The original Alesis Vortex was a boon to those who wanted
to experience the joy of the keytar at a low price. The new Vortex
Wireless takes that same feature-packed controller and adds wireless
MIDI-over-USB transmission. That’s more than a novelty, as having any
sort of tether onstage can really be an obstacle to full keytar
enjoyment and unrestrained performance. Let’s take a look at this truly unique
remote controller keyboard.
Form and Function
Aside from the aforementioned addition of wireless
operation, the Vortex gets a new look with a black plastic casing (the
original vortex, reviewed in June 2013, came in white). Its 37-note
synth-action keyboard transmits both velocity and aftertouch. As synth
keyboard actions go, there’s a good deal of resistance. In fact, the
keys spring up quickly enough to produce an audible clack upon release
(though that’s not likely to be any sort of practical issue in live
There’s no shortage of controls on the Vortex Wireless.
The neck features a multi-function ribbon, pitch-bend wheel, assignable
slider, and buttons to control sustain, ribbon modes, octave up/down,
and keyboard zones. The main panel features a three-digit LED screen,
three assignable knobs, and eight assignable trigger pads. The trigger
pads vary in size and shape, and serve multiple functions. On the
underside you’ll find a battery compartment (the Vortex Wireless uses
four AA batteries) and a storage compartment for cables. The Vortex
Wireless can also be powered by an AC adapter (sold separately) or the
USB bus—but of course, the idea is to go completely wireless. Overall,
the look leans toward the quirky and angular.
Let’s also not forget the accelerometer, which allows you
to use the motion of the whole instrument to affect the sound. This
feature, unique to the Vortex Wireless and its predecessor, suits the
keytar well. As you tilt the neck up or down, the accelerometer sends
MIDI controller data along a user-programmable CC, with modulation as
the default setting. In the horizontal playing position, the control
value is 0, which you can sweep up to 127 by pointing the neck fully
upward. You can customize the minimum and maximum values transmitted as
well as the physical range in which it senses movement. The latter is
ideal for those who prefer to keep the keytar at an angle while playing.
Similarly, the control knobs, ribbon controller, and slider can be
scaled as well. It’s this type of flexibility that really facilitates
creating a personal connection to the instrument. This was especially
evident when it came to the pitch-bend wheel. When horizontal, the wheel
bends pitch upward when moved to the left, and downward when moved to
the right. The logic here is that it follows the pitch direction of the
keyboard (left is down, right is up). However, when playing a
conventional synth with a pitch wheel, you move the thumb away from your
body to bend pitch upward, and towards it to bend down. To approximate
the same technique on the Vortex, you need to reverse the wheel’s
response. Happily, there are parameters to make that very change and
save it as part of a program. If you prefer to use another finger to
work the wheel, the default setting works nicely as well. If you get
deep into customizing your controllers, keep the user manual handy, as
the three-character LED isn’t the most intuitive display for editing.
In addition to conventional MIDI and USB operation, the
Vortex Wireless implements wireless USB. This is achieved by connecting
the USB wireless receiver, which is about the size of a thumb drive. The
receiver can be connected to any computer or instrument that’s equipped
with a rectangular USB type A connector, such as the Muse Receptor
Qu4ttro I reviewed last month. If you’re looking to control a hardware
MIDI device wirelessly, you’ll need to incorporate a computer and MIDI
to route the wireless signal to it. [Since the Vortex’s USB requires
no drivers, you could also use an iConnect MIDI 4+ interface for this
application without a computer, as it has a type A port from which it
can route incoming MIDI to its five-pin outputs. —Ed.] The wireless
operation is fast and responsive, with no noticeable latency or other
difference in performance when compared to USB or MIDI wired
Alesis claims a wireless range of up to 100 feet. In
practice, I roamed about 45 feet in my home studio and in various venues
before physically running out of room, with no problems. I didn’t have
the opportunity to test for interference in an RF-dense context such as a
band that uses mainly wireless mics and in-ear monitors.
Even if you don’t possess a single MIDI instrument or
software synth, you can start making music right away with the Vortex
Wireless’ included software. In the box you’ll find a DVD copy of
Ableton Live Lite 8, and when you register the software on the Ableton
site, you can upgrade for free to Live Lite 9. This package gives you a
basic DAW and software synth tones right off the bat.
Also included is Sonivox’s Vortex-I, a software synth
specially designed for the Vortex and Vortex Wireless. This a basic
synth with editable five-stage envelopes for amp and filter, LFOs for
amp, filter, and pitch, lowpass filter with resonance, and up to four
simultaneous effects (reverb, EQ, chorus, and delay). There’s also a
download of the Ignite music creation software by Air Music, and Vyzex
Vortex, a software editor/librarian. The wireless connection
communicates in both directions, so you can use Vyzex to make changes to
the Vortex Wireless settings without the need to connect a cable.
If you’re a fan of the keytar, it’s easy to get excited
about what the Vortex Wireless offers. It’s got the visuals, from its
funky design and non-uniform drum pads. The visuals lead to expression
via the accelerometer control, and the neck is outfitted with a Swiss
Army knife-like compliment of controllers to keep the left hand more
than occupied during performance. The right hand will have a field day
with the aftertouch-sensing keyboard, solid-feeling assignable knobs,
and the trigger pads. Most importantly, between the wireless USB and
battery operation, it really does cut the cord. Some users might bemoan
the lack of an internal synth, but then you’d need a cable or wireless audio
transmission, the latter of which would add significant cost whether it
was built-in or an external belt pack. It’s surprising that a keytar
controller this full-featured goes for a couple hundred bucks, but
should come as no surprise that that merits a Key Buy award.
Full-size keys with aftertouch. Tight wireless operation.
Ample controls including accelerometer, ribbon, wheel, slider, and
knobs. Cool assignable pads. Lightweight and affordable. Includes
bundled synth and DAW software.
With only a three-digit LED, programming without the included software editor is less than user-friendly.
The best bang for buck in a keytar MIDI controller, hands down.
$299 list | $199 street | alesis.com