UK music startup ROLI are on one heck of a roll. And they’re slowly becoming a laboratory for trying out genuinely new ideas for music making – finally breaking the mold of an industry that often relishes nostalgia.

Now, ROLI’s got the engineering, acquiring plug-in maker FXpansion and cross-platform development architecture JUCE. They’ve got the flagship hardware, in the form of their Seaboard and Seaboard RISE expressive controllers – futuristic gadgets that look like the piano someone would play on Star Trek: The Next Generation more than what you’d find in your local Guitar Center. And they’ve got connectivity to bring it together, like the Noise app that puts touch-sensitive control on your iPhone, and Blend, an online collaboration platform.

Instead of waiting for the future of music making, in other words, ROLI will acquire and invent it.

The latest development is BLOCKS. They’re sleek, black boxes that work together wirelessly. And they’re different than what you usually see in three important ways.

roli-blocks-loop-kit-angled-low-res

First, because they’re modular, they aren’t the usual crowded combination of knobs and pads and buttons and faders that most often are the mark of music gear. Second, they’re arguably the first music gear that seems to look comfortable sitting next to something with the industrial refinement of an iPad Pro.

And lastly, most importantly, there’s nothing about this device that suggests it’s built for a musician. A unit called the Loop Block resembles the remote for an Apple TV. The Lightpad Block looks like a small light-up toy or piece of LED jewelry.

The idea is this: consumers buy the boxes they desire, then add them wirelessly in any combination to an iOS device that makes sound. Since they connect via Bluetooth, you skip the wires.

roli-blocks-lightpad-and-ipad-low-res

On their own, these gadgets do genuinely appear too simple. But the magic appears to be breathing intelligence into them with software. The Lightpad Block, true to ROLI’s core competency in touch interfaces, is sensitive to contact and gesture, evidently opening up various interactions. The Loop Block mainly serves as transport control, but seems to hold some potential when combined with other Blocks.

roli-blocks-lightpad-block-diamond-low-res

They’re small enough that they’d even make sense along a phone, not just a tablet. As a lot of the world’s markets shift to handheld platforms and not traditional computers, that could be a real sign of things to come.

Phone friendly. Darned cute devices.

Phone friendly. Darned cute devices.

Here you can watch the first two instruments in action. It’s the creative use of gestures that really sets this apart. We’ve seen ideas like that in apps or one-off experimental products, but here it’s part of a consumer-focused product – which is newsworthy.

It’s beautiful. I have just one caution. There’s one underlying assumption of our whole community that I sometimes wonder about. We assume that creating weird, new interfaces will appeal to non-expert musicians. To be slightly more pragmatic, I think it’s actually the creative music community who so often embrace that sort of experimentalism – and sometimes the general public are the tough sell. (There’s a reason they gravitate to stuff they know, like piano keyboards and guitars and drums – remember that a non-trivial portion of the population has actually learned on those instruments.)

On the other hand, the general public has embraced the multi-touch paradigm, so this could all be ripe for disruption.

Room to grow?

For now, you get only these two units. And they’re roughly the same price of some other entry-level music controller (even if they look nicer) – that’s US$$179 and $79 for Lightpad and Loop, respectively.

So I think the real verdict will be down to how the app and controllers evolve.

I’d also be hopeful that ROLI opens up this device to developers – that seems a no-brainer, given the company’s openness to third parties on Seaboard and its investment in development technology JUCE. In other words, even if you aren’t sold on ROLI’s own app, another app might change your mind. (I’d like to use the Lightpad Block with the Elastic Drums drum machine, for instance.) Also, since they’re Bluetooth enabled, I hope we’ll be able to use them on desktop computers, too. These ideas may all be independent of the core market and simplicity, but … looking at the history of tech like multitouch, the Wiimote, and Kinect, advanced experimental applications have often informed the mainstream, too.

Disruption

But there’s another reason to look to ROLI to boldly go where no other musical instrument manufacturers have gone before.

The company’s business is different. So while they say the same things about democratizing music for everyone (blah blah anyone can make music easily blah blah), they’ve got a business to back it up. And think over $50 million from investors like Foundry Group, Balderton Capital, and Founders Fund, plus even Universal Music Group. (Hey, if selling music doesn’t pan out, we may all be into making things like this.)

And most interesting about the ROLI Blocks initiative is that the whole thing will be sold exclusively direct from the company and through Apple. That’s right – Apple Stores will have these gadgets, in retail locations and online.

I think that’s potentially a game changer. Music stores are unfriendly places for a lot of people. Heck, even some of us actual musicians avoid going to some of them like the plague, thanks to unfriendly staff and people playing Stairway to Heaven.

