Splendid DAW control with the Nektar Impact LX88+

Piano keys are quite heavy. That’s because you are actually controlling a hammer that hits a steel cable under a lot of tension. The USB MIDI keyboards I’ve tested so far were all spring-loaded and therefore light and indifferent to the touch. The Impact LX88+ is an 88-key semi-weighted MIDI keyboard/controller. Its keys are part spring-loaded, part weighted. You instantly feel the difference. Nektar’s Impact LX+ series also controls your DAW. I tested it with Logic Pro X and Bitwig 8-track.

Nektar ships its Impact series of keyboards with a nice DAW: Bitwig 8-track. Bitwig Studio, the unlimited tracks version of Bitwig 8-track, runs on macOS, Linux Ubuntu 12 and Windows 7/8/10. It supports VST plug-ins but not Apple’s AU format. There’s also no support for ReWire, but it does support the JACK API and ALSA (Advanced Linux Sound Association). I played with Bitwig 8-track for a couple of weeks and it has nice features that you would only expect from the likes of Logic Pro X and Reason. Bitwig 8-track users create a project and populate its tracks with clips, which you can then refine, arrange, and trigger. Clips are containers for individual musical ideas. They store either notes or audio, as well as control and automation data.

Nektar Impact lx88+

The integration of the LX88+ with Bitwig 8-track or Studio, Logic Pro X, Reason and eight others is very deep. There’s almost no DAW feature that you can’t control with the LX88+. With Logic Pro X, for example, you can use Logic’s Learn feature to the full, making the assignment of controls to an instrument’s controls a real breeze (taking those down again equally so).

The secret to this easy integration is Nektar’s integration script. All you need to do to get them is register for an account, register the keyboard, and download the appropriate integration scripts. These scripts are not written in stone either. There’s nothing stopping you from changing the pre-defined function mappings even after installing the integration script.

Even without knowing how to do that, I succeeded in making the performance pads on the LX88+ behave as controllers for the presets of the Logic Pro X Alchemy synthesiser plug-in.

By the way, you can also use the Impact series, including the LX88+, with an iOS device like an iPad (via the Apple USB Camera Connection Kit). If you insist on doing that, I would recommend buying a matching power adapter. The Impact series does offer a low power consumption mode, but that inevitably comes at the cost of losing controller functionality.

Piano keys or springy plastic?

The Impact LX88+ has 88 semi-weighted velocity-sensitive keys — it’s a full-sized piano keyboard — and the Impact LX series’ control knobs, eight velocity-sensitive pads, six transport buttons, select controls (preset, mixer and instrument), an instrument page button, nine MIDI-assignable faders and LED illuminated buttons, five user configurable presets and a bunch of other controls. It has a 3-character LCD screen, weighs close to 8 kilos, is well built and looks great with its colour-coded pads. It has a power socket for a 9V adapter, a jack socket to hook up a pedal and a MIDI out socket.

First of all, the keys require a heavier touch than those of the Impact GX49 I reviewed earlier, which is actually closer to a real piano “feel” and easier to control velocity. I calibrated the velocity curve of the LX88+ with Pianoteq’s built-in calibration and this keyboard went all the way from 0 to 127 — which, according to the Pianoteq calibration guide is quite rare for MIDI keyboards to achieve.

Although an LX88+ is big and perhaps unwieldy to many people, having a full-size keyboard has many advantages. One of them, for example, is that you can put Logic’s built-in chord plug-in to full use, including the diatonic left-hand and right-hand chords.

Controlling your DAW with the Impact LX88+

Nektar Impact keyboards support 11 DAW’s, but I tested it with Logic Pro X and Bitwig 8-track. In Logic Pro X, the LX88+ controls almost everything, but one button is never used (clips). The pads can be assigned to notes in a simple way and I used this capability in tandem with Alchemy’s control feature to assign each Alchemy pad to an LX88+ pad. This works really great. The mixer button lets you call up the mixer, while the instrument button lets you view the instrument plug-in and cycle through its patches.

Mixer controls are arranged in banks, just like the pads. You can bank over between banks using a button combination. All pots, knobs and faders respond to the settings within the selected bank.

It all worked brilliantly the first time. The next day none of these buttons seemed to do anything anymore. So I went looking for a solution. With the help of Nektar’s support pages I thought I had found the culprit. Following their advice seemed to do the trick, but with the next launch of Logic Pro X the problem returned, which was really frustrating.

After a lot of detective work on my own, I found out the AudioEngine D1 DAC I have sitting on a USB hub next to the Apogee Duet iPad/Mac was the cause. I disconnected the D1 and haven’t had any problems since. Lesson learned: if something goes awry, first disconnect all USB devices except the keyboard and take it from there.

In fact, after disconnecting the D1, I could even hang the GX49 to Logic Pro X, change its MIDI channel and control one track with the LX88+ and another one with the GX49!

A unique feature is that you can control Logic Pro X’s Smart Controls with the LX88+. The Impact series also support Logic’s pickup mode. It does the same in Bitwig 8-track, but there it’s called differently. Pads can be set to add markers as well as be assigned to notes as I explained earlier.

In short, Logic Pro X and the LX88+ are made for each other, but the marriage is not exclusive. I can say the same of Bitwig 8-track as well. With Bitwig, the instrument button behaves a bit different from Logic in that the LX88+ controls the device in Bitwig, which can be an instrument, effect or container.

The integration file user guide for the Bitwig DAW (and the Bitwig manual itself as well!) contains a paragraph on changing the device mappings. I found, after trying to make sense of Bitwig’s guide, that it works a bit different from the earlier versions of the application. It does work though, and it’s very simple to do — drag and drop, anyone?

The Scenes button works as marker switch for the pads when using Logic. In Bitwig it actually controls the Scenes and Clips feature. This means you can use the pads to play (and launch overdub; but I didn’t try that feature) clips assigned to pads. You can also trigger scenes and play notes with pads.

Conclusion

The Nektar Impact LX88+ is a fine USB MIDI keyboard. It’s well built, has a nice touch, excellent velocity sensitivity and brilliant controls that integrate perfectly with Logic Pro X and Bitwig 8-track. The free licence of the latter is more than just a nice bonus. You actually get this full-featured DAW with any Impact keyboard and it’s great value.

For the value it offers, the Impact LX88+ is dirt-cheap. Its EU retail price is €319.99 although most dealers are selling for €289.99 inc VAT, and it integrates with 11 DAW’s.

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