ROLI Seaboard RISE 25 review: Make mind-blowing music

£600
Price when reviewed

Just when it seems like all the good ideas have already been and gone, one comes along that defies convention. The brainchild of an East London tech startup, the Seaboard RISE reimagines the MIDI keyboard as a ground-breaking new instrument – one that presents a whole new way of performing, creating and sculpting electronic music.

From a distance, it might bear a passing resemblance to a standard MIDI keyboard, at least to the uninitiated. Get up close, though, and the differences are striking. There are no discrete keys at all: instead, RISE has 25 “keywaves” that ripple across a strangely soft, squishy and touch-sensitive surface.

Seaboard RISE 25: Making keywaves

The Seaboard RISE is one of the first in a new breed of instruments that adhere to the new MPE (Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression) MIDI specification. Where a standard MIDI keyboard registers how hard you hit each key and when you let go of it, but not a great deal else, the new MPE standard is designed to allow instruments such as the RISE to be far more expressive, and react to the most subtle variations of touch, pressure and movement. And the RISE takes full advantage of this new-found flexibility.

Seaboard describes the RISE as providing “5D Touch”, and it’s a pretty good description. Press a note, and you can change its pitch by sliding left or right, much as if you were holding your finger on a guitar or a violin string.

However, that’s not all: the RISE’s soft, gel-like surface constantly monitors how hard you’re pressing on it, how quickly you let go – so it can mimic the aural effect of twanging a guitar string – and it allows you to alter the character of a sound by smoothly sliding up and down from the top to the bottom of the keys. You don’t even need to press the raised keywaves themselves, as you can just freely slide your fingers across the flat sections above and below, or press anywhere on the entire surface.

To provide yet more sound-tweaking control, the RISE pairs its 25 keywaves with three touch sliders, situated on the left-hand side, which let you tailor the touch sensitivity of the keywave surface and a touchpad that allows you to tweak the sound even further. Connect a sustain pedal to the RISE’s port on its left-hand edge, and – not that it’s exactly lacking in this respect – you can add yet another dimension of control.

Seaboard RISE 25: PC, Mac and iOS compatibility

Just like a MIDI keyboard, the Seaboard RISE 25 has no onboard sounds whatsoever. Instead, it relies on a Mac, PC or an iOS device to generate sound. Plug it into a PC or Mac via a USB cable, and the supplied modular software synthesizer, Equator, takes the reins. Unplug the RISE 25, however, and an internal battery and built-in MIDI-over-Bluetooth support means you can hook it up to an iPhone and the free NOISE app. And yes, there is a secondary DC power input, just in case you don’t want to rely on battery power.

A word to the wise: do not turn on the RISE and expect to not lose several hours of your life. It encourages you to think very differently about music creation, to constantly play and experiment with different techniques and playing styles – and it’s simultaneously hugely rewarding and immensely enjoyable.

Frankly, as someone who has no skill on a piano at all, the freedom to tap, hit, squidge and stroke keys in a semi-rhythmic, entirely random fashion and still get often-amazing results is hugely appealing. It’s also far, far better than a MIDI keyboard for programming drum patterns, as the touch sensitive keys provide a more drum machine-like feel.

Factor in the vast array options in Equator’s modular front-end, and it’s difficult not to end up tinkering for hours just to see what effects and sounds you can tease out of the pairing. Once third-party soft synths add MPE support, you can wave goodbye to days, weeks and months of your life.

On the mobile side of things, there are some limitations. For instance, you can’t take advantage of the full gamut of 5D touch unless you have an iPhone 6s or 6s Plus, as the earlier models just don’t have the horsepower required to process all those simultaneous inputs.

If you’re lucky enough to have one of those in your pocket, though, the results are impressive. The 25 presets all sound superb, and you can buy extra sound packs for around £3 as in-app purchases. The downside? Currently, it’s standalone only, and doesn’t interface directly with other iOS apps such as Garageband – right now, the NOISE app is a cool (and free) toy, but not a whole lot else.

Seaboard RISE 25: Bundled apps and compatibility

Another point worth mentioning, though, is that there aren’t currently a huge number of MPE MIDI soft synths doing the rounds, meaning currently only Equator and a handful of others (such as Madrona Labs’ Kaivo) can take full advantage of the RISE’s abilities.

It is possible to use the ROLI Dashboard application and some judicious tweakery to squeeze awesome effects out of several of the big-name soft synths on the market – and ROLI’s helpful website shows you how – but it’ll take time and effort to eke out the very best results.

To its credit, ROLI does supply a copy of the basic Bitwig 8-Track digital audio workstation (DAW) software, so you can fire up the RISE and Equator and get recording straight away, and there’s also support for all the major DAWs on the market. ROLI provides walkthroughs for all the major applications, covering everything from the free (and awesome) Reaper to Ableton Live, so it’s easy to get up and running.

Nevertheless, it’s heartening to hear that Apple and some pretty big names are getting onboard with MPE, meaning you can expect native support to slowly start appearing across everything from DAWs to soft synths. It seems this is only the beginning.

Seaboard RISE 25: Verdict

The Seaboard RISE 25 is expensive – but, in truth, I doubt any musician could spend any time with it and not end up reaching for their credit card. And, if £600 isn’t spendy enough, or 25 keywaves just too few, bear in mind you can get a 49 keywave version of the RISE for £949.  

Why do I like the RISE so much? Well, it’s not just that it’s beautifully built and cleverly designed, it’s also hugely enjoyable to use; it drives and inspires you to experiment with an entirely new way of playing and composing. This isn’t a replacement for a MIDI keyboard. I doubt experienced keyboardists would turn to the RISE for standard keyboard duties, it’s just not meant for that, but as a glimpse into the future of electronic music, its potential is truly mind-blowing.

See also: The best Bluetooth speakers for 2016 – our five favourites

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