With its familiar interface and enormous potential for expressive control, is the ROLI Seaboard the future of the keyboard?
With a thousand years of evolution behind it, and having underpinned the development of most Western music, it’s fair to say the piano keyboard is something of a success. For all its strengths, though, keyboard players generally find it hard to achieve the same degree of real–time control that is possible with other instrument types. Aftertouch, release velocity sensitivity, knobs and sliders, pedals, breath control and sample keyswitching certainly help, but even all these used in combination don’t guarantee immediate, intuitive and natural–sounding expression.
And that’s where the subject of this review, ROLI’s Seaboard Grand Stage, comes in. It’s a keyboard–like instrument whose original conception was driven by the search for more expressivity from the playing action itself. To that end it dispenses with any moving key levers or buttons, has no conventional wheels, knobs or sliders, and instead is based around a squidgy shaped silicone rubber playing surface. Its equivalent of keys, ’keywaves’, are sensitive to initial strike force, pressure and left–right finger placement, and it can do true polyphonic aftertouch and independent note finger–wobble vibrato, amongst other things. It’ll work as a MIDI controller but also has a built–in sound engine that’ll let you use it as a stand–alone synth, and which harmonises perfectly with a dedicated OS X (and, shortly, Windows) soft synth. ROLI call the Seaboard “the future of the keyboard”, and it’s already been garlanded with praise from mainstream press and industry pundits alike. The company have also received millions in venture-capital backing, and have dozens of staff members working out of office and manufacturing premises in north London. The hype is huge — does the reality live up to it?
ROLI supplied me with a five–octave £2399$2999 Seaboard Grand Stage for this review. Inside the box is the Seaboard itself, a really good-quality lightweight reinforced polypropylene case, a power supply, USB lead, a printed quick start guide, and a software suite provided on a little USB flash drive.
Though it’s a first–generation product, the Seaboard is nevertheless a beautifully manufactured thing. The body of the instrument is black aluminium, all elegant corners and chamfers. The silicone playing surface, strangely spooky–looking in some lights, sits flush with the top panel. Apart from this, the only other obvious means of interaction is via the centrally placed User Dial (also called the SoundDial), a circular touch interface that recalls former generations of iPods. Its outer section is aluminium and physically rotates. Inside is a coin–sized button, and outside, a slim ring of recessed white LEDs whose light pierces through to the front panel in a mesmeric way. All in all, the Seaboard has something of a stealth–bomber look to it: rather serious, and more than a little mysterious.
With the whole unit being not quite 26mm thick, the rear panel is a slimline affair. However, it manages to pack in three pedal inputs, two quarter–inch audio outs, a volume wheel, a mini–jack stereo headphone socket, USB type A and B sockets, a receptacle for the compulsory 9–12 V DC power supply, and a rocker power switch. The sockets are not firmly anchored to the aluminium chassis, but fully inserted plugs sit in them sturdily enough. I had a small issue with the slightly recessed headphone socket, which did not want to fully accommodate the mini–jack of my Sony 7509s. Smaller and slimmer jack assemblies seemed to work fine, though.
Let’s cut to the chase: what about these keywaves, the silicone, the squidge?
A first touch of the Seaboard may easily elicit a ‘whoah!’ — it did from me. The silicone offers firm resistance tied to a fibrous, inert texture that allows fingers to slide over the surface without it feeling slippery. Raised keywave ridges corresponding with natural notes can be depressed by a good 4 or 5 mm, sharps seemingly a little more, and the surface instantly reforms its original shape when finger pressure is released. Octave spacing is nominally the same as on a full-size conventional keyboard.
Keyboard players like me are, to begin with, inexorably drawn to those raised parts of the playing surface, but in fact they just act as guides. Keywaves are actually sensitive across their full depth, from in front of the raised sections to behind them too. It’s just as valid, and sometimes even more musically fruitful, to play the ‘troughs’ or the flat ribbons in front of and behind the ridges. You’ve got to start somewhere, though, and my first explorations with various factory electric piano, synth pad and lead sounds were, well, interesting — in all sorts of ways.
The aftertouch behaviour was the first thing to grab me, with changes in pressure frequently modulating level or timbre with delightful immediacy, and complete independence of other held notes. We’ve all heard the whispered tales of legendary tank–sized synths that offered that Holy Grail of expression, polyphonic aftertouch... Well, the Seaboard makes it a modern-day reality, and the effect is super–controllable. Many factory patches let you squeeze in smoothly from absolute silence, a wonderful capability that no conventional keyboard instrument I know of gets close to.
