The Controller Keyboard market is extremely crowded these days so when I came to choose a dedicated keyboard for my soft synths, it took a while to narrow down my shortlist to a few and then to one, the Nektar LX88.
So what does it offer and how does it play (and control).
Weighing in at 18kbs this controller keyboard offers 88 full size keys in a robust and non flexing case. The action and key weight is fast enough to play synth lead but has enough weighting to make piano work practical.
There are the expected pitch bend and modulation wheels which have a nice feel and are not too light. Split and layer buttons are included to activate and deactivate zones.
Out the back there is a choice of USB and 5-pin DIN connection to a host computer or MIDI interface and if you have the camera connection kit, then you can go straight into an iPad which might be quite a neat way to play on the move.
You don’t need any special drivers to get the keyboard up and running but Nekar do supply a whole family of software for DAW integration which I’ll come to in a moment.
There’s no PSU supplied as standard but my LX88 powered quite happily via my PC’s USB socket.
I also purchased the optional NP-2 Foot Pedal and this plugs in to the back of the keyboard via a standard ¼” jack plug.
A dazzling array of buttons, pots, faders and pads allow you to control a wide array of soft synths but it was the DAW integration which first attracted me to take a look at the LX88 and in practice this works very well. Software support is provided for all the major DAW systems and in my case, integration with Sonar was very quick to set up and worked first time. Nektar seemed to have given up supplying the DAW integration software on disk (presumably it goes out of date before it even reaches the user) so instead you set up a user account on their website and the software is available to download.
It looks like the set-up procedure is pretty much the same with all DAWs. In the case of Sonar there are three quick steps to setting up a MIDI controller and the LX88 becomes available from the drop down menu. It’s just a question of selecting the correct MIDI ports on the Sonar set up menu and a few moments later, you have achieved integration.
So what am I able to control within my Sonar DAW as standard?
The DAW integration software provides a full set of transport related functionality, including basic transport control plus additional setting and control of looping, position markers, metronome and track arming. So you can go in and out of record and get around the project from the controller pretty easily.
Here is the full transport control implementation for Sonar.
Pressing the ‘mixer’ button in the master control section allows up to nine channels of your DAW to be controlled simultaneously.
The first 8 faders, rotary knobs and pushbuttons will control level, pan and mute (or solo) for DAW channels 1 to 8. Pressing [shift-bank>] will move control to channels 9 to 16 and so on in blocks of eight channels, and [<shift-bank] will move back down the channels in blocks of eight. In Sonar you get a useful colored bar below the screen faders to remind you which block of eight is currently under hardware control.
Fader nine is normally dedicated to controlling whichever channel you currently have selected in your DAW. This allows you to set up a quick mix by using the buttons [Shift]+[<Track] and [Shift]+[Track>] to go up and down the tracks whilst level setting using fader nine. This is a nice facility to use in practice. Alternative you can control the DAW master volume using fader nine whilst holding down fader button 9.
All knobs and faders allow pass through null operation. This is a sensible approach where the hardware controller has no affect until it passes through the current parameter setting, so this prevents sudden changes in level.
Pressing the [inst] button takes the controller section of the keyboard into the correct mode for controlling one or more soft synths providing (in the case of Sonar) these are allocated to tracks within the DAW. The [Shift]+[Patch>] and [Shift]+[<Patch] buttons allow you to navigate through the synths which have been allocated to a DAW session.
Nektar have provided a simple to use parameter ‘grab’ function which allows you to move a soft parameter in the DAW and then allocate it to a hardware control. You go through this procedure until all the desired soft parameters have been mapped. Control settings can be stored in any of five presets for recall at any time.
In addition, many of the Cakewalk plug-ins are GM compatible so you can use a GM preset to control many of the plug-in parameters without having to first learn them. The printed user guide includes full mapping info for five GM based presets.
The eight velocity sensitive drum pads are fully programmable so that each can be mapped to any sound available on the keyboard; so this is keyboard key to pad assignment. Four drum pad setups can be stored for recall.
With a street price of around £190, €250, US$300, the Nektar LX88 is a very good value purchase. The keyboard has a nicely weighted action which is consistent along all 88 keys and I had no problems with sticky keys. The faders, although 30mm short-through) are quite usable for setting up quick monitor mix and the other pots, switches and pads are of good quality and to date have all been 100% reliable.