Even though some music producers might like to splash out serious cash on a Korg, Nektar, Roland or Novation keyboard, it doesn’t mean you have to pay a 4-figure sum to get a decent sound.
It’s perfectly possible to get a decent keyboard that will serve you well for about the $150 mark; Alesis and their Q49 model fits right into this price bracket at about $120. Sure, some of the professional crowd might laugh at your choice, they won’t laugh at the sound quality though!
Before the review, I’d done a little research on Alesis and discovered quite a diverse range of products. I’m not sure why such a large company has passed me by because they do everything from drum machines to MIDI controllers. It sounds like it’s the right time to get acquainted with this manufacturer!
I’ve been using this keyboard for the past week, do I think it’s worth the asking price? Or should you up your budget?
Read on to find out!
As the name suggests, the Alesis has 49 velocity keys which is an amazing feat when you compare it to similarly priced 25 key models. As you’d expect, it also comes with pitch modulation and DAW as standard. One important feature is that this keyboard does have 4 full octaves – a brilliant inclusion at such a low price.
It also has a sustain pedal input if required plus a reasonable length USB cable. One tip I will give is to avoid using USB extension cables; these rarely work well and the USB specifications only allow for a cable length of about 5 feet anyway.
If you’re using this keyboard as an entry to the world of music production, you’ll discover a basic copy of the Ableton Live software packaged with the keyboard – enough to get you up and running. I tested the Alesis keyboard out using GarageBand, LogicPro and on a friend’s setup which runs Propellerheads Reason. The little keyboard worked well with all DAW programs.
If you don’t want to connect the keyboard to your PC, there’s also a standard 9-volt adapter plug on the back. Alesis does not supply an adapter; however, the connection and voltage input is one any multi-connector adapter should be able to provide. I didn’t test the adapter connection because my keyboards are always permanently connected to my PC.
I’ll cover the power issue later as it’s not completely straightforward.
Obviously, the Alesis is purely designed as an entry level keyboard, so you won’t find too many bells and whistles inside. Personally, I quite like that approach, and would rather all my hard-earned cash go on the quality of the product, rather than a bunch of items bundled in that you’ll use once!
Inside the box, you’ll find one USB lead, a set of instructions and not much else; however, there is a pretty decent online manual available at the Alesis website which is a real help. One thing I did discover whilst browsing the Alesis website, was a pretty good customer service outfit. If you do end up having problems with your Alesis, you shouldn’t be too far away from an answer.
I did try plugging the keyboard into a standard USB phone charger, no PC. All USB equipment provides the same voltage so in theory it should have worked; however, in this case the keyboard didn’t work. I guess this is the reason for the 9-volt adapter plug. If you want to use the Alesis as a standalone device, you’ll need to invest in an adapter.
The keyboard is nice and weighty, coming in at about 5 pounds. I like my keyboards on the heavier side as they tend to sit better on a keyboard stand. The Alesis doesn’t disappoint in this regard and the keyboard sits quite happily on my Rocket double braced stand.
Keyboard layout is good, with the pitch and octave selectors located on the left side. It’s a no-nonsense and no frills design which to be honest I quite like.
One thing that did stand out as soon as I opened the box, the Alesis is an easy beast to carry/move around. Even if you tend to purchase higher end equipment, the easy portability might be reason enough to pick one up.
In Daily Use
One thing that’s great about the Alesis, is the fact the keys are full sized. I have large hands and equally chubby fingers (don’t laugh), so a keyboard with enough space for me to do my thing is welcome news.
The quality of the keys and casing are pretty good too and certainly up there with similarly priced keyboards. Sure, the keys do have that plastic, spring feel, yet they do work well for the price.
I tested the sustain input with a Moog EP3 Expression Pedal. It worked perfectly and was another feature that appeared to have been designed with a quality feel. So far, so good!
The only gripe I have with the fit and finish of the produce is the adapter plug input. I found it a little stiff, which is always a worry with electrical equipment at the cheaper end of the scale. Hopefully, my keyboard was an anomaly, yet it’s worth bearing this in mind.
The MIDI setup apes that of a Roland PC-200, another keyboard in my current studio. It’s very easy to use and as they ape those of an existing manufacturer, you’ll be able to get to grips with them easily. Of course, you can use the Alesis with almost any program you want, something I’ll cover next.
I tested the little Alesis out on a range of operating systems, DAW and music production programs to see how well it worked.
