Propellerhead's Reason gets its first dedicated MIDI keyboard and control surface. What can it offer that your mouse can't?
The Panorama P4 is the first product from California-based Nektar Technology, and is a four-octave, velocity- and pressure-sensitive MIDI keyboard with extensive controller functionality. It's USB powered, and there are faders, knobs, drum pads and pedal inputs aplenty, as well as a high-resolution, 3.5-inch, colour TFT display in pride of place in the middle of the top panel.
If you're thinking it sounds fairly standard for a decent high-end, MIDI controller, I'll throw in a couple of things that should change your mind...
First of all, in appearance and construction the Panorama P4 is downright striking — borderline sexy. The black-on-white colour scheme, red-illuminated wheels and raised keyboard are unusual and very appealing. The case is plastic, but of an apparently heavy and durable grade that looks set to withstand serious use. The colour display shouts 'expensive'. It's one of the few controller keyboards that looks as desirable and inviting as a good knobby synth. During the test period, it attracted positive attention from everyone who saw it, including my other half, who is not usually impressed by yet another keyboard. That's saying something.
Second, and more important, although the Panorama P4 can be used, and programmed, as a typical generic controller, its whole raison d'être is as a dedicated controller for Propellerhead's Reason DAW. And by dedicated I mean properly integrated: no programming or selection of presets for different Reason instruments is ever required. The roles of all the knobs, faders and buttons constantly change according to what you happen to be working on in Reason, and any parameter values in the P4's display update in real time if you adjust them with the mouse on your computer screen. It's proper, bi-directional communication, in the manner of hardware DAW controllers like the Euphonix EuCon series or Mackie Control.
The dimensions of the P4 are 84.5 x 32.5 x 10 centimetres, the height taking into account the rubber feet and protrusion of the rotary encoders above the chassis. It's very portable, at 6.5kg.
Supplementing the four-octave, C-C keyboard are various performance controllers: pairs of illuminated pitch-bend and modulation wheels, octave up/down buttons and programmable 'PB1/2' buttons. The heart of the control functionality is 16 endless rotary encoders, nine 45mm faders and associated illuminated buttons, and a 100mm ALPS motorised fader with accompanying Mute, Solo and Mode buttons, plus automation Read and Write indicators.
Off to the right of the main panel, we find 12 velocity- and pressure-sensitive drum pads, and a dedicated configuration button for them. Transport controls include essential record, play, stop, rewind/forward and loop functions, as well as buttons to locate to Reason's L/R markers, toggle its metronome click, engage Q Rec Mode, and Undo. Holding down the F-Keys button and hitting any of the other transport buttons generates F-Key 1-11 keystrokes as if you'd typed them on your computer keyboard.
The TFT display has a pleasingly high resolution and all graphics appear in various shades of red, grey or white. Underneath, a group of six buttons is responsible for shuttling through tracks, exploring presets and toggling Reason's View options. A shift key gives access to Bank selection, stepping the P4's physical faders through groups of eight Reason mixer channels, as well a zooming in and out in the sequencer. Surrounding the display are five 'soft' buttons — their function changes according to how they're labelled in the display — and four mode buttons, of which more later.
On the rear panel are an on/off rocker switch; sustain and expression pedal inputs on quarter-inch jack sockets, as you'd expect; a five-pin MIDI Out socket; and two USB sockets. One, a standard Type B socket, is for the main USB connection to your computer. The other is labelled 'USB Aux Power' and accepts a Micro-B plug. Connecting this one isn't compulsory, but the motorised fader won't work without it. Finally, at the far-right rear, there's a Kensington socket, which should help the P4 stay put in educational and shared community and commercial environments.
Getting started with the Panorama P4 is pretty straightforward, and the process is described in the short Quick Start guide. This is the only printed instruction manual supplied. After first downloading and installing software from the www.nektartech.com web site, you have to run Reason and start its 'Auto-detect Surfaces' process. Then it's recommended that you use the Surface Locking feature to tie the Panorama's faders to Reason's Master Section, which ensures that you retain mixer control from the motorised fader at all times, even when editing synth parameters, for example. It's a job you only need to do once, as long as you create a default New Song that has this surface locking in place.
Once you're set up, control of Reason takes place in one of three modes. Press the Mixer button (for Mixer mode) and the P4's main faders hook into banks of eight Reason mixer channels, with the one at far right always mapped to the master fader. Because they're not motorised, their physical positions frequently don't tally with Reason's mixer faders, but the P4 gets round this by having very clear fader 'pick-up' behaviour, which is underpinned by both physical fader positions and current software values being shown in the display. This makes it pretty easy to manually synchronise fader positions, and also avoids sudden jumps in level that could ruin an existing mix.
