CDM readers heavily lamented the loss of Roland’s AX-7 “shoulder keyboard” (better known to the world as a “keytar”). Sure, the keytar has a reputation for being dorky (bad news, chaps, the keyboard has a reputation for being dorky). But putting instruments on your shoulder is also a simple way to make them easy to play – ask a guitar, an accordion, or any other number of instruments. They let you move around, and there’s no question as computer musicians we get enough time in their chairs.

Well, the Roland AX is back – and as the name implies, the new AX-Synth now generates sound. Here are the new specs – and Roland filled CDM in on more details:

  • 49 velocity-sensitive keys (as opposed to the AX-7’s non-standard 45 notes, which made it go E – C)
  • 7-segment LED (same as before)
  • Lots of controllers: D-Beam, ribbon touch, modulation bar, volume knob, aftertouch controller, portamento on/off, hold button on/off, “Bender mode” (presumably transforms you into a character from Futurama). The AX-7 had most of these, but the D-Beam is in a much better location, and the aftertouch controller is now a dedicated knob on the side.
  • Runs on 8x Ni-MH rechargeable batteries (or eight AA’s, folks)
  • Internal sounds via a 128-voice polyphonic sound engine, editable with an included editor software app. (Says PC only, but I believe Mac is coming, too, based on other editors from Roland.)
  • V-LINK button for video control (I’m sure we can do some damage with that)

Wait, you know, let me translate that into something that makes more sense:

  • It makes sounds – lots of them – and more sounds than the few dumbed-down buttons might have you believe. You can still use it as a controller, but you don’t have to.
  • It runs on AA batteries and sits comfortably on your shoulder. Add on hardware for wireless audio from makers like AKG, and you could run without any wires (and while I’d prefer a cable in this case, wireless MIDI hardware works, too).
  • It’s got loads of playable controllers.

Due first half of 2009. No word on price, but the AX-7 ran around half a grand.

I got to talk to Vince LaDuca of Roland about the AX-Synth, which is clearly dear to his heart. The big thing I got out of that chat was that the AX-Synth should sound pretty sharp and, whether or not you want internal sounds, should be eminently playable. The internal sound module has the bend modes the Fantom and JUNO-Stage does, which are basically sound presets set up in advance for live control. (That’s what the “Special Tone” button is about, as well.) The buttons may not be terribly tantalizing, with vague labels like “violin” or “synth lead,” but there are 32 variations for each of those sounds, meaning there are actually a lot of sounds in the box. So that you don’t have to page through all those variations, you can configure favorites for live performance.

Vince says the engine is derived from the Fantom-G / Fantom-X ballpark, though it’s been adjusted here to allow for operation on batteries. Apparently up to about six hours on the AA batteries is possible.

Having sounds is a nice addition, but part of why I like the AX is that it remains a nice controller. Needless to say, these same synth-friendly features could be fantastic with far-out soft synths, as well – or even as a live visual controller.

I will defend the lowly keytar against would-be haters, because I think it’s a very playable form factor, and I know from experience on CDM that it should also be a big hit with casual keyboardists and more advanced players alike. The keybed should be similar to the PCR line, which has been a solid-feeling synth action – ideal for a keytar – erm, shoulder keyboard. One huge advantage is that because the instrument itself isn’t raked as the AX-7 was, it should be comfortable to play when it’s not on your shoulder. I’m also pleased with the additional controllers. Having aftertouch as a knob on the neck should actually be more comfortable, and finally the D-Beam wireless sensor is in a logical place.

It’s no surprise that the Italian-designed Roland AX is back, given the demand for the form factor. (And the Italians should know something about mounting instruments on your shoulder.) The surprise is, the AX-Synth is actually a real upgrade. Stay tuned for pricing, and yes, we’ll be testing it. I’ll try to look geekster, not dork – that, after all, is what electronic music and synth playing is all about.


Flame-Throwing Keytar; Players, Not Instruments, Are Cool (because the best keytar is one that shoots fire out of its neck)

Keytar Komeback: You Don’t Love It Until It’s Gone, An Open Letter to Roland (someone was listening?)

