Let’s just get this out of the way before we dive into everything that is the Roli Seaboard Rise 49: This has got to be one of the, if not the, sexiest looking “keyboard” that has ever come out.
Roli must have taken some hints from Jonathan Ive over at Apple, because everything from opening the box up into getting the Seaboard Rise on your desk is a visually enticing experience.
After you get past the very sleek packaging, you are presented with this ultra-slim and ultra-stunning black keyboard that you can’t help but touch before you’ve even lifted it out of the box.
The Seaboard is wonderfully minimalistic. In an age in which manufactures will plaster their brand logos everywhere they can, the Seaboard is kept refreshingly clean. The only extraneous marking on the entire instrument is a tiny “R” that represents the company’s logo placed in the upper left-hand corner.
Once you’ve got the Seaboard unpacked, you can’t help but feel like you’re looking at something from the future. Well, if the Roli Seaboard is any indication of what the future of music creation holds for us, get your self a flux-capacitor and a DeLorean, because the future is going to be awesome!
How it Works
The Seaboard 49 is the newest addition to the Roli Seaboard line. Roli previously released a 25 key version of the Rise, as well as its initial offering: A monstrous, 88 key version called the Seaboard Grand.
Having had a few minutes to play with a Seaboard 25 a few months back, the 49-key version comes as a much welcome, and much needed addition.
Despite having up and down octave buttons, the 25 key version couldn’t help but feel restrictive with its limited note range.
The addition of two more octaves on the Seaboard 49 completely removes this barrier. The Seaboard also sports 3 modular sliders, octave transpose arrows, an XY pad, as well as built-in Bluetooth connectivity.
The internal battery charges automatically when it’s plugged in via USB. Because my Mac Pro is still running Mac OS 10.9, I wasn’t able to fully test the Bluetooth, but it did work as expected when paired with my MacBook Pro.
While the instrument is laid out to feel like a keyboard, don’t go mistaking it for a piano. It’s much much more. In Roli’s own words:
The Seaboard is a new keyboard instrument that allows for more expressive possibilities than any other. It remodels the keyboard as a soft, smooth, touch-responsive surface that lets you shape sound and make music through “five dimensions of touch.” This sets it apart from traditional piano keyboards, which only let you modulate sound through one dimension of touch: the force of strike.
Every single note on the keyboard can be manipulated, from the very bottom of the surface, all the way up to the top. Because of this, each note encompasses the full vertical length on the keyboard, including the “black” keys, which extend all the way down, filling up the space in-between the “white” keys that they usually hover above on a traditional piano controller.
This means that if you play an F, you can hit the F# right next to it, just by pressing slightly to the right. Doing so gives you far greater control over the glide and slide functions, although it adversely makes it easier to catch unintended notes while you’re playing. Wrong notes become easier to avoid with with just a bit of practice. (I think it’s important to mention that playing on the seaboard is not easy, and can actually be a little frustrating as you’re learning your way around it)
Additionally, the soft rubber keys of the Seaboard don’t require nearly as much physical pressure as a conventional keyboard does. This allows for some remarkable dynamic control. It’s very easy to play notes that are extra quiet, and triggering short and staccato hits is also effortless. These “keywaves”, as Roli calls them, are almost like playing piano on extra squishy drum pads. Yes, there is undoubtedly a learning curve, but it doesn’t take long before you start to adapt your playing style.
The Seaboard uses an expanded version of MIDI called MPE, which stands for Multidimensional Polyphonic Expression. You can read more about the MPE spec online, but to put it simply, MPE spreads the notes and midi messages you are playing across multiple channels of the MIDI spec.
Essentially, if you press one note, it gets sent out MIDI channel 1. Press a second note and that note is being sent out channel 2. A third note pressed would be sent and received on Channel 3, and so on. This allows the synth or virtual instrument to treat and respond to each note individually.
Using MPE, the Seaboard is able to measure and respond to 5 different parameters: ”Strike”, “glide”, “slide”, “press”, and “lift”.
All 5 of these dimensions have flexible envelope controls, allowing you to explore how sensitive the response is. You can manipulate the envelope shape in various ways, creating some pretty unique responses to your touch. Even the traditional “release” or “note off” message (which Roli calls “lift”) is so much more refined, as the the amount of force you use to release a note can be made to dramatically change how the instrument responds.
The novelty of the way pitch control is handled on the Seaboard is probably the most instantly appealing feature for most users, and it feels somewhat like crossing a pedal steel guitar and a fretless stringed instrument. I can’t deny feeling a bit giddy each time I would bend one note of a chord.
All 5 of these parameters can be used to control and modulate your sound, often on a note-by-note basis. While a traditional MIDI keyboard might respond to how hard you hit the key, maybe allow for some extra pressure with aftertouch, and then trigger a note-off message when you release the key, the Seaboard takes these actions and greatly expands on what they can do.
Ok, now for a little bit of bad news. You won’t be able to use all of these awesome features with every synth and virtual instrument you already own. You’ll want to. You may even let out a few expletives when you think about what could have been. But fear not! There is good news as well:
First, Roli provides you with a powerful, feature-packed virtual instrument called Equator that allows you to take advantage of every nuance the Seaboard is capable of.
Secondly, there is a growing list of VI’s that support MPE or what they will often call “Note Per Channel”, which allows the instrument to respond to each keypress on a different midi channel.
And finally, you can of course use the Seaboard as a standard controller, sending out MIDI data on one channel at a time. While you won’t have the ability to do polyphonic pitch-bending in this mode, you can still make great use of the incredible pitch bending capabilities on a global level, as well as use all the dynamic nuance that the soft keys present.
Equator is Roli’s soft-synth that comes bundled with each Seaboard. This plugin comes in both AU and VST formats, as well as in a stand alone application. Because of the relatively weak MIDI support in Pro-Tools, there are currently no AAX or RTAS versions.