The encoder knobs above the faders control channel Pan, Width, and Send 1-8 levels (you choose which with the Toggle/View button). The buttons underneath also have switchable roles, acting as track Selectors, Mutes or Solos with repeated presses of the Toggle/Mute button.
Meanwhile, the display's soft buttons call up dedicated pages for channel EQ, Dynamics, Inserts and Sends, which directly map their parameters to the eight rotary encoders, and to further soft buttons. A deeper menu structure, working in tandem with the data-encoder knob, gives access to other mixer-related pages including channel input sections, the Master Compressor, Master Inserts, Sends, Returns and Master Output. Essentially, all mixer parameters are accessible from the P4.
In Instrument mode, which is meant for controlling Reason's synths and samplers, things work in a very similar way. Now the selected instrument's patch name takes pride of place in the display, along with values of what the P4 thinks are its most important eight parameters, mapped to the eight rotary encoders. Less obvious, though, is that now faders 1-8 are also mapped to Filter ADSR and Amp ADSR, assuming that the current instrument has these controls.
Other synth parameters are accessed from a Menu soft button, just as with the Mixer. For some synths, such as Thor, their parameters are contained in many extra pages, and pages accessed from those pages. The menu structures can go fairly deep, but generally everything is clearly presented.
There is a limit, however, to what can be configured through the Panorama interface. For example, you can adjust modulation amounts in the Thor synth's mod matrix, but you can't choose alternative sources, destinations and scalers. Similarly, control of NNXT is limited purely to the Global parameters, and there's no mechanism at all for getting into sample groups and tweaking their much more extensive synth architectures. In Reason's Kong Drum Designer, you can't load or sculpt individual drum sounds, and you can't program any ReDrum step-time patterns (although you can launch patterns, using the P4's pads). Think of the P4's controls as being oriented towards real-time tweaking and performance only, and you'll be near the mark.
The final Reason control mode, Transport, is the simplest of the three, extending just to a couple of display pages but presenting a lot of useful information and some useful features, such as a Return to Zero soft button and tap tempo.
In all of the modes, hitting the View button toggles Reason between a split view (showing Mixer, Rack and Sequencer simultaneously) and a single pane view. So in Mixer mode you'd get Reason's mixer, in Instrument mode the rack, and in Transport mode the sequencer. All sensible and intuitive.
I say 'all of the modes', but of course there's still one more we haven't looked at: Internal. This disables a lot of the Reason integration (although the transport buttons still work, at least initially) and turns the P4 into a typical, generic, programmable controller keyboard. The keyboard can be split into zones, and there are 20 preset slots for saving and loading control configurations. Separate presets are maintained for pad assignments, keyboard zones and the F-key mapping.
The P4's keyboard unashamedly has a synth action; obviously sprung rather than weighted, but with a useful level of resistance. The white keys make a noisy clatter when released fast, but that's pretty much standard for this type of action. The entire velocity range is easily achievable and delivered smoothly. Pressure sensitivity — aftertouch — is more of a mixed bag, though. Like the Novation Impulse controller keyboard I reviewed last year, the P4 suffers from having a different aftertouch action for its white and black keys. The white keys generate aftertouch within a range of springy movement that extends about 3-4mm beyond the nominal key bed. It's predictable and controllable. The black keys, by contrast, offer very little such movement, and the keybed feels unyielding and stiff. You have to push much harder to produce the maximum aftertouch values, and it's much less controllable. Having said all that, in practice I enjoyed playing the P4, and wasn't often aware of this particular design quirk being a drawback as such.
The nine non-motorised faders feel great. There's a little bit of sideways wobble, but a smooth action that makes it very easy to dial in small, accurate value changes when necessary. The pots gave me no cause for concern either — no wobbles here, and an (adjustable) adaptive response that generates greater value changes when you turn them fast, and finer ones if you're more gentle.
I like everything about the way the P4's drum pads feel and work. The velocity response is very nicely graded, and reprogramming pitch is really easy, via the Pads button and a note-learn soft button. You just hit the pad whose pitch you want to reprogram, and play the pitch you want it to transmit on the keyboard. They can be reprogrammed en masse too, using transpose, 'root learn' and scale features. If I had to be disappointed about something it's that there are only 12 pads — not enough to give simultaneous access to all 16 of Kong's virtual pads in Reason.
Those 'PB' performance buttons I mentioned can be individually programmed to control Transposition, Program changes and Global MIDI Channel (the latter two having no relevance for use with Reason). However, they can also switch on a really weird feature: alternative 'value maps' for faders, knobs and the mod wheel. The idea is that while you hold a PB button, those real-time controllers no longer generate a linear, minimum-to-maximum stream of values. Instead, you get inversions, mirrors, and even more bizarre surges and repetitions of values across the control's range. Freaky! And possibly quite inspiring for 'playing' synth parameters. But I can't confirm whether these so-called MIDI FX were of any value, as they didn't work or somehow weren't enabled in the version of the P4 software I had on test.