But seeing these alongside iPads could open up physical hardware to a whole new audience.

Having thoroughly trashed Apple for the last days for narrowing the appeal of their desktop Mac line, I have the reverse take on their mobile iOS stuff. I think they remain in just the right position to turn people on to making music on their mobile gadgets. I’m not being hypocritical somehow, either – you can contrast the absence of inspiring desktop hardware with the much more inspiring combination of, say, an iPad Pro or an iPhone 7 with something like Lightpad Blocks.

Something like it, anyway. I’m excited to try these out in person. CDM will hopefully be visiting the folks at ROLI before the end of the year to catch up on all they’ve been doing. If there’s something you’d like to see us cover, questions you’d like to ask, even something you want to criticize, let us know.

https://roli.com

You can watch the keynote via their Facebook Live event, on at publish time:

  • lala

    What’s with the pitchbends up lately?
    Everything goes meow now.
    Yeah I know it’s roli but c’mon.
    Brrr, we needed years to get rid of those dreadful guitar soli and now this.

  • R__W

    How are they gonna live up to the investment tho? Nobody is buying the Seaboards. Native Instruments is only worth about $50M. Taking $50M in venture means ROLI is valued at $500M… which is pretty much impossible for a music tech company. Their investors are going to get frustrated in a few years and rip the company apart.

    IMO Teenage Engineering took a more sensible approach to this niche market of ours by self funding development of their products. They also are coming out with a system which interacts with iOS devices, in a more interesting manner than this, IMO.

    That said, I liked the ROLI Seaboard more than I like these blocks. I am tired of variations on grid controllers + LEDs.

    • Armando

      “Nobody is buying the Seaboards.”

      I bought one, when they did their spring sale. Buy a seaboard get Full Bitwig license, free flip case, and full license for Strobe 2. That was a steal.

      But buying just the board outright for $799.. I see your point.

      • R__W

        True, i mean i like the seaboard and want one… but AFAIK they are not selling. They also got a bad review from Cuckoo…

        My main point though is their funding which is touted as a plus in this writeup is also gonna seal their fate. They had a chance at being something like the Nord of the future. However, now that they took all that money they have to be bigger than every other music tech company combined in order for their investors consider them to be “successful.”

        • How do you know they aren’t selling? From my perspective a lot of people seem to be getting them, but I don’t think either of us have any real insight into their sales.

          They seem to be aggressively pursuing expansion and diversification of their products (considering they now own Blend, FXpansion, JUCE), and I’m sure they’re not going to slow down there. They want to be positioned across all ends of the music industry.

      • Dopamine Addict

        I have a Rise and think its just about the most innovative controllers I have ever played. This doesn’t mean that people are buying them in large volume, but I am just curious where you get your information? The build quality and responsiveness are remarkable. If you do not have one, I recommend you check out a Rise at your local music shop. Also, it works well with the impressive Equator instrument, but as a Logic user I have been enjoying using the Rise with Logic instruments which support the multidimensional input. None of the presets support the multidimensional support by default, but its not that much work to adapt a sound to respond.

    • No, I share your concern. That means this product I would presume needs to do well.

      The Seaboard I think is great; that’s not a problem to me. But to make that valuation they’d need a product with broader appeal. This appears to be their first stab at that kind of product.

      • and hey, you can budget for this more easily than all those Apple adapters. Boom!

    • Guillaume Largillier

      I honestly doubt that raising $50M would value Roli anywhere around $500M – I assume it rather greatly diluted the founders share, hence their future control over the company. Roli’s story reminds me of Smule, the silicon valley startup who raised massive VC funding (about $100M) to democratize music making through fancy mobile apps (magic piano, ocarina, mad pad). When VC realized that MI market is no country for unicorns, they acquired a karaoke startup, then quietly pivoted to turn the company into a karaoke social network… Raising that amount of money necessarily raised shareholder expectations, which may alter the DNA of the company. I hope it won’t be the case with Roli.

      • R__W

        good call on Smule

    • Phil

      Whoa really?? This is the first I have heard of a system that Teenage Engineering is coming out with which interacts with iOS. Do you have any more info?

      • R__W

        yeah the OP Z. check some of the demo videos out there

        • Phil

          Ahh yes! I forgot about the OP Z. Thanks for the reminder! Time to catch up on demo videos.

  • Hektik

    I really like how the blocks look like and I think it’s a great idea. However, I somehow wonder why I need a touch-sensitive controller in the size of a smartphone to control my touch-sensitive iPhone? It’s not that I don’t see any use in this but basically I could to the same performance on just my iPhone, or am I getting this wrong?