Next comes pitch modulation. Wobble a finger sideways, and there emerges a vibrato with a responsiveness and ‘human–ness’ that is a million miles from what’s possible with a modulation wheel. And, of course, you can do this for one right-hand melody note, for example, without affecting other notes held in the left hand. Pull or push off a keywave’s ridge, or use a thumb to transfer touch to the front or rear ribbons, and you can fall off or gliss up from held pitches, up to an octave from the starting point. Two hands can be combined to do the same thing, for monophonic–style solo playing. Stay on the ribbons entirely and you’re into Theremin, pedal steel guitar or comedy trombone territory. It requires you to dream up a new technique, but opens up all sorts of interesting possibilities.
Some short time later in my Seaboard initiation came another raft of realisations. One is that there’s no responsiveness at all to Y–axis, front–rear gestures. Pushing and pulling the silicon achieves nothing, apart from temporarily rucking it up slightly. To be clear about this, only two modulation data streams can be generated from a held touch: X–axis left–right pitch movements, and Z–axis pressure changes. Some competing products (see the Alternatives box) do respond to this third front–rear dimension, and use it to generate another modulation source.
Another is that the Seaboard will not, for most people, be a viable replacement for a conventional controller keyboard. Fast, intricate classical or jazz playing, and to some extent rock–style comping or soloing, proves challenging. I found rapid runs, scales and patterns could be littered with notes both wildly accented and barely audible. It’s not that Strike sensitivity (the Seaboard’s equivalent to velocity) isn’t well graded and offers great repeatability. It’s just that those keywave ridges are nothing like as forgiving of glancing touches, and don’t provide the same level of tactile feedback as a conventional key lever. They’re simply harder to hit accurately at speed. Similarly, arpeggiated patterns or shifting chord sequences can easily end up out of tune, if a held finger position shifts inadvertently over the course of a note. My little fingers were particularly prone to shifting and drifting, and in the end I stopped using them. In fairness, I think ROLI would be the first to say they didn’t design the Seaboard as a direct replacement for normal keyboard controllers. And I don’t want to give the impression that a Seaboard is unplayable: on the contrary, it inspires all sorts of interesting new technical approaches, and in any case, accuracy of general play does improve with continued practice and familiarity.
There’s one last thing I must mention before we crack on and look at sounds and software, and that’s the Seaboard’s inherent semitone pitch–bend behaviour. It goes like this: if you play any two notes, a semitone apart, one after the other, with a legato or sustaining touch, the Seaboard bends the first into the second. Detach the second from the first, though, and it’ll sound as normal. But it’s actually impossible to sustain two adjacent semitones, other than by using a detached touch combined with the sustain pedal. For solo–style playing it’s an unexpected and characterful eccentricity. At other times it felt, to me, like a terrible limitation. I was constantly being caught out playing arpeggiated chords and riffs, and I never quite adjusted enough during the test period to avoid unwanted bends. ‘Für Elise’ and ‘Flight Of The Bumblebee’ freaks had better be especially careful. I asked ROLI if it was possible to turn this feature off, and got a couple of different answers, ranging from possibly via a pedal toggle in a future software revision, to unfortunately not. I hope very much that it may one day be defeatable or, even better, only triggered when an actual finger–slide gesture is used. I wonder, though, if it’s actually a design–based limitation related to how the keywave playing surface is underpinned by an array of discrete sensors beneath it, in which case we might be stuck with it.
What makes it extremely easy to get down to business with the Seaboard is that it’s not just a controller, but has an embedded synth engine, Equator. That means you can play it stand–alone and connect it directly to a mixer or amp, with nary a computer in sight.
The embedded engine is Linux–based, and that accounts for a Seaboard boot–up time of approximately 50 seconds, during which the User Dial LEDs spin hypnotically. If you make it through that without either wanting to quit or take up smoking then you’ve instant access to 48 preset patches, selected by spinning the dial. LED patterns then indicate, somewhat sketchily, the currently selected bank (1–4) and preset (1–12). Any sort of alphanumeric display or touchscreen is notable by its absence, so recalling specific presets relies on memorising their position. There is absolutely no way to edit or tweak them.
Pressing and holding the User Dial button accesses an octave transpose mode, and here a slightly different LED display pattern, with broader arcs, denotes transpositions of up to two octaves up and down. Note that only octaves are available, and not semitones (for transposition) nor smaller divisions (for fine-tuning). That seems an unfortunate omission of a basic functionality that any instrument with gigging pretensions ought to have.
