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ROLI Seaboard Block, Lightpad M Block, and Touch Block

EVERYTHING ... you wanted to know about ROLI!

 

by Matthew Mann

 

 

THE RISE….OF ROLI’S SEABOARD

 

I discovered Roli’s Seaboard RISE49 a couple of years ago. I have to admit that, although intrigued by the unique touch surface, I wouldn’t call it “love at first sight.” It actually took me some time to get used to such an unusual keyboard surface. Okay, I’m an old keyboard player who’s very comfortable with my plastic keybeds on my old synths…so diving right in to something so new and unique was a little bit of a slow process. Once I got used to it, however, I decided I’d have to split my loyalties between traditional keys and the keywaves of the RISE 49. (Read my original review here.) I found that the RISE 49 was much easier to transport than most of my hardware synths. It’s low profile made sure of that…but the size and weight still made it less than ideal for use on, say, a plane, train or automobile.

 

 

For those of you who don’t know about the Seaboard, it features silicon “keywaves” which provide much more than note on/note off and dynamics of traditional keyboards and controllers. The Seaboard gives you what Roli calls “5D Touch” – that is – five dimensions of touch response: strike, press, glide, slide and lift. Each movement causes a different response from synths that accept these messages (like their Equator virtual synth). For example, pressing a keywave creates the sound, sliding your finger along the key toward the back of the controller may open the filter, while sliding your finger from one keywave up or down the ribbons’ key range to another keywave creates portamento – much like sliding one’s finger along a guitar or violin string. Striking the keywaves harder does the obvious – velocity – while lifting your finger sends note off and release velocity messages. All these touch options coax the user to experiment with different ways of playing. This can lead to some very unique performances that weren’t previously possible.

 

In addition to the Seaboard RISE (which included the Seaboard RISE 25 and the big daddy Seaboard GRAND), Roli also released BLOCKS: a modular music-making system that includes the Lightpad Block, Loop Block, and Live Block. If you haven’t heard about them, these are little controllers sold through Apple and Roli.com that connect magnetically and create a whole new way of making music. These connectable controllers create extra performance functionality – both for Seaboard users and non-keyboardist percussion-style performers. All of the BLOCKS and the Seaboard feature Bluetooth connectivity and are rechargeable, so getting away from wires and becoming portable is easier than ever.

 

 

SMALLER…AND SMALLER…

 

Now, almost two years later, Roli has released the Seaboard Block. This is the newest addition to Roli’s BLOCKS modular system. The Seaboard Block provides some of the same functionality as the RISE series of controllers, but in a much smaller form factor and much lighter weight (1.43 lbs). In fact, the Seaboard Block is so small and lightweight that I can (and do) carry it around in my backpack that goes everywhere with me. My Seaboard RISE 49 weighs in at 10lbs, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it makes it much less easy to carry. Additionally, the RISE 49 is 4” x 35” x 13" whereas the Seaboard Block measures at 1” x 11” x 5.5” – so, it’s much more conducive to performance and composition in public places like on trains, buses, in parks, at the beach, in class (I hope my 13 year old doesn’t read this) and more. The Seaboard BLOCK has multiple DNA connectors on its side panels for connecting to other BLOCKS – like the Lightpad M, Loop Block, Live Block or Touch Block (or a combination of these). I have the Lightpad M, a Loop Block and a Live Block connected and it’s a pretty sweet performance setup.

 

ROLI's new Seaboard Block - Take your creativity anywhere

 

The Seaboard Block takes about 4 hours to fully charge, but then has a 10 hour batter life in use. That’s pretty good considering that a mobile phone using Bluetooth will typically die long before that…at least, mine does, anyway.

 

 DNA Connectors let you connect with other Blocks for more fun than you can shake a ... well ... a Block at.

 

Since its arrival, I have used the Seaboard Block in numerous places. I’ve sat with it in the lunchroom at work; used it while sitting in a fast food restaurant; even while sitting in the car waiting for my wife to do some “quick” shopping. I’ve even used it at my kids’ sports lessons - when I had a quick moment of inspiration I needed to capture for fear of losing it. The Seaboard Block is so compact that I really do find myself carrying it everywhere. And it’s so light that I forget it’s there…unless I need it. Additionally, the keywaves are so responsive that I can capture every nuance of my performance. It’s really fantastic. And it’s about to get even better!