Finally, we come to that motorised fader. By default, it follows the level of the currently selected Reason track, although you can manually tie it to other tracks too. Its Read and Write indicators promise automation-related functionality and, indeed, that's the case. Sadly, though, using it to write automation isn't as intuitive as you might hope. You can't just press the record button and start adjusting the fader: you almost always have to create a sequencer track for a Mix or Audio Track device first, using conventional mouse techniques. This behaviour is Propellerhead's fault rather than Nektar's, but it's still a drag. Anyway, all this was a moot point during the test period, because the motorised fader never worked correctly for me. Despite flying around like a thing possessed during the power-up calibration sequence, in normal use it limped around sluggishly, or sat there doing nothing, and hardly ever accurately represented track levels. Almost certainly this was a firmware issue, as a more recent firmware update (which, sadly, was posted a couple of days after I said goodbye to the test unit) specifically mentioned these problems and promised a fix. I've no doubt that, when it's fully working, the P4's motorised fader will be a great asset for mixing.
I hope it's already clear that the Panorama P4 is an effective, well-thought-out and successful controller keyboard. As a first product from a new company, it's especially impressive.
There are niggles, of course. I really wish Nektar had given the P4 16 drum pads. I also think that some aspects of its control system, including certain approaches to naming and data display, could be improved a lot. For example, the roles of soft buttons for navigating in and out of multiple pages of parameters is not totally consistent. Sometimes there's a kind of 'exit' or 'back' button, and sometimes not. Also confusing is when you point the P4 at a different track in instrument mode but the last parameter and value you adjusted, of the previous track, remains on screen. A few abbreviations used are a bit obscure, and when controlling Reason's RV7000 reverb, that device's own virtual soft-knobs receive a particularly hard to understand, generic labelling on the P4. More generally again, instrument patch names should be displayed in a smaller font size in the display so they're not so frequently truncated. Finally, some users might find the preset nature of Reason parameter assignments restrictive. Currently, it's impossible for the user to choose exactly which eight instrument device parameters are mapped to the rotary encoders in each 'screen' by default. Maybe there's room for an 'expert editor' somewhere down the line.
Looking at the P4 from an even broader perspective, it's interesting to note how much of Reason it doesn't control. Yes, it gets you knobby and fader-y control over most mixer and some instrument parameters. But in tactile terms it's still a world away from using a real hardware mixer or analogue synth, and you'll always need an eye on your computer's screen as well as the P4's. Nor will your mouse be dormant for very long, because much in-depth instrument editing, and pretty much any work to manage tracks or manipulate data in the sequencer, is beyond the P4's scope. However, most of us already have an intuitive understanding of what a controller keyboard or control surface can offer, as distinct from mice or trackpads, and the P4 certainly allows a really good workflow that integrates the two control mechanisms nicely.
Without a doubt, the Panorama P4 is by far the best controller keyboard you can currently buy for Reason. It's a hugely effective product, it looks the business, it's easy to learn and to live with, and it provides a level of concurrent real-time control a mouse can only dream of.
Thanks to their Automap system, Novation claims a high level of Reason integration for their SL MkII and Impulse keyboard controllers, as do M-Audio with their HyperControl-equipped Axiom Pro series. But none of these controllers can match the Panorama's multi-parameter display, nor its motorised fader, and on current indications, only Nektar have a clear commitment to supporting Reason rack extension devices within a short time of their becoming available.
Much has been made of the Panorama's dedication to controlling Propellerhead's Reason DAW, but in fact it can do much more. As I mentioned in the main text of this review, Internal mode makes the P4 into a generic MIDI controller like any other, so it doesn't stop being useful the moment you fire up another DAW or stand-alone software synth. In fact, a degree of 'dedication' — albeit much reduced — is already available for other DAWs. As I write this, Nektar offers 4 DAW templates, for Live, Logic, Cubase and Pro Tools, which aim to provide some level of hardware integration with those applications. Various kinds of hoop-jumping are required, including sending the P4 MIDI SysEx strings, and specific configuration within the DAW, so it's not really comparable to what's being offered for Reason. The options are there, should you want to explore them, though.
Here's a question dedicated Reason users will want answered: can the P4 control Reason effects, as well as its instruments? The short answer is yes, but only if you create a sequencer track for them. A tiny bit disappointing, maybe, because it means you'll find it faster to use your mouse to set up many bread and butter treatments, but at least there is a reliable way to get control of those 'playable' effects like The Echo, Alligator and Neptune.
As for rack extensions, these are covered too, but only after Nektar issue a software updates that includes them. At present, new rack extensions are being covered actively and Nektar are up to date with all the third-party REs that have been released so far. Let's hope that situation continues.