Level adjustment, incidentally, is via a mostly recessed dial on the rear panel next to the quarter–inch audio output sockets. As this is effectively invisible (though quite accessible from a playing position) it’s not easy to set a level other than maximum with any kind of repeatability. It’s a digital control, and there’s hidden functionality, in that turning it down all the way disables the internal synth. That’s also the only way to achieve a Local Off state when you use the Seaboard as a MIDI controller — another feature I’d personally prefer to have seen incorporated into the User Dial somehow.
The sounds that emanate from a stand–alone Seaboard are fundamentally the same as those offered by the Mac version of Equator, of which more in a minute. They range from acoustic simulations like double basses and wind instruments to full–on synth fantasies exploiting the keywave touch response to amazing effect, and dripping in effects.
However, the hardware audio outs are unfortunately not without some problems, at least in the Seaboard (and its firmware revision) I had on test. On headphones I could hear the noise floor decrease markedly any time I finished playing, after the last note went silent, as the sound engine seemed to go into some sort of idle mode. I could live with that, but not so much the occasional digital splat that would intrude for no apparent reason every now and then, and certainly not the behaviour of the quarter–inch outputs. From these, that noise-floor fluctuation was much more pronounced. Also, any note that ‘woke up’ the Seaboard sound engine from idle had the first milliseconds of its attack cut off, accompanied by a little digital glitch. Final notes segued back into idle accompanied by an ugly and unacceptably loud click (or two, separated out on left and right channels) that had my audio interface meters jumping. Also notable was a slight increase in general noise floor when the Seaboard had an active USB connection. This audio behaviour taken all together, the unit I tested wasn’t suitable for serious stand–alone use, but although a software fix wasn’t forthcoming in the test period, ROLI say that they are aware of the issues and that they will be fixed in an update.
Let’s turn now to using the Seaboard with a computer. At the time of writing the software suite was Mac-only, but Windows support is imminent, and may already be available by the time you read this. For more on the intriguing software side of ROLI’s business, see the ‘Industry Moves’ box.
Prior to actually trying it out in my own studio, I’d wondered if the Seaboard’s computer communications would be via some fiendish proprietary protocol. Not a bit of it. On the Mac the Seaboard shows up in the Audio MIDI Setup utility just like any other MIDI controller, and the messages it generates are all standard and entirely comprehensible.
Overseeing operations is the ROLI Dashboard application. Appearing as a relatively small window, and designed to be left running while you work, it governs fundamental aspects of the Seaboard’s behaviour as well as interactions with virtual instruments running on the computer.
Octave Shift transposition can be set here, and semitone transposition too (hooray). Pitch Correction quantises all initial keywave touches, so beginnings of notes, at least, sound in tune. When it’s off things get funkily microtonal, which is good for some styles and effects. The three rear-panel pedal inputs, which are freely assignable here between switch– and continuous–type pedals, will generate MIDI Continuous Controller values from CC0 to 119, and all the pedals I tried worked perfectly.
Moving to the Channel Settings panel, we get to the heart of the aftertouch and pitch-bend behaviour. The Seaboard achieves its note independence by constantly assigning freshly triggered notes to separate MIDI channels. For soft synths that can handle this (and that of course includes the ones included in the Seaboard software package) you’ll want to choose Multi–Channel mode. Channel Range then has to be set to match the synth’s current polyphony setting, or individual keywaves will seem to become unresponsive.
The thing is, only a relatively small number of soft synths actually do support the necessary multi–channel operation, which is why Single Channel mode is available as a fall–back. Played like this though, the Seaboard is the same as any other polyphonic MIDI controller: any pressure or pitch-bend data generated will affect all notes. The mode provides quick-and-dirty compatibility with some software, but it’s a far cry from the full experience.
Mirroring the embedded sound engine’s capabilities but offering full programmability via a single–window interface, the heart of the ROLI synth experience is to play Equator running on the computer, controlled by the Seaboard.
Equator is a monotimbral (but multi–channel) soft synth, capable of massive modulation complexity, and touting an array of sampled, virtual analogue and pink-noise oscillators. There are two separate multi–mode filters, masses of modulation options from LFOs, multi–mode envelope generators and keywave touches, a really flexible mixer scheme, and on–board effects. The outputs of the conventional oscillators can also be combined to generate FM and ring-modulated tones.
