ROLI Blocks - A Keyboardist's Perspective
By Team HC |
ROLI Blocks - A Keyboardist's Perspective
Who knew silicone could feel (and sound) so nice!
by Matthew Mann
If you’ve been looking for a new way to create music on the go, I just may have found what you’ve been looking for in the way of BLOCKS – by tech company ROLI – makers of the popular Seaboard line of MIDI keyboard controllers.
BLOCKS are a modular music-making system currently consisting of three modules: The Lightpad Block, The Loop Block, and the Live Block. All three modules connect via BlueTooth® to ROLI’s free music app – Noise. What’s fascinating is that you can add more pads as your needs grow. Start with a Lightpad and learn to make music with gestures. Add a Loop Block and record your performances as loops. These can be chained together into full, four-track performances. Add a Live Block and get performing with chord functions, add arpeggios, set scales for soloing without hitting wrong notes, and more.
Need more? Add another Lightpad BLOCK and now you can control even more sound and you’ll have even more playing area for your performances. All BLOCKS connect via a magnetic connector (called a DNA connector) built into the body of each unit. They can be connected on any of four sides of the Lightpad and on either of the two longer sides of the Loop BLOCK and Live BLOCK. This DNA connector keeps them together with other BLOCKS and also provides power to each unit. Once connected, additional BLOCKS show up in the Noise app. This DNA connector is also how you charge the units. Connect the Lightpad to the included USB-C to USB-A cable, then connect each additional BLOCK to the Lightpad. They do the rest themselves.
Let’s take a look at each BLOCK and see how they add up to a full modular set of fun.
Roli’s Lightpad BLOCK is a 3.7” x 3.7” silicone-covered, touch-sensitive pad that allows you to strike, glide, slide, press, and lift. Each action affects the sound in different ways. The harder (or softer) you strike, the more you push, the faster you lift - the more the sound can change. The pad consists of a 15 x 15 LED-lit background that changes depending on the mode you’re in. So, feedback is not only audible, it’s visual as well.
In Melodic Mode, the pad is shown as a 5 x 5 grid. Multiple colors display depending on the instrument. Each white square displayed on the pad is the root note of the key you’re in. This, again, adds visual cues to your performance.
In Drum Kit 4 Mode, a 2 x 2 grid is displayed. This gives you four pads – each with a different percussion sound for banging out beats. For example, Toms are tuned across the four pads and give you great flexibility for performance.
Something to point out here that makes this even cooler – after you’ve struck a drum sound you can then drag your finger from the position where you struck the Lightpad and, in many cases, it will modify the sound. For example, strike and get a hi-hat loop – drag your finger across the pad and that hi-hat loop changes pitch and timing for added rhythmic modulation in your performance. This also works in Melodic Mode which – in my keyboard player mind – is even more important. You can play a note and then bend that note up or down (or both) just by sliding your finger. You can also wiggle your finger while on a note and add vibrato. You can even roll your finger on the grid to push the note into an accidental. This is really cool for getting very organic sounds out of your performance. It might even lead you to change the way you think about music. I’ve been writing like this since getting a Seaboard RISE. It’s a unique sound that reminds you of actual acoustic instruments in the way the sound can move…but it works even with synth sounds and drums. Very cool!
The Loop and Live BLOCKS are next. Both are the same dimensions: 3.7” deep by 1.9” in length. When connected, they’re the same size as the Lightpad. Each of these blocks has some functions that are the same and some that are unique. Let’s take a look.
Once you’ve wrapped your head (and fingers) around the Lightpad BLOCK, try adding the Loop BLOCK. The Loop BLOCK is meant for production. There are 8 buttons and a “+/- Switch” on the Loop BLOCK. We’ll start on the top row: The first button on the left is the MODE button and lets you switch among the different instruments in your set. Next is the Volume button. Select this and then use the “+/- Switch” to raise or lower your project volume. Next is the Metronome button. This toggles the click on/off. The next button is the Snap button, which lets you quantize your loops so they work in time with the beat of your project. The last button on the right of the top row is the Undo button, which can undo your last recording.
