Nektar keep doing what they do best: making solid, capable, no‑nonsense MIDI controllers.
These two MIDI controller keyboards from Nektar are representatives of two new product ranges for the American company. The 49‑, 61‑ or 88‑note models in the Impact GXP range all have full‑size semi‑weighted keys with velocity and channel/mono aftertouch response, transport‑oriented DAW control features, a ‘repeat engine’, a DIN MIDI out, pedal input sockets, and buttons dedicated for use with Nektar’s VST plug‑in host Nektarine. Other than one programmable knob there aren’t any extras like drums pads, knobs or faders, making for a sleek appearance and shallow dimensions.
The GX range is simpler still: this time with synth‑action velocity‑only keys and no connections to the outside world except a USB socket and a sustain pedal input. Pitch and mod wheels are replaced with a miniature sprung joystick, but DAW control features survive intact. Models are available with 49 or 61 full‑size keys, or with the 25 mini keys of the GX Mini on test here. This gets an intriguing ‘Part 2’ feature: something we’ll get on to in a moment.
In terms of where these controllers fit in with the rest of Nektar’s output, they’re at the more affordable end. Above them sit the LX+ controllers with faders, knobs and pads, then the Panorama Ts with their ambitious plug‑in control system, and at the top of the pile the Panorama Ps, which add a motorised fader into the mix. There’s one lower tier, the SE range, which are simple, straightforward entry‑level controllers with just rudimentary features.
The controller market is one in which it can be hard for products to stand out, and it’s all too common for complicated DAW‑control schemes to sound great in press releases but to be largely useless in practice. So have Nektar hit on a good balance of features here?
Let’s start with the big one, the GXP61. The construction is all plastic, at least outwardly, but there’s a nice (and surprising) 5kg heft to it. The keyboard action lacks some luxury: it’s pretty noisy on key‑release, key‑front corners are not smoothly finished, and visually the gaps between keys were slightly uneven fresh from unboxing. However, in use it’s absolutely fine, and there’s a useful extra sense of swing and momentum over and above the most basic synth actions. It’s visually stylish too, with black keys significantly higher at the front than the back. Velocity response is nicely controllable and repeatable, and aftertouch a distinct cut above the average: easy to trigger and modulate, and actually the best I’ve experienced on a controller at this price point. Depth of touch of the white keys is about 10mm, with 3mm more travel for aftertouch. Pitch and mod wheels are small (45mm of them is showing) and quite strongly sprung, but they’re more than fit for purpose.
As you’d expect, power is provided through the USB B socket, which also handles the data connection to your DAW. But there’s also a 9V 600mA DC inlet that could come into its own in hardware‑only or iOS‑based setups. Slightly disappointingly it’s for tip‑positive PSUs, so not compatible with old‑faithful guitar pedal adaptors. The presence of both footswitch and expression pedal sockets is great to see. The former auto‑senses the switch’s polarity at power‑up, and the latter worked beautifully with a Moog EP‑3 pedal I used to test. Unexpectedly, you’re able to connect two pedals (or some dual pedals) to the footswitch socket via a TRS plug to dual‑TS socket splitter.
The single DIN MIDI output is also unexpectedly versatile, transmitting local messages by default, but with an option to source its data from a USB host, essentially turning the GXP into a USB MIDI interface.
And, while it’s such a boringly functional thing to get excited about, I was delighted to see a power switch, which comes into its own shutting off any downtime power draw in a laptop‑based studio. Controllers without one sometimes have to be laboriously unplugged to prevent unwanted battery drain in some setups.
Taking a butcher’s at the front panel now, I’ll save us all the tedium of going through every button individually. But suffice to say many are colourfully backlit, and the pairs for octave up/down and semitone transposition are well placed above the wheels. Those semitone buttons can be remapped to MIDI channel, program change and patch down/up (in a supported DAW) functionality, by the way. There’s a button cluster dedicated principally to DAW control (for which, see the ‘DAWs & More’ box). And most of the rest have a role in two very specific onboard features, which I’ll cover right now.
First, there’s a ‘Repeat Engine’. I said, a ‘Repeat Engine’. (Sorry). This causes held notes to be repeatedly re‑struck, as it were. Like the similarly named Note Repeat feature on Akai’s MPCs, it can play a useful role in rhythmic programming, or creating pulsing melodies or chords. There’s an internal clock whose tempo you can adjust with a knob, or via numerical buttons, but it’ll also follow and sync to DAW tempo. You get to choose the rhythmic division, from quarter to 64th notes (with triplets available via a neat double button press), and five levels of swing. Velocity variation of held notes can be generated via aftertouch or the mod wheel, and accents dialled in momentarily or automatically in patterns (with a ‘hi‑hat pair’ the useful default). I was just sorry that the Repeat functionality doesn’t extend to even simple arpeggiator shapes.
