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Axis-49 early impressions

I like the AXiS-49.         Ken Rushton - originally written March 2009, updated November 2010
Now that the Axis units have "selfless mode" (every key has a seperate note as opposed to how it originally shipped) and can wrote to channel 1 and 2) I give it high marks because while I have quibbles about the keys, it is the only affordable isomorphic (easy to learn & very fast to play) keyboard in the world. In practice, it's turned out to be surprisingly adaptable.  

It is light, portable and meets my needs as a keyboard (-acutally i use two, one for each hand). As this is a considerable, multiple year commitment, I’ve given it a fairly close examination. Crucially, the velocity sensitivity seems adequate to simulate a good piano’s sound, given a bit of tweaking.

Axis-49's output revealed
It plugged in to my desktop and laptop computers and was immediately recognized. I hooked it up to Max/MSP (a midi programming system, see right) to see what it was doing, note and velocity wise. I then piped the midi signal through to Garritan Personal Orchestra (GPO) with a Yamaha grand piano sampler playing. That worked well, albeit with a bit of latency, about 1/16 of a beat (due to the layers of software, not the Axis) .
The key travel distance is sharply less that that of a piano, about that of a PC’s keyboard, and the keys “click” when pressed. They also “thunk” when they hit bottom. This is not an issue when playing loudly, but is noticeable on soft passages. I expect much of this is due to my mal-adroitness, although another mm of travel distance might have been nice. In any case, this can probably be fixed with a light felt bed and/or light wire spring under the keys.
 
The key spacing feels at first very close, but is exactly that of a PC keyboard. At first this is disconcerting, and I expect it will be to anyone with experience on a piano keyboard, perhaps not so much for those with a midi keyboard, which generally have lighter touch. On the other hand, we all are experts on PC keyboards, so the fingers should quickly adapt.
 
If you are used to a stiff piano keyboard, I warn you, be prepared for a surprise. The sharply reduced key travel and much lighter touch will come as a shock – both are nearly 1/2 to 1/3 lighter; it was easy to "peg the scale" and hit the top velocity of 127; not so easy to consistently hit 55.  It took several months for me to get used to lightening up.
 
I quite like the beveling on the keys - it allows key-to-key hops: nice glissandos, trills even! A whole new way of playing is possible here.

To test the crucial velocity sensitivity, which came out so unevenly in my hands, I called upon my resident professional pianist (my wife), she had no problem keeping the key velocity (loudness) even, and playing softly, so the problem, methinks, lies in my gnarled mitts. Added note: the velocity curve is too harsh; it needs tweaking
 
On the other hand, she just could not figure out the harmonic axis layout. She has played the piano since the age of five, so the piano layout is wired down tight within her soul. She can play any song in any key (her favorite key is C-sharp!). So there is little hope of convincing her of its advantages. I, on the other hand, could at least easily play the chromatic and major scales on the Axis in any key.

Here’s a tip based on several years experience: you’ll never convince a keyboard player with 5 or more years of experience that this is a great keyboard. You usually will have great difficulty even explaining how it works. Piano teachers will universally say (if you press them for an honest opinion) “it makes it too easy” and "all the same", which is perhaps the greatest praise of all.
 
Ken

PS. On the other hand, I once showed a prototype jammer to a gentleman who played horn in a band, and had had three years of piano. He instantly could play the thing and would have purchased it on the spot. Go figure.

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