EXCLUSIVE: ROLI’s instrument of the future is launching in Australia, revolutionising the way music is made
There are few instruments as iconic, versatile and drenched in history as the piano.
While technology and innovation has seen most instruments updated through an electronic or digital iteration, it turns out the evolution of the humble piano didn’t end with the keyboard.
While the traditional pianos allow the control of volume based on how hard the player hits the keys, this is a single dimension of expression.
The ROLI ‘Seaboard’ adds four more.
And with the release of ROLI BLOCKS – an entirely customisable modular system of connecting devices, including the Seaboard Block, Lightpad Block and Loop Block – the way you make and play music of any kind will never be the same.
What is ROLI?
Picture a flat, thick piece of spongy silicon, with undulating ridges that make up a sensory keyboard, which enables all sound played through it to be modulated; the Seaboard.
ROLI is releasing the Seaboard Block – the smallest version to date of the original Seaboard – in Australia this week. It’s a key component of the BLOCK set-up.
It’s made of silicon which is incredibly sensitive to finger pressure, so the player exercises complete control over the sound through sweeping, sliding and vibrato strokes. The material is not unlike that used by the sex toy industry; it has the grip required to stick notes with accuracy, with enough slip to allow complete freedom to move anywhere on the keyboard unhindered.
There are no separate mechanical elements – the instrument can be played with the fluidity of a keyboard. Like frets on a guitar, keys, or ‘keywaves’ mark the traditional base note, while playing pressure enables pitch-bending through semi-tones and microtones around the note.
The Lightpad Block is made of the same responsive material, comprising a wireless, square, next-generation MIDI controller. LED lights reconfigure the surface for different notes and scales and open possibilities for a new style of learning through visual instruction. The Loop Block finishes off the set, seamlessly attaching to allow the user to produce tracks at lightning speed.
“It’s true that much digitally produced music is dehumanised by being entirely made on a computer. It’s possible for example to create an orchestral swell by plotting lines in a software program — a horn here, a viola there, a gong at the finale. It’s just 1s and 0s,” explains ROLI head of comms, Will McNamara.
“But on a Seaboard you come somewhat full circle. Here you have a digital instrument that reintroduces the sensual and human experience of creating music through touch. It’s an acoustic instrumental experience in a digital form.”
Who invented it?
Its creator is jazz pianist Roland Lamb, who – after graduating from Harvard University – won a “genius grant” in the form of a Jack Kent Cooke scholarship, and enrolled in London’s renowned design school Royal College of Art.
While his classmates were puzzling over designs for chairs or buildings, he focused on the design of the object he knew and loved best: the piano.
His goal was to overcome the limitations of the piano keyboard as a mechanical object for producing sound: how could it be reimagined to have all the expressivity of the piano, string or bass instrument, with the sonic range of a synthesizer?
What emerged was the Seaboard – invented in 2009 while Lamb was a graduate student.
“Roland’s background was in jazz, and he loved the idea that a musician would be able to combine in one instrument all the expressivity of the great jazz instruments: the piano, saxophone, double bass, clarinet. The first Seaboard jams were all in the jazz idiom,” tells McNamara.
“The idea from the very beginning, however, was to open up the instrument to any musical style from classical to EDM to funk, because the interface was inherently versatile and musically polymorphic.”
ROLI has been rapidly adopted by major artists from multiple disciplines, gaining notoriety through its diverse usage.
You might remember seeing the “futuristic” full-sized Seaboard played by Ryan Gosling in La La Land:
It’s also been embraced by musicians such as Pharrell Williams – who is an investor and the company’s CCO – Kygo; Grimes; RZA from Wu-Tang Clan; and renowned composers such as Simon Ashdown, composer of the Black Mirror/Ex Machina soundtracks, and Hans Zimmer.
McNamara says the A-list support is because these musicians are “often are deeply interested in what our instruments can do for their work, and they want to be part of our evolution as we create new instruments and expand the range of our current ones.
“Imagine if you were a painter, and someone presented to you a Canvas 2.0, Paintbrush 2.0, and Paint 2.0 and they were all integrated together in an extremely novel form. That’s something like the reaction from musicians.
“Expanding their sonic palette expands their musical creativity — without them having to put in years of time and a great amount of money in learning different acoustic instruments.”
Where can you find it?
The release of BLOCKs now means this revolutionary technology is accessible to all musicians, rather than just top-tier artists.
Available at JB Hi-Fi, in Apple stores, Australian Geographic, Amazon, Kogan and David Jones from October, musicians of any level can pick up ROLI Blocks which include the Seaboard Block ($500), Lightpad Block ($340), Loop Block ($150) or the complete Songmaker Kit (all inclusive) for $900.
All Blocks come with software tools for learning, playing and producing, including the ROLI PLAY app which teaches beginners how to shape sound through lights and touch.
“Musical instruments endure and are slow to change because they’re rooted in culture,” says McNamara.
“One way to look at it is that musical instruments at 20% musical and 80% cultural. They are objects that produce sound — that’s obvious. But their role in the world is not so much about their physical form and function. It’s mostly about cultural memory — our received understanding of what music is meant to sound like and what the instruments that produce those sounds are meant to look like.
“That’s why it’s very rare for a new musical instrument to emerge. When they do emerge they’re usually adaptations of existing instruments.
“In many ways the Seaboard is an evolutionary instrument. It’s quite radical in its evolution, but nonetheless, it’s more evolutionary than revolutionary. And that is the key to a musical instrument enduring.”