- USB and MIDI connectors are on the left side panel, as is the pitch wheel. Those who use the left index finger for pitchbend (a la Nord pitch stick) may enjoy it, but it’s awkward for the thumb.
- Modulation slider is assignable, though its distance from the pitch wheel makes it tricky to go back and forth between the two.
- No-nonsense controls for MIDI volume, octave, aftertouch mode (channel or poly), patch selection, and edit menus. The wheels are also pushbuttons.
- Color touchscreen lets you delve deep into the Vax-77’s customizable features, and with some preparation, see preset names and banks of your controlled synths.
- Matte textured keys (on both standard and heavy action models) provide a hint of grip for the fingers, for a more pianistic experience.
- The 77th, reverse-color key can be a high D note or a “hot key” that lets you change to the next patch in your playlist quickly.
- Jacks for a sustain pedal plus three sweep or switch pedals are on the right side panel. Pedals and switches are programmable, and can send different controllers on different MIDI channels simultaneously.
- Magnesium body is tough, available black or red finishes are car-show quality, and there’s room to park a shallow synth or second MIDI keyboard on top.
Sometimes being a piano player sucks. Everything’s great when you’ve got a nice piano, but once you’re playing gigs and sessions, a grim reality sets in. We’re soon led to find the best substitute for our beloved piano. And there always seems to be a catch: Digital piano X feels right, but weighs a ton. MIDI keyboard Y is portable, but plays like a pocket calculator. When and where will we find the porridge that’s just right?
Well, the Austin, Texas-based startup Infinite Response has finally released the much-buzzedabout Vax-77, a MIDI controller keyboard with an innovative new design. Pianists are paying attention, as are synth power users, and two main features are reeling them in.
IT FOLDS IN HALF
“What?” is the response I get from keyboard players when they first hear this. The Vax-77 is the first professional keyboard we’ve seen that literally folds in half for easy transport. To look at it and play it, you’d never know that it folds. It’s a simple, yet innovative solution to making a more portable keyboard, and it’s masterfully executed. The included “airport roller” nylon luggage has a telescoping handle, and an extra pouch for a laptop and cables, so you’re good to go on the subway or in your Mini Cooper with ease.
The Vax can also save a lot of money for frequent fliers. Vax user Eddie Jobson (of prog supergroups Roxy Music and U.K.) flies with two Vax-77s in custom flight cases, and both come in under 50 pounds, avoiding any extra charges. Your mileage may vary depending on how heavy a case you have, but it is possible.
Gather ’round the fire and we’ll tell you a tale of old. A select few synths once had polyphonic aftertouch, or poly-AT for short. The aftertouch sensitivity in nearly all of today’s keyboards is channel aftertouch, where adding pressure to one key affects all the keys you’re playing at that moment. Polyphonic aftertouch lets you modulate only the key or keys on which you press harder. Want some vibrato or a filter opening on just the middle note of that chord? Poly-AT will do that. The Vax-77 joins a rare breed of instruments that sport this feature (see “Poly Pressure Players” on page 52), and adds an innovative twist: The effect is adaptive. The Vax-77 senses the velocity of your keystrokes, with louder/harder notes requiring more pressure to engage the aftertouch than ones you played softly. In practice, the results are very musical and expressive.
HOW DOES IT FEEL?
On one side, we’ve got pianists dreaming of a viable keyboard they can carry on their backs. On the other, we’ve got synth freaks salivating for poly-AT. So what does the Vax-77 feel like, and can it satisfy both camps and those in between? Lo and behold, two flavors of keyboard action are available: standard and heavy. The keys have a pleasant matte texture reminiscent of ivory and ebony. This, and every other feature of the Vax-77, including poly-AT, is identical on both models. The only difference is the feel. The standard action is in synth and organ territory, with lightning-fast response and startling dynamic range. It’s easy to play, very balanced, and consistent.
The heavier option isn’t your typical weighted keyboard action. In fact, resistance is provided by curled-up leaf springs that partially uncurl as you strike a key. Weights are in there, but only as a counterbalance. The mechanicals are the same in the standard version, only with less spring resistance and less counterbalance weight. The keys don’t physically strike key contacts like on most keyboards; instead, notes and velocities are tracked by magnetic sensors — the engineering term for this is the “linear Hall effect.”
At first, a pianist might not feel that there’s much weight, as there’s no sense of a “hammer” striking anything. However, the more I played the heavy-action Vax-77, the more I realized that I could still play like I do on the piano, with the same touch and timing. As I played more and more, I noticed that I was able to get serious dynamics out of premium virtual pianos including Garritan Steinway and Synthogy Ivory. With the textured keys, sometimes it felt like I was playing a classic upright, though no upright I’ve played could handle rapid-fire repeated notes like the Vax-77 can. What’s more, playing organ and synth sounds on this action felt comfortable as well, without the bogged-down feeling one can experience with weighted keys.
TOUCHSCREEN AND MODES
The Vax-77’s color touchscreen is the gateway to three modes: Setup, Library, and Playlist. Setup mode is where you globally calibrate controllers (with support for halfpedaling sustain), tweak the aftertouch sensitivity and velocity curves, assign synths to MIDI channels, and more.
Fig. 1. Small text at the bottom of the screen reminds you how to get around in Playlist mode.
