Originally a hot property with fusion soloists in the ’70s and new wave keyboardists in the ’80s, keytars are making a big comeback. With prices of vintage keytars escalating madly on the used market, Roland has stepped up their offerings, and now Alesis slings on the Vortex, a controller-only keytar at a very approachable price.
The Vortex features a three-octave keyboard transmitting both velocity and aftertouch, wrapped in a sleek high-grade plastic case—think fancy laptop. The rubber buttons and trigger pads have a nice tactile feel, and most sport blue LEDs at their edges, a nice detail when playing on dark stages. Left-hand controllers include a thumb-operated pitch wheel and reassignable volume slider on the top edge, a ribbon controller, a large sustain button, octave up/down buttons, and three buttons for selecting keyboard split zones. The butt of the handle contains three blue LEDs that flicker when notes are played. They’re not mentioned in the manual, and I couldn’t discern any functional pattern to their blinking, so we’ll assume they’re for showmanship value.
The front panel features an easily readable three-digit LED readout, MIDI program change up/down buttons, and buttons used to edit and switch the Vortex’s internal control presets (more on these below). Three assignable knobs send MIDI control data when you’re playing and adjust internal parameters when you’re editing the presets. Eight drum trigger pads round out the front panel. The top four pads are inconsistently sized to belnd with Vortex’s swoopy angular case, but this wasn’t an issue in use. In fact, I could even see this being useful.
Alesis throws in a white nylon strap, but fully extended to around 48 inches, I found it too short—it hung at belly level on my average frame. The Vortex is lightweight and shoulder-easy at six and a half pounds, which is less than most electric guitars. Next to the battery compartment is a separate small chamber with a snap-in door; the manual states this is for USB or MIDI cables, but they’ll have to be pretty short to fit.
On the right side you’ll find a switch for selecting batteries (four AA) or USB power, a standard five-pin MIDI output, a sustain pedal input, and a a jack for a power supply (not included).
For those seeking a plug-and-play controller, the Vortex is simple. The majority of its basic controls are easy to understand, and if you set up keyboard splits and MIDI controllers on the receiving instrument or computer side, you may never need to crack the manual.
However, the Vortex also delivers for players who want to set up more control on the controller end of things. You can store 24 presets containing MIDI controller assignments and keyboard splits. These are selected by pressing the patch bank select button to cycle through three banks (dedicated LEDs display bank A, B or C), then pressing one of the eight drum pads to choose specific presets. This can mean up to four button presses to select a preset, but the buttons’ positive tactile feedback makes the process zippy, and once a patch is selected, the drum pads revert to play mode.
Keyboard and Performance Controls
Vortex’s unweighted three-octave keyboard transmits both velocity and aftertouch—the latter being a very nice addition given its low price. Though its action is relatively light, it has a solid feel exceeding that of many non-keytar controllers in its price class. The drum pads deliver as well: In addition to sending MIDI note data, they can send continuous controller messages (either momentarily sending a new value or toggling between two values) or MIDI program changes. You can set each pad’s behavior independently, allowing a great deal of flexibility, and all settings are stored in Vortex patches. For users short on MIDI modules or plug-in synths, Alesis also throws in Sonivox DVI, a sample-based virtual instrument.
The Vortex’s most talked-about feature is a MIDI-assignable accelerometer. This is essentially a tilt detector that outputs MIDI controller data when you swing the Vortex’s left (neck) side up toward a vertical position. By default it sends modulation wheel messages with a value of zero when fully horizontal, progressing to 127 when you point the neck at the sky. You can reassign it to any MIDI continuious controller, and via a simple setup procedure, you can change the start and stop positions so that moving the neck through a tighter arc fully sweeps the value from 0 to 127. Conversely, you can set minimum and maximum controller values so that tilting the neck sweeps the parameter in a limited range—perfect if you want to add vibrato, for example, that doesn’t get so deep it destroys the sense of the note’s center pitch. You can similarly scale the ribbon, slider, and the three knobs.
Though the tilt detector works as advertised and can be quite fun, I’m not convinced it will revolutionize live performance. I found pivoting the entire instrument up and down with my left arm wasn’t entirely natural—it requires a lot of movement compared to a standard wheel or ribbon. More importantly, the accelerometer spits out somewhat random controller data when held at in-between positions, which created a burbling sound when I had it assigned to filter cutoff. Switching to the left-hand ribbon was an instant improvement, as the Vortex’s ribbon is supremely smooth and accurate. The ribbon can latch its position or return to zero after you lift your finger. Though I found the rubberized slider handy for quick volume adjustments, I had a hard time adapting to using my thumb for pitch-bending. I’d prefer small finger-controlled wheels (i.e., I’d like to see the axis of movement turned 90 degrees) but this may be the guitarist in me talking. Left-hand controller preferences are a personal thing, so try it out—you may feel the opposite way.
Excluding vintage keytars, the Vortex’s main competition is Roland’s Lucina (reviewed Jan. ’12), which streets for $399. A hundred more clams than the Vortex buys you a self-contained synth with an internal USB audio player. That said, the Lucina has fewer performance controls and doesn’t come close to the Vortex’s extensive controller mapping flexibility. Generally, the Lucina has a simplified home-keyboard feel in contrast to the Vortex’s professional vibe, and I found the Vortex’s angular “folded paper” design more visually appealing. Though the newfangled tilt feature may not be 100 percent ready for prime time, the Vortex’s array of highly configurable performance controls more than make up for that. At just $299 street, the slick, feature-laden Vortex is a one heck of a good value.
Solid build quality. Large variety of assignable MIDI controllers including a ribbon and accelerometer (neck tilt detection). Control assignments and splits are easy to make and can be saved. Keys sense aftertouch.
No internal sounds; it’s a controller only. Accelerometer has somewhat fussy tilt response.
A keytar controller with aftertouch and patch memory for this little money? Yes please!
$399 list | $299 street