Imagine Also Sprach Zarathustra playing here, a la 2001. And note what this keytar has – a real pitch wheel, right on the neck.

One is a keytar. One is a master controller with touch faders and real MIDI and — control voltage, for working with analog gear. Seriously. The keyboard controller market may have faded into a dull, gray blur of nearly-identical models, but under the Alesis and Akai monikers, there’s some fresh-looking variety. Love it or hate it, these are not the same keyboards you’ll get from anybody else at the moment.

I got to meet with Alesis/Akai/Numark today at the NAMM Press Preview, get my hands on a prototype of their new Vortex keytar, and talk about what they’re doing. And I have to say, I’m impressed. (I didn’t get hands on the second model, the MAX49, but will visit their booth in the next couple of days.) Finally, we get the return of the MIDI DIN port for working with a wider range of hardware, without sacrificing USB. One model even does CV for analog equipment. And both can supply their own power so you can use them with iOS. And they at least are interesting enough to have an opinion about them – even if you hate them.

Here’s a look at each of them and what why they’ll be on our radar when they ship later this year.

Alesis Vortex Keytar

First off, let me say it, once and for all: I don’t think there’s anything dorky about a keytar, other than the name. Us keyboardists are plenty capable of being dorky on our own, but don’t blame the instrument.

What keytars are – or strap-on keyboards, if you can say that without smirking – is eminently practical for one-handed playing. For two-handed playing or more conventional piano or organ parts, of course, you’re better off without them. But the keytar lets you move around, play expressive solos, and also free up your hands if you’re using other machines, as in electronic music. Unfortunately, the options out there have been overly large, making them too unweildly for many people to play, and overly expensive, pricing them out of a lot of their market. I’ve played and advocated the Rock Band game controller because it’s lightweight, inexpensive, and nicely made, and it even has a MIDI jack. I actually hear one Harmonix veteran is now at Alesis, so that may be no coincidence. (The Vortex even has a touch strip on its neck.)

The Vortex, though, looks like the first really balanced keytar controller in the market … well, ever. Features:

  • Velocity-sensitive pads in addition to the keys
  • 37 velocity-sensitive keys (good number for a keytar), plus channel aftertouch (heck, yes)
  • MIDI-assignable accelerometer. And this is cool – it’s not on all the time; you make a quick sweep of the neck to enable the accelerometer in a clever gesture control.
  • MIDI-assignable touch strip, but also a full pitch bend wheel underneath your thumb (I rather prefer the latter, but it’s nice to have a choice).
  • Assignable slider under your thumb, mapped by default to volume.
  • Dedicated sustain button, plus octave selection, transport, and patch select.

With all due respect to Roland, this appears to fix effectively all of my complaints about the Roland keytars at a fraction of the price.

And you can add a strap via standard guitar strap pegs.

The best part:
Estimated street US$249

Akai Pro MAX49: Touch Faders, CV

I’ve all but begged manufacturers to explore what an advanced or high-end MIDI controller would look like. The MAX49 likely won’t please everyone, but it’s one compelling-looking answer. Features:

  • 49 semi-weighted keys, with channel aftertouch
  • 12 MPC pads, backlit, four banks each
  • 8 LED touch faders in place of physical faders, four banks each
  • Control Voltage and analog Gate outputs for use with analog and vintage gear
  • Arpeggiator with latch
  • Step sequencer
  • MPC swing, Note Repeat, Full Level, navigation – and yeah, I use this stuff, even if the software can do the same
    USB MIDI, MIDI DIN, connect to anything
  • Control surface mappings plus full Mackie Control and HUI support – and, sorry, but for all the fancier solutions, sometimes that’s the easiest way to control a variety of software like Ableton Live, Reason, and the other DAWs

So, basically, all the features you want. My only questions are what it looks like in person and how the action feels, particularly those touch faders, as that can be tricky to pull off.

But the features are just perfect. It’s about time to bring back aftertouch and to connect with actual MIDI gear. Adding CV is a delicious addition. And honestly, features like being able to switch on an arpeggiator are far more useful and appealing to average musicians than the hard-to-configure, often-gimmicky automatic control features on many of the keyboards out there. So I’ve got my fingers crossed that the build quality and usability here are good — and that some of Akai’s rivals start taking on similar features. It’s bizarre to be applauding adding features from the 80s and 70s, but some recent progress has been steps backward, not forward.

