Technology has democratized the art of photography. Phone cameras and Instagram filters can do what once required extensive skill in a dark room.
Can the same be done with music creation?
The Roli Blocks modular music system is on a mission to make it easy for anyone to jam out — even if you don't know much about music theory and you're a bit rusty on those piano lessons from childhood. The system just leveled up with a new snap-on keyboard-like instrument, the Seaboard Block.
London-based Roli got its start four years ago by evolving the typical piano keyboard into something called a Seaboard. It's a continuous touch-sensitive silicon surface that mimics the layout of a keyboard, but offers a wider range of possibilities. The Seaboard started at $800 and was priced up to $8,900 — a hefty investment for a musician — that is, until now.
The new $299 Seaboard Block is about 12 inches long with just 24 keys (or keywaves, if you go by the company lingo). But the lower price and smaller form make this next-generation technology more accessible to the mainstream, at a price that's easier to justify for curious tinkerers.
There are more than 100 sounds to choose from, from synths to strings. I'm a classically trained pianist, but it takes some practice to get used to the feel of a Seaboard. Pressing down on the keys in different ways will give a note different effects. Gliding a finger can either bend a note or blur two instruments together.
The Seaboard Block isn't completely a stand-alone instrument — you need to connect it to a computer and pair with the accompanying desktop software (through a wired or Bluetooth connection), or it'll also pair with Roli's iOS or Android Noise app.
Last year in October, the company came out with a touch-pad based square instrument called the Lightpad Block (about $180 each), designed to layer beats together. Pressing the pad in different ways — deep press or a glide of the finger — produces different sounds, just like the Seaboard. Different sections of the block light up to guide a player on what notes will sound good, so it's friendly for the musically challenged. More advanced users can magnetically snap multiple Lightpads together, or add on control button pads ($80 each) to make quick settings adjustments.
The Seaboard Block also snaps into this system from any side. Some may even want to snap two Seaboards together for more options in a live performance.
By bringing the Seaboard to the Blocks system, it's a good middle ground for both ends of the spectrum: more experienced performers can stretch out with more choice, and newcomers can step up to a better instrument -- all without an intimidating price tag.
The Seaboard Block, along with the new Touch Block control pad, is available now to order in the US and UK, through the Roli store and retail partners like Sweetwater, GuitarCenter and Amazon. It ships in late June.