    • SevenEyeballs

      They didn’t show it of course but, the benefit is that you could control apps in the background with the Block while using your screen real estate for mixing or whatever

  • Looks awesome, fun and beautiful!

  • Oliver Greschke

    What about the software, do we know anything about that? I think this might make the difference between “just another controller” or “fucking hell, funky shit”

    • Heh, suffice to say, originally I was meant to go look at this.

      But the basic software is Noise, so if you’ve seen that…

      • Elastic Drums

        So the concept is some controllers you can combine in a modular way (similar to faderfox) with a good sounding preset app? Where do I arrange and compose my tracks? Is this still Happening in Ableton Live, Cubase, Logic, Garage Band? Then I don’t see the point, that this is a game changer, and legions of people will run around and play with these guys soon, as the videos want to suggest us. The pro guy already has 5 controllers for Ableton Live etc. and won’t replace them with Blocks. Beginners might be appealed, seeing them at Apple Stores, they look funky and don’t need cables which is kind of cool. But selling them at Apple stores only will also piss off a good amount of people, PC geeks, Android users … interesting experiment, I wonder how it all will work out

  • Squirrel Chucker

    I must be missing something, but this idea seems like a redundant disaster. “yo dawg, we heard you like touchpads. so we gave you a touchpad to control your touchpad….”

    • Well, I mean – it’s from ROLI, so part of how you feel is really a matter of how you feel about the Seaboard. I will say it feels very different than an iPad. And so far only the iPhone has even force touch.

      But of course, there’s nothing about this that says “sure fire win.” It’s risky.

      • Squirrel Chucker

        I would actually like to have a Seaboard, but it is something completely different in my opinion. It has an actual surface that takes a new approach on piano based interface interaction that expands upon traditional capabilities. Blocks is just like, a touch surface??? And there’s not really any detail about the product on the site. Does the Blocks have like a squishy pad that makes it more ‘playable’ than a standard touchscreen?

        • R__W

          good point

          IMO the prob with touchscreen and even grid based controllers is you lose a lot of “haptic” feedback and position sense.

          what i would have liked to see from Roli is a pocketable Seaboard, a seaboard kalimba if you will

        • Vecchiarelli

          The Lightpad Block shares all of the same five playability characteristics of the Seaboard Rise but instead of keys, you have LED quadrants representing notes. They are more similar than they are different.

  • Just to throw a question out there; has anyone had any breakthroughs making music on something like the Kaossillator range? The issue I have with those kinds of products is while they feel immediate it is difficult to get the note accuracy you need on the playing surface, which strikes me as the biggest hurdle for something like these Roli Blocks for when you actually want to create a more complex, musical sequence or indeed for chords/polyphonic phrases

    • Good question. What I like about the Kaossilator is exactly that chaotic unpredictability. No two solos, drum grooves, or bass lines come out the same, yet the scale quantization lets me experiment fearlessly. If I want precision, I play a keyboard. In fact, one rewarding technique is to run the MIDI Out from the Kaossilator Pro into a keyboard synth, then play the synth’s wheels for extra expression.
      https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/0d0acad8239b04d78dab286ccde7ceba53a99422361cd912006d3502357c3507.jpg

      • Thanks for the input there, though I want to ask something. You say to get better precision you use a keyboard via MIDI IN, though doesn’t this relegate the Kaossillator into working as just another synth module? To me this supports the idea that the touch pad on the kaossillator is either ill suited to accurate play or that there is more work to be done implementing touch for music play.

        • Hi Chris. I meant that I play a keyboard if I want precision and a touchpad if I want surprise. Typically, I’ll bring both to gigs, and either alternate between them or play with one hand on each.

          In the photo above, the Kaossilator Pro is triggering notes on the keyboard synth. (MIDI Out from Kaossilator → MIDI In on keyboard.) Moving the wheels on the keyboard then adds another axis of control, because the Kaossilator doesn’t offer velocity or pressure sensitivity, unlike the Roli controllers.

          A Kaossilator with velocity and pressure sensitivity would be a fine thing.

  • Chick Sangria

    As far as the proclaimed “expressivity” of the Block controller is concerned, I would have my doubts. Will it really be intuitive to play? How do I find the “right” pads? Probably not with my fingers. As somebody who wants to seriously control digital instruments, I would go for the LinnStrument 128 instead of this. Which works without batteries.

