It’s not easy to invent a new musical instrument, in fact, it’s hard to think of anything that’s been particularly groundbreaking this millennium. Perhaps, with the exception of ROLI.
Since 2009, the London-based music-tech company has been relentlessly pursuing new approaches to musical instruments. ROLI’s Seaboard reinvented the keyboard, offering limitless expression through its ultra-sensitive silicon keys that respond to any small movements or pressure changes that your fingers can muster. Then, last year, ROLI released the BLOCKS series, which created an all-new way of thinking about modular instrumentation while expanding on ROLI’s pioneering expressive technologies.
With the new Lightpad M and Seaboard Block, Roli’s new BLOCKS range is changing the way performers and producers think about MIDI control.
A pioneering feature of the BLOCKS series is its all-new customisable modular design. Magnetic pins around the edge of each ‘block’ allow them to snap together in different angles and positions, and to be infinitely expanded on. As of today, the BLOCKS series includes the Seaboard Block, a smaller version of the original Seaboard and the Lightpad Block M, a customisable drum pad.
In addition to these instruments are three controllers – the Live Block for performance control, the Loop Block for production control, and the Touch Block for expression control. Each provides shortcuts to the controls you use more in your jams, whether that be recording a loop or swapping instruments or scales.
You can arrange any combination of each Block to your fancy, it’s kind of like lego. The best thing is that each piece is wireless enabled, so you can whip them out on the train or in a park (just keep in mind this gear looks like nothing else, and passers-by might think you’re testing alien technology.
The Lightpad Block M
The Lightpad M is an incredibly versatile midi controller that uses a tactile velocity-sensitive pad to pick up all sorts of slides and twists, as well as your standard tapping. It connects via Bluetooth to your smartphone or iPad and can be used via ROLI’s own mobile app, NOISE. The device also connects to a computer through USB-C, so you can use it along with your favourite DAW.
Simply put, the pad is super smart; ROLI going as far to call their technology 5D, a nod to the all the parameters that the MIDI technology can pick up. The pad knows how hard you’re striking it, and a little jiggling-twist motion, akin to a guitar vibrato, will do just that. Sliding up can tweak things like filter cut-off and sidewards is good for a pitch bend. It even knows how quickly you pull off.
The system is strange to get used to at first. Until this point, I’d only ever used a classic beat pad, which only really does one thing. This is a whole new ballgame, triggering synths feels almost like you’re playing some sort of acoustic instrument, the sound is instantly responsive and organic feeling.
Drums are used in a similar manner to other pads, with each drum taking up its own space of LED lights, organised in 12 squares, which react to your fingers as soon as you strike them. Loops can be quickly layered by coupling the Block M with the Loop Block. It’s a versatile piece of kit, and if you’re not after a drum pad it can easily be tweaked to be a fader bank or effects launcher, with the LED patterns re-arranging accordingly.
The Seaboard Block
Roli’s Seaboard Block is a scaled down version of their original Seaboard. The two-octave ‘keyboard’ is a perfect size for snapping on the Lightpad Block M and each of Roli’s controllers. Like the Lightpad, this unit can connect to mobile devices/iPads, as well as a DAW on your computer.
The Seaboard replaces traditional piano keys with squishy ‘lumps’ that pick up all those tasty five dimensions I mentioned – Strike, Glide, Slide, Press and Lift. Like the Lightpad Block M, it takes some getting used to – basically because there’s nothing like it out there – it’s a whole new thing.
Something that you can tell right away is that expression was at the forefront of ROLI’s mind when they designed the Seaboard Block, and I’ll use the word again – it feels organic. ROLI claims that the Seaboard lets you play ‘in between’ the notes, which is almost literal – bending your finger around the side of the lumpy key will give you a pitch bend, and like the Block M, a wiggle motion gives you a vibrato, which when coupled with a guitar sound is extremely convincing.
It’s new world of expressive playing, and when snapped together with the Lightpad, you can really see how this could be a great live instrument, using the right had to build up drum loops and the left to play lead lines. With the extent of the expressive controls, it’s almost like you have more than two hands.
It really looks like ROLI are onto something here. The original Seaboard was an intriguing unit, but the BLOCKS range offers so much more in terms of performance and individual customisation. One thing that stands out about these products is that even though they are quite alien and hard to compare to anything else, they seem tidy, functional and nicely manufactured. The build is solid and their wireless connectivity makes them that just that much more usable.
It doesn’t look like ROLI is going to slow down any time soon and I remain intrigued as to what crazy contraption they’ll build next. Stay tuned.
If endless expressive possibilities are up your alley, check out the ROLI BLOCKS product page.