  • Dork

    Wow. is this the first Pro keytar that has an actual synth in it since the roland SH-101?

  • Dork

    Wow! that's like 27 years since……..Midi is younger.

  • Human Plague

    Who keytarded?

  • lilith

    Depends what one means by "pro" or "actual synth" but arguably the Korg 707 (and I think Poly800)would qualify since it had strap pegs. And kind of a grip molded into the body. I found it heavy but suprisingly ergonomical and a good cheap controller (w/aftertouch).

  • lilith

    oh, and I think the Ax-synth is actually kinda cool which makes me a dork.

  • Dork

    Yep i own a Yamaha KX5 which also makes me a Dork.

    I forgot about the "neckless keytars" like the poly800 the korg707 and the yamaha DX100 and Cs01

  • PDX

    Awesome, a new over the shoulder midi controller keyboard holder.

    Looking forward to the hands on review.

  • bliss

    I'm sure Herbie Hancock is excited by this release. He still uses a keytar to this day. (And he's perhaps the biggest undercover, well kept open secret tech nerd/cool jazz musician out there.)

  • Good! We need more expressive MIDI controllers where this is the one I will get for stage work.

  • lilith

    DX100 has microkeys no? I want one

  • chuck

    freezepop got the first three.

  • The DX100 did have small, non-velocity-sensitive keys. But I really liked the way its pitch/mod wheels worked, on or off the shoulder — no other controller I've used since felt as friendly to me.

  • Wow, this actually seems kind of awesome, what with all the controllers. I could do without the internal sounds, though – never been a big fan of Roland sound architecture (with some obvious exceptions). I hope that doesn't make it unnecessarily pricey.

    I have no problem looking like a dork on stage. I think I already have that covered. There was a funny post on Synthtopia claiming that the only person who could ever look cool with a Keytar is Herbie.

  • Polite

    Shame it doesn't look as nice as the AX-7 design. But i'm happy that i'll finally be able to afford a keytar (most likely) … well i suppose i could *afford* one of the highly overpriced ax7, but i flatly refuse to pay 1-2 thousand for a midi controller.

    If this also allows wireless midi, i am so totally down with this.

    I'll have to practise my wizball game over theme in preparation.

    P.S. lol at the "jazz scat" button. some of these labels are almost as bad as the microkorg ones.

  • actually I'd prefer a SH-201 engine in this, makes sense but they'd probably charge much more than $500. I'm guessing the AX-Synth will be more too and its rompler engine will appeal to the power metal crowd.

    DX100 not velocity sensitive? I still want one.

    Also, ppl who don't look like a dork w/a keytar:

    Imogen Heap
    Bernie Worrell
    but not the guy from Dragonforce.

  • little known fact: it requires no batteries in 'bender mode', but instead runs on grain alcohol, and belches flames from the neck.

    My only complaint is that this thing needs more bling. You don't buy a necessarily for the form factor or playability, you buy one to be over the top. This clearly needs more blue LEDs, can mufflers, and a sweet dragon decal.

    who's got two thumbs and's keytarded?

  • velocipede

    When I stumbled on this at the Roland booth today, the clouds parted and angels began to sing. Well, not really, but it ruined my plan to badger all the Roland reps to make a new keytar controller.

    As a recent purchaser of an AX-1 that had been a floor model in a shop, I am very much in love with the keytar format for use in my crowded home studio. Great for playing my monophonic Mopho. Good for playing softsynths because I can set it on my lap when I cannot be bothered to clear off my desk and stand up when I get bored of sitting.

    The built-in synth on this model is a definite plus. The demo dude said it felt no heavier than earlier models. It also should have built-in USB-MIDI. Bad news is he thought it was going to be around $1000. It's still a prototype, though, so who knows.

    (NB: With the AX-1, I was able to switch the CC mappings of the knob and modulation bar so that the bar now sends aftertouch and the knob is Mod. I hope the new model has this option too, because I like this setup better.)