  • MossGarden

    For me, It needs to not just be tied to iOS to work. I think the interface is nicely priced/sized/functional, but I want this to talk to other systems, what if I dont like the sounds within the app? wireless midi/osc would be great, would love to see what this + Max/MSP will do, otherwise its just an expensive kaossilator type thing that could have been so fantastic and brilliant for portable electronic sets. Having pretty lights does not always work either *cough tenori-on cough* those lights need to get your creative juices flowing and tied into interesting sound sources at the other end. I don’t think the casual on the bus/in the back of a taxi??? music maker will keep this product afloat. It needs to be opened up, Seaboard ties in beautifully with any sound world you choose, this should do the same.

  • FS

    this is awesome, you can control your iPad App that controls Ableton, now if they would just make a controller to control this that controls your iPad App that controls Ableton, something with a touch screen hopefully. 😉 they look cool though and i appreciate the aesthetic.

  • Dale Ksionzyk

    Looks like the author didn’t check out the info on the Roli site. The controllers are not limited to Noise… “The Lightpad Block can be used with desktop apps including Equator, GarageBand, Logic, Max, and more – any app that supports multidimensional polyphonic expression (MPE)”

    Makes it more interesting to me as a Logic user with a laptop. Really portable and interesting laptop music controller. Not sure if the Live and Loop blocks are also compatible with the same software. Some quick mapping and these could be a ton of fun on the go with a real DAW.

  • itchy

    just thinking of how much music gear is out there in the world , shits crazyyyy

  • I love music stores.

  • richard conrad

    my only issue is the price.. 179$us plus 70$us for the transport i can get a novation circuit ..i looks very nice though,if three or 4. blocks are used but then again,180×4

  • Retro Synth

    The Roli Blocks are a neat idea and it’s tactile and pressure-responsive, however, it’s only 15 x 15 instead of 16 x 16. The engineers are not smart enough to figure that out? I don’t get it.

    • Vecchiarelli

      Take a look at the drum layouts versus the keyboard layouts. The drum layouts are either 2×2 or 4×4. The keyboard layouts are 5×5 which happens to end up being 25 notes or two octaves plus one. Make sense now?

  • Rich Conrad

    seems ios users are super pissed . 55 reciews and rhey have a 2 star avg.. the old roli app was replaced with this app.i like both apps but some people paid for iap from old app … not good business.,.

  • Tim Thompson

    Somewhere in the last couple of days I saw a link to an SDK allowing C++ development for the Lightpad (or the MIDI sysex support, if that’s how they expose the raw functionality), but I can’t seem to find it anymore. Was I imagining it? Can someone point me to the link? Thanks!

  • Yanakyl

    So in their keynotes they talk about making cheap stuff for everyone, then there is a performance of 2 guys playing with almost 2000$ worth of blocks + some ipads. That’s quite an oxymoron.
    Also I wonder how different are the 2 loop and live control inside, are they just a buttons with different images spitting data with different headers or is there a true reason to have 2 different blocks?

    Nice to have new sensitive interface coming to market though!

  • cpc464freak

    This, like the Rise is ridiculously overpriced, everyone I know agrees with this. This company has some mad marketing guy who has his head in the clouds pricewise.

  • Olivier Ozoux

    Disclaimer. I went to the Apple Store last tuesday, and bought one. I guess that makes me an early adopter, because it wasn’t even on display, and the apple people didn’t know what I was talking about.

    The current NOISE.fm iPhone/iPad app is interesting but will need features to function more like an expressive Novation Circuit for me to be able to really use it as a musical sketchpad on the go, which is what I think this thing will be for me.

    But that’s not the point. The point is that at 180$ that’s a fully compliant Midi MPE controller, and a programmable one at that. It’s fully supported by the JUCE music-application platform. See http://developer.roli.com/

    To me this transformed it from a cute hipster toy, to something that has some serious potential as a device on its own right.

  • Thomas Piper

    The noise app is one of the worst apps I have ever seen. To many things wrong to mention. No overdub, no volume for individual sounds, no export function so many bad things in one app .But the concept is great as a push player (grid player) the layout is familiar. The blocks are too sensitive it needs a way to customize. I have been using it in spite of the app which says a lot. I think this could be great but the app has to be better

  • Tom

    Just got my hands on one in the apple store and these are way more interesting then I initially thought when seeing this article. They look and feel and play fantastic. But as Peter mentioned already, these probably won’t really take off until everyone is certain they’ll work with other ios applications and desktop support (website says a bunch of daws do support, but could not find anything concrete regarding Ableton or Cubasis). Either way keeping my eye on these. Super compact and perfect for anybody who wants to make beats on their ipad

    Edit: This review on the apple store might give people a better idea of the devices current stability:
    http://www.apple.com/ca/shop/reviews/HKFR2VC/A/roli-lightpad-block