Alesis Qs8.1

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THE QS8.1: Would the Masters Have Approved?

Jul 20, 2000 (Updated Sep 24, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Excellent value quotient, nice looks, expandable, great sounds with ample programming versatility.

Cons:Complex user interface with small display, awful tech support (Alesis now bankrupt!), no onboard sequencer.

The Bottom Line: Unfortunately, Alesis has gone bankrupt, but you can still find many of these keyboards at a good price online. It's a good instrument, but requires patience.

It's hard to imagine the composers of yesteryear: armed with just pen and paper, the only way to get the musical masterpieces that echoed in their minds was by writing it down. If they were lucky, they could doodle on a piano to hear more or less what the music sounded like. Of course, it was nothing like the ocean of sound a massive orchestra could produce. Alas, even today, no machine can truly reproduce "the real thing" yet. Even so, keyboards have taken their place as an integral part in many forms of music. One day, I had the task of choosing one.

Before you hear my impressions, perhaps it would be easier to understand my point of view if I briefly explain a few things about my musical background.
I'm trained primarily in the piano (15 years), although I've played the cello, violin, and am currently fumbling with guitar. I love all forms of music, from classical to electronic. These two classes of music that I just mentioned are my main focus of interest as far as composition is concerned. Until I got the QS8, I used a Yamaha 510-PSR (a $400 machine) to achieve that end. It was fun, but a toy, no more. I wanted a serious machine that I could play piano on and compose music with. My training in MIDI sequencing was very sparse, and even today I'd still consider myself an amateur when it comes to advanced MIDI functions.
I've used this keyboard live on a couple of occasions (playing funk/fusion), and it's performed rather well. Usually, however, this keyboard sits inside my "makeshift studio" at home.

I'm not going to bore you with all of the technical details (there's a lot) of the QS8. For that, check out the Alesis website. Also, note that the model I'm referring to is the QS8, not the QS8.1. There aren't any major differences between these two models. Basically, the display is a little larger on the QS8.1, and it has two new buttons (Transpose and Sequence Select) that make navigation a little easier. Alesis also claims that the General Midi sounds on the QS8.1 are improved, but I haven't noticed that much of a difference. Other than that, the two keyboards are identical.

Okay, let's get started, shall we?

I was in the market for a new keyboard when I got my own apartment a couple of years ago. Because I wanted the full "piano experience" in addition to having many voices for composition, my search was narrowed down to 88-key machines only. This was a problem because the cost rose accordingly.
Ideally, I wanted the Korg Trinity ProX workstation, but at a price reaching $3500, it was (and is) way out of my range. My search finally brought me down to the Alesis QS8 and the Korg N1. Both were great machines, but I chose the QS8 for several important reasons:

For starters, the piano sounded good on both machines, but better on the QS8. What's more, the action of the keys was much better on the Alesis than the Korg. The N1 only has weighted keys, nothing more. There is a dead feel at the end of the key travel that isn't great for playing fast. The QS8, on the other hand, had simulated hammer action in addition to having fully weighted keys.
The QS8 is expandable by use of Flash RAM cards or Alesis Q-Cards (more later). The N1 had more voices in memory, but was not expandable, and didn't even have a floppy drive.
The only major drawback I could see of the Alesis QS8 was that it had no onboard sequencer. That is, I couldn't compose the music on the machine itself and had to use an external sequencer. Still, the QS8 had most of the key ingredients (and was $200 cheaper than the N1), so I was sold on it.

The QS8 feels like a heavy booger, but it's relatively light for its class. At 55 pounds, it's cumbersome to carry alone, but possible. I recommend getting a case if you plan on traveling with it. The surface of the keyboard is a rough metal (a wrought iron feel, if you will), and two black wooden braces support the frame on either side. Fortunately, unlike many other keyboards, the power supply is internal, so you won't need to use a huge power adapter to plug into the wall. A serial port is in the back of the keyboard's frame for hi-speed transfer of files (much faster than traditional MIDI cables), and it works in either PC or Mac mode. It's a little expensive, but worth it if you do a lot of file swapping with the computer.
The keys (full size, of course), are designed by Fatar. I've heard mixed reviews about these keys. Some swear by them and say that they're the highest quality out there. There are those that think otherwise. As for me, I've felt more solid keypads, but mine have given me absolutely no trouble after years of constant banging and trilling. My only complaint is that there's an audible *thud* when the keys hit the keypad. It's not that noticeable, though, and really no big deal.
Few buttons grace the QS8, so it's not overly busy or flashy. They're also the soft-pad variety, which I don't like one bit. I like the kind of buttons that give you a *click* so you know you pressed it hard enough. The backlit display on the QS8 is tiny, and not much larger on the QS8.1, I might add. All in all, though, I find the aesthetics of the QS8 visually pleasing. It's simple yet cleanly attractive.
The design is tough, from what I can tell. In truth, I've never really been tough on my machine, but the keyboard feels sturdy and of good quality.