Second, there’s a bunch of dedicated buttons for Nektar’s plug‑in host and patch librarian software, Nektarine. Available to download from GXP owners’ Nektar website accounts, this runs standalone or as a plug‑in in VST/VST3/AU and AAX DAWs, and itself hosts VST, VST3 and AU plug‑ins: up to 16 instruments in a single instance, with four insert effects per slot and four send effects available to all. Slots can be constricted to specific pitch and velocity ranges, and to individual MIDI channels. In this respect it’s conceptually similar to something like Apple’s MainStage, but with the advantage that it is cross‑platform, and with the added ability to operate inside your DAW.
Why bother with Nektarine? Well, you’re certainly not forced to, but there are reasons some users might find it useful. First, and simply, it gives you the possibility of using your GXP to play virtual instruments on your computer without the faff of opening them in a DAW. A decent one, Steinberg’s Retrologue 2, is in the software bundle. Then, more specifically, instrument plug‑ins can be instantiated from GXP buttons, and explored via imported patch lists, with user‑configurable tags and tag groups allowing you to sort sounds by various criteria. This, incidentally, explains the otherwise incongruous printed blue instrument names underneath the number keys. In this respect a GXP/Nektarine combo is a little like Native Instruments’ NKS/Komplete Kontrol system or Arturia’s Keylab/Analog Lab combo. I stress, a little... The differences (and some potential drawbacks) include the GXP not having any displays, no purpose‑built ‘ecosystem’ of wholly compatible plug‑ins, and differences in patch handling and accessibility between VST and AU formats on the Mac. I didn’t always find the software interface and associated GXP button presses to be altogether intuitive either. However, there’s no question that Nektarine can offer a really meaningful level of additional functionality to the GXP, if it fits your way of working.
Turning to the diminutive GX Mini now, this is obviously a different (and decidedly tiddlier) kettle of fish, for different use scenarios that probably involve a smaller desk... But it clearly shares a lot of DNA with the GXP range.
The 25 keys, with a mere 136mm octave span, are velocity sensitive only and at first glance appear alarmingly toy‑like. The action is certainly light and springy, but in use perfectly fine, with enough key dip — 7mm — for things to feel positive. Velocity response is as good as you could reasonably expect, but there are fixed minimum velocity values in place: 16 for white keys and 13 for black, for the standard velocity curve. Those values vary slightly for the other two available curves. This looks like a design choice, to improve the sense of expressivity with the small keys, more than a technical limitation, and in typical use it’s all but unnoticeable.
Despite the tiny size there’s the same complement of DAW control buttons as the GXP range. Otherwise, though, the GX Mini is pretty straightforward. On the left end there’s just a USB Micro‑B socket for power and computer connection, and a 3.5mm socket for a breakout dongle (provided) that lets you connect a footswitch. There’s also a Kensington lock receptacle on the back, and five rubber feet on the bottom of the plastic chassis.
About the joystick: it’s a sensible alternative to really small wheels, which might have taken up too much room. From the factory an upwards push generates CC1 (modulation wheel) and a backwards pull CC4 (foot controller). Left and right are pitch bend down and up. Two things to be aware of: first, that it’s sprung on both axes, so you can’t ‘park’ your virtual mod wheel in an above‑zero position; second, because of a physical limit in diagonal movement, you can’t achieve max modulation value at the same time as max pitch bend. One element has to give, slightly.
MIDI controller keyboards are a bit like shoes, or bicycles: no one type or model cuts it for every conceivable task.
Finally, the unusually named ‘Part 2’ feature. Using a dedicated pair of keys to the left of the keyboard, you can dial in modifications to the GX Mini’s MIDI output. Momentary transposition by one or more octaves (up or down) is one option, supplementing the dedicated octave keys’ latching behaviour. It can also transpose in semitones, or transmit note and other messages on another user‑selectable MIDI channel. Or a combination of all three. In practice all this proves more useful than I expected it to be, but more interesting still is that the temporarily modified output can add to the normal output rather than just replace it. Amongst other things that makes it viable, and easy, to play thick two‑hand pad textures or high multi‑octave string lines that might be impossible to achieve otherwise with the very limited keyboard compass. The implementation is intentionally robust too, so you can (for example) hold a bass note transmitting on MIDI channel 1, hit the Part 2 button, and knock out a quick brain‑melting solo several octaves above it, in fifths, on MIDI channel 3. Like you do.
MIDI controller keyboards are a bit like shoes, or bicycles: no one type or model cuts it for every conceivable task. These should be just the ticket for DAW‑centric home use and (in the case of the GXP) more modest hardware setups. As reliable, class‑compliant all‑rounders they’re pretty much rock solid. I loved the way that everything worked exactly as advertised, and is so well documented: neither is a given with some other manufacturers’ products. But then, should you want to explore it, there’s a swathe ‘value‑added’ functionality in the form of the nifty but not over‑complicated DAW control, GX Mini’s Part 2 scheme, the GXP’s Repeat Engine, expression pedal support, and hardware integration with Nektarine.
