Nektar's Panorama T4 takes their already impressive DAW integration to a higher level.
Nektar have built up a strong name for themselves through their Panorama and Impact series of USB MIDI controller keyboards, both of which feature Nektar's DAW integration software that allows control of DAW parameters directly from the keyboards' faders, encoders and pads. Enhancing the DAW integration of the latest members of the Panorama line — the 49-note T4 reviewed here and its larger 61-note T6 sibling — is Nektarine, a VST, VST3 and AU plug-in that can host VST, VST3 and AU instrument plug-ins. This setup allows you to control these plug-ins directly from the new controllers, either through the pre-configured mapping that Nektar have created for many popular instruments, or through your own custom maps.
Somewhat petite, rather than small, the T4 is USB class-compliant with Windows XP and higher, Mac OS 10.5 and greater and Linux (Ubuntu). For someone like me who still runs XP because of some crucial legacy hardware whose support got 'sidelined' in Vista, this is an important consideration. Unsurprisingly, the Nektar DAW integration software requires Windows 7 or higher, and Mac OS 10.7 or greater, and this again helps to support users of legacy operating systems.
With its control topology laid out on its black fascia in the familiar Nektar fashion above the keyboard — faders and switches to the left of centre; LCD screen and mode and performance control switches in the centre; encoders and transport controls centre right; and pads to the far right — the T4 packs a significant level of functionality into a relatively small space.
The T4 is equipped with a 49-note version of Nektar's second–generation synth-action keyboard, which features aftertouch, five velocity curves and one fixed velocity (127) that can be programmed to be varied in real time by a fader or encoder. The octave shift buttons above the pitch-bend and modulation wheels can shift the T4's keyboard up four octaves and down three. The eight velocity– and pressure-sensitive pads have tri-colour LED illumination (green/red/orange) and can be programmed to transmit either MIDI Note On, Switch or CC messages with four curved velocity options and one fixed. These settings can be saved in 16 (two banks of eight) preset Pad Maps that are recalled by a combination of the Pad Bank switch, the Shift display button and the appropriately numbered pad.
Both keys and pads can be set to repeat using the independent Key and Pad Repeat buttons that sit to the left of the keyboard above the pitch-bend and modulation wheels. This intriguing feature can give some great results as its tempo can be set either from the T4 or driven by an external MIDI Clock and, using the encoders, the note length, repeat rate (quarter to 1/96th notes), swing, accent velocity and the interval between accents can all be continuously varied. Diving deeper into its setup, you can pick a velocity source (aftertouch/pad pressure, expression pedal or mod wheel), make the repeat buttons either momentary or latching (you can also change this on the fly), and set the sync point — either the clock, the point at which you actually pressed the key, or beat sync at eighth, 1/12th or 1/16th repeat rates.
Internal mode — the default at switch-on — can be used alongside both Nektar DAW integration and Nektarine. In this mode MIDI messages can be assigned to the T4's faders, encoders and pads, and Presets and Pad Maps to store these assignments can be configured, saved and loaded. In addition, there are 19 Performance controls whose settings are stored over power cycles, but not as part of Presets or Pad Maps.
The Performance controls consist of the pitch bend and modulation wheels; aftertouch; optional footswitch; optional expression pedal; the Track/Bank down/up, Browse/Zoom- and View/Zoom+ navigation buttons (a total of eight possible assignments); and the six transport buttons.
The T4's nine 30mm faders, the eight red-LED illuminated push–button switches that sit beneath them, and its eight continuous rotary controllers are each individually MIDI-assignable. The combination of their individual settings can be stored in 10 Presets, which can be recalled almost instantly using a combination of a mode switch (see below) and the E1 encoder or, more leisurely, from the Setup menu.
