ROLI are filling out their mobile line of controllers, Blocks, with a two-octave keyboard – and that could change a lot. In addition to the wireless Bluetooth, battery-powered light-up X/Y pad and touch shortcuts, now you get something that looks like an instrument. The Seaboard Block is an ultra-mobile, expressive keyboard for your iOS gadget or computer, and it’s available for $299, including in Apple Stores.

If you wanted a new-fangled “expressive” keyboard – a controller on which you can move your fingers into and around the keys for extra expression – ROLI already had one strong candidate. The Seaboard RISE is a beautiful, futuristic, slim device with a familiar key layout and a price of US$799. It’ll feel a bit weird playing a piano sound on it if you’re a keyboardist, since the soft, spongy keys will be new to you. But you’ll know where the notes are, and it’ll be responsive. Then, switch to any more unusual sound – synths, physical modeled instruments, and the like – and it becomes simply magical. Finally, you have a new physical interface for your new, unheard sounds.

For me, the RISE was already a sweet spot. But I’ll be honest, I can still imagine holding back because of the price. And it doesn’t fit in my backpack, or my easyJet-friendly rollaway.

Size and price matter. So the Seaboard Block, if it feels good, could really be the winner. And even if you passed up that X/Y pad and touch controller, you might take a second look at this one. (Plus, it makes those Blocks make way more sense.)

roli-seaboard-block-and-touch-block-04-low-res

roli-seaboard-block-and-touch-block-03-low-res

We’ll get one in to test when they ship later this month. But ROLI also promise a touch and feel similar to the RISE (if not quite as deep, since the Block is slimmer). I found the previous Blocks to be responsive, but not as expressive as the RISE – so that’s good news.

What you get is a two-octave keyboard in a small-but-playable minikey form factor, USB-C for charging and MIDI out, and connectors for snap-and-play use with other Blocks.

For those of you not familiar, the Seaboard line also include what ROLI somewhat confusingly call “5D Touch.” (“Help! I’m trapped in a tesseract and wound up in a wormhole to an evil dimension and now there’s a version of me with an agonizer telling me to pledge allegiance to the Terran Empire!”)

What this means in practical terms is, you can push your fingers into the keys and make something happen, or slide them up and down the surface of the keys and make something happen, or wiggle and bend between notes, or run your finger along a continuous touch strip below the keys and get glissandi. And that turns out to be really, really useful. Also, I can’t overstate this enough – if you have even basic keyboard skills, having a piano-style layout is enormously intuitive. (By the same token, the Linnstrument seems to make sense to people used to frets.)

Add an iPhone or iPad running iOS 9 or later, and you instantly can turn this into an instrument – no wires required. The free Noise app gives you tons of sounds to start with. That means this is probably the smallest, most satisfying jam-on-the-go instrument I can imagine – something you could fit into a purse, let alone a backpack, and use in a hotel room or on a bus without so much as a wire or power connection. (With ten hours battery life, I’m fairly certain the Seaboard Block will run out of battery later than my iPhone does).

Regular CDM readers probably will want it to do more than that for three hundred bucks. So, you do get compatibility with various other tools. Ableton Live, FXpansion Strobe2, Native Instruments Kontakt and Massive, Bitwig Studio, Apple Logic Pro (including the amazing Sculpture), Garageband, SampleModeling SWAM, and the crazy-rich Spectrasonics Omnisphere all work out of the box.

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You can also develop your own tools with a rich open SDK and API. That includes some beautiful tools for Max/MSP. Not a Max owner? There’s even a free 3-month license included. (Dedicated tools for integrating the Seaboard Block are coming soon.)

The SDK actually to me makes this worth the investment – and worth the wait to see what people come up with. I’ll have a full story on the SDK soon, as I think this summer is the perfect time for it.

The Touch block, which previously seemed a bit superfluous, also now looks useful, as it gives you additional hands-on control of how the keyboard responds. That X/Y pad makes a nice combo, too. But my guess is, for most of us, you may drop those and just use the keyboard – and of course modularity allows you to do that.

ROLI aren’t without competition (somewhat amazingly, given these devices were once limited to experimental one-offs). The forthcoming JOUE, from the creator of the JazzMutant Lemur, is an inbound Kickstarter-backed product. And I have to say, it’s truly extraordinary – the touch sensitivity and precision is unmatched on the market. But there isn’t an obvious controller template or app combo to begin with, so it’s more a specialist device. The ROLI instrument works out of the box with an app, and will be in physical Apple Stores. And the ROLI has a specific, fixed playing style the JOUE doesn’t quite match. My guess is the two will be complementary, and there’s even reason for JOUE lovers to root for ROLI – because ROLI are developing the SDK, tools, instrument integration, and user base that could help other devices to succeed. (Think JOUE, Linnstrument, Madrona Labs Soundplane, not to mention the additions to the MIDI spec.)

