Sep 7

The Roland AX-SYNTH has got to be the King of the Keytars but with Roland recently producing the younger and smaller LUCINA shoulder synth, I wondered how the two compared and whether the new designs on the LUCINA had significantly improved upon the sleek lines of the Pro AX- SYNTH. Following my review of the LUCINA, I was keen to determine just how easy it was to access the controls.

The major differences are that the AX-SYNTH has a neck like a guitar. I personally feel that visually this added length is more appealing, whereas the LUCINA probably wins in the Studio where it more conveniently fits into its other use as a controller. The main controls are also placed on different sides of the keys. Roland made the deliberate decision to move the controls for the Lucina and I think from the point of using your thumb of your right hand, the Lucina wins, whereas there are more controls on the AX accessible easily with the left-hand. So it probably comes down to personal choice, familiarity and your own playing style as to which you prefer. Roland has now produced a sexy looking black version of the AX Synth to give you the same colour choices to that of the Lucina. There were previously other Roland models – The Roland AX1, AX5 and AX7 ‘keytar’ MIDI controllers but the main difference between the AX-Synth and the older models is that the AX Synth has sounds on board. This means you can use it without having to trail a MIDI cable around the stage. If you feel like running around the whole stage, cable-free with one of these, you can do it in wireless mode with the AX powered by batteries and they last up to 6 hours.

The sounds in the main come from Roland’s Fantom G and are very high quality. Roland say they have been selected with solo performance in mind. Selecting sounds ( or Regular Tones as Roland call them) is done by pressing one of the eight family tone groups, which are :- SYNTH LEAD 1, SYNTH LEAD 2, BASS, LEAD GUITAR, BRASS / POLY SYNTH, STRINGS/PAD, ORGAN/CLAV, CHOIR/PIANO. Each of these groups contain 32 variations which give you a total of 256 tones. On top of this are 4 SuperNATURAL tones (VIOLIN, CELLO, SHAKUHACHI and TROMBONE) and 4 Special tones (TRUMPET, SAX, STRINGS and JAZZ SCAT). Although the 4 SuperNATURAL tones are not sounds I would use much, they are however exceptionally real sounding, capturing every nuance of the instrument. I would have to say the Violin is my favourite, it has a wonderful texture and when used with the AX performance controllers, you will not believe the realistic violin sound you are producing. Roland do not give anything away with the 4 special tones but simply say that these are based on a different technology than SuperNATURAL Tones. They are also of very good quality. Personally I would have liked a little bit more Grit in the sound of the SAX. You can now download 12 new patches free from Roland programmed by Oliver Davis. They come with a very useful pdf document that gives you advice on using the performance controls with these sounds.

If you really want to change the on-board sounds, Roland provide a very useful editor for PC or MAC. The editor is divided into three sections. Section 1 is for System Common and Controller settings. Here you can adjust things like master levels and pitch, keyboard velocity and D-Beam range. Section 2 covers PATCH EFFECTS and has three further pages on ROUTING, MFX and CHORUS and REVERB. SECTION 3 is the largest section and is used for PATCH EDIT. Firstly you have two choices PRO EDIT or ZOOM EDIT. PRO EDIT provides access to nine pages – (SUMMARY, COMMON and STRUCTURE, WG, TVF, TVA, LFO, VELOCITY and KEY RANGE, MATRIX CONTROL, and CONTROL SW), whilst ZOOM EDIT provides access to five pages – (PITCH ENVELOPE, TVF ENVELOPE, TVA ENVELOPE, and LFO). The keyboard itself can be used as a numeric keypad for selecting external MIDI channels by using the bottom octave and for patch changing by using the top octave.

The librarian is very much like the Fantom librarian for you to arrange your sounds and load new sounds etc. It is a shame that you cannot make changes in real time with dedicated controls on the synth itself rather than have to hook it up to a PC. I was thinking about the effects layout on the Roland GAIA, if the AX-Synth had this it would have provided even more possibilities for awesome live solo performances. You can however, change the Reverb Send and Patch Volume levels by using Shift and Tone buttons.