The bottom row begins with the PLAY/PAUSE button. This can play the whole project or start playback of each part. The part actually starts at the top of the measure. So…say, for example, that you have a drum loop playing already and you’ve just recorded a bass line and arp part. When you select one of those parts and hit the PLAY/PAUSE button, it will start playing as the drum loop comes around to the top of the measure. Conversely, if you have a part playing and select the PLAY/PAUSE button, that particular part will stop playing when the loop has reached the end. This is cool for introducing or removing parts from your track one element at a time.
The next available button is the RECORD button. If you select this button while nothing is playing, you will get a 4 beat count and then it will start recording. At the end of the loop, the RECORD button will turn off and the track will play back. If your loop is already playing and you want to record a new track to go with your loop, selecting RECORD will show you a red countdown so you know when to begin recording. This is done with a small strip of LEDs above the top row of buttons. These little dot LEDs are white unless your track is playing – then they’re GREEN. If you’re recording, they turn RED. These are, again, fantastic for visual indication of what’s going on while producing your tracks.
Beside the RECORD button is a button called LEARN. This will activate little demos that teach you how to use each sound. This is interesting enough, but I found myself ignoring it mostly. I guess I just learn by doing.
Finally, beside the LEARN button is the “+/- Switch,” which provides a number of functions. By default, it’s set to cycle through the instruments available in the Noise app. It’s also used to increase/decrease volume.
The Live BLOCK has been laid out to feature the most important functions that a musician/producer would use in a live situation. We’ll start with the top row again. Just below the row of indicator lights on the left of the Live BLOCK is another MODE button. This toggles control of your tracks, loops and presets…just as with the Loops BLOCK.
Next comes the Volume button. The online manual says this is supposed to adjust the volume of the “instrument selected,” but I found that it adjusts the volume of the whole track and could not get it to behave like a mixer – no matter what I tried.
The next button in line is the SCALE button. Selecting this changes the musical scale displayed on the Lightpad. Once the SCALE button is selected, the scale can be changed using the “+/- Switch.” This is a great tool for live performance because it allows you to set a scale and jam without fear of hitting wrong notes. The Lightpad will show all the notes relative to the selected scale as colored squares in the grid. White squares are, again, the root note. The black squares are notes not in the scale and can be used for accidentals (or not at all). In Scale MODE, the available options are:
These different scales can by cycled through by repeated selecting the SCALE button or by using the “+/- Switch.”
The CHORD button is fun! It allows you to create chords of your choosing and then play them back with one finger. These are similar to the SCALE functions in that there is a list of different chords types to choose from. They are:
Getting your head around these chords greatly enhances your ability to lay down chord progressions for your tracks. For keyboard players and folks who have a strong handle on music theory, these are a no-brainer. For those who don’t have strong piano skills, the CHORD button will become your best friend. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different chords in different keys to find what sounds good.
The ARPEGGIATOR button is another function that’s fun and can be very useful with some experimentation. Select this button once to turn on Arpeggiator mode and then use it to select different arpeggiator patterns. Once you have the one you like, try it out in different keys. Fun!
The next two buttons are utility buttons, but I promise they will come in very handy: SUSTAIN and OCTAVE. The SUSTAIN button will hold notes that have been played…even after you release those notes. For example, play a couple of notes and hold down the SUSTAIN button. As long as you’re holding down that button, you can release the notes and they will continue to sound. Release the SUSTAIN button and the notes will stop. The OCTAVE button transposes the notes available up to +/- 3 octaves. Want that electric piano sound to be a high, plinky arp sound instead? Change the octave up a couple of times and voila! Want it to be a bass instead? Change the octave down a couple of times. Boom! Selecting the RANGE button then allows you to use the “+/- Switch” for move up or down the octaves.
The button with the little heart is the FAVORITES button. When you find a sound/loop that you particularly like, select this button and it will store it as a favorite. It makes recalling your sounds faster.
The Noise app is a lot of fun. It does take a little getting used to, but once you spend some time with it, you’ll see that it make sense.
When you first open the app, you’re presented with the New Project area. Select this open the project screen. This screen shows basic controls at the top (Play/Pause, Click, Snap, Volume) and a multi-colored 4 x 4 grid. Each row represents a different instrument, each column represents a different loop. You can have up to 4 instruments in a loop, and chain up to 12 loops into a song. Of course, each loop can be replayed for remixing your track live.