The sample oscillators are interesting, not only because they have built-in filters, but because the 16 preset samples, mostly representing acoustic and electro–acoustic instruments, are actually multisamples. There’s currently no way to deconstruct these, via looping, manipulating playback start points or reversing, but allowing users to load their own audio snippets is apparently high up on ROLI’s to–do list.
The ‘wavetable’ oscillators offer 49 waveforms each, ranging from conventional squares and sawtooths to complex and glassy tones, but none is an actual wavetable in the PPG or Waldorf sense. That is apparently another thing in the pipeline.
As I’d already established by playing the embedded version of this app running inside the Seaboard, Equator is a pretty potent synth: complex, shiny and contemporary in character, more V–Synth than Jupiter 8, if you catch my drift, but flexible too. Its cool, flat interface is lovely to work with, with programming of modulation particularly quick and intuitive. Assignments can be made with a couple of mouse strokes, but there’s a verbose ‘matrix’ listing available too. The UI can also be animated, to display modulation levels and parameter values in real time.
Thankfully, the Mac version did not suffer the glitchy audio behaviour of its embedded counterpart, but I was a little concerned by its CPU usage. At a 256-sample buffer setting, an idle Equator grabbed 13–14 percent CPU use on a single core of my i7 MacBook, and with many patches, just a few sounding voices asked for 70 percent or more. That makes it the most CPU–hungry soft synth I’ve ever used. It’d be great to see some serious efficiency gains here in future.
Running decidedly leaner is the other virtual instrument provided by ROLI, a special version of FXpansion’s DCAM Synth Squad. The easiest way to work with this interesting and varied trio of synths is via a dedicated application called SynthSquadPlayerForSeaboard. This puts up 48 patches, selectable from the User Dial or a pop–up menu, that for the most part are rather darker, more serious, and perhaps ultimately more generally useful than the Equator factory selection. It’s also possible to work with Synth Squad’s ‘host’ application, Fusor, to get access to the whole shebang of parameters and multiple synth layers. For the most part, though, only the specially produced presets in the ‘ROLI’ collection really take advantage of the Seaboard’s keywave pressure capabilities. Many others respond to aftertouch, but almost none allow swelling in from silence using a gradual increase in pressure. It’s possible to adapt patches, though.
To go beyond Equator and Synth Squad is to enter uncharted waters, to a varying degree. Soft synths out there that are ‘Seaboard–ready’, and can accept the Seaboard’s multi–MIDI channel note allocation out of the box, include U–he’s Diva, Ace and Bazille. SonicCharge’s wonderful Synplant is also compatible, but the lack of a mod wheel hits a fundamental aspect of its operation hard.
You’ll also get mileage out of virtual instruments built with multi–channel, multitimbral capabilities that can load the same sound to replay on multiple channels. Omnisphere, Trilian, Kontakt, MachFive and Halion play ball; SampleTank 3, I found, didn’t quite.
Most other synths were never designed with multi–channel triggering in mind. You can, of course, play them with the Seaboard in Single Channel mode, but the experience is lacklustre. There is, however, a solution in the form of another ROLI utility, PolyThru. On the Mac this is essentially a VST and AU host, which loads as many instances of an otherwise incompatible synth as you want available polyphony (up to a maximum of 16). You interact with the user interface, calling up presets, tweaking parameters, as you normally would. But any changes you make are harmonised by PolyThru, in a fraction of a second, across all instances.
Having to choose synths directly from OS X’s Library’s ‘Components’ and ‘VST’ folders, amidst all the effects plug–ins installed in the same location, isn’t particularly elegant. But PolyThru is a nifty solution to an otherwise intractable problem. Fears of colossal CPU hit and perhaps some general weirdness in having multiple soft synth instances running in parallel failed to materialise; the cross–section of synths I tested it with, including NI Absynth 5, GForce Oddity2 and several Arturia models, all worked swimmingly. CPU use was quite reasonable too (and a whole lot less than with Equator).
Just as the Seaboard’s compatibility with a range of soft synths is variable, so it is with the many DAW applications out there.
To cut right to it, the best experience of using the Seaboard as a controller for your DAW is available to users of Logic Pro X, Cubase, Reaper and Tracktion. These (and also, I’m told, GarageBand and Bitwig Studio) let you load a ‘Seaboard–ready’ synth or the plug–in version of PolyThru on an instrument track, record–enable it, and get straight down to business. They vary somewhat in how recorded MIDI is subsequently edited, but usually the situation is at least workable.