There are 49 velocity-sensitive keys (C to C) and the maximum polyphony is128 voices. The controls are nicely positioned in front of you. To the left are some handy MIDI buttons for the transmitting of program change messages and a TX button to enable or disable transmitting MIDI messages. Then there are the usual Transpose, V-Link and Shift buttons. The Display is a (3 x 7) segment LED three-character display to inform you of which Tone, mode or parameter value you have selected. The TONE buttons select the desired Tone family, SuperNATURAL, SPECIAL or FAVORITE Tone, as you press it lights up in blue. The VARIATION buttons allow you to sequentially select a Tone from the active Tone family. With the favourites you can store 16 tones, 8 in Bank A and 8 in Bank B and you need to use the WRITE button for this purpose.

Moving onto the neck front you will find more controls. From a solo point of view, I found the Octave transpose buttons a ‘must have’. You could solo away with your right hand, hit the octave button with your left and not move your right hand position – it is so easy. You can also use these buttons to select Tone variations – absolutely brilliant. The obvious favourite is the MODULATION BAR/TOUCH CONTROLLER. If you intend to compete with your guitarist you have got to use this to add modulation to the notes you are playing and for pitch bend by sliding your finger on the ribbon strip. Just select your screechy lead guitar patch and away you go – listen out for the harmonics and feedback. If that doesn’t blow you mind, you could always use the invisible D-Beam to grab the attention of your on-lookers. Here you have three choices; pitch, filter or a function you assign yourself to the D-Beam to wave your hand over.

As we move round to the back of the neck there are more controls. You have two rotary knobs to control Volume and Aftertouch with your thumb. The Volume knob in a live situation allows some smooth transitional changes when for example you are switching from playing rhythmic chords to then trying to do a lead solo like Ritchie Blackmore. The AFTER-TOUCH knob can be used to generate channel aftertouch messages for the notes you are playing. Depending on the aftertouch assignment of the Tone you are using: the knob may change the Tone’s level or pitch or generate filter sweeps etc.
The Portamento button is used to glide from one note to the next. The Bender Mode button is there to determine how the ribbon controller works. Once this mode is enabled you can use the ribbon controller to just bend the last note played. The last button is simply a Hold / Sustain button so you have a free hand to use any of the performance controls on the note being held

Next to the 2 Stereo 1/4′ inch Output Jacks there is a ATT ON/OFF switch. If you are using 1/4” cables to connect the AX-Synth to an amplifier, you need to slide this switch to the “OFF” position. If you have a wireless setup and you notice some distortion then you need to slide this switch to the “ON” position to reduce the level of the AX-Synth’s audio output signal. Even though the AX-Synth has on-board sounds if you wish to connect via MIDI there are MIDI IN and OUT sockets for you to tap into another whole world of sounds. You will also find connections for Stereo Headphones, a Foot Pedal, a USB connector (USB MIDI), and an AC Adaptor. The USB connection makes communication to and from your computer fast and convenient for virtual-instrument performances.

The Size of the AX-Synth gives you about the same feel as a Guitar. The width is 1,142 mm/45 inches,   Depth – 266 mm / 10-1/2 inches, Height – 87 mm/ 3-7/16 inches. The weight of the AX is only 3.9 kg (8 lbs. 10 oz) and it felt comfortable to play. I think getting the strap adjusted to your liking is the most important part so that you can play the whole keyboard. From a two-handed point of view, I felt that the LUCINA was better because it had no neck to get in the way, but with the AX strap at the right length, despite it feeling strange to start with, you soon get used to it. I later found that if I moved the strap to Pin number 2 on the back, it was much easier to play with two hands.

The AX-Synth comes complete with an Owner’s Manual, A very smart and comfortable Black Roland Shoulder strap and an AC Adaptor (PSB-1U). Unfortunately the 8 x Ni-MH rechargeable Batteries to get your 6 hours of cable-free fun are not supplied.

I think personally if I had to choose between the Lucina and the AX-Synth, I would go for the AX. It is an amazing instrument packed with great sounds and controllers for expressive live performances. Every keyboard player that plays live should have one. Forget the 80s, these shoulder synths are being used today by many top artists because visually (in either white or the new black) they look stunning and give the artist the freedom to move anywhere. As you know, stage performance is not just about playing the notes. I have seen them used by Imogen Heap, the Black Eyed Peas and Lady GAGA. You will also see them with older artists that are still going today such as The Human League, Jean-Michel Jarre and Hawkwind.

2 Responses

  1. Rob Says:

    Great review! I have an AX Synth and am looking to customize it. I was curious where I can download the Oliver Davis patches.



  2. tonylongmusic Says:


    This is a bit old now as I think this was available in 2009. You may find more information about Oliver Davis patches at the site :-

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