To the right of the 128x64 LCD screen sit the four mode buttons: Mixer, Instrument, Multi and Internal. In the default Internal power-on mode these four switches load Presets 1-4; however, if you're using the T4 to control Nektar DAW integration or Nektarine, the mode buttons operate as defined by these two sets of software. If you're not using either of these programs, you can assign any one of the 10 control Presets to any one of the four buttons simply by pressing and holding it down and using the E1 encoder to select the Preset to be assigned.
I don't propose to go through the T4's Global Settings menu in detail, as it's mainly housekeeping — MIDI channels, Program Change settings, keyboard and pad velocity curves, etc — however, there are some items in there that are worthy of mention. The first is DAW Control, which allows you to set the T4 to either MCU or Pro Tools DAW control mode if you're not using Nektar DAW Integration. The second is the MapLink function which, when on, will load Pad Maps 1-8 along with Presets 1-8, and loading Presets 9 and 10 will load Pad Maps 1 and 2 respectively, making life easier if you've matched your Presets to their Pad Map numerical counterparts. The last to be singled out is the MIDI Output setting that can be switched between Internal, in which case the T4 sends data directly to the DIN MIDI out, and USB, in which case the MIDI out acts as a USB MIDI interface.
Although I suspect that the majority of its potential users will purchase the T4 for its Nektar DAW Integration and the new Nektarine software, none of the T4's hardware-based functionality that I've covered thus far actually requires a computer for its delivery. Therefore, you could connect a suitable power supply to the T4's rear USB connector to power the unit and connect to an external sound module using the MIDI out, thus making it into a useful stand-alone master keyboard. This is especially true if you happen to own a MIDI host such the MuMidi HubMidi or Kenton's MIDI USB Converter Host MkII, both of which can expand the T4's overall functionality by providing both power and separate MIDI in and out sockets plus, in the case of the MuMidi unit, an additional USB port allowing you to connect another USB controller or synth.
As you'll probably have gathered by now, the Panorama T4 has the internal capability to be a powerful, extremely flexible and effective addition to your workflow when it comes to controlling a DAW, plug-ins and other MIDI-based hardware and software. To help harness this power, Nektar have taken two software approaches: Nektar DAW integration and the Nektarine VST/VST3/AU plug-in host.
The convenience of being able to switch instantly between Nektar DAW integration and the Nektarine instrument control plug-in from within your main composing keyboard is huge.
Nektar's DAW integration is essentially a DAW-specific support package that links the relevant parts of the T4's functionality to that of the specified DAW. Since not all DAWs have precisely the same interfaces to MIDI control, the precise details of what a T4 can control will vary from DAW to DAW. Currently, the T4's DAW integration supports Bitwig, Cubase, Garageband, Logic, Nuendo, Reaper and Reason. If your DAW is not supported by Nektar DAW Integration, as mentioned earlier, the T4 can be set to MCU operation or a dedicated Pro Tools mode.
Although there appears to be no way to find out the exact extent of the T4's functional links to a named DAW without purchasing a T4, registering it and downloading the appropriate support package, there seems to be a common level of basic control across the supported DAWs.
You can step through tracks; open and close the DAW window for the currently selected T4 mode; directly control cycle/loop, rewind, forward, stop, play and record functions in your DAW using the transport buttons; and, in addition, these six buttons also have a secondary, shifted functionality: set (and locate to) a left locate point, set a right locate point, plus undo, click, and mode switching.
The two modes of DAW integration are selected using the T4's Mixer and Instrument mode buttons, and these switch control between the mixer and the instrument plug-ins in your DAW. The Multi mode button is used for Nektarine and is only active if that is loaded. In Mixer mode, the first eight faders are mapped to the first eight mixer channels in your DAW, the ninth fader controls the volume for either the currently selected track or the master output, and the eight encoders act as the pan controls for the current channels under fader control. You can step through your mixer channels in banks of eight using the Shift+Track+/Track- buttons. In Instrument mode, faders 1-8 typically control amplifier and filter envelope (ADSR) parameters, whilst the eight encoders control parameters across one of two pages.