In my humble opinion, keyboards have a ways to go before they can truly emulate the feel and sound of a real piano. That said, the QS8 does a respectable job at it, with a broad selection of pianos that suit many tastes. Although it doesn't feel the exact same as the real thing, I absolutely love the simulated hammer action. When you strike a key on a real piano, you can feel when the hammer disconnects with the keys right before striking the strings. The key bounces right back up after the note is played and allows for clean trills and fast playing. You can really feel this effect with the QS8, which makes the experience all that more real. As I said before, few keyboards on the market offer this (not even my beloved Korg Trinity Pro X).
The piano sounds themselves are very nice, and can be tweaked in a ton of ways. I don't particularly like one called "Grand 64" because it sounds oversampled... as if the same exact note was duplicated (giving that nasty, metallic sound). Still, you can choose from dark pianos to bright, good for any musical genre.
My one complaint with using the QS8 as a piano is that the velocity curve isn't exactly right. That is, when you want it to play extremely soft it will play too loud, and when you want to play very loud it won't. You can tweak the keyboard's sensitivity, but it's nothing like the real thing. For example, if you very lightly touch a real piano key you will hear nothing because the hammer wasn't hit hard enough to strike the string. Do the same on the Alesis and you'll be reminded it's not a piano: a note plays softly. In short, it's the little nuances of a real piano that I miss when I play the Alesis.

Of course, there's many things the Alesis QS8 can do that a piano could only dream of doing. The sound library of 640 voices on the QS8 is what makes it possible. There are three Preset banks, one General Midi bank, and one User bank. All of these banks are found in a "Program" library. The Preset banks are a bunch of factory programs made from sounds on the keyboard's 16 megabytes of ROM (each program can be made of up to four sounds). These Preset programs cannot be altered. However, the User bank has 128 programs that can be altered or completely deleted and started from scratch. Although I'm not a MIDI programmer, making voices is pretty fun once you get the hang of it.
In addition to the "Program" library of sounds, there is a "Mix" library, where you can mix up to 16 programs as one (or split them, etc.). The keyboard has 64-voice polyphony. If we do the math, that means you could mix 16 different programs, each with up to four sounds making them. Of course, that's probably more than I'll ever need, but it's nice to know my keyboard is capable of it.
I'll break down the musical sound groups individually, because they're pretty important:
Pianos and organs: As I said before, the pianos are very nice, and can be used adequately in pretty much any musical style. The organs are fantastic, in my opinion. They are great for classic rock songs, gospel, or blues. Just my luck, that's not the stuff I compose with. They should sound awesome live, however.
Strings: In context (with other instruments), they're okay, but be careful using them on their own. They don't sound right at all. Individual instruments, with the exception (maybe) of the cello sound downright awful and I never use them.
Brass: Once again, these sound okay if played in context. Some of them sound too shrill, others are too muffled.
Winds: These can be played by themselves nicely. The oboe sounds cheesy, though. There are nice ensemble presets, however, that sound almost real when played in context.
Synth: There is a very impressive array of synth sounds. Some of them are "fillers" (just thrown in) but others are way cool. There's a lot of emphasis on lead voices, which means there's no polyphony (play only one note at a time). I still don't think the sounds are as imaginative as those found on the Korg machines, but they're good.
Drums: The drums sound great by themselves and awesome in context. My only complaint is there is no classical percussion.

All in all, the sounds are nice, but there's one thing that bugs me: they are geared much more to the synth side of the spectrum than the orchestral side. This makes the keyboard great for stuff like techno/dance or rock and roll, but not the best for composing concertos or movie soundtracks. Again, the sounds are all pretty good, but when you listen to the five rather "synthy" demos on the keyboard, you know where the emphasis is.

