The future is bright…and five-dimensional?
Followers of music technology may already be familiar with Roli. In 2014 the company appeared out of nowhere with a futuristic product called the Roli Seaboard Grand. This obscure looking instrument promised to revolutionise the musical instrument industry. American-born founder Roland Lamb proclaimed it would be the biggest invention since the electric guitar. As Brits, we are naturally sceptical of such hyperbole. Yet the Roli story began picking up pace.
Soon after, the Seaboard Grand found its way into the hands of people like Stevie Wonder and Hans Zimmer. Buoyed by its increasing popularity, the company received major external funding, with the view that its proprietary technology – more on this later – was indeed capable of changing the game.
The result of this is a new stable of interesting, unique and technologically advanced instruments, led by the Roli Seaboard Rise, and backed up by the newer Roli Blocks units. These modular boxes are all futuristic tech and minimal design, but do they come close to justifying the hype? Let’s take a look at the Roli range.
Roli Seaboard Rise
The flagship of the new range. On one hand, the Roli Seaboard Rise is the junior, semi-skimmed version of the Grand. But when something is a junior version of a product that retails at over £7,000, you know it must be a bit special.
If you’re completely new to the tech, this might take some explaining. Basically, the Seaboards (both Rise and Grand) operate using an advanced new multi-directional version of MIDI. Roli calls it five-dimensional touch. That sounds pretty out-there, but what it means is that instead of the main panel holding 25, 49 or 61 keys, it instead holds on amorphous silicon panel.
This panel has nominal markings on to help navigate around the notes, but in reality everything is linked. This is where the Roli magic happens. Slides happen horizontally, vertically, and also inwards. Yep, inwards. In the same way as soft-synths will have after-touch, the Seaboards have crazy levels of control after the note is played.
It sounds a bit nebulous describing it. It’s something you have to see and hear really. This video shows how particular sounds (Game of Thrones being one) are well suited to this technology.
Experimental or talented?
This five-dimensional touch element isn’t all though. The Rise keyboards are exceptionally well built and engineered. They are light, portable and rigid. That portability is important too; as well as being easy to throw in a bag and carry around, the Rise range has an internal battery that, when charged, gives you up to 11 hours of play time. Not only that, it has built in Bluetooth so it can connect completely wirelessly with your laptop, tablet or smartphone. It’s like every millennial box has been ticked.
But who’s it for? Well, the Roli Seaboard Rise is ideal for experimenters. In its own way, the Rise ‘unlocks’ elements of musical performance by making things possible which weren’t before. Travelling around the notes and scales you’re used to becomes more expressive, more creative and more fun. It’s also an instrument that rewards talent.
On on hand, it’s great for the lesser-skilled among us to let rip and find those happy musical accidents we love so much. But if you’ve got a bit of talent behind you, then the Rise becomes an entirely new tool. Your mind will be whirring with ideas, make no mistake.
Also new from Roli are the new Blocks units. These are used to control elements within popular DAWs or apps on your iOS devices. Each of the three units provides different functionality depending on your requirements.
The Roli Lightpad is the most immediately striking. 225 LED lights sit under a multi-touch silicone surface. Connecting via Bluetooth, the unit changes its functionality depending on what you’re doing. It can take the role of drum machine, loop launcher, synth controller or parameter changer, depending on what you tell it to do.
Two smaller boxes make up the range. The Roli Live Block is capable of adding performance tools to your arsenal in the shape of octave control, an arpeggiator, sustain and a chord layer. The Roli Loop Block then goes further by adding dedicated looping technology to the fray. What’s interesting though, is the way that these units are all modular, meaning you can add them or change them as you desire. They both clip onto, and draw power from, the Roli Lightpad too.
Hype or reality?
There are parallels to how Tesla is working in the automotive world. Make your first product the expensive one. The proof of concept. Make it so amazing that people’s jaws drop when they see it. Give up a bit of market share to cement your position.
Then, once the world catches on, hit them with a more affordable model that anyone can get their hands on. Start big, as we have seen, and the story is one of prestige and otherworldliness. Then, when you become a more realistic proposition to the masses, there’s a natural demand for your products.
Does the Roli range change music forever? Their own marketing speak is pretty hyperbolic. But maybe there’s something in this one. The best way to decide for yourself is to try it out.
Journalist, PR and multimedia specialist. Write professionally on subjects ranging from musical instruments to industrial technology.