Last week I spent a very pleasant couple of hours at Roli HQ in East London. You might remember Roli  as the maker of the expressive keyboard, the Seaboard, and more recently the Seaboard Rise. The technology behind these products is very interesting in its own right, but for the purposes of this piece I’m only really going to explore it from the perspective of their most recent product BLOCKS.

However, before we get into the detail of BLOCKS I think it’s worth understanding how Roli got here and the pieces that they’ve put together to make this happen. So I’m going to spend a little time in exploring some of the work that Roli have been involved in to get to BLOCKS. I hope you’ll find it useful.

Understanding the jigsaw, seeing the picture

Over the last few years Roli have made a series of acquisitions which, up until very recently, hadn’t made any sense to me at all. However, with the release of BLOCKS things start to come into focus a lot more. For example, Roli acquired JUCE back in late 2014. JUCE is a cross-platform C++ library used in a lot of music apps. This gave Roli a real advantage in building the iOS apps that they have on the store now. But JUCE isn’t something that they’re keeping to themselves. Roli have an annual JUCE event, The Audio Developers Conference. The last of these was held at the beginning of November and had around 250 delegates attending.

Just under a year later Roli acquired Blend.io, a collaborative music network which allows artists to share work and involve other artists in tracks. This of course gives Roli its own platform for sharing and collaboration.

Finally, and most recently Roli acquired FXpansion, makers of very high quality VST instruments and FX. Given the above and also Roli’s direction with BLOCKS this makes perfect sense.

When you connect all of these pieces together with their existing technology that powers the Seaboard it all starts to fit together, and when you get to use BLOCKS you can see exactly where this is heading.

From Seaboard to Noise

Just over a year ago Roli brought out their first app, NOISE 5D which enabled a user to take advantage of the brand new 3D Touch features in the iPhone 6S and 6S+. Releasing this as a free app gave Roli a great platform to show just what could be done with this kind of expressive technology.

The app also had the whole Seaboard sound engine (Equator) inside it. The app could pair with the Seaboard Rise using BLE and worked like a dream.

As an aside I’m still somewhat confused as to why more apps don’t make use of the 3D Touch functionality inside the 6S and up. It’s confused me for about a year now and as far as I know there are only a tiny handful of apps that have incorporated it, and two of those are from Roli themselves.

Let’s talk about BLOCKS itself

If you’ve seen photos or video of BLOCKS then you’ll already know that it’s a modular music studio that uses the same hardware technology that is in Roli’s Seabaord but in a smaller, more accessible, and affordable format. The basic hardware unit is the Lightpad which retails for £170. You can do a lot with just this unit, but of course you can scale up too, add more units and expand your set up. That’s the idea of course, and I think that when artists start to get to grips with the hardware they may well just do that. Whatever you buy you’re going to use their iOS app NOISE as that is what powers this stuff.

The Lightpad does just about everything that you can do in the app but with a much deeper layer of expression available to it by virtue of its pressure sensitive surface. The interaction with the app is seamless. When you press down on the Lightpad you can see what happens in the NOISE app. You can see what I mean in this short clip which shows the ‘learn’ function.

Every instrument in NOISE has a learn mode which shows you what the instrument does and how it works. When you’re running NOISE with a Lightpad this works even better, and as you can see from this short clip you can quite clearly see what you’re doing on the Lightpad from your iOS screen, and this includes pressure data too.

The Lightpad is paired directly with the iOS device, and pairs quickly and without issues, which is more than I can say for other BLE devices I’ve used. However, when you have two Lightpad units together you don’t need to form a second pairing (although you can and I’ll explain that later).

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Above you can see two Lightpads working together with the iOS device. When you magnetically clip one lightpad to another the connect over what Roli call DNA connectors. You can see these connectors around the sides of the device, and clipping them together means that are instantly sharing data and useable as a part of your set up. The connection to the iOS device is made via a single BLE pairing.

If you wanted to use multiple Lightpads over different pairings that is possible too, but the point I’m making is that you don’t need to worry about that if you’re working on something on your own. This makes for very flexible hardware configurations.

Some thoughts …

I have to say that the time I’ve spent playing with BLOCKS has been really enjoyable, and I think that the main reason for that is the level of expression that you can achieve with the surface. For many, myself included, having this degree of expressivity from a mobile device / set up will be quite a new experience, and I think that this is something that will distinguish BLOCKS for users.

It’s important to remember that Roli has only just released BLOCKS. It is perhaps a month old now, and in many ways is only at the start of its journey. Roli have made a very good start with the hardware, with the app, and, most importantly, with how the two work together. Which is critical in my opinion.

What’s next

When I was with Roli last week we did talk about the future. Of course they were cautious about talking future plans. That’s understandable. But we also talked about the community and how they’re responding to users. I think that the fact that they brought the original NOISE functionality back in a new app (see this post) can only be taken as a clear signal that they are listening, and that’s very positive.

They also have an API for BLOCKS, which I haven’t investigated so far, but could be a massive hook to increase adoption of the platform. More about that another time I think. For now I’m impressed with what Roli have brought out. It really is an accessible and affordable music platform. I think that Roli have made an excellent start. Where they go next with BLOCKS and with NOISE will be critical to making it a big success.

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