Review: Roli Seaboard Grand

Polyphonic Multi-Dimensional Controller for the Keyboardist
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Ten years ago I interviewed John Chowning, the inventor of FM synthesis, for Mix magazine and he told me that, despite many advances in MIDI controllers, he still considered the keyboard—if it has velocity sensing and Aftertouch—the most expressive input device for electronic music.

That may still be true, but keyboard players are highly aware of their limitations, especially when it comes to expressive control over individual notes. That is because MIDI Pitchbend, the modulation wheel, and other controllers are applied to all of the notes on a channel equally. Polyphonic Aftertouch, or key pressure, which was part of the MIDI specification from the outset, was supposed to help players modify individual notes, but controllers that generate the command are few and usually expensive (the CME xKey being a notable exception), and many hardware and software synths don’t even recognize it. Even when Polyphonic Aftertouch is implemented, it only can handle one parameter—for example pitch bend, vibrato depth, or filter cutoff—at a time.

Among the new generation of controllers that allow far more expressive capabilities, one may seem most friendly to traditional keyboardists—the Roli Seaboard Grand, the brainchild of Roland Lamb, an American inventor working in London.

Available in 37-, 61-, and 88-note versions, the Seaboard Grand’s layout is similar to a conventional keyboard, but it has no moving parts (see Figure 3). Instead, the surface is a uniform rubberized silicone material, with bumps underneath the surface where you would expect the white and black keys to be, and valleys between them. Above and below the keys are seamless rubber strips.

The instrument is very thin and relatively light, but it feels quite solid. Power comes from an in-line DC converter. There is a USB (unpowered) jack and inputs for three switched or continuous pedals. There are no MIDI jacks, and no modulation or pitch wheels. The sole control is a continuous wheel at the center of the instrument called the Sound Dial, which has a button in the center to change its function.

The keys are velocity-sensitive, and you can play the Seaboard like an ordinary keyboard, but there is a lot more to it. The keys are also pressure-sensitive, not only in the vertical (Aftertouch) dimension, but also in the lateral dimension, meaning you can push on a key to the left and right and change its pitch.

The rubber strips above and below the raised keys are essentially ribbon controllers and provide continuous pitch control: When you put your finger down on a spot on a ribbon (or slide it there from a key), you can glide up and down an octave from your starting point. If you’ve ever seen the early electronic instrument called the Ondes Martenot, the Seaboard Grand uses a similar concept, except the Roli product is polyphonic and you can play multiple notes on the ribbons and slide them independently.

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Fig. 2. Equator provides powerful synthesis options, such as three wavetable oscillators, two sample playback modules, FM capabilities, and effects—all of which is playable directly from the Seaboard Grand through the balanced stereo outputs or headphone jack. A NEW USE OF MIDI

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If you know how MIDI works, you may be thinking that what the Seaboard Grand does is impossible—and you’d be almost right. The secret to the controller’s flexibility is that it transmits not on a single MIDI channel, but on as many as 10, each one of which sends its own pitchbend and Aftertouch messages. Every time you hit a new note, the firmware sends it out on a new MIDI channel. Repetitions of the same note stay on the same channel, so you don’t run out of polyphony too soon.

You may recognize this as a variation on the old MIDI Mono mode, which was designed to allow a single synthesizer to play different sounds on different channels. Mono mode is more or less moribund, and it was limited to a single note per channel, whereas the Seaboard has no such limitation. In fact, Roli and a number of other manufacturers are proposing an addendum to the MIDI specification called Expressive MIDI (technically known as Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression), which is designed to standardize how instruments like the Seaboard Grand communicate. (It’s worth pointing out that the original MIDI specification could never have accommodated the Seaboard: The amount of data it generates would swamp the old hardware spec of 31,250 bits per second. It’s only since MIDI-over- USB has become common that an instrument like this could be practical.)

THE SOFTWARE SIDE

The Seaboard Grand can be played as a standalone synth, but you need a Mac or PC in order to do any customization. Using it in conjunction with a computer, however, opens many more possibilities. A USB stick containing several applications is provided.

