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?)