Diehard fans of Reason must be feeling lucky these days. After riding steadily along for years without much more than the occasional hello from Propellerhead headquarters in Stockholm, things have exploded in the past year. This new trend kicked off last September with the release of both Reason 6 and their first hardware product, an audio interface called Balance. Then in April came Figure, Propellerhead's first foray into the iOS world, which put some of the same sound engines found in Reason into the hands of scores of new users. Perhaps the biggest jump forward occurred in June, when Reason 6.5 introduced support for external plugins—signaling a major paradigm shift from one of Reason's founding principles of closed architecture.
It's no wonder then that with Reason back to being fresh on producers' minds hardware vendors are getting into the game again as well. One of the most exciting developments of this kind comes from the California based Nektar Technology group. Interestingly enough, they formed as a company back in 2009—well before the Reason renaissance arrived. They immediately set to work brainstorming a unique MIDI controller with an uncompromising design. What they eventually ended up with was a 48 key keyboard called the Panorama P4, with every part being designed from scratch in order to achieve their visual goals. The brain behind that fashionable exterior is impressive too; smart enough to enable two-way communication with Reason that goes beyond what is possible using just MIDI.
"Visually striking" is an accurate descriptor of the P4 at first glance. The careful design decisions are immediately evident, with a high-quality keybed appearing to float on top of a glossy black and white front panel. There is an interesting aerodynamic edge profile to the top panel that is reminiscent of the spoiler of a sports car, and indeed the Panorama's manual has a (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek explanation that this "eliminates shock waveforms and reduces drag." While drag coefficients may not be high on the mind of most producers, these edges do come in handy when picking the P4 up and moving it around.
The center of the Panorama P4 houses a 3.5" color TFT display that provides a much better means of visual feedback than the behind-the-times LCD displays of many current MIDI controllers. In addition to displaying the parameters mapped to the P4's controls, when linked to Reason it also shows the sequencer track name, the mixer channel number, the device name and the current patch name. To the right of the display you'll find the usual set of transport buttons sitting below eight encoders that are used to control device parameters. The transport buttons also serve a dual function of being able to send QWERTY (keyboard) macros when holding the F-Keys button, which means they can be used for things like saving the session, quantizing notes, or loading the Create Instrument window in Reason—very handy for getting you away from the computer. Further off to the right you'll find a 3x4 velocity-sensitive drum pad matrix which comes pre-mapped to control the Kong or ReDrum instruments in Reason (a button swaps the top row to allow the pads to trigger the full 16 samples of each), and the pads can also be switched into velocity spread mode (similar to the 16 levels feature on MPCs) or constrained into certain scales.
Moving back to the left of the TFT display you'll find the controls used primarily to control the Reason mixer—a set of eight sliders, buttons and encoders to control parameters for banks of eight mixer channels at a time, with one additional slider dedicated to the master channel. Due to the way Reason works with control surfaces and devices, the Panorama P4 actually shows up as two different control surfaces within Reason: a normal one used for device and keyboard control, and one that is dedicated to controlling Reason's SSL mixer. This device needs to be locked to the Master Section within Reason in each new song you create, so doing that in a default template would be advised.
To the left, past the mixer controls, is where you'll find one of the true highlights of the Panorama P4: the 100mm motorized fader. This defaults to controlling the mixer volume of the currently selected track within Reason, so when you switch tracks (which can be done straight from the P4 using the Track+ and Track- buttons), the motorized fader springs to life and jumps to the correct volume level as it exists in the session. This makes it easy to make small adjustments to mixer volumes without having to deal with parameter jumps or playing the "find the takeover point" game. What's really interesting is that the Panorama P4 is USB powered, and the motorized fader is powered by its own micro-USB cable—so you don't have to use it if you're short a USB slot.
With any controller that promises this level of functionality there is a learning curve involved, and the Panorama P4 is no exception. There are four "modes" available (Mixer, Instrument, Transport and Internal) each with their own quirks and (somewhat undocumented) features. For example, Instrument mode shows the parameters mapped to the encoder section, but the controls in the mixer section can also have parameter mappings as well—depending on what device is currently in focus. There is no way to see what those assignments are or what the value is, so you just have to try it out and watch the screen to see what's being controlled. For these reasons a thorough read-through (or two) of the manual is definitely recommended, but even that is made a bit challenging by the Nektar website which has its own learning curve. The support documentation is only accessible to registered users, and consists of a quick start guide and a fragmented labyrinth of FAQ question and answers. It's not ideal, but we'll give them a pass since their business is still relatively young.
After quite a bit of reading and hands-on playing with the Panorama P4, its workflow became much more comfortable and I found myself navigating Reason with a speed and sense of ease that would be unattainable with any other controller on the market. The integration is quite sophisticated and it is obvious that Nektar has invested a good amount of time and money into making it work well. They continue to do so as well; in the short amount of time that we had the P4 they updated the OS to support the various third-party Rack Extensions that have become available in the Propellerhead shop. This is an encouraging sign that to us means that the Panorama's wrinkles will get ironed out over time. Support for other DAWs is still pretty limited, but if you're in the market for a MIDI controller to use with Reason primarily, then the Panorama is certainly a recommended buy. If you're looking for a full size keyboard, however, you may want to hold out a bit longer as Nektar have recently announced an 88-key version called the Panorama P6.
Ease of use: 3.5/5