We put Nektar's ambitious foot controller through its, er, paces.
California-based Nektar Technology have made a splash in recent years, largely with their range of hybrid keyboard/controllers that offer a level of integration with certain popular DAW software and support of others through the MMC and Mackie Control Universal (MCU) protocols. The company's latest product, the Pacer MIDI Foot Controller, morphed from its initial conception as a hands-free DAW controller into a comprehensively-featured floorboard able to control DAWs, hardware and software preamps, amplifiers, effects units and the like, in both studio and live situations. With four relay-switching outlets, and the ability to connect up to two expression pedals and up to four footswitches in addition to its 10 on-board programmable footswitches, the Pacer offers significant control capability at a relatively modest price.
The Pacer's black, solid‑steel housing and 11 chunky composite footswitches give it not only physical weight, but also a real sense of strength. The footswitches are arranged over two rows, five on top and six below. A compact two-row, large-font display and a push-to-select encoder knob occupy the sixth pedal position on the top row. Each footswitch is equipped with a single 12-colour RGB LED bar plus illuminated fixed legends and/or icons denoting its core functionality as a DAW controller.
The rear panel carries a USB socket (primarily used for USB MIDI transmit and receive), a DIN MIDI out, separate quarter-inch TRS jacks for two expression pedals (such as Nektar's own NX-P) and a further four quarter-inch TRS jacks, two of which allow the connection of up to four footswitches, with the last pair carrying the Pacer's four relay-switched outlets that enable it to control external hardware switching functions. Power to the Pacer can be supplied either via USB or by an external, centre-negative, 9V DC power supply.
Although its Preset mode footswitch has only one function, the Pacer's other 10 footswitches — plus any attached footswitches and expression pedals — can be individually programmed to transmit MIDI messages or (for switches only) to control one of the four relays. The programmed configuration can then be saved inside 24 user presets. The Pacer comes fully-loaded with a set of presets, including a selection of controller setups for amp/effects modellers from Avid, Fractal Audio, Kemper and Line 6, alongside the EHX 45000 Looper, the Electron Octatrack and the Hughes & Kettner GrandMeister.
Within a preset, each control can be programmed with up to six steps, each of which can either send a MIDI message, activate a relay, recall a preset, move up or down one preset or, and this is where the Pacer starts to get very interesting, you can program a footswitch to change the active step in the step sequence of another control. For example, you could set up two steps in an expression pedal, say one for volume and one for pitch-bend, and then use a footswitch to switch between those two settings. Presets can also be recalled from within other presets, enabling you to run 'sub-preset routines' within presets. Just in case all this programming capacity isn't enough, a Pacer preset can be programmed to transmit instantly up to 16 MIDI messages or relay switches on recall, and you can even set the front-panel encoder to act either as an additional MIDI CC controller, or to select a program, preset or step.
As you can imagine, a Pacer and its presets could get mind-bogglingly complex, making remembering all the various permutations a difficult task. Unfortunately, the Pacer's rather limited screen display isn't always a tremendous amount of help, as it doesn't have the ability to display user-generated labels for pedal functions or states and relies mainly on CC and NRPN numbers and RPN labels to indicate footswitch status.
Although its attractive pricing can't cover individual switch displays, the Pacer does allow you to assign one of 12 colours — each at dim or bright levels — to the LED light strip on each individual programmable pedal. So, with a bit of forethought and the assignment across presets of common functions to specific footswitch position and colour, it is possible to make the process of programming, remembering and recalling your own presets more manageable than it might seem at first glance.
In use, the Pacer is effective, its USB MIDI facility providing the link to the host computer or to other USB MIDI host hardware, whilst the DIN MIDI out takes care of any non-USB MIDI situations. In operation, the first three footswitches in the top row of five allow you to select between preset, and the read-only Track and Transport modes. The remaining two act as down and up switches, selecting the previous or next preset in Preset mode, and track numbers in the Track and Transport modes. Holding down the Preset switch until its LED indicator flashes red allows you to use the Track, Transport and Down and Up switches to select one of the four preset banks. The lower row of footswitches can then be used to select between the six presets in each bank.
In Track mode, the lower six switches' upper legends indicate their respective abilities to solo, mute and record arm the selected track; toggle the click track on and off; and (inside Nektar DAW Integration) to move up or down one patch or one patch preset in a compatible DAW. In Transport mode, a middle row of icons illuminates to display their respective transport functions: loop, rewind, forward wind, stop, play and record.
