Roli Blocks are expressive multitouch musical instruments for everyone

Enlarge (credit: Mark Walton)

It takes just a few seconds for a Roli Block to transform from a monolithic black slab into a harmonious array of colourful lights that pulse and swirl just below the surface. Gently prod it, and the softest of synth sounds play. Stab at it, and the synth gets louder and harsher. Roll a finger from side to side, and the synth wavers with a healthy vibrato, or slide a finger up and down and the synth responds with a polyphonic cacophony of sound. Within minutes, there's a melody. Soon, there's a song.

As musical instruments go (or MIDI controllers to be totally precise) the Roli Block is unlike anything else—which is to be expected from the UK company behind the quirky Seaboard Grand and Seaboard Rise. Released to critical acclaim in 2015, the Seaboard is Roli's attempt to reinvent the keyboard. Instead of moving keys, weighted or otherwise, the surface of a Seaboard is a squidgy touch-sensitive silicone, with raised sections—dubbed "keywaves"— where the keys would normally be. Where a regular keyboard can only detect the velocity of note (how hard it is struck), the Seaboard, like a stringed instrument, allows for expressive finger-driven vibrato and bends.

Velocity, continuous pressure sensitivity, pitch bending and glide (X-axis movement), slide (Y-Axis movement), and release velocity are all recorded by the Seaboard's surface, and piped out through MPE MIDI (that's Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression Musical Instrument Digital Interface), an updated version of the MIDI standard implemented in the early '80s. MPE MIDI isn't as widespread as standard MIDI, which, thanks to widespread adoption, remains the industry standard interface. But it is supported by the likes of Apple, Moog Music, and Haken Audio, to name but a few. Roland Lamb, the founder of Roli, is even listed as as an author of the standard.

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