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.