Anyway, this is all big news – and coming on the heels of news of Ableton’s acquisition of Max/MSP, this week may prove a historical one. What was once the fringe experimentation of the academic community is making a real concerted entry into the musical mainstream. Now the only remaining question, and it’s a major one, is whether the weirdo stuff catches on. Well, you have a hand in that, too – weirdos, assemble!

https://roli.com/products/blocks/seaboard-block

  • misksound

    alright—this might be perfect for my Kyma needs.

  • skeptic

    I feel like people get caught up about how “revolutionary” this idea is & don’t talk about the actual experience in practice (or its longevity).
    Feeling the rubber skin slide against the foam underneath really messes with me and destroys the illusion, and I’ve never encountered a similar material that didn’t bubble/crack/harden/oxidize over the years. Time will tell.

  • chap

    Oops, no cv ! Too bad, that seemed nice.

    • duketre

      Check out Expert Sleepers FH-1. This will solve your MIDI to CV problem.

  • Adam Murray

    It’s really too bad Ableton Live does not directly support expressive MIDI controllers: neither polyphonic aftertouch on things like the CME Xkey (which has been part of the standard for, what, 30+ years?), nor MPE on hardware like ROLI keyboards and LinnStrument.

    ROLI has a workaround, but I find it too burdensome: https://support.roli.com/article/using-the-seaboard-with-ableton-live/
    Try using multiple MPE-enabled soft synths in an Ableton Live set. It’s not fun.

    This is really my only big issue with Ableton anymore. Many of us have been asking Ableton for better MIDI support for years, but there has been no visible progress, and no public comment on whether it will ever be improved in the future.

    It’s also ironic Max has built-in support for MPE, but you can never take advantage of this in a Max for Live device because the relevant MIDI information has been stripped out by Live before your device ever sees it.

    All in all, the MIDI situation in Ableton Live is very frustrating!

    • Dubby Labby

      Ableton 10 with superpowered max integration? If it’s done at low level it could be even more stable than v8.
      The point is develop it for desktop or wait to Apple to release a Universal OS? High Sierra and iOS 11 seem close a bit more the gap but will be it enough?

      Let’s see.

    • alamilla

      *cough* BitWig *cough*

      😉

    • Martin Wheeler

      IMNSHO it is far from the only important thing missing from Live, but for sure it needs to be there. Given that the number of these devices is currently increasing, my guess is that it will come along sooner rather than later. Hope so, anyway.

  • cl-cl smith

    It seems that Roli has become focused on ‘sound shaping’ gadgets. The mini toy-like keyboard is more focused on a DJ-like playing application than that of a musician. I hope the company considers creating revolutionary musical instruments again.

    • poopoo

      What is the difference between a musical instrument and ‘sound shaping’ gadget? What is the difference between DJ-like playing and musicain playing? Did Roli stop producing the larger controllers? Does the lack of prog rock coverage on CDM make you unhappy?

  • Armando Cajide

    How do you go up and down an octaves?

    • Dubby Labby

      Software or with the live, touch or loop blocks. With one of these and a touch you have a Roli Seaboard 25 more or less (but full iOS compatible)

      • hamildad

        Seaboard25s are IOS compatible? I use mine with the Noise app and also use my Block with the equator app. A Seaboard/Block will be compatible with anything that supports MPE & Bluetooth, IOS or desktop.

        • Sarmad Berlin

          Roll promised AB/AU support in iOS for the original Noise app, some time back. But they have failed to deliver. So the Noise app, now called Seaboard 5d cannot be integrated into iOS properly. Unlike Equator in VST etc. This is a shame as Seaboard mobility and iOS would be great partners, if only Roli kept their promise of an update, that they made last year.

        • Dubby Labby

          I think not that’s why I say “more or less (the same from specs side) BUT full iOS compatible”. Put “equivalent” after “25” in my previous comment to understand it better (sorry about not being enough clear)
          The point of the new seaboard block is build a bigger piece by piece. 😉

  • Dubby Labby

    @Peter_Kirn
    Any info on Apple buying Roli?

  • R__W

    how is the reliability and customer support on these ROLI devices? Will they be sold in Apple stores?

    I’ve been pretty frustrated by the reliability and support on some of the boutique gear I own, putting me off buying more expensive/exotic stuff.

    • skeptic

      the Blocks are on display in a couple Apple stores near me, but they’re never working. Hmmm.

    • Nikolozi

      ROLI customer support is great. It’s a quality company. I’d go as far as to say that they are as good as Apple in customer support (also in design etc).

      I’ve had Rise 49 for a while I haven’t had issues with it.

      • R__W

        good to hear, i hope this new keyboard is in the Apple Store so i can take a look

  • James Sully

    How does the whole 5D thing work with my existing plugins? These dimensions seem to operate on a per note basis in the demos, but for instance in Serum, I can’t think of any per note modulation parameters, that the dimensions stuff could map onto.

  • I love the concept but having tried ROLI, it takes some getting comfortable with the feel of it…