 

Some manufacturers are adding MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE) to their software to allow controllers like the Seaboard and BLOCKS to control multiple parameters of their soft synths. Until now, only Roli’s own Noise and Equator synths were capable of MPE, but some software companies have begun implementing MPE in their DAWs and synths. Here’s a current MPE compatibility list from Roli’s website:

 

DAWs:

  • Bitwig 8-Track / Studio (Bitwig)
  • GarageBand (Apple)
  • Logic Pro X (Apple)
  • Reaper (Cockos)
  • Cubase (Steinberg)
  • Waveform (Tracktion)

 

Soft Synths:

  • Poly-Ana (Admiral Quality)
  • Cycling ’74 Max
  • Equator (Roli)
  • Strobe2 (FXpansion)
  • Sektor (Initial Audio)
  • SynthMaster (KV331 Audio)
  • Aalto (Madrona Labs)
  • MainStage (Apple)
  • Reaktor (Native Instruments)
  • Modular (Softube)
  • BT Phobos (Spitfire)
  • Addiction / Infinity (Stagecraft)
  • HALion (Steinberg)
  • Kyma (Symbolic Sound)
  • The Legend (Synapse Audio)
  • Falcon (UVI)

 

Mobile Apps:

  • NOISE
  • Seaboard 5D
  • GeoShred
  • GarageBand iOS
  • Moog Model 15
  • AniMoog

 

MPE-Compatible Hardware Synths:

  • Audiothingies MicroMonsta
  • Axoloti
  • Deckard’s Dream
  • es Shuttle Control
  • Expert Sleepers FH-1
  • FutureSonus Parva
  • MOD Duo
  • Modal Electronics 001 / 002 / 002R
  • Modor NF-1 / NF-1m
  • Polyend Poly
  • Snyderphonics MantaMate

 

Other MPE-Compatible Software:

  • BOME MIDI Translator Pro
  • io ALK

 

Other DAWs and Synthesizers:

These are not fully MPE-compatible, but can be used following Roli’s setup guides.

  • Ableton Live
  • Audio Modeling SWAM Engine
  • Digital Performer
  • FL Studio
  • iZotope Iris 2
  • NI Kontakt
  • Pro Tools
  • Spectrasonics Omnisphere / Trillian
  • Studio One
  • U-he Diva

This list is constantly growing and Roli are currently working on guides for further setup with the Seaboard and BLOCKS, so check their site (here) often.

 

LIGHTPAD…MMM….

 

The surface of the main block, the Lightpad M, is made of silicon like Seaboard, but flat like a drum pad instead of being shaped like keys. It’s very similar to the original Lightpad that I reviewed last time, but this one is made up of 225 little microkeywaves. These little “bumps” on the surface provide much more precise control over your playing. The response is better, too. I found it much easier to capture movements on this one that on the original – where you have to really dig in to the surface to get what you want out of it. The experience is much more enjoyable now and, in fact, made it much more fun for my kids who, of course, wanted to try it as soon as it came in.

 

 

Lightpad M - Greater control and easier to see than the original

 

 

The Lightpad Block can be setup as a drum controller, a basic keyboard controller, a small fader bank, and now it can even be setup like the session view in Ableton Live. This allows you to fire off clips, mute parts, and more in Live.   And assigning it to different functions is pretty straight-forward. Using the BLOCKS Dashboard, you can instantly transfer different setups to your BLOCKS. There’s a template for Live and more. In addition, pressing the Select button on the side of the Lightpad M or Seaboard Block navigates between different functions. In the Noise app, it moves between tracks and allows you to control drums, bass, pads, leads, etc.

 

Once you get the hang of navigation through Roli’s apps, you’ll find that creating tracks is quick and easy. Laying down expressive ideas – and even full productions – is straight-forward and fun. Speaking of fun, Roli have added a new app called Roli Play that helps you dive in to the world of MPE control. We’ll look at that as well. But first…

 

PARADISE BY THE….DASHBOARD

One of the things that made my Seaboard RISE experience so good was the ROLI Dashboard. This application (available for Windows and Mac users) allows you to customize your Seaboard to your particular tastes / performance style. The users (called “Creators” by ROLI) can modify the response settings of the RISE for all 5 dimensions of touch (Strike, Glide, Slide, Press and Lift) – this makes the RISE much more expressive. It also allows the creator to assign the three faders and X/Y touchpad on the RISE to different MIDI CC’s. Even the pedal input of the RISE can be assigned to different MIDI CC’s in the Dashboard.

 

Blocks Dashboard with Seaboard Block, Lightpad M Block and Loop Block attached.

 

The Dashboard also allows the creator to adjust the bend range, MIDI channel mode, the Glide & Slide tracking and Press tracking. You can also select MPE, Multi-Channel mode, or Single-Channel mode (which transmits standard MIDI data on one channel – that’s good for those virtual instruments that don’t support these features). Finally, the Dashboard allows the creator to view the Seaboard’s status including: Power Status, Bluetooth Model Number, firmware version, etc.

