ROLI - Blocks

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  • Roli, a start-up based in Hackney, specialise in making high-end, boutique products. The Seaboard line of controller keyboards are visually exquisite and respond to five dimensions of touch. But they're beyond the price range of many, with the entry-level Rise coming in at around £600 for two octaves. With this in mind, the new Blocks range seems to be the company's bid to lower the barrier for entry, both financially and in terms of musical experience. The Lightpad block is £170 and features the Seaboard's five-dimensional response—that's attack velocity, left-right, up-down, pressure and release velocity—as well as the same lush build quality. The Loop and Live Blocks, meanwhile, are £70 each, and they're all primarily touted as a means to control Roli's iOS app, Noise. The app is pretty simple, giving you one track of drums and three more with a variety of synth, pads and bass sounds. All of these are controlled with an illuminated grid, which highlights the notes you should press if you wish to adhere to certain scales. Included are seven drum kits and a choice of 43 other sounds for the other three tracks. And in the future, you'll have access to sound packs from Grimes, RZA and Steve Aoki, too. You can record a loop on to each track and then launch them on the fly, which can then be varied by chord and arpeggiator functions. However, beyond the 5D response, the features are pretty basic. For example, you can't copy and paste recorded clips, change the volume of the tracks or record loops with lengths of your choice. However, when utilising all the performance functions, a solid amount of variety is possible:
    The sounds are polished and generally lean towards evocative sweeps and pitch-bent plucks while the effects tend to aim for the middle ground rather than leftfield. Here are a few samples that demonstrate the general vibe.
    The latency of the app is fairly significant when using the controllers and doesn't noticeably improve when using the app directly. You also can't edit patterns after recording. Perhaps to handle this latency, there are several drum kits that work by playing predetermined patterns for each pad, which can then be modulated by sliding your fingers around the grid. Here's an example using the "Dance Groove Kit."
    The Noise app is free on the App Store and it'd be a good idea to play around with it and see if it suits your production style if you're considering buying the Blocks. The app itself, even without the Blocks, also supports 5D control on, for example, the iPhone 6s, so it gives one a good sense of its abilities. The Blocks do give you much better control than the app alone, despite containing the same functions. You can switch between sounds, tracks, chords and arpeggios more easily, launch and record clips with ease and the larger playing surface allows greater expression. However, given the app's simplicity, I'm not sure there are many who would pay that amount to support it. Most of the people who would want to spend that amount on music production would be looking to use more advanced tools. Having said that, the grid playing style does offer something unique and the app's pitch-shifting and ethereal effects can be useful in the right time and place. Here's Blocks controlling a Noise synth line laid over a drum track produced in Ableton.
    Things get more interesting when you hook the Blocks up to your computer, especially the Lightpad Block. Like the Seaboards, it sends out Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression (MPE) messages—the other two Blocks only send out MIDI CC messages for each button. MPE works by giving each note a MIDI channel, meaning each note has its own CC messages. You can have fifteen note polyphony, with each note having its own pitch bend, pressure and so on. The technology isn't in widespread use, although it's implemented in a small range of mainstream DAWs and synths. To get the most out of the Lightpad Block, you'll need to own one of the synths on this list. There's a workaround for products that aren't on the list but it involves using multiple instances of the synth, which results in having to tweak all of those instances when changing a patch. In an FX scenario, you can use the Lightpad as a touch pad, assigning its five parameters to a single MIDI channel and the note on/off events to a single note, which is simpler to set up but still non-trivial. Essentially, Roli are being mavericks in their use of MPE and this means that the number of plug-ins where the Lightpad Block is fully effective is still quite limited. The Lightpad Block is completely at home in Max/MSP. You get a three-month activation with Roli hardware and also if you're programming your own applications using Roli's JUCE software development framework. Max objects and JUCE allow you to access both touch events on the controller and the LEDs, with more customised control over the LEDs available through the Littlefoot programming language. It goes without saying that this is for more technically inclined users but the flexibility inherent in a five-parameter touch surface should offer a fertile platform for ideas. I have mixed feelings about the Blocks. Their uses tend to be polarised at the very ends of the scale in terms of user skill level and, since MPE isn't widely implemented, there's not much middle ground. On the other hand, the Lightpad is a truly innovative product and really does present a new way of interfacing with electronic music software. It's a shame that MPE hasn't picked up more in general, so that controllers like the Lightpad, and Roger Linn's Linnstrument, aren't allowed to readily explore their potential. Until then, they'll be generally restricted to niche users who are intent on exploring the technology specifically, rather than those who are looking for a more universal control tool. Ratings: Cost: 3.8 Build: 4.5 Versatility: 3.9 Ease of use: 3.0 Sound: 3.8