I’ve only owned two keyboards my entire time working with music; a Midiman Keystation 49 (8 years use) and an M-Audio Oxygen49 (6 years use). I end up using keyboards for years, so when I’m about to buy a new one, I research for one that’ll also last just as many years. After researching what felt like 100 keyboards, I decided on the Roland A-49.
Every current and discontinued keyboard was considered
I looked at what felt like almost 100 models of keyboards for consideration. I looked at every model from Akai, Alesis, Korg, M-Audio, Nektar, Novation and Samson to name a few. Every single keyboard controller from Sweetwater was considered. I also looked at models discontinued. Some of the top list of keyboards was the Akai Max49, with its sexy red color and even more impressive LED touch faders, the Nektar Panorama P4 for its dedication to being a universal controller for Reason and the Arturia KeyLab Essential 49 for its unique white on wood trim.
But I had a few criteria I wanted for my keyboard…
Has to work with Reason
Keyboards claim to do all this junk, but so many are only compatible with their own proprietary VST’s. For instance, the Roli Seaboard is awesome but can’t do anything extra for the normal, non-VST devices in Reason.
No useless knobs, faders or buttons
I wanted a keyboard without all the BS knobs, faders and buttons. I don’t use that crap as I can’t effectively see what I’m controlling without digital scribble strips, not to mention I have the Ableton Push with PusheR for universal control, the Korg padKontrol for drum pads and the Behringer X-Touch for mixing. So, like the M-Audio Oxygen49, I’d have all this heft and extra crap that never (and I mean never) gets used.
Knobs, faders and other crap might seem useful when taking the keyboard out being mobile, but these stupid keyboard controllers are never configured intuitively in Reason and they’re just too complicated to use. If you need to record a knob, button or fader in Reason as automation, it’s easier to use a keyboard with one knob, fader or button via remote override mapping.
So, the ironic thing is that the very controls that seem ideal when out mobile not only aren’t but add heft and weight, making it less portable. Getting a keyboard that doesn’t include this junk not only saves real estate space in the studio, but it makes a keyboard lighter with a more portable footprint. Speaking of portable…
Must have 49 keys
Sure, 25 key keyboards are better for portability, but this keyboard will be a replacement for the studio keyboard. Not only do I need 49 keys (no more, no less), but if I were going to take a keyboard out mobile, I typically play between octaves and using a 25 key keyboard, even with octave up / down controls, prevents me from playing the keyboard normally.
The better keyboard player you are, the more you’re able to work with these kinds of limitations. But I’m not a great keyboard player, so I’m not gonna’ handicap myself with a 25 key keyboard. While we’re on the subject of the keys themselves…
Better key quality if possible
My M-Audio Oxygen49 keys weren’t bad… the keyboard itself was priced at a fraction of what overpriced keyboards from Native Instruments cost (such as the 49 key “Komplete” model), yet the Oxygen49 felt as good if not better than the Native Instruments model that cost between 4-5 times as much.
However… I’ve never been a fan of “synth-action” keys, even though synth-action keys really are what’s best for me, not to mention there’s no 49 key keyboards that don’t have synth-action keys I’m aware of.
So, with that, because I’m not a fan of synth-action keys, I wanted to try to find one that had better quality. Less wobble or play when pressing the keys down, less clicking sounds, more even resistance pushing and letting go of the keys. And, if possible…
Give me something exciting
If I’m gonna’ buy a keyboard, it should feel like I’m getting something that I didn’t have before. When I’m playing the keyboard, is there anything that feels different than the other two keyboards I used before for years? The Roli Seaboard (not compatible with Reason) is a great example of this.
And the last criteria is probably the most important…
It can’t have a BS price
Come on man, it’s a USB keyboard controller. If you’re doing things like the Nektar Panorama P4 or a Roli Seaboard (again, not compatible with Reason), I can understand a more expensive price tag. But nearly every 49 key keyboard that costs over $200 (maybe over $300) is likely to be priced like that for no good reason. Most of this crap is simply designed to separate fools from their money.
In the end, there was only one keyboard that (thankfully) checked every one of these checkboxes…
The Roland A-49 was the perfect choice
So what’s the A-49 got goin’ for it? The first is that it’s compatible with Reason. In fact, it doesn’t even need to have a remote map for it to function.
The second is that it doesn’t have all these crappy knobs, faders and buttons like the M-Audio Oxygen49 had. It’s much like my original Midiman Keystation 49. …Simplicity, ya know?
The third is that, because it has no stupid knobs, faders and other junk, it’s one of the most portable 49 key keyboards you can find. It doesn’t feel heavy, rather it feels solid. But it feels almost as heavy as bigger 49 key keyboards, like the M-Audio Oxygen49. But, again, it doesn’t feel heavy, it feels solid; well built. It’s definitely as mobile-friendly as a 49, full-sized key keyboard can be. And there’s likely a reason to it not being as light as you’d expect.
The forth is that the keys, although they’re synth-action and don’t support aftertouch (like most 49 key keyboards), the keys feel much better quality. They’re firm and have hardly no wobble or play to them. They also have a really consistent resistance and spring. And quieter, but being synth-action, it doesn’t matter much.
The fifth is that the Roland A-49 gives me something exciting that non-Roland keyboards don’t got; it has a “D-Beam” controller. This allows pitch, mod and other parameters to be controlled by placing your hand in the air over the keyboard. It’s also fully USB bus-powered.
And, the six and final point was that the A-49 doesn’t have a BS price. Bought mine, new, for $179. That price might otherwise be a bit much, but because of the features described above, it’s worth the price. And with the features also comes the name…
Roland’s legacy led to Reason
Propellerhead’s Reason evolved from ReBirth. And ReBirth itself was an emulation of devices; the TB-303, TR-808 and TR-909 drum machine. The makers of all three devices? Roland.