In Studio One, Digital Performer, Pro Tools and Live, life is nothing like as straightforward. You have to host your synth on an instrument track, then create additional instrument or MIDI tracks, each listening to a single MIDI channel from the Seaboard, and also driving a single channel of the synth. So for every virtual instrument in your sequence you’re having to set up five, eight or perhaps even more tracks — tedious, and potentially a nightmare to edit, with your note and controller data scatter–gunned over loads of tracks.
The situation for Logic’s native synths like Sculpture is even worse. They aren’t ‘Seaboard–ready’ and PolyThru can’t access them, so your only solution is to open one, choose a patch, copy it to additional instrument tracks, and set them up to listen to different Seaboard MIDI channels. The problem is that all instances are separate, so tweaking or selecting a new patch on one does not cause the same thing to happen on all the others. This makes them close to unworkable for anything but ultra–basic use.
If you’ve been with me up to this point you’ll already have gathered that life with the Seaboard can be quite an adventure, with some less welcome aspects of operation and unexpected third–party compatibility issues tempering the really good stuff.
What’s for certain is that this bold, groundbreaking new instrument has capabilities and a character that nothing else quite matches. There are other multi–touch and even squidgy–feeling controllers out there, but none that offer the familiarity of the piano keyboard layout combined with a large pitch compass. Allied with compatible synths and well–programmed patches, the Seaboard’s silicone supports playing of a flexibility and expressiveness that makes conventional keyboard controllers feel wooden. And because you don’t have to play on the raised parts of the keywaves, whole new types of interaction and creative possibilities beckon.
It’s just as important, though, to be clear about what the Seaboard can’t do. It won’t render all your soft synths, and even less your sample libraries, suddenly supple and revitalised. It probably won’t do duty as your only MIDI controller, and is a particularly poor option for those who like lots of knobby control of synth parameters, or who work with certain DAWs. And in its current incarnation, its potential as a stand–alone performance synth is beset with shortcomings.
The fairest conclusion to draw, ultimately, is that the Seaboard is not just a keyboard with an expressive layer stuck on, so to speak, but a genuine attempt to establish a new class of finger–driven musical tools. The results that naturally flow from it have a distinctive character that will leave some people captivated and others cold. It’s got quirks that are either magical or maddening, depending on your viewpoint. And it’s not cheap. In all these respects it’s like any other serious musical instrument...
With the Seaboard ROLI have produced a daring and individual product. The company is well funded, teeming with talent, enthusiasm and confidence, and they clearly believe they can alter the fabric of the synth and controller market. It’ll be really interesting to see if they succeed.
It’s quite remarkable how many products are already out there that bear comparison with the Seaboard.
Roger Linn’s LinnStrument is a MIDI controller that has a flat 2mm-thick silicone surface divided into eight rows of 25 squares. Various tunings and scale patterns can be programmed, and the squares backlit in one of six colours. There’s sensitivity on X, Y and Z axes and you can pick it up to play, keytar–style.
Keith McMillen’s K–Board and QuNexus take some cues from Korg’s tiniest MIDI controllers, but use ‘Smart Fabric’ to detect velocity, pressure and key tilt — all generating separate MIDI data types including polyphonic aftertouch.
Then there’s a couple of more expensive, boutique–style products made in small quantities. The Madrona Soundplane is a MIDI controller that has a flat, wooden 150-note keyboard. And for even more money you can snag a Haken Continuum Fingerboard which, like the Seaboard, has an integrated synth engine.
ROLI have some serious ambitions in the industry, without doubt. For starters, they told me they’re working with a number of manufacturers, as well as the MIDI Manufacturers Association, to establish a whole new protocol called MPE (Multi–dimensional Polyphonic Expression). It’d presumably aim to standardise and improve the way multi–channel and overtly expressive instruments like the Seaboard interact with synths and DAWs.
And they have already acquired JUCE, which is an audio and user interface development platform used throughout the music-tech world and beyond. The Seaboard’s Mac and embedded Linux software is already built on it, and with strong cross–platform chops, it’ll doubtless support Windows, and possibly iOS too, before long.
It’s essential that any virtual instrument driven by the Seaboard has its pitch–bend values set to ±12 semitones for vibrato as well as semitone and ribbon pitch-bend to work correctly. On patches designed for use with conventional pitch–bend wheels, typically set to ±2 semitones, Seaboard bends are far too subtle. For this reason, and others, it’s worth building up your own library of Seaboard–specific patches for instruments you use a lot.