Library mode shows the banks of sounds in your host synths. It won’t do this automatically; you need to use the included librarian software (PC version in box; Mac version to be downloadable in 30–60 days) to get your bank and preset names and numbers into the Vax. Also, it comes preloaded with some preset banks for several popular hardware and software synths. You build an ordered playlist of sounds for use in performance, and the ability to see the patch names makes the process that much easier.
Playlist mode is where the Vax shines as a performance instrument (see Figure 1 above). The touchscreen displays the current preset and the next three presets in the playlist order. For random access, scroll through the playlist with the right-side wheel, then touch the name of the preset you want. This puts it in the “next up” position without actually changing sounds. To do this, press the green button or the reverse-color top key on the keyboard.
Fig. 2 The control slider screen shows assignable fader icons which can be adjusted by touch or physical wheel.
Touching the Ctrl button in Playlist mode brings up a screen of nine virtual MIDI control sliders (see Figure 2 above). Each slider’s MIDI controller number and entry value can be defined and saved with each preset. For realtime control, touch, hold, and slide your finger up and down the onscreen slider. For a more tactile experience, touch the fader you want and adjust its value using the right-side wheel. Press the wheel in to change to a drawbar mode for use with tonewheel organ emulations.
You can save up to 12 splits and/or layers alongside your playlist. There are some cool tricks here. Want to send “regular” channel aftertouch to your synth on channel 1, while sending polyphonic aftertouch to channel 2, while whatever’s on channel 3 ignores pitchbends? Setting that up will take mere seconds on the Vax-77, and that’s just the beginning of how deep it gets.
Two limitations: The screen isn’t multitouch, and you can’t limit a slider’s range so that its full travel changes a value from, say, 30 to 90 instead of 0 to 127 — this would be useful for things like precise filter sweeps during performance. Many soft synths do this sort of scaling on the receiving end, though, and it’s the kind of feature Infinite Response could add in an OS update.
With the Vax-77, Infinite Response may well have started the renaissance of the true high-end master MIDI keyboard. This shows in so many aspects of the instrument, from its Playlist mode to the magnesium body (can’t say we’ve seen that before), and of course, the folding form factor. In their words, they aimed to create the “fastest weighted action” available, and thanks to their original approach to key action and sensing, we think they’ve done it. After playing it for a while, I stopped thinking about how close it did or didn’t feel to a piano, because I was having too much fun playing music.
The main thing it leaves synth-heads wanting is more physical knobs and sliders, but if you’re shopping for a controller in this league, you’re likely all about the action — you can always put a relatively inexpensive, knob-covered second keyboard on top. The Vax-77 is a beautiful instrument with real power to make gigging easier, the “just right” combination for the touring pro, and a tech breakthrough that wins our Key Buy award.
PROS Most portable weighted keyboard we’ve seen. Action is fast and very responsive to dynamics. Polyphonic aftertouch is the real deal. Transmits release velocity. Roadworthy construction. Playlist mode is practical and flexible.
CONS Questionable placement of pitchbend wheel and modulation slider. A highend instrument with innovations like these comes at a premium price.
INFO $2,995 direct, including semi-hard roller case, patch librarian, and Sonivox Soundstage, infiniteresponse.com
NEED TO KNOW
Does it qualify as a carry-on for air travel? When folded, a naked Vax-77 meets most airlines’ size restrictions. But we wouldn’t put a $3,000 keyboard in an overhead bin with no protection.
How big and tough is the included roller case? It’s great for your car, van, or tour bus. It’s a hair too big for a carry-on, and though it won’t incur oversize or overweight charges if you baggage-check the Vax inside it, we’d insist on something sturdier for that.
How does the fold-up keyboard stay stable when I’m playing? Two metal bars, located in grooves in the underside of the keyboard, slide across the folding point and lock down using thumbwheels. There isn’t even a hint of instability or separation while playing.
Why get this instead of another MIDI controller? No other weighted, six-or-more-octave keyboard is this portable. Nothing else currently made sends polyphonic aftertouch, except the MIDI version of the new Rhodes electric piano.
Is the heavier action option suitable for serious piano playing? Yes, though it takes some getting used to. A pianist may want more resistance, but the unique design offers surprisingly broad dynamic control, with a lot more nuance than expected.
POLY PRESSURE PLAYERS
“Polyphonic aftertouch is like a pool at the gym,” says Executive Editor Stephen Fortner. “People always want one when signing up, but very few actually use it.” So who has used it, and on what gear? Perhaps the definitive synth with poly-AT was the mighty Yamaha CS- 80. Eddie Jobson played one in the band U.K., and advised Infinite Response as they developed the Vax-77. Vangelis played the CS- 80 on the Blade Runner soundtrack, bringing out certain voices within chords in an orchestral fashion. There have been just a few poly-AT keyboards since, including the Prophet-T8 and Rhodes Chroma (both put to good use by Josef Zawinul of Weather Report), Kurzweil’s MIDIboard, and most recently, Ensoniq’s TS-10 and TS-12 in 1993. While there haven’t been a lot of keyboards that transmit poly-AT, the good news is that many hardware and software synths respond to it. To get you hooked, each Vax-77 comes with a special edition of Sonivox’s Soundstage software instrument (Mac/PC), with a custom sound set that showcases the Vax’s poly-AT.