The grid in Noise will correspond to the grid on the Lightpad at this point. Anything you can do in Noise, can be done either from the screen on your phone/iPad or from the surface of the Lightpad. To start recording, select the first square on the grid (purple row, square one). A “+” will appear showing that this loop has been selected. Tap this square again and the 4 x 4 Drum kit screen will appear. The controls will change at the top to show the Record button at the top. Experiment with the sounds in the drum kit. The default kit is the Dance Groove Kit. All of these sounds are loops. You can play them as single hits, but it’s much more fun to play two or three pads at the same time and just let the loops run. Remember to experiment with sliding your fingers across the screen. This can lead to some interesting results.
Hit Record and record your performance. If you make a mistake, you can use the BACK button to undo the recording and try again. When you’re happy with your first track, slide your finger from the top of your phone/iPad screen to get the Project window again. The square you just recorded in will now be filled in to show that it has a loop in it. Select the next square below it on the grid. This will bring up your next instrument track – this time in a 4 x 4 melodic grid. Just above the grid it tells you the name of the active sound. You can change this using the left and right arrows. Choose a sound you like and hit RECORD again. And so on…and so on…and so on. Remember: If you’ve recorded an instrument loop and you like – but maybe it’s a little off – you can use the SNAP function to quantize it so it fits perfectly within your project.
Once you have a loop you’re happy with on one or more of the available tracks, you can move on to the next set of loops and create variations or whatever you desire. At the bottom of the Project screen, there are three little icons indicating the three sets of four loop locations. You can select the extra loop locations from here.
The sounds in Noise are very good and ROLI is in partnership with several artists to create sound packs that will expand and customize the user’s experience. These sound packs are accessible from the Library icon at the top of the Noise Project screen (top far right). The packs include drum kits, hits, instruments and loops and will greatly enhance what you can do with Noise. In fact, Steve Aoki and RZA are two of the first artists to create sound packs for Noise with more expected in the future.
The Bottom Line
So what’s the bottom line here? Well, BLOCKS are fun. The Noise app sounds good and is also fun. The whole package is expandable so you can start small and grow as your needs develop. They’re portable. You can take them anywhere and play, perform, create. They’re expandable. With sounds packs by folks like RZA and Steve Aoki, BLOCKS and Noise will grow and grow. They’re cool. People will be asking you what the heck those things are.
With all that said, there is a little learning curve with the Lightpad. It takes a stronger hand (and fingers) than on your average synth controller. But, honestly, it doesn’t take much practice to get good at using BLOCKS. And the functions of the additional BLOCKS make sense. Given all this, I’d be hard-pressed not to recommend this to someone looking for a portable solution for music-making. It may not be for everyone, but I certainly think it will appeal to a large audience. Apple are selling BLOCKS in their stores and online as well. This will reach a pretty wide crowd of folks looking for something different, too. And if you’re still not sure about BLOCKS, download the Noise app for free first, try it out, and see if you like the workflow and the sounds. If so, BLOCKS become a “no brainer.”
Also, at NAMM 2017, ROLI announced BLOCKS Dashboard – a software package that adds functionality to the Lightpad enabling BLOCKS to work in concert with several Windows and Mac programs including: Ableton, Bitwig, Cubase, Logic, Omnisphere and Kontakt. The goal with the Dashboard is to make BLOCKS an open source platform for customization. They will even have a new Fader Mode that will turn the Lightpad into a touch-sensitive fader to quick adjustments of parameters. BLOCKS Dashboard will be available to BLOCKS creators as of 16 February 2017. -HC-
Check out Matthew Mann's Expert Review of the Roli Seaboard Rise Keyboard
Lightpad Block: $179.95
Live Block: $79.95
Loop Block: $79.95
Buy the Light Pad Block from:
Buy the Loop Block from:
Buy the Live Block from:
Matthew Mann (Editor, Studio-One Expert) graduated Berklee College of Music with a Master Certificate, Music Production. Matt has been in bands and run studios for over a decade. He had a 3 year stint as a Sales Associate at GC Pro and has more recently been working in technical writing. As the picture shows, Matt rarely takes himself too seriously.