You can use one of two methods for expanding the sound memory, or both at the same time. The QS8 has two slots for two memory cards, described below. Because you already have 16 MB of sound ROM, and can add two cards qith 8 MB each, the QS8 is expandable to 32 MB of sound ROM, which is a lot. Here's the two methods you could try...
The first is Flash Ram cards, which are good for creating and burning your own sounds. You can also import sounds of different formats using the CD-ROM that comes with the QS8. Also, you can burn whole songs on these cards, so you can leave your computer at home in a live situation. The problem here is that Flash Cards are expensive, and they must be compatible with the keyboard.
If you don't want to go that route, the second option are the Alesis Q-cards. These are pretty much Flash ROM cards that have the sounds made for you, specifically tailored to a musical genre. The Alesis Q-cards are as follows:

Classical Q-card: For classical music (duh). Bought it on eBay and have been very happy with it, though I expected better pipe organ and string sounds.
Eurodance Q-card: I own it (bought thru eBay, which is the best way to do it), and like it a lot. It has way cool voices and neat drum loops.
Sanctuary Q-card: For "spiritual" music and church hymns.
Hip Hop: Neat bass grooves and drums (I've heard 'em).
Vintage Keyboards: Emulates many analog organ sounds.
Vintage Synths and Classic Beatboxes: Imitates the old synths and drum machines.
Latin Q-card: I heard a salsa sample with this card, and it sounded very neat!
Rap/Techno/Dance: Only 4MB on this card. Discontinued, although you might still find it on eBay.

I may have left a couple out, but I think you can appreciate the variety of extra sounds you can have access to. The cards vary in cost, but are all over $150. Buy them on eBay for cheap!

Oh, boy... watch out. This is the Achille's heel of the QS8. Unfortunately, with so few buttons and such a small display, navigation is far from obvious. I've had to read the manual almost cover to cover. Luckily, the manual is very complete, and even teaches you about MIDI, its history, and how to manipulate it.
Plus, the versatility of the keyboard is very good. You can adjust up to six parameters of a voice (like chorus, volume, reverb, vibrato, leslie, lo-pass, hi-pass, etc.) at once using the four control sliders, the pitch wheel and the modulation wheel. Each of these controllers can be programed to any effects that you want.
Still, you just might find yourself tearing your hair out from being trapped in submenus trying to do so.

Well, Achilles had two heels, didn't he? Here's Achille's heel number two. As I said, there is no onboard sequencer on the Alesis. So, you'll need to connect to a computer and use some sequencing software. This was also far from obvious to me, although at the time I was a beginner. However, sometimes I'm still a little befuddled with the interface and sometimes I've been overcome with laziness and stopped my composing out of fatique. If you compose a lot and aren't that well-versed at sequencing with software, I advise you to consider another keyboard. It's the source of much frustration, and the manual tells you very little about it.

If it weren't for the complicated menus and such, the Alesis would be an ideal machine for this. A great number of parameters can be changed of each sound in a voice, so you can tweak sounds to be as classical, techno, or rock as you can.
The effects are equally impressive. You can do just about anything with them. The great part is that there are up to four effects buses. That means you can add bass to a drum, reverb to a piano, leslie to an organ, and vibrato to a trumpet all at the same time. They can also be modified in a live situation using the control sliders and wheels once they've been programmed.

Absolutely terrible. I had e-mailed Alesis numerous times about my sequencing woes, and received no answers. I called, only to be put on hold for a half hour, and was met with a very brusque representative who taught me nothing. I guess my problem was too basic for them, I guess. I had to learn on my own, and it wasn't easy for me. I have them to thank for that "character-building" experience!

For what you get, the QS8 certainly has a great bang-for-the-buck quotient. It has given me hours and hours of fun and inspiration, but also frustration and confusion. Once you get over that rather steep learning curve, however, this keyboard is a blast. Still, I can't help but wonder how things would have been if I bought the Korg N1 or waited for something else. That's due to my musical tastes, mind you, because this is indeed a quality instrument.
If you don't want to have to deal with the complexity of the machine or you can spend more, I strongly suggest you buy something else. Heck, get a Korg Trinity Pro X in my name (or the new Triton). If you're on a tighter budget and consider yourself to be extremely patient, I say go for the Alesis QS8 (or QS8.1).

Recommend this product? Yes

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