy.