Roland’s Messe show announcements include two releases that caught my eye. I’ll be honest: some of Roland’s recent gear, while it sells really well, just doesn’t reach me emotionally. But these new announcements strike me as having two key ingredients: afford ability and that elusive fun factor. There’s a (mercifully) cheaper, more compact shoulder-mounted keyboard, plus a synth that looks to distill some of the best spirit of Roland’s recent (and previous designs.) This is just a preview, but let’s at least say they’re on my “worth reviewing” list.

First up: exhibit A, the AX-09.

Laugh as you may at the “keytar.” (Technically, preferred terms are the “shoulder synth” or less-savory-sounding “strap-on.”) Anyway, putting a shoulder strap on a keyboard makes a heck of a lot of sense – even more so for those of us contending with operating laptops and touchscreens in addition to fingering keyboard lines. You don’t really even need a neck. Whether you look like a dork playing the thing probably has more to do with your musicianship than it does the instrument. (Take previous sentence, apply to everything.)

As a fan of the practicality of the shoulder mount, I was somewhat disappointed when the Roland AX-Synth weighed in at some US$1200 street. It seems like part of the keytar craze was young musicians wanting to play synths without hunching over a keyboard. Pricing it up there put it out of reach of the young boys and girls getting into playing synths.

The Lucina AX-09 brings both some of the fun back and nearly halves the price. Specs:

  • 37 keys
  • Operates both standing (with the shoulder strap) and on a tabletop – and unlike the more conventional, big-necked shoulder keyboards, the lack of the neck means it’s much more compact. (The AX-Synth and AX-7 also work on a tabletop, but let’s put it this way – you won’t need a gigantic tabletop for the Lucina.)
  • 150 internal sounds, which is good, though I’m happier that there are USB and MIDI DIN connections for connecting to your computer. I’ll also be researching wireless solutions, as it’d be great to find a way to make this a wireless controller. (Roland said with the AX-Synth that part of why they added internal sounds was in order to make the thing work standalone or wireless.) Confirmed: you can do MIDI over USB, of course. So no need to use those built-in sounds if you don’t want to.
  • Eight rechargeable NiMH AA batteries gives you four hours of life, and there’s a battery indicator to be safe (plus plug-in power, of course).
  • Three expressive controllers: the D-Beam, modulation bar, and touch controller — all assignable, useful in the presets, and also make this a handy MIDI controller for your computer and soft synths. (Not in the official specs, but visible in the pictures.)
  • USB host port with playback capability, making this a portable practice instrument. (Hook up a portable recorder, and you can work out tune ideas lying in bed on battery power, minus computer – a nice thought even for us computer fans.)

Availability: May. (Black later this year.)
Pricing Suggested retail US$699.

One issue: this thing is pretty big, not in fact the “compact” device Roland claim it to be, partly so that they can accommodate the full-sized keys and mini-neck. It’s small enough that, as advertised, “kids” can handle it, and I love that it’s a more reasonable size than the enormous AX-Synth and AX-07, but given recent tiny controllers, we have to have some perspective.

Updated: Here are the weights and measures of Lucina – thanks, Roland!

Dimensions: 32-13/16″ (W) x 9-11/16″ (D) x 3-3/4″ (H)
Total weight (including batteries): 8lbs, 3 oz

But don’t get me wrong: this is finally a shipping shoulder-mount keyboard I think I can recommend, and actually want. And while I take issue with Roland’s description of the case as a “stylish body,” you know there are boys and girls out there who are going to buy it and make this look good. I’d better talk to my stylist.

Speaking of styling, if you’re not a fan of the glaring white, there’s an optional “premium black sparkle” finish coming later this year. I don’t know how sparkly the sparkle is; it’s not visible in the photo. I think you should just find a way to paint/tag the white finish and make it your own bad-ass battle axe.

US product description

More photos:

USB host port for connecting your own files for playback, D-Beam touchless (infrared distance) controller, modulation and touch located conveniently on the neck, assignable controls.

The back face reveals the ports on the AX-09: left/right 1/4″ audio output, MIDI out (with, as always, the inexplicably-omnipresent V-LINK), foot pedal, DC in, USB for the computer, 1/8″ external audio in (I assume passthrough?), 1/8″ phone jack. There’s also a USB host port for adding a USB key or music player on the front face. Click through for larger version

This turns out to be a sensible battery arrangement. Use the including batteries, and you can recharge. Or, if those batteries die, you can still stick in standard AA’s.

The tone section: “Special Tone”!

This is the official video for the product.

I think Roland is being slightly tongue-in-cheek / self-satirical here. Or it may be that Roland HQ exists on top of a wormhole, through which a portal allows entry to the 1980s. Or both.

Tip, though, next time try to get Synthesizer Patel.

Indeed, “you might be forgiven for thinking we have a real-live orchestra in the studio. But in actual fact, the symphony you just heard was performed not by an orchestra, but by a simple synthesizer.”

Built-in sounds, yes.

  • sh101 remake: fail. Itll look nice in the next pkd movie starring will smith though.

  • How is it that, after like 25 years, Roland is suddenly dropping new products that actually intrigue me? I'm truly baffled. Was there a shake-up in management over there, or is it truly some sort of tear in the fabric of the universe?

    OMG 2012 is coming faster than I thought!

  • @Peter: because the SH101 wasn't the greatest synth of all time, because it's a remake of the SH101, because the remake doesn't work for you, or all of the above? Oh, and I think you meant to leave this comment on the other post.

    I'll stand by my take. I think for people who are looking for a playable keyboard, both the new AX and SH could work really well. There are lots of folks out there who have a ball with this stuff who aren't, you know, the core CDM reader. And happily, I'm sure they'll make it look and sound cooler than the videos do. (But then, that's why we have musicians and not just music vendors.)

