Roland Ax-Synth High-Powered Synth-tar

Some things will always inspire debate: health care, financial regulatory reform, and mobile shoulder-strap keyboards. Though that last one may not have as much social import as the others, it’s every bit as divisive among musicians. Are “synth-tars” legitimate instruments to be played with guts and pride? Or are they toys that make keyboardists look like lame guitarist wannabes? Regardless of where you stand, Roland’s AX-Synth is an instrument worth noting, and if you’re a dissenter, it may just convert you. A sleeked-out younger sibling of the AX-7 MIDI controller, the AX-Synth gives the shoulder-keys vibe impressive curves, plentiful controls, and — for the first time — a built-in sound engine. If you’re a long-time believer in the power of the synth-tar, or a skeptic wondering what the hubbub is about, read on.
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0510 Roland AX-Synth Main

HANDS-ON

  1. These buttons can jump octaves, scroll through tone variations, or transpose by half-steps.
  2. Slide pitches around with the ribbon strip touch controller.
  3. The modulation bar is sensitive to how far down you push it, achieving a mod wheel-like range of intensity.
  4. Roland’s famous D-Beam lets you sweep pitch, filter, or assignable MIDI controllers with a wave of your hand.
  5. The keyboard doesn’t send aftertouch, but you can do so from the neck.
  6. Choose from 304 preset sounds, including four of Roland’s impressive SuperNatural tones, grouped into eight families here.
  7. Stereo 1/4" outs are here. To feed wireless audio transmitters that require low-level signals, flip the ATT switch to cut the output volume.
  8. Multiple strap points help you get a comfortable playing position, even for two-handed performance.

Some things will always inspire debate: health care, financial regulatory reform, and mobile shoulder-strap keyboards. Though that last one may not have as much social import as the others, it’s every bit as divisive among musicians. Are “synth-tars” legitimate instruments to be played with guts and pride? Or are they toys that make keyboardists look like lame guitarist wannabes? Regardless of where you stand, Roland’s AX-Synth is an instrument worth noting, and if you’re a dissenter, it may just convert you. A sleeked-out younger sibling of the AX-7 MIDI controller, the AX-Synth gives the shoulder-keys vibe impressive curves, plentiful controls, and — for the first time — a built-in sound engine. If you’re a long-time believer in the power of the synth-tar, or a skeptic wondering what the hubbub is about, read on.

LOOK AND CONTROLS

First things first: The AX-Synth looks good. Roland created a design that feels current and just edgy enough, without resembling a self-parody or something from a bad ’80s movie. At assorted gigs and jam sessions, I got nothing but positive feedback on its appearance.

For my taste, Roland also struck a nearly-ideal balance with the number and placement of controls. The AX is easy to navigate, with a mild learning curve, and while all sounds are easily accessible, neither the front panel nor the neck feels overly cluttered or tweaky. At the same time, the performance control available to your left hand alone is impressive.

Structurally, the AX-Synth is solid and durable. Though it’s impressively light, the keys, buttons, and molded plastic casings all feel reassuringly resilient, even under rapid-fire, two-handed percussive assaults. It took some trial and error to get the keyboard to sit right for my hand position and stature, but multiple points to hook on the shoulder strap were a big help in getting a comfortable feel, and also made playing the 49-key keyboard with two hands easy to achieve. Once I had the synth adjusted (surprisingly, at an angle similar to what low-slung punk guitarists do), I was ready to rock.

SOUNDS

The onboard sound engine features 128-voice polyphony and 304 tones (256 “regular” sounds and eight “special” sounds) sourced from Roland’s other synths. You call up sounds via eight Tone Family buttons; once you’ve selected the family, you can scroll through variations using buttons on the body or neck, or dial them up directly by holding down Shift and typing in the tone number on the top 12 notes of the keyboard, each of which has a digit or function.

Having logged many hours with Roland’s V-Synth series, I love their searing, distorted leads, so I started with the Lead Guitar category. The AX-Synth delivered the goods with surprising gusto: Tone 07 immediately got me playing Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” while 14 made me whip out the opening riff from Guns ’n’ Roses “Sweet Child of Mine.” Other lead guitar tones are more suited to prog, blues, or Boston-style classic rock, but regardless of the tone, it’s just plain fun to crank up the AX-Synth and wail. One showmanship tip: End a long riff with a loud note, sustain it with the Hold button on the back of the neck, then use the right hand to play with the D-Beam and/or pitch ribbon. Who says guitarists have all the fun?

Also strong are the synth lead and bass sounds. Though you can’t tweak filter or envelope knobs directly on the AX-Synth, I found the presets to be hot, inspiring, highly playable, and thoughtfully programmed; tone 10 in the Synth Lead 1 family has just enough bite to cut through a mix, and the modulation bar adds a tasty amount of slightly detuned chorus. While the bass sounds go from smooth, dark, and Minimoog-esque to wonderfully grindy and noisy, Roland also threw in some quality acoustic and electric bass patches for when you don’t want to sound like you’re playing a synth. Nice.

Though this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Roland’s multi-articulation “SuperNatural” tones, the four in the AX-Synth — trombone, cello, violin, and shakuhachi — are amongst the most realistic and organic imitations I’ve heard come out of any keyboard. The factory-programmed pitchbend for the trombone, which lets you slide up and down a fourth authentically, is particularly pleasing; so is the way all four instruments swell in volume and fullness with a touch of the modulation bar. The only semi-clunkers I found in the entire keyboard were the (non-SuperNatural) trumpet and sax; while perfectly usable, they don’t hold a candle to their SuperNatural neighbors in realism or expressiveness.

