I’m jfm3, a Software Engineer with a fascination for alternative controllers. This is a review of the AXiS-64 MIDI controller from C-Thru-Music. I’ll assume you’ve read the literature on the c-thru-music.com web site about the AXiS-64, and skip a lot of basic description.
When you buy unique gear, you generally are buying from a small business. Some have had really bad experiences with such small outfits, but my dealing with C-Thru-Music was basically flawless. Their business was run like a very well oiled machine, and at no time did I feel like I didn’t know what was going on, or wondering what happened to my money. It may be interesting to note that although units are made to order, the shipping box and packing tape have the C-Thru-Music logo professionally printed on them. Somebody somewhere has at least devoted a room of their house to this endeavor.
There’s some other company that seems to be selling exactly the same product, but with the expression pedal jacks instead wired to knobs on the front panel. I have no idea what’s going on there, but if anybody finds out I’d love to know.
The obvious main feature of the AXiS-64 is the keyboard shape. C-Thru-Music calls this the “Harmonic Table” or sometimes the “Natural Keyboard.” You can find detailed descriptions of this 192-key hexagonal layout at the c-thru-music.com website. Speaking as someone who has basically no keyboard chops, I find this layout to be very good. Follow me for a bit and I’ll give you an analogy:
The game Fifteen First is played like this: You pick a number from one to nine, then I pick a different number, and so on. Once one of us picks a number, it can’t be picked again. The one who gets three numbers that add up to fifteen first wins. Can you right now off the top of your head think of a winning strategy for fifteen first?
It turns out that the game Fifteen First is exactly the same as tic-tac-toe, if you arrange the numbers in a magic square and think of picking a number as putting down an X or an O. Everyone can figure out tic-tac-toe immediately. Most young children have no problems learning how to get tic-tac-toe to a tie game every time.
The AXiS-64 keyboard is to tic-tac-toe as the piano keyboard is to fifteen first. If you hand someone a written description of, for example, three note chords, and then ask them “how many minor chords have C# in them?” they probably won’t be able to answer without a lot of mental gymnastics. Once you fool around with the AXiS-64 for a few hours, you have a new way of thinking that for whatever reason much more closely fits the contour of the human mind. This is really brilliant.
The power of the AXiS-64 is most realized in two-handed chordal playing. It will work with monophonic synths and synth patches, but it affords little advantage over a traditional organ keyboard in such cases.
There are 192 keys on the keyboard in three identical 64-key sections laid next to one another, each section exactly one half key width lower than the one to its left. These can be split into different MIDI channels, which turns out to be a very powerful feature for non-obvious reasons. It gives you the ability to read each of the 192 keys separately, which is great if you’re interested in even stranger keyboard arrangements, controlling microtonal tunings, or turning the control surface into a relatively gigantic percussion controller. If you have a synth set to respond with the same patch on each of these three channels, then this feature also allows you to play the same note (same octave) in two zones without having the note off of one end the note for both keys.
The AXiS-64 has an all-metal enclosure a metal chassis with a plastic top. I ordered mine with a matching flight case, which is likewise of very durable quality. The unit is heavy, and has nice 2″ wide rubber feet. It does not move around as I play it on a table. I feel as if I could throw this thing down the stairs and it would probably survive, unless it landed on one of the knobs at just the right angle.
The nine buttons across the top of the unit and the seven under the display are mounted on nice clicky momentary switches, not the same key mechanism as in the main keyboard. They give strong tactile feedback as to when you’ve pressed them far enough, which is a very nice feature. On the other hand, one of these keys, the plus key, sticks on my unit every fifth or sixth push, which is pretty annoying. I could probably fix this myself, but I’m not ready to void my warranty yet.
The two knobs produce neither too much nor too little resistance, but are not marked with any kind of angular indicator. My right hand knob cap was mounted too low, I had to use a hex wrench to lift it another millimeter to avoid feeling it scratch against the front panel as I turned it. The pitch and mod wheels are very slippery, the groove in the top of these wheels is not deep enough to give you any traction, given the slipperiness. I’d have preferred a joystick, but I’m probably unique in that regard; the pitch/mod wheel combination is probably something most players would expect.
The keyboard itself feels very nice. The keys are some kind of plastic, but do not feel too slippery or too rough. They seem to be mounted on springs, but I haven’t opened the unit to tell for sure. Keys provide a uniform amount of resistance when pushed. It would be nice to know how many presses the keys are rated for. Hitting the key at an angle does not cause it to contact adjacent keys. When you see Rudess drag his finger across the keyboard in the demo videos, for example, he’s not doing anything special, the keyboard responds very nicely.
There is no mechanism for aftertouch, which is a bit of a disappointment. Even one big channel aftertouch mechanism would be a huge improvement.
In general I find the unit as a whole nice to look at. I only wish that “C-THRU-MUSIC.COM” wasn’t printed on the front panel in such a huge way: it makes it look like a display unit. Beyond that the aesthetics are excellent.
All of the knobs and pedal jacks are very programmable in terms of what MIDI data they cause. They can also be individually calibrated with minimum, maximum, and center point measurements, which is especially nice for when you assign pitch bend to a control other than the spring mounted pitch bend wheel. You can also control the resolution of the ADCs on all of the controllers, which the manual claims is useful: “Under certain electrically noisy conditions (Eg stage lighting interference being picked up by the foot control leads) it may be necessary to increase this value [decreasing the resolution].”
MIDI Note Off messages with release velocity data are not sent when keys are released, just Note On messages of velocity zero. This is disappointing. I’m led to believe that the hardware should be able to measure release velocity the same way it measures note on velocity, and so it’s a shame the firmware doesn’t do so.
The manual is reasonable. You can get a free PDF of it on the c-thru-music.com web site. MIDI controllers, like cell phones, are pretty intuitive devices, with manuals that only come into play in odd circumstances. It would be a very small manual if it were describing a synthesizer or recording device, but for a MIDI controller it’s just fine.
Along with flight case and shipping to the continental USA, an AXiS-64 will set you back a little over two thousand dollars. That’s a lot of sushi dinners, but if you compare it to other alternative controllers on the market; Zendrum, Z-tar, Lightning, Marimba Lumina, Jazzmutant Lemur, Monome, and Continuum Fingerboard, the price of the AXiS-64 is justifiable, relative to its features. It’s not like USA currency is particularly strong in Europe these days, either.
- The main feature, the keyboard layout, is really truly brilliant.
- The hardware is basically good, only the wheels are slippery and there’s no mechanism under the keys to measure aftertouch.
- The firmware is also basically good, but doesn’t send MIDI note-off data.
- The cost is high, but these days it’s a seller’s market for both alternative MIDI controllers and Euros.
Edit 5/13: top is not metal. Added cut to keep front page of this blog less fugly.