Housed in a strap-on keyboard controller, the AX-Synth is a 128-voice-polyphonic synthesizer with a wealth of real-time controls.
Even if you aren't a performing keyboardist, you've probably at least seen the AX-7, Roland's out-of-production, strap-on keyboard controller. The AX-7 hung from a strap across your shoulders, much like a guitar, with a short neck housing real-time controls for your left hand. Such controllers are known as keytars, and they've remained popular ever since the Moog Liberation first appeared in 1980. Roland recently began shipping the AX-Synth ($1,199), a new keytar that's bound to turn some heads. Now you can get out from behind your keyboard stack and rip some serious solos side by side with your guitarist.
Compared with the AX-7, the AX-Synth's most obvious and compelling advancement is its onboard 128-voice polyphonic synthesizer. Its internal sounds are derived from the Fantom-G sound engine, along with a small selection of realistic instrumental timbres generated by Roland's SuperNatural technology. For a performing keyboardist, having so many new sounds onboard is a monumental improvement over wielding a mere controller, because you no longer need MIDI cables to connect to an external sound device. Just add an audio cable or, better yet, a wireless transmitter, and you'll be working the crowd in no time. And because it operates for up to 6 hours on eight AA batteries, you don't even need to be tethered to a power supply.
Many of the onboard sounds (which Roland calls Tones) accommodate the AX-Synth's primary purpose — playing lead — though the standard polyphonic sounds are compelling, too (see Web Clip 1). A set of 256 Fantom-inspired Tones are grouped into eight Families, each with 32 Variations. You also get four SuperNatural Tones (Violin, Cello, Shakuhachi and Trombone; see Web Clip 2) and four Special Tones (Trumpet, Sax, Strings and Jazz Scat; see Web Clip 3). Special Tones are based on different technology and don't have as much tonal variation and expression as SuperNatural Tones. For customizing factory patches and crafting your own Tones, a dedicated AX-Synth Editor (Mac/Win) is included.
CONTROLS AND PERFORMANCE
On the front surface of the control section (the neck), alongside the modulation bar and ribbon controller (for pitch bend), the infrared D-Beam controller affects whatever parameter you indicate using the adjacent Pitch, Filter and Assignable buttons. Two Octave/Variation buttons let you shift pitch by as much as three octaves, or scroll though either your Favorites or through Variations from any Family you select with the front-panel Tone buttons. (Another fast way to change Tones is by pressing a Tone button to select a Family, holding the Shift button beside the three-character LED display, and then pressing notes on the keyboard's highest octave to select a Variation.)
On the back of the neck are two rotary knobs you can easily control with your thumb. The Volume knob comes in handy when you're switching from background chords to smashing out a lead (see Web Clip 4). The Aftertouch knob sends channel aftertouch messages, offering an expressive additional modulation source for playing the AX-Synth.
Three buttons flank the Volume and Aftertouch knobs. The first turns on portamento — great for classic synth leads — and the second turns on Bender mode, which determines how the ribbon responds. With Bender mode enabled, the ribbon affects only the last note you play, so you can emulate a lead guitar by simulating a guitarist's double-bend technique (see Web Clip 5). The third button engages a hold function and serves the same purpose as a sustain pedal. Sustaining the last-held note frees your right hand so you can bend or filter that note with the D-Beam controller, which is terrific in a live-performance situation.
ONSTAGE AND UP FRONT
The AX-Synth weighs less than 9 pounds and was comfortable to play. Although the neck felt a bit wide in my left hand, all of its controls were positioned naturally under my fingers, making them easy to reach. The 49-note velocity-sensitive keyboard felt a little stiff, but that's not unusual for a new keyboard. The keys go from C to C, which I prefer to the AX-7's 45-note, E-to-C layout.
If you want to switch from playing solos to two-handed playing, simply move the strap to pin number 2 on the back — a simple but a effective design. That one touch makes the AX-Synth not only a great ax for live performance, but suitable for studio situations, too. For any keyboardist who's ever been jealous of a guitarist's ability to stand at the front of the stage, bend strings, and whack the whammy bar, Roland has packed everything it could into the ideal strap-on keyboard.
Overall rating (1 through 5): 4