MIDI Keyboard Controller
'Walk tall, walk straight and look the world right in the eye' - as Val Doonican once said. Now you can with Roland's portable MIDI keyboard controller, designed for those with a severe case of guitar envy. Nicholas Rowland discusses the angle of the dangle
Tired of being stuck behind a keyboard stand? With this new controller from Roland you can get out front and spank the plank with the best of them...
Let's face it, if you want to win fans and influence members of the opposite sex, the last thing you want to do is play keyboards. Whatever we may think about it, watching a keyboard player from an audience is about as interesting as watching someone doing their ironing or struggling over a particularly tricky algebra problem.
Of course, this image problem has not gone unheeded by many seminal keyboard greats who have gone to considerable lengths to inject a little visual excitement into the tickling of the ivories. Rick Wakeman, for example, used to wear sparkly capes, while Jerry Lee Lewis played with his feet. Keith Emerson, of course, was known for ritually abusing his Hammond with daggers - not to mention with ELP's music.
It all smacks of desperation, you have to agree; in the Karma Sutra of rock 'n' roll sexiness, it's the equivalent of cuddling through blankets. But now there's a solution which frees keyboard players from the tyranny of the X-stand and still leaves them with their dignity intact. It's called the Roland AX-1 and it's designed to be slung round your neck and held in much the same way as a guitar. Imagine, you can now cock your leg on the monitors and make power fists with the best of them.
Of course, the idea is by no means new. Roland themselves introduced it some years back when they brought out a modulation grip which used to clip on to the end of the trusty SH101 mono synth. And while we're discussing times past, I also have misty recollections of a similar offering from Yamaha called the KX-1 which included on-board sounds. By contrast, the AX-1 is completely silent, being a portable MIDI mother keyboard.
It will probably come as no surprise to you that the AX-1, being a Roland instrument, conforms to the GS MIDI format, also to be found on instruments like the JV30 and the Sound Canvas modules. If you don't know the drill, GS is effectively a superset of the General MIDI standard, in that it uses multiple banks of 128 sounds, the first of which is equivalent to the single bank of sounds offered by GM. That's not to say that the AX-1 can only be used with other GS gear, but you'll find that it possesses a number of GS-dedicated functions which simply won't work with anything else.
With its 45 keys, the AX-1 keyboard is touch sensitive and fairly pleasant to play, once it's loosened up a bit. It's not weighted, but then, you wouldn't want to spend the rest of life in traction after slinging it round your neck. Power is by batteries, though for sedentary use a mains adaptor is an option. New batteries will give you enough juice to rock the house for around 25 hours. To avoid the potential embarrassment of running on empty, the AX-1 gives you a rough estimate of remaining battery life via the line of LEDs which are normally used to indicate the selected program.
Accessories (apart from your first set of batteries) include a shoulder strap and a five-metre MIDI lead - long enough to get you to the end of the catwalk, but still short enough to allow the MIDI data to get back to your synth modules without dying of exhaustion half way.
The neck section is perhaps the most interesting part of the instrument. Instead of the familiar wheel, the pitchbend is controlled via a touch sensitive grey plastic strip. Run your finger up and down this and you'll be able to bend notes just like you would on a guitar. Next to it is a bar which you grip in the palm of your hand. By simultaneously squeezing it and rocking slightly backwards or forwards you can apply varying degrees of modulation or aftertouch, according to how the AX-1 is programmed at the time. Finally, on the back of the neck, you'll also find a small button - the sustain control. Press this with your thumb and you'll be able to hold notes.
What with pressing, squeezing and running your fingertips up and down you can have a rare old time, bending, modulating and sustaining the keyboard lines played with your right hand. Not only is it an enjoyable experience, it also makes for much more realistic and expressive performances - particularly when using guitar and string related sounds.
At the end of the neck you'll also find the data entry potentiometer - a posh name for a little knob. Normally this is assigned to controller #7 and acts as a main volume control. However, with the press of a few buttons, you can assign any other MIDI control change number to it and thus use it for more general MIDI programming and control duties. That said, the knob itself is quite small and rather awkwardly placed, so its use would probably be quite limited in a performance.
At the end of the list of MIDI controller numbers there are a couple of more unusual functions. Assign controller #128 to the data entry knob and you can set a velocity curve for the keyboard itself - although your choice is limited to light, medium or heavy. Controller #129, on the other hand, allows you to remotely change the tempo of external sequencers or drum machines... useful for speeding up the rest of your MIDI band when you feel like rocking out. Incidentally, sequencers and drum machines can also be stopped and started from a button at the tip of the neck section.
On the neck you'll also find three buttons for transpose (two giving you a whole octave either up or down) plus two more for stepping through patches sequentially. You can also call up any of the 32 programmable patches using the 16 buttons and shift key on the main body of the keyboard. All the buttons on the AX-1 are round, 'clicky' affairs which are slightly recessed and need a pretty good prod to engage - double insurance against potentially embarrassing accidental patch changes during a crucial keyboard solo.
Fresh from the factory, you'll find that patches are already assigned to particular GS sounds (Piano, Organ, Bass etc.) and each button is appropriately labelled. Two more buttons - CC00 and CC32 - can also be used to access variants within these groups. For custom programming, you simply press the MIDI/Param button and the numeric buttons switch to programming/data entry functions.
Patch information can also include overall volume data, as well as reverb and chorus send levels. Two dedicated buttons allow remote switching of reverbs and choruses - providing, of course that the units in question conform to the GS standard.
As you can see, for all its apparent gimmickry, the AX-1 makes a pretty decent master keyboard - especially if you happen to use it with other GS sound modules such as the Sound Canvas series.
Having said that, there are a couple of limitations that should be borne in mind when using the AX-1 in the keyboard equivalent of the missionary position. One is that unless you're a contortionist or a genetic mutant, the sustain button is well nigh impossible to reach. (An input for a foot pedal would have easily solved this problem.) Secondly, the 45-note keyboard does leave the AX-1 a few octaves short of a full Schumann piano concerto (even with the transpose function) so you'll need to take this into account when arranging.
On a more positive note, it's perhaps worth pointing out that you don't have to be on stage to make use of its portability. It's surprising how handy it is to be able to walk around with your keyboard during rehearsals or in the studio - particularly when you have to output MIDI data (ie. play) as you push faders or twiddle effects controls. Another big selling point for me was the expression bar arrangement, which for a fleeting moment really did make me think I had inherited the soul of Jimi Hendrix (Really? - Ed).
If you want to earn your rock 'n' roll stripes without getting your shirt dirty, the AX-1 is for you. It's fun - it's a funny shape - but ultimately it's a very useable instrument. No longer will you have to wear capes, wrestle with your DX7 or play with your big toes to get your fair share of audience attention. Careful with that AX, Eugene?
Price: £535 RRP
More from: Roland (UK) Ltd (Contact Details)
Review by Nicholas Rowland
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