Eight years ago we began development of the VAX77, and a few years later we introduced what many call the finest MIDI controller every produced.
If you haven't seen it, check it out:
It featured polyphonic aftertouch, hi-res velocity, release velocity and a host of other capabilities that made it the favorite controller of some of the best musicians in the world. Legends such as Stevie Wonder and Eddie Jobson each purchased four units for studio and the road. It's durable construction and folding design made it a Keyboard Magazine "Key Buy" in 2010.
The following video explores many of the unique features of the VAX77:
Unfortunately, it was VERY expensive to manufacture and out of the price range of most musicians. Production ceased at the end of 2013 but there are still around a thousand VAX77s in use around the world today.
We learned a lot about the keyboard market over those years; where a musician's requirements are rigid and where the keyboard design needs flexibility. But most of all, we learned that we did not offer sufficient value to the professional musician. The folding feature was convenient, but not worth the $1000 it added to the cost of the instrument. Last year we informed our customers that we would endeavor to invent a powerful keyboard at a very affordable price. We knew that such an instrument would require new sensor technology (magnetic sensing is very expensive to do precisely). We evaluated dozens of sensor technologies and finally, we found a solution.
Our goal is to use this sensor technology in a premium keyboard that we could sell for the following target prices:
- 4 octave version $550
- 6 octave version $750
- 8 octave version $950
To achieve this goal, we are proposing a radical new idea: you will have to perform the final assembly yourself! It will be very easy to do as all the parts slide together and no calibration is required. We expect it will take 4 hours to build the 6 octave version, a little less for the 4 octave version and a little more for the 8 octave version. A video will guide you through the process, step by step.
We recognize that not everyone will want to assemble their VAX and to that end, we plan to initiate a Certified Technician program. VAX owners that complete some additional video training can become Certified Technicians and they will be listed on our website. You can hire a Certified Technician to build your VAX. While it will take about 4 hours to build a VAX for the first time, it will take half that after a little practice. Consequently, assembly fees should be quite reasonable.
The key action is critical to every musician and the new VAX offers a weighted hammer action but with the return speed of a fast synth action. The important improvement to the action, compared with the original VAX77, is that the hammer releases the keyweight at the bottom of the keystroke, similar to a grand piano. It won't "wear you out" after hours of playing like the VAX77 did with its constant force springs.
The new VAX will transmit velocity and hi-res velocity. With the new sensors we discovered, we expect true 14 bit velocity in hi-res mode. It will also transmit polyphonic aftertouch and release velocity.
The new VAX will be powered through the USB port and no external power will be required. It will not have a touch screen display and it will heavily rely on computer hosts such as MainStage to handle splits and controller assignments.
The new VAX will have traditional pitch and mod wheels and a couple of pedal inputs. The chassis will be similar to the VAX77 except that it will be extruded from aluminum instead of magnesium. The keys are assembled on two octave modules that slide into the chassis from the side. Since the chassis is a single piece extrusion, it is a simple matter to offer the new VAX in 4, 6, and 8 octave versions. We simply cut the chassis into three different lengths and you slide in, 2, 3 or 4 modules of 2 octaves each.
Assembly involves sliding modules (first the sets of two octaves of keys then the pitch & mod wheel module) into the chassis on built-in rails and securing them in place with plates at each end. The only tool required is a screwdriver. We will offer a repair kit that will let you quickly fix any "road rash" that the new VAX encounters.
During the first production run, we offer the VAX in either Black or a limited production White chassis. The White version will never be built again.
The new VAX will be offered as an Open Source product. That means Source Code, Schematics, Drawings and STP files will be on our website for anyone to download and modify. Since the new VAX is an assembly of modules, it will be easy for 3rd party developers to create and offer new modules and accessories.
This modular approach to keyboard design is similar to the approach Google is taking with its new Project Ara modular phone. You buy the endoskeleton (chassis) once then you add/replace modules as your taste and needs change. For example, our customers might want to replace the piano style keys with waterfall style keys on a part of the keyboard. We could probably sell an alternative 2 octave set of white keys with waterfall edges for less than $50. Maybe a customer would want drawbars instead of (or in addition to) pitch and mod wheels. Some entrepreneur will probably build a module like that and you can just swap out the module. We were amazed at the creative modifications that our customers made to the VAX77. It was a very closed system and very difficult to modify. We can't wait to see what our customers develop once the VAX is modular and accessible.
Risks and challenges
Tooling for the VAX77 cost several hundred thousand dollars and yet we believe we can tool the new VAX for around $35,000. There is risk here because it will require that we get the molding tools right the first time with no modifications. This is only possible because of the advent of 3D printing. We have a professional 3D printer and we can model every single part through multiple iterations until it is exactly the way we want it. Only then will we commit a part to tooling. In addition, most of the larger parts of the new VAX are extruded and extrusion molds are much less expensive than injection molds.
The most serious risks are mechanical. While the 3D models help insure that parts fit together, the models are made from materials that are substantially different than the materials used in production parts. The mass, hardness, coefficient of friction and other differences in physical properties can make parts behave in ways unpredicted by the models. For example, if key strikes make an objectionable sound, we will have to find ways to dampen them.
If we encounter surprises of that nature, it could add weeks or even months to the development schedule.
Production risks are minimal although it is possible that the production molder will not be able to hold guaranteed tolerances and we will have to change to a different molder. This could delay the project by a couple of months.
The technical risks are very low. The electronic circuits are fairly simple and borrow heavily from the original VAX77.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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