Nektar's DAW integration extends their hardware's transport and track control capabilities with specific DAWs via a custom support file for each program. Pacer 'integrates' with Bitwig Studio, Cubase, GarageBand, Logic Pro, Nuendo, Reaper and Reason, although the extent of the integration does vary from programme to programme, with some being more integrated than others.
Pacer's default MCU setup can support most 'non-integrated' DAWs, with setup instructions being provided for Ableton Live and Studio One. However, certain DAWs appear to have more specific needs, so there is a custom MCU setup for FL Studio and there's a SysEx file available on the Pacer Support page that loads a Pacer preset template for MainStage. Although Pro Tools is not MCU compatible, Pacer has a setup (as an M-Audio keyboard) that can handle solo, mute, transport and track up/down functions for that programme. For other programmes there are also two MIDI learn modes — with and without MIDI feedback.
Prior to purchase, Nektar are far too coy for my liking about exactly how much control is available for each of the various DAWs that the Pacer is compatible with or can integrate with. I found it impossible to discover any detailed information until after I had registered the review Pacer and downloaded and read every available setup instruction.
Programming Pacer presets is a simple enough task that begins by using the encoder to enter Setup mode, selecting the switch or pedal to be programmed and assigning the action or required control message to it. Given Pacer's potential programming complexity, there isn't the space in this review to go into all the possible permutations. However, you will be able to deduce these from the online manual and the Pacer Support pages at www.nektartech.com.
I must confess to a certain level of scepticism when I first switched on the Pacer; after all, who would want foot control of a DAW when sitting in front of it? The answer, surprisingly, was me — simply because I play much more freely when standing up and the Pacer allowed me to control my DAW (Reaper) whilst recording from my preferred playing position. That alone would justify its purchase, but there's more — since you can program notes into the footswitches, a drone or six-step foot-driven riff from a single footswitch isn't out of the question. Load different key centres into other footswitches, use the ESS function, use the external footswitches to change octaves, or just simply assign one note per pedal, and the option of introducing extra musical motifs in the studio or live on stage becomes more than just a possibility.
Add to all that the Pacer's control of compatible preamps, amps, effects units and anything else that accepts MIDI CC and control messages and the possibilities start to multiply — which brings us back to the limitations of the display screen in helping a performer, engineer or producer remain fully cognisant of the preset universe in which he or she is working.
As I mentioned earlier, life can be made easier with a bit of forethought. However, any complex setup –— especially if you're not regularly working with it — is going to be more difficult to keep in mind and, in the absence of an editor/librarian (the number one item on my personal Pacer wish list), careful notes (paper or electronic) may well be the most reliable way of remembering what you're recalling.
Although I was very impressed by the range of non-DAW-specific functionality that Nektar have managed to cram into the Pacer, it remains, at heart, a floorboard DAW control surface and excels in that role. However, the extent of its integration or compatibility with your preferred DAW will determine the extent of its capabilities in that regard.
Whether or not the Pacer's wider MIDI control options will add value to its DAW control capabilities is going to depend on how you organise your workflow, both in the studio and on stage. However, the extent of its functionality makes the Pacer a competitively priced, value-for-money controller given the facilities and flexibility that it has to offer.
Although I'm not aware of any directly-comparable MIDI foot controller, units like Behringer's FCB1010, Keith McMillen Instruments' SoftStep 2, Rocktron's MIDI Mate, Roland's FC-300, Voodoo Labs' Ground Control Pro and Yamaha's MFC10 each cover aspects of the Pacer's performance. However, none of these offer the dedicated DAW control and integration that are, for me, the Pacer's main strength.
- An effective and intuitive MIDI-based DAW foot controller.
- Can store and replay complex sequences of MIDI commands and relay-controlled switching in studio and live environments.
- Very good value, given its control capabilities.
- Only a limited amount of information can be shown on the display screen.
- A good librarian/editor program could be transformative.
The Pacer is, at heart, an impressive DAW MIDI-based foot controller, although the extent to which all of its capabilities can be utilised does depend on the DAW program involved. Its other MIDI and relay-switching functionalities open up wider applications in controlling multiple effects, amplifiers, etc, in both studio and live environments.