MIDI-controller review: Alesis Q49

Published: Mar 20, 2016 by luxagen

After years of using combined keyboard synthesisers like the Roland D-70 and Yamaha S90ES, I bought an Alesis Q49 to go with my external MIDI synth module. The aim was to retain most of my musical options while travelling.

Sadly, this didn’t quite work out the way I hoped. The quickstart manual contains an important lie:

USB connection — …This connection is used to send and receive MIDI data to and from your computer and may also be used to send MIDI data from your computer to a device attached to the MIDI OUT port of the Q49.

This is not true. Do not be fooled by the fact that the Q49 exposes a MIDI-out device over the USB connection! This device does nothing as far as I know, and it certainly does not relay MIDI to the physical port. I contacted Alesis support, and this is what I got back:

I’m sorry to hear that you’re experiencing issues when trying to send MIDI out via the Q49. With regards to your previous message, unfortunately this is not something you can carry out on the Q49.

There it is from the horse’s mouth. So: if you want to use an external synth module in a DAW setup with this unit, the only way is a USB hookup to the computer, a physical MIDI hookup from the computer to the synth module, and DAW software that will relay MIDI from the Q49’s MIDI-in device to the synth module, hopefully with tolerably low latency. For a setup like this, the Q49’s physical MIDI port is basically useless. The only benefit of having a physical port is that you can rewire your setup to play the synth module directly if you want to cut the computer out of the loop for some reason.

There’s also a troubleshooting tip that implies another lie:

Problem: Sustain pedal works in reverse.

Cause: Sustain pedal was plugged in after power was turned on.

Solution: With the pedal plugged in, turn the unit’s power off, wait a moment, and turn it on again.

The implication here is that the unit will detect the pedal’s polarity at startup on the assumption that it’s up, and is therefore compatible with any sustain pedal. This is false — the unit is hardwired to one polarity — so be sure you either pick the correct sustain pedal to use with this, or pick one with a polarity switch.

Final comments

The choice of USB or DC power to this unit does not affect which ports it sends MIDI to. You can therefore connect it (via a MIDI cable) to your synth module, but power it via a USB A->B cable from either a phone charger or a computer.

Key action: there’s no weighting of course, but velocity isn’t too difficult to max out, and expression is just about possible on the low-velocity end. Many super-cheap keyboards compensate for their lack of weighting by being excessively springy and resistive — which really gets on my nerves — but this one’s just this side of too springy. Overall, I’d say the action is close to that of the D-70 but the keys are slightly shorter.

In summary, the MIDI-relay feature (if it existed) would make this a golden product. You could daisy-chain an external synth off the Q49’s MIDI port and do everything — live play, DAW recording, DAW playback — with one setup. Inexplicably, Alesis haven’t done this, and the result is a controller that’s most useful for soft-synth work (with all the latency problems that implies), with a MIDI-out port that’s mostly for show unless you enjoy regularly rewiring your equipment.

Shame on Alesis for spoiling a good effort by failing to do the most basic research into the logistics of real MIDI setups.

PS: REAPER, unlike most DAWs, imposes its audio latency on MIDI data. I spent hours trying to find a piece of software that would bridge the Q49 to my synth module by relaying MIDI coming in over the USB connection out of a physical MIDI port, and eventually hit upon the right search terms. The product I found is called MusicLab MIDI Connection Centre, and it’s excellent. It’ll run in the “system tray”, has persistent configuration, and has an on/off button for each configured link. If you want to play a physical synth module live without running your DAW, this is the way to do it.