With the emergence of MIDI Polyphonic Expression (MPE), a handful of software instruments have been adapted to the rich, polyphonic expression capabilities of controllers such as the Haken Continuum and the Roli Seaboard. If you are familiar with some of the principles underlying divided-pickup MIDI guitar, where each string is assigned its own MIDI channel, there is nothing mysterious about the principles behind MPE. What you do get is greater expressive capabilities than before.
Roli Equator is the first publically available software instrument explicitly designed for the developer’s line of Seaboard MPE controllers (Figure 1). Although it can be used with standard MIDI controllers, Equator provides an extensive array of features that the Seaboard instruments support right of the box.
You can purchase Equator à la carte from the Roli website, and a link to the full version comes with Seaboard Rise controllers, along with a full version of FXPansion Strobe 2. The download furnishes AU, VST and standalone versions of the instrument. I tested Equator with a Seaboard Rise 25, as well as Novation SL61 MKII and a Fishman TriplePlay-equipped MIDI guitar.
As an MPE-equipped plug-in, Equator is ideally suited for use in Apple Logic Pro X, which supports multiple MIDI channels on a single track. Likewise, setting it up in Steinberg Cubase 9 was relatively problem free. Ableton Live and MOTU Digital Performer require many individual tracks and a bit of finagling, but you can save the tracks as a template once you’ve set everything up.
If you are planning to use Equator with a conventional MIDI controller, you’ll first need to navigate to the upper-right menu and click on MIDI settings (Figure 2). There, you can toggle between MPE mode and normal single-channel operation. Equator does not support multitimbral operation in the conventional sense of individual instruments per channel. Overall, it was designed specifically to work with Roli’s line of controllers: No matter how well-implemented your third-party MIDI controller may be, it will not have finger-tip access to all of Equator’s modulation sources.
Equator boasts a MIDI Learn feature, albeit one that doesn’t conform to the right-click-and-move-a-fader method. Instead, you must open a Macro by clicking the Rise Control window, then select a Macro, pull down Other Controller and select MIDI Learn from the sub menu. Next, you move the controller and select the destination by clicking on it. Each of the six Macros can handle up to four destinations.
MIDI-guitar players take note: Equator responds well to the polyphonic pitch-bend capabilities of a Fishman Triple Play MIDI rig, once you set it up as a mono-mode controller. If you have a functioning Axon MIDI guitar converter, you can assign fretboard and pick gestures to Macros.
At the instrument’s Navigation Bar header, you’ll find arrows for patch selection; clicking between the arrows opens a menu of available patches. You can toggle between a simplified Player interface, as in Figure 3, or select Full, which puts all of Equators synthesizer capabilities front and center. Another button toggles your edited patch and the original preset, a welcome feature not many plug-ins offer. On the far right, you can access patch-management routines, settings, and audio and MIDI preferences.
Below the Navigation bar, the interface divides into two main sections, each with a set of tabs. The upper section’s tabs include Synth, Mixer, and Global, where you adjust the overall behavior of the instrument, including (with the release of version 1.11) the ability to sync modulators to MIDI Clock. The Synth layer is arranged intuitively, with the bank of oscillators (including the first of the pair of sample oscillators) arrayed at the top, along with the FM section. Below that, the second sample oscillator is followed by each oscillator’s dedicated filter, a noise oscillator, and the effects and EQ section.
The two sampling oscillators can import SFZ files. The other three oscillators are wave-tables, offering the usual array of sine, triangle, square, pulse, and sawtooth waveforms along with 45 additional single-cycle waveforms. At present, there is no way to scan the wavetables, a feature that Roli keyboards are eminently suited for.
A single noise generator offers a choice of pink or white noise with a dedicated filter. Filters 1 and 2 are assignable to the samples and the two hybrid oscillators. The 13 filters include high- and lowpass varieties with 12 and 24 dB slopes as well as comb, bandpass, notch and state-variable versions.
Five relatively simple, but useful, algorithms define Equator’s FM section, dividing the three oscillators into a carrier-and-modulator pair. You can modulate FM depth from any of Equator’s sources. Moreover, you can engage or turn off any of the software’s modules, from oscillator, to filter, to LFO. This works hand-in-hand with the software’s Compare button.
BELOW THE EQUATOR
The lower half of the synth focuses on modulation, with the Modulation Panel offering graphical editing of parameters and routing assignments. Click one of the depicted modulation sources and select a destination, such as Filter cutoff: Each destination has a dial that scales and limits the response or changes the polarity of the modulation. Alternately, you can highlight the dial and move any of the Seaboards controls.
Roli refers to the Seaboard’s keys as keywaves, each of which provides five dimensions of Touch parameters: Strike (velocity), Glide (lateral motion across the keywaves), Slide (position from top to bottom of a keywave), Press (pressure), and Lift (release velocity). These are freely assignable, with as many destinations as needed, and up to four Transfer Curves (fundamentally user-configurable multisegmented envelopes) for each. Double-clicking on a curve creates breakpoints which can create nonlinear responses or scale any of the keywaves.
My first attempts at using the Seaboard felt like I was playing keys on a waterbed. The Transfer Curves came in handy when taming the pitch control of the Glide parameter, which helped keep my playing more in tune.
The next tab over is the modulation list, which offers an undistracted view of modulation sources and destinations. The Transfer Functions allow you to create curves for scaling modulation, though the manual fails to distinguish them from the Transfer Curves, which, counterintuitively create noncurvilinear profiles. Suffice it to say they can be used to smooth any overly jagged modulation you may create elsewhere.
The final tab, Touch Zoom is simply an enlarged editing panel for the 5D parameters, which seems unnecessary and isn’t even mentioned in the manual. Nevertheless, Equator presents a rich pool of modulation facilities, including a robust key-tracking feature, a pair of well-appointed LFOs with switchable bipolar or unipolar modulation, and five envelopes with MIDI Clock sync, configurable stages, and looping. If you have a Seaboard, be sure to download the Roli Dashboard, which will further refine your control by modifying the Seaboard MIDI output.
Equator’s sound library more than adequately demonstrates this instrument’s versatility and expressive power. The pads range from sparkly, with lots of high-frequency motion, to thick, warm, analog-like timbres. You get plenty of punchy analog bass sounds and crunchy, distorted lead tones. However, there is little in the way of real-world pianos or realistic brass ensembles. Equator’s ability to import SFZ samples is a plus and can remedy any shortage of conventional instrumentation.
There are many standouts in the library. I can practically guarantee that “Double Bass” and “Double Bass and Bow” played with Seaboard’s polyphonic pitch-bending will channel your inner Ron Carter. Furthermore, “Arkadia Rosa Zither” makes me wish that Joe Zawinul was still around to play it.
Overall, as with many synth presets, you might want to dial back the effects. The reverb and delay can be a bit soupy at times.
THE FINAL EQUATION
While Equator works well with a mainstream MIDI controller, you will only get the full response it offers using a Roli Seaboard. In conjunction with a Seaboard controller, Equator sings brilliantly—tactile, expressive, and incredibly seductive. I am hooked.
Brilliant polyphonic expression. Rich modulation features. Imports samples. Customizable response. Integrates quickly into Apple Logic Pro X and Steinberg Cubase 9.
Indirect MIDI Learn. No AAX version. No conventional multitimbral features. No wavetable scanning. Documentation needs more detail on some features.
$179; Free with purchase of Seaboard Rise, Blocks Songmaker Kit, and Blocks Beatmaker Kit.
Marty Cutler is the author of The New Electronic Guitarist, published by Hal Leonard.