 

 

Now, the BLOCKS Dashboard takes control and customization to a whole new level. First, the BLOCKS Dashboard shows any and all BLOCKS you have connected (up to 4 at a time). Clicking on a BLOCK in the Dashboard Visualizer will show you the available apps and settings for it. If you have the Lightpad Block attached, clicking on one of several apps below the visualizer will load that app into your Lightpad. You can click the Edit button to modify your BLOCK’s settings. ROLI provides several apps for customizing your Lightpad Block and the way it behaves. And once you’ve switched to a different app, the Block remembers that app….even after you’ve closed BLOCKS Dashboard.

 

Let’s start with Ableton Live Control. This lets the creator navigate around, record, and play clips in Live sessions – right from the Lightpad. It will also let you play a Live drum rack. Add samples or melodic instruments to the drum rack and you can play them all from the Lightpad.

 

Next up on the apps menu is BLOCKSvaders and BreakBLOCKS. These are Roli’s versions of “Space Invaders” and Brick Breaker.” I’m not sure why they included these in here, but they ARE kinda fun.

 

The Control Grid is a grid that lets the user customize either notes or CC’s. It’s editable and can control several options for a drum grid. You can change it from a 1x1 grid to a 4x4 grid, change the MIDI mode settings, set the strike minimum value (basically the minimum velocity it will respond to), Slide control, and the colors of the pads.

 

The Drum Block allows you to choose from one of several percussion layouts specifically for playing percussion. This is cool to me. You can connect 4 Lightpads and setup each one as a drum pad, or you can divide the one Lightpad into 4 squares which each will play a percussion sound. Of course, if you had four Lightpads, you could potentially set each one to have 4 different percussion sounds for a total of 16 different percussion elements all at once. Finger drummers rejoice!

 

The Fader Block puts 4 MIDI CC faders at your fingertips. Additionally, there are 3 more banks of faders (4 faders per bank) for access to 16 different MIDI faders. The MODE button changes banks. These could be used for any number of tasks from controlling mix faders to synth parameters…whatever you need.

 

The Mixer Block is specifically designed for mixing tasks with 4 faders and 4 buttons – all sending different CC’s. You can assign which MIDI channel a fader is sending on; adjust the colors of each; determine whether buttons work as toggles, triggers or gates…there are tons of possibilities here.

 

 

Mixer Block

 

 

The MusicGen app is kinda fun and random. It’s basically a game-style music creation app. This app gives the creator 4 different “note emitters” – what they emit (chords/rhythms) are determined by their direction and placement on the pad. I’m not sure how much I’d use this, but my kids thought it was fun.

 

The Note Grid app is for setting up a grid of notes. There are tons of options here for customizing it to do what you want including adjusting MIDI settings, pitch, the play mode (including chords, slide mode, glide mode, piano mode and more), the 5D touch settings, and more.

 

There’s a RISE Controller app that recreates the X/Y touchpad and Touch Faders of the Seaboard RISE. Used with the Seaboard BLOCK, this could effectively turn it into a tiny version of the Seaboard RISE.

 

Finally, there’s the XYZ Pad for using the Lightpad as an X/Y/Z pad. (3 axes instead of 2…cool!)

 

Of course, the ability to store your own setups is what really makes this powerful. Start with one of the preset apps and customize it to your way of working. Save your changes and you now have a customized solution for ultimate creativity.

 

PLAY?

 

Roli recently added what they call PLAY. This is a fun little app that gives you an introduction to the Lightpad and making music with it. PLAY starts by teaching you the elements of 5D touch; then provides multiple tracks and multiple instruments so you can start making loop-based music with your Lightpad. Once you’ve created your loop (or loops), PLAY will then let you mix your tracks and record a performance of your loops to develop a song-length track. The idea is to basically play your loops one at a time while PLAY is recording and it will remember the structure of your performance. PLAY is fun and comes with quite a few sounds and loops. There’s also a function where you can just play the Lightpad and choose from all the different sounds. This area is a great way to practice what you’ve learned from PLAY and get good at using the Lightpad.

 

Roli's PLAY app.

 

PLAY reminds me a bit of Figure, the free music-making app from Propellerheads but, again, this one is geared toward learning to use the Lightpad and integrates seamlessly with it.

 

The Music Recording screen in PLAY.