That’s a pretty big thing, for all the devices to be from Roland?? Yet it’s not surprising considering these devices are icons. Music groups have referenced songs to these Roland devices and some have even named their groups after them, like 808 State.
So owning a Roland keyboard has a sorta’ cultural significance that’s personal. It’s not to say the A-49 is better than other keyboards. The TR-808 was not the most capable drum machine on the market; it was about the people who used these affordable Roland devices in creative ways.
That’s why owning a Roland keyboard is so awesome. I’m using Roland physical hardware to control Reason virtual hardware that evolved from emulations of Roland physical hardware. Full circle, baby. Full circle.
Reason and the D-Beam
So how‘s the A-49 with Reason? Well, there isn’t that much to report that hasn’t been covered already. Things function as you’d expect. So let’s talk about the uniqueness of the A-49; how’s the D-Beam work with Reason?
The D-Beam works really well. It seems to work exactly as well in Reason as it does in Roland’s product demos. It can control three things; pitch (unfortunately down only), volume (defaults to 127 volume when not placing your hand over it, not something I plan on ever using) and the last one is assignable (by entering some button sequences detailed in the manual). I set the assignable function to modulation. Fortunately, the A-49 remembers the settings when unplugged.
It has a limited action range though. You’d expect a movement range of 5” or move but only get 2” (that’s what SHE said). For pitch control, it’s such a narrow range that it feels more like an on / off switch. Fortunately that’s surprisingly not an issue. When performing, quicker actions are normally what you’re looking for. And, when doing automation recording, you already have your hand in the sweet spot (giggidy) and you’re able to exert more finite control.
Since the D-Beam responds to anything placed above it, what happens for people who use keyboard drawers to slide their keyboard under a desk? Fortunately, you can turn the D-Beam off simply by pushing the active function button. So the D-Beam isn’t going off when you’re not actively using it.
The D-Beam… man, what a fun, cool thing. It makes auditioning new sounds so much more fun. And it looks so, so cool to other people seein’ you use it. People love it, it trips’em out. The fancy, expensive Ableton Push? Pff, it’s a push-over as far as they’re concerned. This “magical keyboard” is what they’re interested in. “So, wait, you blocking the air does that? How’s it do that? Can I feel it?” Funny, all this amazing, custom, one-of-a-kind stuff I created for my studio setup and the D-Beam is what they’re blown away by (also the “ghost faders” of the Behringer X-Touch).
If that’s not a glowing recommendation, I don’t know what is.
The A-49’s length forced an upgrade
The Neocomp’s audio interface, the Tascam US-322, chilled on the right side of the M-Audio Oxygen49 on the keyboard drawer. (Studio walkthrough.) While the Roland A-49 is “thinner” than the M-Audio Oxygen49, it’s longer (as the controls are all on the side). That means there’s no place for my five year old Tascam US-322 audio interface. So I was (happily) forced to upgrade to a Behringer FCA1616.
The pitch and mod joystick vs. wheel
While I prefer wheels and most USB keyboards have wheels, I think it’s probably best to have a joystick. Why? Because it seems more “professional” and it really does make the Roland A-49 feel less like a simple USB controller and more like an electric piano.
Not to mention, with joysticks, you can have your right hand on the keys while your left hand can change the pitch and mod at the same time. But, with a joystick, the mod springs back to 0, whereas a mod wheel stays in position.
I love the octave LEDs
One thing Roland slammed outta’ the park is the fact they added LED indicators for what octave you’re currently on. When you’re on the keyboard’s normal root octave, there’s no LED. But when you hit the dedicated octave up or octave down buttons, LED’s light up to tell you how far up or down you’re at from the keyboard’s root.
This is such a huge deal as, on other keyboards and even the Ableton Push, changing octaves might throw you off if you forget to change back. Here’s the situation… you change octaves on your keyboard, forget about it and then start auditioning new sounds or start designing a sound from scratch. Your results get all screwed up, forgetting your keyboard is not playing the right octave.
Think about it, if you’re keyboard isn’t displaying, at all times, what octave you’re on (extremely important if you accidentally change an octave), how would you know you’re on the wrong octave? You can’t always tell by ear.
Being that the A-49 is a 49 key keyboard, changing octaves isn’t that important. Yet this is now one of the most intuitive, easy keyboards I’ve ever used for changing octaves. All keyboards should handle octaves like this. No displaying on an LCD screen during certain moments, just use simple LED’s to always show what octave’s currently active. Good job Roland.
SuperNatural mode has no place in Reason
The A-49 can interface with Roland devices, like the rack-mounted Integra-7 synth in order to perform Roland’s proprietary “SuperNatural” function (which basically makes sounds respond differently based on velocity). Hard to tell if the A-49 really has “SuperNatural” technology or if it’s just a proprietary marketing gimmick to get people locked into a hardware ecosystem.
Frankly, I don’t care either way because it doesn’t work with Reason. It’s like Behringer X-Touch mixers having color-changing digital scribble strips… that only work with Behringer X-Air mixers. I tell people just pretend the X-Touch doesn’t have color changing digital scribble strips. Well, the same with the Roland A-49; just pretend it doesn’t have SuperNatural functions.
Expect a lot more Roland A-49 owners
From what I can tell in research leading up to buying it, no one’s really using the Roland A-49, especially not with Reason. But much like purchases increased for Behringer X-Touch mixers after I released the MJ Enhanced Mackie Control, I suspect a lot more people will be using the A-49 with Reason and other DAW’s.
Later. – MJ