0510 Roland AX-Synth editor

Though you can edit any sound’s volume and reverb send amount on the AX-Synth itself, further tweaking and archiving of your custom sounds requires you to delve into the AX-Synth editor/librarian software, which communicates with the axe over USB (click picture at left).

IN USE

I first unboxed the AX-Synth in my home studio, hooked it up to my MOTU UltraLite audio interface, and started recording guitar-ish riffs into Logic. Three hours later, I was doing the same thing, with the same silly grin on my face. Coming to this review with the assumption that the AX-Synth was strictly for live performance, it totally surprised me with its ability to inspire in the studio as well. When dialing up patches like guitar, bass, trombone — anything that’s usually played standing up in the non-keyboard world — I felt noticeably more connected to the sounds and lines than if I’d been playing the exact same notes while seated at a stationary keyboard, and the parts I recorded reflected that heightened connection. I’ve already used the AX-Synth to record several cues for a live theater gig and, given how successful and satisfying I found it to be, plan to continue using it for this.

Given my affinity for the leads on Roland’s V-Synth, I wanted to lean into some notes, applying aftertouch for extra grit, vibrato, or filtering — but the AXSynth doesn’t generate aftertouch from its keyboard. Roland says they didn’t feel the vertical playing position was conducive to aftertouch — but I still want it. Anyway, between the modulation bar, pitchbend ribbon, Hold button, and DBeam, you can squeeze a great deal of customized, post-attack expression out of any note — including sending channel aftertouch.

My next order of business was to program a series of tones for easy switching mid-song, say, starting with a piano sound for the opening verse of David Cook’s “Light On,” switching to a big arena-rock guitar sound for the chorus, then soloing on another, more cutting lead guitar or synth sound. The AX-Synth lets you program two banks of favorites. You access them either with the Tone Family buttons, or by scrolling through them using the Variation buttons on the neck or body. Setup was quick and easy, and I relied on the neck buttons to go from one variation to another, so I wouldn’t have to take my right hand off the keys and my eyes off the audience to change sounds mid-performance. Again, playing this way is just plain fun.

The AX-Synth doesn’t seem to allow “patch remain.” When trying to let a big guitar chord ring out while switching back to piano, the tone vanished the instant I hit the Variation button, instead of continuing to sound on the original patch as long as the keys were depressed. It’s a bit puzzling that my Kurzweil PC88, which I bought over 15 years ago, could do this splendidly, yet Roland’s cutting-edge synth-tar lacks this function. Also, you can’t enable neckbased switching of octaves and tones at the same time — the two Variation buttons do one or the other, and changing their function requires a couple of extra button presses on the AX-Synth’s body, which isn’t a viable option if you’re playing and singing lead. I would have preferred to see both dedicated octave buttons and Variation buttons next to each other on the neck instead.

A minor nuisance is that the jacks — AC power, audio out, and MIDI — are spread apart along the lower edge of the synth. I found it difficult to feel as mobile as I would have liked in the studio, given cables trailing off from three different points. I troubleshot by bringing the cables together as close to the audio outs as possible and binding them with zip ties, creating an impromptu snake. Onstage, of course, you’d more likely run on batteries and use wireless transmitters, so this wouldn’t be an issue.

CONCLUSIONS

If you’re even slightly open to using a shoulder-strap keyboard, the AX-Synth is a true pleasure to jam on, and well worth checking out. The onboard sounds offer plenty of tonal depth and variation, but don’t clutter up the instrument’s operation, accessibility, or ease of use. Even with the aforementioned gripes, I still found the AX-Synth to be highly useful, enjoyable, and inspirational, both as a live performance axe and as a studio resource. If you’ve never had the experience of popping in some batteries, throwing such a synth over your shoulder, and shredding on the fly, the AX-Synth is the best motivation yet to give it a try.

PROS Loads of fun to play. Sleek design. Onboard sound engine with high-quality, very playable sounds. Lead guitar and synth sounds are particularly impressive. Neck controls allow a high level of expression. Easy to learn and navigate. Lightweight.

CONS Keyboard doesn’t transmit aftertouch, though you can do so from the neck. Multi-function buttons make it impossible to quickly transpose octaves and switch tones from the neck alone. No “patch remain.”

INFO $1,349 list/approx. $1,200 street, rolandus.com

NEED TO KNOW

Why don’t they call it a keytar? As pervasive as that term is, it’s trademarked a la “Kleenex” and “Xerox” to describe the Williams Keytar, on which piano-like keys push down on guitar-like strings.
Does it have more than novelty value? Wide-ranging artists like Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Mutemath, and Dream Theater have used similar keyboards to great effect. This is a serious tool with significant flexibility and musicmaking potential, not a sight gag.
How much does it weigh? Just under nine pounds — it’s totally wearable throughout a long set, and lighter than many guitars and basses.
Does it run on batteries? Yes: eight AA. Roland’s claim of six hours of use proved accurate in our tests. You can check the charge you have left, and set a power-saving sleep mode.
Does it have wireless audio or MIDI? You’ll need to supply your own wireless audio or MIDI transmitters to go completely cable-free.