London-based technology company Roli wants to change the way people make music. And its latest creation, Blocks, is unlike any instrument you've seen before.
You don't need years of lessons -- or frankly, any musical experience -- to create your own beats with Blocks. Packed into a simple 4-by-4-inch touchpad is an entire music studio, designed to be friendly enough for anyone to play, even if you're intimidated at the thought of creating your own music.
But this isn't just for musical newbies -- the system is scalable to serve as a professional tool for advanced musicians. Multiple Blocks can be attached magnetically to any of the four sides. Optional smaller control pad Block accessories have built-in buttons to change settings and build beat loops quickly during a performance.
It all starts with the Lightpad Block ($179, or £169.95). The pressure-sensitive silicone pad displays lights on a grid, with each light square representing a different note. But you don't just tap the light squares as if they were keys on a piano. The real art in a performance lies in how you press your fingers on the pad. Dragging a finger can glide between notes, bending the pitch as you slide into the next note. You'll also get different sounds depending on how long and hard you press down.
But what if you don't know what notes sound good together? Simply let the lights be your guide. Blocks can be set to only light up parts of the pad that are in the same scale. Stay in the lights, and you can stay in harmony.
As someone who took piano lessons for 10 years, I found the light system one of the most interesting parts of the Blocks design. In a brief demo, I could quickly see how experimenting with corresponding lights could be a way to teach yourself musical theory without even realizing it -- all while removing the fear that you'll sound bad if you improvise.
But one can not perform with Blocks alone. You need the accompanying smartphone app, Noise, to change settings, such as the scale or instruments. The app is also the only way you'll hear your music -- there's no audio output on Blocks. All the music is played through a phone via a Bluetooth connection.
Dependency on the app is why more professional users would want to buy the extra control Block accessories, the Live Block and Loop Block, each $79 (£69.95). Those come with preset buttons to quickly switch settings. And at launch, the Noise app is only available on Apple's iPhones or iPads, but the company says an Android app is in the works.
There's another downside for professionals: The only way to save and share your music creation is through Roli's online network, Noise.fm. Roli says additional sharing and saving functions are planned.
That network happens to be the key to keeping Blocks feeling fresh. At launch, 128 sounds are available to download through Noise.fm, and it's where artists can share their tunes for others to tinker and build upon. Even well known artists including Grimes, Steve Aoki and RZA are contributing and making their own downloadable soundpacks.
Composers have been working with Roli for a few years now. Previously, Roli put a new spin on the keyboard with another silicone instrument, the Seaboard Rise. Blocks is almost a compact concept of the Seaboard Rise, replacing the pressure-sensitive keyboard-like surface with the square light grid.
Apple stores are the only retail outlet you'll find Blocks at launch. If you're not ready to drop $180 to experiment with this new music-touchpad system, you can try playing on the lightgrid for free through the new Noise iOS app -- but only iPhones with 3D touch can perform with pressure sensitivity.