Roli Blocks: British music firm produces radical Lego-like electronic music system
It may not represent the future of music, as the manufacturer enthusiastically claims, but there’s no doubt that Roli Blocks – a new “modular music studio” – is an exciting offshoot. This block-based system consists of the Lightpad – a pressure-sensitive, backlit square that lets you touch, squeeze and slide your way to your next masterpiece of electronic musical wizardry – a couple of control blocks that allow you to flick between modes at the touch of a button, and the firm’s Noise app, that makes up the “brains” of the system.
Essentially, Blocks represents a more affordable way of getting into Roli’s unique music-making system. The company’s other devices – the Seaboard and Seaboard Rise – take a similar approach, with touch-sensitive, rubbery keys that let you modulate the notes as you play them, and start at £649.
The palm-sized Lightpad block, which represents the system’s main controller, costs significantly less, at £169. It can be expanded with further Lightpads and other control blocks as funds allow. Each of the blocks has a rechargeable battery inside, so they’re completely portable, and they snap together magnetically, so you can arrange them in one neat block, and charge the whole lot with a single cable.
To start, two expansion blocks will be available – the Live Block and the Loop Block – which will cost £69 each. For a music-control system from an instrument manufacturer the calibre of Roli, that’s seriously good value for money.
Roli Blocks: Hands-on
So, what are the Blocks like to use? I had the chance to try them out at a demo session before the keynote and I can report that, yes, they’re definitely fun to use. The Lightpad has a soft rubbery surface, just like the Rise Sasha reviewed last year, and its velocity and pressure sensitivity lets you manipulate the music in ways you can’t on a traditional synthesiser.
The difference here is that the 94 x 94mm block is backlit with 225 LEDs that illuminate depending on the scale you want to play or the instrument type you’ve selected. Whether you want major, minor or pentatonic blues, or even a drum kit, just select it in the Noise app (or the Live Block if you have it) and a series of squares lights up, indicating the notes that can be played, and you can quickly shift the octave up and down at the touch of a button.
“This is music making for the touchscreen generation.”
Roli’s idea is to make professional music-making accessible to all, and clever touches abound here: the root note is always indicated by a square of white LEDs, drum kits can be as complicated (16 squares, each indicating a different sound) or as simple (4 squares) as you like, and once you’ve learned a good-sounding riff, reproducing it is as simple as swiping the same shape on the pad. This is music making for the touchscreen generation.
But while the system makes it impossible to play a bum note or out-of-time drums, you’re going to have to work to make something resembling a listenable tune. As with all proper musical instruments, there’s a learning curve here, and in my brief doodlings with it, I was able to generate little more than a series of rather random bloops and sonic squiggles, albeit with a thumping drum track underneath.
Luckily, Roli had PARISI on hand at the event to demonstrate the full capabilities of the system:
The great thing about the system is that even if you’re not sure about shelling out, you can learn the basics using the free iOS Noise app before you buy. This replicates the LED-lit surface of the Lightpad — if not its full pressure sensitivity — and includes all the controls and sounds you need to get started, including the facility to record loops of your favourite beats and reproduce them in your own music.
For those who are convinced, the Lightpad, Live Block and Loop Blocks are available to buy now from Roli’s website. We hope to have a full review for you sometime soon.