ROLI SEABOARD RISE & GRAND MULTIDIMENSIONAL CONTROLLERS
Riding the new keywave takes a bit more practise than you might expect, but it’s worth it.
Review: Preshan John
It’s not often our industry births something that’s genuinely new. Most ‘new’ gear is often just a reworked rendition of an old idea; iteration over innovation. Alternatively designs harken back to something familiar. Sure, traces of piano DNA are obviously interwoven into Roli’s Seaboard. Nevertheless, any vestiges of its ancestry have been so heavily mutated that the descendant bears little resemblance to, and feels unlike, anything we’ve seen before. Maybe that’s why this ‘keyboard controller’ has caused such a ruckus.
Product reviews typically have an element of ‘compare and contrast’ woven into them. Finding a similar product as a touchstone for the Roli Seaboard was tough. It’s truly one-of-a-kind. The Seaboard could be the beginning of a whole new paradigm of music creation.
Good music producers are all about expression. They’ll use any means to inject life and dynamics into a performance in order to make virtual instruments sound less like robots and more human. The Seaboard’s grand idea is that it offers all those dimensions of expression right under your fingertips. When you press a key on a typical keyboard controller, you have three dimensions to ‘play’ with; static pitch information, velocity and aftertouch control (if you’re lucky, polyphonic aftertouch). You either have to thumb a mod wheel to add vibrato, or jockey a pitch wheel to bend the note up or down. The Seaboard has those things licked. Want vibrato? Just wiggle your finger on the ‘key’ like a violinist on a fretted string. Want to pitch up or down? Simply slide your finger over to the next note. Need to control a filter effect? Merely slide your finger up and down the key. It’s a radically new way of interacting with digital instruments.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
At the time of writing this review, Keith McMillen Instruments’ K-Board Pro 4 (funding on Kickstarter) is probably the closest thing the Seaboard has for a direct competitor. The K-Board Pro 4 has individual keys (not a continuous surface), but transmits MPE MIDI data with expressive control across many Seaboard-like gestures.
RIDING THE WAVE
I’ll be honest, I’ve been waiting to get my fingers on a Seaboard ever since it appeared on Kickstarter. The demos all looked incredibly promising — riffing off against a real guitar, a full band track played on one instrument — and as a keyboard player, I was drawn to the idea of an instrument that looked so natural to play. Still, nothing quite prepares you for that first touch. The rubbery surface is squishy, yet firm. Smooth enough to slide around on, but holds its shape to give enough distinction between notes. The Seaboard’s playing surface is dubbed a keywave, not a keyboard, because adjacent ‘waves’ can be flowed into each other by simply sliding down one side and up the next. It makes you completely rethink your playing style.
I quickly found my piano knowledge was of limited benefit with the Seaboard. Sure, you know where to find an A or F#, but in reality this is a completely new instrument that requires an entirely new muscle memory. Forget about the jump from a grand piano to an unweighted synth, this is like going from a mouse to a touchpad. You can navigate to all the same places, but pinches, swipes and three-finger presses can condense multiple commands into one.
The most tedious challenge when learning how to play the Seaboard was the difficulty of consistently hitting keys in the right spot, especially when playing chords or runs. Unlike a normal keyboard, sharp or flat notes are extended down on the keywave to occupy the recessed space between the ‘white’ C-scale notes. That means the ‘white’ notes don’t butt up against each other, and if you’re not hitting a key squarely in the centre, you’re likely triggering a semitone up or down — or even worse, somewhere in between. Not nice. Trying to knock out a classical piece your first time on the Seaboard will almost definitely result in frustration and some very iffy accidentals (not the sharp or flat kind). However, after putting in the hours my fingers became accustomed to the slimmer notes and those dodgy mis-hits showed up less and less.
Similar to when multi-touch smartphones first appeared, you’ll need to learn some new gestures to get the most out of the Seaboard. Say I want to pitch bend a note up a fifth from F to C. Ideally this should be a smooth slide. Thumbing the F, you’d drag it down to the flat section of the keywave, slide your finger across and ‘relay’ the note to your index finger on the C key. But nailing even this simple move is trickier than it seems. If you hit the C too early or too late, it’ll trigger as a separate note. Or if you just slide your finger over the keywaves you’ll misfire a bunch of in-between notes on the way up.
So it needs to be said: the Roli Seaboard will not immediately replace your conventional MIDI keyboard controller. If you practise long and hard you’ll manage to feel as at-home on the Seaboard as you would on a familiar keyboard. Just don’t expect it to happen in a hurry. It’s quite literally like learning a new instrument, providing scope for each person to develop their own Seaboard style.
SEABOARD’S GRAND RISE
The Roli Seaboard comes in two forms — the Seaboard Rise (available in 25- or 49-key models) and Seaboard Grand (available in 37-, 61- or 88-key models). Both types arrive in a rigid black styrofoam case for easy transport. From the packaging to the design, the units appear very Apple-inspired. They’re much heavier than I expected, extremely slim, and immaculately put together. Interestingly, the keywave on the Grand feels softer than the Rise, and it doesn’t have the white stripes on the black notes, or the plateaued tops.
