Some new hardware? We’re all ears. When hitting up the Nektar booth at NAMM, our eyes lit up when we saw some colored pads in a box-like shape. So what’s Nektar have to offer with this interesting looking MIDI pad controller and sequencer, with others calling it a ‘beat composer’? If you’re coming out with something like this in 2020, you’re going to be getting some buzz. But at the same time, will have to come strong with either a combination of features that are already available in one or perhaps some new twists and turns that will perk up some musician’s ears. Here are some of our thoughts and a review of the new Nektar Aura beat composer.
Highlights of the Nektar Aura beat composer
- 16 sensitive pads (RGB illuminated)
- TFT color display (320 x 240px)
- Six (6) mode buttons
- Seven (7) transport buttons
- On-board step sequencer (up to 64 steps)
- Real-time performance control (solo, mute, etc.)
- Independent settings per part
- Clock operation internally and externally
- Built-in pad repeat engine
- Intuitive plugin control
- Sixteen (16) presets in internal mode
- Two (2) foot switch pedal connections
- Comes with Nektarine software
The Nektar Aura as a controller
So is this a drum machine? Sure, we believe so. We don’t have to necessarily categorize it per se, but when people are beginning to ask us what it exactly is, we’ll reply with “a MIDI pad controller with a sequencer built-in” — but isn’t that a drum machine? Anyways, we’re getting sixteen pressure and velocity-sensitive pad which are all RGB-illuminated, eight 360 degree pots at the top of the unit, a decent TFT display with four soft buttons below it, and a plethora of other assignable and illuminated buttons, such as solo\mute, access to patches, mixer, pad setup and plugins, as well as transport and mode.
When actually using the controller, it comes out pretty nifty and intuitive here. We also noticed at the show that you’re able to save presets and sounds via a VST to quickly access your pad assignments. This for us is a big critique when we’re met with a pad controller (although we haven’t reviewed one in quite a while). To do so with the Nektar Aura is pretty easy, and when we watched the demo he essentially chose one of the pads and navigated through the VST (which synced into the TFT display) using a pot at the top.
The Aura integrates with your VST and uses text to show you what sound you’re assigning to that particular pad. Go through all 16 and you’re good to go, however another huge highlight for us was being able to mix and match VST from another plugin (add in some synths, piano, etc). Yes, you can do that! It took a few more steps just selecting tags and sorting through the display but the demo showed us it wasn’t a big deal at all — we were quite happy with that considering our songs use more plugins than we can count, and when we anticipate performing we want to be able to have the least amount of work as possible. Heck, with the Aura you can even have all 16 pads have different plugins.
The access to parameters of each sound using the Aura hardware is actually nifty, and although yes we are able to customize the mapping ourselves, our Nektar rep said the goal was that we “didn’t have to”. Most will get in there itself, and again using the pots up top you’ll be able to adjust certain parameters of your sounds, such as volume or velocity, frequency passes, LFO, OSC, ENV, and more. This can all be accessed using the display’s menu that’s easily accessible and adjustable for each pad. Last but not least, we wanted to highlight one more factor that stood out to us about the Nektar Aura — you can assign up to four FX per pad! Create your own chains by pressing those ‘FX1’ or ‘FX2’ buttons to the left of the pad bank and browse your tags through the display and voila, effects galore.
The pad repeat engine is also a highlight here, and if you’re unfamiliar, brings us being able to adjust real-time parameters (let’s say after you record your steps). There’s a dedicated ‘repeat’ button to bring up your repeat menu, and in here you can turn it off and on and use the pad itself to control the velocity. You can also tweak other parameters such as the length of notes, accent levels, as well as interval and repeat rate. Initially included in their keyboards as well, you can also assign velocity with the display soft buttons pretty easily. Pair that up with the tap tempo feature and internal and external clock operation and the engine workflow is decent in our opinion.
The Nektar Aura’s sequencer
Now that we’ve covered a lot of the controller’s power, let’s get into the other most important part of this entire machine — the sequencer. This is a totally standalone sequencer but can also of course connect to your DAW via MIDI if you’re in the mood. It brings us 16 patterns at any one time, essentially giving us a pattern per pad. Using the buttons at the top as step indicators (solo/mute), you can for example press one pad to activate your hi-hat sequence and add accents from there. You can also change the amount of steps using the poly-metric editing, being able to edit parameters real-time.
Again, this entire step sequence is happening from just the hardware alone, no need to depend on software outside. However you do have the option to just drop the sequence right into your DAW as MIDI using the MIDI out in case you’d like to convert it into a track to later on digitally edit. We love this because sometimes we come up with some crazy and unique stuff on our sequencer and have a hard time replicating that in MIDI alone, or even real-time recording with instruments when we go straight into a DAW. The sequencer just gives us another tool to be able to convert those musical ideas on our mind on to our song.
Thoughts on the Nektar Aura MIDI controller and sequencer review
All in all, it was our job to be skeptical, especially when we see a risky move by a popular brand coming out with an entirely new piece of hardware. The MIDI controller and sequencer hybrid route is beginning to become more popular, as we saw in our recent Arturia KeyStep Pro review — although that isn’t necessarily a competitor because they also have keys in that one. However, we’re really digging the idea of incorporating sequencers into MIDI controllers and keyboards to keep up with not only the digital age and advancements, but at least giving hardware and standalone gear a chance in case people want to continue using their gear that way. The flexibility and options are a safer bet for a day where musician’s prefer both analog and digital paths in their creativity workflow.
Ultimately the Nektar Aura is pretty powerful, considering you can use it not only as a controller, sequencer but also as a completely standalone production system. The flexibility we have at our fingertips when it comes to actually combining it with MIDI notes and software is also a huge plus in this day and age, and comes as a beautiful solution into a hybrid setup, both on stage as well as in the studio. Street price is rumored to be around three-hundred and fifty-bucks.