Competition in the controller market is almost mind‑bogglingly extensive and varied, and fierce with it, but these stand out as quietly capable keyboards that should prove nice to work with long‑term, and that offer some individuality to boot.
Despite the obvious difference in size and design, the GXP and GX (and all other models in their respective ranges) share almost identical DAW control features, and a useful modicum of general programmability.
For Nektar’s supported DAWs (namely Bitwig, Cakewalk, Cubase/Nuendo, Digital Performer, FL Studio, GarageBand, Live, Logic, Reaper, Reason and Studio One) you need to install a software package available from the Nektar website to get some system‑level DAW‑specific support files on your Windows 7/8/10 and Mac OS 10.7 (or later) computer. Pro Tools is also supported, via some easy manual configuration, and potentially all manner of other software is compatible (with a more restricted set of commands) via a MIDI Machine Control (MMC) mode.
I used Studio One 5.4 on Mac OS Big Sur for testing, and thanks to a handful of ‘user device’ files written to my Mac OS user preferences folder the GXP and GX Mini were automatically set up in and seen by the DAW, and seamlessly switched into their DAW control modes. Impressively smooth. It’s the same story with the freebie bundled DAWs (Cubase LE 10.5 for the GXP, and Bitwig 8‑Track for the GX mini).
Despite there only being eight DAW control buttons, 21 commands are potentially available, thanks to a shift key that can be either toggled or held. Functionality is not identical between DAWs, but all enjoy basic transport operations along with, in most cases, click/metronome and loop playback toggles, previous/next track and patch (for virtual instruments), undo, some locate functions, and shortcuts for various application views or panels. In Studio One I had options to enable pre‑count and input quantise, whereas in Logic (for example) you get to toggle the arpeggiator and overdub on and off. Ongoing success with systems like these are very much dependent on Nektar’s firmware and software releases keeping pace with DAW and OS developments, but the firm have good form in this area, and it’s perhaps reassuring that they don’t do much else except controllers.
The GXP61 adds one useful additional feature over its little brother: the top‑left knob controls the currently selected track’s level (and, in some DAWs, the master fader level too). Potential (actually, make that inevitable) mismatches between knob and on‑screen fader position are nicely handled in most of the officially supported DAWs, with a system using two LED indicators. When you switch to a new track they show you which direction you need to turn the knob before you’ll get a benign ‘soft takeover’ of the fader.
And that, folks, for DAW control, is it. There’s no attempt to try and control your pans, sends or plug‑ins, and no displays, meters, or other more sophisticated niceties. It’s a much simpler scheme than some other controllers (including Nektar’s more expensive models) but perhaps, in the typical enthusiast studio, all the more useful for that.
There’s a final trick up the GXP and GX Mini’s sleeves in the form of straightforward, generic MIDI control. It’s only workable when DAW integration isn’t active, and there are slight differences between the two units, but essentially you can generate various MIDI messages of your choice from the DAW control buttons, joystick/wheels/knob, and pedal inputs. Buttons can send program change messages (and, on the GXP, bank messages too) or momentary full/zero‑value CC toggles. From the continuous controls you can generate a full range of a CC values. In the absence of any displays or menu systems Nektar have employed the old‑school type of programming system that uses key‑presses to access different functions. On the GX Mini values are entered using black keys, and on the GXP with the dedicated number/value buttons. All fine — this is a tried and tested system — but for some parameters with specific ranges of options you’ll need to keep the manual handy. Thankfully these are printed, clear and informative, and available online (of course) too.
A simpler but likeable mini‑key controller is Arturia’s MicroLab 25: it lacks DAW control and a pedal socket, but has a software tie‑in with Arturia’s synths. If it’s a wider keyboard you’re after there are various options in Korg’s Microkey series. GXP competitors include M‑Audio’s Keystation Mk3s and the Alesis Q88 MkII, but neither offer the same extent of features, and nothing close to Nektar’s wide‑ranging, tight DAW integration.
- Simple yet purposeful, with well‑chosen and robust DAW control features.
- Some unexpectedly handy additional abilities.
- Good documentation and setup walkthroughs.
- Better pedal connectivity than some competitors.
- Programming scheme offers little in the way of feedback or overview.
- Nektarine (on the GXP) takes some work to master.
A pair of affordable and effective keyboard controllers, suited to slightly different roles (and desktop real estate), that prioritise robust DAW control over knobs, sliders and pads.
GXP88 £229, GXP61 £199, GXP49 £159, GX Mini £59. Prices include VAT.
GXP 88 $299.99, GXP 61 $229.99, GXP 49 $189.99, GX Mini $69.99.