Alesis Vortex Wireless keytar controller reviewed

October 3, 2014

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 performance).

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.


Wireless Operation

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 connections.

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. 


Bundled Software

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.


Conclusions

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.


PROS

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. 

CONS

With only a three-digit LED, programming without the included software editor is less than user-friendly. 

Bottom Line

The best bang for buck in a keytar MIDI controller, hands down.

$299 list | $199 street | alesis.com 

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