  • gwenhwyfaer

    Yes, but the primary reason Imogen Heap doesn't look like a dork in any situation, ever, is that being batshit crazy kind of overrides it. 😉

    But a simple lead synth (eg. '201), especially with the emphasis on control, would perhaps have been a better idea than a full-weight Fantom engine. After all, how many people are even going to be capable of playing more than 5 notes at once on these things…?

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  • While I'm happy that someone is finally making this style of keyboard again, (and to all of you haters, I quote the fabulous Tina Fey..suck it) I think that they got this all wrong. For one, I don't need/want it to make sound. Why on earth do I want to run stereo audio cables and then if I want to use it for midi yet another cable when I'm trying to move around on stage? And even if I'm only using midi the port is in the middle of the the unit. Really? How practical is that? Take out the synth, make is smaller/lighter/less expensive and give me freaking aftertouch!! It's a controller for crying out loud, aftertouch is a control!

  • The Wiz of Piz

    Great news – I reckon they should come in more colours than the Nintendo DS. Hope Roland doesn't go crazy with the price – even people of low to moderate means should have the opportunity to dork-out with one of these babies.

  • @shane: It has aftertouch, they just moved it to a separate controller. I'm sure that could easily be a debate, but aftertouch on the keybed can be fidgety; this basically consolidates all your expression controls on the neck.

    @gwenhwyfaer: I didn't mean to cause confusion here. This shouldn't feel anything like playing a Fantom, necessarily. The sounds are definitely selected for control, leads, etc. Actually, the SH-201 doesn't have all those pre-programmed expression mapping the JUNO-Stage and Fantom do. I love the 201, but it sounds like they selected sounds that fit the AX.

    I'm with others, though, in that I hope this is cheap after all. It's something you want people to be able to buy without a second thought, to sell a lot of them.


    About time they saw the market for these

    Like The Wiz Of Piz said I hope they come out in different colors

  • For the record: I don't think keytars make people look like dorks. I was defending it (and the very cool keytar player) against unjust accusations of dorkiness.

    You can really look like a dork playing about anything, if you are … you know, dorky. I had moments in my childhood I'm not proud of. 😉

  • Mad Al

    Looks nice, and if there's only one color, white is a fairly neutral choice. I think I would have preferred the cable connections on the end (by the strap lug) instead of the back. And I'm a little concerned the after-touch wheel might be too far away from the mod bar for comfortably using both together.

    While remembering the keytar's neck-less cousins, don't forget the little CZ-101 (terrible little mini-keys, no velocity and only transmits value 64, no mod wheel… but the sound engine can be fun)

  • True about Imogen. 🙂

    "After all, how many people are even going to be capable of playing more than 5 notes at once on these things…?"

    maybe the guy from Dragonforce. but I think he just plays real fast.

  • BTW – Sonic State has a good demo vid. Sounds like they're thinking over a grand. 🙁

  • mm2

    I am still confused. Does it have wireless midi built in or do you have to add something like MidAir? I think the AX7 looks better, but i could only find one and at $1500. IMHO non-dork on keytar = Henrik (Henkka) Klingenberg of Sonata Arctica.

  • A

    It has no wireless capabilities at all. Failure. I would have expected a breakout box with all connectors. What strikes me most with all the recent NAMM novelties is that ppl on the web IMMEDIATELY complain about important feats missing. And they're right.

  • QKMR534

    Really glad to see the revival of keytar. Tears in my eyes =)

    Seems this AX-SYNTH got a couple more controllers which AX-7 doesn't have. Looking forward to the Bender mode and V LINK in particular.

    I dun really care that it already have an internal sound module, I play my AX-7 with EDIROL SD-20 and I feel comfortable with it.

    But still, I won't hesitate to purchase this newer version of the AX series when it is released.

  • chupathingy

    I want one so the world will know I'm a nerd

  • chupathingy

    and finally the D-Beam wireless sensor is in a logical place.

    D-Beam wireless sensor


    What's that about no wireless?

  • spacecoyote

    I think he meant wireless MIDI, which it doesn't seem to have. Then again, AFAIK there isn't a standard protocol for that. It's not a big deal as its a simple matter of connecting a dongle.

