Review: Roli Seaboard Rise

Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression for the Masses
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The Roli Seaboard Rise is a USB MIDI controller offering five dimensions of Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression. It can also be used wirelessly via Bluetooth if you’re using a Mac with a Bluetooth LE chip running OS X 10.10.2 or later.

It’s rare that a music hardware manufacturer follows up its first product in a matter of months with a second product, at a much lower price, that in some ways blows the first one out of the water. But that’s what British company Roli has done.

Roli’s new Seaboard Rise is a lower-cost, controller-only version of the Seaboard Grand that I reviewed in the November 2015 issue of EM (available HERE). It resembles a traditional keyboard, but with peaks and valleys where the black and white keys should be. And rather than having moving parts, it features a uniform rubberized surface with a complex sensor network underneath.

Roli calls the bumps keywaves, and there are sensors on each to detect left and right movement, which they call glide, as well as pressure and velocity (called strike). It uses a round-robin MIDI scheme called Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression, in which subsequent Note Ons are each sent over a different channel, which allows every note to have not only its own velocity, but also its own pitch bend and pressure (Aftertouch) information. Ribbon sensors positioned above and below the keywaves send out pitch bend as well, allowing for polyphonic bi-directional glissandi over a two-octave range.

Compared to the 61-note Seaboard Grand, the Seaboard Rise is less than one-third the price. One reason, according to company information, is that the Seaboard Grand is handcrafted entirely in London while the Rise is assembled in Ireland, using automated manufacturing techniques and some components sourced offshore. Another reason is that Rise is smaller, with only two octaves of keywaves.

And, while the Seaboard Grand has a built-in synth engine and its own audio outputs, the Seaboard Rise is a controller that can be used with software running on a Mac or Windows computer or iOS device.

In terms of feel, the Seaboard Rise seems to respond better to a lighter touch, although the difference between the two models is subtle. But when it comes to expressive capability, the Seaboard Rise goes beyond its big brother in several significant ways. First of all, it responds to key movement on the y-axis (e.g., toward and away from the player), which the company calls Slide. Second, it responds to how fast you take your finger off of the surface, which it refers to as Lift, but which many of us will recognize as Note Off velocity, a part of the MIDI spec since day one but rarely implemented in hardware or software before now. Thus, the Seaboard Rise offers you five dimensions to play with.

In addition, the controller has five realtime controls to the left of the keywaves—three touch faders and an x/y pad—that are mappable to any MIDI controller command. Unfortunately, the Seaboard Rise has only one pedal input, which can be either switched or continuous, so you can control sustain or volume, but not both.

While the Seaboard Grand has a single, somewhat confusing multipurpose rotary control for patch changes and octave transposition, the Seaboard Rise has distinct and obvious button pairs for those functions. The Seaboard Rise doesn’t rely on an external power supply, but instead has an internal rechargeable batttery, which the manufacturer says is good for up to 12 hours and which replenishes itself when you connect it to a computer over USB. Even more interesting, if you have a Mac with a Bluetooth LE chip running OS X 10.10.2 or later, you can play the device completely without wires, because it sends MIDI over Bluetooth.

THE SOFTWARE SIDE

Although the Seaboard Rise is USB class-compliant, you need two Roli programs to realize its full potential. Dashboard configures the instrument for use with the company’s own synthesis program, Equator, or other soft synths. The Seaboard Rise version of Dashboard is much more comprehensive than the Seaboard Grand’s version, offering more flexibility in assigning and scaling the performance parameters, as well as a very neat graphic display showing the multidimensional response of the instrument as you play.

The Equator software for the Seaboard Rise improves on the earlier version by incorporating the extra performance dimensions and including 128 presets, up from 48 (see Figure 1). It is also four times as big as the earlier version, taking up over 2 GB in the Mac’s Application Support folder.

Roli’s Equator software for the Seaboard Rise provides mapping for all five performance dimensions. It includes two sample playback modules, three wavetable oscillators, FM synthesis capabilities, and effects.

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The Seaboard Rise, like the Seaboard Grand, is both a challenge and a delight to play. Experienced keyboard players will have to adjust their technique to take advantage of the great degree of independence afforded to each finger, as well as the additional gestural parameters, particularly the left-right pitch axis. Landing off-center on a key, hardly an issue on conventional keyboards, can have serious consequences. Fortunately, you can modify the scalability of the parameters in Dashboard so that they’re quite forgiving, and new users will want to take advantage of that until they get accustomed to the instrument.

Although keyboardists are the largest group of potential users, the Seaboard Rise will appeal to others, most likely guitarists and string players who will relate well to the way that subtle finger motion can affect pitch, timbre, vibrato, envelopes, and other musical parameters.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

The Seaboard Rise is a wonderful addition to the Roli line and will bring the joys of a multidimensional polyphonic controller to a much larger audience than the far more expensive Seaboard Grand. But there are two ways that Roli could make it even better.

One is to offer a 37- or 49-note version. The two-octave range is okay for soloing within a group structure, and the instrument does sit nicely on top of a larger keyboard. (There are hard rubber strips on the back to keep it from sliding off.) But for serious solo work, or recording for that matter, a larger range would be an advantage. As of this writing, the company is noncommittal regarding future products.

The other problem, which is more serious but should be easier to fix, is the Equator software. The 128 presets it ships with are certainly usable, but when it comes to customizing them, or designing your own patch from scratch, it's not terribly friendly. Assigning a modulation source—that is, one of the five expressive dimensions—can be done graphically by selecting the source’s scaling window and then selecting one or more target parameters and drawing a colored arc in the parameter window, which can be a bit confusing and counterintuitive; or it can be done through a clumsy "modulation list" window. The PDF documentation is sketchy (hint: read the splash screens when you first launch the software!), and while the company has posted a number of helpful videos demonstrating the instrument’s presets, there is only one on programming it, and it’s not very informative.

The three touch faders can’t be assigned to synth parameters in Equator; their only function is to act as sensitivity controls for the pressure, glide, and slide functions, which is not all that useful, since you can set up those functions within each patch with greater accuracy and flexibility. The program is excessively modal: In too many cases, you have to close a window to open another one when it would be best to be able to view both of them at once. Finally, there is this bug: Sometimes after you save a preset, the next time you open it, some of the parameters have changed.

Furthermore, you cannot use Rise’s single pedal input for volume control in Equator; it only works when you are playing MIDI synths. You can program one of the touch faders to handle volume in Equator, but it’s a complicated and confusing procedure. Last, the software is a CPU hog. Alone, it demands more than twice the power of a whole rack of Kontakt instruments, and on my (admittedly creaky) 2.66GHz dual-core Mac Pro, Activity Monitor shows the program frequently topping out at 100 percent. The result is occasional glitches and dropouts, as well as (although this may be unrelated) stuck notes.

RISE TO THE TOP

Fortunately, software issues like this are relatively easy to address, and Roli is aware of them and actively working on them. At least one update is expected by the time you read this. As it stands, Roli already has a winner in the Seaboard Rise. It’s a major addition to the world of expressive controllers and priced within reach of many musicians who will love what it adds to their performance capabilities.

STRENGTHS

Multidimensional polyphonic expression, with more flexibility than its predecessor. Highly playable and fun.

LIMITATIONS

Dashboard software is unintuitive. Equator requires a lot of CPU power.

$799
roli.com