Q2 2012
Estimated street $499

There are other new Alesis keyboards out this week, but the Akai MAX49 pretty much steals their thunder.

More Vortex Photos

Back to the Vortex, since I got to snap some shots this morning in Anaheim.


  • Fuck Yah!!! Finally, a modern replacement for my Casio AZ-1. On paper this is almost exactly what I want: Aftertouch-check, Midi port in the correct place-check, Assignable controllers-check. I was just figuring out a way to use my iphone as an accelerometer control for my AZ-1. 

    I'm ordering one as soon as I can. I suddenly have a spare AZ-1 for sale. (not my main unit, but the backup)

  • If only they had added some rotary controllers…

  • silas

    if alesis haven't hired jordan rudess to demo their new key-axe vortex then they have totally failed – as far as the akai goes… it's kind of cool – no need for encoders if you have touch strips & cv!!! who would thought of bringing that back in a controller? akai I guess…

  • The Akai Max is seriously the same *exact* product I pitched to Opcode while I worked there in 1996, with the addition of the drum pads. Seriously – same exact everything else. I probably still have the white paper and market analysis I wrote for it. I had nothing to do with this one – but just funny it took this long for someone to come out with the same idea.

    In an alternate universe – we would have had this in the 90s, along with multiport rack interfaces that also had audio and midi/cv on modular cards. 🙂

    Glad to see some cool products this NAMM. I feel like the last couple have been somewhat underwhelming.

  • Bob

    Arp, full level switch, and cv? I want this. 

    My only hope Is that the arp is well programmable and….. it comes in black

  • Was confused for a second because there was no mention if the Vortex ran on batteries. But yeah, there is a battery compartment in the last picture.

    Because, I mean, USB is nice when you use this at home, but that's no option for the stage. It would have been nice of Alesis to provide some kind of hook/eye/loop thing next to the jacks so that your USB cable would not fall out on the first movement. So on the stage, MIDI DIN and battery power is the way to go.

    • Simple enough to apply a 3M Cord Bundler to the back an loop your cables through that. the 3M Cord Bundler is removable without hurting the product too.

  • guy

    The pads on the MPK49 are stiff and hard to trigger.. here's hoping the MAX49 will solve that.

  • Blob

    The pads were the main reason I re-sold my MPK49 a few months ago. AKAI's advertising for the MPK's features is misleading to say the least. They're only useable as FX buttons / loop triggers – no sensitivity at all, you have to almost punch the pads to make them work. It's a good keyboard, but since I actually wanted to use the pads to play live percussion/beats (and that's what they're are supposed to be there for, anyway), I was immensely disappointed. Hopefully they've solved that problem with this new model.

  • matthew

    i hope Akai fixed those awful, stiff as rock, pads from the MPK design as well. You can order a kit to fix the sesitivity of the stock pads… but it would be nice to get them from the factory that way.

  • Blob

    @matthew – yes it would 😉 In any case, like I said, apart from the pads letting you down, the MPK is a good professional grade keyboard, and this new version does have interesting features (LED sliders, step sequencer). I'll wait for the reviews.

  • The CV/Gate feature of the MAX49 is a nice addition but it would have had a lot more impact if velocity had been included.

  • alkama

    Lets hope the MAX49 will have bidirectional MIDI on its controls, unlike the MPK49, because having led backlit buttons that cant even follow the current hosts status is kind of bothering ! (Plus this one got virtual faders… Would be so ashaming if they couldnt do that).

  • 250 street level? I am SO getting this thing when it comes out…

  • Can’t wait till these start shipping!

  • Can’t wait till these start shipping! The Keytar aint neva gonna die says me!

  • J Black Jackson

    Can’t wait till these start shipping! The Keytar aint neva gonna die says me!

  • melodies123

    excellent ]
          model ……….i am staving to get it soon…..

  • melodies123

    excellent ]
          model ……….i am staving to get it soon…..

  • melodies123

    excellent ]
          model ……….i am staving to get it soon…..

  • jackie1952

    that did not help at all

  • jackie1952

    that did not help at all

  • jackie1952

    that did not help at all