  • benny

    I've been waiting for this for 15 years. I don't know why those synth genius didn't think to include a stomp box speacially made to work with it for 'other' stuff. Of course it's suppose to be wireless and cost only $500. What about fancy lights that go along with what you play that will sit the guitarist down!

  • mr synth uk

    fantastic to see roland listening to the buying public and musicians at last !!
    Downside: in the uk its gonna cost you 1000ukp !!
    best price i found was 949ukp
    (shops just keep telling me it has the fantom sound engine and is well worth the price!!!)
    hopefully other manufacturers will follow suit and make a cheaper model cuz the ax7 still sells for 750-800 still!!

  • A

    Yeah wireless MIDI & STEREO AUDIO would have been nice. I wouldn't want to have 3 cables hanging from that thing to the floor or going to three wireless boxes clipped to the shoulder strap… That's what I meant. The D-Beam is a nice gimmick but it has become a Roland standard feature and they should have taken care of things more important to a stage musician.

  • spacecoyote

    I guess you could use v-link to control the fancy lights, Benny. Only time will tell.

  • stk

    I really, really want to know what a "Tronbone" sounds like!

  • Cryogenics

    I've been waiting for this forever. My pants are wet with excitement.

  • MonksDream

    I love the idea of this and would go for it in a second but $1000 is way too much. However everything is conjecture until you can walk into a shop and buy one.

  • jomb

    Wonder if this has a sustain button (or assignable) for piano like the 1 & 7. If not, wouldn't be of much use to me.

  • EPop

    At last, at last, at last! And with a soft bag, by the looks of it.

    Design is not great, but hey, finally a keytar is available again!

    I hope the controllers can be freely configured. That is what kept me from getting an AX7. And no synth but longer battery time would have been better.

    But hey, am I complaining? I'm delighted! Where's the queue?

  • Hollywood N.O.

    Thanks Roland for bringing it back. Please listen to the numerous feedback responses. Make the thing with built-in wireless features, place the cable connections at the far end of the body, allow a USB Memorystick connection to hold custom sounds and setups similar to the Roland K117M Digital Grand Piano. We want it "free-styled" for the working musician who doesn't want to get tangled up in cables. Please listen up! We'll buy it if you give us what we want.

  • Dave G

    Make it in black, or at least as an optional color. Will look way better than white. The lights and such will stand out more on stage, and black is always slimming so it will appear a tad bit smaller.

  • Hitman

    Man, who made up the whole keytar/geek connection? Quite a few guys in the Funk genre looked REALLY cool with it, particularly my boy Jimmy Jam!

  • joel

    It looks like crap.
    too big, too slick and sharp.
    they're getting big again, I'll give it some time till some competition comes out. I'm not getting this broken dinner table looking thing… fibro house!!!… what's that stuff that comes out of fibro stuff that ruins your lungs… that's this thing.
    Whale shark…
    Ax 1 looked the best, Ax 7 still really good. This I don't think so.

  • james

    Why would they put sounds in it, now people are gonna bitch about how the piano doesnt sound good and the organ doesnt sound like a party at the doors house. and thats probably why its a bit bigger. sticking sounds in there. stick to midi.

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  • Dorian

    Now how much is this shit thats all I wanna know

  • James M

    Can someone gimmie a good site where I can get my hands on one?

  • where can I buy a keytar, with shoulder strap?
    please advise
    Edna Massimilla 2815 Byberry Rd.Hatboro,Pa.19040
    thank you

  • G

    Hey, does the AX-Synth only come in white??

    I really want one but will end up painting it it they only come in white…
    Then I guess after I have messed mine up Roland will release a Black one..! 🙂

  • G

    The AX is also pretty bulky looking..esp. in white.
    Wish they would also re release the SH-101!

    Or a smaller Black or Grey AX..

  • Jay Simpson

    Saying something is dorky only makes it a fact in the mind of the sayer. Let's talk about the music – start listening with your ears and not your eyes, experience the pleasure of playing a keyboard without being stuck in one place. That's not as dorky as a dude who calls it so 🙂

  • Gary Kahn

    Jay Leno's band is using the AX Synth. I bought one and love it. Now I need the stereo wireless (already got the NiMh batteries. It rocks!

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