The smaller Seaboard Rise is a MIDI keyboard controller on steroids. The multiple dimensions of expression give you heaps more control than just the run-of-the-mill data from a standard controller. But, like any MIDI controller, the Seaboard Rise has no built-in sounds — it’ll only work with software (either Roli’s own Equator or third-party plug-ins). The Rise also has three touch-sensitive assignable sliders and an X/Y pad. Toggling the power button changes these between different modes. A cyan-coloured backlight means it’s in Expression mode which Roli preassigns to adjust sensitivity of the Press, Slide and Glide dimensions, while white shows it’s in MIDI assign mode, where the user can assign MIDI CC parameters at will. Green, amber or red blinking lights show the Seaboard is charging, with relative levels of charge, and blue blinking denotes bluetooth pairing mode for wireless control. The Rise can be USB bus-powered, which automatically recharges the built-in battery.
The Seaboard Grand is the ‘stage’ version. It has Roli’s Equator engine onboard, so you’re ready to roll computer-free with a decent selection of preset sounds. A single rotary SoundDial has a backlit halo that shows which preset you’re on, and the central button gives access to octave shifts, etc. It’s probably the most minimal dashboard of control on a keyboard since the invention of the piano itself. While the Seaboard Grand transmits MIDI from the port on the back for use with VIs, it doesn’t have the level of functionality offered by the Rise. It also doesn’t comply with the Slide dimension (i.e. front to back movement on the keywave).
Apparently Roli hasn’t built much DSP headroom into the Seaboard Grand because heavy-handed use of sustain resulted in clicks and pops; much like what happens when Pro Tools freaks out your computer’s CPU. This is something to keep in mind if you plan to make the Grand a gigging workhorse.
Seaboard’s expressive parameters are defined by five ‘dimensions of touch’, as Roli describes them — Strike, Glide, Press, Lift, and Slide. Strike is the initial contact of the keywave; Press is pressure applied after making contact (aftertouch), Glide is left to right gestures typically mapped to pitch shift, Slide is front to back movement, and Lift is how quickly you terminate contact with the keywave.
Once the novelty has worn off, a solid mental grasp of these five dimensions will help you get some serious results using the Seaboard as a MIDI controller for your third-party VIs. For example using an orchestral patch in Kontakt, you could assign Strike to attack time, Press to vibrato, and Glide to another expression (like pizzicato up top, legato at the bottom). Instantly you have a plethora of articulations available, dictated by how and where you touch the keywave. Combine that with the Seaboard Rise’s three sliders and X/Y pad (plus some practise) and you can recreate extraordinarily lifelike performances using sampled instruments.
It’s just as fun using it with synths. I had a ball configuring Arturia’s Mini V Moog emulation for use with the Seaboard. Assigning Slide to filter cutoff and Press to LFO rate gave control over parameters I’d usually have assigned to sliders or knobs. Tweaking the MIDI CC settings to taste, especially start and end values, will help you get results that better match where you initially set your fingers down on the keywave.
Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression (or MPE) is an enlightened version of the MIDI protocol that enables the Seaboard to communicate all these messages to software. Without getting too technical, MPE manages polyphonic expression by using individual MIDI channels for each note played, so parameters like pitch bend affect just the note you’re modulating and not all the keys at once. MPE is gaining traction as a universal standard and is already fully supported by selected instruments in Logic Pro X, MainStage, Bitwig Studio, Cubase, FXpansions’s Strobe2 synth, UVI Falcon, Native Instruments Reaktor, and more. Check the Roli site for a full list.
DIVIDED ON EQUATOR
Equator is Roli’s own MPE-compatible soft synth. The preset library is pretty healthy. I gravitated to the more Eastern patches — eclectic woodwind emulations, sitars, duduks, dulcimers, pan flutes — because it felt natural to bend and warp these kinds of sounds with the Seaboard’s fluid approach. The same went for synth basses, leads, and most electronic sounds. On the contrary, pitch bending a Rhodes emulation or saxophone by seven semitones doesn’t sound quite right.
Naturally, Equator’s patches have been optimised to take full advantage of the five dimensions of touch through MPE. Graphs for each dimension let you visually adjust how a parameter will react to it and the GUI has a mesh-like display of the notes that are being pressed, where, and how hard. The patches offer a lot of sensitivity to delicate touches on the keywave, but I found them to fall slightly short in delivering sound quality on par with other sample-based instruments.
It’s impossible to ignore the price tag on these things. While the Seaboard Rise is around a more attainable $1k, the aptly-named Grand is about four grand more.
Overall impression of the Seaboard? It certainly delivered a unique musical experience like nothing else. What blind-sided me was the amount of effort required to properly learn it.
I’d discourage impulse purchases of the Seaboard. Yes, it’s exciting watching an epic Roli demo video on Facebook, but don’t expect to do the same out of the box. However, if you’re willing to commit to it like a new instrument, then your patience and perseverance will certainly be rewarded with a whole new level of creative expression in your recordings and performances.