Roli has worked hard to spread the word about its Seaboard controllers, which give musicians real-time control over five dimensions of touch using an extension of the MIDI standard called MPE (MIDI Polyphonic Expression). A significant barrier to mass appeal for the controllers, however, has been their price.
The developer addressed the cost issue with its line of Blocks. Not only where they affordable, but also they included consumer-friendly software that made the idea of MPE less intimidating, if not invisible, to the average user.
With the recent introduction of the Seaboard Block, Roli has finally delivered what many musicians have been waiting for: An affordable version of the company’s keyboard-like controller that offers full MPE support. But unlike the earlier models, the Seaboard Block can be expanded in exciting ways.
As with other Seaboards, the keywaves on the Seaboard Block are made of a squishy, silicone material. This gives you a feeling of greater physicality over your sounds as you play MPE-enabled synths using the five dimensions of touch—Strike (velocity), Press (polyphonic aftertouch), Slide (finger position on a keywave, from front to back), Glide (left-to-right motion across keywaves) and Lift (release velocity). Because each dimension functions independently and on a per key basis, this level of real-time control approaches what you would expect from an acoustic instrument.
Developing the technique required to fully utilize the Seaboard Block takes patience and practice. Using the Blocks Dashboard app, you can set the responsiveness of each dimension to suit your playing needs and level of skill—perfect when you’re just getting started with the instrument. Because I’m used to playing plastic keyboards, I began by selecting Piano mode in the Dashboard app. This turns off the side-to-side pitch bend, allowing me to focus on the Slide parameter and acclimate to using a forward/backward motion for mod-wheel-like swells and timbre shifts.
The String and Horns patch is a spectacular example of how this touch parameter works. Lightly playing a chord with the patch introduces orchestral strings that increase in volume and brightness as you increase finger pressure. As you slide your fingers away from you, toward the back of the keywaves, a horn swell enters. If you slide only one finger in that direction, the horn tone enters on just that note.
The experience of having fully independent, 5-dimensional control with each finger is instantly addictive. But you soon realize that mastering that level of control will take time and require you to train your muscles to work in ways that go beyond the requirements of a standard keyboard.
SYNTHS AND DAWS
To get you playing the Seaboard Block right away, Roli bundles player-only, Mac/Win versions of its Equator synth and FXpansion Strobe2. (Check out our review of Equator at emusician.com.) Both instruments are well-suited to the controller and include patches that take advantage of its touch parameters.
As it turns out, this is an opportune time for Roli to introduce the Seaboard Block, because commercial support for MPE has grown significantly in the past year. Consequently, there are many more options for utilizing the controller’s 5-dimensional capabilities using third-party software.
Synthesizers that support MPE include Native Instruments Reaktor, UVI Falcon, Apple MainStage, Cycling ’74 Max, and KV331 Audio SynthMaster. And several DAWs also support the format, such as Bitwig, Apple GarageBand and Logic Pro X, Steinberg Cubase, Reaper, and Tracktion Waveform. So, there is no shortage of MPE-capable products to play.
The Seaboard Block also works with Roli’s free iOS app, Noise because it is Bluetooth-enabled like the other Blocks. Moreover, the multitouch capabilities of many iOS devices has inspired mainstream developers to implement MPE over Bluetooth in their apps, such as Wizdom Music with GeoShred and Moog Music with Animoog and Model 15.
Bluetooth connectivity even allows the Seaboard Block to be used as a standard MIDI-style controller with iOS apps that don’t support MPE. It worked flawlessly with the instruments in Korg Gadget, for example.
As a member of Roli’s family of Blocks, the Seaboard Block includes four DNA ports. This allows you to significantly expand your controller setup by adding the Lightpad Block (a grid-based controller), Live Block (a performance controller with chord triggering, arpeggios, and octaves), Loop Block (looping and transport controls), and Touch Block (to edit MPE controller settings in real time). Or, if two octaves of keywaves isn’t enough, you can chain Seaboard Blocks together to add more.
The DNA ports’ magnetic connectors make it easy to snap Blocks together. The ports also allow the other Blocks to access to the Seaboard Block’s integrated rechargeable battery. After a few weeks of testing, however, I noticed in the Roli Dashboard app that the battery monitor was often wrong about the actual charge level. Resetting the software and controller fixed the issue.
Every time I’ve used a Seaboard, I’ve been blown away by its playability. As a controller, it moves synthesizer performance into the territory of acoustic instruments. But it was the cost that had given me (and many others) pause.
Priced under $300, the Seaboard Block is a major breakthrough in that regard, especially when you take into account that it has an integrated rechargeable battery, as well as being Bluetooth-enabled, extremely portable, and bundled with powerful synths. And with more developers supporting the standard, this could be the product that truly brings MPE to the masses.
Compact. Portable. Lightweight. MPE support. Multiple connection ports for other Block modules. Bluetooth MIDI support.
Inaccurate battery metering on Dashboard software.
Francis Prève has been designing synthesizer presets professionally since 2000. Check out his new soundware company at symplesound.com.