The Roli Dashboard, which deals with the data coming from the Seaboard, lets you specify how many channels the instrument will send on, from one to ten, and whether you want it to generate polyphonic or monophonic Aftertouch. The latter is what you will normally use when you’re addressing multiple channels. You can transpose the instrument up to two octaves and a major seventh in either direction, and a “pitch correction” switch makes the “dead zone” on each key—that is, the area where it generates no pitchbend—wider. The company says this is a good feature for beginners, but I would bet few people would turn it off. Last, you can map each of the three pedal inputs to any MIDI controller number.

Two software synths are included. SynthSquad Player is a customized version of FXpansion’s analogmodeling softsynth. The far more interesting program is a Roli exclusive, called Equator. It installs both internally on the Seaboard and on your computer. Equator is a very versatile multimode synth, with two samples (from a small but useful bank) and three oscillators per voice, along with a noise generator, two filters, two LFOs, five assignable envelopes, FM, and several effects (reverb, chorus, delay, and 5-band parametric EQ). When you are running it on the computer, you can see live displays showing key velocity, pressure, and pitchbend (see Figure 2).

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Fig. 3. In this screenshot, I set up the Roli Seaboard Grand Studio in MOTU Digital Performer, and used PolyThru. The software also has an extensive modulation matrix, which allows you to assign virtually any incoming or internal signal to any parameter. (At this writing, Equator does not recognize data from the assignable pedals, but the manufacturer says that will change in the next update.)

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Equator also comes with 48 presets, but they can be modified and saved on the computer. To get them into the Seaboard’s internal synth requires reprogramming the Sound Dial in the software and then loading the Sound Dial information into the instrument, where it will live in non-volatile memory.

Another included program is a simple utility called PolyThru. This enables the Seaboard to work with certain other software synthesizers, such as Native Instruments Kontakt and Spectrasonics Omnisphere. When you launch the synth in PolyThru, multiple instantiations of the synth are automatically (and invisibly) set up, each on its own channel, so that the Seaboard can play them the same way it plays its own synth (see Figure 1).

With soft synths like Propellerhead Reason, you need to set up individual instruments on each channel the Seaboard is addressing. The Seaboard’s velocity response is not particularly linear, so you’ll probably have to tweak your synth’s response curve as well as its pitchbend and Aftertouch settings, and do the same on every channel. The Seaboard Grand works fine in a MIDI sequencer, provided you set up multiple MIDI input channels and assign them to individual instantiations of the target synth.

TIME TO PLAY

It’s probably not a surprise that, for a keyboardist, the Seaboard Grand takes getting used to. The experience is similar to an electric bassist using a fretless instrument for the first time. You have to hit the keys pretty close to their centers, or you risk being out of tune. Using the pitch ribbons is not as easy as grabbing a pitch wheel. And due to a design compromise that is probably unavoidable, if you are holding a note and play another note a half-step away, the second note doesn’t sound, the pitch slides.

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Nonetheless, this is a very expressive controller that brings several exciting new dimensions to keyboard performance, and even inexperienced players will find a lot to explore. Being able to slide notes in a chord individually is a kick, as is the capacity to open a filter on just one note in a chord, or add vibrato to a single note, either through Aftertouch or by rocking the note, without affecting the notes underneath it.

I’ve had the Seaboard Grand now for two months and I’m still learning what it can do, and thoroughly enjoying the experience. With the included Equator software, it is very capable right out of the box. But where the real magic will happen is when players start experimenting with other programs and customizing them to take advantage of the control possibilities the Seaboard Grand presents. It’s very playable, and if you’re willing to put some time into it, the rewards are considerable.

STRENGTHS
New dimensions of expression for keyboard players. Nice balance of familiar and the unfamiliar. Feels very good. Good-sounding, if limited, synthesis package.

LIMITATIONS
Takes practice to play it well. Expensive.

Studio: $1,999
Stage: $2,999
Limited First Edition: $8,888
roli.com

Paul D. Lehrman PhD. is the director of the Music Engineering program at Tufts University in Massachusetts. His first article for Electronic Musician, on how not to go broke developing music software, was published in November 1986