 

GET TO THE BOTTOM OF THE BOTTOM LINE

 

As I said at the beginning of this review (and in my previous review), I love Roli and their multi-dimensional controllers. I’ve become a huge fan of the Seaboard RISE and this new Seaboard Block is no different. In fact, that I can carry it in my backpack is HUGE for me (even though it’s tiny). I’m always on the go and this Seaboard can go with me literally anywhere. I love the slightly larger keys on my Seaboard RISE 49, but this little Seaboard is a definite keeper.

 

The new Lightpad M is a serious upgrade from the original. The pad is much more expressive and I can achieve finer detail in my performances than with the original. This Lightpad is brighter and the colors more vivid than the original. The BLOCKS Dashboard enhances functionality of the Lightpad and Seaboard Block one hundred-fold. I know that Roli is in constant development to enhance and make their products even better. I’m a happy camper! They really are a joy to play…even if you’re not a millennial musician. I’m having a ball with them…and I’m far removed from millennial status! If you live close to an Apple Store, you owe it to yourself to stop in and check out Roli’s BLOCKS for yourself. They’re fun and cool, and just may change the way you compose and perform.

 

BONUS:

 

Right now, Roli are offering two interesting deals for creators who are interested in getting into BLOCKS: The Songmaker kit and The Beatmaker Kit.

 

The Songmaker Kit includes the new Seaboard BLOCK, the Lightpad M, the Loop BLOCK for controlling your song production, and a snapcase that they all fit into. This keeps everything neat and clean and close. They also throw in a ton of sounds and software to enhance your music making experience: NOISE, Equator, BLOCKS Dashboard, Strobe2 Player, Tracktion Waveform, and Max MSP.

 

The Beatmaker Kit includes two Lightpad M controllers, the Loop BLOCK, a Live BLOCK for controlling your live performance parameters, a custom snap case and all the software listed above.

 

Both kits are available from Roli.com and are now also available from retailers around the world (including the U.S.).

 

UPDATE: There’s another bonus running right now as well. Anyone who purchases a Seaboard Block now gets a FREE Snapcase to put it in. That’s a $59.00 value. Snapcases are slick little cases to store your Seaboard Block, Lightpad, a pair of Lightpads, and more.

 

AT A GLANCE

 

 

Seaboard Block: ($299.95)

 

  • 5D Touch Technology (strike, glide, slide, press, lift)
  • 24 Keywave, two octave playing surface
  • 200+ free sounds
  • Suite of music making software (desktop/mobile)*
  • Wireless and portable
  • Connects to other Blocks

 

* Suite of music software:

                  - NOISE (Plus 9 NOISE Soundpacks)

- Equator Player

- Strobe2 Player

- Tracktion Waveform

- BLOCKS Dashboard

- MaxMSP (3 month trial license)

 

Add more Seaboard BLOCKS with DNA Connectors to expand your range. Also connects to Lightpad BLOCK, Live BLOCK, Loop BLOCK, and Touch BLOCK.

 

Box Includes:

  • Seaboard Block
  • 9 NOISE Soundpacks
  • Equator Player
  • Strobe2 Player
  • Tracktion Waveform
  • BLOCKS Dashboard
  • Max MSP (3 month license)
  • USB-C to USB-A cable.
  • Quick Start Guide
  • One Year Warranty

 

Specs:

Width:                    282mm (11 inches)

Height:                   24.7mm (1 inch)

Depth:                    141mm (5.5 inches)

Weight:                                    650g (1.43 pounds)

 

Battery:                                   10 hour battery life

                                    4 hour charge time

 

Bluetooth:           15 meter range (49 feet)

 

Connections:     USB-C port (MIDI out and power)

MIDI over USB and Bluetooth

DNA Magnetic Connectors x 4

 

Requirements: iPhone 6, 6 Plus or newer. iPad air or newer. iOS 9.0 or above. Google Pixel or Pixel 2.

Mac OSX 10.10+ / Windows 7 / Windows 10

 

Touch BLOCK Expression Control: ($79.95)

 

  • DNA Connectors
  • Provides control over 5D responsiveness of Seaboard BLOCK and Lightpad BLOCK M
  • Works connected via DNA connectors or wirelessly

 

Lightpad M: ($169.95)

 

  • 225 microkeywaves – more responsive and precise than previous version
  • DNA Connectors
  • USB-C connector
  • Bluetooth Connectivity
  • 50% brighter surface from new LEDs
  • Chord Mode for one-key chords
  • Fader Mode for mixing tasks
  • Drum Pad Mode for banging out beats

 

Roli PLAY

 

BLOCKS Dashboard

 

________________________________________ 

 

 

 

Matthew Mann 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.

 

 

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