  • $699 is too pricy for any keyboard with a preset-only tonebank. (what's the chances they'll suck? Outside of the usual e-pianos, rhodes etc) I don't care if it's "special" because it's a keytar, yes I'd love one too, but the that sort of price belongs to a keyboard with a larger feature set IMHO.

  • Casimir: well, fair argument, but point of comparison?

    With the exception of the microKORG, I can't think of any keyboards *too far* under that price that didn't fall apart on me / someone I know after a couple of years. That doesn't necessarily mean spending more gets you better quality (BOY, is that ever NOT true), but I'm not convinced that cheaper is always better.

    Anyway, happy to run with the argument, but can you suggest something specific?

    The one other exception I can think of is the Fatar controllers, which, while often ugly, manage to be typically pretty terrific for your dollar. Of course, no accident that they're often the OEM for big-name keyboards' keybeds.

  • I put it forward as an opinion, Peter, completely admitting that.

    But honestly I feel it smacks of Roland hyping the keytar angle as an excuse to bump the price. I'd rather have a less expensive version with no sounds…

  • Well, they're getting closer, at least. 😉 We got the AX-Synth for way more than I wanted. Now we need an AX-10 with no sounds.

  • I can't see that introduction video*, for some reason, but I did find this:

    this is one of those cases where the video actually puts me off a product that, initially, I was quite exited about.

    keytars are an ergonomic nightmare, and looking at the initial photos I though that they might have done something smart, regarding the position of the keys and the location of the pressure sensor.

    after seeing the vid above… I'm not sure.

    * saw it now. ugh. the goggles, they do nothing.

  • correction: the earplugs do nothing.

  • Nah peter i meant this post. I just want a non doofy keytar like the ori. sh-101, which I consider more akin to a synth weapon than an object of kitsch, aesthetically. Plus its way too big (or the model is tiny) and eight batteries? Just make it rechargeable guys!

  • Roland is getting closer…

    As a big fan of this style of keyboard I'm way more interested in this than the AX-Synth, which I don't think they could have made more bad decisions on unless they used lead based paint on it.

    Unlike the AX-Synth the midi port is in the correct place, the neck isn't too big and the price isn't completely stupid, especially if it streets for <600. And it's going to come in black!!!!!!

    Now just get rid of the sound engine, add few more keys (and real aftertouch please) and I'll be ready to throw down cash when my beloved AZ-1 goes to it's final resting spot. I can't say I won't buy one of these, it's close but not quite what I want.

    Unless they fail miserably and then get blown out for $400…

  • @shane: The argument on aftertouch is that it's too hard to get continuous aftertouch control with something you're holding at your waist, and there I tend to agree. (I'll have to try turning a keyboard on its side here and see if I can do it.)

    Otherwise, of course, I'm personally with you. I think Roland imagines (probably rightly so) that the market is bigger for things that have onboard sounds.

    I don't think they're going to get blown out for $400, but I do expect the street to be well below that list, so don't give up hope yet. 😉

    Oh, except we apparently have to pay extra for that black. I think painting it may be in order. 😉

  • Polite

    I'm really just hoping they remake the AX07 with some sort of wireless midi and sell it for about $600. *fingers crossed*

    Built in sounds is nice and all for demoing it in the shop, but seriously you aren't going to want to use nearly any of those sounds if they are anything like the ax-synth ones.

    Four hours of battery life on 8 batteries sounds quite expensive. too.

  • Polite

    Also. Dear god. That video. It burns!!

  • Peter,

    Aftertouch works great on my Casio AZ-1, I use it all the time. It is my secret sauce for expressive playing.

    I am concerned by the number of non-super-cheap keyboards without aftertouch lately. The Korg Radias to name one. Plus the new SH-01 (which looks like a real winner to me) doesn't have it. That is very disappointing.

    This thing could look pretty gnarly with an appropriate paint job, maybe a couple of well placed LEDs.

  • velocipede

    "the true keytar is something different."

    Really? I thought that the Williams Keytar was actually an appropriation of a long-standing term used for strap-on keyboards. I think the Williams attempt to trademark the term "Keytar" was even cheesier than the instrument it described. Their website seems to be gone now.

  • ChuckEye

    Interesting that in all the videos and pics, players are using the 3rd strap button on the bottom of the instrument instead of the one on the left side…

  • lucas

    i don't think the introduction video is tongue-in-cheek at all. their videos have for generations been a testament to how firmly the company's head is planted in its ass. this is why all the "innovation" they currently achieve is recreating their successes from the 80s. the video probably looks very hip and contemporary to the old japanese men running the company. it's really a shame that this dinosaur still maintains so much clout by virtue of inertia and marketing dollars. in my dream world, robin hood takes roland's money and gives it to teenage engineering and their ilk.

  • Jonathan

    They're hyping this up as "affordable" but $699 is not affordable for the little you're getting with this piece.

    <$400 is where it needs to be.

  • @Shane: Ah, forgot the AZ-1 had aftertouch.

    No, I'm also sorry that aftertouch is less common – polyphonic aftertouch is almost entirely unheard-of. I do know I've talked to Roland and they made the call based on their perception of playability, or at least that's what they say. In this case, I am inclined to believe them, as what determines playability in a shoulder keyboard is absolutely a matter of opinion. The AX-Synth they see as their flagship, so I think if they had thought it would work, they would have put it in.

    But I also believe that it *could* work, and I'm likewise disappointed by the lack of aftertouch in general. It's got to be a cost-cutting, analysis-of-the-market thing.

  • @Jonathan: I think street should be well below $700. I'm not sure if you're going to hit $400, but it is going to be cheaper than list. My main question isn't price, though; it's feel – I'd pay a little extra if it feels a little better.

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  • eZe

    The design reminds me of a P90 submachine gun -_-