First, I plugged the Alesis into my current production rig, a 2014 model Apple Mac desktop running Logic Pro. In this case, the Alesis was picked up by my Mac quickly and Logic Pro recognized it too. I also gave the keyboard a quick play in GarageBand too, once again, it was picked up easily.
As you’d imagine, Windows users are well catered for my Alesis. The keyboard is picked up as a USB device quickly, and most programs picked it up too. My friend runs a studio with a Windows PC running Propellerheads Reason. The program picked up on the Alesis quickly and Windows didn’t appear to need to download a driver for it either.
Ubuntu & Linux
I have friends who have recently started playing about with Ubuntu Studio. I decided it was worth giving the Alesis a try to see if the music production side of the Ubuntu distribution was up to the task!
In a similar way to OSX, Ubuntu Studio picked up on the Alesis quickly and actually installed a driver automatically for the keyboard. We tested the keyboard against Bitwig and Ardour, two popular open source music programs. In both cases the programs picked up the keyboard as an instrument with no real hassle.
One thing that I should mention, pitch bend and the sustain worked perfectly with Ubuntu. From reading some forums regarding Ubuntu and music production those two fully working features are a rarity.
When a Lack of Features is a Good Thing
One thing some experienced musicians might notice, is the lack of sliders and features. There’s a single pitch slider, octave up and down selection and of course the sustain input. That sounds terrible, yet it feels like Alesis have concentrated on the basics rather than packing a bunch of poor quality features in. What is included seems built with a high degree of quality, pitch control is smooth and can produce some wicked bends, whilst the velocity-sensitive keys do work well, even if they give that hard spring “plastic feel” common to all lower end keyboards. I quite like this “quality, rather than quantity” approach, something not always available in sub $200 consumer units.
The lack of complexity in the Alesis has other benefits too. The keyboard is quite slim and easy to move around, if you’re anything like me you’ll find yourself slinging the little Alesis around your studio to work on different things. I’ve actually found myself using the keyboard on my lap in front of my PC monitor, not the best choice for posture, yet somehow it feels right!
Away from the studio, things get a little trickier. I mentioned the fact that USB power cord won’t work for untethered PC playing; however, there are other issues, such as the fact the keyboard only accepts a 2.5mm jack. The common standard is 5.5 which means you’ll be unlikely to find another musician to borrow their power lead from.
In the end, I bought an adapter from Radio Shack with the following specs:
- 9V DC output
- Center positive
- 5.5mm barrel/ outer diameter
- 2.5mm inner diameter
To be frank, there were only two major issues I came up with whilst using the Alesis. The first, and probably biggest is the voltage jack issue above; however, you can overcome this by being organised. The second one, is more of a slight against all keyboards in the sub $250 price bracket, namely the feel of the keys.
I know, you should never expect a key to feel the same as a piano; however, surely technology has come on enough to roughly approximate the timbre and touch?
Of course, that’s not an issue specific to the Alesis, so perhaps I’m being a little harsh. In the keyboards favor, it does have a reasonable feel and the key sensitivity does allow for a good degree of control.
Other than that, the little Alesis is a really solid, honest keyboard with a pretty decent price. I don’t view the lack of features as a bad thing, as the features Alesis have packed in are of a high quality. After years of cheap keyboards with a bunch of nonsense features bundled in, the offerings from Alesis really are a breath of fresh air!
Where do I begin, it’s well priced, simple to use and most of the parts appear to be of a decent quality. I did have a little trouble with the DC adapter but looking back it could have been the plug I purchased rather than the keyboard itself.
I’m also a big fan of the way the keyboard syncs up with most operating systems, even Unix based platforms. I also love the pitch bend slider which after a little practice can really push out some amazing bends!
The casing of the keyboard is of a decent quality and looks like you’ll be able to throw it around without too much hassle. That’s probably a good thing because the size and shape of the keyboard means it will likely end up being the mule of your setup, constantly working on one thing or another!
I’m really impressed by the Alesis Q49. It’s a decent keyboard that should suit any newcomer to electronic music production. The quality is up there and the features available are all ones you’ll use time and time again.
Sure, it has its minor annoyances, and some might not like the lack of features; however, I like that “more is less” approach and wouldn’t mind picking one up for myself. The ability to have a small, perfectly formed keyboard you can “just use” is a boon to most seasoned producers.
In my view, I can’t recommend this keyboard enough! There are more expensive, better options out there – but they can’t match the price of this little guy though!